In the Critics this week

Richard Mabey on summer, Leo Hollis on London’s tech transformation, Will Hutton on a new kind of capitalism and Toby Litt on Elizabeth Fraser.

The New Statesman’s special London issue this week celebrates the vibrancy and complexity of our capital. In the Critics section, our critic at large Leo Hollis explores London’s attempts to transform itself from Victorian capital to futuristic metropolis. Hollis considers Songdo, a new city being built outside Incheon, Korea, and the way it represents a new kind of metropolis: “the smart city, built according to the new rules of the information age”. Can London, “with its Roman street plan, Victorian infrastructure and endless sprawling suburbs”, become “a connected city in which monitors and sensors relay real-time data to regulate the urban fabric”? Reality, Hollis observes, seems to be getting in the way. Furthermore, smart technology comes with a warning. Hollis notes that the big players “such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Accenture and Mckinsey are all entering the debate on the intelligent city, the smart grid and next-generation buildings”. With this kind of packaged retrofitting of London for the 21st century, “one can’t help imagining a dystopian future (think Blade Runner) in which software companies have taken over the city”. What if London’s information were in the hands of its people rather than software companies? “London can never be like Songdo but the capital should define its own criteria for being a digital city and use its indigenous expertise to make the city a better place.”
 
The third essay in Richard Mabey’s series of seasonal diaries turns its reflections on landscape and nature towards summer. Mabey considers John Ruskin’s fear of utilitarian explanations for plant behaviour: “No one looked at plants with such loving attention, and no one disrespected more their integrity as living things”. With the extreme weather this summer generating a floral phantasmagoria, “we’ve all become a bit Ruskinian, eyes widened and imaginations frozen by prodigious growths and precocious appearances”. Mabey laments the fact that, as a species, we have never been good at delving into the lives of plants: “We like their looks and enjoy the masterfulness of cultivating them, and yet, like Ruskin, we don’t want to believe that they might have intelligent agendas of their own”. “Green things fed and sheltered Paleolithic people,” Mabey observes, but “among all the acutely observed and brilliantly comprehended animals that prowl the cave paintings of southern Europe, there is not a single plant to be seen.”
 
In Books, Will Hutton urges economists to give us a convincing vision of a new kind of capitalism. How do you break the intellectual consensus that Britain is a front-line developed economy, and must lower its public and private debts simultaneously and dramatically as a precondition for a return to growth? “To deleverage simultaneously is to invite protracted depression,” Hutton writes. “The challenge instead is to develop our economy as much as make it grow”. Hutton considers Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, with its thesis that “such epic economic mistakes have been made over the last generation, compounding those of the past 100 years, that the productive sinews of Britain’s economy – and its ability to renew that productive capacity – have shrunk to such a degree that Britain can no longer be considered a developed economy”. Meanwhile Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now! demolishes the intellectual framework behind the coalition’s “self-defeating attempt to eliminate the structural public-sector deficit in four years, with roughly four-fifths of the task assumed by indiscriminate spending cuts”. The non-strategy has been a disaster, and yet one predicted by only a minority, “although anybody with a sense of economic history, an understanding of how markets can get locked in upward and downward spirals and a willingness to recognise that both private and public sectors cannot unwind their debts at once could have arrived at the same answer”. A reckoning is imminent, Hutton warns: “Inability to pay one’s way in the world means that the country’s buying muscle for scarcer food, energy and raw materials is under continual pressure”. And yet Krugman, Elliott and Atkinson find themselves in the same predicament. They “describe what has gone wrong brilliantly but their economics is descriptive rather than purposefully analytical,” Hutton writes. “They lack a solid political economy with an accompanying vision of what a good British economy and society would look like”. How Much Is Enough? by Robert and Edward Skidelsky argues that Western societies have lost their moral bearings. And until Krugman, Elliott and Atkinson can better answer the Skidelskys' question – what is this wealth for? – “they will do no better than draw with their opponents”.
 
Elsewhere, novelist Toby Litt pays homage to Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. Litt looks back to the summer of 2006, when he was asked to help Fraser out with some lyrics: “Writing lyrics for Elizabeth Fraser was the dream job and couldn’t be anything other than a gift from God”.  “A lot of writers have attempted to describe Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and have ended up writing what ex-NME editor Steve Sutherland once called 'mind’s-eye gibberish',” Litt writes. “And a lot of listeners have tried to work out what words Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is singing and have concluded that it’s 'mind’s eye gibberish'”. Since posting Fraser his lyrics six years ago, Litt is still waiting to hear back. “Since the Cocteau Twins split up in 1997, Elizabeth Fraser’s fans have become extremely used to nothing happening,” Litt laments, “there’s been a deliberate avoidance of public exposure”. With Fraser now taking part in Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown line-up at the Southbank, at last Litt is days away from being in the same room as that otherworldly voice.
 
Also in the Critics: Kate Mossman lists her top ten London songs, from the Clash to the Kinks; Ryan Gilbey names his top ten London films including Oliver! and An American Werewolf in London; we list our top ten London novels, from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent to Martin Amis’s London Fields;
Sarah Churchwell on the “real” Hollywood; Talitha Stevenson on Amy Winehouse; Douglas Alexander on Labour in Scotland; Ryan Gilbey reviews Searching for Sugar Man; Rachel Cooke reviews the BFI’s season “The Aristocracy on TV”; and Will Self on the lingo needed to order fish and chips in Wigan.
Can London become a smart city? (Photo: Getty)
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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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