I first met James a long time ago when we were about eleven or twelve. A quarter of a century ago or so, at prep school. A place called Heathmount. He appeared one summer half way through the term. A tall serious chap from a place called Cape Town, in a country called South Africa, which he assured us was a far more beautiful, rich, and advanced place than this small island.
I didn't take much notice of him at. first. I suppose I was too busy comparing the length of my key chain, or the number of blades on my Swiss army knife, with boys I already knew.
It must have been quite difficult for him, entering a foreign place, an old fashioned school, rigid, a life regulated by bells and nonsensical rules.
But we couldn't ignore him for long. For a start he was bigger than us and looked like he could thump hard. He was also cleverer than us. A boffin, Professor Higgo; He knew about stuff. I remember him in the science lab explaining molecules. Chemical bonding in terms of sticky buds. I was impressed. He was OK.
The first conversation I remember having with James was a fairly obvious one: "what's the rudest swearword you can say where you come from? " Bobiaan-spinnekop". Fairly innocuous. It wasn't until some years later that I realised that the joke was on me: it means hairy baboon tarantula.
We sat common entrance together, and both came to this place, into the same house, Edmondstone. It wasn't much fun at first, quite daunting, but we kept our heads down and got on with it. In any case none of the older boys could get one over on James because of his famous superhuman strength.
We joined the CCF together, the RAF section, which allowed James an introduction to two of his favorite pursuits. Shooting and flying planes. James was a natural aviator and would love going to corps camp to fly chipmunks and huskies. He even took an extra O-level in aircraft navigation.
He was also a great shot, a fact to which those of you who shot at Bisley can attest, and he won his school colours for shooting. He founded the RAF musketry section, which I suppose was a sort of paramilitary wing of the cadet force and it meant that we could wear camouflage combat gear and crawl around Golding wood pretending that we were crack snipers.
James wasn't much interested in team sports however, and was much happier spending his time on more noble pursuits (with a good deal of adolescent pretension). James jumped through the hoops of exams with ease, always doing far better than his more dedicated contemporaries.
All in all a fairly ordinary school career you might think. Except that it really wasn't. You see even as a teenager James stood out, he excelled, he took what ever he was interested in at the time, be it painting, music, literature, even computer games to a level that transcended his contemporaries. That transcended the understanding of his contemporaries.
For example, whilst in painting some of us felt that we were radicals continuing the Russian experiment in art by setting fire to futurist constructions. Or furthering the cause of neodadaism by placing partially painted television sets amongst the branches of trees on Avenue. James managed to capture the zeitgeist by meticulously copying the later works of Henri Matisse, then lecturing us at length on why he, James, had created great art. I remember being pretty sceptical about this at the time, but then I hadn't cottoned on to Post-modern irony. James had.
Or whilst most of us thought that thinking mans pop, Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, were pretty hip (this was the mid eighties remember) James was into Wagner or Charlie Parker, or whatever. Greek Bouzouki music.
Or whilst most of us were glad to bunk off to the Higgo household to compete for high scores on cluncky old school computer games, James was already a highly paid consultant to a successful games company, and was designing the very computer games that we played.
Or whilst most of us unthinkingly swallowed and regurgitated works of literature for the purpose of passing exams, James really got fired up about these books. He lived these books. I remember a game we played for a short time, where he would judge his day-to-day actions against whether or not Hemmingway would approve of them. Highball or Whiskey sour? Would Ernest approve. Would Ernest approve of leather rucksacks, or underarm deodorant? Incidentally it was a game that came to a swift end when it was pointed out that what Hemmingway truly enjoyed was something James was really not interested in.
Or more seriously: whilst James' fellow biology students produced dull but worthy papers on ferns and mosses, James for his A-level project, aged 17, built an electronic simulation of the human brain. This synaptic model was so sophisticated that the head of Biology had to draft in help from experts in Neurology and Electronics to assess it. And he was awarded the highest mark in the country
All these things: his energy, his enthusiasm, his humour, his far sightedness, these were things that James carried with him into the real adult world beyond this school. But what marked James out from the crowd was the breadth his character, his latitude. He could appreciate and understand anything or anyone that he thought was worthwhile. And it was this largeness that made him fun to be with, that made him an original, that made him eccentric, that made us proud to be his friend.
The other day his mother showed me a poem that he had written a couple of years ago. A poem in which he expressed an uncharacteristic self doubt: the general subject of the poem is the trivial nature of modern life and the irresistible draw of conformity. It's a good poem with James wearing his culture on his sleeve complete with scatological references to Larkin. I hope no-one will mind me reading it in full: It's called
That Crap Cash Dash
So my poems are crap:
I can live with that
And accept it with good grace
Rather write a bad poem
On a festering loan
Than live for the blind rat race.
We know so much
That thereís no longer such
A thing as a rounded man
In Johnsonís time you could know everything
But nowadays god alone can.
