Calum Best: George Best, alcohol and me
In his most frank interview yet, George Best's son talks to Barry Egan about living in the shadow of his famous father, and how he too turned to drink to blur the pain when the footballing legend died
Calum Best has lived more than a fair share of his life in the shadows of a painful past. At the age of 32, the man who was starting to become a byword for dissolution and excess appears to be finally coming, however tentatively, towards the light.
When his father George died in London's Cromwell Hospital on November 25, 2005 after suffering multiple organ failure, Calum, then 24, was at his bedside. It didn't matter to Calum that his dad, the son of a Belfast shipyard worker, dazzled the world with his footballing genius with Manchester United. It only mattered that George Best was his dad and he was gone forever.
"It drove me f***ing nuts when he died," says Calum. "People were just losing a famous football player. I lost my dad. I lost my father."
I ask him how he dealt with the loss. "By drinking. To avoid thinking about it. That's how I dealt with my old man dying. I kept my mind blurred by drinking."
How did Calum stop himself going down that road of self-oblivion as his father had? "After a few years of just going nuts, I just realised this is getting me nowhere," he said. "I was losing work. My health was bad. I was falling out with people. I wasn't in touch with my mom. The only people who were letting me onboard were club owners."
And bartenders! 'Come in, Mr Best!' I joke. "'You're welcome here!'" Calum jokes too.
"Look, I had no support. I didn't know my dad's side of the family. My mom was in the States still. She didn't really know the depths of how much I was drinking. Dad had unfortunately passed away, which is one of the toughest things I'd ever dealt with. A few years back I was losing the plot."
What did you learn from losing the plot?
"Not to do it again," he laughs. But the reality isn't even remotely funny. Calum has recently been helping raise awareness of the genetic link associated with alcohol dependence on behalf of the Reduce Your Alcohol Use campaign in the Republic. He explains that "nearly two-thirds of people in Ireland believe alcohol dependence has a genetic component that runs in families", referring to a new study launched last week.
"Alcohol dependence, more commonly known as alcoholism, is a brain disease. Alcohol dependence is a chronic disease. I witnessed this first hand with my father, who drank heavily every day of his life up until he died at the age of 59," he says.
He can remember being 15 years old and his dad bringing him to a game at Manchester United. On the way, he also bought Calum his first 'George Best' jersey. "I was so proud wearing it. He got me a football signed by all the players. Then that night he went on the p**s with all the players and went missing for three days. You know? It was a real hard balance to find."
To illustrate this chronic lack of balance in his youth, Calum recalls flying from Los Angeles, where he lived with his mother Angie, to meet his father in England, and the scenario that would inevitably unfold time after time. George would go on a bender. "People in the pub would always say to me: 'Your dad has been saying for weeks how he is so excited to see you.' That was a big let down," Calum says. He says it hurt him on lots of emotional levels: the apparent rejection. "I didn't know how to accept that, or take that on board. I just thought: 'Why is this happening?'
"But as the years went by," he adds, "I figured it out personally: I think with most alcohol-dependent people it would be a case of when the booze goes and their mind goes clear, they realise all the people they've let down, or hurt. And I think that would be the same with me and him.
"He'd see me in the morning when he was kind of fresh and he'd be happy and then he'd start thinking: 'F**king hell. I've got a son here that I haven't really paid attention to.'
"He would just drink his sorrows by the bottle – which is what most alcohol-dependent people would do. It was a tough relationship because I'd show up and say: 'Dad, now's our time. Let's build a bond.'
"My old man never gave me a cent but I don't complain about that," he adds.
When I met Calum's mother Angie for dinner in 2008, she told me a fascinating – but unsurprising – thing about George Best. Angie said that when she had Calum on February 6, 1981, it meant that she finally realised she "had to look after the deserving baby not the undeserving baby. I could do one baby not two. I got on with my life. I got on with raising my son. I didn't try to deal with any of it. I left George to get on with his s**t."
"My mum being a very cool woman has helped get me through things," Calum says. "She told me she used to babysit my dad a lot. As much as he was George Best the iconic footballer, he was a nightmare."
What was he like as George Best the father?
"I could go on for days about that. Not a day goes past when I don't hear what a legend he was from everybody. I am proud of that. I love being his son. But he wasn't George Best the footballer to me. I had a dad who had a serious drink problem. There was good times of us going to the football and us talking about girls, but there were also dark times of me coming over at 15 years old and not knowing about his drink problem and having to go to the pub with him at eight o'clock in the morning.
"By then, he had been drinking for many, many years. So I think his brain was quite sick with the disease. He was very witty, he was a good man. But he had a serious drink problem and I had to deal with that side of him."
Did he ever say to you : 'Don't do as I do'?
He shakes his head. "We didn't have that kind of relationship." Isn't that kind of odd that he wasn't able to emote that?
He adds: "Well ... there were some very odd things about my old man. He was a very old-school Irish man. He wasn't very open in the 'I love yous' or any of that stuff. That's not me feeling sorry for myself in any shape or form.
"He didn't know how to open up. It wasn't his style to say what the problem was or to talk about what the problem was. All you could do with my dad was support him when he needed it."
There were crazy stories that would seem apocryphal and made up if Calum hadn't told me himself how true they are. The tale about him losing his virginity as a teenager to the flatmate of an ex-girlfriend of his father's is entertaining to read, but such stories must have been psychologically damaging to him in the long term.
