Techno in Barcelona, the Indie’s founding fathers, and my advice to Australia’s cricket team

Amol Rajan's Diary.

Techno, I recently concluded, is the devil’s music. Even in its wilder and more varied forms, it has the kind of painful monotony that only a satanic imagination could conjure. In mid-June, I was at Sónar, a music festival in Barcelona, where my best-man duties had taken me. With unflinching fortitude, we listened to hour upon hour of this horrible noise, the only occasional glimmers of hope coming when a distant DJ dropped a beat and turned the volume up simultaneously. How on earth people can devote whole evenings, never mind careers, to this remorseless tyranny I shall never know.

Inky dreams

For all that, it was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had – not least because the Catalan sun readied me for my new job as editor of the Independent. It had been some time in the planning. On the flight home, with the techno finally draining from my ears, I took down my suitcase and extracted a battered old copy of Stephen Glover’s Paper Dreams, which documents the birth of the great British institution that I now lead. I bought a second-hand edition for 16p in Exeter shortly after joining the paper and, together with Andrew Neil’s Full Disclosure, Piers Morgan’s The Insider and Max Hastings’s Editor, it convinced me that being a journalist was one of the great privileges available to man. And to be editor? The stuff of dreams.

In the name of the fathers

Glover’s prose captured the zeitgeist beautifully, as indeed did the glorious early editions of the Independent. In preparation for my new assignment, I have buried myself in the archives and, reading those issues, I feel a deep sense of honour. For years, I’ve spoken to some of the great characters who made the paper so brilliant early on, including Glover, Francis Wheen –whose biography of Marx is simply the best book I’ve ever read – and Sebastian Faulks, a team-mate of mine in the Authors Cricket Club.

I think of these men as our founding fathers. The part of George Washington is played by Andreas Whittam Smith, who still writes superb columns for the paper.

Street knowledge

Last week, I asked Andreas what the founding ideals of the Independent were. First, he said, it was of no party or faction: you can’t think of it as left or right; it would always aim to surprise. Second, journalism is a street: we are on one side; the people we write about are on the other. It’s our job not to cross the street. Andreas used to think of his paper as “classic with a twist” – a lovely phrase.

In the coming months, I and the best team of writers and editors in Fleet Street will be animated by the spirit of those founding fathers. I have no intention of turning the clock back; rather, I want the paper to be true to the ideals in our DNA. After all, most of the British public think of themselves as independent-minded. Zeitgeists come and go but scepticism in Britain endures and we shall sing on its behalf.

Credit where it’s due

Two aspects of my appointment attracted most attention: the state-school heritage and skin colour. Naturally, I was thrilled to receive a warm letter from Keith Barbrook, the head teacher of Graveney School in south London, my alma mater. The brown skin business made me feel humble – but also uneasy. I didn’t smash through a glass ceiling, as one commentator put it: I just happened to be the lucky rascal who, when the moment came for an editor of minority extraction, was in the right place. Other people –my parents chief among them – deserve much more credit than me.

Second, the language around these issues is always dangerously loose. In The Meaning of Race, Kenan Malik shows that “race” is a social rather than a scientific category, concocted by (among others) French nationalists in the 19th century who wanted to justify inequality. It is also the first step on a road that ends in fascism. I am all for championing equality and indeed will fight for it, including through better and fairer representation of ethnic minorities. But race ought never to be a homologue of culture. I am an Englishman and a patriot and proud of it.

Gone Walkabout

Talking of nationhood, what on earth is happening to Australia? Our summers used to be defined by the onslaught of their cricketers through Ashes series we were bound to lose – but this lot seem utterly useless. They’re getting thumped on the cricket pitch. One of their players has been dropped after some allegedly drunken shenanigans in – of all places! – a Walkabout bar. And now they’ve dumped their coach just weeks before the biggest contest of all. I used to think that the answer to many of the world’s problems was a programme of mass migration to this beautiful, spacious and plentifully resourced nation. Now I’m not so sure.

The seamy side

So desperate are the tourists that they may fast-track legislation to allow the Pakistanborn Fawad Ahmed to play in this series. Ahmed, an asylum-seeker in a country not known for its liberal attitude to foreigners, has been left out by the selectors – but they retain the option of bringing him in for the last four Tests.

However, I must warn my Australian and, indeed, Pakistani comrades that a technical deficiency is threatening to hold back this sprightly twirlyman. Study pictures of Ah - med closely and you can see that he grips the ball tightly, with the seam running perpendicular to the base of his fingers.

Shane Warne, my hero, could tell him that this is a recipe for failure. Warne gripped the ball loosely and with the seam running perpendicular to the top, rather than bottom, of his fingers. That was what enabled the swerve into the right-hander that made Warne unplayable. Ahmed, by contrast, is a scrambled seam merchant. He may say that he is simply classic with a twist. I say he should log on to Amazon and get hold of a history of spin-bowling, quick.

Amol Rajan is the editor of the Independent

The audience at the Sónar festival in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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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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