The House of Beckham: Money, Sex and Power 
by Tom Bower.
HarperCollins, 376 pp., £22, June, 978 0 00 863887 0
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People​ who write unauthorised biographies often get authorised rebuttals. In 2004, when Kitty Kelley published The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty, the disaster-prone House majority leader Tom DeLay wrote to her publisher, Doubleday, that she was in an ‘advanced stage of her pathological career’. He also claimed that Doubleday was in a state of ‘moral collapse’. Kelley was opposed to authorised books, believing that the art of biography should never be a branch of the public relations industry, and neither should journalism. ‘Approval’ was irrelevant. It could be said that Kelley often took a little too much pleasure in the delinquencies she spotted. She once stole a badge from Christopher Hitchens that said ‘All the Right Enemies’.

David and Victoria Beckham in 1999.

Choosing whom to hate is an exact science for the enterprising biographer. With an excessive and portable moral hauteur, the intrepid muckraker tends to find subjects whose awfulness plays well with the awfulness of the period, setting the scene for a well-timed explosion of gossip and dirt. David Beckham, who once had a golden right foot, a sweet face, a high voice and a famous willingness to sit around in branded underpants while being photographed by the world’s press, might have proved a sensational subject all by himself, a walking-and-squeaking reality TV show. But the gods of narrative are kind, and at the age of 24 our hero met Victoria Adams, ‘Posh’ Spice, a woman with a rigid pout, a seemingly insatiable appetite for designer everything and instinctively postmodern notions about the possible meaning of privacy. They married in 1999 and have four children, Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper, the youngest and the only girl. The Beckhams are British in a new way, a way that wealthy people who live most of the time in places like Dubai and Miami are British, loving the royal family and hating income tax while deploring the press they relentlessly deploy. They fill their days topping up their self-pity and complaining that they haven’t yet got the knighthood they so clearly deserve. There’s a sense of hangover in Tom Bower’s book, as if the grand Thatcherite party finally met the morning, as if Brexit and designer gear and ‘no such thing as society’ finally snuffed itself out, making us glad of the long walk home and the sense that the whole thing was actually an experiment in unreality.

Let’s be clear about Beckham. He likes pineapple on his pizza. He can’t get enough of The Lion King. He admits that he has never read a book in his life, almost certainly including the ones he wrote himself. (He didn’t make it all the way through Posh’s either.) It is said he once posed wearing an Adolf Eichmann T-shirt and carrying a bottle of Moët, without realising who the guy on the T-shirt was, though he recognised the champagne. In his best moments, he’s a reverse Dorothy Parker, curving another déclaration folle into the back of the net. ‘We’re definitely going to get Brooklyn christened,’ he said, ‘but we don’t know into which religion.’ The laughter peters out though when you consider his blithe willingness to lend his name to the Qatari World Cup in 2022, choosing, for ten million dollars, to get behind fossil fuels, homophobia, migrant wage-slavery, the institutional silencing of women and the Taliban. Over and over again he has said money doesn’t matter to him, yet he has allowed his name to become tangled up in ‘business opportunities’ that disgrace him.

Following Beckham from Manchester United to Real Madrid, from there to LA Galaxy, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and his dealings with the Qataris, Bower puts a lot of effort into examining Beckham’s tax affairs, and his allegations provide a portrait of the civic negligence that became rampant in Austerity Britain. Beckham may have joined the 12-hour queue to pay his respects when the queen was lying in state, but the state itself doesn’t matter to him, except in the hugely sentimental way that fans interpret loyalty.

Thankfully, we have Posh to keep up the Lols. The main point about Victoria is that she isn’t what anybody would call posh. The funniest moment in the Netflix hagiography Beckham, directed by Fisher Stevens, is when our eponymous hero pops his head round the door while his wife is being interviewed by Fisher. ‘We both come from families that work really hard,’ she says. ‘We’re very working … working class.’

‘Be honest!’ Beckham says from the door.

‘I am being honest.’

‘Be honest! What car did your dad drive you to school in?’

She fights back for a moment, then turns to the camera like a busted child. ‘OK, in the 1980s, my dad had a Rolls-Royce.’

‘Thank you,’ he says, closing the door.

Bower takes up the story. ‘Tony Adams’s electrical wholesale business had paid for a second-hand Rolls-Royce and a comfortable lifestyle for Jackie [his wife] … Both parents were credited with instilling their daughter with ferocious ambition and a passion for performing.’

In the cosmic sense, it’s probably best if trophy-hunters marry trophy-hunters. The obsession with ‘personal goals’ might even seem natural enough to become a kind of contentment. All the same, it must be pretty exhausting being married to Posh. And sex to her is like something one might do at the gym; she talks very publicly about it in terms of levels, bulk, longevity and girth (‘He does have a huge one … It’s like a tractor exhaust pipe’). Some couples spend time in separate beds, but the Beckhams went for separate continents, with Posh boosting her dying career or pursuing another one (as a fashion designer, earning her decent write-ups and huge losses) while Becks endorsed everything he could touch, failing to impress on foreign football fields. It may be to Posh’s credit that she was not born to be a footballer’s wife, but she did prove fantastically awkward in that role, refusing to move to Spain when he signed with Real Madrid, then refusing to be in Milan or Paris when he played in these cities. What she wanted was Los Angeles. For the former student at the Laine Theatre Arts School in Epsom, hanging out with Tom Cruise in Beverly Hills spelled arrival. Alex Ferguson, who signed Beckham for Manchester United, wasn’t keen on Victoria, or her role as a fashion influencer, dressing David in sarongs, PVC trousers and knitted Tibetan peasant hats. ‘I saw his transition to a different person,’ Ferguson said with irrepressible Glasgow repression.

