Alex “Hurricane” Higgins

When I used to play the game, there were snooker clubs in London that stayed open until midnight. You could drink beer while you played. And you could get a sandwich. And you could smoke too. I’d go with several friends, and stay for hours. It was as much a social occasion as anything else, because while you weren’t at the table, you were sitting talking.

I was playing snooker around the time it started being televised, and before it became popular. And it was primarily people like Alex  “Hurricane” Higgins (below) who made it popular. Alex Higgins smoked and drank and threw television sets through windows. He also played mercurial, quick-fire snooker. And he pulled in crowds to watch him play.


Alex Higgins single-handedly re-invented the previously slow and stuffy game of snooker as an exhilarating fast game. And just like me, he’d sit between breaks with a beer and a cigarette (below) chatting with people.

Alex Higgins 1982

Alex Higgins 1982

The game became popular all over the world. But never more so than in China. I guess that when the Chinese economy started booming, snooker clubs and pool halls started opening, and Chinese people started discovering the pleasures of snooker. And now there are lots of Chinese snooker players who play snooker just like Alex Higgins.

But at some point (I can’t remember exactly when, but it was well before the UK smoking ban) the beer and cigarettes vanished from the televised game. And snooker became a job of work, with big prizes at stake. The players now sit sipping bottled water. Larger-than-life characters like Alex Higgins have been replaced by boring automatons. Many of them are technically better players than Alex Higgins ever was, but none of them ever have half his character or flair or passion.

And when the 2007 UK public smoking ban was imposed, snooker clubs started closing much like pubs and clubs started closing. And for much the same reasons. I wouldn’t want to go to any snooker club now.

A week or so back I watched a discussion between a couple of the game’s top players about the “current crisis in snooker”. The kids aren’t going to the snooker clubs like they used to. And they were discussing a plan to get snooker played in schools. If the kids wouldn’t go to the snooker clubs, they’d take snooker to the kids.

It won’t work. Snooker is being killed by stifling puritanism. And it’s probably already dying in China, now that the killing smoking bans have reached there too. For snooker is probably the most sociable of games. It’s as much about what happens off the table as on it. It’s much more than just potting balls.

The annual Snooker World Championship started a couple of days back. I won’t be watching much of it on BBC iplayer. Because it’s no longer the game that it was 20 years ago. It’s no longer fun. And most of the “characters” in the game – people like Alex Higgins – have gone.

Bankrupt, Alex Higgins died alone in 2010, aged 60, of pneumonia and malnutrition. He’d single-handedly re-invented the game of snooker. And now that people like him – rebels – have been banished from snooker, the game will probably die with him.



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21 Responses to Alex “Hurricane” Higgins

  1. Bruce Pritchard says:

    Wrong Alex died of Cancer along with the mentioned other

  2. jaxthefirst says:

    “Larger-than-life characters like Alex Higgins have been replaced by boring automatons. Many of them are technically better players than Alex Higgins ever was, but none of them ever have half his character or flair or passion.”

    And isn’t that just true in other areas, too, where “flair and passion” are vital ingredients for real greatness? Pretty much all of the creative arts are in the doldrums now. Oh, of course, we’ve got fabulous CGI-effects in films, and amazingly lifelike special effects in TV programmes, and of course music is now so technologically advanced that it’s possible to create a recording which sounds like it’s backed by an entire orchestra when actually all there is is a singer and a computer etc etc – but somehow all of these things fail to be really groundbreaking in the way that Higgins was in snooker. They sort of move on a few steps – “hey, guys, look what we can do with this new digital technology” – and for a short while everyone’s amazed. But then, after the first few CGI films, the first few realistically-gory detective-murder-mystery series, the first few “amazingly realistic” records, the creators sort of get stuck in a rut and can’t move on any further. They become too dependent on these new-found gadgets to “sell” their product – because they need them, because, in all honesty, they lack the imagination to put together any really, really gripping stories or any truly interesting characters. Most films and TV programmes these days are so predictable that they’re not worth watching, or else they start out looking promising but then fizzle away to a rather disappointing end. Or they run for one really good series (or one really good film or one really good record), but once that’s finished the follow-ons are almost inevitably a bit second-best by comparison. I blame this almost entirely on the fact there are fewer smokers in the creative arts these days (because there are fewer smokers everywhere these days), and those who are there aren’t able to utilise the mind-enhancing qualities of smoking at the same time as they are doing their creative “stuff.” There’s nothing more distracting than having to get up and leave the room in the middle of a tricky piece of writing, whereas there’s nothing more inspiring than lighting a cigarette just as one is reaching a difficult spot in that writing.

