By Grania McFadden
Article Date - 20 July 2000
SITTING in his luxury suite in London's Dorchester Hotel, writer Jack Higgins admits that he's travelled a long way from his childhood on the Shankill Road, to his life today as a tax exile in Jersey. Harry Patterson (Higgins' real name) was born in the North of England. He never knew his father - his parents' relationship turned sour, and his mother returned to her native Belfast, working as a waitress in the Grand Central Hotel. "We had to live with relatives on the Shankill," recalled Higgins. "I can remember top and tailing in bed, that sort of thing." The young Harry attended Nettlefield Primary School in a Belfast that was as violent then as it is today. "I saw a lot of ethnic cleansing in the 1930s - people on street corners pushing prams filled with their few belongings." He remembers visiting the Alambra Cinema with his step grandfather, who was a rep for Paramount News. "They were showing King Kong. Suddenly an IRA man threw a mills bomb into the middle of the crowd. That was my induction into violence." On another occasion, a tram on which Higgins was travelling came under rifle fire from the IRA. At the start of the war, his mother decided to move to Yorkshire, where she remarried. Higgins has no happy memories of life with his step father. "He always resented me, that I was part of the deal. I left school at 15, having never done very well. I remember him saying to me: 'You'll never amount to much, you're useless'. "I got a lousy job, as a junior clerk in the cleansing department in Leeds, and life looked like continuing along those lines, until National Service changed everything for me." Higgins, whose grandfather had served in the trenches during the Great War, and whose uncle had ended up in a prison camp in Auschwitz, had a military background, and took to army life like a duck to water. "I was moved to the Household Cavalry in Windsor. It's the most elite branch of the army. But there'd been some sort of clerical error, because I wore glasses and I should never have been admitted. "When I asked an officer where I would be moved to, he said 'The Guards don't make mistakes' and sent me off to Harley Street to see a doctor. " Higgins was kitted out with some special glasses, and proved to be a crack shot, earning himself a place in the Cavalry's sharp shooter squad. The Cavalry also informed him their tests had shown he had an IQ of 147. "The army gave me a sense of what I was capable of, and I thoroughly enjoyed serving on the East German border during the Cold War," he said. After his service, Higgins took up a post as a teacher, continuing his hobby of writing outside his working hours. His first book, Sad Wind From The Sea, was published under his real name, Harry Patterson. He then decided to adopt a nom de plume for his books. "I used to visit my great uncle Jack Higgins every Sunday. He was a notorious Orange gunman, and I remember that before he went out of the house, he would open a secret drawer under the stairs, where he kept an array of handguns, and select one to take with him." Images like that, and memories of being taken to Mass by an aunt in Carrickmacross, have informed Higgins' books, giving them the authentic flavour of life in Northern Ireland. "I believe that nothing is ever wasted. My background, and the memories I have, have all formed my writing. I began writing about Ireland after getting fed up reading stuff by English journalists, who just didn't understand the mindset of people in Northern Ireland at all." Using his insider knowledge, Higgins wrote The Violent Enemy, based on an IRA man's escape from Dartmoor. It was turned into a film, starring Susan Hampshire and Tom Bell, but banned by the Home Office shortly before its release, which coincided with the start of the Troubles. "For years, Susan Hampshire never had a chance to see it," said Higgins. "But it made me a lot of money, and I was able to take a few years off from my job as senior lecturer to concentrate on my writing." Next came The Wrath of God, which was adapted for the big screen, starring Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum. Higgins' first thriller based on the Troubles came in the form of his darkest book, Prayer for the Dying, in which Hollywood cast Mickey Rourke as the troubled IRA man, and Bob Hoskins as his nemesis. "That took a hell of a lot out of me, and made me question God, religion, and my feelings towards everything. My marriage was falling apart at that stage, and I used to live in the dining room of my house, with my research spread out on the table, and an army cot in the corner where I slept. "My writing became a refuge for me - I was creating a different world for myself." Although Higgins' most successful book has been The Eagle Has Landed, thanks in part to the excellent movie adaptation, his devoted readers have, in recent years, become attracted to his new hero, Sean Dillon. "I created Sean Dillon after the IRA mortar attack on Downing Street. I saw the white Ford used for the attack, with the flames coming out of it, and my wife suggested I write something about it. "So I did. I got hold of the plans of Number 10, and everything that Dillon did in my book, I had done before him, except for assembling the mortars, of course! "I realised with Dillon that I'd created a Liam Devlin (hero of The Eagle Has Landed) for the 1990s." Dillon, a former IRA man who has crossed the line to work for British intelligence, is now Higgins' trademark - a dark, witty, clever Irishman, he is both violent and attractive. "Women love him," said his creator. Higgins has sold many million books around the globe. His earnings exceed bsp;£3m a year. And he knows his worth. "It's all about doing something with the talent you're given. I went to a school which later produced George Best - he had a gift from God. I, too, have a gift. I'm not pretending I'm Charles Dickens or anything. "But whatever I do, whatever it is that makes up a 'Jack Higgins' book, it's not like what anyone else does."
Higgins - the story so far ..
JACK Higgins' first book was published in 1959. He published a total of 38 books under his real name, Harry Patterson, and has had literary success using several other names. Martin Fallon, Hugh Marlow, Ken Graham are just three of the names adopted by Higgins for his thriller writing. His first novel under the Higgins name was Savage Day, which was serialised in a UK newspaper in 1969. Soon after, he wrote A Prayer for the Dying, which was later to become a controversial Hollywood film starring Mickey Rourke. But in 1976, Higgins joined the millionaire list when he wrote The Eagle Has Landed - the story of a Nazi plot to kill Winston Churchill. To date, it has sold an astonishing 50 million copies worldwide, and five million copies in England alone. He still occasionally adopts his real name for writing. In 1999, two of his thrillers appeared simultaneously in the bestsellers list - Storm Warning, by Jack Higgins, and The Valhalla Exchange by Harry Patterson. He still aims to write a book a year, and still uses a pen and notepad for his work. "Writing in longhand is a personal thing, like painting," he says. His secret desire is to write a play good enough to be produced on stage in the West End or Broadway. In the meantime, books featuring his latest hero, Sean Dillon, have been translated into more than 35 languages, and spawned three successful mini-series. Almost a dozen Higgins thrillers have made the transition from page to screen: first off was The Violent Enemy, the controversial film starring Tom Bell and Susan Hampshire, which fell foul of Home Office censors. A Prayer for the Dying, starring Mickey Rourke, proved controversial, too. It was soon followed by Confessional with Keith Carradine, Anthony Quayle and Robert Lindsay. Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth (in her last screen role) starred in The Wrath of God. Robert Wagner and Jane Lapatoire teamed up for To Catch a King. Eye of the Storm became a film called Midnight Man, starring Rob Lowe, who also appeared as Sean Dillon in the screen version of On Dangerous Ground. John Mils took top billing in Night of the Fox, which also featured George Peppard. And of course, the Eagle Has Landed propelled Donald Sutherland to the big time as hero Liam Devlin, alongside Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasance and Anthony Quayle. In 1995, Kyle MacLachland helped make Thunderpoint a screen success story.