Ball watching. Bryan Appleyard on the wretched life of a man capable of "beautiful moments"

The Hurricane: the turbulent life and times of Alex Higgins

Bill Borrows <em>Atlantic Books, 368pp

I once spent a week in Blackpool with Alex Higgins. He wasn't really a hurricane by then - this was 1995 - more of a nasty squall. He drank, he smoked, he took sleeping pills, he whined and he blamed everybody for everything. He looked dreadful and, when playing competitive snooker at the appalling Norbreck Hydro, he looked even worse. On the other hand when he played casually at our hotel, he looked beautiful. For a few moments, I saw an alignment between the man and the game that defied reason. Like Gary Sobers, George Best, Ayrton Senna or Muhammad Ali, Higgins was at one with his sport.

Unfortunately, he was - and is and always has been, judging by Bill Borrows's unauthorised biography - a complete bastard. To describe Alex Higgins as self-indulgent and self-pitying is to fall lamentably short. His self-indulgence and self-pity are monumental, epic; like the Great Wall of China, they are probably visible from space. In his eyes nobody suffers, nobody is persecuted and nobody is more misunderstood than the Hurricane. And so, everybody must be made to feel his pain.

"Thanks for coming down, Alex," smiled Colin Randle, a press officer, as Higgins strode in to one press conference. The Hurricane, a little the worse for wear after 27 shots of vodka, punched him in the stomach and went on to deliver a speech that, among other things, called on Cecil Parkinson and Margaret Thatcher to investigate the game of snooker.

He dumped his first wife and child as if they had never existed, treated his second family vilely, and lurched and punched his way through a number of other sexual relationships. His "personal" life climaxed when he was stabbed by Holly Haise, a former call-girl. I'm with Holly on this one - I came pretty close to terminating Higgins with extreme prejudice during that week in Blackpool - though I am a little put off by her Jerry Springer-style statement in court.

"Of course, I stabbed him. I have admitted it from day one. But I still love him deeply. I want to marry him and put his life back on the rails."

This points implicitly to the "just a little boy" defence of his character, the charming vulnerability that suddenly seems to shine from the scarred chaos of his otherwise ratlike features. The evidence for this defence is that people - men and women - are, indeed, from time to time, charmed. And, I must admit, there were moments in Blackpool when I almost succumbed. But the truth is that it is charm, not patriotism, that is the last refuge of the scoundrel. As Borrows repeatedly demonstrates, Higgins switches on the little-boy look when he needs something. The rest of the time, his preferred expression is "a face that could clear a hotel bar faster than a bomb scare".

The more substantial defence is that he was more sinned against than sinning. Snooker, Borrows makes clear, is a cliquey, narrow-minded business. Its administrators were primarily concerned to keep themselves and their favoured players in bow ties and ruffled shirts, and definitely do not want to make room for genius.

Confronted with this complacent shower, it is fair to say some of Higgins's paranoia was justified. When, once, somebody called after him, "Could you face life without snooker, Alex?", he snapped back "Could snooker face life without me?" And he was right, it couldn't.

For the truth is, unless you like the sight of men bending over tables, snooker is a very ugly game. Just the names of some of its tournaments are enough to make you feel as though you're in the Norbreck Hydro and it's raining - the Yamaha Organs Trophy, the Lada Classic, the Padmore/Super Crystalate International and, my personal favourite, the Duty Free Classic in Dubai. OK, there is a certain Newtonian purity about the movement of those shining, coloured balls over the cloth, but everything else about the game is cheap and nasty.

Higgins, alone, made it beautiful. He could take in the unfathomable geometry of any arrangement of balls in an instant. He sprang to the table like a cat and played shots almost before the balls had stopped rolling. Some of his shots - many well described by Borrows here - were simply unbelievable and, before he made them, generally regarded as impossible. He transformed the game.

Without him, there is nothing. Snooker may still be on TV, but I can't remember a conversation about it in the past decade. I suspect, in time and in the absence of another Hurricane, that it will lapse back into the oblivion it so richly deserves. Mind you, if there is another Hurricane, I wouldn't advise touching him with a bargepole.

Borrows's primary story, therefore, is the familiar one of wayward genius in conflict with himself and the world. Most of the time he tells it well enough. He can write briskly and clearly and he judiciously restricts giving details of tournaments and games unless they are really important. He does not really have a line on or a theory about Higgins. He attempts no pop psychology nor any cultural analysis. He simply stands and watches the Hurricane's erratic progress as if hypnotised. Unsurprisingly, this is an unofficial biography. Higgins demanded a ludicrous sum for permission to call it authorised, and was, as usual, rejected.

Unfortunately, there are long passages where Borrows simply loses his grip and starts to do what sports editors call "good writing" and everybody else calls "bad writing". I think he periodically feels the need to wave his arms about to remind us that he is a writer. But, whatever the cause, the results are painful.

Higgins disposed of it with the cold-hearted efficiency of a truant picking off rats with an air rifle.

The reds, like one of Senator Joe McCarthy's recurring nightmares, were everywhere, but Higgins's positional play let him down.

And, worst of all, he describes Higgins as "coursing through snooker in the early 1970s like a barium enema".

There is one moment of vivid imagery when he describes being inside the snooker hall at the Norbreck as "like being inside an egg box". This is good for two reasons: a) it is accurate and b) I wrote it first in the Sunday Times magazine. But that's OK, Bill, I can live without the footnote.

In the end, this book is all right for the time being. If you want to know the story of the Hurricane, then it seems to be all here. But there will be more to come. Higgins, having recovered from throat cancer, is showing his usual superhuman powers of survival and, as long as he's alive, he is trouble. More importantly, I think there is an intelligent book to be written about those insolently gifted sportsmen - Best, Ali, Higgins, McEnroe, Maradona - for whom the game was never quite enough. There is some common thread in their lives that will, one day, be unpicked.

Bryan Appleyard's most recent book is Brave New Worlds (HarperCollins)