- 10 Sep 20
They are three iconic heroes from working class East Belfast. Sadly, two have fallen – but Van the Man is still going strong...
“Too long in exile/Just like James Joyce, baby/Too long in exile/Just like Samuel Beckett, baby/Too long in exile/Just like Oscar Wilde/Too long in exile/Just like George Best, baby/|Too long in exile/Just like Alex Higgins, baby/Too long in exile.”
It was apt that Van enclosed George and Alex in his list of exiled Irish geniuses. Northern Irish, to be exact. A trinity of proletarian Belfast Prods, from Bloomfield. Cregagh and Sandy Row.
The other thing they had in common is that none was ever at ease with celebrity.
I saw Alex late one night in a shop in Great Victoria Street, just across from the Europa, a year or two before he died. He was in a queue of half a dozen or so, shuffling forward towards the till, gaunt as a ghost, with a cue-case clutched under his oxter. Coin by coin, he counted out and fumbled the price of 20 cigarettes across to the woman behind the counter. Nobody paid him any heed. Maybe they didn’t recognise him. Maybe some of them did but chose not to acknowledge him.
He brushed past me at the door on his way out. I thought I should say something but didn’t know what. I shouted after him, “Fair play to you, Alex.” He spun around on the instant with a smile like his face had suddenly been splashed with sunshine, then scurried out across the road and along towards Sandy Row.
I remember Alex being interviewed by Terry Wogan just after he’d won the world championship in 1982, his wife, Lynne, by his side, her hand on his shoulder. They’d just gotten back together after their latest split. “It’s great to see both of you smiling,” offered the affable Limerick man, before daring to ask, “What went wrong?”
“Don’t ask me,” snarled Alex. “Ask her, it was her that flew the coop.”
No gloss, no cover, no camouflage.
He was a drunk and a wife-beater and wasn’t above sectarian insult. But, perilous as it is to canvass the possibility, there was always an innocence about him as well. He hadn’t a clue how to comport himself in the world his brilliance had ushered him into.
It is often said of those who have found fame and fortune that they haven’t changed a bit. It’s scarcely ever true. But it was true of Alex, and there’s the pity.
George Best recalled in “Blessed” - one of his churned-out, dragged-out painful “autobiographies” - that, growing up in the Cregagh estate, “We used to get a few taunts from the Catholics, calling us Proddy bastards, and we would call them Fenians. It was a bit like being a member of the Rotary Club or the Freemasons.”
Innocence doesn’t go much deeper. The rough realities of Belfast life had entirely passed him by.
George signed professional for United in May 1963, a month before the release of the Beatles’ first LP. Next to nothing had happened in the North over the previous decade. Nineteen sixty-three was a great year for a teenager to be getting out of Northern Ireland.
No one who saw George in his full flowering can ever forget, because it’s on permanent play on a loop in the mind, his feint and dribble, his slalom and surge, the way he’d pause and sway and then spasm in an instant through a cluster of defenders to arrive unannounced in the area, his insouciance, his daring, his beauty. As the Troubles surfaced and swelled across the North, George was picking up the Ballon d’Or, European Footballer of the Year for 1968.
He was openly delighted to be dubbed “the fifth Beatle,” swamped in adulation, but wholly uncertain how to handle it. He skipped and danced through a decade with United, the awe of all Europe. But he found when he’d sloughed off Belfast that he had nowhere else to go. He became unsteady on his feet when he wasn’t on the field. He was eventually to leave Man U in a blaze of booze and stupidity, hired himself out at a grand a game to any bedraggled outfit looking for a superstar to swank it up for an afternoon.
He tumbled into alcoholism, embarrassed himself in interviews, battered his wife, seemed incapable of understanding the sometime vileness of his behaviour.
He had all the grace of Nureyev, the inelegance of Jake La Motta.
Van has re-ennobled them both. It might be facile to say that he caught them when they were falling like any brother would. But not so far from the truth as to be entirely outlandish.
Van never got lost. He wandered the world but remained rooted securely in Belfast. He was sure of himself as he hithered and thithered, tracked every tradition, embraced every genre. There was nothing in art that Was alien to him. He brought it all back home, in mystical songs of the streets where he’d scampered in childhood. “I’ll tell me ma when I get home, the boys won’t leave the girls alone.” He knew all along he’d get home. He’d never strayed far.
Van can look back across three quarters of a century with some satisfaction that he has held his own town and its Protestant working-class component up for inspection of its largely unacknowledged glory and in the process has reminded us how precious were the other Belfast boys he stood on the brink with back at the beginning.