Paul Gascoigne, poetry and the nature of genius

The poet, critic and essayist Ian Hamilton wrote just four biographies: of poets Robert Lowell and Matthew Arnold, author J.D. Salinger – and Gazza.

By Alasdair McKillop

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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There is something absolutely intoxicating, still, about watching a player with the complete conviction that the ball is their property. As he surged through the melting Aberdeen defence in the hot sunshine, his arms threshing, Gascoigne had that conviction: he powered towards the goal with a sort of gallus brutality.
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He was commendably stoical when he heard from one of Gascoigne’s representatives that his face was Gazza’s dartboard because the player had been warned there was a sneering poet on his trail.

“There is an ordinary life, an ordinary world, which we all have to engage with. And the truth is that the more creative the person the less successful their practical relations with that world turn out to be.”

– Ian Hamilton.

Ian Hamilton once described himself as an “above-average soccer bore”. He was a stats guy, a names and places guy. But he knew, too, that this learning had value only in certain circles. “Soccer scholarship cut no ice in the examination halls of life and it helped not at all with the girls”, he wrote. “‘I thought you were supposed to be a poet,’ they would say. ‘But soccer,’ I’d protest, ‘is poetry – well, at its best, it can be, or it nearly is…’”

Hamilton was born in 1938 in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. His father, a civil engineer who built sewers, and his mother were Scottish and they moved south two years before he was born. The family relocated to Darlington when Hamilton was 13 and his father died from cancer soon afterwards. As a poet, Hamilton was like a tap that would very occasionally allow a drop of boiling water to escape. The memories of his father dying and his father’s death would become the subject of some of the small number of reticent and self-detached poems he published during his life. In Colours, he recalled his father saying: “Before morning, your dear Daddy will be Ibrox blue.” It was a joke that also counted as a premonition: he didn’t see out the night. After his death, an auntie who owned several shops in Glasgow would send parcels of fish to Darlington by train every Monday. Glasgow, though vaguely, was somehow there at the death.

Hamilton went up to Oxford in 1958 after completing National Service and it was there, in 1962, that he founded The Review, a poetry magazine that ran for ten years. Emboldened by very clear opinions about the qualities that distinguished the best writing from the ranks below it, Hamilton developed a reputation as an astute and unforgiving editor. For a time, he served as Fiction and Poetry Editor at the Times Literary Supplement before the first issue of The New Review was published in 1974. A glossy monthly magazine, it attracted big names and helped launch the careers of writers – Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes – who would remember it fondly when they had moved up and on. Despite support from the Arts Council, the magazine’s finances were in a bad way by the time it closed in 1979. Thereafter, Hamilton had to establish an identity separate from the cycle of editorial work. He was a sought-after reviewer and essayist, but writing biographies became his most demanding obligation. His life of the American poet Robert Lowell was well received but a book about J.D. Salinger gave rise to legal proceedings before it was published. The United States Supreme Court eventually settled the dispute and the book had to be reworked. Aside from the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, he wrote at length about only one more figure before his death in 2001: Paul Gascoigne.

Hamilton wrote a long profile of Gascoigne for the Autumn 1993 edition of Granta, with the essay subsequently published as a book called Gazza Italia. As the title suggests, it focused on Gascoigne’s time with Lazio where he was described as the poet and the peasant of the free kick. Revised and updated editions would appear under the title of the original Granta piece: Gazza Agonistes. Hamilton was writing in the post-Fever Pitch era characterised, in his words, by “rampant soccer cred”. By then, the soccer bores were proudly displaying what Hamilton saw as their dysfunctions, although he credited Nick Hornby with at least having the self-awareness to know was what was on display. Hamilton had literary credentials that the new-school bores could never hope to match despite fattening their offerings with pop-culture and lit-crit junk food. But the new cultural dispensation – the remarkable rehabilitation of football in ground softened, at least partly, by Gascoigne’s tears – led even him to some unlikely places and reviewing John ‘Bomber’ Brown’s autobiography for the London Review of Books was perhaps the unlikeliest of the lot. In the same review, he joyously labelled a Celtic book with ideas above its station as a “muddle of transdisciplinary pretentiousness” and there’s nothing like a really great critic going in high and hard when you feel yourself to be on the same team.

Football then poetry. It’s impossible not to conclude they were connected in Hamilton’s mind by the circumstances of his own life as opposed to any higher considerations about art and its forms. When he was 15, he developed a heart condition that he was unable or unwilling to be specific about in later life. It followed a bout of scarlet fever and was followed in turn by a ban on playing football.

He responded to this absence by retreating – or was he banished? – to the library: words now formed the lines inside which he moved. Football and poetry. Later, Hamilton wondered: “Would one really score a wonderful goal than write a wonderful poem? Or do they have a lot in common? My admiration for certain footballers does have a lot in common with my admiration for certain poets, on the ‘How did he do that?’ level. Something that simply takes your breath away, and yet is a combination of high discipline and spontaneous instinct, in a highly competitive situation.” If there was equilibrium in his questioning, a sense of openness and perspective, it probably wasn’t achieved immediately. But there was a sort of necessity for the two things – football and poetry – to be capable of equal value, equal beauty, even. He once claimed football was part of his emotional life while poetry was part of his literary life but in both he was searching for things that were real.

Hamilton’s view of football seems to have combined an instinctive romanticism with a more detached view of the absurdities the game could encourage. He first saw Gascoigne in 1987 when he was playing for Newcastle. Describing him as “plump, twitchy and pink-faced”, Hamilton “didn’t exactly fall for him that day” but he was susceptible to falling given a little time and further incentive. A Tottenham Hotspur fan, Glenn Hoddle had been his man and before that, more profoundly, it had been Jimmy Greaves. He briefly auditioned future Rangers captain Richard Gough before deciding a defender couldn’t supply what he needed in a football hero. “It wasn’t until Paul Gascoigne came along,” he remembered, “that I found another player whom I had those Greaves-like feelings about. Here was somebody who took your breath away.”

Taking your breath away, Gazza could do that: a part of me is still breathing on that day in April 1996. As a boy of eight, I gazed down from the Club Deck at Ibrox, over and around the shoulders of all the men, as Gascoigne scored a hat-trick in a 3-1 comeback victory for Rangers over Aberdeen. Eight-in-a-row was secured that day. There is something absolutely intoxicating, still, about watching a player with the complete conviction that the ball is their property. As he surged through the melting Aberdeen defence in the hot sunshine, his arms threshing, Gascoigne had that conviction: he powered towards the goal with a sort of gallus brutality. Hamilton recalled the build-up to a remarkably similar goal Gazza scored against Luton while playing for Spurs: “Gascoigne got the ball deep inside his own half and moved forward, head high, chest out, arms spread, as if to say: ‘Come on, then, take it off me if you can’.” His first goal on that day at Ibrox – “past Dodds, past Windass and past the goalkeeper!” – was special as well. It’s permissible, of course, to question the brilliance of play like that so long as you don’t mind disqualifying yourself as a football fan.

Another part of the appeal, although he did not dwell on this, was that Gascoigne’s story took key elements of Hamilton’s and reassembled them in the light of publicity he demurred from pursuing out of philosophical conviction. Did Hamilton secretly imagine Gascoigne’s career to be the one he might have enjoyed if his heart and the library hadn’t interfered? There was the north-east connection, the Spurs crossover and finally Gascoigne’s move to Glasgow where he wore the Ibrox blue Hamilton’s father mentioned just before he died. The move to Rangers occurred several years after Hamilton had become infatuated but that must surely have heightened his sense there was a strange wind blowing. Discarding sentimentality, he doubted the transfer would be of much benefit to either party, and there were the usual concerns about the quality and generosity of spirit in Scottish football. Gascoigne, however, seemed to enjoy his happiest and most successful spell when he was at Rangers, even if that part of his career continues to be downplayed in England.

