An unfulfilled snooker genius, Jimmy White has battled through booze, bankruptcy and cancer but still considers himself lucky, as he tells Ewan MacKenna
Being Jimmy White. An existence spent scuttling between the seldom-used backrooms of dank, dreary bars, midday promotions in village bookies and cubicles with just enough room to slide the cue all the way back. On Friday it’s a hidden-away qualifier for the world championships, an event that earned him the title of peoples’ champion but never more. Here and now it’s an exhibition in the function room of an Athy, Co Kildare hotel, a town that lost its own snooker hall a decade ago when it became too dangerous. Both games involve scratching and scraping at the past, trying to hopelessly claw it into the present.
White wanders in, takes a quick look at the freshly-laid table, the five rows of seats that have been brought from the dining room and starts remembering wilder days in Ireland. The time he bumped into UB40 who were over playing a gig and ended up with them and Phil Lynott for 17 consecutive nights. The more common week-long benders with Alex Higgins that always seemed to start in the Gresham in Dublin. Given his former lifestyle, it’s little wonder his ghost-writer spent her advance in six weeks following White out on boozy evenings while trying to catch up on a past that seemed the far side of hazy.
He’s due to play Higgins in a couple of hours but most of the early-day commotion has surrounded trying to get the Northern Irishman out of a pub. When Higgins does arrive there’s a suspicious looking bottle peaking from his pocket and by the end of the night he’s threatened to stab someone in the chest, to smash a digital camera, turned on a 10-year-old boy and had the referee stand over his shoulder on every shot for fear that boy’s father would lash out. Had White not changed his ways it would have been easy to draw parallels and point to where his own future lay. You inquire if he ever feared ending up that way.
“Many times I looked myself in the mirror and said I’ve got to stop this. But when you are involved with drinking it’s not that simple. You can go weeks without it and think you are fine and then you go somewhere and have a couple and you are back on it again.”
So are you an alcoholic?
“I’ve been doing bits of programmes with Ronnie Wood, he’s not drinking either at the moment. My last drink was 27 December and apart from that, the week of the 14-21 December I went to see my nephew, and prior to that I hadn’t a drink for 73 days. So I can take or leave drink. Really, it’s not my baby. I can go out now and have a coffee and have a good time, makes no difference. But I come from a family of drink. Unfortunately. So I’m always aware. But sometimes you are brought up in an environment like that.”
The family he speaks of is his father. A builder in the east end of London, he spent his Fridays cutting into the pay cheque in a bar near work. Young James White would sit in the car as the clock ticked into the evening and beyond. Aged 11, he was finally allowed in and started to play pool. Aged 13 he’d made a century break on the snooker table. Before long his natural habitat had become the Pot Black Club near Clapham and the principal of Ernest Bevin Comprehensive tried to cut him a deal – if he came to school in the morning nothing would be said about him disappearing back to the club after lunch.
But it was too late. Within a couple of years he was earning big bucks from hustling, giving the majority to his mother and gambling away the rest, and at 18 became the youngest winner of the World Amateur Championship. Yet despite six final appearances, the professional equivalent never followed for the most gifted kid of them all.
“I was a bad boy. I used to like the gargle and that cost me a couple of those finals. I was always up late the night before and when you are young you think you can recover. Then you suddenly wake up one day and you are 35, you’ve got a headache. I was up playing cards, drinking. And I’ve got no one to blame but myself. I had people around me and even if they went to bed I was always going to be my own worst enemy.
“That was then and in a couple of the finals I twitched on the black, like you would at golf. And I was 14-8 up in one of them and I started thanking God and all the people I wanted to and I wrote the speech in my mind. That’s why I told Ronnie O’Sullivan that these discos will always be there when it’s all over. It’s my only regret, the one thing I’d change. I’d go to bed early and go out after these games instead of before them.”
Cancer. It was 1995 and White was in the shower one morning. He reached down only to find a hard lump on one of his testicles and quickly realised something was wrong. He dried himself and let the thought pass but it wouldn’t go away. He didn’t want to but deep down he knew. His GP knew as well. “Listen you are going to the hospital this afternoon.” “What?” inquired White. “I don’t like the look of this at all Jimmy. You’ve got to go.”
“I went to the hospital and they said we’ve got to take that out tomorrow. I went to see the doctor at two in the afternoon and by seven in the evening I’d got a gown on signing these consent forms. I thought I was going to die. I had to build up the courage to ring my wife and tell her. We do a campaign for testicular cancer and every male, there’s a stigma there just not to say to their mom or dad that they’ve got to check this. Sometimes these things harden up within weeks and it’s something you have got to get done. There was a bit of that with me. Thankfully I was alright.”
Others close to him weren’t. Within a couple of years his mother had passed away as did his brother, Martin, who died of lung cancer at 53. The latter crippled him. “It was a horrible time. He was a hard working man, got struck down and died within six months.” But you are more curious about his own health at that time. The night before the funeral he put five grand behind a bar and started to drink. Within a few hours he had taken his brother’s corpse and brought it out on the town.
