Melanie Phillips

28 November 2005

An icon of irresponsibility

Published in: Daily Mail

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Up to half a million people are expected to line the streets of Belfast this week as George Best is buried. The death of this country's most turbulent sportsman has confirmed his status as an icon, joining the pantheon of other celebrities - think, for example, of Princess Diana or John Lennon - whose deaths cemented them as people who had touched some deep part of the national psyche.

In Best's case it was his genius as a footballer - the greatest player, it is said, that this country has ever seen. In this era of the mediocre, the second-rate and the dispiritingly dull, such outstanding talent was truly something to celebrate. It wasn't just Best's almost supernatural skill and grace with the ball, but the nerve, imagination, strength and courage he displayed. These were indeed qualities of character worth admiring.

His death at the distressingly early age of 59 was therefore particularly poignant, as was the terrible wastage through illness of that once splendid physique.

But as his family sadly prepares to bury him, perhaps one might venture the thought that the way his death has been received has been just a shade off-colour.

This is not to gainsay the touching tributes that have been paid to his courage and stoicism as his body steadily packed up. No doubt his fortitude in these most trying of all circumstances was admirable. Moreover, when someone dies it is only natural to wish to present the good in him, while not seeking to suppress what may have been less desirable characteristics.

But in the case of George Best, his personal history has been heavily sanitised. Here was someone who had drunk himself to death after years of alcoholism. Given the second chance of a new liver - a precious gift which other desperately ill people in urgent need of a transplant sometimes never manage to obtain - he blew it by hitting the bottle once again.

According to one account, he even referred in a brutally cavalier way to the new liver that he was proceeding to abuse, saying that it had been donated 'without strings' attached to the behaviour of the recipient. This seemed to be a licence to resume the drinking habit he sometimes affected to find so amusing.

Such selfish and self-indulgent attitudes translated into dire behaviour. He was highly promiscuous, cheated on his wives and was prone to violence, including attacks on women.

As one friend put it, his life with his second wife Alex was marked by crazed alcohol binges, violence, lies, paranoia, sordid affairs, gambling, drunk-driving, arrest, tears, threats of suicide, death threats, and break-ups and reconciliations with both his wife and his mistresses.

Another friend described his appalling propensity to violence. He once hacked off his wife Alex's hair and drew all over her body with a marker pen. He punched and kicked her after a row on her 25th birthday. He even admitted hitting her, saying he had to 'give her a smack to get her off me'. Alex, who was often unable to eat, lived in constant fear of him walking through the front door and causing more trouble.

Some national icon! Yet when he died, he was hailed as a hero and a 'perfect' human being. The BBC gave him the full treatment normally reserved for major public figures, with an extended item on the news in hushed and reverent tones. He was variously described as 'a great person'. 'one of the most charming fellows I ever met' and a man of 'enormous personality and charm' without whom 'the world will be a sadder place'.

Our society sometimes seems obsessed by the issue of domestic violence against women. Yet here was a woman-beater who was being hailed as a hero. When such activities were mentioned, the tone was indulgent and sorrowful, as if nothing could be allowed to tarnish the genius and the charm.

What's more, his alcoholism was presented as some kind of visitation before which he was merely a helpless and passive victim. His doctor, Professor Roger Williams, refused to censure him but blamed the alcohol industry instead. 'When he hadn't been drinking, he was a good person' he said of Best. 'It was just the booze that made everything go wrong for him.'

No doubt he was, and it did; but the remark implied that alcoholism had taken over Best's life without his having done anything to bring this about. It's a bit like blaming shoplifting or burglary on the fact that shops and private houses are full of tempting goods to steal.

Of course, alcoholism is an addiction which is very hard to break. And Professor Williams is surely right about the irresponsibility of the industry. But Best had freely chosen to go down this road in the first place.

People who are addicted to alcohol - or to drugs, for that matter - are not victims but abusers. And such abuse often attaches to the cult of celebrity, which bestows not just fame and riches but an egotistic callousness towards others.

As a footballing genius, Best was once a deservedly significant figure in British national life. But subsequently he became an icon for a different kind of Britain - the Britain that worships fame and riches so deeply that it is indifferent to the often sordid reality beneath the glitz.

This Britain often secretly admires or identifies with such hell-raising - and then wallows in lachrymose gloom at the toll it takes on the body, without making the necessary connection between the two.

This in turn feeds into a mawkish sense of victimhood, which reinforces an increasing tendency to wallow in self-pity while absolving oneself of all responsibility for personal misbehaviour.

Personal decency is now signified not by good deeds but by hearts worn on sleeves. So when an icon of this Britain dies, people tell themselves they are grieving. Hence the mountain of flowers, football shirts, toys and handwritten notes now piling up at the shrine of Old Trafford.

But this is ersatz grief. We may regret the passing of a great talent, but we cannot grieve for the individual because we never knew him.

True grief is confined to those who did know him and whose privacy should therefore be respected, as Best's elderly father so fiercely demanded of the media scrum outside the hospital where his son had just passed away.

To suggest that the public feels the same emotion is not merely intrusive. It denigrates the proper grief felt by his family, who mourn the real son, husband or father whom they knew. It also undermines our understanding of what grief actually is. It destroys our ability to separate real emotion from false, makes the feeling of true emotion more unlikely and thus further coarsens and brutalises our culture.

We witnessed that phenomenon with the death of Princess Diana. Now we are seeing something similar with the death of George Best. Sentimentality rules. What other wife-beater, serial adulterer and violent lush would have flags flown at half-mast for him from official buildings?

Drink, parties, women, fast cars, talent, entertainment, wealth, fame - these are now the iconic values of our culture. The final score? Celebrity, one; responsibility, nil.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie