Paul Gascoigne has recently been hitting the headlines again for his battles with alcoholism and depression. Several sympathetic articles have appeared about Gazza’s plight and the thing that has struck me about them is that as a society we are morbidly fascinated by tales of genius squandered. Sport has had its share of “mavericks”, down the years there has been George Best, Alex Higgins and Ronnie O’Sullivan to name just a few. It is a similar story with many popular “icons”; in music we have seen the recent death of Amy Winehouse, who in death has been sainted by the media. Tragic and a waste of talent her death may be, but then the death of any young person seems just as wrong. Rightly, she has been praised for her great talent but, during her life, the coverage of her problems often felt intrusive and frequently bordered on the vitriolic. On the one hand certain elements of the media have painted her the classic “troubled artist”, with articles revelling in her joining the “27 Club”, whilst others have condemned her lifestyle and sometimes erratic live performances. This reveals a troubling trend in the media of looking upon drug problems and mental health issues with a strange form of romanticism as if it is a natural by-product of wayward genius.
Another recent press anti-hero is Pete Doherty. Put very simply he is a young man with an illness, who happens to play the guitar. However his media portrayal sways from awe-struck reverence at his wayward “genius” to furious condemnation at him being a waster and drug addict. From Brian Wilson to Syd Barratt, music’s past has been full of troubled genius but what we seem unwilling to confront in all these cases is the stark reality of mental illness. Depression and addiction are far from romantic but tragic. An already vulnerable person has enough to deal with without a trial by media.
Why then are we fascinated with these people and why aren’t we more willing to stare the ogre of mental fragility in the face? We like to wax lyrical about the fine line between genius and madness but stumble when it comes to offering up to the public the real issues these people face. We do not like to say the word “depression” because it is not an easy thing to understand.
The public perception of Gazza has gone from adoration of a childlike merry prankster, encouraging him to play up for the camera, to rightful criticism when he committed domestic violence. We have then been bewildered as he phoned into a local radio station claiming to know Raoul Moat and recently we have had an outpouring of public sympathy at the sight of a clearly troubled and frail looking man. The puzzling thing about the recent media response is that Gazza has been in his current state more or less since he retired from the game. If you look back at any interview or newspaper article on him in the last 10 years he cuts a similar figure, so what has changed? Maybe the prospect of him dying has finally awoken people to his troubled mental state.
As a society I think we have to take responsibility for a culture that builds people up and then savagely tears them down when we tire of them. What is deemed to be innocent tomfoolery one day is branded a squandering of talent the next. We have to face up to our fickleness and see that we have created a lot of misery for these people ourselves. We have contributed to their plight by gossiping, by tuning into the “real lives” style documentaries and by buying the newspapers and magazines. All this has contributed to building the savage cult of celebrity.
How many people have volunteered for the Samaritans on the back of these sorts of stories or volunteered for drug and alcohol charities? How many people have even tried to see both sides of the story and looked into the facts about alcoholism? We all have preconceptions or in-built prejudices, it is human nature, but how many of us have done anything to challenge these preconceptions? Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” This is so true; we should all try it and challenge the inaccuracies and agendas of certain elements of the media and the prejudices within ourselves.
I know how alcoholism devastates people’s lives and have seen first hand the awful effects and consequences of domestic violence. My personal experiences and the recent portrayal of Gazza in the media, has left me reflecting on the need for society to be less reactive, more understanding and willing to engage in an honest conversation about these issues.
When I sat down to write this piece I didn’t intend to discuss mental illness or alcoholism at all. I wanted to explain what Gazza, the football player, meant to me as a young boy. However I felt that discussing the aesthetic values of a game alongside more serious issues like mental health and addiction would trivialise these matters.
I think we could all be a bit more humble about our own failings. “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone”.