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Day 1: George, his mum and a fatal gene

George Best's battle with the bottle was a tragedy foreshadowed by his mother's alcoholism. Here, his sister Barbara Best reveals how their mum, Annie, had her first drink at 44 - and died a couple of months short of her 56th birthday

Published 03/10/2007

Loving mother, loving son - George and his mother, Annie in the summer of 1970, at his parents' silver wedding anniversary party
Loving mother, loving son - George and his mother, Annie in the summer of 1970, at his parents' silver wedding anniversary party

The reporter had been knocking on our door for ages and ages. George was back in the headlines over yet another misdemeanour.

It was no secret that mum was an alcoholic. That particular day, she'd had a few drinks and, unusually for her, was suddenly determined to go out there and tell the reporter what he could do with his story.

She told the reporter in no uncertain terms that were quite out of character for her that we would not be commenting on his breaking news story.

I'll never forget the look of sour contempt that came over that arrogant man's face. "Look at you!" he sneered. "You're nothing but a drunk and everyone knows it. What's more, without people like me, George wouldn't be where he is today."

"Without people like George, you wouldn't have a job!" mum shot back.

Inside I felt only despair. I looked at my mother. My beloved mother who had once taken such pride in her appearance, who had always been so dignified and mild-mannered. To the reporter she was just a drunk.

But what people like him couldn't see was the other side of the story: the pressures that had driven her to drink. And the disease that had so completely taken over her life that even the pleading of those of us who loved her so much made no difference. She just couldn't stop. George's leaving at such an early age, the pressure from the media - these are among the things to which our mother's drinking has been attributed. And while there is some truth that they may have helped drive her to drink, the fact is that they didn't make her an alcoholic.

Alcoholism is a disease, an addiction. But not everyone who drinks becomes an alcoholic. Our belief is that there is a genetic link, that our mother and George and our younger sister Julie, who continues bravely to battle the disease, all shared the same gene that left them vulnerable to this most terrible addiction.

When Carol and I recall our childhood and the days before mum started drinking, there is one phrase we always come back to which sums her up: our mum was a lady.

Photographs from the time show how she was with her dark hair neatly pinned back and her eyes sparkling with fun and happiness. She was a beautiful woman who took immense pride in not only her own appearance but also that of her children and her home.

Mum was the real home-maker. She was meticulous about everything she did. I remember her down on her hands and knees scrubbing the concrete front doorstep and path until they were glistening white and her fingers were raw. The brass handles on our windows were always shining. She was a great cook and baker; she made great apple tarts and candy apples. And she was a brilliant knitter, extremely fast. She made most of our clothes herself on a little sewing machine our dad bought her. Many a time, she sat up most of the night to get a garment finished for one of us.

When George, Carol and I were small, mum didn't really go out much. She was 43 when Ian was born, and, when he was about eighteen months old, she started going out with dad at nights, maybe once a week. They would go to local clubs such as the Harland and Wolff staff club, where they'd meet up with friends. Carol and I would look after the three little ones.

At first, mum would have had very, very little to drink - usually just a Pimm's with lemonade. Generally one drink lasted her all night.

Looking back, though, Carol and I can see how she began using drink as a crutch.

Although things were starting to get better for our parents financially, especially after George bought them the chip shop, mum was finding it hard to cope. She was, we believe, most likely going through the menopause.

Above all, though, she never, ever got over George leaving home so young. She never said it in so many words. But from the time he left, she changed. The fact that he rocketed to the top so quickly, in terms of fame, put a terrible strain on her. She hated the spotlight being turned on the family. Some people might have been able to take such things in their stride, but our mum, always a very shy, private woman, found the attention excruciating, even when it was positive and well-intentioned.

Her drinking began slowly, gradually.

One morning, our next-door neighbour and mum's very close friend, Mrs Beirne, came into the house for a wee cup of tea. This was a regular routine. However, she found mum pouring herself a glass of sherry.

"Would you like one?" mum asked her.

"Good God, Annie," exclaimed Mrs Beirne. "It's nine o'clock in the morning.

"What are you doing drinking at this time of the day?"

"I need it to get me through the day," mum said simply. And maybe that just about summed it up.

