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Sir Bobby Charlton (1937-2023): A real human and real hero

“I suppose Manchester United is a pluralistic institution, but I doubt most of you would disagree if I distilled everything about Manchester United to everything Sir Bobby Charlton stood for. I don’t think you’d dispute that he’s the only person in the club’s history this could apply to — if you could apply it to any one person...” 

Manchester United v F.C. Copenhagen: Group A - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images

I can claim with some certainty that I’m not the only one for whom the official Manchester United Twitter account has been a source of great irritation over the years. I appreciate that there’s a craft to managing a popular social media account, but I haven’t followed it for over two years, nor do I intend to anytime soon.

Of course, tweets from the official account still appear on my Twitter feed, and it was through one of these tweets that I learned of Sir Bobby Charlton’s passing. The tweet simply read: ‘Sir Bobby Charlton CBE, 1937-2023. Words will never be enough.’

The tweet was succinct, sincere, poignant, and – deliberate or otherwise – captured the essence of the person it was referring to. Or, at least, the person that many of us think about when we think about Sir Bobby Charlton. It’s only fair that I credit the official account for this.

Touching tributes have been pouring in from all over the world since we received the sad news; some of which, of course, are in written form. I could point you to some pieces I’ve been moved by, but all of them – as well-written as they are – go against the sentiment expressed in the tweet I’ve referred to.

This sentiment has often steered me towards ruminations about words: on the futility of it all. But I’m also unshakeable in my belief that words can cause great harm. In which case, if I can hold words to account for undesirable actions with lasting consequences, then I suppose words must have the capacity to do some good as well: put smiles on faces, bring closure, and reflect, among other things. I know that this conundrum about words will persist for some time; nevertheless, I’d now like to put into words what I think about when I think about Sir Bobby Charlton.

I want to start by sharing an excerpt from The Remains of the Day: a novel that was honored with the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989, written by the Nobel Prize-winning Japanese-born British writer Kazuo Ishiguro. It is a novel that I deeply cherish, and I’m presuming that some of you have read it or watched the popular film adaptation, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Nevertheless, before sharing this excerpt, I want to acquaint those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading the novel with the setting.

The novel follows the story of Stevens, an English butler, through first-person narration. For much of the novel, Stevens ponders over ideas like ‘greatness’ and ‘dignity’. Our first passage into Stevens’ musings on these dense matters occurs when he recalls the ‘greatness’ of the rolling English countryside while embarking on a motoring trip.

Stevens discloses to us – with some confidence – the superiority of the English landscape; he expounds on this by deeming landscapes of other nations ‘superficially dramatic’. He admits that the other nations provide ‘spectacular scenery’, but what separates the English landscapes from those of the other nations is their ‘greatness. This brings us to the excerpt that I’ve been so keen to share.

On the question of greatness, this is what Stevens has to say:

‘I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.’

From Stevens’ recollections, we also learn that the quality he admires more than any other is ‘dignity’. I’m going to presume that you must be quite familiar with Stevens’ outlook on most things by this point, so I won’t waste more of your time by relating his understanding of that word to you.

I share this because I distinctly remember the two people who sprang to my mind as Stevens was meditating over these ideas: Sir Matt Busby and Sir Bobby Charlton. You see, I can’t help myself: Manchester United and fiction have dominated my thoughts for so long that it takes very little for me to combine the two worlds. I would like to think that I’m not the only one who finds himself in this predicament.

Stevens also recalls the days when he would discuss ‘great’ butlers — from previous generations and his generation — with his fellow butlers. This isn’t dissimilar to how many of us pass our days debating GOATs in the world of professional football. We also learn from Stevens’ tone that he looks back at those days with great fondness: a lost time. Tributes are solemn by nature but I’ve observed that Sir Bobby’s passing has – for many – felt like the passing of a certain image from a lost time.

The Remains of the Day is also an examination of ‘Englishness’. Ishiguro has expressed in many interviews that most of us around the world – English or not – have this image of the English country house and butlers with stiff upper lips when we think of ‘Englishness’. Of course, there are other signifiers like William Shakespeare, The Royal Family, the East India Company, and Charles Dickens; and modern ones like The Beatles, James Bond, the Premier League, David Beckham, and Harry Potter. I suppose what made Sir Bobby unique is that he had the qualities of the older signifiers in the modern era.

Sir Bobby did not grow up in a country house and serve persons of great reputation: he was a miner’s son who happened to be incredibly gifted at football. Despite great adversity, he achieved all that could be achieved in the sport he loved.

Stevens, from my understanding, didn’t have much of a penchant for football. One of his objectives in the novel is to master the art of ‘banter’; he would’ve been ill-suited to the sort of pub talk that arises from watching football matches. But I can assure you with some certainty that Sir Bobby would’ve matched Stevens’ understanding of greatness and dignity; or the idea of Sir Bobby Charlton, which I’m attempting to dissect here.

Of course, Sir Bobby wasn’t just an English icon, he was also Mr. Manchester United. You see, like my friend Stevens, I too spend a lot of time musing over nebulous concepts: is there a Manchester United way? What are the images that spring to mind when one thinks of Manchester United? Is it the razzmatazz of George Best? The rage of Roy Keane? Or the bohemian Cantona, Fergie’s fury, or his fledglings? It remains an endless fascination.

I suppose Manchester United is a pluralistic institution, but I doubt most of you would disagree if I distilled everything about Manchester United to everything Sir Bobby Charlton stood for. I don’t think you’d dispute that he’s the only person in the club’s history this could apply to — if you could apply it to any one person.

To those of us who are too young to have watched him play, he is introduced as a phenomenon, as much as a person. And it’s the phenomenon that I think of when I think of Stevens’ idea of greatness. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but the lack of demonstration and restraint that Stevens so deeply admires in other people, and that he lives by, betrays him in Ishiguro’s novel.

Like Stevens, I can get so caught up in these grand ideas that I often fail to see what’s in front of me. I sometimes fail to see people like Sir Bobby. I suppose this piece of writing is my way of seeing him as he was. Sir Bobby, on the contrary, wasn’t one to forget what was in front of him; he was some of the things Stevens mentions but also someone capable of demonstrating great emotions.

I want to end this piece by sharing a clip where he recalls a chain of events we’re all quite familiar with. Sir Bobby was 63 years old when this clip was shot. There’s this childlike enthusiasm and honesty of expression in his manner that never fails to put a smile on my face. Despite the great tragedies and successes in his life, he seems to have preserved that most human of feelings.

And if we can hold on to that in ourselves, nothing is ever truly lost.