from John Nicholson

Gazza Made Breathing Worthwhile…

I’d been drinking all night in the Fellside Arms in Whickham, Gateshead when the police turned up at my house at 11.30pm and broke the news that my dad had shuffled off this mortal coil and gone to meet the choir invisible while watching TV sitting on the sofa. It was a bit of a shock, but I soon got used to the idea. It took about ten seconds. “Well that’s a few quid saved at Christmas,” I said, rather wittily I thought considering I was eight pints into a night of debauchery. “It’s okay, we weren’t close,” I reassured the nervous PC, in case he thought I was mad. “You’ve taken it well,” said the copper, relieved. Obviously he’d feared he’d have a weeping son on his hands. Breaking news of a death in the family must be a policeman’s worst job. But I didn’t weep and I wasn’t really upset, it just seemed inevitable.
Like a lot of northern men, my dad was emotionally repressed from birth, and fighting Rommel in the desert aged 18 hadn’t helped him get in touch with his inner self. Indeed, slaughtering thousands of conscripted German lads who were much like him only with a smarter uniform probably emotionally scarred him for life. By comparison, I’d had it very easy and I knew it. Afterwards, it fell to me to go and clear out the house in which I’d grown up. I unlocked the back door and went into the kitchen just as I had done ten thousand times as a kid. The air was still and stale. All the life had gone. All those years of activity. All those over-amplified Pink Floyd and Deep Purple albums. All gone now. Drained away with my youth and his life. Sitting on the kitchen table was a mug with a dried-up stain of tea in the bottom. It must have been his last-ever mug of tea. So many teas. Every day for 65 years, day after day after day. A procession of tea leading inexorably to this last tea. Tea all through a childhood in the five-to-a-bed back-to-back slums of Hull, all through the evils and comradeship of war, all through Elvis and the Beatles and Zeppelin, through Raich Cater, Bobby Moore and Stan Bowles. All through me, my music, my guitar and my bolshy attitude. And now here in 1987 were the remnants of the very last one. He had drank it, probably while looking out the kitchen window at the garden, gone into the lounge, put on the TV, sat down and his heart had just stopped.
Quickly. Massively. Suddenly. He was. And then. He wasn’t.
Standing there looking at that mug, the finality of it hit me powerfully; the mortality of all living things. We think we’re so big and important but we’re not. We come and we go and leave little trace and touch precious few people before that last hot beverage. Most of us anyway. That was my dad; like a million dads – alright, but not much really.
You couldn’t say that of Paul Gascoigne. My dad was just an ordinary bloke who lived an ordinary life. It was largely unexceptional and certainly for as long as I knew him, a little dull. It was a tremendous example to me – an example to avoid: Don’t live like this, it’s sh*te. Eventually I shed the bitterness and took that away with me. I’m still grateful. But I didn’t and still don’t miss him, because he didn’t give out enough to miss. That probably sounds harsh, but it’s true, which isn’t to say I feel malice toward him. Quite the opposite. He came and he went. It’s okay. It is the natural way of things. But it’s different for people like Paul Gascoigne. His life is public because of his achievements. I heard people discussing his problems last week and some were saying, ‘well he’s had all the money and help and he’s just got himself to blame for not sorting himself out’. That really annoyed me.
Art and artists are what make life worth living. Without them, life is just a dull procession of compulsions, obligations and occasional sticky intimacy. And Paul was without doubt a football artist; an artist of the highest order. Without him our lives would have been less bright, less fun, and less joyous. Few of us can ever make that claim. I saw him in the early days playing at St James’ Park, laughing and joking his way through games while playing unconsciously brilliant football. A few years later when he was playing for Spurs against Portsmouth in a cup tie, I saw him single-handedly destroy the opposition with a display of high art footballing; at one point laughing out loud as he galloped past a hapless defender on the wing. Then there was Italia ’90. It wasn’t the tears, it was the football. He was brilliant. And raw. Very, very raw. He was a kind of footballing idiot savant; unprepared for life’s complexities and unable to deal with them. Gazza; a football Rain Man, and only the game could absorb his attention, keep the demons at bay and cure a mind that was disturbed from a childhood cursed by trauma. He was a force of nature, as elemental, raw, thrilling and scary as a hurricane. In his pomp he was rock ‘n’ roll football made extant. To watch him made breathing worthwhile. But it seems you don’t get brilliance for free. Whether it’s Nick Drake, Van Gogh, Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath, Spike Milligan or George Best, in amongst the genius is craziness and self-destruction. We take so much from brilliant talents like Paul. We rely on them to make our lives more enjoyable; we rely on them to entertain us and to make us feel good. We take a hell of a lot from them; maybe we take too much. Maybe we unconsciously take their sanity away as well as their art and as such we are in some way complicit in the development of their madness.
So we have a responsibility to be complicit in understanding their problems, to not give up on them, to believe in them, to offer support in whatever way is possible, because people like Paul are special; they are the mortals who have to go beyond, who are drawn instinctively to the edge by their own nature, and we need them in order to ward off mundane life as we make our inevitable progression to that last mug of tea. They are the people who we celebrate, who define life itself, who don’t just come and go. When Gary Mabbutt called for support for Paul from the ‘football community’ saying he’s ‘one of us’, he called it right. But not just the PFA or the FA, we are all part of the football community. I know we can’t do much in one sense – we can’t be his doctors – but we can send our collective good wishes and love to this most troubled of football men. We can abstain from judgement or cynicism. You know, he gave us so much that we are still in his debt. The idea that’s been touted around that he just needs to be involved in football as a coach or motivator for kids is to totally misunderstand what’s happening to a person who is coming apart at the seams. It’s not some sort of response to boredom or the refuge of the lazy or dissolute. It’s far more fundamental and long term than that. This is soul deep stuff.
My mam wasn’t a genius but, like Paul, she was sectioned. She was a proper old school nutter; a paranoid schizophrenic – a really cracking one too – she thought electronic devices listened to her and that food, especially omelettes for some reason, were poisoned, even ones she had cooked herself. She was a rotten cook, like. Her madness drove her, us and everyone else crazy. It was intolerable. Death made more sense than this life. Eventually North Tees General Hospital, as it was called at the time, zapped her brain with electricity. ECT therapy is, according to some reports, being discussed as an option for Paul. If so, a very different man might emerge from the Middleton St George hospital (Middleton is a lovely place set in rural Upper Teesdale; a place of infinite nature and raw sanity) If my mother’s experience is anything to go by, it wipes out about 75% of who you were and leaves a somewhat blank but more content person behind. Perhaps it can erase the self-destructive complex construct that was Gazza and leave plain Paul from Dunston to live in peace. A man who is tortured by his own mind is a terrible thing to witness. Who amongst us fans of football, of art, of life, wouldn’t wish Paul some contentment in his mind, contentment at least equal to the pleasure he gave us all on the football field. And that was a lot. More than is possible to express. Get well son. Sooner or later. Either way. From terrace to touchline, we wish you well.
Howay the lad.