Let’s get straight to it. There’s a press event for Haig Club whisky, dozens of influencers and journalists in the room, and I’m one of three people tasked with making a cocktail for David Beckham. It’s a surreal assignment, made considerably more surreal by the fact that David Beckham is standing next to me at the bar.
Disaster awaits in the very near future, but first let me enjoy the last few moments in which I can tell myself that I’m about to make David Beckham the best damn cocktail that he’s ever tasted, a cocktail so delicious that he’ll drink it down to the very dregs and then smilingly invite me for a pint.
The email had come two days earlier: Haig Club is launching its Mediterranean Orange flavour at Sushisamba, there’ll be an interactive screen painting workshop, you can create your own bag with the fashion designer Christopher Raeburn and, oh yeah, David Beckham will be doing a Q&A. Fancy coming along with a plus-one? My friend and I were planning to go to a pub quiz that Wednesday but I consulted with her and we decided that, given the choice between losing a pub quiz in Beckenham or potentially meeting David Beckham, we’d probably have to opt for Beckham. (Later, when actually meeting Beckham, I briefly consider attempting some kind of joke on the similarities between his surname and the town Beckenham, and thank God – thank God – I resist.)
On Wednesday afternoon, another email: “As part of the event, David himself will be making cocktails with mixologist Anna Sebastian. Would you be open and happy to be a part of the session…?”
By “session”, I assumed there’d be a very large table with David Beckham and Anna Sebastian at one end and everyone else at the other, all 900 of us, and she’d talk him through one cocktail and five minutes later he’d be off into Beckhamland. What I hadn’t anticipated was a bar, Anna Sebastian on the business side of it, three of us plus Beckham on the other, and Anna Sebastian suggesting that we each try and make a bespoke Haig Club cocktail, and why doesn’t David choose the best?
Now, the thing about standing next to David Beckham is that it’s very hard not to notice that you’re standing next to David Beckham. I’d made this discovery about half an hour earlier when my friend’s eyes widened, I glanced over my shoulder, and there was Beckham not six feet away – simultaneously at the edge of the room and in the centre of it.
There were a few journalists present at the event but the majority of attendees were influencers: their job is dressing well and looking good. (That’s how you differentiate them from the journalists.) Yet nobody was better dressed than Beckham, rocking a navy suit and white T-shirt so effortlessly he might have been born in them. Nobody looked better than the man who was a global pin-up in his twenties and has spent the subsequent two decades getting better with age. Is that the truth – or am I influenced by the fact that he’s David Beckham? Hard to be sure: he’s been David Beckham for such a long time, it’s tricky to remove this factor from the equation. But there can be no question the man looked a million dollars – his estimated net worth is that multiplied by 450 – and incidentally, the tattoos are far more noticeable on a billboard than in the flesh.
So. Beckham takes the stage in the adjacent room, answers a few questions about his favourite cocktail and his summer plans in front of a thicket of camera phones. Then a PR plucks my elbow and leads us back to the bar, where Anna Sebastian is waiting and Beckham will subsequently join us. There’s me, my friend Emily who has somehow managed to secure a place in the mixology class, and one other journalist. Oh, and there’s David being escorted towards us through the throng.
His handshake is firm, as you’d expect. God knows how many hands he has shaken during his 47 years on Earth but the number must run comfortably into the seven figures. He’s very polite, very present and – ridiculous though this may sound about one of the most famous people who’ve ever lived – gives the impression of being ever-so-slightly shy. Maybe ‘shy’ is an overstatement but, like many of us, I get the sense the company of strangers isn’t his natural zone of comfort. But then he’s worked on it, like he’s worked on so many things in his life: Spanish, free kicks, handshakes. Let’s recap.
The footballing superhero
There’s a line you’ll often read in a profile piece of somebody very famous. “X,” the writer asserts, “needs no introduction!” and then the next three paragraphs will be spent introducing them. But I’m actually not going to introduce David Beckham – because he’s David Beckham. His existence has become part of our national identity, as with James Bond or Winston Churchill.
The writer Anthony Horowitz has observed of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: “I can only think of one author where you can say just five words and immediately wallow in the world they’ve created. So I say to you: fog, gas lamp, growler, Stradivarius and you are there immediately. It’s all around you, you feel it and you know it and you inhabit it and you sort of love it.”
