Friday 20 October 2017

Night my hero let me down

As falls from grace go, this was spectacular. Alex Higgins, once the handsome darling of the snooker halls, reduced to a toothless wraith living on benefits. The early death last weekend of the Belfast boy had a tragic inevitability. Hurricane Higgins had long ago boozed and brawled away his glamour and talent, leaving romances and children in his devastated wake. Emily Hourican who spent an evening with him recalls the strange encounter with her one-time hero

TRUE GENIUS: Alex Higgins will be recalled as one of snooker's most flamboyant stars
TRUE GENIUS: Alex Higgins will be recalled as one of snooker's most flamboyant stars

Alex Higgins was a teenage hero of mine. For a couple of years during the early and mid-Eighties, snooker was a big deal in our house.

We watched it, talked about it, obsessed over it, and much of that had to do with Higgins, who was charismatic, unpredictable, and hugely talented. I was about 14, just the right age to have a crush on someone who was so handsome, bad and vulnerable all at once.

By then, he had already been in trouble for abusing referees and other players, physically and verbally, and the marks of bitterness that later became so pronounced were already to be seen on his attractive face. Clearly, there was plenty that was very dark about 'Hurricane' Higgins, and in the years between my teenage crush and my eventual meeting with him in 1998, he had slipped far indeed from the glory days of world championship wins and generous appearance fees. By then, he had won and lost more than £3m. He was divorced from the beautiful Lynn -- who had stood so proudly beside him, holding baby Lauren when, tears pouring down his cheeks, he won the World Snooker Championship for the second time in 1982 -- and was leading a drifter's life in the UK, cadging drinks in bars on the strength of what once was, and playing all comers for petty cash.

Interviewing fading hellraisers is standard stuff for lads' mags, so when Daire O'Brien, then editor of Himself, Ireland's first men's magazine, suggested Alex Higgins as a cover story for the very first issue, the idea was greeted enthusiastically. Especially by me.

At the time, I was too young to know just how disappointing it usually is to meet your heroes, especially when time and life have not been kind to them. We met in Temple Bar, and at first the change in him seemed largely physical. He was just a couple of months away from being diagnosed with throat cancer, and was already very slight. He looked older than 49, and was remarkably fey, darting off in every direction, magpie-like, attracted by a poster, someone wearing a coat he admired, or a magazine rack. He refused to answer any questions, or rather, simply ignored them. Instead he talked about his many injustices at the hands of the WPBSA (World Professional Snooker and Billiards Association) and the women who had let him down, never prepared to admit the part he himself had played in the downfall of his dreams.

We went to Eden -- Daire O'Brien, his wife Cliodhna, Higgins and I. Higgins refused to order any food, telling Daire he would just take bits off his plate. He barely sat down longer than five minutes at a stretch. Instead, he wandered around the restaurant, chatting to other diners, then darting back to tell us what they'd said. The few times he did sit still, the disjointed conversation was all about his grievances -- how he felt his family hadn't supported him, how his hand had been injured, so he couldn't play properly any more, the great comeback he was planning, if only certain people didn't stand in his way.

At one point he took exception to our waitress -- I think she suggested he might like a starter at least -- and, with quite remarkable vitriol, hissed that she was an ugly lesbian, and he didn't want her anywhere near the table. Luckily, the manager was graciousness personified, and redeployed the waitress, instead serving us herself. But it was a nasty incident. A reminder that underneath the fey but still charming exterior was a frightening level of rage and paranoia. By then, the long-standing rumours of violence against women had been corroborated by a vile incident in which he had fractured the jaw of girlfriend Siobhan Kidd with a hairdryer.

Higgins and I went to Bad Bob's, where he was greeted like a hero by a certain type of Dublin lad. They bought him whiskies and formed a kind of guard of honour around him. When a hefty American asked me to dance and didn't seem to want to take no for an answer, Higgins went up close to him and muttered something in his ear -- I'm guessing something along the lines of his words to fellow player Dennis Taylor, "I come from the Shankill. Next time you're in Northern Ireland, I'll have you shot" -- because the guy, at least twice his size, looked rattled and backed off. The lads patted him on the back in approval.