So to earn more cash
We all join the mad dash
To become a specialist.
But know no more than contract law
And thereís something called life that youíve missed.
James Higgo 27th September 1995
And his mother replied
In my opinion
Your poetry is NOT crap
And your fears are groundless.
In 27 years you have packed in
More than most do in three score years and ten.
Jenny Higgo, 28th September 1995.
"We know so much that there's no longer such a thing as a rounded man". Well that's just not true. James was living proof of that. James was that man in full, that Uomo Universale, that renaissance man, which existed in the time before the likes of Dr Johnson, tabulated and defined the world. And like the princes of the Quattrocento James encompassed many things:
There were very few subjects that James was not concerned with, and none on which he wouldn't hold forth.
James was a man concerned with Matters Mercantile. He was a man of substance. He worked in the City of London where he was very successful. He made a great many friends amongst his colleagues and staff, and gained a reputation within his industry.
James felt that creating wealth was essential: he often told me that money buys you freedom, and he always made sure that it did.
He traveled to all four corners of the world, and he visited places that most of us have never dreamt of. He would always return with reports of new friends and adventures, and strange new customs, armed with blowpipes from the Amazon, carved boxes from North Africa, cigars from the Caribbean.
He would chart each expedition with a photographic essay, often with captions. And with each photo an accompanying story. I was in his web-site the other day looking at some of his snaps, and you can see he is living life to its full in every picture, whether he is bungy jumping, scuba diving, or doing the Cresta Run. My personal favorite is a beautiful shot of him skydiving. Framed by a cloudless sky, arms and legs outstretched in free fall, with the caption "about to break a leg in Southern California".
His mother reckons that he had broken almost every bone in his body in his 33 years.
James was a natural entrepreneur, always with some money making scheme or other. At University, he founded the Edinburgh Food and Wine Guide. A serious business concern neatly filling an empty niche in the market. Although he produced a beautifully finished guide of which he was justifiably proud, I know that he enjoyed it most because it allowed him, as a student, to entertain his friends and let them dine for free in the best restaurants Scotland had to offer.
James was generous. A generous host of splendid dinners followed by the best single malts and the finest cigars. But he was also generous in his gifts. He was always pushing books or CD's into peoples hands saying, listen to this you won't have heard anything like it, or read this it'll change your life.
I was having a drink with a good friend of his the other day, and she showed me her watch. James had given it to her. She had made the mistake of complimenting him on his fine timepiece, so he took it off his wrist, and insisted that she must have it.
James enjoyed his material possessions, especially his transport. He particularly favoured ancient luxury saloons with lots of grunt and soupy shocks. He had a long line of them starting with his trusty racing green Singer to which no field or stream was an obstacle and followed by a succession of ever more gargantuan Cadillacs, supplemented with the odd Ducati or two. Anyone that rode with him will be able to describe the look of intense satisfaction on his face as he gunned passed cars 20 years junior, leaving them breathing his smoke.
James was also a man of property. He believed in bricks and mortar. I never visited the Chateau Higgo; but I think it's telling that in the fat days when other spent their cash on frivolity, James took on a faded ancient house in Southern France, and planned in time to make it splendid again - its rooms filled with the clamour of friends and its cellar stocked with wine.
And there was his flat in Higgo Vale, in Cape Town the city of his childhood, a city to which he would return as often as he could, to visit his dearest friends and loved ones.
But I think the house he cherished most was his country retreat, Orchard Cottage, which he painstakingly restored and improved, and in which James and Imogen enjoyed many blissfully happy weekends with their friends. The last time I saw him there, he was outside in his wellies, leveling the earth ready to be sown with grass for a croquet lawn. I am sure that he would be proud that his trees have yielded a fine crop of apples this year.
James was a man concerned with politics and society. He had good friends of every age, sex, colour and religious persuasion. He had the self-assuredness and confidence to discuss any subject, however contentious or taboo. And he would argue clearly persuasively and with incredible charisma. That's not to say that he wasn't discerning. He could dismiss out-of-hand people whom he felt were flaky or half baked. When he felt that he was right, he would leave no rhetorical stone unturned in persuading the other person that they were mistaken. And he would never apologise for offending them.
Unsurprisingly it is difficult to define what James's political colour actually was. I know that he was an opponent of the old South African Apartheid Regime and a supporter of Amnesty International. He seemed to be an enlightened pro-European in some ways, but also argued against monetary union. He held laissez-faire views on tax reform, but sometimes claimed to be a supporter of the Liberal Democrats. I am sure he really wasn't, affiliation to a political party however undoctrinare just wasn't his style.
I think in short he was a believer in personal liberty, in individualism. He would often rail against our relatively benign government, or the nanny state as he put it. In fact he would work himself into a fury about the smallest infringements of his freedom: laws requiring drivers to wear seat belts, unfair parking restrictions or even at one stage the right to steal supermarket trolleys.
