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George Best and the depravity of genius

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.

22 comments to George Best and the depravity of genius

  • B's Freak

    Yes, I sure do wish Madonna wouldshut the fuck up.

  • llamas

    What an interesting observation.

    It caused me to sit down and try and think of all of the ‘real’ sports and entertainment celebrities that I know about who do not appear to indulge themselves in either the self-glorification or the self-destruction described. I say ‘appear’ because we cannot possibly know all that they do.

    It was a depressingly short list. Tiger Woods and Tom Hanks. Can anyone else suggest other names?



  • Nick

    As Scott says, it’s the indulgence of society that turns celebrities into monsters. I don’t think the average famous person, or genius even, is any more likely to be an alcoholic than the rest of the population but they are likely to suffer the removal of society’s approbation, which can act as a useful back-up for our self-control.

    As for John Lennon’s pontificating, he was no worse than most of the people who write in or comment on blogs but because he was rightly celebrated in another field, people listened to him about peace. So what? It not as if those listening to him would have otherwise been reading Bertrand Russell if Lennon had only shut up. He was as much entitled to an uninformed opinion as anyone else.

    Paul McCartney is a good example of a celebrity who didn’t get carried away with his fame (as much as is possible when you’re one of the most famous people in the world). He didn’t get heavily into drugs or drink, is fairly monogamous and when he does talk about political issues at least they are narrow enough that he has a fair chance of knowing what he’s on about. And funnily enough, despite his musical talent being equal to Lennon’s he is often derided as being square. He certainly bested Lennon’s talent of keeping his feet somewhere near the ground.

  • Verity

    Re, Beethoven, Scott writes: 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.

    This is a complete non sequitur. Deafness, depression, loneliness and financial troubles are not the same as self-indulgence.

    I think probably plenty of journalists at the time wrote that John Lennon was talking rubbish. He gave them plenty to write about, including the bed-in with him and Yoko and a bunch of hangers-on singing “Give Peace A Chance” and the two of them posing naked for an album cover. I am sure there were plenty of journalists who saw that the emperor of pop was indeed naked.

    George Best was just another talent with a weakness for self-indulgence. I don’t think this makes them particularly mythical or even particularly interesting. I think what is interesting is, this seems to be a failing of male celebrities.

  • Nick


    I think the reason that male celebrities are more likely to suffer this weakness is that society’s approbation is more readily lifted for them than it is for famous women, in the same way that it is for rest of society. Women are no less weak or liable to self-indulgence. Off the top of my head I can think of Joan Crawford, Daniella Westbrook, Billy Holliday and Jordan, to give a mix of talented and talent-less who were or are indulged by themselves and those around them.

  • Lascaille

    This article fails to convince.

    ‘We’ don’t ‘allow’ them to get away with ‘this sort of thing.’

    I’m sure that George Best’s closest friends, his manager, his coach etcetera all told him plenty of times to sort his life out – but when you’re famous and loaded, it’s easier to find (and listen to) sycophants and hangers-on who really don’t care. I don’t see that society-at-large outside of the partying and scene crowd have the ability to ‘indulge’ the behaviours of celebrities. We buy their albums, we watch their films, and apart from that (unless we’re part of the hello-magazine-reading fabric-bar-going scene-set) we have no significant influence or possibly knowledge of their actions. No-one’s going to skip a film they’d like to watch because they disapprove of the personal life of the actor.

    In summary I have no idea what you’re talking about when you say ‘we indulge this behaviour’ because ‘we’ don’t and ‘we’ can’t.

  • Dale Amon

    So what was depraved? He drank and got laid a lot. Sounds good to me… but then I’ve toured as a musician so I have known and enjoyed the game as well… although some friends of mine were and still are quite active at it.

  • Verity

    People like Joan Crawford and Billie Holliday were more secretive about their failings. They didn’t stagger in and out of nightclubs giving the finger to photographers. Men adopt a swagger, as though their failure at self-control was a badge of honour. The only woman I can think of is that Love Someone or Someone Love who got drunk and disorderly on a Virgin Flight.

  • Tim Haas

    Courtney Love?

  • Another problem for the celebrity,for this is not just a talent problem,is that there is a whole industry catering to the whims and fancies of the rich and famous.You want girls,boys,drugs booze,the exotic,every brown Smarty remove from your dish,there is someone who will do it.

    Many celebrities are only ordinary people,the talented simply have an extraordinary gift.They are not equipped to handle a life style that most would like anyway,to have it thrust under their noses makes it impossible to resist.

    The surprise is not those who succumb but those who don’t.

  • So what was depraved? He drank and got laid a lot. Sounds good to me…

    You might want to add “gave his wife a good kicking on a regular basis” as well. Doesn’t sound as good then.

