The cult of Pippa Middleton’s bum

Don’t get angry at magazines for writing about Philippa’s bottom – we’re the ones who read the stuff

"So bot's happened to perky Pippa?" chortled the Daily Star this morning, next to a photo of the most famous bottom in the world. Just the bottom. On its own. We don't need a face, or eyes, or a person attached to it. This is the arse that rules the world – or our popular culture, anyway.

It seems that P-Middy's derrière has achieved iconic status after appearing at the royal wedding – so much so, that the lady, the human being with a soul, to whom it belongs is becoming somewhat dehumanised. Pippa Middleton, a person most of us hadn't heard of before 29 April, has skyrocketed into the celebrity stratosphere – then nosedived into obscurity, with only her rear end remaining visible. It's strange how the cult of the Middleton rump has come about, but there it is; we don't get to choose these things.

"Fans fear Her Royal Hotness Pippa Middleton is in danger of losing her biggest ass-et," burbles Nigel Pauley in the Star, accompanied by two enormous photos of the buttocks belonging to the sister of the Duchess of Cambridge. Apparently, "the posh totty is losing her famous botty", much to the chagrin of her (or its) fans. Horrors!

I know, I know. This is just the Daily Star. Why am I bothering? It's like fisking the Beano. Except I think it would be wrong to think this iconification of an arse is confined to the "male gaze" of tabloid papers.

"It's all about PIPPA," gurgles Heat magazine. "She's naughty, she's a man magnet and she's got THAT bum! DRESSES IN LOO ROLL! BOOZY PARTIES! CLOSET CHAV!" Inside, we learn that "P-Middy" loves her VODKA and she dances in her BRA. Breathless stuff. And then there's what seems to me a slightly stalkery turn at the end of the four-page article: "We think we're in love with you. Welcome to Heat." Oh. Welcome to the Hotel California, P-Middy.

Grazia has also developed a bit of a girl-crush on Pippa M, it would seem. "May we just take the opportunity to congratulate you on your unparalleled hotness," it warbles this week, accompanied by 20 (twenty) pictures of Prince William's sister-in-law. It's like looking at a teenager's bedroom. By the time I'd wearily trawled through Now magazine, it was becoming a fairly familiar tale.

In whispers, "a close pal" was conveniently sharing secrets about her private life, and there were pictures of people called Jecca and Kitty, about whom we are supposed to care. Look magazine splutters on about how she is "torn between two men", according to a "source", and gives tips on how to "get Pippa's buns". Good God. Is this what it's come to? A whole person's life boiled down to their bum?

But they're doing this for a reason. As I've said before, it's easy and wrong to dismiss this kind of celebrity candyfloss as being worthless, or somehow deserving of scorn or contempt, as being beneath us. It isn't – because it's what we want to read about. Time was when you had to guess what your readers wanted: now web searches will tell you what they want, and what you've got to give them. The SEO expert Malcolm Coles shows how the Daily Mail, inter alia, has hoovered up web searches for the phrase "Pippa Middleton's arse" without telling their readers their naughty little secret.**

I don't know whether to laugh or cry sometimes. I think let's laugh. Laugh at the madness. Laugh at the way in which a bum at a wedding has turned us all into drooling Neanderthals. Laugh at the scampering among the newspapers and celebrity mags to capture this interest while it's still fresh.

And laugh, too, at how soon it will all fade away, I suppose. In the meantime, just marvel at the madness.

** Needless to say, I know my readers, you bright things. You're one step ahead of me already and have worked out that I am a disgusting hypocrite. I can sense the fingers shuffling over the keyboards already. "Aha!" you type, with an assiduous flourish. "You're just doing the same yourself, Baxter, you knavish cueball. The only reason you've written this piece yourself is to get a bit of the Middleton bum love, hoping to attract frenzied onanists to your outpourings."

** May I defend myself? I am aware that this may potentially be an unfortunate and unwelcome side effect of this discussion, but I can hardly talk about the Cult of Pippa's Arse without, well, talking about what it is I'm talking about, can I? I anticipate your valid criticism and take it very much on board, but it really does give me no pleasure to be the beneficiary of such searches. If anything, it makes my already heavy heart just a little heavier.

** And there: with one bound, I am free.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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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