I think that although some of his causes were mock ironic, and he liked nothing better than a good overblown manifesto, James was actually a great pamphleteer in the English tradition. He would take a single seemingly minor, relatively uncontentious issue and present it with humour to suggest a larger more important point.
I came across one of his pamphlets the other day. It is grandly called 'the Manifesto of the Party for Parking Sanity', a cause to which I am sure most of us would subscribe. The manifesto ends with a portrait photo of the face of the hapless Councilor L.A."Tony" Holt B.Sc. FI MechE Chairman highways and traffic committee, Royal Borough of Kensington -and Chelsea, with a slogan above his head declaiming "you are a victim of this man, vote for the party for parking sanity now!"
James was a man concerned with matters of science. He was man of reason. A believer in the empirical and scientific method. I know that his love of enquiry was one of the many things that he inherited from his parents, John and Jenny. He considered all that life presented him in a level-headed even-tempered and logically-consistent manner. I remember when I was an angst ridden teenager, he would explain to me that we were just a bunch of chemicals, and that our emotions were merely the result of one set of chemicals reacting with another.
With such a firm scientific background and disposition it was natural that James started his academic career at Imperial College, the foremost scientific institution in this country. James's short time at Imperial was an important period. It was his first real taste of London, a city with which he would have a love-hate relationship for the rest of his life. He had found him self in the capital of the world. A metropolis where he could discover himself, try things out, and sample all that a great city can offer.
That short year was a turning point for James and explains a change I him on which many, who knew him well, passed comment. He arrived in London a school boy, and left as the suave urbane James we all recognize, with his incredible charm and social ease.
When James left London for Edinburgh to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics, the justification he gave was that he needed a more liberal academic environment. I think it's more likely that he thought that he could have more fun in Edinburgh, Imperial after all had a four-to-one ratio of men to women.
Whatever his motivation, his move to Edinburgh was a good thing. He enjoyed his time there enormously, making his dearest friends and meeting Jane without whom a Higgo exploit was never complete. Edinburgh was the perfect city for James at the time. A small city where he could have a grip on more or less everything that was going on. A sublimely beautiful city. The capital of a small European country. A place that allowed James, a student someone of modest means- to live a charmed life in the grand houses of the neoclassical New Town. A place where James already remarkable seemed evermore larger than life, always at the center of things, the essential core of his circle. He was recognized where ever he went and greeted as a friend not only by his confreres, but also by barmen, bouncers, proprietors of cafes - its seemed he knew everyone, and everyone knew him.
My fondest memories of him are from this time, his finest days, and I like to remember him as he was then, full of potential, full of ambition, ready to seize the world.
James was a man concerned with matters of Philosophy and Religion. He was a seeker of truth.
I was abroad when he moved down to London, but I was in the country on the sad day that James told me that his father had died. The death of his father really shook James. James loved his father deeply and admired and respected him far more than we knew.
I am sure that his metaphysical speculations and his, search for meaning, or ontology as he would have it were the way in which in which he tried to explain the inexplicable. I don't mean to suggest that James became morose or self-absorbed, far from it. His lust for life was redoubled. His diary crammed full with James famously going to three, four, even five parties a night, every night, throwing dinners, attending private views, joining all the right clubs at the right time, jetting around the world. He really lived it up.
But even when he was at his most lively, he always had time to talk to his mother, Jenny. I know he bought Orchard Cottage so that could be close to her. And it wasn't just out of a sense of filial duty, although he took his role as the head of the family very seriously, as his brother David put it. It was because he really loved his mother. She was his friend, his confidant, his adviser, and she was one of the few people with whom he could discuss things as an equal.
And there were very few people, outside the circle of leading Philosophers and Logicians with whom James regularly conversed, that are fully equipped to understand his synthetic ideas on Quantum Physics, Logic, Buddhism and information theory.
I for one can't claim to understand James's metaphysical ideas. I'm not shocked by Quantum Theory, I don't have his imagination. My head isn't large enough to contain a multiverse. I could never reach his enlightened acceptance of the Dukka the unsatisfactoryness of life. But I know one thing for certain, that he was probably right, he usually was. But James felt that he was onto something big, and sought to explain his ideas to friends in conversation, and would have no doubt have succeeded in persuading a wider public in print. His ideas were published in the Middle Way, the journal of the Buddhist Society. And he really wanted to take time out to properly write the book that he started last year entitled "Four Reasons Why You Don't Exist".
So I would like to end the address in James's words, by reading out another of his poems - the Monad's Manifesto. I think he would have enjoyed having the last word. You'll probably need his working knowledge of Liebniz, Kolmogrov, and Stenger to appreciate it fully. On the other hand it is just a beautiful poem.
A Monadís Manifesto
Here I plant my national flag.
James Higgo, 12th November 2000