Thursday 23 February 2017

Review: Biography: Who Was Hurricane Higgins? by Tony Francis

Hodder & Stoughton,£20

What have I become, My sweetest friend?

Everyone I know goes away In the end

And you could have it all My empire of dirt

I will let you down, I will make you hurt

Tony Francis stood on the steps of St Anne's Cathedral and denounced the people of Belfast. There were thousands of them. They had come to pay their last respects to Alex Higgins, charismatic showman, entertainer, mercurial genius . . . and son of Belfast.

Why wouldn't The People turn out for The People's Champion? One last adoring audience for the Hurricane?

But Francis wasn't impressed. "I felt the uncomfortable draught of hypocrisy," the author writes in a new book about the tortured snooker maestro.

And perhaps he had a point as he watched the coffin, borne in a horse-drawn gun carriage, arrive at the cathedral.

After all, where were all these folk when their hero was withering away, penniless, toothless, destitute -- ultimately, starving to death?

Inside the cathedral, Francis -- who admitted he hadn't been in touch with one of Ulster's greatest sportsmen for years -- heard Lauren Higgins recite a moving poem in honour of her father.

She conceded she'd downloaded it off the internet, but the words seemed to fit. And there was no doubt that the way she delivered them to a rapt congregation spoke volumes about how she felt for her departed dad.

Especially when you realise, courtesy of Who Was Hurricane Higgins?, that the father's last words to his loving daughter were: "F**k off, then . . ."

They'd had a row shortly before Higgins finally succumbed to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease on July 24 last year. He was 61.

It wasn't the first time he had cursed at his only daughter, but it would be the last. As you learn from this fascinating and enlightening book, however, Lauren's love was unconditional, untainted by the unpredictability and uncontrolled rage that cost her volatile father so many friends.

To quote the lyrics of 'Hurt', that lacerating Nine Inch Nails song, "Everyone I know goes away in the end."

The song is about self-destruction and subsequent self-loathing. It doesn't feature in the book, but its lyrics drifted through my head many times throughout the 350-odd pages.

Francis's new publication leaves you shocked, saddened, breathless and, at times, exhilarated -- a bit like Alexander Gordon Higgins himself.

It's not a typical biography; Francis has already written the definitive one, Alex Through The Looking Glass, from 1986.

This is the story of the man, told by those who knew him best; friends, family, colleagues . . . enemies.

There is little doubt that the author, a former sports writer and ITV snooker presenter, was fond of his subject -- but it's no labour of love, more an intimate study of a complicated man's love/hate relationship with life itself.

The picture it paints is rarely pretty; there is no ultimate, uplifting redemption.

Higgins was, to many, a loathsome individual, a cruel, vile, selfish, narcissistic, unreliable, abusive, deranged, vindictive monster.

He was also charismatic, cute, charming, disarming, witty, fascinating, relentlessly entertaining, funny, intelligent, occasionally kind, generous and charitable . . . lovable, even.

He was certainly a morass of contradictions and dichotomies; a people's champion with no time for people; misogynistic, yet a relentless womaniser; a man who would borrow money off anyone yet scorn the offer of vital medical care; a hypochondriac who pounded his wiry body with nicotine, alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.

He hated eating and was always thin -- except, ironically, the one time he needed to be, as a budding teenage jockey.

One of many ex-minders, Damien Kelly, described him in the book as "the most fearless man I ever met. He was afraid of nothing or no one". This contrasted sharply with others who say he was a coward who was terrified of the dark.

Well-meaning autograph hunters -- including RTE legend Gay Byrne's wife -- were told to "f**k off" by The People's Champion.

The late snooker referee Len Ganley recalled an incident in which a young boy made the mistake of asking Higgy to sign his programme in the toilets of a Lurgan club.

Said Ganley: "He peed all over it, then handed the sodden programme back, saying 'there you are, son. Enjoy the evening'."

Paradoxically, Ganley was one of many who relished the two-time World Snooker Champion's company. Most of the time.

This was the man who touched medical staff by bursting into uncontrollable tears at the sight of an accident victim who had lost several limbs.

Yet the same Alex Higgins once, inexplicably and unforgiveably, told a wheelchair-bound, elderly lady that he "didn't sign autographs for paraplegics". She hadn't asked for one in the first place.

The book has 22 chapters, each titled "He was," as in "son/best mate/dad/ husband," etc. Past tense -- but you get the impression most of those titles would have been similar had Higgy still been around.

Francis, a skilled interviewer, drew intimate details from the likes of Alex's sisters Isobel, Ann and Jean, ex-wife Lynn (who, it's revealed, had no love for her sisters-in-law and vice versa), illegitimate secret son Chris Delahunty (who ultimately befriended his half- siblings Lauren and Jordan) and those who tried and failed to keep this erratic, obsessive, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, failed gambling addict on the proverbial straight and narrow.

You get the feeling that some were left as empty husks after The Hurricane had torn through them.

Lynn: "I was sad that he died so young, but I have no feelings left for Alex. Neither love nor hate. They disappeared years ago."

Former agent Will Robinson (answering a query over the cost of Higgins's funeral): "It cost me money and work as well as a downgrade from my normal roster of artists. I work with multi-million pound stars, not sick people at the end of their careers . . ."

Erstwhile friend, fellow Ulsterman and (normally diplomatic) snooker colleague Dennis Taylor: "Alex wasn't in the same league as Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry or Ronnie O'Sullivan." That last remark would have hurt Higgy the most.

But lest we forget, these people loved and admired the man at some stage of their lives.

Best friend and fellow snooker hellraiser Jimmy White told Francis: "I must have said, 20 times in my life: 'I'll never speak to that b*****d again.' I always broke my own rule because I loved him to death."

Snooker's governing body, Higgins's bête noire, didn't. Yet the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association still offered to buy their failing black sheep a house he could live in, rent-free, for the rest of his life. The outcome?

WPBSA director David Taylor revealed: "The letter Alex sent back was shameful. It contained the f-word. He said he didn't want the house, 'Just give me the money'."

It's now widely believed that this forever-twitching master of the mood swings was either bi-polar or schizophrenic.

Many instances of Jekyll and Hyde-type behaviour, when the Ulsterman went from exhilarating to exasperating, are detailed. A nasty, violent streak clearly ran through him, as snooker officials, former pals and ex-lovers know only too well.

A significant non-contributor, however, is Siobhan Kidd, whom Higgins met after his marriage to second wife Lynn had disintegrated in the mid-'80s.

By all accounts, the pair were madly in love; 'Shivvy,' as he called her, managed to transform the Hurricane into a warm, gentle breeze. Eventually, however, Mr Hyde returned. The relationship perished in 1989.

Apparently he never got over it. The downward spiral was steep. The career evaporated. The money, too -- most of it to grateful bookies. The hangers-on had nothing left to hang on to. The throat cancer came. He beat it, but his teeth fell out.

His final decade told of a wretched existence, the bitter end of a unique rags-to-riches and then back-to-rags story.

You wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy -- and quite a few regarded Higgy as just that.

You wonder if, just before the bitter end came, he hankered back to those halcyon days of millions of pounds and millions of adoring fans.

"There's nothing worth living for," he told his sister Jean as his colourful life ebbed away. "I can't eat, I can't talk and I can't play snooker . . ."

So who was Hurricane Higgins? Were there two of them, rolled into one sinewy body? The truth is, we'll never know.

What's not in doubt is that he was the most gifted snooker player ever, a mesmerising genius. There was no one quite like Higgy.

He brought a lot of joy to an awful lot of people. He just didn't do it often enough.

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