Jimmy White: Join the cue

One writer after another has tried to turn Jimmy White's story into a book. Jonathan Rendall on his pursuit of snooker's wayward - and elusive - genius
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I REMEMBER clearly where the deal was struck. It was in a betting shop in Wandsworth, about 18 months ago. I was with Jimmy White, snooker player, demi-mondiste extraordinaire, Greek tragedy and the only sportsman Yehudi Menuhin is said to watch on TV. Jimmy had just handed the notes over the counter for a couple of "small" bets (about pounds 100 each, as I recall). Beside him stood Jelly Baby, his old friend and, at the time, general minder.

Up till that point, to be honest, I hadn't dared to be too hopeful about Whirlwind, the title of my proposed book about Jimmy (and, of course, his green-baize moniker, because of the lightning speed at which he potted the balls in his youth). It had been a long, discouraging haul keeping up with him, let alone trying to keep him keen on Whirlwind.

Jimmy, for the uninitiated, is the nonpareil of British snooker. Five times he has been runner-up in the world championship. A few years ago, such was his facile mastery of a fiendishly difficult game that his becoming champ was considered inevitable. Now few people think it will happen. Yet he is still adored. "Rogueish" is the term that has often been applied to his range of addictions and spats away from the table. Yet on it he is the epitome of charm and honour, sometimes calling himself for fouls that the referee hasn't spotted. It has been said of him that, as well as being a favourite of snooker-watching grannies, he was worshipped "by street kids snuffling across urban Britain, who saw in him the germ of what they could be".

Things started with an article I wrote about him at the Maltese Open and went on from there: across the country; Plymouth, Norwich, the home he seemed about to lose in leafy Oxshott, Surrey, the tournaments he crashed out of, the exhibition-match paydays by city-edge carparks to which he and Jelly Baby manfully schlepped. Sometimes the setting was international: in Ireland, for instance, Jimmy had one of his "lost weekends".

In those circumstances you had to rely on what is known as "the 147 number" - Jimmy's mobile (the last three digits are 147. Snooker's magic number: maximum break.) A prized opening, that number seemed. But it was a chimera, a maze, in fact the Hampton Court of mobile mazes. Because Jimmy lets few people in. Sometimes, you wonder if he lets himself in. You'd ring and say, "Jimmy, that meeting we've got at 1pm, just checking you're still on for it." And Jimmy would say charmingly, "Oh yeah, yeah, I really want to do that, but I'm a bit tied up - unexpected, y'know? I'll try and give this a swerve. Give us a ring on the mobile at 1.30, eh?" At first I thought it was just me, but then I began to suspect that even the "few" were in the maze too. Perhaps even Maureen, Jimmy's wife, mother of their four daughters, had to go into it sometimes. Maybe even Jelly Baby did. All of us phoning, phoning, trying to pin Jimmy down, and Jimmy always escaping, swerving ...

I hung in there. Sometimes I got close. Take Plymouth. I'd been staying in a Travelodge on the outskirts while Jimmy prepared elusively for his first-round match against a no-hoper. It was Easter, windswept, and everything was closed. I decided to give the 147 number a final call - Jimmy had just been creamed by the no-hoper - to offer commiserations. Jimmy answered for once. Sure, he'd see me. In fact, he was in search of a lift back to Oxshott. I wasn't going that way, was I?

I picked him up within minutes. With Jimmy sitting there in the passenger seat with his mobile, I thought: I've got three hours minimum to get Jimmy to commit, so if it doesn't happen, at least I'll know. So what does he do? He goes to sleep, immediately. He woke up approximately one mile from Oxshott. You can't miss Jimmy's driveway. By the gate, it's got two large illuminated orbs, like giant snooker balls. He bought them from some pub. They might sound in dubious taste, but actually they're not. They give Jimmy's drive an appropriately louche Art Deco feel. Seeing the orbs looming, I grasped the nettle. "Jimmy, you know this Whirlwind book ... " Jimmy listened. Just before he opened the door to get out, he said, "Yeah, let's do it." "What?" I said. Jimmy repeated the astonishing words, adding: "I've got this other thing but it's a different thing, you know? So, yeah, why not eh?" Just get the finances sorted and then we'd start, Jimmy advised me sternly before turning away.

