George Best: grief shouldn’t be a national sport

Alongside the celebrations of a great footballer, the response to the death of Best brought out the worst in contemporary society.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Football fans had a choice on Saturday: a minute’s silence or a minute’s applause to mark the passing of George Best. In reality, it was no choice at all. Best is simply the latest in a long line of public figures and events over which our society has wallowed in a self-pitying grief.

Some in the media seemed to be waiting with bated breath for Best to die. For the last 72 hours of his life we were treated to continuous updates about his declining health – to headlines such as ‘George Best has “really bad night”’, ‘George Best very close to death’, and ‘George Best enters his final hours’. It was as if they couldn’t wait for the man to pass and the ersatz emoting to start.

There have been signs of this mawkishness for a number of years. Indeed, spiked’s predecessor Living Marxism coined the now widely-used phrase ‘mourning sickness’ to describe the emerging emotional climate in Britain back in 1994, pre-Diana, following the unprecedented response to the death of Labour leader John Smith.

Even before that, the new emotionalism could be seen in the response to the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, and there were increasingly strident displays of emotion over the death of Smith and the school killings at Dunblane in 1996. This trend became most apparent after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The nation united in grief – a weird kind of vicarious grief which allowed the country to share the experience of emoting over someone whom few of us actually cared for when she was alive.

Such a reaction is a symptom of the therapeutic times we live in, where we are all damaged goods and our lives are a tortured journey through a ‘vale of tears’. The self-styled ‘Queen of Hearts’ (Diana) was the perfect repository for such narcissistic emotion. These responses can also be politically useful: in the wake of Diana’s death, prime minister Tony Blair was in his element, describing her as the ‘People’s Princess’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and taking a lead in organising her funeral.

Since then, etiquette demands that every such event be marked by public grieving. There is even a trend towards ‘silence inflation’. Having decided that the death of even the most obscure individual requires a minute’s silence, ever-longer silences are required to indicate the gravity of the occasion. Whole swathes of European football matches were cancelled altogether after 9/11.

After the London bombings in July, a three-minute silence was held. It was well-observed since in part it represented a two-fingered response by the city to the attacks. But there was also a strong sense of compulsion about it; to fail to observe the silence would be interpreted as ill-mannered, or worse.

Even if there is no immediate public commemoration, a tragic death becomes an easy excuse for the media and those in authority to pull out a degraded emotional script. As Jennie Bristow noted recently, the killing of WPC Sharon Beshenivsky in Bradford was presented not as the loss of a brave officer but of a beloved wife and mother, all the better that we could emote along in sympathy (see After the Bradford police murder). News reporters, it seems, would be lost without the phrase ‘the community is trying to come to terms with this tragedy’.

The reaction to George Best’s death is in some ways the most perverse of all. For almost a month, a ghoulish media camped outside his hospital in west London, reporting in intrusive detail the state of his liver, kidneys and lungs, and bemoaning his alcoholism and wasted life. A photo of him looking jaundiced and deathly was published in the News of the World. Best’s death was a sad occasion, but the end of such a grimly cynical vigil was a blessed relief.

Yet what follows is worse. ‘Biggest funeral since Di’, declared the Sun on Saturday, speculating that half-a-million people will attend Best’s funeral in Belfast. Given that this would be the equivalent of the entire population of the Greater Belfast area (and double that of the city itself) such a turnout would be remarkable and seems unlikely. But then again, nothing is impossible given the degree to which the media seems to be whipping up sentiment around his death.

The irony is that if anyone ever lived life to the full, it was George Best. He was the personification of everything that most men wanted to be: a fantastic footballer who pulled the best-looking women in the world and could drink like a fish. ‘If you’d given me the choice of beating four men and smashing in a goal from 30 yards against Liverpool, or going to bed with Miss World, it would be a difficult choice,’ he once said. ‘Luckily, I had both.’

No doubt there were plenty of occasions when he was an alcoholic bore, and it is a shame that he never played long enough to make best use of his talents. Nonetheless, the maudlin reaction to his passing is in direct contradiction of his ‘live fast, die young’ lifestyle. And at 59, he didn’t even die particularly young.

When fans of Liverpool and Manchester City, United’s biggest rivals, ruined the minute’s silence at their game on Saturday, it was in part a reaction to the crushing conformism of being told that they must mourn their enemy’s most famous son. Grief should be a private matter, not a national sport.

Read on:

Tears of a crowd, by Brendan O’Neill

That’s enough mourning sickness, by Mick Hume

Saturday night, Sunday mourning, by Rob Lyons

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Topics Politics


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