John Virgo: My life in the eye of Hurricane Higgins
An explosive new book has lifted the lid on the turbulent career of snooker legend Alex Higgins.
Let Me Tell You About Alex is written by fellow snooker star and TV personality John Virgo, who spent decades travelling the world on the snooker circuit with the controversial Belfast-born star.
The book provides an intimate and revealing look at ‘the Hurricane’, from his early days to his two world championship triumphs, to his death last year.
Virgo pulls no punches in his portrayal of Higgins and his memoirs provide an honest, and sometimes ugly, account of what life was like as a friend of the Hurricane.
In a chapter entitled Alex The Social Animal, he explains Higgins' well-documented relationship with George Best.
“We used to go to a bar in Manchester called Blinkers, which was a frequent haunt of the football legend George Best,” writes Virgo.
“People often talk about George Best and Alex Higgins as two similar personalities... but the truth is that Best did not like Alex.”
He adds: “People compare him to George Best. It's a comparison I always hear — but he was nothing like Best. For a start, Best had some humility. They say that they are the same people because they are both Belfast boys. I'm still not sure what that means, to be honest.”
Virgo also describes how Higgins once became an unwelcome lodger at the home of a Rolling Stone.
He explains: “Jimmy White, by the end of Alex's life, was at the end of his tether with him.
“We went to Ronnie Wood's once and then three days later Jimmy would get a call from Ronnie's wife Jo. It turned out Alex had been there for days; she couldn't get rid of him. He just moved in.”
On another occasion Wood, Virgo, Jimmy White and Higgins went to see the play that was based on Higgins' life, Hurricane.
Virgo describes how the Belfast man still felt anger towards the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association for the way they treated him.
He writes: “When we arrived Alex was there and he came and sat with us. As the play went along he was always one step ahead, telling us what was going to happen next because he had seen the rehearsals already.
“But there was one final line, which they (the producers) could only have got from Alex himself. ‘WPBSA', the Alex character cried, ‘why have you ruined my life?' And then the lights went out dramatically. I thought, what a load of bo******.”
Ronnie Wood wasn't the only celebrity Higgins liked to drink with. Virgo explains how he would frequently socialise with legendary drinker and actor, the late Oliver Reed.
“He (Higgins) became friendly with Oliver Reed and they went on some legendary sessions together.
“There was always a classic story every time they met, like the time Reed successfully dared Alex to drink perfume.
“One morning they woke up after a solid night of drinking. Alex had a fearful hangover and Reed said he had the solution... it was a combination (of perfume), liquor and washing-up liquid, but Alex had knocked the whole lot back in one before he realised he had been pranked.”
Let Me Tell You About Alex: Crazy Days And Nights On The Road With The Hurricane, is available from February 1, £17.99, John Blake Publishing.
John Virgo turned professional in 1976 and his finest moment on the snooker circuit came when he won the 1979 UK championship. Now a TV pundit, he is perhaps better known for his repetoire of trick shots and his impressions of other players, particularly Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor.
“Alex was never lacking in confidence, I remember him once signing an autograph ‘Alexander the Great'.
On another occasion: “At the end of the show, as was customary, we went through to sign autographs for the audience. I got my pen out, but Alex got out an ink pad and a stamp. On the stamp it had carved ‘A Higgins' in block capitals. I said, ‘What's that, Alex?' He replied, ‘It's a time-saver'... The fans were a bit confused in the main they went along with it.”
“He had little fear. I've seen him roll a joint in front of a policeman. He got away with it. It was at a rock concert. It wasn't that it didn't occur to him not to. He always wanted to know what he could get away with.
“He was even more daring backstage at a rock concert on one occasion... Alex turned to Sting and asked, ‘Have you got any gear?' Sting got totally the wrong end of the stick and said, ‘Yes, we've got some baseball caps and T-shirts left.' Alex sneered: ‘No! Not that kind of gear. I meant the kind of gear that goes up your nose!”
“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.”
“Alex, still in the tournament, was practising backstage one night on one of the practice tables. After a few hours of this a security man approached him and said, ‘Sorry, I'll have to ask you to finish up in a minute. We're closing the building for the night.'
‘I'm practising for the World Championship here,' he replied... Alex didn't want to leave the practice room and he knew that, if he even popped out for moment to spend a penny, the doors would be locked and he wouldn't be able to return to the table. So, when he needed the toilet, he urinated into a plant pot right there in the room. As he later argued, they were fake plants in the pot so he ‘wasn't being cruel to the flowers'.”
“He seemed to be getting more and more quirky since he won his second World Championship... For instance, I remember when we were driving through a village in Ireland... He suddenly said, ‘Stop the car!' He got out of the car and walked into a pub. He quickly ordered half a pint of Guinness and knocked it back in one. Naturally, a crowd would immediately swarm around him, but before they could reach him he would run out of the pub and back to the car. ‘Drive!' he would demand, as the crowd stood confused.”
“He was invited to play in a pro-celebrity golf tournament. Among those taking part was Sean Connery and he was very polite to him. He was partnering Greg Norman on the course... After Alex hit one particularly bad shot, Norman's caddy came up and said, 'Don't worry, we all have a bad day.' Alex replied, ‘Well if that **** [Norman] wasn't telling me what to do things would have been better... Lo and behold, the next thing we know Norman is reluctant to play until Alex gives him a proper apology... In the hotel Alex had been almost fawningly polite to Sean Connery... So, you see, he really could pick and choose when he was rude and when he was not just polite but almost deferential.”
“When I thought about the funeral, I wondered whether I should go. I realised that there would be a lot of mayhem and frenzy around it. It was Jimmy [White] who persuaded me. It was during one of our many telephone conversations at this time that I shared with him my doubts. ‘How can you not go?' he asked. ‘Given how you felt about him and all you went through, you really should go and pay your last respects to him.' I realised he was right, so I decided to go.”