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The Hurricane and the Rocket

January 1, 2013

In the 1970s snooker was all about Alex Higgins. Whether you were a Higgins fan or found him an obnoxious little twerp, it was his behaviour that dominated the game. Was he winning? Was he losing? Had he sworn at the referee? Had he been in a brawl outside a nightclub after a five-day bender? How much were the WPBSA fining him this time? But there was more to it than newspaper tittle-tattle about hell-raising; Higgins’s personality provided the dramatic conflict which defined the game – he gave shape to the meta-narrative of snooker as it emerged from dingy clubs into the bright glare of a multi-million strong TV audience. In short, he made the game about something over and above mere frame scores or names on trophies.

"You want some?"

“You want some?”

It was a story of rebellion against authority; wayward talent versus hard-nosed professionalism; the doomed romantic urge to spit in the face of percentages, rules and the dead weight of common sense. As such, it was remarkably in keeping with the spirit of the times: truculent, cocky, anti-establishment. The 70s was perhaps the last decade when working-class upstarts genuinely believed not only that they had the right to challenge the status quo, but also that their challenge might be successful. From football hooligans to trade union activists to punk rockers it was an age of class confrontation, and snooker (rather improbably) managed to capture the zeitgeist thanks to Alex “Hurricane” Higgins.

But it was part of his genius that he didn’t just play out this drama via tabloid quotes and vodka binges; he somehow managed to embody it at the snooker table as well. Everyone remembers how he went for impossible shots and played at a speed seemingly designed to produce mistakes, but there was also the lithe, anxious way he flitted around the table, and a cue-action which was mainly comprised of nervous tics. Even sat in his chair, sipping lager and dragging on an Embassy, he was more interesting – more alive – than his opponent. Clive James nailed it when he observed that most snooker players are like hunters, methodically lining up the next victim to be despatched into the pocket; Higgins, by contrast, was a fox with the hounds snapping at his tail. The odds were stacked against him but he was fighting for his life, armed only with talent and a thin strip of wood. And it was this hunted quality that made watching him not merely entertaining, or even exciting – it made it compelling.

Or, at least, it did if you were a Higgins fan – and that was the point: he was a touchstone, and your attitude towards him said a lot about the sort of person you were. Were you a romantic or a realist? Orthodox or counter-culture? Roundhead or Cavalier? Because compared to Higgins the likes of Rex Williams, Eddie Charlton and Ray Reardon were unavoidably cast in the role of The Snooker Establishment – sensible fellows who were fine ambassadors for the sport. Perhaps unfairly they seemed to emerge from the repressed world of post-war austerity: the world of ration-books, conformity, national service and Harold Macmillan. Higgins, on the other hand, was very much a man of his times: ostentatious, confrontational and never happier than when biting the hand that fed him. He was Arthur-Seaton-meets-George-Best, and that was why it made sense to call him “The People’s Champion” even though his opponents were just as working class as he was. This was not merely a class struggle, it was a Kulturkampf.

The notion of snooker as an ideological battle-ground was heightened still further by the arrival of Steve Davis in 1980. It’s easy to forget these days, watching him do his “jovial uncle” routine beside John Parrott on the BBC sofa, but when he first burst onto the scene Davis was almost a caricature of a young, upwardly-mobile Thatcherite Conservative. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he spoke with an icy hauteur in post-match interviews – the guy even turned up at Tory Party conferences making lame jokes about “potting reds”. His game was polished, professional and calculated to punish his opponents’ mistakes. Your nan loved him and the archly-conservative Ted Lowe drooled every time he got down on a shot. So far as being The Establishment was concerned, he made Ray Reardon look like Che Guevara. If you were trying to invent an “anti-Higgins” you couldn’t have done better than Steve “Interesting” Davis.

"Maggie, Maggie, Maggie!"

“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie!”

Above all, however, Davis liked winning and he was monotonously good at it. For him snooker really was just a question of frame scores and names on trophies – his name, preferably. And so while in one sense he represented the zenith of snooker’s cultural struggle, he also marked its terminus. Over the next ten years the idea of the snooker rebel was decisively routed. Davis raised the bar in terms of the consistent standard required of a snooker professional and, in the long run, Higgins’s game simply couldn’t cope. A new orthodoxy was established which predominates to this day. After Davis, what you stood for as a human being was unimportant. It was all about winning. It was all about business. It was all about money.

With this in mind, let’s jump forward to the present and consider the dominant figure of the last ten years: Ronnie “The Rocket” O’Sullivan. Certainly there’s an obvious resemblance here with Higgins: an attacking, fast-paced player, dogged by controversy and the fall-out from a colourful private life. But it seems to me that these surface similarities disguise a fundamental gulf between the two players and the societies from which they emerged.