There’s a ‘tell’ in English prose, established by Daniel Defoe in Moll Flanders. The book seeks to condemn the sexual antics of Moll (at length and with repudiating thunder) only then to undermine the moral objection by allowing the prose to become excited whenever the censured action is described. This trick has served biographers well for centuries. In The House of Beckham Bower roundly condemns Beckham for his alleged affairs, the temperature of his sentences rising before breaking into a sweat. I mean, who really cares whether Beckham, alone in a foreign city at the age of 28, shagged Rebecca Loos in a Madrid hotel or snogged some girl in a nightclub or let a passing model sit on his lap? I don’t believe Bower does, but he brings a level of outrage to the topic that tends to induce the giggles. ‘Loos says now that she was attracted by Beckham’s vulnerability,’ he writes. ‘And inevitably his looks. A one-hour video shot by Sam Taylor-Johnson of Beckham asleep in his Madrid hotel room revealed a stunning Adonis. Bare-chested with flopping blond hair, Taylor-Johnson captured the Sleeping Beauty, the icon.’

I mean, Jilly Cooper couldn’t improve on that, and neither could Defoe. But the Defoe tradition isn’t kind to women. Moll Flanders is a con artist, a thief, ‘an abominable creature’, a kept woman and a curse. Groaning with excited repugnance, Bower appears to hate Posh Spice. ‘Constantly she exposed her breasts for photographers.’ (Exposed her breasts? Constantly? She wore a few low-cut dresses, while her husband lived in his tiny briefs, putting in the hours as an Adonis.) Bower paraphrases a tabloid journalist listing Posh’s similarities to the plumped-up celebrity model Katie Price: ‘fake boobs, fake hair and shovels of make-up’. To him she is all products, trinkets and downright lies, putting her talented man off his stride. She is needy. Emotional. And then of course snobbery emerges to put her very tidily in her place. She is – or wants to be – ‘the check-out girl at the supermarket whom everyone claims to fancy’.

Britain was not a great place during the Beckhams’ reign, and it was a reign – who can forget those velvet thrones at their wedding in Luttrellstown Castle? We learn that they were bought by the Sunday Mirror for £1500 and offered by the newspaper in a competition. The editor suggested that Posh could present them to the winning reader. ‘No,’ Posh’s representative, Caroline McAteer, told the paper. ‘Vic wants them. For nothing.’ Bower reports that

the newspaper’s executive agreed, but only if Victoria agreed to be photographed accepting the newspaper’s gift. McAteer concurred, but there was a hitch. Without a fanfare the thrones were taken off the lorry outside [the Beckhams’] house. The doorbell was rung.

McAteer voiced outrage. ‘Victoria wants to be surprised,’ she said in a fury.

The delivery had to be contrived as a revelation. ‘You mean staged?’ asked the journalist.

From that moment, the Sunday Mirror and every other tabloid journalist understood that Victoria and Beckham wanted to ‘play’ coy. They would appear to resist media intrusion while agreeing to stage ‘impromptu’ photographs. Their collusion with the media was to be disguised.

In this sense, and not only in this sense, they behaved like real royals. The Beckhams learned at the school of Princess Diana how to present as both fabulous and vulnerable, and in their marriage they formed the same push-me-pull-you battle with fakery that typifies the lives of the British royals today, whether at Windsor or the spiritual estates of Montecito. For a couple of decades, the Beckhams took on the mantle of national aspiration when the royals lost their cool, but too much naked ambition has always been mistrusted in Britain, where the Kardashians are mainly something to laugh at. The Beckhams’ choices now seem ridiculous: the Maserati for Romeo’s eighteenth birthday; Brooklyn on the cover of New York magazine under the headline, ‘The Year of the Nepo Baby’; Cruz in i-D magazine with his jeans around his ankles (‘Proud Dad,’ David posted). And Harper Beckham, aged six, going as Cinderella to a birthday party at Buckingham Palace arranged by Prince Andrew’s former wife, ‘wearing £240 Gucci boots, a £695 monogrammed cashmere Burberry coat, a £1525 Versace gown and holding a £1200 Goyard leather mini-bag’. For a different approach to success, consider Taylor Swift’s actions during her current tour of the UK. In every city she’s played, she has made a huge donation to keep the food banks going. The chief executive of St Andrew’s Community Network in Liverpool, which runs eleven food banks and eight community pantries, said her donation would fund them for the next twelve months. In Cardiff, the food bank boss told the Guardian the donation would have a lasting impact on the city.

Bower claims that Beckham didn’t do enough as an envoy for Unicef, didn’t give enough of his own money. I don’t have an opinion on that. But as someone who was a Unicef ambassador myself for more than twenty years, I saw something beyond this low comedy. Despite everything, Beckham’s name and the special kind of inspiration he embodied could make a difference in an instant. In 2006, I went to the Namasimba Child Centre in Malawi. The young girls there were all on antiretroviral drugs to halt the progress of Aids. But the thing I see most clearly is a boy who was scooping sand at the edge of the village. When I went over to speak to him he showed me he could only speak two words of English – ‘David Beckham’.

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Vol. 46 No. 15 · 1 August 2024

Andrew O’Hagan was on a visit to Malawi when he came to appreciate the extent of David Beckham’s fame (LRB, 18 July). I lived for a time with the Evenki nomads of Inner Mongolia. During introductions, I asked which other English people they knew. Theresa May? No. Tony Blair? No. They then smiled, gave a thumbs up and said: ‘David Beckham!’ Apart from the queen, he was the only English person this family of reindeer herders isolated in a forest soundproofed by snow could recall.

Harry Penfold
London N1

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