Thursday 13 December 2018

Pal Michael Parkinson tracks George Best's road to self-destruction

Biography: George Best: A Memoir, Michael Parkinson, Hodder & Stoughton, €22.50

Happier days ..... George Best with wife Angie and baby son Calum, but darkness was never far away. Photo: Eddie Sanderson
Happier days ..... George Best with wife Angie and baby son Calum, but darkness was never far away. Photo: Eddie Sanderson

JP O'Malley

For more than 40 years George Best was someone Michael Parkinson called a friend. The legendary TV chat show host first interviewed Best in 1963: then just a timid 17-year-old homesick kid from Belfast, breaking into Manchester United's first team.

Five years later, Best would be the most recognisable footballer on the planet: scoring the second goal in United's 4-1 European Cup Final win against Benfica.

But a darkness wasn't long in rearing its head. Parkinson documented much of this in his 1975 book, Best: An Intimate Biography, and in the numerous exclusive TV interviews he's conducted with Best over the ensuing decades.

This current tome reproduces large passages from both: with Parkinson interlinking a personal - and often critical - commentary as he goes; pointing out that as the decades rolled on, a pattern of sorts emerged: Best's persona became more village fool than charming global superstar.

There were stints in prison; bankruptcy; public assaults; treatment for addiction; and suicidal tendencies too.

In some of these later interviews Best shows a more vulnerable side, opening up about the horrors that alcohol brought to his life.

Still, he was rarely remorseful, unrepentant, and often in denial about his own addiction.

Best's family narrative is heartbreaking to put it mildly. Ann Best - a teetotaller until 44 - went to an early grave from drink at just 54 in 1978: brought on by the relentless pressure of her son's fame and global public drunken circus.

Best's son, Calum, meanwhile, was effectively abandoned by his father as a toddler. They would rekindle the relationship in later years. But much of Best's parental activity was done in the pub. Calum too would eventually be treated for alcoholism.

Parkinson's memoir is a short collection of anecdotes and informal conversations about Best's chaotic life. But one story he retells here from the late 1960s appears to say more about Best's enigmatic personality than any other.

After a short romance with a woman he was seeing, Best decided to skip town and place a note on her mantelpiece. It simply read: "Nobody knows me."

Macho bravado notwithstanding, Parkinson believes the note is about as close as anyone will ever get to answering a question that seems to aptly surmise Best's tragic fall from grace as the most gifted footballer of his generation: why and where did it all go wrong?

This, in essence, is the central theme of Parkinson's concise, extremely personal, and emotionally-charged poignant memoir. The tone is remorseful, angry, racked with guilt, and there's a touch of existential despair in there too; with Parkinson momentarily opening up about his own battle with booze.

One might think that after all that time spent in Best's company, Parkinson would come to learn what made Best tick, so to speak.

Like his footballing talents, however, Best's inner mental life remains a mystery. His favourite catchphrases were "I've had a good time", and "I've lived a good life".

Best was "the least introspective man I've ever [known]", Parkinson writes in one passage here. The tabloids, of course, had a field day. And Best gladly courted the controversy. Indeed, he profited from it much of the time.

Best spent 12 years at Manchester United, finally quitting the club at what should have been the pinnacle of his career at just 27.

There were occasional comebacks. They tortuously dragged on for another decade: there were dreams of bringing football into the mainstream in the United States; plus games here and there for a number of random teams, including Fulham, Hibernian and Stockport.

By that stage, though, football had just became an excuse to fund Best's drinking. When Best eventually drank himself to death - at just 59 in 2005 - other questions followed: why did he drink so much? What was he running away from exactly? And why could Manchester United not offer him the protection and advice he needed to deal with fame, fortune and all the trappings that comes with it.

Best's story has been told so many times - not least by himself when he was alive as a way of making a living - that his epic sporting life has almost disintegrated into a tiresome celebrity cliche: he had the world at his fingertips and he ended up in the gutter.

And yet, the tale of the hedonistic genius desperately chasing the road to excess is one that many of us are continually beguiled and intrigued by.

Probably because somewhere inside of our collective shadow-selves we recognise an element of this self-destructive nihilism in our darkest of downtrodden days.

When Best could no longer consistently reach the highs that football once gave him, he turned to drink: hoping it might provide a substitute to fill the vacuum.

Sigmund Freud once wrote that "our desire is always in excess of any object's capacity to satisfy it". Classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory also centres on an idea called the death drive: a subconscious human urge towards self-annihilation.

As Parkinson reminds us numerous times here, Best had a clear choice: live or die.

Sadly, he chose the latter option: and as a willing participant too.

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