Book Review: Immortal
Immortal: The Approved Biography of George Best by Duncan Hamilton
Published by Century
By the time George Best died in 2005, aged 59, quite a few people claimed to have run out of patience. Best had recently had a liver transplant, and there was talk that he’d jumped the queue because of who he was, and that he had no intention of giving up drinking anyway. As if, by then, he really had a choice. So there was a ghoulish inevitability to Best’s eventual death, played out, like the rest of his life, in the tabloids. I remember crying, and I never even saw him play. It felt unbearably tragic for a man to die like that, and for people to have an opinion on it.
Duncan Hamilton’s biography of Best, the first to be written with the co-operation of Best’s remaining family and friends, is a deeply affecting book. It’s written with great compassion and insight, capturing perfectly the importance of Best the footballer, but balanced against the character and temperament that resulted, in many ways, into a perfect storm. Best was the very first football superstar, the first player to be revered as a pop icon at a time when football didn’t really do celebrity. The book provides a very vivid account not only of just how good Best was, but also how Britain was changing at the time. New fashions, increasing commerciality, the invention of the pill; George Best’s story almost reads like fiction. Hamilton skilfully weaves a range of voices from throughout Best’s life, as well as Best himself, and shows how Best evolved from a nervous, homesick kid into the young man with the world at his feet. In many ways Best is symbolic of the shedding of post war austerity, but there was no-one to guide him into the brave new world. Money, women, success; but he remained shy and insecure, often lonely and, crucially, once he became aware of his talents, a perfectionist.
When reading his life story, one is struck by how brief Best’s time at the top actually was. Hamilton poignantly points to a photograph of Best celebrating his crucial goal in the 1968 European Cup final as the zenith of his career. He was 22. That side was allowed to stagnate, and United would struggle for the next six years, eventually being relegated in 1974. These are the years when Best should be at his peak. But what’s also important about the 1968 final is Best’s self-critical reaction to his performance. Johnny Aston was United’s star performer and, though he scored, Best struggled to really make an impact in the game. He thought he’d let everyone down, and slipped away from the celebrations isolated and self-reproaching, to drink himself into oblivion. The self-destructive cycle had begun.
It’s possible that people think they know the George Best story already. The feuds with Bobby Charlton and Tommy Docherty, the girlfriends and the drinking, the escaping to Spain and the US when things got too much. But without drifting into sentimentality, the book reveals an intelligent and often withdrawn man who couldn’t cope with the situation he found himself in. Best was sincere and talented, but he also made mistakes, and didn’t learn from them. It’s striking how much Best loved Manchester United, preferring to stay at Old Trafford when, perhaps, a move to a more successful team would have been a better option. Best’s drinking was a response, partly, to United’s collapse, and Best’s inability to prevent it. But it was also because he was now public property. Having courted the media and enjoyed the good life, Best was unable to put the genie back in the bottle. He ended up holed up in a designer house, with tourists having picnics in his garden, and often needing a police escort to go out.
I was dreading the second half of the book, and Best’s decline, but Hamilton is neither moralistic or uncritical. Instead, I came away feeling that I understood how the boy had evolved into the man, as well as the difference between the public face of Best and the private one. Hamilton is also a wonderful writer. There is no stodgy prose here, or clichà©d terms and judgements.
When contemporary footballers are often derided for living a separate and exclusive lifestyle, no longer normal working class lads because of the money they earn, George Best’s story is a very relevant one. It shows, as if we needed to be told, that getting everything you want doesn’t necessarily make you happy. Duncan Hamilton captures both the man and the era he lived in. This is a brilliant book, and you should buy it.