    It reaches into other areas, too, where creativity and passion can really bring about great things, but which are less obviously “creative” fields. From urban planning, to large-scale civil engineering projects, right up to the political level where major decisions on things like education and social welfare are decided upon, there is a distinct “lumpiness” about the decisions which are made. That crucial combination of commonsense and inspiration which made such projects groundbreakingly great in the past just isn’t there, and, given that enhancing the magical blend of those two qualities – commonsense and inspiration – is one of smoking’s greatest advantages, that’s probably no great surprise, either.

    • Frank Davis says:

      You’re right that it’s true in other areas. Everything is now average. And everyone aims for average. And everything is always being averaged. “Inclusivity” means the top of the class is just as good as the bottom of the class, and there’s no longer any top or bottom, but just a mean that is “mean” in every sense of the word.

      For example music. Who makes any good music these days? Pretty much nobody, as far as I can see. And the result is that we now have bands (like the Rolling Stones), that started life in the effervescent 60s (same time as Alex Higgins), and are still touring – because they’ve got no competition.

  3. John Watson says:

    I remember both Ray Reardon and Alex ‘Hurricane Higgins, both used to do regular snooker demonstration tours, even playing members of the public between competitions. They were polar opposites, Ray being a slow gentlemanly player and Alex living up to his bad boy ‘Hurricane’ (although the ‘Hurricane’ nickname had more to do with the fast pace he played at than his bad boy reputation) image. Such demonstration tours are few and far between now and as suggested will see the end of Snooker, Pool and Billiards as venues die out just as Dominoes, and to a lesser degree even Darts slowly fade away with the traditional pub.

    I can only agree with jaxthefirst when he says that most of the commonsense and inspiration is gone, especially in the entertainment industry, Endless technological films and music with seemingly endless sequels or the same notes rehashed cannot stand against the true classics like Bogart in Cassablanca, Gable in Gone with the Wind, or indeed the legendary Brat pack, Sammie Davies jr, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra who gave decades of entertainment and to whom smoking and drinking on stage in venues was as natural as breathing, You had to see them live to appreciate their talent and the inspiration they gave up and coming acts wherever they played, this too is fast becoming a thing of the past.

  4. Lepercolonist says:

    The flamboyant, dashing golfer Arnold Palmer quit smoking in 1968. He never won a major afterwards. All the golf experts were flummoxed concerning Arnie’s inability to win a major after 1968. Hmmmm…

  5. waltc says:

    “You got trouble
    Right here in River City,
    With a capital “T”
    And that rhymes with “P”
    And that stands for pool!”

    That lyric immediately popped into my head. The fact is the puritans have always hated pool because, as the song goes, pool leads to smoking and dangerous dancing to ragtime music.

    I note too that the techies are all nonsmokers. Bad for the computers, they say. So all those Silicon Valley campuses are smoker-free shops and the drones who inhabit them are all-work-and-no-play players whose imaginations are limited to the technical. Therefore, what you get from them is special effects without any affect.

    And it’s absolutely true that lighting a cigarette coaxes the groped-for word out of hiding, and lights up the way for the next good idea. Twenty Muses packed into a box. Amen

  6. Timothy Goodacre says:

    Many areas of our lives have now been destroyed by the likes of Deborah Arnott. The liberal, sociable venues of pub, social club, snooker club, bingo club etc have all been destroyed by these puritan nutters assisted by compliant corrupt politicians. Now is the time to stand up, go outside the law if necessary, and defy these rules.

  7. prog says:

    I believe James Hunt quit smoking and drinking and died within years thereafter. Though he did live fast….

  8. Stan says:

    None as entertaining in Snooker as Big Bill,

  9. Marvin says:

    The same is true of motorcycle GP racing. Back in the day we had flamboyant, crowd pleasing heroes like Barry Sheene, Kevin Shwantz, Randy Mamola etc.
    None of them did anything “by the book” and all of them dared to be different, with their power slides and ridiculous overtaking manouvers, it was really exciting to watch them on their Lucky Strike, Marlboro, John Player Special, liveried machines. Today MotoGP is bland compared with the 70s and 80s and the same can be said about Formula One car racing, how many Nigel Mansells do we have today? Wayne Rainey was the Steve Davis of motorcycle racing, technically a brilliant rider, but boring as fuck. Bring back cigarette sponsorship!!!

