Farewell, Whispering Ted, the man who taught me that less is more

Unless you're Osama Bin Laden, it hasn't been a great time to die of late, if you wanted the press to report it to the nation. The royal wedding and the leader of al-Qaeda muscled everything else not just out of the headlines but out of the news altogether. Riots in Uganda, killer storms across the US -- none of it stood a chance of a mention. Nothing else mattered: a 100-foot monster could have knocked over the Eiffel Tower and it would have been lucky to get into the "And finally . . ." section.

In the middle of all this, not many people will have noticed the quiet death at 90 of a very quiet hero of mine: the former BBC snooker commentator Ted Lowe. Before I was unfortunately sidetracked by a career as a comedian and author, my boyhood dream was to be a sports commentator and Lowe was one of my role models. These days, sports coverage is as glossy and overproduced as all other forms of entertainment, and commentary can be a rather self-conscious art form.

Quips on cue

Commentators are armed with dozens of facts about each player and team, which they throw in with apparent nonchalance, often on the most spurious pretext ("The free-kick is going to be taken by Gomez . . . Gomez, of course, is the great-grandson of the man who invented the typewriter and he'll be trying to type the word 'goal' here"). There is a tendency to waffle, to sentimentalise and to deliver obviously prepared spiels. A stadium becomes "this great Viking fortress of the north-east"; players are "gladiators"; a last-minute goal is a "knife in the heart" of the losing team. Even in sports more sedate than football, there is a pressure on commentators to augment the drama.

Lowe, who became a household name on the TV programme Pot Black, came from an earlier age. Pot Black was a humble show that only came to prominence because television bosses realised that snooker, with all its different balls, was ideal for the new era of colour broadcasting. Even as it briefly became a national phenomenon in the 1980s, when the world championship final could draw as many as 15 million viewers, he continued to call the games as if he were speaking to more like 15.

Lowe had two main characteristics as a commentator that set him apart from most of today's. First, he had a husky voice that at times was only just audible, which earned him the nickname "Whispering Ted". On top of this, for long periods of the game, he was quite content not to say anything at all. Even at moments of high intensity, his patter was so minimal that anyone joining the game midway through might have imagined that he had forgotten to turn up.

While commentating on the Steve Davis-Dennis Taylor final in 1985, snooker's most celebrated game, he had the honour of describing the legendary moment when Davis missed the black ball that would have given him victory. As the ball refused to go into the pocket and the nation stopped breathing, Lowe simply said, in a tone of wonderment: "No!" As a piece of zen broadcasting, condensing the greatest possible meaning into the fewest possible syllables, this will never be beaten.

At other times, he would allow a muttered "Well, well, well" or "Goodness me" to describe equally fraught moments. Once, he simply chuckled wryly at a perfect shot. The viewers had seen all they needed to see. What was there to add?

Watch and wait

All of this meant that listening to Lowe commentating was a bit like watching a game with your grandfather in an armchair in the corner. This intimacy is the effect so craved by broadcasters but so hard for the modern commentator to achieve. There's a lesson in his minimalism, not just for commentators but for everyone trying to command attention in the noisy world that we all now operate in.

Most of us flatter ourselves that we observe the "less is more" principle because we can turn a witty phrase in a 140-character tweet, but then we somewhat undermine ourselves by tweeting 23 times before lunch. The ideal Twitter user would tweet only once a year and enjoy the almost unbearable suspense in between. Quality, not quantity, is more precious than ever in a world of ceaseless communication.

That's why, from now on, in honour of Lowe and his brilliant economy, I will be changing my column from fortnightly to once every 20 years. The next one will appear in 2031. I know it's a long way off, but just imagine how exciting it's going to be after a wait like that. It certainly worked for the royal family.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.