When I finally decided it was time for me to leave, Higgins asked would I not come back to his hotel room with him, to "scrub his back and make him feel good". He asked rather wistfully, without much conviction it seemed to me, and took my refusal without rancour. Not so his phalanx of supporters, one of who told me it was my "job" to go home with Higgins. Obviously deputy magazine editor and slut were pretty much the same thing in his eyes. I left Higgins there, with another whisky on the way, looking fragile and old and a far, far cry from the dashing figure he once cut. What one paper has dubbed "the longest suicide in sporting history" was by then well under way, and the most charismatic snooker player ever, the man Steve Davis called "the one true genius that snooker has produced", was clearly never going to make the comeback he kept talking of.

My little brother had asked me to get Higgins' autograph, but in the end I didn't bother. He'd probably have charged me for it anyway.

Shortly after that encounter, Higgins moved back to Belfast, his home town, where he died last weekend, aged 61, alone and penniless, in sheltered housing. It's an end that is far too close to his beginnings, given the extraordinary rise in fortune that he brought about for a time through his talent and charisma. Higgins' father was an illiterate Belfast labourer who was left brain-damaged when he was hit by a lorry. His mother, a cleaner, raised him and was the main influence on his formative years. Young Higgins hustled for shillings in the Jampot Snooker Hall, often cutting school, until, determined to make it as a jockey, he became a stable lad in Berkshire. On the ferry from Belfast to Liverpool, aged 15, he had his first drink.

Higgins never made it as a jockey -- a fondness for Guinness and chocolate meant he put on too much weight, and the lack of discipline, evident throughout his career, meant he was no good at the early mornings. His stable boss later recalled him as "just a starved little rat from the slums". By 17, he was back in Belfast, and back to hustling in the Jampot, where he gradually evolved into a professional player, even though he frequently slept rough, once moving from squat to squat in condemned housing, just one step ahead of the demolition squad. In 1972, aged just 23, he won the world championship for the first time, and became a kind of George Best of snooker, bringing the game to a whole new audience. Snooker transformed from a working man's game, something played by oldsters in dingy clubs, into one of the biggest TV sports of the Seventies and Eighties, and Higgins was never slow to claim his part in this transformation. "I created the game," he regularly boasted, with some justification.

Flamboyant, aggressive, charming and hard-living, able to clear a snooker table in under two-and-a-half minutes, and turn from insouciant to snarling in about the same amount of time, Higgins made headlines throughout two decades, though only rarely for his talent at the snooker table. Getting drunk, stripping, snorting cocaine, even assaulting a prostitute, this was Higgins the hellraiser, though still with an appealing vulnerability, a sense of being lost and troubled, but not without the hope of redemption.

When he won the World Championship for a second time, in 1982, after a lean period of consistent failure, Higgins dissolved into tears of relief, calling his wife and baby daughter on to the stage to share his glory. The three of them are captured forever in that moment, baby Lauren waving at the crowd from her father's arms; Lynn, blonde and pregnant with their second child, looks doe-eyed and proud, although already noticeably more tense than in their glamorous wedding photo of just two years earlier. Higgins meanwhile, looks like a man who might just have found what he needed, the core of self-worth around which to build a life.

But it was not to be. Lynn was his second wife -- he had previously married an Australian, Cara Hasler, wealthy daughter of a race-horse trainer, with whom he had one daughter before they divorced -- and he had a son by yet another difficult relationship, that ended six months after the boy, Chris Delahunty, was born. Chris, when eventually told by his mother who his father was, apparently said he didn't want "anything to do with him. He may be a great snooker player, but he is a crap father". The marriage to Lynn didn't last much longer than the birth of their second child, Jordan, in 1983, and ended so badly that Lynn had to call the police to get Higgins out of the house. She said later that marriage to him was "like standing on the edge of a volcano". After that, there were to be no more second chances in Higgins' life. Unlike many, he never faltered on the road to self-destruction. There were no real attempts to go straight, to clean up. Instead, it was a steady, inexorable downward spiral. Higgins' life was chaotic, raucous and unpredictable, marred by violence that he both inflicted and suffered -- he regularly savaged referees and officials, and was once turfed out of a tournament for having a black eye, apparently dealt him by a fellow player. There were bouts of anorexia and an addiction to sleeping pills, nights out with Jimmy White, Oliver Reed and good-time-girls, even a possible suicide bid in Majorca, where he swallowed 150 tranquillisers with Champagne, and went into a coma for 48 hours.