“My sister just started drinking and crying more and more. The funeral parlour was only across the road so I said let’s go and f**king see him. We went over and as true as we sit here, there was this big chain with this big padlock and I just kicked it and the door opened. Swung right open as easy as that. So we went through. We’d seen him in the day, and he was dressed, so we just put his hat on, put him in the car, took him to my brother’s, then to my house and so on.”
Is that comic or tragic, you ask?
Doesn’t it scare you that you were in a place in your head when you could do that?
“It was such devastation. I was at a stage where I didn’t really know who I was.”
Without making light of it, you mention, others have lost people to cancer and don’t do their own version of Weekend At Bernie’s.
“You have to understand what nowhere really means I guess. Me and my sister and my other two brothers ended up finding ourselves nowhere if that makes any sense. Just nowhere in our minds. It was very weird. It was angry as well as weird. It was all screaming and crying and laughing. It was all over the place. I was all over the place. The taxi driver said your friend doesn’t look too well and it was quite hilarious actually, we all got a good laugh out of that. But we put him back the same night and then all the police came the next day and they were going to arrest us. But they saw there was no damage done and let us off and I didn’t get arrested for breaking and entering. But I was still nowhere.”
How do you get to nowhere? Too much, too soon? Loneliness? Depression? Tragedy? Bad advice? No advice?
White’s case might tick all of those boxes but it’s still impossible to overlook an addictive personality. There are the cigarettes (“I may have a packet of cigarettes for a week now but I do hate cigarettes, I absolutely detest them”). There’s the drink he reckons he’s blown at least half a million on since people started to see him as a success. There’s been the gambling too which saw him blow well over a million in that time (“It can be very addictive but I’m not addicted”). And while the rumours he blew his 1994 world runner-up cheque of £128,000 the next day in the bookies are untrue, it’s little wonder that despite 10 tournament wins and over £4.5m in career earnings, he was declared bankrupt and his wife Maureen left him after 22 years.
“For me all that stuff became quite a normal life. Obviously coming from a working-class background it’s not easy because all of a sudden you are surrounded by rock stars and women find you attractive. You know it’s all plastic but try and resist it. You pretend it’s real even if you know deep down and you go with it and suddenly where are you? I’ve been in too many positions looking back and I find it hard to believe some of the places I’ve been in. With drink I remember too many times waking up and thinking, ‘F**king hell, how have I ended up here’.
“So all that money disappearing, some of it was down to me, but there was bad management too. You put faith in people to look after your finances and find two or three years later you’ve been robbed. It’s really the children’s money that they are robbing because you want to leave your kids secure. As they say, I drank a lot of it, gambled a lot of it and blew the rest. But I’m not complaining.”
Since going bankrupt, he’s been putting his life back together, brick by brick, although some have continued to fall off. He was cautioned after cocaine was found at a hotel bar but says he was in a group and it was pinned on him. He tried to change his name to James Brown by deed poll following a sponsorship approach from HP Sauce only to have the application rejected. He had a hair transplant but when he took a look in the mirror his eyes were black and his chin had dropped more than a few centimetres. He even had his dog kidnapped.
“I put a poster on all the trees saying I lost my dog and there was a £300 reward. Then I found him but these posters were still up and suddenly he goes missing again. I had gone in the police station and this kid beside me had said his coat was gone and that he left it at a fair. I knew then it was gypsies that took it. I phoned a few people, found out where the fair had gone, got in touch with the top guy and arranged to meet Johnny Francome at the clock tower at Epsom. I knew Johnny when he was a boxer and he actually did Snatch, he was the one who taught Brad Pitt how to talk, he said he didn’t know it was my dog. You know my dog is the only Staffordshire bull terrier to have a coloured picture on the front page of the Times. I’ve learned to laugh at these things. Can’t do nothing about the past.”
And that’s what makes White so likeable. Despite being beaten on the river nearly every time, he’s never complained about his hand in life. He lost his snooker club but now has a stake in another one. He went to see Paul McKenna about his game and ended up being hypnotised for each of his flaws from drink and drugs to gambling and women, although reckons he wasn’t fully committed and hypnosis alone won’t fix him. As for his career? He’s made moves this season, making round one of the Welsh Open last week and jumping 18 places in the rankings to 47 but the whirlwind of former decades has become just a breeze even if he won’t admit it.
“I’m pretty tuned in at the minute. I’ve had lots of practice, put in lots of hard work. But it’s been a hard road just to get myself to tournaments but now my ‘a’ game can win any tournament. I’ve put all that other stuff behind me and I’m just enjoying playing. Not that all that other stuff wasn’t fun, don’t get me wrong. I loved every minute of it. Please don’t go making this sound like him moaning.”
So being Jimmy White. What’s it really like? “I’ve survived cancer, I’m still playing the game I love, I’ve got five healthy children.” There’s only one word for it he says.
22 February 2009