Begone, financial vampires

AL Kennedy is on the move. Pondering the romantic potential of Stockholm Syndrome, she takes time ou

It was bound to happen – the final twangy bit holding my mental compartments together (or, indeed, apart) was eventually bound to go ping and leave me. I think that happened in Blackpool. Not sure. I have, since we last spoke, been flinging myself into the joys of a writer’s autumn: festivals, festivals and then some touring and more festivals. So Wigtown was followed by Blackpool, by London, by Stockholm, by Cheltenham and by I no longer even care where I am now: wherever it is has food and a bed - I therefore like it. And most evenings I will be up on my hooves doing comedy, or reading, or inconversationing, or perhaps all three. Of course, there is other work to do during the moderately endless hours of travelling. These hours being extended vastly by my plane phobia. For example, I went to Stockholm by train. Or rather, eleven trains and two ferries – my, how I laughed, cried, hallucinated, collected spare change in multiple currencies and drank too much coffee – well, who needs to sleep ? There are things to do.

The things would currently involve rewriting a book of short stories to prevent its shades of misery from being so utterly repetitive that it causes people to die simply from holding it while still in the bookshop. (At this point my publisher would want me to insert some kind of disclaimer to point out that it’s actually a lovely volume full of kittens and sunshine, but you’re hardly going to swallow that, are you? It’s by me.) So my hands are covered in red ink and my loathing for every word is increasing exponentially. I also, for at least two very pressing reasons, have a film I need to hit with a hammer until it works – plus, autumn is the time when writers have to release damp-eyed, gangle-legged young projects into the maze of razor blades and paperwork which is the BBC offers round… off they go, often to fall into the first water hazard, sometimes to trot blithely on towards the next levels of risk, torment and origami. I am sustaining myself with a new CD of music from the Tower Ballroom’s Mighty Wurlitzer – genuinely, the first unremittingly jaunty sound you’ll hear as the demons haul you under to your just deserts

Still, I do quite like the travel – Wigtown had lobsters and cake, Blackpool was Blackpooly and allowed me to learn from various palmists that I am married, divorced, due to have twins and going out with a man who has one bad knee and the letter t, l, a, d, m, n, or c in his name. So that was reassuring. And Stockholm was a treat – always wanted to go there in case they had any Syndrome left. Given my busy schedule and cosmetic disadvantages Stockholm Syndrome represents one of the few ways I would realistically get a gentleman (with or without working knees) to commit himself fully to being fond of me. Four or five weeks in my fundungeon and I feel almost anyone would be able to convert their fear, pain and outrage into sincere and lasting affection.

No. Actually, after more than a month of hostage maintenance – the first aid, the dry cleaning, dealing with the whining and the blood – I don’t know if I wouldn’t be terminally jaded about the whole business. So that’s another option gone.

One benefit of my journeying has been that it keeps me from brooding about the sixteen grand I’ve apparently given to a wunch of bankers for shagging my economy by balancing it on funny money and a house price bubble. I would just mention that their plodding brand of duplicitous charlatanism was exactly what we were told would bring new life to the NHS, our schools, our public transport… Can we just stop pretending we believe that shit now? If we want to know about health care could we, for example, just ask doctors and nurses, maybe focus on keeping people alive in the most convenient and pleasant ways possible? Maybe we could chuck money at the systems which will help us survive when everything topples into the pit we have dug for ourselves and are currently still dancing round pretending that consumer debt and singing lalalalala will sort everything out? And, dear God, could no one else tell me that controlling the actions and bonuses of these weasels would drive them to other countries and that this would be a bad thing. That’s like suggesting the prosecution of burglars should be suspended in case it causes them to use their housebreaking skills on Johnny Foreigner. If our financial vampires want to go and knacker someone else’s banks – let them try. I’d even conjure up a poem to commemorate their departure – I’m busy, but I’d make the time for that.

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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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