Sometimes he played with the old brilliance, but increasingly he became jittery and undisciplined, and chances continued to slip away from him. Through it all, his determined paranoia and burning sense of injustice kept him from any realisation of the part he was playing in his own destruction. In his own eyes, he was forever a victim, persecuted by "the establishment" for not being part of some insiders' club.

And gradually he fell further and further into squalor. The flash mansion he owned in Cheshire, nicknamed "Hurricane Hall", was gradually traded in for council housing and even, at one point, a caravan, where he lived for a couple of years with girlfriend Holly Haise, until a stabbing incident one night -- he was wounded in the right arm and abdomen -- persuaded him to move out. Haise had already tried to kill herself during the volatile relationship, and apparently made a knitted voodoo doll of Higgins, into which she would stick pins when he went on one of his protracted drinking binges. During this time he was also convicted of assaulting a 14-year-old boy.

The endless rows and incidents that spilled over into his professional life meant that Higgins rarely enjoyed the ranking he deserved. He was banned repeatedly, for aggressive and threatening behaviour, and brought up in front of the disciplinary authorities more than 50 times. By the time he retired, the wild cheers that used to greet his arrival at a tournament had become more muted, although with Higgins there always seemed to be the chance of something unexpected, something magical, happening.

For a long time, Higgins retained vestiges of the old style and charisma, managing to seem almost lovable even as his antics became increasingly disreputable. But by the early Nineties, that thin veneer had finally worn away. Increasingly, he got the face he deserved, appearing gaunt and bitter, old beyond his years; a cautionary tale of the consequences of hard living. By the time of his diagnosis with throat cancer, he was back in Belfast, and his reaction was typically belligerent. He joined a class action against the tobacco companies which had sponsored snooker during his heyday, claiming it was at fault for ensuring so many free samples of its product lay to hand in the dressing rooms and bar. The lavish gifting, he claimed, had left him with an 80-a-day habit.

Several bouts of radiotherapy caused his teeth to fall out, so that for the last few years he had eaten nothing but baby food, gradually wasting further and further to an almost ghostly creature. He couldn't talk above a hoarse whisper, yet his appetite for a scrap remained, and by the end he was banned from most of the snooker halls around Belfast.

Higgins alienated many along the way, but some friends were loyal to the end. Shortly before he died, a charity auction and dinner, organised by his one-time PA Will Robinson, raised £10,000 to get him new teeth so he could start to eat properly. By then though, he was too feeble to face the anaesthetic, and the money will now be used for his funeral instead. Long-time friend Jimmy White was instrumental in supporting him financially at the end, by getting him gigs at charity matches as long as he could hold a cue, and by digging into his own pocket when Alex became too weak for that.

And after all, maybe that's only fair. Without Higgins, snooker would never have reached the dizzy heights it did in the Seventies and Eighties, with 18 million people -- the largest ever audience for a BBC2 show -- watching the 1985 final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor. Those audience figures meant players could command fees previously unheard of. No wonder the tributes to Higgins have poured in from fellow players, even the many he didn't get on with. Towards the end, Higgins was also somewhat reconciled with his children, Lauren and Jordan, who visited him in hospital after treatment, having had no contact for many years.

"I haven't really had all that much to do with my life," Higgins said once. "All I've done is take part in it." By which he meant maybe that he had simply hung on for the ride, never really attempting to steer himself in a better direction, even as the ride increasingly became a horror story. But that is nonetheless a sad verdict for someone with so much talent and personal appeal. The man who had it all, except that tiny something that allows him to know himself.

They say never meet your heroes, and mostly they are right. Meeting Hurricane Higgins was a disillusioning experience, and yet I'm glad I did. Despite the vicious, bullying temper and desperate streak of self-pity, in his day, at his thing, he was a genius. And there aren't many of those around.

Sunday Independent

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