Sunday, 25 July 2010

Alex Higgins: a force of nature

Few can be surprised by the death of Alex Higgins. He'd been unwell for years. Eighty fags a day, a cocaine habit and a lifetime of intense activity at the bar had caught up with him long before his ravaged body succumbed in a lonely Belfast flat.

It was a sad ending, but far from a sad life.

In his heyday, which spanned at least a decade, he was the best snooker player in the world. No one could touch him for sheer skill. He played snooker the way most of us wanted it played: fast, unpredictable, exciting. He was an entertainer who played the way all of us snooker fans would love to have been able to play if we hadn't been shit.

Higgins was 'a force of nature', I suppose. But not a genius. He will be called a genius many times over the next few days, but to me it seems almost an insult to him. A genius is brilliant but doesn't know why. But I suspect Higgins knew exactly why he was brilliant  - he knew the demons that tormented him and drove him on. 

Then there was the workload. Hour after hour, day after day, night after night. Practice, practice, practice. When the other players were tucked up in bed, there was Alex, racking up again and again and again. There are stories of him collapsing at tables in the early days, and it wasn't always because of booze. At least, not yet.

And then there was his personality - a manifestation of that 'force'. And a strange thing it was.

I saw him play once, years ago in a bar near Brighton. It was a quiet evening with few punters in. He was just in there drinking on his own. This was the 1980s when he was still pretty much in his prime.

A friend of mine plucked up the courage to challenge him. £50 a frame. You'd think this superstar - for that's what he was - would wave that sort of thing away. But he jumped at it. We offered to buy him a drink but he insisted on getting the round in.

The thing I remember most was the way he played. Higgins played like he was at the Crucible. There was no joking or mucking about at all. He looked like someone who was carrying some awful memory around that he couldn't shake off. He muttered to himself. In the end I began to feel as though he'd forgotten we were there.

There were of course moments of jaw-dropping brilliance, but in the end he just missed too many pots. He lost - badly. He'd been on the Guinness all day and it showed. My friend was a pretty good player, but only in local clubs. But he was also sober. In the end Higgins slapped the £50 on the bar and left.

I bored everyone with that story for years. But to me, as a young man, he was so many things that I wanted to be. He seemed to have everything - and he did. But of course a man like Higgins will always have everything to lose. It's just the way it is.

There is something horribly inevitable about Higgins's decline and sad death. You just somehow knew it would happen like that one day. Even then, in that nothing sort of sports bar back in the 80s, you just knew that this amazing man was never destined for punditry and a twilight of sweet sherry and Radio 4. He wasn't like us. To us he was like an electrical forcefield in a waistcoat. He made the air move.

It's a funny thing about these 'forces of nature' like Alex Higgins and George Best. That very force that drives them on ultimately destroys them. They always seemed to do everything in a hurry, perhaps because they somehow knew that it would leave them soon. And without it they were just like you and me, and they couldn't stand it.

RIP Alex. (And thanks for the Guinness.)

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