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Feb 2006 Journal

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George who?

One of the characteristics of the British that most struck the pre-war Jewish refugees from Central Europe was their reserve. That stolid refusal to display emotion could be an advantage, as when it enabled Londoners amidst the Blitz to dismiss their troubles with a 'Not too bad' or a 'Can't complain', but often it appeared to the more expressive and voluble refugees as a form of emotional constipation.

What are the surviving refugees and their British-born descendants (hopefully emotionally non-constipated) to make of the recent spate of national weep-ins, as when the death of a former footballer dominates newspaper headlines and BBC news bulletins? George Best never even performed at the highest level: though he helped Manchester United win European honours at club level, he never appeared for his country - Northern Ireland - in a World Cup or a European Nations Cup. Compare that with Pele, who represented Brazil in four World Cups (1958-70). Best's greatest international performance was in Northern Ireland's defeat of Scotland in ... I forget when, and so have 99 per cent of football fans.

The fact is that Best, once he gave up football, was a media creation, endlessly photographed, blonde on arm and glass in hand - and that when pretty boys with flowing locks and come-hither eyelashes were ten a penny in the discos. Otherwise, his record over 30 years consisted largely of being convicted for drunken driving and wasting the donated liver that might have saved his life. He continued to appear on our front pages and TV screens drunk and dishevelled, famous only for being in the news.

Unsurprisingly, the tributes to Best were led by chat-show hosts such as Michael Parkinson and chroniclers of ephemera like Hunter Davies. The Independent's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown chipped in with the argument that the emotional outpouring on Best's death was a blow against the English male code of the stiff upper lip. But a night-club predator like Best makes for an unlikely feminist icon. He was, however, proof of the power of the media to generate surges of emotion around the celebrities they create then consume. Those who live by The Sun die by The Sun.
Anthony Grenville

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