I recall seeing Alex Higgins in the flesh, as they say, on two occasions. The first was about eight years ago on a flight to England. He sat at the front, spoke briefly to someone who came looking for an autograph and looked like a seriously ill man. The second was about two months ago, as I passed his pub in Sandy Row. He was standing outside it, listening to another man, and looked even more frail than the first time I saw him. Given his once-fiery temperament, it was like a memento mori to see him on both occasions – a reminder that just beneath the skin, for all of us, lies a grinning skull.
I can’t say I liked the man – he lacked the boyish charm of George Best, with whom he was often compared. Best too burnt his life out early with drink and women. And there’s a violence link as well: Higgins told Coalisland-man Dennis Taylor that he would have him shot, and Best is reputed to have beaten his wife. But while, no matter what you heard of him, it was hard to dislike Best, it was always fairly easy to recoil just a little from Higgins.
He was found dead, we’re told, alone in his flat in Sandy Row. Maybe, unlike Best, he stayed too close to his roots, too close to an out-dated culture that told him being a man meant being a brawler, a boozer, someone with a whiff of the vicious. For all that it’s sad to see the gifted spark which lit up snooker world for a decade and more finally quenched. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam – May he rest in peace.