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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, November 25, 2005
    The night they liberalised the licensing laws
    The night they liberalised the licensing laws the news vendor's poster, outside the Railway Inn at Euston Station, stopped us in our tracks. It read, "George Best Slips Away". And for a moment we thought that meant he'd died. Until on closer inspection of the Evening Standard it became clear that actually it meant, he's still alive but we wanted a dramatic headline to lure you into buying a paper.

    A moan about the dubious methods of the journalistic profession was short-lived because on turning the corner of one of the city's busiest commuter corridors, by the entrance to that pub, we almost fell over a man lying under a ragged blanket. At his waist, an abandoned empty bottle. Around his exposed head and feet, the cold of the night. A doubly-abandoned man, self-abandoned through drink, bypassed by those of us with warm coats and tickets to other, more welcoming places.

    George has since died, and I've been moved reading Gordon Burn's Guardian piece The Long Goodbye, which is an unsentimental account by one who knew him well, of the way he lived most of his life - drinking, self-abandoned, alone:

    Eamon Dunphy, a teammate in the early 60s, has described how Best always liked bars that functioned as "a home for those who didn't belong anywhere else ... Bars where human vulnerability was not frowned upon, was, on the contrary, celebrated." Through the eclipse years of the 1980s and 90s, Best could invariably be tracked down to a tiny local tucked away between the river and the Kings Road in London.

    At his corner table at the Phene, half-hidden but with an unobstructed view of the door, he didn't invite conversation and, if the look he shot them over his glasses didn't deter unwanted visitors from invading his space, he didn't mind letting them have the rough edge of his tongue. The Phene had practical advantages: his friends lied on his behalf and said he wasn't there when wives, girlfriends and creditors were in hot pursuit on the phone; the bar staff laced his "orange juice" with vodka and tipped brandies into his coffee in the periods when he was supposed to be drying out.

    But it had a deeper, totemic kind of significance which left his wife puzzling over "his constant desire to be at the smelly old Phene Arms". The Phene was the centre of his existence and he was content to spend entire days there, the days silting up into weeks and months, with the occasional foray to the betting shop, the off-licence on the corner, now and again (food was never high on the list of priorities) to Pucci's pizzeria on the Kings Road.

    I can't help thinking that extended drinking hours will most affect those who live lives like Best's - their families will see even less of them than before, places like the Phene will see far more. I can't help remembering that man on the Euston pavement. And I will never forget that George Best passed away on the night they liberalised the licensing laws.