Bit by bit, it now became increasingly obvious that she had a problem. She used to send Carol to the Rosetta Bar for a bottle of wine. She even sent me. Or she'd go herself.

Dad asked local bars and off-licence establishments not to serve her.

Dad tried everything. He pleaded with her to stop. He begged her to see a doctor. He even tried to get a hypnotist to help her. This was all futile. Nothing worked. For years, she steadfastly refused to accept that she had a problem. She never accepted that she was an alcoholic.

The change in her when she took drink was shocking. Before, my mum was a lovely, sweet-natured woman, a woman who never spoke ill of anybody. When she was drunk, she was argumentative and very difficult. She would taunt us and goad us. She knew what was a sore point with each of us, and she'd keep on and on and on about it until it became unbearable.

She used to pick rows with dad although he did everything in his power to keep the peace. She would follow him around trying to pick a fight. I remember nights when he came home from work and then just went out and walked the streets for hours and hours to stay out of her way. She used to go down the town and come home covered in bruises. She had more than enough injuries. Once she ended up with a broken leg.

She said that she'd been mugged. She could have been, but God only knows what really happened. On one occasion, after a particularly nasty incident which needed hospital treatment, dad and mum came back from the hospital.

Carol remembers mum crying. She was full of remorse.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she kept saying. "This is it. No more. I'm going to stop."

And she did try. There would be weeks at a time when she stopped.

During those periods, we didn't talk to her about what she'd done or what she'd been like when she was drinking. In a way, we were afraid to break the spell. It was so good to have our real mum back: happy, singing, looking after and loving us the way she used to. We just wanted the good days back. But instead it was getting worse.

Even now, looking back, the most difficult question to answer is how could someone so ladylike and dignified, who lived for her home and her family - how could she could become what our mum became? Carol and I hate to read, as we so often do, articles or books saying that our mother died of alcoholism.

The fact is that mum died of heart disease. And, yes, of course, we fully accept that the drink exacerbated the problems she had.

But there were other factors in her premature death, too, not least the fact that she smoked like a trooper. And she didn't eat properly when she was drinking.

Mum had a heart attack in June 1977, and, when the doctors examined her, they explained that it had, in fact, been her second. She had had another one before without realising it. After that second attack, she never really made anything of it - over the next few months, she didn't seem able to get her strength back. It was as if she'd lost the will to live.

We all have regrets in life, however irrational. Dad regrets that in that last week of her life, mum and he were sleeping apart. Things weren't good between them so he was sleeping on the settee downstairs. He normally took mum a cup of tea before he set off to work, and then she would rise to get Julie, Grace and Ian ready for school.

That last week, however, he hadn't been doing it. But during the final night of mum's life, when he couldn't sleep, dad decided that in the morning he would take up the tea, and get down on his knees and beg her to stop drinking.

In the morning, it was still dark, so he just turned on the light on the landing and left the tea on the bedside table. Mum's arm was out of the bed and he felt it. It was cold, but he didn't immediately think anything was wrong.

However, when he came back upstairs before he left for work, and found the tea untouched, he reached across and touched mum's shoulder which was also cold. Then he realised the truth. Our lovely mum was dead. She had suffered a massive heart attack.

There would have been nothing he could have done to save her but dad says, " I have always, always regretted that I wasn't with her that night. That I wasn't with her in the true sense of being a couple, in the last week of her life."

Dad, of course, has nothing to reproach himself over. In her lifetime, he did everything he could for our mother. And after her death, his children, particularly the twins, who were 15, and Ian who was only 12, were his priority.

Looking back on those years now, I see that there are, of course, parallels between what we went through with mum and George's fight against alcoholism.

There was the same sense of despair. The same desperation to try to help him, to make him stop. The same heartache.

In the end, there was nothing any of us could do about it. All of us in our family have shed many private tears for our mum.

We have never forgotten what alcohol made her become. But we have never forgotten either the lovely, gentle, caring mother that she truly was. And we never will.

Our George A Family Memoir, by Barbara Best with Lindy McDowell, Gill & Macmillan, £16.99, published October 12

Belfast Telegraph

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