Over my lifetime my brushes with the rich and famous have been very slight. I was once trapped in a lift with Steve Cram whilst on gutter sulphate for twenty minutes. Cram wasn't impressed but he was a big Sunderland fan so I wasn't bothered. I'd recently worked on a site with a Sunderland fan who'd told me he'd once worked as a merchant seaman and thrown an injured parrot in the sea. I'd disliked everything about the club since.
This slightly scuzzy scene was nothing however to compared to the night I met snookers hurricane incarnate, Mr Alex Higgins. October 1999 and I found myself in a pub in Whitby called the Board inn. Whitby is one of those historical seaside towns where pensioners move like rust and murder scotch eggs everywhere you look. Dracula also apparently lived there in a bedsit or something. I was sat in the corner bored. Bryan Adams was trying to escape from the jukebox with a rope made from guitar solos and I was listening to a bunch of hairy arsed scaffolders telling a story of a mate of theirs who had sat on his false teeth and ended up needing a tetanus injection when suddenly the doors burst open dramatically and something burst in from the darkness like a dervish.
Not exactly a hurricane really but farting with trouble nonetheless. The figure growled under a lopsided fedora and straightened his bony frame up to take in his surroundings. At first I thought he was one of those Scottish alcoholic types who pace up and down the aisles of National express night time bus journeys. but there was something in his eyes. A steel glint, a mad romanticism I felt I'd seen before. I was just about to recognise him when someone behind me said 'fucking hell it's Hurricane Higgins'
Higgins was in the midst of his full on alcoholism then. Not the vaudeville Peter O'Toole version of the entertaining drunk but the full on stink of a proper soak. He'd pissed his talent up the wall a decade previously. His glory days had been reduced to exhibitions and newspaper interviews about his various problems. There were a few to be fair. I watched him stagger to the bar like a prisoner from Tenko. 'Double whiskey' he barked before throwing the liquid down his pencil neck furiously. He cast a crocodile eye around the room and spotted a pool table in the corner. Two minutes later he was stood on top of it, challenging anyone to play him for a hundred quid a frame. He also called us all bastards I guess it was the performer in him.
Higgins had the room now, but he'd underestimated his fan base.
'Sit down you daft twat,' one of the scaffolders suddenly said. Higgins was no fool. He'd had more black eyes than hot dinners and like most performing drunks he was also ostensibly a coward. He took one look at the burly fucker with a Middlesbrough FC emblem tattooed on his forearm and backed down.
'Fair enough son.' He drawled apologetically. He hopped on to one foot, struggling to keep his balance on the table. 'I tell you what. Call it a tenner for the good nature. I'll play yer man sat down ooer there. If he pots two balls the money yours.'
It was then that I realised a long, bony Irish finger was pointing at me. I was Higgins bait. It was like a scene from the Hustler. Albeit a kitchen sink version. I looked at the great pistolero of world snooker and he looked back at me with bad marbles for eyes. It was surreal. And a bit scary. And suddenly it was on. A crowd seemed to gather round the table immediately.
I'd noticed that since Higgins had entered the room he moved like he had a red hot knife permanently stuck in his spine. He'd always kind of moved like that, it was kind of his charm but now it was exxagerated. He literally couldn't stand still. Or stand up. It was like he was stuck in two harsh artic winds. He had trouble taking his coat off. People sniggered, but there was anticipation still as he grabbed a cue and chalked the end in that style of his, surveying the balls. He arched the cue back dramatically and thunnnnk hit the ball so hard it literally took off the table like a rocket, through the air, past a blokes ear. That's going to be some shot to pot a ball from there I thought. Maybe he is a genius.
But no, it turns out the great maestro had maybe stepped down a level from his glory crucible days. It was like he was trying to pot a ball with a hard boiled egg. He was missing everything. Easy balls over pockets. Long balls he seemed intent on taking a run at like a demented long jumper. It wasn't his night and the hurricanes frustration was growing. He barked out 'fucks' and slapped his hand into his face repeatedly as I slowly picked the balls into the pocket. I was enjoying myself and maybe getting a bit carried away with proceedings. I'd long ago potted the two balls I needed to win and as my penultimate shot on the black arrived
I gave Higgins a little nod. Nothing nasty, just a little showboating as I connected with the black and watched it caressing itself towards the jaws of the middle bag.
If I'd have watched Higgins closely then I'd have seen something switched on in him. Some Gallic cunt rage rising to the surface amongst the cheers and the laughter. I was too busy taking in the support and the fact that I'd nearly seven balled a legend of the green table to be fair. But as the noise died down suddenly I was aware of something else. A weird, high pitched scream. It got louder and louder in the room like a demented Japanese soldier. Aiiiiiiiiieeeeee, it went. I looked up to see Higgins frothing at the mouth, cue in hand, ready to charge like Excalibur.
He was surprisingly quick and agile for someone so pissed. Maybe the adrenalin had kicked it. His blue waistcoat flapped in the wind impressively. It was like being attacked by a blue riband biscuit. It was all I could do to try and fend the wiry fucker off as he charged. Luckily he tripped and dropped his cue midway to reaching me. He wasn't to be denied however. He dusted himself off and suddenly he was right on top of me. We came together like two giant knik knaks and we grappled with each other. I think i had him in a half Nelson at one point. A huge cheer went up again. I looked deep into his eyes and suddenly I knew what Len Ganley felt like. Higgins on the other hand just saw Steve Davis and all his wives rolled into one. I'm sure if he'd have had any stamina at all he would have finished the job too. It was hardly passion he was lacking.
As it was, like an old kettle the hurricane ran out of steam. Before long, I could feel him wheezing in my ear and the mad oil leaving his Irish pistons. I relaxed too realising I wasn't in any mortal danger. One of the scaffolders separated us then. They'd let it go for a few minutes for their own entertainment more than anything else but now there was a ballast forearm between us and in the next motion they were leading Higgins away. They sat him down in the corner. I wondered how many situations he'd been led away from and how many naughty steps the hurricane had been put on in his time. A thousand? I then had the weird thought that he might apogise but as I looked over to him he was just laughing manically and trying to blag another double whiskey on the rocks off someone who duly obliged. They always would of course. Every night would always be a mad night and ice cold for Alex.