I didn't give any thought to this "other thing". My own thing was enough to worry about. I got the finances sorted, sort of. That was why we were in Wandsworth that day: for a finance meeting, at a caff that Jimmy liked where everyone pretended he was just a normal person. The problem was, in my 147-line conversations, it was apparent that Jimmy would not have considered half a million an extravagant sum. I wouldn't have minded (we were going to split everything 50-50) but the most a publisher had offered me was 20 grand. Then, on the morning of the meeting, this had been upped to 40: final offer. Seemed OK to me. But in the caff Jimmy and Jelly Baby dismissed it as peanuts. The only thing to do, Jimmy suggested, proffering his mobile, was to give them a ring now and tell them to start being sensible.

But his mobile didn't work, so we trooped outside to a phone box, the pair of them hovering behind me as I made the call. No dice, of course - 40 or nothing. I turned round to tell Jimmy and ... he'd vanished. Jelly Baby too. The most lightning swerve of all time. It was then I noticed the bookies. Inside, I told Jimmy about the 40. "Take it," he said. "What?" "Take it. Why not, eh?" I suggested to Jimmy that we celebrate the deal by my putting a bet on him for the upcoming world championships in Sheffield. (He was 40-1. Bloody insulting odds, I said on his behalf, given that he was bound to win.) But Jimmy said he didn't think that was a good idea. On the way out, he added, "I suppose you better come to Norwich with us, then."

I did go to Norwich but I didn't see Jimmy because he forgot to put my pass on the door at the leisure centre and it was sold out. But as a result, Jimmy rang me. "Where were you?" Jimmy said. "Me and Jelly were waiting for you." Well, then I knew. It was going to happen. I was in. For the temporary period of the book, I was going to be an honorary member of the "few".

I didn't realise quite how temporary this period would be. To celebrate being in, I decided not to back Jimmy at 40s, not even each-way. It wasn't just his give-away reaction in the bookies. I'd known before, whenever he tossed in his mantra: "I'll take a lot of stopping in the world championship." He didn't really believe it himself. Jimmy seemed to me to be in a deep hole. He was trying to emerge from it. But he was still there.

He'd had a bad couple of years. His form had plunged. He was in danger of dropping out of the top 16. He'd lost his mother, Lillian, and his brother Martin in quick succession. He'd gone bankrupt. Ludicrously, he'd taken a quack baldness cure involving needles in his skull that had left him with agonising headaches. Then there were the regular bust-ups with Maureen and the gambling, and the booze - nearly two decades of it, stemming right back to his teenage hustler days at the Pot Black Snooker Club in Vardens Road, Clapham. By the mid-Nineties the habit had distilled itself down to the pure, ruinous stream of hard essentials - Jack Daniels, vodka. Jimmy knew it had to stop, and to a considerable extent it had. He was mainly on lagers now. But he would never be the AA type. (He'd find the day-to-day saintliness embarrassing, as well as boring.) No, he still needed his demi-monde glimpses. They were part of his spirit. He just needed the glimpses without the spirits. What he needed was time. Stabilisation. Then the world championship might finally be on the cards. Might be.

I decided to celebrate by taking a week off from tracking Jimmy. It had been three weeks nonstop, but everything was in hand. The contracts were being drawn up in record time (Jimmy was very urgent about the contracts). That week I luxuriated in the actuality of Whirlwind. I considered how I might help to dig Jimmy out of the hole, though nothing immediate sprang to mind. Idly, I envisaged the finished book. The material was such a gift. I would do it justice. None of your "authorised" ghost-writer nonsense. I'd told Jimmy that. It would be about him, not "by" him. And to my surprise, he'd agreed readily. "Do what you want, son," were the exact words. So I would. I'd extract the marrow of my discipline, the essence of words, pour all my artistic integrity - such as remained - into it. But what about the title? Bit obvious? No. As well as the art thing, there was the fact that it would be a certain bestseller to think of. It had to be accessible. We'd probably never have to work again, Jimmy or me, once Whirlwind came out.

In hindsight, that week allowed the "other thing" people to marshal their forces. First, I got a call from a publishing contact. A proposal was doing the rounds for a definitive, no holds-barred life of Jimmy White, and it wasn't by me. Some tabloid agency was sending it out. "Impossible," I said. "They're just chancing it." I rang the agency. They said Jimmy was contracted and that it was "impossible" that he could have agreed to do a book with me. Later that day, someone high up at this agency put in a call. (It was a nasty call, basic-ally warning me off: dire legal consequences if I went ahead, and so on.)

