The man who used me as a guinea pig for herbal Viagra is back. And he's got brothel creeper shoes

The last time I saw the Guvnor was about a year ago, at the launch of my book, accompanied by a Russian, blonde ex-model, about six inches taller than him, who had the air of a woman upon whom it would be unwise to try any oompus-boompus. Now he's back ag

Ping! A text from, of all people, the Guvnor. For latecomers to this column, the Guvnor used to be the landlord of the pub down the road. Patrolling the tables with mild menace, he would occasionally startle favoured customers with asides of quite extraordinary obscenity, the product of a mind that was as quick as it was filthy.

Every so often if you were having lunch there and he took pity on you, he would join you and start bringing over bottles of wine from far nearer the bottom of the list than the top. You would stagger out of the place at about 5.30, barely able to see.

He once had a porn film shot on the premises; only, this being a British porno, it revolved around the visit of a couple of supposedly oversexed female health and safety inspectors. I ended up learning far more about the separation of meat and dairy products on kitchen shelves – absolutely no innuendo intended – than I did about sex. (He triumphantly produced the DVD towards the end of an extended luncheon I’d been having with the Moose, and the latter, a man of delicate sensibilities, nearly fainted.)

If he wasn’t doing that, he was using me as a guinea pig for the dodgy herbal Viagra he’d taken consignment of, a job I did only once, on the grounds that the stuff nearly killed me. (It worked, in a way, and I wrote about it in these pages.)

Then the Guvnor got exiled from the pub by his wife, who had wearied of his ways, and he became elusive. The last time I saw him was when he came to the launch of my book about the Olympics which none of you bastards have bought, accompanied by a Russian, blonde ex-model, about six inches taller than him, who had the air of a woman upon whom it would be unwise to try any oompus-boompus (as Bertie Wooster once described one of his aunts). He looked well dressed, sleek and happy.

After that, I heard nothing. I imagined a period of forced exile, or a spell in one of the more comfortable correctional establishments. He popped up again at the pub a few months ago but when I asked after him from the staff, I was told he was never coming back, ever, and I got the sense it would be a good idea not to press the matter.

Anyway, here he is again, and he wants to buy me lunch and discuss matters of some import with me, so why not? I arrive a couple of minutes early at the Social Eating House in Poland Street, go to the bar upstairs and fail to enjoy a disgustingly sweet attempt at a Martini served by a boy with the stupidest beard I’ve ever seen – and you see plenty these days – and in walks the Guvnor, wearing, as well as more conventional clothes, bright blue brogues with brothel creeper soles (which, I later learn, cost £540 the pair).

It turns out that he has been suffering from ennui and has been relieving the tedium by idly scanning the pages of a website devoted to single Ukrainian ladies. One of them has taken the fancy that he is some kind of intellectual and has been dropping in references to Proust and Boris Vian. Boris Vian, for Christ’s sake. The Guvnor, whose idea of a library is two copies of Razzle, has been getting busy with Wikipedia but thinks it might be wise to ask me for advice. He shows me her photograph.

“Looks like Kate Moss, doesn’t she?” he says. “Guv, that is Kate Moss,” I say.

He shows me another picture of her. “OK, maybe not,” I say. “But you’ve got to admit there’s something fishy going on here. You say there are 28,000 women on this website. They can’t all look like that.”

The sommelier arrives and although the Guvnor does not bother with the French pronunciation, the look in his eyes tells the wine-man that he is not to be trifled with. I used to feel, when in his company, that I was in a rude, postmodern episode of Minder. Right now, I feel I’m in a Martin Amis novel. But he is soft-hearted and at some point during the next bottle starts showing me pictures of his kittens (his last cats were called, brilliantly, Sid and Nancy). The restaurant, full when we entered, empties. The manager suggests we repair to the bar upstairs. The Guvnor laughs him off; the manager backs away. You don’t argue with people wearing shoes like that. They’re capable of anything.

In my column last week, I said that Irvine Welsh was very nice to me after a disastrous reading I once gave. My memory is even more scrambled than I let on: I meant Stewart Home. My apologies to both writers.

One bottle of wine with an old friend: how dangerous could it be? Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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