Madness in Medway as Reckless reigns. Photo: Getty
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“I’m not a racist”: a visit to the by-election battleground, Rochester and Strood

Polls have now opened in the constituency where immigration dominates debate, and Ukip is poised to seize power from the Tories.

This is an updated extract of an article that originally appeared on the New Statesman's election website May2015. Follow it on Twitter @May2015NS.

The morning’s first crisp rays of sunlight bounce off Rochester Cathedral’s small cluster of spires. Compact and rather squat, it looks over the town’s cobbled high street, as people begin to go about their day. It seems to be a sleepy Tuesday in this town on the Medway River. You would never guess it was in political turmoil.

But it is on these quaint little streets that the most significant by-election in this parliament is about to take place. Triggered by the erstwhile Tory MP for Rochester and Strood, Mark Reckless, defecting to Ukip, the vote today is likely to deliver Ukip’s second MP in two months. The latest poll shows Ukip 12 points ahead of the Tories, in a demonstration that what was once a maverick fourth party is rapidly increasing its grip on the political establishment.

On the grounds outside Rochester Castle, I meet a 34-year-old white English man, who is walking his Staffie. “I’ll be voting Ukip. I don’t agree with all these Slovaks, Polish, Latvians, coming over here,” he tells me.

He is a qualified plumber but has been out of work since April. He blames this on “Latvian people, Polish people, willing to work for £6.50 an hour. I’m registered, I’m qualified, I’d like to work for £15, £20 an hour. They keep the money, or send it home, and when they go back they live like kings and queens,” he adds.

Ukip is zealously campaigning on this hostile view of EU migrants. Reckless is framing the by-election as a race between the party that will “take back control of our borders from the EU” and the others who he claims could never deliver that result.

When I speak to Rochester and Strood’s Tory candidate, Kelly Tolhurst, she is unable to tell me how her party would bring down EU migrant levels. She repeatedly says she is eager for “action, rather than talk” on immigration – calling it a “numbers game” – but cannot tell me exactly what such “action” would entail, beyond David Cameron’s potential future renegotiation.

While visiting the main areas of the constituency – Rochester town centre and its surrounding residential areas, the streets of Strood, and Chatham High Street – I pick up an overwhelming enthusiasm for Ukip. Even a mild-mannered volunteer at the Cathedral tells me quietly that her family supports Ukip because they, “really do believe in its ideas.”

The chunk of Chatham encompassed by the constituency is more diverse than other parts of Rochester and Strood. One white middle-aged man I speak to mumbles, “I know it’s not a good word to use, but I’d say Chatham is definitely swamped”.

Chatham High Street is filled with familiar chains – McDonald’s, Debenhams and Primark – that take it a world away from Rochester’s “Ye Olde” quaintness. It hosts a variety of cultures. Halal meat is sold a few doors down from an Afro-Carribean barber; Asian men speaking Urdu preside over a vast fruit stall; Chinese workers sit laughing on a step outside a takeaway on their cigarette break; a large Polish family stops for a chat with passing friends.

I speak to a Polish painter-decorator, who is sitting on a bench, rolling a cigarette. He is on his day off, and looking forward to seeing friends later. He has lived here for two months. “It’s a very nice area,” he smiles. “Rochester is a nice old city, it looks like a picture [postcard]. I like it because parts of it are like a big city, but some of it is like a village.”

What does he think of his MP switching allegiance to Ukip? He gives a hollow laugh and looks uneasy, simply shaking his head. Would he want to stay here if Ukip took control? “Maybe yes, maybe no. I like to party, not talk about politics,” he smiles apologetically. “But it is bad.”

In spite of constituents’ concerns, and the diversity of Chatham, Rochester and Strood actually has a lower than average immigrant population than the national, and even regional, level. Its population is 87 per cent white British; the national average is 80.5 per cent. So is the focus on EU migrants really a constituents’ priority, or more a result of effective Ukip messaging?

I meet Reckless at the mock Tudor-fronted Ukip HQ on Rochester High Street.  He has noticed “a demographic change” since around 2004. There has been, “an increasing number of eastern Europeans who moved to the area – not in anything like overwhelming numbers, but in significant numbers,” he says.

He continues: “Ukip is saying that if we have unlimited immigration, from eastern and southern Europe, then that may hold down wages for other people in the labour market.”

While I walk around Rochester with Reckless, he admits to receiving more “strong negative reactions” among constituents than he did as a Tory. A resident who claims to know Reckless’s builder tells me that, a week before he defected, Reckless had a special fire extinguishing attachment fitted to his letterbox, in case he was posted any explosive devices.

As if on cue, a young father in a checked shirt strides over to Reckless and me, dragging his bored seven-year-old along with him. “I hope you don’t get in. You don’t represent the people of Rochester,” he shouts. “You say you’re not a racist party, but you think Lenny Henry should be deported! You talk about Bongo Bongo Land. It’s a dangerous party, stirring up hatred.”

Reckless splutters, “I wholly dispute your characterisation of Ukip.” But the man carries on: “If you don’t like this country, go and live in Canada, go and live in Australia.”

“No,” counters Reckless, “I’m very happy here.”

“Then let other people be happy here. You’re scaremongering and scapegoating,” is the man’s parting shot.

But it appears from Ukip’s double digit poll-lead that most Rochester and Strood residents would be all too happy for Reckless to stay living here too.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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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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