The Marriott Hotel, Gateshead. A four star, eight storey oasis in the middle of an industrial estate whose own presence is like a modern, concrete delta around which dual carriageways and fly-overs snake and wind. A short distance away the Metro Centre. On the hill stands Angel of the North, rusty wings outstretched.
A raised seating area in a corner of the bar on the ground floor. Its 3AM. Saturday 3rd June 2006.
Another huge glass of warm white wine poured from a bottle thats greasy with sweat.
A hen party is giggling noisily at the far side of the bar. Dressed in black. Hot pants and tight, low-cut tops. Bunny girls. Ears and fluffy tails in evidence. Bottles of un-chilled, impatient champagne with torn foil at the necks.
The ball, he mumbles, head leaning over the table. An apathetic scoop of wine. I just want the ball. To play.
I look with sudden embarrassment at the tears splashing onto the glass surface of the table. The mans narrow shoulders convulse with dry sobs.
Painfully thin. His skin is red and dry as if its been rubbed with sand paper. A yellow Versace shirt open at his loose neck revealing ginger chest hair. Blue jeans. New Balance running shoes without laces and no socks. Chain-smoking. He looks tired.
A long way from Pavarotti and the citrus t-shirts of 1990. Waking up to Liz Kershaw and Bruno Brookes playing Snap and Adamski. Spike Island warming us up for the long summer. Drinking Castaway. New Order sound-tracking the beach parties on Sardinia.
He looks up. Eyes shot. The blue fractured with broken blood vessels.
Saturday 3rd June 2006. Another World Cup, a different decade.
Diary. Thursday 8th May 2008. Ive been ill for the past few days. Between bouts of Malaria-like symptoms and feeling sorry for myself I lay in the garden and read Paul Gascoignes autobiography. Gazza, my story by Gascoigne with Hunter Davis. ISBN 0 7472 7118 6. My boy with me, next to the lounger. Birds chirruping, the sound of a lawn being mown nearby and the mantra buzz of a contented Bumble Bee. I could have been on the terrace of Blandings Castle.
My reading comes coincidentally with Gascoignes recurrence in the media. Sectioned twice under the Mental Health Act in the past few months, most recently a few days ago after some trouble in a London hotel. Red hair dye, head shaved, a request for a steak knife and then some abortive suicide attempt in the hotel bath. The tabloid fodder of a life unravelling.
The Prologue is promising and literary, but from there on the book treads out the story with journeyman efficiency. Its a 90 minute display of Graham Taylors long ball. No Brazilian magic of one touch football here. No sexy game. The literary equivalent of a 1-0 win over third division Kettering in the third round of the FA Cup. Sir Alex nods his head, chews some gum. We did the business, he says un-memorably. Huddled in the warmth of his sheepskin, Motty nods agreement then shuffles back to the Travelodge for a sausage sandwich, Swedish massage. Job done.
Its a deficiency of style familiar to many ghost-written autobiographies. What has patently been an hilarious family anecdote falls flat on its backside on the mercenary page. The book recounts in broad brush strokes of beige emulsion the tabloid stories of his mis-adventures generally accompanied by his obliging court jester and life-long stooge Jimmy Five-bellies Gardner. These arent the structured anecdotes of a raconteur. I can almost feel Gazzas hyperactive elbow nudging Davis as he crouches over the keyboard. Howay! Put that one in aboot the time I shaved Danny Bakers back while he was sleeping and got him tattooed with a blokes name Davis obligingly types: I once shaved Danny Bakers back and got him tattooed and then keys onto the next sentence. There is no love in the prose. And the random insertion of colloquial Geordie-isms (I div’nae know) here and there in an attempt to give matters a conversational air struck me as contrived and clumsily.
Obviously some of the anecdotes are bound to be funny. For some reason, I liked this one:
I rang Chris Evans radio programme once to say I was worried about [Jimmy] as he had decided to come out of the closet, but the trouble was, he didnt have any gay friends in Gateshead. He was lonely and needed to meet some gay people. I gave out his mobile number on the radio, appealing for any gay people out there to ring Jimmy. Hundreds of them did. For weeks afterwards, I could hear Jimmy picking up his mobile and shouting: IM NOT FUCKING GAY!
