People: Alas, no hymn to Gazza in '98

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THE events of last week took my mind back to the man who gave the world one of the most memorable passages of sporting prose ever written. I'll let you savour once more the paragraph that summed up the subject of his piece as, "fierce and comic, formidable and vulnerable, urchin- like and waif-like, a strong head and torso with comparatively frail-looking breakable legs, strange-eyed, pink-faced, fair-haired, tense and upright, a priapic monolith in the Mediterranean sun - a marvellous equivocal sight".

A lot has happened to footballer Paul Gascoigne since he was thus enshrined, eight years ago, in the pages of the very unfanzine-like London Review of Books - a moment in the creation of the cult of Gazza the importance of which cannot be underestimated. And in the light of his sudden demise as an England player, I felt that no true understanding of what had happened to him in 1998 would be complete without reference to the source of that original homily, Karl Miller.

In 1990 Miller was the editor of the LRB, which was not exactly noted for its sports coverage. He left the job two years later, and since then has worked as a freelance writer, producing two volumes of memoirs, the second of which, Dark Horses, has just been published. When I went to see him at his Chelsea home last week, he was, perhaps inevitably, sympathetic to Gazza's plight. "There was a yell of derision and delight when Gascoigne was dropped," he told me, "people indulging in character assassination. They have been going on about his disgusting appearance. But there's a long history and folklore in football of players seen eating kebabs in the middle of the night. In 1910, they were seen hanging from lamposts in their cups. It's a very old thing, and a very deep thing in human nature, to want to see a star disgracing himself."

Entirely free of platitudes, using long words which are never minced, Miller's conversation makes him a very good football pundit. Perhaps only he could talk of Peter Beardsley, as he does in Dark Horses, as "the least meretricious of stars ... oozy fronds standing out over his collar"; or refer to Cantona's infamous kung-fu kick as "the fly-catching flicker of a Midi lizard's tongue".

"I've followed Gascoigne up hills and down dales," Miller said. "Down a lot of dales. People are in two minds about stars like him. They say he's a genius as a preface to saying he is a delinquent. It was always the same with George Best. There's a jealousy as well as a kind of admiration for his ilk. Gascoigne is actually very intelligent, subtle and individual on the field. He's not so subtle when it comes to discussing moral issues with the sophists of the press. I certainly would have put him in the squad and used him. Recently he's been one of England's better players, despite carrying his whole ambivalent history on his shoulders."

Miller, who is 66, speaks with particular authority on the vicissitudes of the football world, reckoning that the literary one is no different. "The premium rests on denigration and detraction; very often reviewers are not writers, in that they don't write books. In so far as it is done to me, I feel it, and do regret it, but I can't say I'm entitled to be surprised. In 40 years I've published lots of detraction. Being a pupil of F.R. Leavis, it's hard not to dig into something minor or popular, as I did when I was younger."

But it's Miller on football that I came to hear, and he did not fail me. "I'm disappointed in Hoddle as a manager," he says. "In the three run-up games, England played worse than I've ever seen them play. They were very, very poor. Hoddle talks too much, he says too much, he has a faith healer; he plays too many players who aren't up to international standards. He was slow to play Steve McManaman, and any hesitation about Michael Owen is inscrutable to me.

"There are players like Darren Huckerby and Chris Sutton who he hasn't looked at. Huckerby has been extraordinary as a stumbling, inventive force, but Southgate and Batty are more beautiful in the eyes of Hoddle. The question is whether an uncreative, unconstructive midfield can give Shearer anything to do with the ball. I think not." It's a shame Miller won't be joining Des Lynam and the boys in France this summer.

MEANWHILE, it's been a tense few days in the Fontaine household waiting for our World Cup tickets to arrive. A couple of weeks ago came the acknowledgment of our order from the French. Then, last weekend, a note from the courier company saying it had tried to deliver them but we were out. This was followed by numerous phone calls and hours of fruitless waiting about indoors. Eventually, I was assured the tickets would be delivered on Thursday evening "between seven and midnight", which suggested to me that the entire operation had become so secretive that it could only be carried out under cover of darkness.

And when, in my absence, the package arrived, Mrs Fontaine was put through a grilling as to her true identity, relationship to me, and general trustworthiness, a process which ended when she was asked what amounted to the tie-breaker question, "Do you know what this package contains?" Since conversation at home these days rarely strays beyond such urgent matters as Paraguay's weaknesses on the left side of midfield, she was well able to provide the correct answer. See you in Lens!

Stars of the silent screen

A SMALL but I hope you'll agree not insignificant reward for Rex's campaigning zeal. Or so I like to think. You recall, perhaps, my strictures over the infliction of TV - plus ads - on passengers using the new Heathrow Express. Travelling on it for the second time last weekend, I was delighted to find the TVs switched off, and no less taken with the fact that, because the bus transfer was longer than normal, the service was free. It won't last, though. On 23 June, Tony Blair presides over the official opening, at which point the pounds 10 fare kicks in for second-class passengers (up from pounds 5), with people in first-class paying pounds 20. Which on a miles-per-pound basis makes the Heathrow Express more expensive than Concord. Meanwhile, Tim Mickleburgh writes again from Grimsby to say that the TVs in his local post office - as railed against in these columns - have also been strangely silent of late. The Fontaine pen strikes again.

POMPOUS and self-serving we journalists may be, but the Spectator's radio critic Michael Vestey takes things to breathtaking extremes in this week's issue. His subject for review is In The Chair, a radio version of what on TV is called In The Red, the drama series satirising the BBC based on a novel by John Taverner. Vestey is not impressed. But his tone is not merely critical. It's peeved. And when we get to his final paragraph, we discover why: "If the BBC was really being courageous," he writes, "it would have dramatised my own recent comic novel about the BBC, Waning Powers ... This is more subtle and while it has some similarities to In The Red in terms of characterisation it is more accurate about the culture of management consultancy that has pervaded the corporation. I like to think that it is funnier than Taverner's novel." Better luck next time, Michael.

Three's company, so the poet says

TO Madame JoJo's in Soho for the launch of The Sopranos, the new book by literary lion Alan Warner. As trendy young things thronged around him, the poet Roddy Lumsden muscled his way to the front: "Hey Alan, my poem about you is in the TLS this week". Turning to my ever-handy copy, I found the ditty in question, entitled, er, Troilism. And the line about Warner? He "woke in a hotel bed in a maze/ of shattered champagne glass/ between two hazy girls, his wallet light." His books will never seem the same again.

SO much for the Curse of Hello! magazine. Normally you could rely on its interview subjects dropping dead within hours of showing us round their beautiful homes in the Hollywood Hills. But now, in a quite spectacular reversal, the magazine can claim to be able to bring people back to life. I refer, of course, to Bob Hope. Still alive and putting, in defiance of reports of his death on Friday night, his survival can surely be attributed to the picture spread devoted to him in Hello!'s current issue.

HOW long, I wonder, before Viagra joins the list of popular girls' names?