I knew instinctively that Whirlwind was finished. The 147 line had gone silent. That call had riled me, though. I envisaged the sort of ghost- writer they would have engaged; some toe-rag huckster who would pick Jimmy's bones clean and leave his skeleton out to dry. In a last-ditch attempt to make him see sense, I sent Jimmy a letter about his imperilment (watered- down, obviously).

I never heard back, but I did get a call from the ghost-writer. She was called Rosemary Kingsland, she didn't sound at all like a toe-rag and, in spite of a rather panic-stricken tone, seemed very nice. Her own book, Rosemary informed me, had been planned months before, with Jimmy's agreement, and it was hard to know what was going on. In light of this, I knew it was time to make things official. "It's all right, Rosemary," I said. "I'm bowing out. Jimmy's all yours. And good luck."

Well, that seemed that. But it wasn't. Rosemary, of course, was just starting into the maze, so she kept in touch, generally with the question, "Do you know where Jimmy is?" I told her what I knew - favoured racecourses, pubs. "I'm not chasing after Jimmy in pubs any more," she replied. "I went into one recently and I'm sure he went out through the back door." It seemed that Rosemary was further in than I'd thought. She also asked if I was sure there were no other books being written about him, and I said not as far as I knew. When I'd put the phone down, I thought, do I know? I mean, if Jimmy did the deal with me, maybe there were others, writers all over the snooker world - British, Irish, maybe Maltese - who were yet to emerge, yet to confront the terrible truth.

Instead of Whirlwind, I wrote a novel with a gambling theme. I gave Jimmy a tiny cameo in it, and quoted a gambling observation of his on the cover sheet. Coincidentally, my publishers belonged to the same holding company as Rosemary's. When my manuscript hit their desks, there was another flare-up. First her publishers rang up. "We've heard you've written a book about Jimmy White ... " No, no, I explained. And then Rosemary came on, a bit panicky again. "Rosemary, I can assure you - 99.999 per cent of this book was nothing to do with Jimmy."

This was in the summer. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I turned on the television and there was Jimmy talking, with some confidence, about "the book": Behind the White Ball by Jimmy White (with Rosemary Kingsland). Christ, so it was out. Worse, he was being shown at an awards cere-mony to announce the William Hill sports book of the year, for which Behind the White Ball had been shortlisted. "It's between me and Tony Adams," said Jimmy jauntily (in fact, 10 minutes later, the prize was won by the poet Robert Twigger for Angry White Pyjamas). He did look much better. Chubbier, but somehow more stabilised. Although earlier that week I had watched him being annihilated by a no-hoper in the latest TV tournament, he'd reached the quarter-finals of the world championships this year. Of course, it could be an illusion. Was Jimmy out of the hole? I needed to know. It was time to re-enter the maze.

I left the initial 147 legwork to the publicist at Hutchinson. The interview was arranged, she said. But she was new and she didn't know what she was getting into. On the morning of the interview I rang Jimmy to confirm. "Don't know anything about it," Jimmy said. He couldn't do it because he'd be at a hospital having his cancer check-up (he had testicular cancer four years ago, and is in remission). Obviously, I fully understood. But then Jimmy generously offered to meet me at a snooker club in south London later on. "Can't say what time I'll be there, though," he added.

I took the tube and approached the buzzer by the club's doorway, positioned on a manky, semi-boarded-up main road. What followed seemed to me a five- minute fantasy sequence, except it was real. Once through the frayed exterior and up the narrow stairs, I was in a different world. The green baize landscape unfolded before me, like soft fields lit by shafts of sun. It was ever thus in snooker clubs, of course, at eye level. It was when you looked down, underneath, that you saw the heaps of fag-ends, crushed cans, sleeping bodies and caught the faint but unmistakable whiff of dislocated dreams and desperation. This place wasn't like that. It was nice. It was carpeted. People were chatting in an ungangsterish way. To the right was a gleaming bar and, on it, a framed picture of Jimmy. By the bar was an attractive blonde. "Are you the one who's here for Jimmy," she said. "The newspaperman?" "Yes," I said. "Darren!" she shouted at the barman. "Give this man anything he wants!" She introduced herself: "Amanda. Tea? Coffee? Or something stronger, love? Jimmy'll be here in a minute." Well, I reflected, sitting at the bar with a drink, it doesn't get much better than this, even if he doesn't turn up.

