Journalist Celia Walden, wife of Piers Morgan, got to know George Best as both an abusive drunk and an alluring gentleman. Her book now reveals what the soccer icon loved most: drink, women or football.
When Celia Walden was starting out in journalism, she was sent on an interesting job. One Sunday morning in August 2003, her editor phoned her and told her to go to Malta to find ex-footballer George Best and keep an eye on him, or “babysit him”, as they said.
Best had a column with Celia's newspaper — the Mail on Sunday — and the paper didn't want him to talk to any of their competitors. His wife Alex had just left him and the well-known alcoholic with the liver transplant had hit the bottle once more. The job would have been gold for most hard-nosed journalists, but Celia was staggeringly ignorant about Best. “All I knew about him was that he wrote a column for our paper and that he was once some big footballer, but he was now a drunk,” she tells me.
It's almost impossible to imagine that someone who was born in the mid-Seventies, as Celia was, had not seen footage of the Belfast-born footballer's dazzling performance on the pitch or even clips of the sweetly shy young lad talking in his early days. Neither did she come across him on chat shows as a still handsome man, when his football career was long in the past.
Usually, he would be shown footage of himself in his prime, full of his graceful dynamism on the pitch and then everyone's eyes would fill as he would talk about his alcoholism and how he was making a fresh start. His occasional drunken appearances on TV passed her by too. Unlike the masses, Celia was oblivious to the whole arc of his life, from the highly talented lad, whom we all took to our hearts, to the tragic figure who had squandered his talent. He was a living cautionary tale.
But in some ways, this ignorance meant that Celia had no baggage when she eventually found George in the Lady Di bar in Malta knocking back white wine spritzers. When she announced who she was, he asked her to leave him alone. He was busy drinking himself into a stupor. That night was the beginning of a strange and interesting period, where over several months Celia spent a lot of time in his company and got to know him. She was admitted to his inner circle, as the Mail on Sunday was one of his main sources of income and he needed to hang on to this. And so, with the consent of George and his agent, she was allowed to linger.
“Someone outside the media would think that we're preying on celebrities, but we're not always preying on them,” she says. “There is this weird dance and often it's with the celebrity's consent. But it doesn't mean that it's any more healthy.”
Her book, Babysitting George, is about that summer, and how it was sometimes like a circus and other times simply tragic. It documents his drinking life, his spell in a rehab clinic where he still drank, how he hooked up with a lover, Gina, and then re-united with Alex, as all the while the media and the world watched on. George explained to Celia that he drank because he was shy and later he confessed he never wanted to give up drink. Those promises were for Alex and his son Calum, but he loved drink too much to quit. He would drink himself to death and in the final part of the book, Celia chronicles the pathetic figure he had become — eczema-ridden, jowl-faced, falling asleep in a bath with his clothes on. In the book, he tells her that the liver transplant had made him impotent and how he thought that this was ironic, him being known as the man famous for bedding so many beautiful women.
It was an unusual relationship with George, who gave her the nickname of ‘Trouble’. “I got to know him as an old guy with nothing to lose, who was quite happy to talk about all sorts of things,” she says. “On a human level, it was that mix of being very shy and having these moments of arrogance and Casanova leftover, and there was something really attractive about that mix.”
Celia now writes for the Daily Telegraph and since that summer, she has interviewed many stars — Johnny Depp and P Diddy to name but two — and she says that despite all the celebrities she has met, nobody has had the charisma that Best possessed.
“He had star power and good old-fashioned allure,” she says. “George was reading Oscar Wilde and Hemingway, and he had a real curiosity that you'd expect would have been eroded over time. One of the most touching things about him was that he was oddly pure as a person. He was never into drugs and he didn't smoke. When you look at people in his position now, they do all sorts of crazy stuff. George's two vices were loving women and loving booze, and in a way they are the two most understandable vices that there are.
“Watching him around women was touching, because I thought it was almost Italian. Italian men will tell every woman on the street that they're in love with them, but then they'll also be enormously respectful to some big, old mamma and so it's a reverence. George still had the desire to entertain and I thought that was really nice.”
But it wasn't all pretty. She tells me that when he was drinking steadily, he was the best company, but when he was really drunk and hurling abuse at everyone, that was really unattractive. And life with the alcoholic was full of deception. “The fluency of his lies chilled me. Towards the end, you couldn't trust a lot of what he was saying.”
Drink, women, football. Celia once asked George to list them in order of preference. He answered — women, drink, football, and then he changed it to football, women, drink. Then he explained that when he was growing up, the booze was the way to get the girls, and then the girls were replaced by booze. But where was the football in all of this? “The football was always there,” he replied.
