THE first time I met future world snooker champion John Spencer was in 1964. It was my first day as a cub reporter on my local paper in Radcliffe and obviously I had more reason to remember it than John.

Meeting him again 41 years later I produced a newspaper cutting which helped stir the memory. It carried a photograph and a headline which read: "John wins the North's amateur snooker title". As John pored over it his face evoked a million memories. "Blimey, I look better now than I did then," he commented.

For a man with terminal cancer, whose handsome good looks and suave appearance once earned him the epithet of "The Housewives' Favourite", it was a light-hearted observation heavy with irony.

A lot has happened to John Spencer in those four decades which, if truth be told, have not always been kind to him. He has been a champion and - he admits ruefully - a bit of a chump at times. He has known celebrity status and he has been close to suicide. He has a broken relationship behind him and, with his recent decision to refuse cancer treatment, an uncertain future.

Now aged 70, John has just completed his autobiography Out of the Blue into the Black which was launched on Monday at a book signing at The Crucible in Sheffield, the venue for his third world championship win in 1977. The book's title refers to the suddenness with which a muscle-wasting disease ended his playing career after 1985 and the depths of depression into which he was plunged.

John Spencer was born in Radcliffe in 1935, one of five children. The three boys were all to become better-than-average players but it was John who caught the eye down at "The Grot" snooker hall under Radcliffe Market. He had never played on a proper table, and it was adults-only in the smoke-filled "Grot", but his dad arranged membership for the 14-year-old John. Still in short pants, he made a century break within 12 months.

Competition snooker in the early 1950s was built around workingmen's clubs so John's talents were restricted to invitational challenge events in which very able league players were always anxious to avoid "the boy wonder". His reputation grew but the embryonic future world champion could so easily have been lost to the game. After joining the RAF at 18 he spent three years in the services and was actually 28 before he picked up a snooker cue again. "I put the cue in the cupboard and that was that. I don't know why but I had no interest in playing."

Then a friend asked John to help out his struggling club side. And it was like he had never been away from the game - as several bookies were to discover to their cost as John supplemented his modest wages as a cost clerk at Bibby and Baron paper mill with some betting "stings". It was that same year, 1964, that he entered the English Amateur championships and reached the final. He was beaten finalist then, and again the following year before winning it in 1966 when he beat Londoner Marcus Owen.

A trip to Pakistan followed, John finishing runner-up in the World Amateur championship. In 1967 he turned professional and two years later he was winning the first of his three world titles in a 73-frame marathon. Within a matter of weeks he had married Bolton girl Margot Sawbridge, and though the couple parted in the mid 1980s they remain married - and very good friends.

Two more world titles followed, in 1970 in Australia, and then at Sheffield's Crucible in 1977.

John Spencer dominated world snooker in the 1970s, winning a dozen major championships. The advent of colour TV was transforming the sport and making household names of its star players. John opened "Spennies" club in Mealhouse Lane, Bolton, and a snooker hall in Manchester Road. While it wasn't quite a Hollywood lifestyle - his biggest prize payout in those days was only £9,000 - it was nevertheless a substantial taste of luxury for a man living with his mother in a Radcliffe prefab just a few years earlier.

However, drama and tragedy have never been far away.

Driving home from an exhibition match in Flint, North Wales, late one November night in 1974, John fell asleep at the wheel of his Mercedes.

Speaking at his home in Tipton Close, Radcliffe, John recalled: "I swerved across the road and was hit by a 20-ton lorry - I was lucky. If I hadn't I would have run straight into a wall and been killed!" John escaped injury but his car was ripped in two.

"I got a taxi and the driver said to me that his customers didn't usually talk when he picked them up. It turned out he was the local undertaker during the day."

The only "victim" of the crash was John's famous "twisted" cue, a gnarled relic of "The Grot" which he had bought for eight shillings in 1950 and which was 80 years old. It was smashed into four pieces but was such a constant companion that John had it repaired and even won another tournament with it. Now he has no idea of its whereabouts.

Ten years later, John was in Prestatyn for a tournament when he awoke one day and could see two of everything. The symptoms went away but the cause did not - he had Myasthenia Gravis, a rare and incurable disease which attacks the body's muscles. In its most virulent form it can kill. The steroids he was prescribed had terrible depressive side-effects, so much so that on one occasion he was taken into The Priory clinic. He was suicidal - "The drugs made my life hell. It must have been terrible for Jean (his partner). If there had been a button on the wall marked 'suicide' I would have pressed it," he said.

It was the lowest point for John. His playing career was virtually over, and though he enjoyed his six years as the globetrotting chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) it could not lift the pervading gloom.

Then, in 2003, he suffered a second health blow when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Two years of chemotherapy followed. He never moved out of the house, except to visit hospital. Then, earlier this year, he took the courageous decision to stop the treatment. Weeks later he was doing a sponsored parachute jump with the Red Devils to raise £25,000 for the Myasthenia Gravis Association (MGA).

John intends to spend whatever time remains raising more money for MGA, including donating most of the profits from his autobiography. The book, published by Parrs Wood Press, can be ordered from MGA by phone (01332 290219) at £17.99.