Incredibly, he did - slightly dishevelled but still with the cleaner- living glint he'd sported in the television interview. How was the cancer check? I ask. "Clear," Jimmy says. "I'm all right. It's OK." And the book, going well? "Going great. It was on the shortlist for the William Hill. White Pyjamas won that. We won best cover though. I was quite gutted cause it was 7,000 guineas to the winner and free racing at Cheltenham for four days."

Trying to conceal the air of a spurned suitor, I questioned Jimmy on the methodology of the writing of Behind the White Ball. A lot of sessions, were there, with Rosemary? "Oh yeah. We done loads of sessions. Ten, 20, I dunno. If I'd known how many I probably wouldn't have done it, I mean I was - [his mobile rings] where are you mate? I know. They're saying these mobile phones make your head hot - yeah, I was telling Rosemary all these stories, and she was going and finding these people when I wasn't, y'know, turning up. So we were going on reminiscing and it could take - [mobile] Yes mate. No, I'm going to Malta - and it could take like three or four days, y'know?"

Here Jimmy's expression changed as he looked at me. I would like to think it was a pall of guilt regarding Whirlwind descending on his mind. But I suspect it was merely a flicker of recognition, denoting the need for a swerving manoeuvre. "Well, you know all that yourself," he said amiably. "Cause I was gonna do it with you but we couldn't get it financially right." What! Shamefully, I just nodded, as if to say, "True, Jim, true." Well, what's a 40-grand deal in a betting shop anyway? History. That's what it is.

I asked Jimmy about his new glint instead. He said it was down to a "motivational" company that had written to him. "They just ... tell you how good you are basically, you know, and the way they do it, they really do pump you up. But you've got to go regular like." Bad living? Behind him. "Not bothered any more." Horses? "Finished. I don't miss it at all. I don't miss the drink. All gone. I don't know why. I think it's that my buzz, my ... chase, is on the snooker table." He had told me this sort of thing before but this time I half- believed it. Or, rather I half-believed that he half-believed it, and that there was a new half-realism going on. "But ask me in six months' time and it might not be," he added. So what did he do with all the time he'd previously spent living badly? "Golf," he said. This did take some believing. "What's your handicap?" "My wife and kids," Jimmy said. "What's yours?" I didn't get the joke first time round, so Jimmy forbearingly repeated it, adding: "I mean we might play for a fiver. But I don't call that betting."

Then Jimmy gave me an exclusive. He and Maureen had had a boy, Tommy Tiger, to go with their daughters. He'd told the golf story to one of the papers and they'd said Tommy Tiger was named after Tiger Woods. This was not true, Jimmy said. He had been named after Chinese horoscopes. "Mine's a tiger, and my boy's the same. Tommy after my Dad, Tiger after Chinese horoscopes. You better write that down." While I was writing it down Jimmy told me he was eating properly for the first time in years. "I gotta lose weight. I just practise and chill out. I'm very rarely boozing. I might have, y'know, nothing."

Amanda came over from the bar and Jimmy said he had a lot of work to do. "After Christmas I'll be in here practising five hours a day, several days a week. I'll be pumped up. I'll take a lot of stopping in the world championship." Amanda said: "I hope you told him how I run this place, Jimmy." Jimmy paused before turning away into the green practising fields. "With an iron fist!" he called out. The way he said it, it was clear that this was the motto he had adopted for the new clean life.

Later, I rang Rosemary. It must have been arduous, I observed, having to find Jimmy for so many sessions. "So many sessions?" she said. "We had three. Three! And one was in a wine bar with lots of people Jimmy knew. It went on till dawn, they were all completely drunk and I couldn't understand a word they were saying." Even when cornered, Jimmy would find ways of escape. His back would suddenly start killing him; or he'd have to go for a cancer check. Once, Rosemary said, when they were finally sitting down in Oxshott with the tape recorder, Jimmy excused himself for a second and reappeared by the door wearing his coat. Apologetically, he said he had some urgent business. Rosemary had a strong sense that as she left, Jimmy was loitering in the shadows nearby, and that as soon as she'd gone, he went back in.

She persevered. She got one "really good interview" out of him. She spoke to Maureen. One by one she picked off her other men, including Alex "Hurricane" Higgins, a key player in the White story. Not only is Higgins his friend and, to an extent, mentor; he is also the person Jimmy supplanted as the wayward, charismatic genius of the baize. It is Higgins's appalling descent from stardom to pennilessness and booze-trauma that hovers spectrally as Jimmy battles to turn things round.