  • guy herbert

    Could it be that one of the secrets of outstanding success is not caring what other people think? It won’t be sufficient. (We’ve never heard of the self-confident deluded or unlucky.) But it may be necessary.

    Tiger Woods’s calm and niceness is just as much a symptom of this as Gazza’s bingeing. His niceness has a steely determination about it; calmness is clearly a competitive advantage for a golfer.

    Racing drivers show the same trait: some are vulgar, some are dull, some are engaging, some are glamourous; all are single-minded; none care what you think of their personal traits. They tend to be calm and controlled though, because that’s what their sport demands.

    Compare Borg and McEnroe. Borg’s public persona was niceness, McEnroe’s irritability; but it was all about what they thought of themselves, not a contrast for your entertainment, which was a happy (for their incomes) contingency. McEnroe in his televisual career has subsequently demonstrated how much the rage was interior dissatisfaction, how little an act, by being utterly genial in that context. Even when the role requires him to pretend to be a bastard, he can’t do it.

    An artist or a film star, or a statesman is not usually so constrained by physical requirements as a sportsman. Nor is a scientist, for that matter. All behave humanly badly. The outstanding ones, on this theory are less likely to heed the social constraints of the time (Mozart, anyone, Peter the Great, Cromwell?). But they will all break the rules in their own ways, and there is a difference in the way these behaviours will be reported depending on who does them (and how much what they do otherwise is interesting to the public), what they do, and the obsessions of the media of the time.

  • I don’t see the point of this discussion. There are non-famous men who drink and get laid. If they happen to be good looking and have money, they can more easily afford these activities. The only point where talent/celebrity come into play is that they supply they aformentioned money. So what? If Best was not such a good player, he would probably still be a drunk and a womanizer, but on a smaller scale, and we wouldn’t have known and cared about it.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I am not as harsh as some folk are about George Best, having met the fella. He was often very honest about his own shortcomings and unlike some of the characters Scott mentioned, did not try to present himself as a great sage on world affairs, like Lennon.

    But we make excuses for people of great talent and it is a good question to ask why we do this. I think we are living in an era that is beginng to understand the destructive psychological effects on society of the “celebrity culture”.

    Talking of football, the great Fulham and England midfielder of the early 60s, Johnny Haynes, died in a car accident a few weeks ago and got a few pages of respectful mourning, and that was it. His “mistake” was to have lived a life as a modest, sober and faithful man.

    I found the veneration of Best at his monster funeral in Belfast a bit hard to take. I like to think that Bestie would have thought the same, actually.

  • Verity

    I’m with Alisa. And I think the title of this subject – The Depravity of Genius – is too silly. The guy was a heavy drinker. He screwed lots of willing women. This is depravity? Then what word do you use to describe Pol Pot, Saddam, the Ceaucescus?

    Elvis Presley snacked on lots and lots of hamburgers with every topping imaginable, plus large fries and took loads of drugs and liked having two women in his bed at the same time. He got grossly overweight. So? This is self-indulgence, not depravity. George Best was self-indulgent. That was his character. He drank himself to death. He was weak.

  • Verity-

    “What word do you use to describe Pol Pot, Saddam, the Ceaucescus?”

    Umm, evil?

  • I think most men would like to have more than one woman in their bed, but most cannot afford it. Most would probably have no idea what to do with more than one, either. Many would consider themselves lucky to have one, once in a while…

    “But we make excuses for people of great talent and it is a good question to ask why we do this.” Maybe it’s because we think that a non-productive drunkard/junkie/jerk is just a waste of oxygen? We are selfish, after all. What reason, selfishly speaking, did Beethoven have to exist, if he did not produce such magnificent music?

    Hmm, I am in a certain mood today…

  • We should count our blessings that in our contemporary milieu the destructively self-indulgent are confined largely to various types of entertainers. Even a cursory reading of history shows that in previous eras these yahoos would have been our political leaders. Michael Jackson wouldn’t have been the “King of Pop” but the actual King.

  • Kim du Toit

    I find the fascination with tabloids rather creepy. It’s like voyeurism, really, and it panders to a darker side of our nature.

    And the obsession with celebrity is just silly. Who cares if George Best got plastered and kicked a photographer, or if Paris Hilton’s panties fell down around her ankles during some shopping trip?

  • Verity

    Shannon Love – which yahoos in particular? I don’t think we have had any yahoos as kings.

  • We live in a self pity culture where stars whine about their addictions and turn them into a Greek tragedy.Every interview with the Elton John’s turns into a psychiatrists couch syndrome where we are regaled with their almighty struggles with alcohol/ drugs ad nauseam.

    The stiff upper lip has beome the quivering lip and it ain’t an improvement.

    The void left by religion has been filled with the God of Football and Entertainment.