One saint, one sinner
Gordon Burn's loving study of two of the best players of their generation, Best and Edwards, is a fine book that is less about football than a coruscating damnation of celebrity, says Simon Garfield
Sunday October 1, 2006
Best and Edwards: Football, Fame and Oblivion
by Gordon Burn
Faber £16.99, pp255
The word, I'm slightly afraid, is poignant. Or perhaps it is wasted. Duncan Edwards and George Best, reasonably regarded as the two most naturally gifted footballers of their generation, are united in the common memory for another reason: one died from his injuries in the Munich air crash in 1958, long before he had the chance to carve a truly great career, and the other endured a slower death between the late Sixties and last November, due to the merciless assault on his (and, at the end, someone else's) liver. Duncan, Disorderly.
Gordon Burn is one of the great chroniclers of faded glory and the sadness of fame. His novels, Alma Cogan, Fullalove and The North of England Home Service, his portraits of Peter Sutcliffe and the Wests - you can whiff the nasty cologne and desperation in all of them. The headiest smells in his new work (you can call it a double biography, but it's really a biography of a sodden place and time) are beeswax from the Salford boarding houses, where the young United players of the 1950s jostled for extra rashers, and the ash-dead air from the Brown Bull and other drinking establishments favoured by Best and his cronies.
Burn certainly adores Edwards, or the mythology of him. He could have lived to be 100 and nobody would have a bad word for him, such was his grace, power and control, both on and off the pitch. What did Edwards and pals do for fun? They went to the News Cinema! An occasional sherry! Manchester United didn't really have training facilities in the early 1950s - a couple of medicine balls and a kick-around in a concrete yard. After that, Edwards went back to his digs and actually tapped out his book, Tackle Soccer This Way, on his own Remington.
Manchester United manager Matt Busby was keen to instil a sense of family pride into his cubs, a loyalty perhaps shared these days on the field by Ryan Giggs and in the boardroom by Bobby Charlton, but not many others. You didn't just play for United, you embodied and represented United. Burn contends that Charlton never really recovered from the loss of his friends on that slushy runway, the athletic epitome of survivor guilt. When Charlton's world went Technicolor in the summer of 1966, Busby and Edwards were confined to another era. But no one epitomised the new dawn better than Best, the latest Fifth Beatle with his loon-pants boutiques, glass, split-level ideal home, endorsements for fancy shoes and lifestyle of conspicuous debauchery.
Burn's study ends with a list of sources and there are some unpredictable choices: Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson; The Emigrants by WG Sebald. He quotes large chunks of Don DeLillo's Underworld and The Legend of the Holy Drinker by Joseph Roth, and the echoes of footballers' talents are always to be found in grand literature or songs by Morrissey and Marr.
Best had so much meaningless sex that it's a wonder his balls didn't give up before his liver. Never has the distinction between making love and bonking been so clearly defined. Michael Parkinson, who hung out with Best far beyond his chat show, described meeting a married woman who told him the following story: 'He had the most marvellous eyes and a shy, boyish charm. I talked to him for a long time and entertained thoughts of seducing him. We talked for about half an hour and all the time I fantasised an affair with him. All of a sudden, a blonde girl came up to him. She said, "Hi, I'm Julie, would you like a quick fuck?" He said, "Certainly." He turned to me and said, "Excuse me", and went upstairs with her.'
Best spoke endearingly about how he had always fancied a quick one before a match. Not the night before, but a few minutes before. Managers kept an eye on him, but once he got his way with a woman from the away match hotel. He then played rubbish.
The bulk of the Burn's study of Best is taken up with such tales, which makes it far more entertaining than an attempt to describe cup ties at Wolves. We hardly get to see him on the pitch at all after leaving Manchester United in 1974 for heavier performances in England and the United States because the real story is now with Angie Best in San Jose (forever waking to find her furniture covered in vomit), Alex Best (recognising that she would never get close to him in anything but the physical sense) and a woman called Phyllis, mother of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott and den mother at a dive in Whalley Range that Best invariably called home at three in the morning.
And then there is the poignancy: his son, Calum Best, born on the 23rd anniversary of Munich; the terrible state of the places in Dudley where Duncan Edwards used to live; the loneliness of the obsessive Manchester United treasure collector, auctioning his wares in an Old Trafford hospitality suite to pay for his divorce and being charged £10,000 by the club for the privilege.
This is not an uplifting book and is unlikely to be an instructive one; the author is not interested in the unresolved fate of Wayne Rooney, but he takes a train with Paul Gascoigne and observes how the spirit of Best's decline enchants him. But Burn may be the best stylist we have of northern depravity and the horrors of our benumbed culture. He has written a fine book that is less about football than a coruscating damnation of celebrity (he is particularly distressed by Stan Collymore and dogging). The moral is that Duncan Edwards, bless his soul, got out just in time.