The new Murdoch, getting personal with Andrew Marr, and foodies in the East End

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Many youngish journalists in the newspaper industry, wondering if their job will still be there next year, may rejoice that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has taken over the Washington Post, where operating profits have more than halved in the past seven years. But the news alarms me.
 
Amazon is a threat to every form of retail life on the planet. It avoids taxes. It provides cloud services to the CIA. It allegedly treats warehouse workers with the severity of Victorian mill-owners and does all it can to discourage unionisation. Bezos has bought the Post personally rather than through Amazon but it surely isn’t, as some commentators have suggested, an act of philanthropy. There is nothing to prevent him from using Amazon’s platforms to promote and sell the Post and its digital offerings, potentially giving him almost as big a stranglehold over news as his company now has over book retailing.
 
As the Post’s Lydia DePillis suggests, he could put a print copy of the newspaper in every Amazon package, offering the paper’s advertisers a new audience of millions. He could make the Post the default app on every Kindle. He could feature Post videos on the Amazon Prime welcome screen. He could use the prestige from owning the Post brand to persuade politicians writing their memoirs to publish digitally with Amazon.
 
We worry about Rupert Murdoch acquiring too much control of media outlets. We should worry as much – probably more – about Bezos.
 

Reality bites

 
By the time you read this, the most awful slaughter may have occurred in Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East. So I know that I am risking a large and messy quantity of egg over my face. Yet, so far, the only sources for the belief that an al-Qaeda attack is imminent –which has led to the closure of US embassies and advice to US nationals to leave Yemen – are the US National Security Agency and the Yemeni intelligence services.
 
Both have a clear vested interest in talking up threats. Perhaps it is very cynical of me (and, again, I know I may look foolish in a day or two) but I don’t think it is a coincidence that news of this “threat” has emerged so soon after Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance.
 
When intelligence services are criticised, they can defend themselves, to borrow the words of a George W Bush aide, by creating their own reality.
 

Road rage

 
One of the things that I like least about Conservative ministers is how they never miss an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with whingeing motorists who believe that the world should be organised so they can park 3,000 pounds of steel wherever and whenever they wish. (I write, of course, as a non-driver.)
 
Local councils, ministers insist, should not treat motorists as “cash cows”. The revenue from parking charges should be used for road maintenance and similar benefits for motorists, not other local services. Why? Should tobacco duty be used exclusively for the treatment of smokers’ ill-health?
 
Space to park cars without danger or inconvenience to others is a scarce resource. It should be priced according to what the market dictates. If people can’t or won’t pay, they should walk or take buses, with benefits to their health and everybody else’s.
 

Beat happening

 
Contemporary culture requires celebrities to discuss in public matters that they would once have hesitated to discuss with their closest friends. So Andrew Marr, in an interview with the Observer’s Robert McCrum, goes over the details not only of his stroke and its aftermath but also of his family life.
 
With Marr’s spouse, Jackie Ashley, on hand, McCrum finds “the moment to introduce a vexed question from the past”: an extramarital affair that Marr wrongly thought had resulted in him fathering a child. Mc- Crum reports the response thus: “ ‘If we need to go back over that stuff,’ says Ashley, resolute and phlegmatic, ‘our problems were from ten years ago. We have moved on anyway.’ A beat. ‘I suppose.’”
 
I like McCrum’s theatrical touch but for full dramatic effect, shouldn’t “a beat” have been accompanied by Marr illustrating the progress of his physio regime by delivering a firm boot to McCrum’s groin area?
 

Eastern promises

 
You wouldn’t expect to find a Michelinstarred restaurant in the historically workingclass district of Bethnal Green in east London, even though the area has been somewhat yuppified by its proximity to the City.
 
To celebrate our wedding anniversary, my wife and I decided to give Viajante (which means “traveller” in Portuguese), housed in the former town hall, a try. The restaurant serves a “blind-tasting menu”, which comprises a series of tiny portions, the only choice being between a menu of six, nine or 12 courses. The names and ingredients of each dish are disclosed when they are brought to your table.
 
The food turned out to be stunning and the waiters’ performance, over a meal lasting three hours, as absorbing as a ballet. Despite the eye-watering prices, the place was packed. This, I suppose, represents the future. While our staple diet comprises hamburgers, massproduced from stem cells, we occasionally escape to sample small, handcrafted dishes, presented with a flourish.
Jeff Bezos, who recently bought the Washington Post for $250million. Is he the new Murdoch? Photograph: Getty Images.

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 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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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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