Neigh bother: an Indian blacksmith changes a horse's shoe in Delhi, 2013. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

A day spent sole-searching affords me an unlikely victory

My motto, when it comes to buying shoes, is “as rarely as possible”. A shoe will have to be hanging off my foot and making flapping noises as I walk before I buy another one. 

Meanwhile, because I am a good person deep down, I accompany someone shopping. And not just shopping but shoe shopping.

My motto, when it comes to buying shoes, is “as rarely as possible”. A shoe will have to be hanging, exploded, off my foot and making flapping noises as I walk before I buy another one – even the desert boots I get from that shop on the Uxbridge Road for £20. The last ones I bought there are still going, just. Over the years, I’ve had to spend £15 at the local menders, at £5 a pop, getting the soles glued back on, but I still think that’s good value. Although, for some reason, this time it’s the laces that have exploded. I didn’t realise shoelaces had intestines. Who’d have thought?

Anyway, here I am in the Covent Garden branch of —, while my companion chooses a pair of flatties. I sit down on a comfy bench, the only man in the shop apart from a postman who pops in to deliver the mail, and I contemplate the music being played and the staff. They are all . . . of a type. The music is the kind in which the voices have been compressed or stretched to fit the synthesised tune. Not my cup of tea but I can understand the appeal. The manager, her face a triumphant copper mask of the tanner’s art, rules over all she surveys. At one point, my companion shows me a pair of shoes that she has just tried on. “One’s bigger than the other,” I say. She goes off and tries the next size down.

I am smiled at from time to time, faintly contemptuously but with a touch of sympathy, by the staff and the manager. Something brings her over. Perhaps it’s that I am still holding the shoes.

“Look,” I say. “One of these is bigger than the other.” She takes them from me.

“No, it’s not,” she says.

I weigh up my options and the wisdom of standing up for the truth. Now, I quickly decide, is not the time to go all eppur si muove on her.

“You’re the boss,” I say.

“I certainly am,” she confirms.

Next, to the — in Holborn. It is a shop that sells running shoes. Call it the Foot Monster, or the Running Shack, or whatever you like. For some reason, I have forgotten its name. But I have not forgotten the names of some of the shoes that stared back at me from the shelves as I gazed upon them from the (much less comfy) bench that I’d parked myself on. Pegasus 31. Ghost 6. LunarGlide+ 5. What happened, I wonder, to Pegasuses 1-30, Ghosts 1-5 and LunarGlides+ 1-4?

My companion comes over to me while an assistant – having asked her several questions about her running and her gait and got her to have a go on the running machine in the shop, which she is not used to, but there is a man who has been pounding away on it like a twat for the past half an hour who would make anyone feel like a novice – gets her shoes.

“I’m mesmerised by the names,” I say. (You realise, of course, that this is the first time I have been in such a shop and I am boggled by the novelty of the experience.) She, with the keen eyesight of youth, has noticed an even better one and points silently to it: Vomero. Vomero 9, to be precise. And silently – well, after a brief but loud snort of laughter – I applaud the mischievous genius of the mind that came up with this. Short of calling it Blister 500, Ankle-Buster 60 or CardiacFailure 12, they couldn’t have thought of anything better to capture the experience of running.

The assistant returns. I point out that my friend is going to be running on quite hilly terrain, not on paved roads or tracks.

“Hmm, good point,” says the assistant, stroking his chin, which is odd, because what I was expecting him to say, after a quick appraisal of my build, gait and obvious bemusement, like someone from a 1960s episode of Doctor Who who had stumbled into the Tardis, was something along the lines of: “What the f*** do you know about it, you silly tool?”

I count this, I suddenly realise, as one of my life’s quiet victories.

So here are today’s lessons. Never turn down an invitation to go shoe shopping, for every day is a school day – and, yes, it’s true, you can fool some people some of the time. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496