There’s only one word for this sleep-depriving heat: “stiffling” (look it up)

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

There’s only one word for this sleep-depriving heat: “stiffling” (look it up) A friend tells me he has been unable to sleep in this hot weather. Another friend tells me the same thing. Then I read in a paper that there is widespread sleeplessness going on. A nation tosses and turns under its low-tog duvets, counting sheep to no avail.
 
I know the misery of insomnia, especially in hot weather: until the age of 15, once the temperature rose above a certain point at night, I found it impossible to sleep. I experienced every second of every warm summer night from 1969 to 1978 awake. The earliest summers were the worst. My parents had invested in the soundtrack LP of the musical Hair – rather against the grain of their characters and tastes, it must be said – and every time they had people round, they would put this on when they thought I had gone to sleep and I would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how many more times I could listen to “The Age of Aquarius” without going mad. (Actually, I rather liked the song but it is funnier to say it drove me crazy.)
 
The sleepless nights stopped in 1978 when I discovered alcohol. Or, to put it more accurately, when I discovered the poise and bearing that would, despite my lack of stature (and though I was only 15), somehow reassure bar staff into thinking I was three years older. Ever since then I have self-medicated, slept the sleep of the just, whatever the weather. I also like the hot weather, as I am a child of the sun; my forebears came from warmer climes. The Beloved, on the other hand, is pure English and, like Manny, the character played by Bill Bailey in the sitcom Black Books, succumbs to Dave syndrome once the temperature hits 88°F. (You don’t want to know.)
 
So I’m tucking myself in the other night, my ticket for the land of nod presented and stamped, when a burglar alarm goes off over the road. It is a loud burglar alarm, pitched high and designed by experts to be distressingly audible for about half a mile around. Thanks to the inverse-square law, from where I am, it sounds bloody loud.
 
I try shutting the window but this shuts off the breeze and I look at the Beloved’s sleeping form and wonder whether this will make her succumb to Dave syndrome in the middle of the night. (You really don’t want to know.) I think of Martin Amis’s example of the typically rubbish opening you get in entries to short-story competitions: “The heat was stiffling [sic].”
 
Feeling that it is better to be deafened than stiffled, I open the window again and assess the situation. It is not wholly devoid of interest, for the alarm has gone off in a building I have not noticed before. How I can have failed to notice an entire building a stone’s feeble throw from my window when I have been living here for six years is a puzzle.
 
The alarm seems to be the manifestation of the anxieties of a very anonymous office building, whose style suggests the mid-tolate 1960s, around the time Hair opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. It is utterly characterless: square, fronted by frosted glass. I must have passed it a thousand times and I never knew it was there until now.
 
On either side, the street is 1850 vintage, so this cuckoo’s existence suggests that the Luftwaffe gouged it out during the war. To pass the time, I look up bombsight.org – the extraordinary site that tells you how many bombs fell where during the Blitz – but we can’t blame the Hun for this one, it turns out; we can blame a council or a firm of architects.
 
And the noise goes on. I wonder what it is that the alarm is protecting. Even if the offices within are in use during the day, who would be interested in carting off a photocopier and a few bulky computers? What else could be there? State secrets? If so, the place would be crawling with Men in Black; however, the guardians of our safety are maintaining a stout indifference.
 
There is no sign of forced or unforced entry. The offices are dark and empty, a non-place. It is as if the alarm went off in response to the office’s inner crisis, a sudden existential awareness of its lack of importance within a vast and uncaring universe. The alarm is simply saying: “I’m here! I’m here!”
 
Several hours later, it stops. I think there is a difference between the insomnia that one suffers on a quiet night and that which one suffers when there’s a racket going on. The dawn is breaking. I check that the room temperature is below 88°F, hum a few bars of “Aquarius” and finally drift off. 
A man sleeps with a newspaper over his face. Photo: Getty

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 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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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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