“In sports it’s quite clear who are the geniuses and who are the ones who are just quite good, who’ve been well trained,” Hamilton observed and he believed Gascoigne was in the first category. Football is comfortable with the concept of genius, partly because it is lazy in its use of language and partly because it is extremely successful at passing it on to new generations of fans, meaning the word is part of the accepted lexicon. If we want to get all heavy-breathing about it we might speculate about the word’s connection to the working-class roots of football. Maybe it was once a demand for recognition; recognition not of the fact that someone from the working-class could rise to be considered a genius in a field like science or music or literature but because they had transcendental ability in a field that belonged, as it did then, to the workers. But would we be so quick to use the word about someone mending shoes or fixing clocks, trimming sheet-metal or fabric, stitching seams or digging them out?

When Hamilton told a group of journalists he was writing a fan’s portrait of Gascoigne they asked why he would bother when his subject could only think with his feet. Here was the idea of the football genius coming into conflict with a more common understanding or application of the word. Hamilton was naturally aware of chasm between Paul Gascoigne the footballer and Paul Gascoigne the man: “The football was so highly sophisticated and intelligent, and yet the player, in Gascoigne’s case, was a fool in many ways,” he wrote. But his knowledge of the world of literature made him open to the idea that exceptional ability could be surrounded by chaos like a flower in a junk yard. More than that, there was the possibility the two might be connected and this might be a powerful part of the attraction. Reflecting on unfounded speculation that Gascoigne might have a form of Tourette’s Syndrome, Hamilton confessed “there was much literary appeal in the idea that his yob-nonsense and his soccer artistry might be clinically conjoined”.

There’s a danger in football’s acceptance of the word genius when fans are already inclined to make so many allowances based on little more than the wearing of a jersey once or twice a week. In Gascoigne’s case, there was an almost tragic willingness to accept various levels of bad behaviour –from poor weight management up to appalling domestic abuse – out of some misguided notion that the personality and the physical prowess were linked so by stifling one you would stifle the other. But the logic here isn’t so much faulty as non-existent: wasn’t Brian Laudrup also a genius? Hamilton was generous in his toleration of Gascoigne’s behaviour when it was confined to mischief or low-level disarray, partly because his own personal life was a study in such low-level disarray. He was commendably stoical, for example, when he heard from one of Gascoigne’s representatives that his face was Gazza’s dartboard because the player had been warned there was a sneering poet on his trail.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be clearly observed that what Gascoigne needed, what was in his best interests, was less not more rope. Did he not win the League Cup for Rangers with two second-half goals against Hearts after Walter Smith had him up against the dressing room wall at the interval? In terms of motivation, this was different from the hysterical censure visited upon him by the tabloid press when it wasn’t treating him like some sort of Princess Diana with dirty knees. This ebbing and flowing must have been disastrous for a player who confessed the prospect of reading the Sunday papers made him nervous. Gascoigne’s was a fragile identity even before he became a celebrity, thereafter he could appear like a creature summoned out of ink rather than a man with proper roots. Speaking about the idea of genius as applied to the literary world, Hamilton once said: “what’s at issue is the idea of a life given over to creativity; and the belief that because a person believes himself to be possessed of some profound and special gift, he has certain rights to live his life in a certain way.” Something in this can be applied to Gascoigne but not precisely: it was others who invested most in the idea that Gascoigne possessed something special so he was offered a certain leeway that wouldn’t have been offered to less talented players.

The indulgences, rather than allowing Gascoigne to flourish on the pitch, ultimately thwarted his full potential as he succumbed to poor conditioning, suspensions and self-sabotage. In the midst of Gascoigne’s career, Hamilton recalled “some feared…that he so little understood the nature of his own genius that he would be unable to protect it from the excesses to which his personality was irreversibly inclined”. Indeed, there is a tone of anxiety in his writing about Gascoigne because he knew, maybe from having encountered it elsewhere, that “there was something in his personality that ran counter to the fantasies his soccer gifts induced.” The key question, when you allow genius to burn at the expense of the surrounding life, the practical world, is what happens when that genius is used up? “Wasn’t the whole drift of Gazza’s story,” Hamilton worried, “a drift towards some calamitous comeuppance, some terrible bringing-down-to-earth?” And it was.

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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