Miliband v the Mail, Gordon Brown’s confessions and football’s endgame

The Mail gave Ed Miliband an opportunity to show that, far from being a calculating figure who knifed his brother, he is motivated by a profound love of “my Dad”.

When politicians are subjected to a personal but non-libellous attack in a newspaper, the usual practice is to ignore it. A response spreads the muck, bringing it to wider attention, and makes the politician seem thin-skinned and easily rattled. The editor and writers responsible will congratulate themselves. “That struck home,” they will say to each other, enjoying the free publicity.

By replying in the Daily Mail to an article that branded his father, Ralph, who died in 1994, as “The man who hated Britain”, Ed Miliband defied the rulebook. “It’s part of our job description as politicians to be criticised and attacked,” he acknowledged in a right of reply published on Tuesday 1 October. “. . . But my Dad is a different matter.” The result was predictable. On the same page as Miliband’s reply but with more dramatic presentation, the Mail republished an edited version of the offending piece by its long-serving hatchet-man Geoffrey Levy, with added italics and fresh slurs. It also published a leader, headlined “An evil legacy and why we won’t apologise”.

So why did Miliband do it? Why did he not treat the Mail’s characteristically mean and over-the-top attack with what Harold Wilson’s chancellor George Brown would call “a complete ignoral”, pointing out, if questioned about it, that the Mail supported Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s? It’s the politics, stupid. Miliband’s leadership has been haunted by the public perception that he stabbed his brother, David, in the back. That is all a large section of the electorate knows about him. The memoirs of the former Labour spin doctor Damian McBride gave him a chance, with or without his know­ledge and connivance, to turn that around. According to McBride, Miliband stood for the leadership as an “ultimate tribute” to his father, whose “vision”, he feared, would be “traduced” by David’s Blairite opinions.

In the public mind, Miliband thinks, filial loyalty – to a D-Day hero – will trump the charges of fraternal disloyalty. The Mail gave him a further opportunity to show that, far from being the cold, calculating figure who knifed his brother, he is motivated by a profound love of “my Dad”. The paper that supports family values should approve.

Rusbridger of sighs

The Guardian’s online presence in the US is so strong that the New Yorker thinks it merits a 9,000-word essay. But with average daily print circulation now below 200,000, the prospects in London are gloomier. The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, tells the New Yorker that he “can imagine” printing on certain days only and going completely paperless in five to ten years. I hear, though, that Andrew Miller, the paper’s chief exe­cutive, tells colleagues that it needs only 50,000 average daily sales to justify staying in print. That is 983 more than the Independent’s single-copy sales in August.

Ham-fisted

I tired of football many years ago and what happened to Neil Kinnock recently at Craven Cottage, where the home team was playing Cardiff, illustrates why. Watching with his grandchildren, Kinnock was ejected from his seat at “the home end” for celebrating a Cardiff goal. I once rang West Ham, a team supported by my two sons, requesting three tickets for a match against my home town, Leicester. I was asked which team we supported. I explained our divided family and asked for seats in a non-partisan section. No such thing, I was told, and given a stern lecture about how, if I sat in the West Ham section, I should not applaud if Leicester scored. As it happened, my team gave no reason to smile, though my faint squeak of anticipation when a shot went within 15 yards of West Ham’s goal drew several angry looks.

Always a frown, with Gordon Brown

The Confessions of Gordon Brown, which my wife and I saw at the Trafalgar Studios in London the other night, makes compelling theatre. Ian Grieve’s monologue gives an extraordinarily accurate impression of Brown, down to every twitch of the facial muscles. But what Grieve conveys most memorably, largely through eye contact with the audience, is how Brown’s commanding personality, allied to physical presence, can simultaneously attract and repel.

One understands why Brown had such devoted acolytes. One also understands why he was a disaster on television. No matter how large the screen, the medium is too insipid to contain large and complex personalities. Having Brown on a box in the living room was rather like having the Mona Lisa in the outside loo or listening to Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand on an old transistor.

Stand up for teachers

From my friend in Barnsley, a retired teacher: “Why the fuss about politicians speaking without notes for an hour? I used to do it three or four times a day. But I never got a standing ovation.”

It wasn't only Ed who didn't take kindly to his father's character assassination in the Daily Mail. Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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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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