| 18.2°C Belfast

How Alex Higgins lived like a Hurricane on the baize... and in the bars

 

Close

Inspirational force: Alex Higgins surveys the scene at the baize during his heyday at the height of his snooker fame

Inspirational force: Alex Higgins surveys the scene at the baize during his heyday at the height of his snooker fame

Getty Images

Inspirational force: Alex Higgins surveys the scene at the baize during his heyday at the height of his snooker fame

He is so skeletal it is as if a hat stand has suddenly started tottering towards the snooker table. This is the Spawell, 2005; Club Bamboo after midnight but now a dank, darkened snooker room just after midday.

A sardined crowd of 200 have paid a fiver each to see Alex Higgins. Or what's left of him. His is a ghoulish presence, a week before Hallowe'en.

When he gets here, he's 30 minutes late. The trademark fedora covers wiry, ever-thinning hair; he wears a purple waist-coat and lilac shirt, or rather, it wears him, so loosely upon his sagging skin as if it doesn't want to be here at all.

A purple bow-tie droops apologetically, as if repulsed by having to secrete the scars of cancer upon the wearer's throat.

But he remains an unmistakeable, alluring figure, and the atmosphere tingles with familiar electricity.

Here comes the HURRICANE!

Close

Alex Higgins in ‘82. Photo: PA

Alex Higgins in ‘82. Photo: PA

Alex Higgins in ‘82. Photo: PA

 

Gary Hardiman was the club pro, struggling to make it in the big time. Higgins had been his hero. Now he was his opponent.

Higgins abruptly orders his opponent out of his chair; he snaps at snappers, chafes at the ref. Yet his is but a flickering flame.

"Physically he wasn't the same," says Hardiman of their meeting in the first round of the revived Irish Professional Championship.

"He knew he couldn't play as well as he wanted to but he tried everything. He was hustling, calling me names, doing everything to win. I admired the fact he was sick and wanted to win. It seemed like the limelight did something for him, transformed him. He wanted to put on a show."

For his entire life had been a show and he its central performer. Except it seemed like, ultimately, he was the only one who wasn't really entertained.

The era that created and defined him would stand by and watch him slowly expire, before finally turning its back altogether.

Alexander Gordon Higgins would have been 71 last Wednesday; could have been, only if miracles happen. That he made it to 61 seemed a phenomenon in itself; he was given the last rites in 1998 when cancer invaded, the belated but inevitable revenge for a life of intoxicating excess.

His entire life seemed like a reckless gamble on the second favourite in the last at Southwell, the kind of bets he would chase in the Boar's Head in Dublin in his final years, under the watchful eye of the benign Hugh Hourican, hidden away in a corner seat.

Money, women, life itself. Overdoses, falls from windows, axe and knife assaults; he was violent, too; from the snooker officials he hated to the women he loved.

He hated so because he hated himself and nobody ever taught him it could be another way; had he lived in this more tolerant age, how might his life have been?

The public were repulsed and enthralled in equal measure but kept their distance; those who got close were never really trusted.

Even those like Ken Doherty, who tried so much to help in his final years before he died of malnutrition, emaciated, alone, helpless, in a sheltered Belfast flat which had offered anything but shelter.

A life less ordinary but one that, although it seemed cinematic to others, was perhaps one that wasn't really lived at all. For Higgins was never allowed the space to know or be himself.

Close

Alex Higgins relaxes during the World Snooker Championships in 1983.

Alex Higgins relaxes during the World Snooker Championships in 1983.

Getty Images

Alex Higgins relaxes during the World Snooker Championships in 1983.

 

From his early teenage years in the Jam Pot, off the Donegal Road, hustling in the smoke and spit, his entire life was a hustle, a turn, a bet, a ruse. An entire artifice.

It may have seemed like he was always thrillingly alive, face muscles contorting, twitching nervously in a half-sprint around his 12-foot-by-six-foot domain, tapping his wand edgily upon the rail, a blizzard of geometrically impossible shots blurring with the vodkas and free ciggies consumed in his chair.

And when the theatre lights were dimmed, and the curtains drawn, he didn't know that to exit stage left meant the show was over. For the show never ended. A Hurricane described not just his playing style but his lifestyle.

And he remained trapped within it, the artist imprisoned in his own picture, right until the end, even when nobody was paying attention.

Snooker is a sport which taxes the mind; its greatest champions have succumbed to health problems; Higgins' tragedy was that he never addressed his.

Capable of extraordinary feats on the baize, mundane existence beyond it left him in a daze.

Ronnie O'Sullivan is Higgins' modern-day equivalent, from the drink and drugs to erratic relationships and battles with officials; even in 2001 he was misunderstood, the British press calling him "The Two Ronnies".

But he found help before he either killed his love for the sport or the sport killed him.

Higgins tried once, in vain; checking into the Priory in 1983, he discharged himself; for his next trick, he compiled a typically incredulous comeback to defeat Steve Davis in the UK Championship, despite being 7-0 down to the sport's dominant star, the saint to his devil.

And so the cycle would repeat itself, except with ever-decreasing success. But his status ensured that once there was a snooker table, he could earn money.

Hardiman - who holds the record for successive wins in a World Championship (eight qualifying rounds) - and friend Richie McAuley had come up with the idea to revive the Irish title.

Doherty would persuade Higgins to appear in the Spawell for this "comeback" of sorts, a temporary oasis away from the Royal in Belfast, itself a refuge from his depressing digs.

Hardiman's "reward" was to play him in the first round; Higgins' was on an undisclosed fee and table service from the bar; Guinness, then euphemistic glasses of orange.

"I'd met him in Goffs years ago, as a kid," says Hardiman, now a father of two, living in Tallaght and working in sales. "This was a dream for me.

Close

Snooker star Alex Higgins with daughter Lauren

Snooker star Alex Higgins with daughter Lauren

Snooker star Alex Higgins with daughter Lauren

 

"To me, it seemed he moved quicker the longer the match went on. It was like it was keeping him alive, something deep in himself, as if it were trying to keep him healthy."

Four frames were shared, then after four hours, Hardiman prevailed 5-2.

"We became quite close for a few months. He'd stay in the Abberley Court and use our place to practice."

Higgins would sometimes drift into town too, glass of Guinness and Racing Post on standby at Chez Hourican; local students and lunchtime drinkers, if they noticed, staring but rarely approaching.

Even though sickly, maybe this was when he was at his happiest.

"Out of the blue," continues Hardiman, "He rang on Christmas Day to wish me and my family all the best. We hadn't been in touch for years. He had a few cues in the apartment and he wanted me to take up playing again. I always regretted not doing it.

"He knew I was genuine and I didn't want to be one of those hangers-on. He told me that he was terrified of dying and being on his own."

But that was how the story would end. The man who drank too much but couldn't eat, who was loved by so many but couldn't love, who spoke too much but was now mute.

The Hurricane who blew himself to death. A man who literally brought colour to a sport, the world his stage and his prison.

"I haven't really had all that much to do with my life," Higgins said once, towards the end, like a child who was never allowed to grow up. "All I've done is take part in it."

Belfast Telegraph