Green solutions for London

Only the likes of Tesco Metro can afford expensive tube campaigns, your local deli suffers and Londo

If you have been on the Victoria Line going south from Euston station lately, you might have noticed the latest innovation in tube entertainment across the platform.

I regularly use this platform on my way from Kentish Town to my job in South Kensington and, a couple of weeks ago, I spotted them: three bright billboard adverts moving about on the other side of the tunnel. My first thought (and the one I’ve had every time I’ve used the platform since) was along the lines of “oh, horrific, look away, look away!” but most of my fellow commuters seem to have been of the “hmm, that’s quite impressive” school instead.

Keeping an eye on us all every day, no doubt marking me down in the ‘severe negative reaction’ column, were various people with clipboards, so this was clearly some sort of trial taking place. Despite my disgust, the ads have persisted (admittedly only showing promotions for the tube, various charities and the holders of the tube advert monopoly, CBS Outdoor) so I thought I’d investigate what was going on.

A quick visit to the CBS website revealed I was witnessing the latest enhancement to the ‘travel experience’ of tube passengers and was an unwitting part of a four-week trial for their new Cross Track Projection (XTP for short) digital advertising technology. Just when I thought my journey into work couldn’t pack in one more compelling sales message, I’m to have this barrage ‘enhanced’ by moving images – oh joy.

As if this wasn’t disturbing enough, a bit of clicking around led me to the extremely sinister London Commuter website, where CBS have been conducting and promoting an extensive survey of advertising and travelling in London. It turns out that each of us spends more than 13 hours every month involuntarily reading adverts placed strategically on our public transport infrastructure.

Even more unsettling, CBS calls this ‘Captive Message Time’ and are looking for ways to provide better value to their clients with distracting moving digital ‘experiences’ in as many places as possible: the XTP systems will soon be appearing on 24 stations across the network. I also discovered they are putting together a targeting system called ‘GMap’ which is busy working out exactly which of us is looking at which adverts when, and no doubt what ‘messages’ we are most vulnerable to on each occasion.

At this point, I was sorely tempted to throw down my mouse and draw up a pledge in my own blood to stamp all this out. But, as Green candidate for Mayor of London, I have to consider the other factors at play here. Advertising revenue goes towards making it possible to pay for things like reduced fares and service improvements. And there is certainly something to be said for this kind of judicious use of corporate cash, especially as the advertisers don’t actually get to mess up the signals or demand extra subsidies, unlike PPP pirates Metronet.

Moreover, it seems the CBS research suggests most commuters actually like the fact we have adverts to look at while we wend our way to work and wait for interminable ‘London Transport minutes’ to pass by on the platform indicators (these are similar to those ‘downloading file’ Microsoft minutes in that they never correspond to units of actual time). The figures in the survey are quite conclusive: while 74% of us would rather there were no adverts at all on the TV, 87% of us prefer the tube with advertising and 73% even like those scary anti-benefit claimant adverts on buses.

So, given that banning adverts would also mean kissing goodbye to tens of millions in cash, which would have to be made up some other way, even a Green Mayor would have to swallow the temptation to shoo the advertisers away and fill the space with art.

A better plan would be actually to increase the amount of advertising space on the tube, but reduce the cost of the new spaces; preserving revenue but making more of the space affordable to smaller, locally based businesses – exactly the kind of businesses Greens want to see flourish. With minimum space policies imposed and digital adverts taking over, only the likes of Tesco Metro can afford expensive tube campaigns, so your local deli suffers and London’s economy as a whole is pushed further into dependence on large corporations and the City – not healthy for any of us.

A more self-reliant London means stronger local economies, so smaller businesses need access to ‘Captive Message Time’ too, and that’s what this would help to achieve.

The second part of the plan would be to bring in a more ethical advertising policy for London’s transport system. Green businesses are another sector we want to help succeed, and clearing out the dodgier end of the advertising spectrum (such as gas-guzzling 4x4s, for example) would help companies wanting to promote their deals for solar panels for your roof, or their local food delivery scheme, to gain entry to commuter minds as well.

So, local and green businesses would get a leg up; books, films, plays, UK holidays and local attractions could all stay; but those adverts for far-flung mini-breaks would have to go.

But the big question is will the people who hate TV adverts but love transport posters take to moving adverts on the tube? For the answer, I guess we will have to wait and see the results of CBS’s experiment at Euston. I do hope my morning scowling shows up in their reports.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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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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