Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

the original bad boy

Alex Higgins was one of sport's most notorious hellraisers. Jamie McDowell on erstwhile rival and friend John Virgo's life with 'The Hurricane'

You won't have to grace the front door of many a Belfast pub to hear stories about Alex Higgins. Any barman in the Shaftesbury Square area will have fond - or not so fond - memories of the snooker star.

They will go through the routine of telling you what a legend he was (in order to remove the implication of any ill-speak of the dead), then go on about what a pain he could be. It'll probably be the most honest account of 'Higgy' you'll get anywhere.

Like many of the people who frequent the snooker halls of south Belfast, John Virgo, a notable player in his own right, tells of his relationship with Higgins by, "recounting the legends, dispelling the myths and telling the whole extraordinary truth'', as it says on the inner-sleeve blurb.

It's a brave and bold book, detailing Virgo's relationship with Higgins.

However, it does take a while for the late night antics promised by the book's subtitle (Crazy Days and Nights on the Road with 'The Hurricane') to really get underway.

There's a heartfelt foreword by Jimmy White, which is, in hindsight, one of the most touching parts of the book given the strength of the two men's friendship.

Two chapters in, the dialogue between Virgo and Higgins begins - the necessary dialogue that makes Let Me Tell You About Alex a worthwhile project. This is because Higgins' life story has been covered enough, both on paper and on stage.

Apart from the in-depth descriptions of snooker matches that happened decades ago, the stories on Higgins really liven things up. There are a few nuggets thrown in that even the biggest fans of the man may not know about.

There's the night he decided to become a lodger at Ronnie Wood's house, much to the annoyance of Wood's then wife Jo.

Virgo also recalls Higgins' bipolar relationship with his fans, on the one hand keen to offer them a game of snooker or pool (usually with money involved) and, on the other, having his signature made into a stamp in Hong Kong to save him time while signing autographs.

Unfortunately, Let Me Tell You About Alex gives the impression that it was hastily put together, in some parts veering off topic into something to do with Virgo or another friend or acquaintance.

A chapter entitled Mimicry And Commentary focuses almost entirely on Virgo, and the story of how he furthered his television career, honing his impressionist skills and revealing how he came to be in the iconic snooker show Big Break.

Only in the next chapter does the spotlight seem to swing back on to Higgins.

The reader is continually drawn in by clever chunks of emotional insight, however.

These intimate observations made by Virgo are delicately manoeuvred to build the scene, as if watching Higgins from afar and reaching out to try and save him.

He comes across as a man who wanted to help Higgins, one who felt deep sorrow while the snooker ace wilted away. He gives the impression that he reluctantly watched as the Hurricane drank excessively and took drugs, but was caught up in the whirlwind of non-stop parties and antics that surrounded him.

Telling of Higgins' battle with cancer, Virgo writes: "When I saw Alex I said to Jimmy [White], 'I thought you said he'd been given the all-clear.' Jimmy said, 'Yes, he has been given the all-clear.' But I think what had happened was that he had given up on life and that was that."

His writing, though at times reading like pub talk, can subtly remove the 'hard man' illusion that Higgins was renowned for. He paints the picture of a frail vulnerable Higgins by simply noting small snippets of conversation between friends as if recording minutes of a meeting.

With this punchy laddish style, Virgo almost brings a tear to the eye of even Higgins' biggest detractor. Just as quickly, however, the book can slump back into the ins and outs of what we are led to believe was an interesting snooker tournament.

This book comes from John Blake Publishing, a company that is no stranger to the celebrity biography, so it is obviously aimed at fans of Higgins - of whom they were many.

For a reader unfamiliar with the man, it still makes for a decent warts-and-all semi-biography.

This is a look at Higgins that hasn't really been covered before. The stories come from someone who's not a journalist or playwright, but a friend.

Anecdotes aside, snooker fans will get more from this read than anyone else.

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