    • Rose says:

      I couldn’t agree more.
      That really does take me back, listening to Agostini’s MV Augusta starting up in the pits at Oliver’s Mount, the Trans Atlantic Match Races, I had almost forgotten.
      I was young and reckless then.

      Very happy days, watching Nigel Mansell win at Silverstone in 92 is something I’ll never forget. The one and only time I ever went to a Grand Prix, if memory serves I was at Bridge

    • nisakiman says:

      Here here Marvin. The only F1 driver who has a rebellious streak is Kimi Raikonnen, and he’s kind of old school now. He is a great fan of James Hunt, too. The rest of them are health freak athletes who don’t smoke, hardly drink and go to bed before nine.

      Barry Sheene and James Hunt were great mates I believe, hellraisers both.

      And yes, the tobacco liveried cars and bikes were amazing. God, the puritans in TC have a lot to answer for. They’re like IS storming into Palmyra and destroying everything of culture and beauty just because it doesn’t suit their ideology, with no thought for the implications.

  10. When I was young, I was a keen snooker follower. My (then) husband was a brilliant player. Once we went to a championship that was held in the old RDLI hall in Durban, South Africa. Ray Reardon was playing. The hall had a Victorian clerestory in the centre. It was night. There was a hell of a storm. As Reardon leaned over the table to make the break, a sloosh of water dumped down on the table. The game ended – naturally – and he said “This is the first time in history rain stopped play in snooker!”

    Never forgotten that – but actually, although sometimes us wives got left at home, for the big stuff, we were always there – smoking allowed – in the most WONDERFUL atmosphere. It was a relaxed time, lots of laughter, no elf n safety, no glitz (except white gloves and bow ties) and an intense love of the game.

    I watch on TV sometimes. And darts. But it’s alien now. Or I’m just old. :-(

  11. Rose says:

    The history of anti-tobacco legislation
    MAY 5, 2005

    “December 1997: The European Union health ministers meet in Brussels to vote on whether to ban tobacco advertising. Spain votes against the ban because of the implications of job losses from Spanish tobacco industry. This means that EU Commissioner Padraig Flynn has to compromise with Britain, Greece and Holland. Britain’s request for a 10-year exclusion for F1 is rejected but after intense negotiation a compromise of eight years is agreed, with a final deadline of October 1 2006. Germany and Austria still vote against the ban. Denmark and Spain abstain. The FIA World Council makes the Belgian GP provisional for 1998 because of the new laws.

    February 1998: The Court of Appeal in Liege declares itself unable to overturn the decision to ban tobacco advertising.

    March 1998: FIA President Max Mosley announces that the FIA might bring in a worldwide ban on tobacco advertising in Formula 1 as early as 2002 if there is evidence that tobacco sponsorship in F1 leads to people starting smoking. The move is condemned as political intrigue.

    April 1998: The anti-tobacco campaigners suffer a serious setback when two European Parliament committees in Strasbourg rule that the European Union does not have the legal right to ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship. The Legal Affairs Committee – which is made up of members of the European Parliament – voted 12 to 7 against the ban, declaring it to be illegal. Tobacco lobbyists immediately asked that the legislation be withdrawn.

    May 1998: Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland is appointed head of the World Health Organisation and promises to launch further attacks on the tobacco industry.”

    May 1998: The European Parliament votes in favour of legislation to ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship throughout the European Union.”

    And so on and so forth.

    DECEMBER 16, 2004
    Britain ratifies anti-tobacco treaty

    “The British Department of Health has issued a statement saying that the United Kingdom has become the latest country to ratify the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – the first global health treaty. This commits the government to enact strict tobacco control measures. The convention will become interantional law on February 28 2005. The treaty binds the nations involved to enact comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, ban the use of misleading terms such as “light” and “mild” and to increase tobacco taxation. Campaigners are already asking the Secretary of State for Health what planning mechanisms will be put in place to ensure the UK complies with the requirements.

    The announcement was hidden away in a statement about a reduction in the number of smokers in the UK.”

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