I have always been a massive George Best (and football) fan. This is one story which happened by chance and I simply could not have contemplated would happen. The mistakes we make in life and the way fate falls makes life so interesting. One Monday in Los Angeles during July 2007 I found myself in a pub owned by George Best, and only because of the following series of events, which if even one of them hadn’t occurred I would never have this story to tell:
– I happened to decide to do a World Tour in 2007
– I happened to choose Los Angeles for no reason other than it was a slightly cheaper and more obvious route to New Zealand from there
– I randomly ended up in Los Angeles the very day that David Beckham had his first US training session
– I randomly decided to stay in the Venice Beach Cotel Hostel by Venice Beach
– I stupidly got off the bus at 4th street instead of 4th avenue
– I risked myself getting a bus through Compton as the only white man I saw for miles
– I chose the North Stand to sit in during the training session
AND the most telling twist of fate:
– I later moved to the front row for no reason
– Once there I asked an older chap to “please can ye get a wee photy of me?”
(That man was Steve and he is the reason behind this post’s existence)
So in some kind of dreamlike fashion, I found myself in Los Angeles with a gustingly hot sun beating down on my pale Northern Irish skin as I chilled the fuck out from the world of PR in the “city of angels.” It was obvious that I would bring football into my trip to LA. I only took one book with me on my world trip, and that happened to be “Blessed” by George Best. I had no real reason to take that one, I just kind of hadn’t got round to reading it yet and had it for about 18 months. As my flight came into LA one night, I closed the book for now, thinking no more of a chapter where George described his early days in LA and the mad pool parties, where one night he met posh fit model Angela MacDonald James. It meant something, reading that chapter, but not just yet.
On my second full day (third day) in Los Angeles, I had read somewhere in the Los Angeles Times that David Beckham was now in town, having just signed for Los Angeles Galaxy. Elsewhere on “Don’t Stop Living” I tell of my trip to the Home Depot Centre and my attendance at Beckham’s first ever training session so if ye feel the need then check that out. I’ll start where this story of Beckham led me to George Best and a wandering mind of images and impressions of this shy and quiet belfast boy.
So I asked this older man to take of photo of me against the scene of David Beckham and Landon Donovan training in the background. He then, to my astonishment remarked “are you from Northern Ireland?” in a broad LA accent. “Yes, yes I am and how did you know that?”. Well he said, “I was a big fan of Bestie, and I met him once, let me tell you the story.” We introduced ourselves to each other, he was Steve a local working class family man who would “go to watch football (soccer) when I can afford to.” He seemed like such a nice guy and since I had travelled a long way on 4 different dodgy buses to get to the stadium at Dominguez Hills, Steve offered me a lift back to the hostel, but not before he told me this story and decided we should take a welcome detour…
Steve was a single lad and one night after work had called into a pub on the way home for a few beers. The pub was “Bestie’s”, owned by George Best and Bobby McAlinden in the 1970s, I’m led to believe (or maybe the early 1980s). In there he happened to sit beside George Best who spent time pouring out stories to Steve and enjoying a bit of craic. “He was the most ordinary, extraordinary man” said Steve, which kind of sums George Best up. Think about it. I then exchanged my own stories about Bestie – the time my Dad bought paint at Texas/Homebase and was behind Bestie in the queue, the time Bestie filled up his car in Newtownards, the time my Dad saw Best beat Banks and be ridiculously denied a goal by a stupid referee and the time that me and my Dad went to George Best’s funeral. In the LA heat as superstars such as Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, John Terry and David Beckham warmed up, Steve and I chilled out with reminiscences of George Best. He was surprised to learn that George Best’s Dad Dickie was still alive (at the time) and furthermore lived in the same littel house in Burren Way in the Cregagh Estate, just a 2 minute walk from my Granny’s house.
Steve had the Los Angeles Times that day and by pure coincidence, it had a brief mention of George Best in a section on bars and restaurants in the area, stating that “The Underground Bar and Grill” used to be “Bestie’s.” If you want a lift home to save you getting all those dodgy buses through Compton’s black estate then I’ll drive us, and we’ll go via Bestie’s bar for a pint! You serious?? I thought this was all to be a dream. And that day I had my AFC Bournemouth shirt on (where George Best made his last ever UK League appearance) and many Northern Ireland flegs. After going round to see the Chelsea and LA Galaxy players, Steve led us to his car (can’t remember what make) and we were on the highways of California searching for some wisdom and any hint of a George Best history or presence in this bar.
Steve then admitted that he had only ever met Bestie once and had only ever been in this bar once, so wasn’t sure if he could find it. There were no directions in the newspaper clipping, but it had the address and Steve recalled that George’s was a corner bar opposite the gorgeous Hermosa Beach in South LA. I thought to myself a lot that day and have since dwelled on this adventure with magical memories of an almost perfect day. As we drove through traffic and Steve cut out some of the rush hour, we neared closer and closer. Steve expected there to be some kind of reminder of George Best in the pub, I didn’t care, I just wanted to see it, and the area which George used to get away from the tabloid press in the UK. He had certainly chosen the sunshine and the beaches, and in Angela had found the lady.
