Monday, 28 May 2012

Best gear

Flicking through a new book on the fashion designer Paul Smith [Paul Smith A To Z, Abrams, £18.99] I noticed that along with his predictable love of cyclists one of Smith's sporting heroes was George Best. "I met this amazing footballer from Northern Ireland. He is immediately recognisable by his sideburns and his taste for champagne," he writes.
Best's life is capable of being interpreted in so many different ways but it's possibly not so common now to talk about him as a fashion icon, partly because his look - or the look that we remember him for - was very seventies and for all the Sandbrook-inspired retrospectives going round at the moment the seventies lad isn't a style that's particularly popular (although I have noticed the odd big sideburn in the last couple of years).
And yet starting with Best the way footballers appeared became part of their appeal. As a result, one of the reasons he was so loved was because of his look, and, of course, how that look meshed with his lifestyle and playing style. As Paolo Hewitt said in an interview about his book Fashion and Football a few years ago:  "George Best was an amazing player because he was like that off the field. When he got the ball he wanted to entertain and to play and that carried over into all aspects of his life, his drinking, his womanizing and his clothes."

We were (and perhaps still are) enthralled by the completeness of Best's lifestyle. The fact that he played on and off the field in the same manner. Clearly by the time his problem with alcohol became known it wasn't/isn't so attractive. But he was - as Paul Smith and Paolo Hewitt could attest - a fashion icon for a while.
In the 1960s Best even owned his own clothes store, Best Boutique, in Manchester (he opened it with Man City's Mike Summerbee. You can see it in the opening sequence of the movie version of Jack Rosenthal's The Lovers.
I'd love to know if anyone from Belfast (or their dads or Grandads) made the journey to shop there.

The Fashion of Football by Paolo Hewitt and Mark Baxter is currently available on Kindle

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Joey Boy

What with a Champions League final, the arrival of the Olympic Torch, the countdown to Euro 2012 and even an all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final going on, it's possible that many will overlook the fact that this is a huge weekend for Northern Irish sport.
Of course the Heineken Cup final will be noticed, especially if Ulster manage to upset the odds on Saturday (here's hoping). But the other huge Irish sporting event of the weekend, the North West 200, may not get quite the same coverage. And yet the motorbike road race will attract tens of thousands of people to Northern Ireland's north coast attracted to the speed, roar and rush of the race.
That roar is a soundtrack of my childhood.Growing up in Coleraine as I did, the race was an annual event in the town. But if I'm honest it was never something I looked forward to particularly. There's a family story that as a kid I went to see it and then came down with Mumps the next day. But I doubt that association really explains my disinterest. It's more, I suspect, that motor sports are one of my blind spots. I'm even more indifferent to Formula One.
Even so, I was always aware of the North West 200. It would have been impossible not to be, given how large it figured in local culture. And of course that wasn't just because of the race itself. There was also the fact that one of the greatest motorbike racers lived just down the road.
In Northern Ireland Joey Dunlop is one of the most important sporting figures of the last 40 years. And yet his name is little known outside the province and motorbike circles.
Perhaps that just makes their affection for him all the stronger. A five-times world champion, Dunlop could ride a bit. That was a part of his appeal. But I always thought the fact that he was so Northern Irish helped too:  Northern Irish in his thrawnness, his unwillingness to put on airs and graces and his sometimes comically monosyllabic interviews. And when he did speak the broadness of his Ballymoney accent only cemented his down-home image.
Dunlop is, it's worth adding, the reason I wrote Whose Side Are You On? in the first place. The book began when I read an obituary of Joey's brother Robert during a practice session of the North West 200 in 2008. Robert's death came eight years after his brother's. Joey died when he came off his bike during a race in Tallinn in Estonia in 2000. In Robert's obituary it mentioned that when Joey died his body was brought back to Dublin and then the funeral cortege headed north to Ballymoney.
The journey, though, coincided with a spasm of violence in the north. It was marching season and the refusal to allow Orangemen to march down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown had led to widespread road blocks and confrontations between loyalists and the security forces. As a result the cortege struggled to get to Ballymoney and Robert had to make a public plea to allow his brother's body to be brought home.
Reading that obit in 2008 I suddenly thought that here was an example of how the Troubles had impacted on a Northern Irish sporting story. How many more had that happened to? Very, very many, it turned out four years and more than 300 pages later.
Ironically, though, Dunlop's story is actually one that for the most part was not touched by the Troubles. He was an apolitical figure and motor bike racing was not associated with one side or the other. It was allowed for the most part to just be a sport. The North West 200 itself was only cancelled once because of security fears prompted by the Troubles. Numerically foot-and-mouth had as much of an impact.
 For that reason alone, I'd argue, the race should be celebrated. I hope the weather's kind to those who are going to Coleraine, Portstewart or Portrush this weekend. And have an ice cream in Morelli's for me.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Snooker loopy