"You are not wrong," Calum says. "I can laugh about it now, but when you think about it in hindsight – you think: 'Jesus, I was 15 years old, I had come over to see my old man, his ex-girlfriend at the time invited me to her house and I lost my virginity to a 35-year-old woman'. Those things can damage you, but this is not 'poor me'. I am doing this campaign to say: 'If you are someone that is alcohol-dependent, like my dad was, you have to think about the effects on your kids or your siblings or whatever it may be.' It gives me issues. I have definitely got some issues."
There is not a person in the world without issues, I say to him.
"That's why I don't want to sit here in this interview and say: 'God, poor me.' I am not a poor-me kind of person," he says. "I dealt with a lot of s**t, but then you move on."
He is candid enough to admit that he's still got some demons in there. Still, Calum is witty like his dad was. Ask him what goes through his mind when he is hungover, he has the perfect riposte: "Where can I get a fry-up?"
"Nothing too dark," he says, referring to hangover thoughts. "Maybe back then I was like that, when I was drinking to avoid things. But now I'm in the gym every single day. I eat well. There were times when I drank every night but I have never woken up craving a drink.
"Nowadays I barely drink at all. I am always going to be a bit of a bad boy. I'm quite rock 'n' roll as it is and I never want to shed that. I like to be healthy and my mind to be clear but, f**k it, I still enjoy a good time. Just as long as it doesn't get a hold of me."
"I'll never have a drink problem, ever," he adds.
Maybe not. But he perhaps has a woman problem. As Polly Vernon wrote in an Observer magazine profile in August 2008: "For seven years, shagging has defined Calum Best. Shagging has perpetuated his celebrity. Best has enjoyed celebrity shags (Lindsay Lohan and Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud), glamour-girl shags (Abi Titmuss, Rebecca Loos and Jodie Marsh, who rated Best's performance a seven out of 10, which isn't bad, when you consider she gave Westlife's Kian a meagre two out of 10). There have been shags characterised by hookers and cocaine and exposes in the red-tops, and there have been inter-celebrity outdoor shags, captured on closed-circuit TV cameras."
In person, he is a pretty sweet guy, honest to a fault, sometimes coming across like a little boy lost in the adult sweet shop.
One of Calum Best's most discussed relationships was with high-profile Irish model Georgia Salpa. It ended badly in September 2011, with Salpa telling the Sun newspaper that "I've dumped Calum" over allegations he cheated on her with former TV star Donna Air, who is now dating James Middleton, brother of the Duchess of Cambridge. "We're not in contact," he says now. "I wish her all the best. Bless her."
So how long was he with Georgia for? "I don't really want to talk about it."
Was it a month? A week? A year? "We hung out for a while. We were with each other for a good few months. We travelled around. We went to Jamaica together. We had a great time together. But it just didn't really work out, you know? Because I got caught cheating!"
Does he think his perception of his womanising father shaped his ability, or willingness, to commit to women in relationships?
"The thing is," Calum says. "I have been blessed in many ways, but I am still my own person. So, whatever reasons I have for being with girls and doing this and that are my own reasons."
He clams up visibly when I ask him did he have a last conversation with his father before he died. He says he is not here to talk about that. But was he able to resolve things with his father? "Yeah. You do what you can do with someone that is sick.
"The long and short of it is my dad had an illness and it screwed me up for a bit back then, and you could very easily go down the same road," he says.
I ask him, even though I know the answer, what age his father was when he had him.
"I don't know. That's a good question – 37 maybe? 38? I've still got some time. I'm still figuring my stuff out... but I'm in a good place now. I'm feeling good. Four, five years ago I wouldn't have been able to sit here having this conversation with you. I'd have been an absolute mess."
Would he like to be a dad himself one day? "When the time comes, it will be the right time," he says. Part of Calum Best coming in to the light, he says, was a few years ago, when his mother moved back to the UK from LA. "She was here to support me and she made me realise the good things and how I should change.
"As soon as I started to change, the BBC came to me and said they had a documentary Brought Up By Booze for Children In Need and they wanted me to be a part of it. I spent six months travelling around the UK meeting kids and meeting alcohol-dependent people and putting all these pieces together and trying to help people. The massive thing for me was finding out that there were places that they could go to and people they could talk to. Which I didn't know at the time."
He says he hasn't stopped drinking. "I still enjoy a drink and I am not going to say I don't. I still go out and enjoy myself. I have a real bad, addictive personality," he says. "I can't go out and just have a drink. That's why it has to be few and far between.
"If I go out it is a heavy session. I can't do that any more. I did that for years. I partied from 15 years old up until 24.
"These issues screwed me up for a while but the point of my story is: you can come out on top. You can make your story end well, which is what I'm doing, which is why I am doing this campaign."
Calum, who lives in Fulham on his own and is single, adds that he loves his mother "to bits and she loves me to bits".
Do you love yourself to bits? I say. I don't mean in an ego way but a way of actually liking himself.
"I know. I have still got some anxiety about what people think. I'm still nervous what people think of me... but I am happier than I have ever been now," says Calum, moving away from the shadows of his past, finally.
Life and loves of a legend
George Best was born on May 22, 1946 to Dickie and Anne Best and raised in the Cregagh area of east Belfast
He was discovered by a scout from Manchester United at the age of 15
He married Angela MacDonald-Janes in January 1978 in Las Vegas, and divorced in 1986. Son Calum was born in 1981
Best married model Alex Pursey in 1995, but they too divorced in 2004
He died in November 2005 from complications following a liver transplant. His ashes were interred at Roselawn Cemetery