Calum Best's heartfelt letter to his late father George Best
"It’s been a tough journey getting to like myself enough to say, ‘This is who I am,’ But I also want the world to know that I’m dead proud to be George Best’s son". Calum Best on his relationship with his father and his father's drinking problem
I did know you loved me, but it would have meant so much if you could have shown me. I think often about the relationship we could have built together; the fun we’d have had.
It hurts me how much we both missed out.
When I talk about what your drinking did to me, I don’t want to diss you, but I think it’s important the world knows where I’m coming from. I wish I could take you back in time and introduce you to NACOA [National Association for Children of Alcoholics] so you could get help with your drinking and save yourself.
You could have had such a great second chapter to your life after football. And I’d have been by your side, loving you as I always have, as you grew older.
AN ENGAGING SMILE FILLS CALUM BEST’S FACE...
as he bounds into a restaurant on the King’s Road, London. He’s ten minutes late for our interview, but has the best possible excuse. He’d been stressed and unsure about our planned conversation about his late father George, and how alcohol got in the way of him being a father. Calum had then bumped into his mother Angie – who lives in Oxfordshire, but was in London on business – and she’d taken him for coffee and pointed out that now, more than ever, he has a valuable reason for telling his tale.
Since early last year, Calum has been a patron of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA) – a charity that helps some of the 1.3 million British children who have alcohol-dependent parents. When he talks publicly about what happened during his early years, he helps other affected youngsters come forward for help.
Calum got involved with the charity after making a BBC documentary, Brought Up By Booze, that explored the harsh realities of growing up with an alcoholic parent. During filming in 2009, he met the children of alcoholics and had a session with a counsellor at a rehabilitation centre. “Within three minutes of starting to talk to her, I was in tears,” he says. “I hadn’t cried since Dad died and I bawled. I felt so much better.”
So when the documentary took Calum to NACOA’s headquarters in Bristol – where it operates a helpline allowing children and adults to talk about, and find out how to get help for, the problems caused by their parents’ alcohol abuse – he was well aware what a valuable service they offered.
Calum sat with one of the volunteers manning the phones. She told him how even elderly people would call to talk about the emotional trauma their parent’s boozing – and subsequent behaviour, such as physical abuse – had caused.
“I know how much what Dad did hurt me and filled me with demonic anger,” he says. “I’m sure if there’d been a charity like NACOA, it would have helped.”
Growing Up With George Best
George Best was addicted to drink before Calum was even born in 1981. The Manchester United legend and strikingly good-looking ladies’ man had been a heavy boozer since the late 1960s. The newspapers suggested that Baby Best could save George from the bottle but, within months, Angie, his first wife, had to admit it hadn’t happened.
There are two photographs from those early years that haunt Calum. They show the potential that George had to be the hands-on, caring dad Calum has spent his life yearning for.
“One is of him washing me in the bath as a small child. In the other, I’m sleeping on his chest,” says Calum. He hesitates, his voice growing shaky: “But Mum has another picture of Dad that tells how it was so much of the time. He is raising his hands to the friends gathered around him while I’m there tugging at his leg, trying to get his attention.”
When Calum was five, his parents divorced and Angie took him to live in Los Angeles. They moved in with Cher (Angie was her personal trainer) but Calum still made regular visits to the UK to see George.
“Mum explained that he drank and it was problematic, but she never wanted to stop me going,” Calum says. “Besides I always wanted, desperately, to have father-son times to cherish.”
But all too often it didn’t work out that way. “He’d take me to pubs most of the time. If I asked if we could leave, he’d say, ‘Can’t you see I’m having a drink with mates?’ When I was big enough, I’d often have to carry him home and tuck him into bed.”
In the pubs, the locals would tell me how proud he was of me, I used to think: then why do you choose drink over me?
On one occasion, when Calum was just 11 years old, George took him to his first Manchester United game. After the match, he went on a drinking session and left the youngster alone in a hotel room, with only staff members to talk to.
“He came back a day-and-a-half later, but I didn’t dare ask, ‘Where have you been?’ He always hated it if I made him feel guilty and would have probably disappeared again.”
Calum kept returning to see his father, daring to hope that there might have been a transformation. He knew George, whose mother Ann had died of alcoholism, had shown the desire to give up drink, using stomach pellets and visiting Alcoholics Anonymous. But nothing worked.
“In the pubs, the locals would tell me how proud he was of me,” says Calum. “I used to think, Then why do you choose drink over me?”
“I now understand better how alcoholics push away everyone for the next drink, believing it will bring salvation. And Dad was from a Belfast culture where you were a ‘pussy’ if you refused a drink.
Remembering the good times
“There were good times. When I stayed with Dad I couldn’t wait for him to wake up each morning because, although he started drinking immediately, there were a couple of hours when he was just tipsy and witty. And everywhere we went, people still saw him as a hero. I felt proud. But we never did normal father-son stuff – no cuddling. He didn’t talk about feelings.”
Calum returned to live in the UK aged 21, by which point his father was very ill and in need of a liver transplant. Calum hoped to get to know him properly before it was too late. “Dad phoned once and said, ‘Bestie’ – we called each other that – ‘I’m a bit down. Will you meet me?’ So I went to the Fulham pub where he was. I had never drunk full-on with him before, but he really wanted me to join him. I remember the brandies coming. We were laughing, there were girls coming by and flirting. It was all fun – we were both pretty gone.
“Then I gave him a jokey hit and said, ‘Hey, Bestie…’ His glasses fell off and broke and he just flipped. He shouted, ‘What are you doing, you little s***? You are not my son. I hate you,’ and he stormed out. I was devastated. That night I went out with mates and got wrecked.”
But it was when his father died in November 2005 that Calum “lost the plot completely”. So long as George was alive, he’d hoped that they’d get close, but that hope was gone.
After George Best's death
“I stopped bothering about my health, my appearance, my good friends. I had been doing some classy modelling work with the likes of photographer Mario Testino, but I began doing drugs, drinking, going with the wrong women, hanging out in clubs, waking up with a hangover and doing very little.”
His mother realised he needed help and came to London in 2007 to try to get him steady.
“Luckily, I had an epiphany, looked at myself and thought, Urgh, this is nasty,” says Calum.
He’d been appearing in a range of tacky reality-TV shows but Calum decided he wanted to do something more worthwhile, so he went to acting college and started looking for better TV projects.
Calum Best's charity work
Then, last year, he trekked through Vietnam in aid of The Children’s Trust, and decided to take on the NACOA role. As patron, Calum – now 30 – attends corporate fundraising events and gives talks about the charity’s work. He is able to use his own experience to make it clear just how serious and damaging it is to have an alcoholic parent.
Calum recalls a recent talk he gave to a travel-industry audience that’s typical of his work. “I wondered how they would take it, as most of them were drinking away, but I just said what I felt I had to about parents needing to be aware of what excess boozing may do. I like to think some of them thought about it. They were all very friendly and enthusiastic afterwards and wanted to know more about the charity.”
Calum’s infectious smile spreads across his face as he tells me that at last he feels good about life. Working with the charity has made him feel accepted by people who understand what he’s been through, and that his father’s drinking was not his fault – something many children can assume.
“It’s been a tough journey getting to like myself enough to say, ‘This is who I am,’ ” he says. “But I also want the world to know that I’m dead proud to be George Best’s son.”