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Plain talking and eating Jack Higgins interview
by Jane McKie

You'd be hard pushed to find an airport anywhere in the world that wasn't selling one of Jack Higgins' novels. His action thrillers like The Eagle Has Landed consistently attract the attention of Hollywood. We tracked Higgins down - in town to promote his latest book Day Of Reckoning - and chatted to the self-proclaimed champion of plain grub at London's Dorchester Hotel.

Where did you last go for a drink
"The bar downstairs [at The Dorchester]."

What's your favourite tipple?
"I used to be a big Krug champagne man but the vintage seems to have changed and I find it rather heavy now. I prefer Louis Roederer Cristale or a more medium-priced one that is lighter and fresher like Bollinger."

What's your favourite watering hole?
"The Piano Bar here is the best bar of its kind in London. In Jersey, where I'm based, there's a great restaurant and bar called La Capannina. The food is outstanding. They do things like a very old-fashioned roast on the trolley and it's the best you can get anywhere in my opinion. I'm notorious for liking very simple food.
"You can take me to some of the world's top restaurants and I'll leave half of it on the plate. Food is not hugely important to me. I'm very happy to sit down and have a plate of Irish stew or Shepherd's Pie."

This week is National Chip Week? Are you a chip fan?
"Oh sure, if chips are cooked correctly but so many people think they just have to plunge the chips in and fry them up. Proper chips are double-cooked. They're done a little bit to start with then later they're put in again and you get a completely different flavour."

Your early years were spent in Belfast. Do you have any recollections of Ulster fries?
"Absolutely. I had one just before Christmas - I opened the Bangor Festival and stayed at the Europa Hotel and even they do a marvellous Ulster fry."

You've worked in a fascinating range of professions, one of which was acting. I read that you used to drink in a writers and actors den in Leeds called Tim's Bar.
"You're going back a long way. In those days it was round the corner from Leeds Civic Theatre and therefore very convenient for the actors when they wanted a jar. When I did a bit of acting it was semi-pro and quite a lot of the people who worked there went on to quite substantial things. Peter O'Toole was the outstanding example.
In fact, the night he decided he was going to go down to RADA and try to get a scholarship, he announced it at the top of his voice in Tim's Bar in a strong Leeds accent - he had one in those days. But it's gone. They developed a new college on the general site and Tim's Bar was one of many places which disappeared."

You've travelled extensively. Is there anywhere you would recommend?
"If you happen to be in Venice, it's well worth going to Harry's Bar. It's an interesting place because of all the associations - everybody in their day was there. Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, famous film stars..."

Does food play a role in your novels?
"I mention food on occasions. For example if Dillon's sitting in some Italian port, I go to the trouble of describing a specifically Italian meal. I often hang on to menus and keep them in the study.
"You can fork out the right menu, and say the meal could be this, this and this. I'll tend to say if one of my characters was having pub food and decide whether it's Betty's Hotpot or Shepherd's Pie or steak and kidney."

Are you the sort of writer who becomes so engrossed in his work that he forgets to eat?
"Yes. For the last five years or so, I've been writing in the restaurant I mentioned. I go in at lunch-time, do two hours' work and then I eat and then in the evening I'll go in and do three hours and then I'll eat.
"I'll write by hand and I get so absorbed it doesn't bother me if the place is full or the music's playing. It's very common, particularly at night, for the waiters to come up and say, "Look it's ten o'clock and you haven't had anything to eat yet."

Jersey is your adopted home - is there a cuisine specific to that region or the Channel Islands in general?
"No, there's the odd dish that you'd get from any ex-agricultural community. A thing called Jersey Bean Crock that's made of beans and meat that you cook in a pot in the oven. But there isn't an extensive range of dishes like that there. They're keen on potatoes but that's because they grow Jersey Royals - only these days they're not quite what they were."

Has being a scuba diver influenced your attitude towards eating seafood or fish?
"No, I'm not that sort of person. I've been nose-to-nose with a shark and it wouldn't stop me eating a shark steak. No, life is life! I like all kinds of fish and I adored scuba diving until I was damaged. I'm not into animal rights actively but my wife is. She's got very large grounds - it's like a menagerie."

Have you had visited any flash places on this trip to London?
"I was at a publisher's dinner last night in my honour. They wanted to make a big fuss so we went to the Ritz. There's posh for you - the waiters are in magnificent frock coats and all that gear. But often a lot of this is top dressing and you pay the most obscene sums of money.
"One lady chose scallops as a starter and she noticed on the menu that it cost fifteen quid. When they brought it on a little plate with some creamy kind of sauce, there were only two scallops and she said - and she's very wealthy - "It isn't a question of whether you can afford it or not, it's a matter of principle - you've been ripped off!" It was not an experience I'd repeat."

If Tony Blair was a restaurant, what kind would he be?
"Frankly, I would have thought he would translate into one of these minimalist restaurants, all crisp and metallic. Or somewhere black and white with a heavy preponderance of eager young women running around."

In the spirit of a prisoner's last meal, what would you choose?
"An Ulster fry."

The national dish of Northern Ireland?
"Yes, the number of times there must have been IRA men sitting in back streets eating Ulster fries, saying, "We'll go an' hit the bastards tonight, so we will..."