Thus the career of David Beckham. I don’t need to recap it, merely recite: lob, Posh, red card, Treble, free kick, metatarsal, penalty, Madrid, tears, LA and you’ll recognise most if not all of the references, with the highlights playing in your mind. Beckham wasn’t about the matches or the trophies but the moments; his career was essentially a series of ongoing climaxes. Some people have Main Character Syndrome; Beckham had Superhero Syndrome. He always seemed to be swooping in to save the day or crashing down to Earth. Little wonder that Netflix are working on a biographical documentary series à la Michael Jordan and The Last Dance.
Even amid 22 players on the pitch, Beckham always felt like the protagonist. It helped that he was set-piece taker for very good teams, the camera following him to the corner flag multiple times in a match, the stadium falling silent as he lined up a free kick in that most cinematic of footballing showdowns, one that he won 65 times across his career (the fifth highest in history). But it was also a matter of posture, of presence. Seeing Beckham steady himself to fire a cross into the opposition penalty area carried the same inherent drama as watching John Wayne aim his Winchester at the man in the black hat. It can’t be entirely coincidental that the most famous of Beckham’s many, many commercials was the Pepsi one in which he dressed up as a cowboy in the Wild West.
Of course the commercials, the endorsements, the brands, became as associated with Beckham as the free kicks. He made his professional debut in 1993 and over the next 20 years he ascended from footballer to celebrity to superstar to icon. This didn’t happen by accident. “He wanted to propel himself beyond football,” recalls his friend and teammate Gary Neville in the documentary The Class of 92. “Fashion was important to him. Music was important to him. Doing things more than just being a football player was important to him.”
It’s said that athletes die twice, and the first death is retirement. This never felt true of Beckham. Partly because his disappearance from top-level football was so protracted: he played his last international tournament at the 2006 World Cup, left European football for Los Angeles the following year, yet still managed to play for AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, where he won Ligue 1, before taking his final bow in 2013. (And how very Beckham to include stints in Paris and Milan as part of the long goodbye.) However, the main reason Beckham transcended retirement is simple: he never retired. He just stopped being a football player and moved onto other things.
Here’s another observation on Beckham’s character, made by my godfather Dorien, a Manchester City fan and total stranger to him. It occurred some 18 years ago after Beckham, now playing Real Madrid, had attempted to speak Spanish in a press conference. Sections of the British media were not shy in their mockery. “It’s typical of the man,” he said with no little admiration. “He knows he’s going to get slaughtered for it and he does it anyway.”
I paraphrase a tad – my memory isn’t that good – but the sentiment rings true: Beckham has never been afraid of a bold decision, whether it involves fashion (the sarong), haircuts (the braids), or his footballing career (the moves to Madrid and LA Galaxy). He’s a very polite man – choosing to speak Spanish in a press conference – and also a very brave one – choosing to speak Spanish in a press conference despite not really being able to speak Spanish. Politeness and bravery are two qualities that he’ll need in abundance as he prepares to try the cocktail I’ve made for him.
Back to Sushisamba. Anna Sebastian has talked us through the various bases, mixers and garnishes. Now it’s time to perform. Now it’s time to make David Beckham a cocktail he’ll never forget. I inspect the assorted paraphernalia on the bar in front of me. Anna isn’t messing around: there are two different types of salt for starters – a white salt and a black salt – plus more dried fruit than a orchard in a heatwave. Well, Beckham isn’t afraid to put himself out there, and neither am I. Restraint is for cowards, I tell myself, reaching for the black salt…
Two minutes later and we’re preparing to submit our creations to Judge Becks. As he samples Emily’s cocktail, I reach for a straw and surreptitiously taste my own. I wince. Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong in the building of this drink. Cue realisation: you see, I went quite heavy on the black salt and decided I better go equally heavy on the sugar to cancel it out. Only I must have picked up the white salt by accident. You can’t taste Haig Club Mediterranean Orange, or the fruit garnishes, or whatever mixer I ended up using (I have a horrible feeling it was grapefruit juice). You can taste one ingredient and one ingredient only. That ingredient is salt. I suppose two ingredients, technically – white salt and black salt – but if there are subtle differences to their saltiness then those differences are very subtle indeed and quite frankly redundant in the current circumstances. There are many acceptable flavour profiles for the modern cocktail but briny isn’t among them. The drink I’m about to present to David Beckham would make the Dead Sea go down like a Knickerbocker Glory.
And present it to him I must – for he’s finished saying some kind words to Emily and now turns to me. He’s smiling, expectant, the poor sap. “I may have overdone it a little on the salt,” I say, passing the glass over to him.