Paul Gascoigne, born in Gateshead in 1967 on the day that the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, signed to Newcastle United in 1984. A steady rise to fame and fortune, picked for England in 1988. Then his career went supersonic in the wake of his Italia 90 performances on and off the field culminating in his tearful appearance against the Germans in the semi-finals. The Wogan show beckoned, sponsorships, a single with Lindisfarne. Gazzamania seesawed wildly with its fulcrum being the 1991 FA Cup Final when he kamikaze tackled an opposing player and ripped his cruciate ligament. Like most of Gascoignes rash actions, the person he ended up hurting most was himself.
A lucrative move to Italy followed, a return to the UK to play in the Scottish Premier League and his most successful period at Glasgow Rangers. Then triumph in the wake of binge drinking scandal at Euro 96 when he bludgeoned his way through the Scottish defence to score the goal of the competition.
This was followed by St. Hoddles media sacrifice of Gascoigne before the 1998 World Cup finals when he was left out of the side at the eleventh hour. Walter Smiths words echoed in my mind. Hoddle will want to make a name for himself From there a slow decline. A background of erratic behaviour that was slowly becoming less tolerable to the press and public. Middlesbrough, Everton, Burnley were succeeded by an abortive foray into Chinese soccer. Once a great he now appears on the edges of the game, pulling together his huge overheads where he can. A footballing Tony Hancock.
Its a 1990s success story with a vicious climax.
The parallels with George Best are obvious. The debased, anti-hero chic of a prodigious footballing talent apparently pissed to the wind. A peak of public adoration, alcohol, domestic abuse, wasted opportunities. And the book has the same blandness to it as Bests celebrated biography Blessed, and a similar underlying strain of self-apology.
This following his girlfriends announcement that she was pregnant:
We went on holiday as planned, first of all in Italy, then to Las Vegas. I was hardly speaking to her. I was just stuffing my face all the time with ice cream and burgers and rubbish. I even suggested an abortion, but she refused to consider it. I was a total bastard, really.
That really is important. A final refrain of excuse. A desire for absolution.
Often Gascoigne comes across as a bored, occasionally malevolent, child; the kind that pulls the legs off spiders and then cries contritely only when he gets caught. A simple human being with a love of farting in public, drinking with the lads and playing football, gradually finding himself beset by lifes fundamental complexities. Most frequently, like the lost opportunity of Bests autobiography, the general tone is of a tired man telling a cautionary tale without seeming to have learned his own lessons. Its biography on the back foot. Like Best, Gascoigne appears as a lonely individual. Isolated. A voice speaking into a Dictaphone in some featureless hotel.
At the height of his abilities Gascoigne held that promise you felt when McEnroe walked onto centre court at Wimbledon or Seve Ballesteros found himself in a tricky lie behind a gorse bush on the windy front nine at St. Andrews. You were on for a pyrotechnic display of everything that made the game wonderful for you in the first place. The nature of football changed after Italia 90. It became corporate. Slick and banal. It even started appealing to women. No more heroes anymore. The Premier leagues inception in 1992/93 created a fresh commercial face for what had been the old First Division and marked the sinister, global rise of Manchester United. Alex Ferguson, the Moriarty of football. It has left us with a soulless spectacle in High Definition and a perennially disappointing national team which can only grow weaker with each successive season as the Premier League relies increasingly on foreign talent. But when England hammered Holland in Euro 96 there was Gascoigne, rising to the occasion at the sound of the football equivalent of Drakes Drum. Vindaloo beat out to the Latino brass of a Mariachi trumpet and Gazza will return, Three Lions on his chest, battle-scarred, to save English football.
And then the decade passed so quickly.