Moments later and we neared Manhattan Beach, which was where Hermosa Avenue led to Hermosa Beach. You can check that out on the street map guides if you want. When I went travelling I always picked up free maps and then either ditched them or handed them to someone in the hostel as I left that particular area. The streets in America seem to last forever and I remember the number of the restaurant/pub was like 600 and something!! I told Steve that in the UK, we’d only go up to about 200 maximum and then change the street name. Then out of the blue in a quiet sun drenched esplanade, there was the bar – now looking very British and called The Underground Pub. Or as it should be forever know, BESTIE’S!!! It had a sign up top, and beneath this was “The Beach Hut – A Taste of Hawaii.”
Steve said “this is the place” and then nonchalantly walked through the door, and as I recall up some stairs where the sign was and straight into a nightclub. The walk up those steps was one of “yeah this is somewhere that Bestie would have liked.” At the top of the stairs I was faced with a dark empty nightclub with some mirrors and it reminded me of Nick’s Bar in Weston Super Mare. This was the old nightclub part of George Best’s bar, but I was there at 7pm at night and it wasn’t open as a club. I glanced at the bar and the fit barmaid glared at Steve and I as I noticed a sign reading “Happy Hours – Beers 2 Dollars!” Steve was driving so could only have a beer, which I gladly bought for him for driving me here. I couldn’t believe it, I was in a bar formerly owned by George Best, by total chance and had now got my cheapest beer in years – a Labatts light. I asked the barmaid her name and it was Wendy. A really nice Californian girl actually, one of the type that a young George Best would have been attracted to. I was in the pub, perched up on a stool by this bar while Steve said “this is the same bar, alright, but it was the bit in at the back where I met George” At that he left me in the bar and searched for a trace of the legend…
Steve returned a few minutes later and said to me “pop in the back Jonny – you’ll be surprised…” THinking we had come all this way for the memory of George Best’s old bar, but not seen any sign of a shrine of memorial to George so far. Then as I walked down the corridor from the nightclub part to the more traditional bar, the legend of the proud and quiet Belfast boy shot out at me….Oh my God! I exclaimed as I entered a room which I’d class as an awesome memorial to the legend, a mini George Best museum if you like. Newspaper cuttings, photos, quotes, stories and framed memoirs to the legend of George Best adorned each and every wall in this small corner of the bar. I sat in awe and had finished my beer already so bought another one. There, at the bar the landlord Roger came over and spoke to me while serving me another 2 dollar beer. I explained I was from Northern Ireland, a Bournemouth fan, a massive George Best fan and that seeing this was like some kind of dream. Above all else the pub was a great wee pub! At the bar I also spoke to Colin and ********, who were English guys down their new “local.” One was a Derby County fan, the other a Chesterfield fan, and both were big football fans. As I gazed at an honourable FULL PAGE obituary on George Best from the LA Times, Roger said to me “let me tell you a few stories about George…”
Suddenly all the residents in the bar started firing stories at me. I had sat down in the corner by the bar, while Steve was over at the side. “You know what” said Colin “that seat you’re in – that’s not your seat, that’s Bestie’s seat!” I had chosen the seat which for years was where George sat and drank to his hearts content with a beach and the LA sun just 100 metres away out the front of Bestie’s (The Underground Pub). I forgot to mention the thrill of having my photo taken with Wendy behind the bar in the nightclub bit, which was actually now the VIP section. As chairman of the SOE NISC, I ought to be a VIP in a George Best shrine. Stories flowed at me from the residents, including one which occurred the day of his funeral. I had explained to everyone that I was there at Stormont in Belfast for George’s funeral. Roger and co told me that the bar had screened the entire funeral live out of respect, which was a nice gesture. Then the story dated back some 20 odd years to this little gem…(now this is a secret I was told in the pub that night and now I’ll share it cos its that good):
One night when George owned the pub, he got into a drunken argument about a mirror behind the bar. George didn;t like a certain mirror and one night threw a bottle of wine at it and smashed it completely. However the mirror was replaced and when George saw it again, he didn’t smash it, but said “I’ll be back to smash it some day.” “yeah right George, thought everyone, and owners changed hands, the pub got make overs but the mirror remained. Then the day George died, Roger the landlord came into the pub to find that the mirror had fallen off the wall and smashed on the floor. “That will be George” he thought. A great story I thought and to be told this on a quiet Monday in an LA pub formerly owned by George Best I honestly thought that life was just one big big happy smile.
The pub was full of British people and they regularly watched the football there, it seemed like a lovely wee local and as if in a dream, I could easily envisage George Best just dandering in nonchalantly saying “alright lads, what de yees want?” before ordering a round of drinks and perching himself in my chair. Soon though Steve and I had to leave (well I had to get a lift off him back to my hostel, which was miles away at Venice Beach) and my wee adventure to Bestie was over in a flash. I’ll go back someday if I’m ever in Los Angeles again. And if you are in LA, I’d recommend, it’s now known as the Underground Bar and Grill and this pub will forever be a tribute to George Best.