Going global against 4WD

Last week was a milestone in the battle against gas guzzlers - the first ever international conference of anti-4×4 campaigners.

Since the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s started two years ago, groups have been springing up in cities across Europe as the deadly 4WD trend has spread. We have been sharing ideas and artwork by email for a while and on Wednesday arranged a meeting, labelled it grandly ‘a summit’, and caught the early train to Brussels.

There are differences between our campaigns, mainly due to our different cultures (while parking tickets are an issue in most countries, only in the UK do teachers in caps and gowns strike a chord). However, we are all facing the same challenge of the motor industry selling more and more 4×4s to freedom-craving mums and dads as urban family cars.

First to present their ‘story so far’ were the hosts of the summit, Joeri and Jeroen from 4×4Info in Belgium. They are lucky to have the European Commission on their doorstep so can target the people responsible for setting (and we hope enforcing) Europe-wide targets for vehicle emissions.

Joeri recently infiltrated a popular Belgian news show to embarrass Commission President José Manuel Barroso on live television, showing a photo of his gas-guzzling 4×4: the massive VW Touareg (an anagram of ‘outrage’ as a helpful supporter pointed out the other day). The group has also invaded the local motor show and, for car-free day last month, created ‘the day of the living crash test dummies’ to highlight the dangers of 4×4s. They have kindly lent us their excellent costumes and we are now wondering if we should chuck ourselves in front of Chris Martin’s X5 or Jamie Oliver’s Range Rover.

Next up was the Swiss Stopoffroader group, represented by a pair of energetic Young Greens called Matthias and Marc. The main tools of their campaign have been stickers for the rear windscreens of 4×4s with surprisingly humorous slogans including, ‘Ich bin auch ein Panzer,’ ‘Gib Kindern keine Chance’ and ‘Ich saufe fur drei’ (‘I drink for three’ – the others are pretty obvious, even in German).

Thanks to a court decision clearing them of breaking the law, they are getting away with this tactic, which is something for us to think about as we have always steered clear of producing stickers for the UK.

Matthias and Marc also have the advantage of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy. Collecting 100,000 signatures will earn them a national vote on a Volksdirectiv, a ‘people’s law’ keeping cars that exceed emissions and weight limits out of cities. I expect they will succeed - their zeal has already gathered nearly 60,000 signatures in just a few months.

The Finnish 4×4 campaigner Lauri Myllyvirta was unable come to Belgium after being hit by the door of a 4×4 while cycling (the irony was not lost on us all). Instead he sent his apologies and a powerpoint presentation showing how his JunttiAuto campaign has made an impact in Finland even receiving legal threats from Toyota for their adbusting efforts. The campaign has also added a new word to the Finnish language. ‘Juntti’ means a backwards or ignorant man and combined with ‘auto’ sums up the 4×4 craze perfectly.

Sarah Connolly from the American organisation, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) was on an intercontinental mission to tell us about the progress of their Jumpstart Ford campaign, which has been targeting Ford’s SUVs for several years as part of a call for zero-emission cars. They have done a huge amount to expose the madness of a situation where the top-selling Ford SUV has lower fuel efficiency than the original Model T.

Helped by rising fuel prices, the campaign has been so successful it is temporarily on hold, with US car-makers (who rely almost wholly on SUVs for their profits) in turmoil after sales fell through the floor this year. RAN’s ‘Adopt a Dealer’ programme - taken up by groups ranging from students to nuns - has morphed into ‘Console a Dealer’ as car salesmen across America wait for the conclusion of merger talks. As well as passing on their wisdom to groups in Europe, RAN is now trying to work out a nice way to say, “We told you so. Now make us the clean cars we deserve!”

Charmingly calling 4×4s ‘les quatre-quatres’, French representative Stéphen Kerckhove, from green think-tank Agir pour l’Environment, told us how they set up anti4×4.net last year. He said that French citizens tend to expect government to deal with social problems like 4×4s and showed us their sticker and postcard campaign demanding eco-taxes for gas-guzzlers and calling on the mayors of large cities to bring in exclusion zones.

French manufacturers have been notable in steering clear of 4×4s so far, but news that Renault will be launching an SUV in 2008 has made them the target of action this week by Stéphen’s group. This event will also mark the launch of our new website: 4×4network.org, which includes the joint mission statement agreed on Wednesday and links to our campaign websites.

After a lot of discussion, we resolved at the end of the meeting to link up and work for common aims in future. After all, with a globalised motor industry insisting that controls on car emissions should only be introduced on an international scale, it’s about time we globalised our efforts too.

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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