If Gascoignes no longer a footballer then what is he? Certainly he takes his place in the England World Cup squad of modern day celebrity eccentrics Oliver Reed, Keith Moon, Vivian Stanshall. Perhaps he could captain the team. Marshalling Moons efforts to jump a motorcycle into Steve McQueens swimming pool in full World War 2 regalia, Oliver Reed charging up the right wing to strip off naked in public and sing wildly before having a fight with anyone whos passing by. Gascoigne would control the game from mid-field, driving an open-top red London bus packet with terrified tourists.
The true, root causes of such erratic behaviour as exemplified by these England capped misfits is masked by a welter of substance abuse and the publics uncomplicated acceptance of their conduct as entertaining and simply a natural part of their larger than life personas. Gascoigne’s alcoholism seems not to be the main cause of whats going wrong so much as a catalyst. It serves to complicate a mental landscape already confused by personal tragedy and emotional disappointments. Gazza seemingly dismisses the possibilities of any diagnosable mental condition, apart from perhaps Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
But there are problems.
I like practical jokes. At some point in the late 80s Andrex ran a competition to win a Peugeot 106. Five lucky winners would unravel their toilet rolls to find Willy Wonka style a winning ticket pasted to the inner cardboard tube. A thought struck me. An idea. I got out my typewriter, rattled off a label and Painstakingly I re-rolled the tissue paper. A week later Id forgotten all about it until my mother ran screaming from the bathroom, holding the toilet roll tube aloft
I have never felt so ashamed in my life.
But this is harmless fun compared to some of Gascoignes japes. Any man who puts his own faeces inside a pie, places that pie in a fridge and then later serves up said pie to friends
His playing career over, the usual trappings of the Premiership footballer the Bentley Continental GT, the Mock Tudor mansion in Cheshire, the glossy girlfriend from the pages of Nuts or FHM have slipped through his fingers. Gascoigne is left not owning a house or car and continues to pursue a relationship that ended in divorce ten years ago. Living in hotels. Even the obligatory rape allegations have petered out. And hes still held by the Elysian Fields provided by a game of football. The Ambrosia of a few lagers with lads. His inability to sever the emotional ties to his ex-wife. Surely she cant still need ten grand a month to keep her going after all these years? But where many once famous footballing names are now little more than half-forgotten faces with dodgy haircuts in old Panini albums gathering dust in the loft, Gascoignes fame remains. Albeit in a refracted form. For instance, Arsenal double-winning legend Charlie George acts as a tour guide at the Emirates Stadium.
But for Gascoigne this fame is a two-edged sword. His continuing financial viability is only as a result of the press attention which persists after his career is over. The persona of Gazza. Fighting with press photographers, being ejected from hotels, his addictions, his contradictions, the suicide attempts, the sectionings, the sad spectacle of him shambling drunk, surrounded by photographers. But it also tightens the spiral. The world will always be fascinated with characters such as Gazza. Lives like his captivate the bored mind browsing for easy entertainment in the same morbid way as a nasty accident on the motorway. We gasp in disbelief as he tears past at 140mph and then later rubberneck the twisted wreckage of his fortune. His buckled marriage.
That Gascoigne can be likeable and personable is undeniable. Generous with the heart of gold which seems to be a press necessity for every working class celebrity from Cilla Black to Jodie Marsh. Equally, he can be obnoxious and egotistical. Gazza, my story is not a bad read, and it passed the time between feverish temperatures and sleeping, propped up in the May sunshine, but it does not bring to life Paul Gascoigne. To do that youd be best watching some of the footage from Italia 1990; Gazza ripping the mid-field apart or wearing some plastic breasts. That’s where the heart of the story lies. But maybe thats also part of the problem.
Amongst all the drunken, scatological debauchery and high jinx, the air pellets in the backsides and the belches perhaps the highlight of the book was when I misread the sentence relating to Jack Charlton: Big Jack was brilliant to me. He took me fishing with him one day For a moment, in my minds eye, I had visions of ex-Dirty Leeds hard man, World Cup medal winner, Republic of Ireland hero, sleeves rolled up, greased to the elbow Oh! I realized with relief, re-scanning the passage, FISHING!