Beckham takes a sip. Pulls a face. “That’s quite salty,” he says, almost apologetically. Then he takes another, slightly more careful sip. “Yeah, that’s really salty.”
“I know,” I sigh. “I got the white salt and the sugar mixed up.” I feel like I’ve handed a Valentine’s card to the coolest girl in school only to notice at the last second there’s cat shit on the envelope.
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Yet David Beckham is not a man to do things by half. If he’s practising free kicks he will practise until there’s nobody else left on the training pitch. If he’s working with a brand then he will assimilate the very ethos of that brand. And if he’s judging an impromptu cocktail competition then you better believe he’ll come back round for a second tasting – even of the salty cocktail, Lord love him.
“Yeah, that’s really very salty,” says Beckham with a rueful grin. “I’m sorry, but that’s too salty for me.”
So no, my cocktail doesn’t win because David Beckham isn’t a merman. But he is charm personified and, after crowning the other journalist as the winner, he asks Emily and me whether we’d like a photo. For professional reasons, I tend not to take photos with celebrities but he’s David Beckham and it’s not like I’m interviewing him and he’s David Beckham so, yes please. Somebody takes a photo of the three of us: Emily looks glamorous as always, I look a little gormless, and David Beckham looks like David Beckham.
He’s then escorted round the room – making conversation, taking more photos – and I’m very impressed with the time he gives everybody, the interest he takes. Working rooms is something he’s had plenty of practice at – like free kicks, like handshakes – but this will be far from the most glamorous room he’s worked and there’s not even the slightest hint of motions being gone through, no seconds being counted. The man is a class act – a hero I’m very grateful to have met.
I didn’t expect to meet him again a month later but then again, it seems Beckham encounters are like buses – you wait an age for one and then two arrive at once.
This time the email was addressed to Mark, my editor. Would he like to attend the global launch of the new Tudor Ranger at Tobacco Dock? Yes, he would. The following week, a phone call: would Mark like some exclusive interview time with Tudor ambassador David Beckham at the Tobacco Dock event? Mark mulled it over and decided that, yes, he would.
I wasn’t his initial choice as plus-one. That honour fell to Mike Gibson, editor of our sister magazine Foodism, because Mike also writes about watches for square mile and Mark has no soul. However, on the week of the launch, Mike contracted Covid and Mark had little option but to come crawling back to me, nobody else on the editorial staff having recently hung out with Beckham (or DB, as he’s known among friends). Tempted as I was to decline Mark’s invitation, the opportunity to catch up with an old drinking buddy was too tempting to turn down – even if the drink in question was 90% saline.
And so one Friday morning in early July, Mark and I (and 160 other journalists and watch influencers) are enjoying flutes of Nyetimber sparkling wine in a room decorated like an iceberg. The decor is intentional: for the launch of the Ranger coincides with the 70th anniversary of the British North Greenland Expedition, a two-year odyssey that involved some intrepid scientists, HM Forces, the Merchant Navy, and a case of 30 Tudor Oyster Prince watches. Tudor wanted to test the durability of its latest release and figured a two-year stint in North Greenland would do the job just fine.
We are told the story of the expedition in the iceberg room. Then we are led into another room, larger and darker and possessing a stage at the front of it. Onto this stage strides David Beckham. He’s had a haircut since our last meeting. Today he wears a black suit and tie and looks like the world’s most handsome assassin. It’s a measure of how seriously he takes his partnership with Tudor that he rearranged his family holiday to ensure he could attend the launch: holidays can be altered – even David Beckham’s – but anniversaries of historic expeditions cannot.
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For ten minutes or so, Beckham and a representative from Tudor discuss Beckham’s long-standing partnership with the brand and his love of its watches. Then people are invited to queue up for the opportunity to have a photo taken with Beckham on stage. It’s an offer accepted by pretty much everyone in attendance – all 160 of them – but Mark and I are among the few exceptions. We have the interview ahead of us. We head to the bar and help ourselves to some more sparkling wine. I notice there are also Old Fashioneds, made with Haig Club. They taste delicious.
I’m sampling one of the several tasty canapés that have suddenly materialised when the summons arrives and we are led downstairs into the bowels of the building. Two other journalists are present from another publication. They go first, while Mark and I make ourselves comfortable in the waiting room.
“Can we make a cover out of this?” I ask.
“We’ll certainly try!” says Mark, more hope than expectation. I like to think we’re a pretty stonking magazine but then he’s David Beckham and sometimes stonking isn’t enough. Maybe we need a little something extra. Maybe I should give Beckham the marmalade.
