Obituary: John Higgins

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The Independent Culture
"THANK YOU so much for lunch on Monday. It might have been cut a shade short, but we had a very good run up to two o'clock. Return match with me when I come back from the States." This is a letter to me written on 28 March 1974 when John Higgins was editing and writing for an arts page in the Director magazine of which I was then editor. It's quite revealing about him. Terse, courteous, rather sporting.

I choose these words with care. One did so with Higgins, who even with friends was quick to pounce on any solecism, in expression or behaviour or relating to his home grounds of music, theatre, food and wine. He was, after all, an experienced and erudite critic, a versatile columnist, a well-educated, eventually unusually well-seasoned journalist.

Higgins's not infrequently abrasive manner, a spontaneous asperity, cloaked a sensitive but not touchy, a reserved but far from shrinking nature. A combination of virtu and fortuna - Machiavelli's formula for success - secured a richly enjoyable and productive career. His good luck blossomed when, having read Modern Languages at Oxford and endured a spell with Unilever, at the end of the 1950s he joined the Financial Times, by then brilliantly established as an influential, imaginative paper of record largely through the curious but effective partnership of Gordon Newton, editor, and Garrett Moore (by then Lord Drogheda).

He was made the first arts editor of the FT in 1962 with the springboard of an already impressive stage of relevant talent including Derek Granger, Andrew Porter and Clement Crisp. Higgins in turn was a sharp-eyed spotter of writing talent dedicated to the performing arts, with a flair for finding the best and detecting the shoddy in many other creative areas, from fiction writing to (for private pleasure) the game of football. Opera he worshipped; about modern poetry and contemporary poets he was sniffy.

After he had been head-hunted by The Times in 1970, he had the canniness and the connections to find new names and foster able critics such as William Mann and John Russell Taylor, while regularly contributing always clear and compelling reviews of his own.

Wary of freelancing and after writing one book which left him determined never to write another (he hadn't the patience for a work de longue haleine, and was held back, I think, by his perfectionism) Higgins was eventually allowed The Times's rough equivalent of the Japanese diplomat's hanamichi (or flower path out) and made obituaries editor. He had a good innings and, happily, still wrote about opera for his paper.

When we met, it was usually at the Garrick Club, which he loved without being effusive about it, and where he would concentrate attention on his drinking and eating and talking companion, always eager for gossip and always solicitous.

Higgins enjoyed many long unobtrusively cultivated friendships, including those going back to the time when, characteristically, he enthusiastically helped start and sustain the so-called Gordon Newton Society - an annual dining "club" of the many interesting people from Shirley Williams and Nigel Lawson to Jack Prosser and William Rees-Mogg who had once been journalists with the FT in Coleman Street EC or Bracken House. He loved life's sensual pleasures as well as its intellectual diversions and was enjoying it still to the full even after being stricken a few years ago by serious illness.

The most important transition in his well-rounded adult life was when he married the author, journalist and academic Linda Christmas in 1977. Then - in the words of his FT friend and erstwhile colleague Antony Thorncroft - "His protective coolness, which sometimes seemed like pomposity, fell away, and his honesty and straight dealing came to the fore."

John Dalby Higgins, journalist and opera critic: born 7 January 1934; Arts Editor, Financial Times 1962-70; Arts Editor, The Times 1970-88, Obituaries Editor 1988-93; married 1977 Linda Christmas; died London 13 August 1999.

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