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Laurie Penny: Inside the Parliament Square kettle

The supposed heart of British democracy has become a searing wound of rage and retribution.

There is blood on my face, but not all of it is mine. I'm writing this from the UCL occupation, where injured students and schoolchildren keep drifting in in ones and twos, dazed and bruised, looking for medical attention and a safe space to sit down. It's a little like a field hospital, apart from the people checking Twitter for updates on the demonstration I've just returned from, where 30,000 young people marched to Whitehall, got stopped, and surged through police lines into Parliament Square.

They came to protest against the tuition fees bill that was hauled through the House yesterday by a fractured and divided coalition government. They believe that parliamentary democracy has failed them, that the state has set its face against them. When they arrived at Parliament Square, they found themselves facing a solid wall of metal cages guarded by armed police.

Then the crackdown began and it was worse than we feared. As I write, a young man called Alfie is in hospital after a "police beating" that left him bleeding into his brain, and all the press can talk about is the fact that a middle-aged couple -- one of whom happens to be the heir to the throne -- escaped entirely uninjured from some minor damage done to their motorcade. The government will no doubt be able to find the money to repair the royal Rolls Royce, but yesterday it declared itself unable to afford to repair the damage done to these young people's future.

A kind father of one of the protesters has brought in a vat of soup; I'm slurping it and trying to stop my hands from shaking. Two hours ago I was staring into the hooves of a charging police horse before a cop grabbed me by the neck and tossed me back into a screaming crowd of children, and the adrenaline hasn't worn off.

Behind me, on huge makeshift screens showing the rolling news, reporters and talking heads are praising the police and condemning the actions of young protesters as "an insult to democracy". But when you see children stumbling and bleeding from baton wounds and reeling from horse charges underneath the glowering auspices of former prime ministers carved in bronze, when you see police medics stretchering an unconscious girl away from the grass in front of Westminster Abbey, her pale head swaddled in bloody bandages and hanging at a nauseating angle, you have to ask to whom the real insult has been delivered.

What I saw a month ago at Millbank was a generation of very young, very angry, very disenfranchised people realising that not doing as you're told, contrary to everything we've been informed, is actually a very effective way of making your voice heard when the parliamentary process has let you down. What I saw two weeks ago in the Whitehall kettle was those same young people learning that if you choose to step out of line you will be mercilessly held back and down by officers of the law who are quite prepared to batter kids into a bloody mess if they deem it necessary. What I saw today was something different, something bigger: no less than the democratic apparatus of the state breaking down entirely.

In parliament square, huge bonfires are burning as the young protesters in front of the horse lines at Westminster Abbey struggle against a new punishment tactic the police seem to have developed: crushing already kettled protesters back and down with riot shields. I find myself caught at the front of the line, squeezed and clamped between the twisting bodies of terrified kids, and my feet are swept from under me as the kids at the front tumble to the ground.

We all go down together, horses looming above us, baton blows still coming down on our heads and shoulders. I am genuinely afraid that I might be about to die, and begin to thumb in my parents' mobile numbers on my phone to send them a message of love.

On top of me, a pretty blonde seventeen-year-old is screaming, tears streaming down her battered face as she yells abuse at the police. The protesters begin to yell "shame on you!", but even in the heat of battle, these young people quickly remember what's really at stake in this movement. "We are fighting for your children!" they chant at the line of cops. "We are fighting for your jobs!"

I struggle to my feet just in time to see a young man in a wheelchair being batoned. Disabled Jody McIntyre is dragged screaming out of his wheelchair when the police realise that photos are being taken, and shunted behind the riot lines as an even younger man who was pushing the chair shrieks, "Where are you taking my brother?". Then, for some reason, the police decide to attack the empty wheelchair while Jody's brother is still steering it, perhaps in a cartoonish attempt to destroy the evidence.

The protest was never supposed to make it to Parliament Square. Desperate not to be kettled again, the young people who marched out of schools and workplaces and occupied universities all over the city veered away from several attempted containments and diverted into side streets, determined to make it to the seat of government to make their voices heard. When they got there they broke down the barriers surrounding the symbolic heart of the mother of parliaments and surged into the square for a huge party, dancing to dubstep, the soundtrack of this organic youth revolution. Besides the apocalyptic bonfires and thudding drums in the containment area, dazed and battered protesters share out rolling tobacco and carby snacks. "Hey, look at this!" giggles one girl, "I'm eating Kettle Chips in a kettle!"

This time, unlike the first three big days of action, there certainly is violence on both sides. While some students came prepared, even bringing a portable tea-and-cake tent complete with minature pagoda to the kettle, others have brought sticks and paint bombs to hurl at the police. In the face of fellow protesters screaming at them not to "give the coppers a reason to hit us", stones are thrown at horses as angry young people try to deter the animals from advancing.

Many of these young people come from extremely deprived backgrounds, from communities where violence is a routine way of gaining respect and status. They have grown up learning that the only sure route out of a lifetime of poverty and violence is education -- and now that education has been made inaccessible for many of them. Meanwhile, when children deface the statue of a racist, imperialist prime minister who ordered the military to march on protesting miners, the press calls it violence. When children are left bleeding into their brains after being attacked by the police, the press calls it legitimate force.

Hanging off some traffic lights, my back aching from the crush, I have the best view in the house of this "legitimate force" being enacted, as a line of riot cops forms a solid carapace of beetlish menace and marches forward into the crowd, raining down baton blows. Then the protesters cluster together and push back, and my mouth falls open as I see the police retreat into formation. I am suddenly reminded of school history lessons about Roman battle tactics, and indeed, looking down at my hands as I type, I notice that they are covered in blue paint and streaked with blood. It's clear who the Anglo Saxon warriors are in this equation.

When I drop down from the traffic lights, my arms and back aching from being crushed earlier, I find myself at the front of the riot line, being shoved between two shields. Fighting for breath, I am shoved roughly through the line by two police officers; twisting my neck, I see a young woman in a white bobble hat pinned between the shields and the crowd, screaming as the batons come down on her head once, twice, and her spectacles are wrenched from her face. Her friend is shrieking, "please don't crush us, we can't move back, there's no room!" She is pushed through the line, too, and the police refuse to find her a medic. "I've never been on a protest before, I'm a completely peaceful person -- I'm doing my PhD on Virginia Woolf," she pants, her face streaked with tears of anger. "My name is Helen Tyson, and I'm disgusted, utterly disgusted by the police today." We cannot speak any more, because a huge officer in full armour taps me on the shoulder and orders me to leave. When I explain that I am a member of the press and I'd like to observe what's happening, he tells me that this is a "sterile area", and I am dragged away by my arms and legs and dumped by Horse Guards Parade.

A sterile area: that's what the heart of our democracy has become, a searing wound of rage and retribution cauterised by armoured and merciless agents of the state.

Things fall apart. Something fundamental has changed in the relationship between state and citizen over the past month. Increased police violence will not stop our democracy disintegrating: before it's too late, before more children are brutalised at the heart of what once pretended to be a representative democracy, this government needs to consider its position.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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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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