"Snooker loopy nuts are we ..."No doubt the current World Championship in Sheffield and on BBC2 is drawing respectable audiences. And if Ronnie O'Sullivan wins this year it will give the sport a fillip. But snooker feels some way distant from it's all-conquering pomp back in the 1980s. Indeed, the very notion of O'Sullivan, Judd Trump and Ali Carter teaming up with the current equivalent of Chas and Dave (Olly Murs maybe?) and getting in the charts is so ridiculous it has a sort of charm to it (not that I'd want to hear the result or anything). But it's ridiculousness does emphasise how far snooker has fallen since those halcyon days.
Or rather maybe it's a reminder of how, for a while, Britain went a little demented over the sport.
In John Landis's glorious 1981 horror movie An American Werewolf In London, if I remember rightly, the American director's had a character trying to watch British telly and finding only ads for the News of the World and darts on the box.
If the film had been made, say, five years later, I suspect Landis may have opted for snooker, so ubiquitous was the sport in the mid-eighties. Indeed it reached its apotheosis in 1985 with the most celebrated final of all, when Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the black ball in the last frame, prompting a letter of praise (among many others) for Taylor from the H Block.
We know that because Donald Trelford, former editor of the Observer, mentioned it in his 1986 book Snookered, a book which itself was a symptom of the game's infiltration of the culture. Indeed the same year also saw the late (and often great) Gordon Burn - best known for his books on Damien Hirst and British serial killers - publish Pocket Money about "Britain's boom-time snooker".
Today only football has the same cultural penetration as snooker had back then. It was inescapable. Not that I wanted to escape it. I was one of the millions who sat up to watch Taylor's incredible victory which seemed at the time a double victory. I could cheer because the winner was a fellow Northern Irishman (and I did), but also because Davis seemed to represent the enemy at the time - he was a Tory for a start. Then there was his mechanistic playing style, that ability of his to grind out results.
And why was that a problem? Well probably because the man who had made snooker the game it was, the man who put the game on the cultural map was never a man for grinding out results.

Alex Higgins won his first World Championship in 1972. "Snooker was never the same again," Clive Everton, the doyen of snooker reporters, told Trelford. Higgins was a very seventies figure in many ways. A lad who liked his drink and liked women and liked showing off. He was a George Best for the baize (the temptation to link the two was one I couldn't avoid in Whose Side Are You On?). He even carried with him,the Daily Mail said at the time, "the raw sense of the streets".
That, of course, was always the problem with Higgins. His emotional volatility and vulnerability saw him drink too much and fight too often. Most notoriously, he once threatened that he'd have his fellow countryman Taylor shot the next time Taylor was in Northern Ireland. Given that Taylor was a Catholic and Higgins a Protestant it's difficult not to see a sectarian element in such a dumb sentiment.
Higgins was always a problematic hero. His neediness, his kneejerk anti-authority attitude, the man's emotional explosiveness meant he did a lot of collateral damage in his life. But bloody hell could he play. He brought a louche danger to the staidest of sports and a jerky nervous energy that radiated off the TV screen. The afterglow of that hung around him, carried him through his own excesses and meant his death prompted an outpouring of genuine sorrow in Belfast.
I'm not sure if it's a sign that I'm now unmistakeably middle-aged but these days I find myself rather liking Steve Davis. Yes he was a Tory but he is wryly funny and loves his soul music. I think he'd be good company. I'm not sure in his later years you could say the same about Higgins. For some sense of what he could be like I'd recommend you read the first chapter of Bill Borrows's excellent biography of the man.
But without him would we be watching snooker in the first place?