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Daily Telegraph July 1998

The mystery of great-grandpa's tobacco

Me and My God -Jack Higgins talks to Frances Welch-

The thriller writer Jack Higgins has been embroiled in religion all his life. As an eight-year-old boy in Northern Ireland, he was told to be a priest that, being a Protestant, he would not be going to Heaven. "When my mother had to go away to work I was put in the hands of a Roman Catholic relative in the Republican area of South Armagh.

"She used to worry about me and she'd take me to Mass. As I was coming out, the priest would be on the top of the steps standing talking to us. He would say, 'Poor wee boy, what's going to become of him? His black Orange soul will go straight to hell.'"

On a recent promotional trip to America, Higgins met an Irish girl who asked him to sign a copy of his novel The Savage Day. The book, about the Troubles, had been written after a cousin of Higgins was blown up by terrorists in Belfast. "She was so excited," explains Higgins?' she kept saying.

"As I was writing my name, she said, 'We'll show these damn Protestants. We'll have them out before we're finished.' I said, 'Excuse me, I'm Protestant.' She said, 'That's a bad joke.' I said,'No it's true...so was Wolfe Tone [the 18th-century nationalist].' She threw the book on the floor and said, 'I'm never going to read a Jack Higgins again.'"

Higgins is at pains to stress that he feels non-sectarian; he points out that he has Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish cousins. At the same time he believes that his early exposure to Roman Catholicism has remained with him. "The candles, incense and the holy water: the smell of it all has stayed with me. It comes into Jack Higgins a lot.

"In Prayer for the Dying one leading character is an IRA man. He's on the run in London after killing school-children in a bombing by mistake. He becomes involved with a Roman Catholic priest. It is an authentic book about a Roman Catholic experience. I've found that many people, especially Irish people, are surprised to find I'm not Roman Catholic.

Although not conventionally religious, Higgins is templed to believe in God. His wife, Denise, is a practicing Anglo-Catholic. "Life is such a superbly constructed system," he says. "I feel logically there has to be a reason behind it. I can't agree with people who believe religion is silly when I think of all the wonderful people I've come across over the years who believe 100 percent".

"At the same time, you can't help thinking of those three little boys burnt to death and the war in Bosnia. I understand people who say, 'What's God playing at? Why does He allow these things?' A couple of years ago someone asked the question in one of my books. The reply I gave the other character was to do with free will: if God has given everybody free will, there will be people who do great things but there will also be people who do evil things."

Jack Higgins was born Harry Patterson. He named himself after Higgins after his great-grandfather a pastor for the Plymouth Brethren. "He was a great man. He was bedridden in later years and when I was five I used to read him the Christian Herald. His Daughter, my anti, was a major in the Salvation Army.

"When I was nine we moved to England. I joined the scouts, which meant attending a congressional church; I was gradually working my way through all the denominations. When I joined the Household Cavalry [he was an NCO in the Blues], I had 'Pres' on my identification disk, short for Presbyterian. Everybody had to give their religion in case they were killed in action."

Higgins is a successful man who gives the impression of being strongly control of his destiny. He expresses his thoughts to me in flat Northern tones, without pausing. I manage to squeeze in just one question as he is winding up his discourse. "Do you believe that God is on our side?" I ask.

"You're egging me for an extra two minutes," he replies in a reproving tone, before steaming ahead. "I often write in the corner of an Italian restaurant on Jersey, At 10:15 the waiter will say, ' You've not eaten.' I'll stop and look. I've written 20 pages and I ask myself, 'Where has all this come from?'"

"You feel your guided?" I slip in.

"Some years ago I woke up at 4am and I recognized the smell of my great-grandfathers tobacco. I used to rub his tobacco and put it in his pipe. He would smoke it while I read to him. I knew it was his tobacco. After 40 years I recognized the smell. He is still with me."