The book also deals with the fans and their reaction to him, from adoration to abusive. One couple bought him a bottle of wine, but Celia wonders had he been a wino in the gutter, would they have done the same? She watched him as he slowly killed himself with drink and then beat himself up for doing so. “Lots of people said that George was very cavalier about the liver transplant, but he wasn't. He felt very bad about it.”
And he paid the price for his drinking. She witnessed his frequent trips to the toilet, where he would be constantly vomiting.
The book is a compelling read and, in an unsentimental way, it tells the sad life of a football legend who became a tragic alcoholic. The subject matter is so interesting that
we dwell for far too long on George, almost eclipsing Celia herself. Born in Paris in 1975, she lived there until she was five. Her father George Walden was an English diplomat and later a Tory MP (now he is a journalist and writer). While in Paris, her mother restored paintings at the Louvre.
Celia adored Paris, and the plan was to return and marry a French man. That didn't quite happen. Although she dated the French chef Jean-Christophe Novelli, she is now married to Piers Morgan (Mr Walden, as she calls him), the former editor of the News of the World and the Daily Mirror, who has now taken over Larry King's chat show in America on CNN.
Celia studied French and Italian literature at Cambridge, with the idea that she would become a writer. As a young girl, she says that she read too many books or perhaps too many of the wrong sort of books and she had a rather strange view of the world. “It's not that I became depressed, but at 13 I read Dangerous Liaisons,” she says. “There was one line: ‘Everyone knows that love doesn't exist. It's purely about yourself.'.” Celia laughs as she tells me that this dashed every pre-conceived dream she had. Thankfully, she got over it.
She describes herself as “an obsessive disciplinarian”. She loves routine and she enjoys working in an office. As well as doing interviews for the Telegraph, she writes a column that is often cranky but in a good way. She fumes about the idiocy of Twitter, and then she has a good go at the feminists who complain about women picking up socks after men. Instead, she explained there is a joy in doing something for the person you love.
“I can't imagine feeling anger at bending down to pick up Piers' socks,” she says. “I find it quite sweet that I can trace his movement by his clothes. They're just all over the house. But it's true that we haven't yet been married a year, so maybe I'm romantic.”
I have always thought her coupling with Piers is a most unlikely match, and I tell her this. He strikes me as loud and crass, and I am all set to be annoyed by him, and yet when I see him on television, I am glued to him. She tells me that she had that same feeling, too, when they first met.
She had posed for some photos for GQ magazine in Agent Provocateur underwear. Piers took her out to lunch for the accompanying interview. “I thought he was loud and crass,” she says. “In the restaurant, he was bellowing out to everyone but at the same time there was this fascination because it's not clear cut with Piers. Lots of people hate him, and then they meet him and they can't help themselves. He's got Irish blood and the twinkling thing is such a cliche, but it's true. Despite yourself, you just like him very much. Over the next six months, he staged an assault — that's what he calls it.”
He sent her a book on the history of noxious gases, which made her laugh, and another day a bile-spewing cactus plant arrived in the office. “Gradually he wore me down and he made me laugh, a lot.”
Piers was married before and has three sons, but this didn't bother Celia. “The baggage didn't put me off, because no-one who is interesting doesn't have baggage. But the public persona was a bit of baggage, in that everyone has a view. The first couple of times we went out on a date, people would come up to him and say, I think you're a total w*****. I'd say, my God, how often does this happen? That took a bit of getting used to, but it's all massively changed since he's become very successful.”
Celia has put him on a gluten-free diet, because image matters in television. Now that he's in America, she tells him that he has to be size zero.
“He's the least vain man in the world and you've got to instil it in him,” she says.
But he sounds wonderfully thoughtful and romantic, especially in the way he proposed to her. “He took me away just over a year ago, on a trip to Paris for my birthday. He's so impatient, he's like a child. The night before, he said, ‘I've got your present,' and I said, ‘It's ok, I'll wait until the morning.' He said, ‘I want you to open it now.' I remember being slightly disappointed because it was wrapped and it looked quite small. It was a first edition of a book by my favourite author John Updike — the book was Marry Me. And then there was this slightly awkward moment and he said, ‘So?' So, there we are and then he went off and left me to live in America.”
She laughs at this, but tells me she plans to join him. Just as well, as she is five months pregnant.
All's well that ends well for Mr and Mrs Walden.
Babysitting George by Celia Walden, Bloomsbury, £16.99