"Oh yes, the hairiest of all was Alex Higgins," recollected Rosemary. "He was in hospital. He'd had an operation on his throat. It was really gruesome and he was in denial. It was absolutely bizarre getting him down to London to see me. He was on skid row but he said that if I took him on a world cruise he'd give me the odd story. I said I didn't want to. Finally it came down to pounds 350 cash in hand and a meal at the Royal Garden Hotel."

Rosemary, it turns out, is an accomplished author, having had two novels published in the United States where she lived in the Eighties. She had been hired twice before as a ghost-writer, and the experiences had so horrified her that she vowed never to do it again. "But Jimmy seemed such an interesting person that I went back on it." He must have really finished her off, then, I suggested. "No, not at all." In fact she hopes to keep in touch. "I felt a bit like his teacher at school sometimes but one day he said, `Rosemary, we're not very alike, but I think you and I are mates.' I thought that was very charming."

The last time she saw him was on the pavement outside the William Hill awards. The reason Jimmy was so cocky beforehand, apparently, was that two people had tipped him off about his certain coronation. But he took defeat gamely, she says, consoled by the surprise gift of a pounds 500 free bet coupon courtesy of the sponsors.

All this was fine, but that awkward question remained unanswered. Why had Rosemary kept on searching for Jimmy? Why had I? Why, on his remote control, did Yehudi Menuhin? What was interesting about Jimmy White? I turned to Behind the White Ball for guidance. I have to concede that it's a cracking read: refreshingly free of snooker; full of low-life capers; and touching too, as when Jimmy is scattering the ashes of his mother and brother over Sandown in the gloom and then naming a race after them. The Lillian and Martin White Maiden Stakes. Of course Whirlwind would have been different but ... ah yes, here it was, page 78, a sort of answer.

It was the Hurricane Higgins encounter. At an indeterminate point in the Eighties, Jimmy is on a six-week bender in the Elizabeth Taylor suite at the elegant Gresham Hotel, Dublin, when Hurricane Higgins turns up. Higgins has always stayed in the Elizabeth Taylor suite and asks Jimmy to move. Jimmy, despite their friendship, refuses. Rather than accept another room, Higgins takes up residence in the bathroom for several days. As they drink in the suite's private bar one evening, Higgins explains why it is imperative that he has the suite and not Jimmy: it's because he's an "aesthete" and Jimmy isn't, and the Gresham is only truly appreciated by aesthetes. "Which is why I fit in, Jimmy, and you don't."

Which, of course, was not true. Higgins was, in my opinion, a true aesthete, but because he was a snooker player, he thought he had the field all to himself, forever. And then Jimmy comes along. Finally Higgins knew he had met his match, perhaps even his younger self, and he couldn't accept it. It doesn't really matter what people like Hurricane Higgins and Jimmy do; it's how they express it. They have "it", whatever "it" is, in the way that great painters, writers, poets and violinists have it. They're rare. So when they fall, they must be saved. It's a shame no one thought to save Higgins - although technically there's still time - but I suppose the same could have been said of Dylan Thomas. That's my theory, anyway.

Behind the White Ball, incidentally, has already paid back its advance and - sickeningly - the film rights have been sold, with Rosemary as screenwriter. This development does trouble me slightly, as does Jimmy's recently awarded MBE, in the sense that these might propel him into a stratosphere of hype that would have no connection with his performance on the green baize - and that's where backlashes start. In fact, I had already noticed a mini-backlash starting during the week when I was searching for Jimmy again. Amid the favourable press, one broadsheet had described his 36-year-old "Peter- Pan" persona as "pathetic".

This is nothing that a Jimmy White world- championship victory wouldn't cure. I wouldn't bet on it happening; but I wouldn't bet against it, either. Nor would Rosemary. Mind you, it did fleetingly occur that all of us - Rosemary, me, Yehudi, Jimmy himself - might ourselves be in a strange, Hurricane-style state of denial about him. But no, it couldn't be. Because denial, as Jelly Baby will tell you - it's just some river in Africa, isn't it?

'Behind the White Ball' by Jimmy White (with Rosemary Kingsland) is published by Hutchinson, price pounds 16.99. `Twelve Grand', a novel by Jonathan Rendall featuring a cameo appearance by Jimmy White, is published by Yellow Jersey Press in February, price pounds 10