What marmalade? My dad’s homemade marmalade. On discovering that mine and Beckham’s paths were destined to cross again, I thought that it might be a classy move to bring him some form of gift – you know, to make up for the cocktail fiasco. But what gift to bring David Beckham? A Corinthian figurine of himself? A Corinthian figurine of Gary Neville? A recipe book for jellied eels? (Beckham told the River Cafe Table 4 podcast that he eats jellied eels “at least once a week.” You can take the lad out of Leytonstone…)
Then it hit me: marmalade! A gift that would nod to Haig Club Mediterranean Orange and also go down well with Victoria, who apparently became obsessed with the stuff when pregnant with Harper. My dad’s homemade marmalade is very good and it’s a gift that nobody else in the world could give to Beckham. (Other than my dad, I suppose.) I run the idea past Mark and he doesn’t fire me on the spot. Let’s do it!
Only now, in the waiting room, I’m reconsidering the wisdom of this plan. Dad is big on recycling, a noble trait but somewhat unfortunate in light of our immediate needs: when you present David Beckham with a jar of homemade marmalade, you ideally want the jar to say ‘Marmalade’ on its label, rather than ‘Red Currant Jelly’. To rectify this misnomer, I attempted to relabel the jar using black felt tip marker. Unfortunately the marker has smudged. The label is now a grimy smear beneath which the words ‘Red Currant Jelly’ can just about be deciphered.
“What do we think about the marmalade?” I ask Mark, holding up the disfigured jar.
“Maybe we leave the marmalade,” says Mark.
I contemplate Beckham in his designer suit and crisp white shirt. I contemplate the marmalade. “Maybe you’re right.”
The marmalade remains in my bag as we’re ushered from the waiting room into another, smaller room where David Beckham is waiting for us on a sofa. He rises. Introductions are made. Hands are shaken.
“We actually met a few weeks ago,” I remind Beckham as he shakes mine. (How many hands has he shaken since our previous encounter? Hundreds, surely. Thousands?) “At a Haig Club event in Sushisamba. I made you a cocktail.”
I can sense his mind scanning back through the multiple events he must attend on a weekly basis, and the hundreds of people he must meet at all of them. Then a sudden smile of recognition. “I remember,” says Beckham, the amusement audible in his voice. “You made me a salty cocktail.”
“I did!” I’m quite touched that he remembers me, even if it’s as the world’s worst mixologist. “Sorry about that.”
It would be nice to catch up properly – what’s new in Miami? How are the kids? Victoria? – but time is money and his is more expensive than most. Mark and I take our seats and reel off the questions. Beckham’s answers are fluent, interspersed with the occasional smile or chuckle, and never sound anything other than utterly sincere.
The Q & A
What are you most excited about right now?
The Euros. When you think about where the women’s league has got to – you look back five, ten years ago, the women’s game wasn’t as popular, wasn’t as strong as it is now. The fact that in the opening game of the tournament there were 70,000 fans at Old Trafford – the atmosphere was electric.
And what about personal projects?
We have a lot of projects at the moment. I get excited about them all – as a business, we cover so many different things; we jump from watches to eyewear to whisky.
We entered the metaverse the other day. I’m still learning about that world but it definitely excites me. The NFT market – we have a few things I’ve been working on there, too. [Beckham recently applied for several metaverse and NFT-related trademarks. Watch this (virtual) space.]
You’ve said your proudest professional accomplishment was captaining England. What are some of your fondest memories from those days?
I was thinking about this last night. I was with a friend last night and we were talking about the 1990s in Manchester – and those were just the best times. It’s hard to pick out just one memory, though: every time I met up with England, every time I trained with England, every time I played with England, they were the best times.
When I look back now, and look at the games I played in; the goals I scored; the assists I had; and stepping out in Wembley as England captain, those are the moments. You can’t replace them; they’re all special.
OK, but if you had to choose – free kick against Greece or penalty against Argentina?
I’d have to say the goal as England captain at Old Trafford against Greece. That is very difficult to top. Someone said it to me the other day about that moment – people come up to me on the street and they thank me for it. It’s one of those moments I’ll never forget. There are certain moments in sport; you turn around and say ‘Where were you when…?’ It means so much. At the moment, I’m doing my life documentary with Netflix and we’ve just talked about the Greece goal. It was quite emotional to talk about it. I’ve spoken about it in the past, but to really go into detail was quite emotional.