The recent death of the footballer George Best has seen an outpouring of sentimental remembrance about the skill and talent of one of Britain’s greatest ever footballers. It has also seen a sober reflection of the darker side of Best’s life. As Sue Mott pointed out:
As a sportsman, he was ruinously worshipped as a god. As society’s golden boy, gloriously handsome, funny and highly intelligent, he enjoyed all life’s little luxuries in conveyor-belt quantities. He was a Hollywood film star from Belfast and while we may now lament the wine, women and song, if you had been there at the time, could you have been the one to say: ‘Shall we put the cork back in the champagne, George, I think we’ve had enough?”
It is a common theme of society that those who are blessed with extraordinary talents at one discipline are allowed special leeway in manners, morals and behaviour that are not bestowed upon lesser mortals. Had Best not been such a great footballer he would undoubtedly have been shunned by society as a drunk and a lecher. But because he was once a truly great footballer, he was treated as something different. People tolerated his drunkenness and women gave themselves to him sexually because he was genuinely seen as being cut from a higher cloth then other men. This may seem unfair, and in a way it is, but it was also the root of his downfall.
George Best, and footballers in general, though, are hardly the only sort of celebrity to take advantage of the special rules of society that are afforded to those touched by genius. And it has been going on for a long time.
Nearly 200 years ago, the poet Lord Byron made use of his fame as a poet to indulge himself in all manner of peccadillos, most of them sexual. That was perhaps not so uncommon for a Peer of the Realm back then, but it was mirrored by the behaviour of Percy Bysshe Shelley. A more dramatic example is in the personal life of Ludwig van Beethoven. Poor health, deafness, depression, loneliness and financial troubles made him a very difficult man to deal with, but he was indulged by many people precisely because he was obviously the greatest musical talent of his day.
Poets and classical composers do not have the influence on society in this day and age as they used to. The place of Byron and Beethoven has been taken by sports stars and actors and television celebrities. Some of these people, like Shane Warne are as gifted in his field as Byron was as a poet; and Warne has been noted for womanising on a considerable scale as well. Some are, in sober fact, non-entities, but we live in a vacuous time where everyone gets their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.
Many not so talented people have also exploited their celebrity to get away with actions that would not be tolerated in others; Hollywood is of course notorious for this sort of thing, where actors and actresses have their notions of their own worth and talent over-inflated by agents, publicists, and the media. A similar fate has befallen many popular musicians over the last forty years. This sort of bad behaviour takes many forms, not just in terms of sexual self-indulgence, but substance abuse, or simply by being a difficult and unpleasant person to be around. The life and times of John Lennon reflect this- he confused his musical talent with wisdom, and spent his latter years pontificating about a society of which his understanding of seems have been very limited indeed. However, because he was such a fine musical talent, no one was willing to stand up to Lennon and tell him that he was talking nonsense.
Why? Why do we allow this select group of people, not all of whom are that talented, to get away with this sort of thing. Why can’t we “put the cork back in the champagne” as it were? There seems to be something innate to many people who must feel that they can reflect the glory of the star’s achievements by indulging them in their foibles. This can not be healthy for us any more then it is healthy for the stars. Just look at George Best now.