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Gazza as metaphor

Once the herald of the New Emotionalism, Paul Gascoigne has now become its most debased product.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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‘Laugh and the whole world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.’ This is not something that ever applied to Gazza, the public identity of celebrated footballer and dedicated drunk, Paul Gascoigne. For while the world may not have wept with Gazza, his distress has certainly never been a solitary affair. In Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Surviving Gazza, this post-football existence as an excruciatingly public breakdown-in-motion reached a depressing crescendo.

Gascoigne’s interior life has long been public property. Having picked up his second yellow card of the 1990 World Cup during England’s semi-final with West Germany, the knowledge that he’d miss the final should England win proved too much for Gascoigne. But this was far from a disaster for the pudgy-faced 23-year-old. Those tears became a defining image not just of the tournament, but of the 1990s. They were seen to herald a new era, a post-masculine age in which it was not only okay for men to cry in public – it was progressive (1). If that blubbering breakdown represented a failure for Gascoigne the player, it proved to be the making of Gazza the phenomenon. He became a hero for the emotionally incontinent, a poster boy for the age of the floppy upper-lip.

But for as long as Gascoigne was playing football, for as long as he was finding public affirmation as a footballer, the media entity that was Gazza, a perpetually gurning blur of self-disclosure, had a discrete existence. And for most of the 1990s, Gascoigne was, albeit sporadically, brilliant. One moment during Euro 96, when England played Scotland, captured his virtuoso talent at its best. Receiving a pass from Darren Anderton, Gascoigne flicked the ball over the impressive mullet of Colin Hendry with his left foot before calmly slotting the ball past Andy Goram with his right.

Unfortunately, as his footballing career drifted away so Gascoigne’s alternative means of self-validation came to the fore; the revealing, indeed unravelling, of his private torments and demons in public. If it wasn’t his addictions to variously booze and cocaine, it was wife battering; if it wasn’t bulimia, it was anxiety attacks. With each failure, each collapse, each absence of self-control, of discipline, came public regrets and soul-bearing contrition. Usually in the News of the World. And each time he seemed to have found a degree of stability, something would compel him to self-destruct. Losing control and then desperately, despairingly, seeking to publicly atone became Gazza’s modus operandi. Perhaps at some level he knew that if he wasn’t letting it all out, no matter how tawdry the confession, no matter how debasing the detail, he would cease to be. Once the herald of the new emotionalism, Gazza became its most debased product.

In February last year, Paul Gascoigne’s self-implosion seemed finally to have run its course. Then 40 years old, he was found ‘behaving in a disorderly manner towards other guests’ at the Malmaison hotel in Gateshead. He was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

Surviving Gazza takes up Gascoigne’s story in July last year. After a seven-week stay at the celebrity’s favourite rehab clinic, the Priory, Gascoigne is reunited, after a 10-year absence, with his ex-wife Sheryl and their three children – Gascoigne’s step-kids, Bianca and Mason, and his own son, 12-year-old Regan. And for the first 10 minutes of Surviving Gazza, all seems to be going well. We see Gazza around the house a bit; Gazza trying to put rubbish into a recycling bin; Gazza camping in the back garden with Regan; Gazza mugging before the camera; Gazza goofing around behind it. And then, after 10 days, that’s it, he’s gone… To join up with Iron Maiden on their European tour, as it turns out.

What followed was an hour-long documentary about, not Gazza himself, but those closest to him – his family. We see them talk to Gazza on the phone, often before hanging up. And we see them finally go in search of him in a Portuguese holiday resort, a strange sequence in which family-Gascoigne traipse around disconsolately, looking for a very famous, very drunk ex-footballer.

But we don’t see Gazza again on film. His is an absent presence, the narrative centre around which his family’s lives are encouraged to revolve. This is telling. If Gazza himself, as the media phenomenon suggests, is seen as the victim of his own self-destructive tendencies, his footballing talent too heavy a burden for, as one commentator put it, ‘an uneducated man’, his family are likewise encouraged to see themselves as victims of Gazza. To avail themselves of their interior torments and regrets is to be sanctified as ‘survivors’ of Gazza, as if that G-word denoted an earthquake.

At the beginning, Sheryl talks constantly as if saving Gazza is an obligation, and a public one at that. ‘No one wants the death of Paul on their hands’, she says, as if tasked with his care much as one is called for jury duty. But what the documentary gives Sheryl, or rather, removes for her, is this responsibility towards Gazza. In letting it all out by letting the cameras in, Sheryl can validate herself as much as a victim of Gazza as Gascoigne himself is. In one scene with therapist Tracey Towner, Sheryl recounts Gascoigne’s misdemeanours. Pulling her around the room by her hair in Italy, biting her face in Gleneagles and then hitting her son, Mason, in Essex. ‘Then he went off with Iron Maiden and that’s where we are now’, she says, dryly. Little wonder that Towner gives her what she seems to want: absolution. ‘Nobody’s ever said to me before, it’s okay if you don’t help him’, Sheryl gasps, tearfully but triumphantly.

In turn, each of the family members enjoys the fruits of publicly unveiling themselves. By giving away their most intimate thoughts and emotions about their addled-beyond-help father, they are encouraged to find themselves – as souls emotionally ravaged by Gazza.

As the title suggests, no one in Surviving Gazza can be anything other than a victim. So, what is this Gazza that has ruined so many lives? It’s a walking, talking, readily dissected self-pathologising tsunami. He says: ‘I’ve got food disorder. I’ve got bi-polar. I’ve got mood swings. I’ve got anxiety… Bored with life.’ ‘Every problem there is, he’s got it’, his young son Regan says despairingly before comforting himself with the thought: ‘He’s probably going to die soon.’

The saddest thing is that this absent presence, Gazza, this diffuse self without selfhood, a patchwork of emotional tumult and clinically defined disorder, owes its grotesque evolution to the very emotional incontinence once lorded as progressive. He never had to keep it all in, never had to grow up. ‘The big problem is he doesn’t know who he is’, says Mason. ‘If you turned to him and asked “who are you?” the best he could come up with is Gazza… He doesn’t know himself as a caring person, a good father, a good role model. He only knows himself as that football player. He is lost. He doesn’t know what to do… He’s lost.’ As Mason talks, the documentary switches to happier times, to images of a grinning Paul Gascoigne mobbed as he walks through Trafalgar Square, playing the only role he knows: Gazza.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black traced the rise and tragic demise of Gazza. After the death of George Best, Rob Lyons said grief shouldn’t be a national sport. John Dennen read a biography which ventured into the scrum of Jonny Wilkinson’s life. Duleep Allirajah wondered why British footballers have such naff nicknames. Or read more at spiked issue Sport

(1) See Men are not too macho to cry, BBC News, 4 July 2004

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