First, there’s O’Sullivan’s game itself. Yes, it’s attacking and fast but, crucially, his basic technique is essentially orthodox. His shot-stance, for example, is a wonderfully refined version of what you’ll find in any coaching manual. He plays with a natural elegance that is a joy to behold. For make no bones about it: when he’s on form Ronnie O’Sullivan is simply the best player the world has ever known. I can remember watching him demolish Stephen Hendry 17-4 in the semi-final of the 2004 World Championship and realising with a shock that I’d never seen snooker played at this level before. His rhythm, shot selection and exquisite cue-ball control all combined to achieve something remarkable: he make the game look beautiful. Nobody would ever have dreamed of saying the same about Alex Higgins.

This sense of beauty is connected to one of the most fascinating things about O’Sullivan: for him the game is clearly not simply about winning. Time after time he thumps his opponent only to complain bitterly about his standard of play and how its shortcomings rendered the victory joyless. He seems to view the game primarily as an aesthetic endeavour. But although his quest for perfection certainly represents an alternative to the Davis cult of professionalism, it is not really a challenge to it. For one thing, it only makes sense if you regularly win; otherwise, you’re just a bad player moaning about playing badly. But more importantly, it is simply too introverted to be confrontational (it might be classed as a “passive-aggressive” approach to snooker). It is a personal rather than a public form of expression; the conflict is internalised and portrayed as O’Sullivan battling against himself as he strives to realise his potential. The other guy is almost an after-thought. This internalisation brings with it an increased focus on feeling, which is often presented in a medicalised format (for nobody’s merely unhappy any more): what mood is Ronnie in? How is he coping with his depression? Will he produce the beautiful snooker we crave or will his inner demons get the better of him?

"Worst. 147. Ever!"

“Worst. 147. Ever!”

The contrast here with Higgins couldn’t be sharper. For O’Sullivan it’s all a matter of how he feels, but with Higgins it was all about what he did. He drank too much; gambled too much; took too many drugs; and behaved in an unruly and sometimes deeply unpleasant manner (just ask Dennis Taylor). Even the explanations of his behaviour tended to be couched in terms of social identity rather than personal psychology: it was all about his class, his generation, his upbringing on the mean streets of Belfast. When did you ever hear anyone make an issue out of O’Sullivan’s class (or any other modern snooker player, come to that)? And Ronnie’s upbringing features in his troubles only via the domestic, personal trauma of his father’s imprisonment.

Here we have in microcosm a cultural shift from public confrontation to private angst. For the 1970’s rebel, if you were aggrieved it was because you found society oppressive. Today’s malcontents, however, are personally unhappy and probably psychologically damaged. It is a modern narrative which invites – nay demands – sympathy for the individual even as it neutralises him and cuts his life adrift from any broader social context. Thus O’Sullivan represents a problem for the snooker authorities, insofar as they’re desperately keen for him to continue playing, but he in no way represents a challenge to them. He perplexes them, but he doesn’t scare them. It is also a narrative which comes alarmingly close to suggesting that if you don’t fit in then you are mentally ill.

Such were the 70s and such is today. The change time wrought in Higgins was distressing to say the least. His six stone corpse, wracked with cancer, was found on the 24th of July 2010 at the sheltered accommodation he was forced to call home. He had been dead for some days. It was a ghastly, squalid end and yet even so there was something grimly apt about it; not for him the pundit’s microphone, cosily joshing with Hazel and Steve before turning to the crucial issue of whether Ali Carter could beat Shaun Murphy…. Christ! He wouldn’t have been able to read the autocue for the tears in his eyes. No. Belligerent, unapologetic, he played his string right out to the end. But the world had changed and Alex Higgins had stopped making sense. He was a man out of his time. What else was there for him to do except die?

Alexander Gordon Higgins, 18 March 1949 - 24 July 2010

Alexander Gordon Higgins, 18 March 1949 – 24 July 2010

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From → Snooker, Society

2 Comments
  1. A most interesting post. I think that any sort of “feelings” beyond the strict norm are pathologized in contemporary culture, ostensibly creating sympathy for the person who is prey to the medical condition diagnosed, but really invalidating the structure of feeling that creates certain attitudes and behaviours. It cleverly manipulates the sympathetic Laingian approach to fit it within standard pathologizing approaches.

    I’m too young to remember Higgins as a snooker player, but the contrast with him and Davis is interesting. I didn’t know Davis had appeared at Tory conferences, but it makes sense. I wonder if he still does. As you remarked, his demeanour has totally changed since then, so is that linked to a change in his socio-political attitudes, or has he just developed better social skills?

    • Hi Mark,

      I agree with you about the current pathologizing of feelings. Regarding Davis, I think some of his early iciness can be put down to a youthful lack of self-confidence (although it seemed like the opposite at the time) – but later, when he realised it gave him an advantage, he played up to his image a bit. In private he seems to have been a decent enough guy, and his manager Barry Hearne was probably spot on when he suggested that both Higgins and Davis were a bit jealous of each other – recognising that the other had qualities which they lacked. I don’t know if Davis is still a Tory, but I’ve seen no evidence to suggest he isn’t.

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