According to the well-worn commonplace, pop culture celebrities are the new aristocracy. But are they really? Idolatry does not necessarily equate to real authority. We pay ritual homage to our Beyoncés and our Biebers, our Gagas and our Goslings, investing them with the auratic appearance of power, but deep down we know that they are not really the ones running the show. While the anonymous powerbrokers of the 1% live behind solid walls of institutionalised market supremacy, our celebrity royalty builds its castles on sand. Fortunes accumulate and evaporate, public acclaim blossoms and wilts. Meanwhile, we observe this rhythm of ephemerality with reassurance. Pop singers, film stars, models, and sports idols are gods created in our own image; they must never forget that they are one of us, ultimately subject to the same inordinate suffering experienced by the 99%. If an ordinary person in the glare of media attention genuinely, visibly managed to surmount the vicissitudes of positive and negative celebrity, we would have to accept that another, better world was possible, that someone somewhere had managed to acquire a truer, more lasting kind of power than us. And this realisation would have profound political implications.
Few have illustrated this aspect of capitalist realist culture better or more tragically than the onetime darling of British football, Paul Gascoigne (“Gazza” to almost everyone). A prodigal footballing talent born into a working class family from Gateshead in the northeast of England, Gascoigne rose meteorically through the ranks of the game to become a superstar in the early 90s. The focal point of a national obsession in the wake of his performance in the England team’s unseasonably decent showing in World Cup Italia ‘90, the Gazza saga was initially a sort of uproarious media cartoon strip that seemed to announce a new phase of British celebrity culture. Gascoigne visited Downing Street and gave Margaret Thatcher a cheeky hug (Gazza: “She’s cuddly, like me”); Germaine Greer and Julie Burchill wrote florid comment pieces about him in the national press; before long, a waxwork dummy of the Geordie marvel had appeared in Madame Tussauds. For a short while, in the rather grey atmosphere of the very early 90s, Gazza was a genuine phenomenon.
Then came the predictable fall from grace. A knee injury in the 1991 FA Cup Final and an ill-advised move to Italian club Lazio initiated a premature decline accelerated by alcoholism and eating disorders. As of 2012, Gascoigne is a lonely, relatively impoverished figure, a scarcely recovered boozer with a ghoulishly haggard appearance. No longer really involved in football, he crops up at intervals in the tabloids as a subject of farce and condescension.
But the tragic heft of the Gazza narrative has also invited the interest of more sympathetic commentators from time to time. Perhaps chief among these was the late poet, critic, Robert Lowell biographer, and Tottenham Hotspur fan Ian Hamilton, who wrote a lengthy piece titled “Gazza Agonistes” for Granta in 1993. Published in book form as Gazza Italia in 1994, Hamilton’s monograph has now been reissued under its original title as part of the Faber Finds series, an underrated recent publishing initiative that revives idiosyncratic, out-of-print texts in an unassuming, minimally designed format.
We are fortunate to be able to revisit, in Gazza Agonistes, the demotic cultural moment of the early-to-mid 90s, and to be able to situate this nuanced text alongside more celebrated treatments of football from the period such as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch (1992) and Harry Pearson’s The Far Corner (1995). Yet for the most part, Hamilton’s confident, driven study remains as pertinent today as it probably was nearly 20 years ago (circa 1993, the present reviewer was reading the somewhat less rarefied Gazza: My Life in Pictures, so this last remark is mere conjecture). The book’s continued relevance arises from the fact that, while Hamilton indicates that Gascoigne’s hamartia or fatal flaw was to some extent his penchant for excess and tomfoolery, the real villain of the piece is unmistakably the capitalist media machine, an enemy that has become even more ruthlessly destructive of individual lives over the last two decades. Though it would be patronising and wrong to view Gazza straightforwardly as an innocent corrupted by money and fame—many of his problems were clearly inherent and deep seated—at bottom Gazza Agonistes is the record of an essentially ordinary, optimistic young man being thrust into the bizarre and dehumanising world of postmodern celebrity at a ridiculously early age and being crushed by the resulting friction.
Hamilton’s intelligent narrative ensures that Gazza’s trajectory from person to product is imbued with pathos and tasteful humour. It is genuinely heartbreaking to observe descriptions of the young prodigy (“plump, twitchy, and pink-faced, and on the small side”) morphing quickly into accounts of his maltreatment at the hands of cynically self-interested tough men. We learn that as a teenager at Newcastle, he was ordered to lose a stone of weight in a fortnight. Paternalistic figures intervene to try to ameliorate the PR circus that develops into an orgy at the time of the 1990 World Cup (foremost among these is England manager and fellow northeasterner Bobby Robson, whose affectionate description of Gazza as “daft as a brush” provides perhaps the most sonorously poetic epithet in the narrative—one thinks of Seamus Heaney or Basil Bunting). But Gazza’s fate is basically sealed early on when he cedes control of his career to an accountant-solicitor duo from London just before his 1988 transfer to Tottenham. Acting as “advisors”, this off-stage pair compels their client to “court publicity…put his name to ghosted columns, to dress up for photo-shoots, to foster the lovable ‘clown prince of soccer’ image”. After this point, as Hamilton sadly acknowledges, “the script was already written”.
An obvious weakness in Hamilton’s account is the relatively scant coverage given to the 1988-1991 years: the crux period of “Gazzamania”. Hamilton’s original project began with first-hand reportage of the abortive spell in Italy (1991-1995), and so well over half of the book is devoted to this dull, dissipated period, surely the most boring, least lyrical phase of the drama. A long postscript written in late 1998 goes some way to restoring balance, but as with the pre-Italy years, the crucial events of this later phase—the memorable Euro ’96 performance, the allegations of domestic abuse, the return to British football—are skipped over rather than closely examined as they deserve to be. Yet in spite of this Hamilton’s study is distinguished by the sophistication of its prose and the considerable generosity with which it handles its difficult subject. Unlike the highbrow writers who venture into football culture for an ironic frisson of pop-cultural bathos, Hamilton understands the vocabulary of the game, is never patronising, and always maintains an attitude of respect and seriousness toward his protagonist.
Indeed, it is Hamilton’s basic willingness to believe that Gazza might in other circumstances have stood for something truly affirmative that makes this a book of genuine resonance rather than a mere historical curiosity. Against the radical negativity of the media deconstructionists, Hamilton offers glimpses of another dimension in which Gazza’s supreme artistry might have pointed the way to a different, more hopeful kind of Englishness. Following England’s exit from the 1990 World Cup, The Independent described Gazza as “noble”. For Hamilton, this is no arbitrary term:
“Noble” is not a word that the back pages often have much use for, but on this day it did not seem out of place. And we too had been ennobled. From the split-second against Holland when an explosive pirouette took him through two startled Dutch defenders, Gascoigne had altered our expectations; he had even put a strain on our vocabulary. In that instant we, as fans, moved up a league. At last and maybe just for once we had a player of world class – or rather a player who was not afraid to be world class, who could treat the Gullits and Van Bastens, the Baggios and Viallis, as if they were just another mob of big lads in some Gateshead school-yard.
Like the man himself, Gazza Agonistes offers the suggestion that this singular example of a noble everyman beating the big lads and moving up the league might somehow be recoverable from the familiar tragedy of a pop idol brought low by world-crushing cynicism. Amid the hysterical hero-worship and vitriol, this valuable book argues, we can discern a Gazza who was one of us in the most subversively positive sense.
Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Alex is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.