Charles Kennedy: the ideal Lib Dem leader. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images
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Charles Kennedy’s big what if, Murdoch says goodbye to Brexit, Blatter battered and testing tests

When politicians, the media and royalty are unanimous in their judgement that a man is a bad egg, I feel there’s probably much to be said for him.

In 2005, an NS poll found that a majority of our readers would support the Lib Dems in that year’s general election. The reason was that the party, under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, had been the only one in parliament that opposed the Iraq war. But I never believed that, under Kennedy, who has died at 55, the Lib Dems were a serious left-wing force. Their 2005 manifesto, superficially attractive, was designed to maintain and strengthen the middle-class welfare state. It offered nothing for the less fortunate.

Kennedy was an ideal Lib Dem leader, seeming kinder, more human and less dogmatic than leaders of rival parties. He had little grasp of or interest in policy detail but that enabled his party to continue its historic role of appealing across class and ideological boundaries. Even his problems with alcohol and punctuality, known to the dogs in the Westminster street from the early 2000s, contributed to his mellow, easygoing image. He recognised, more clearly than any of his colleagues, the perils of entering a Tory-led coalition in 2010. What he would have done had he still been leader is one of history’s great unanswered questions. In his genial way, he probably would have muddled through while still keeping his party in good health. For all his faults, he was a more substantial politician than Nick Clegg.

 

Blatter’s business

When politicians, the media and royalty are unanimous in their judgement that a man is a bad egg, I feel there’s probably much to be said for him. So although Sepp Blatter has now resigned, I note that, during his reign as Fifa president, World Cups have been awarded to South Africa, Brazil, Russia and Qatar, disrupting the accustomed pattern of western Europe hosting every other tournament. Meanwhile, African and Asian countries benefit from wider distribution of Fifa’s profits, a contrast both to the English Premier League’s practice of keeping nearly all profits in-house and to the International Cricket Council’s of channelling them to its richest members, England, Australia and India. No doubt the Fifa regime involved a deal of bribery, but that – as we are always told when British firms want to sell arms to the Middle East – is how much of the world does business.

 

Murdoch casts his vote

We already know the result of the EU referendum: Rupert Murdoch, it is reported, has decided that, despite his previous support for Brexit, it would be too risky for Britain to leave. Murdoch infallibly gets on the winning side in any ballot, even if it entails, as it did in the election campaign, backing the Nationalists in his Scottish papers while his English papers warned that a Labour government dependent on their support was unelectable. No doubt Murdoch calculates that the EU is now sufficiently wedded to “efficient markets” and minimal corporate regulation to represent no threat to his business interests. But his main motive always is to ensure that, whoever triumphs, he can claim the credit.

 

Prize-to-let

The Daily Mail is running a competition for readers “to secure your family’s financial future” by winning a buy-to-let house. For those who don’t win, it explains “how to join the buy-to-let boom”. This is the kind of “aspiration” – to become a landlord exacting the maximum possible price from your fellow humans’ need for shelter – that Labour failed to “get” in its election campaign. Labour promised modest rent controls that might have slowed the “buy-to-let boom”. It tried to meet the aspirations of millions of young families to own their homes, or at least to rent them securely at reasonable cost. Which, everybody said, showed it was out of touch.

 

Arthur Miller and aspiration

The word “aspiration” came to mind again as my wife and I watched the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is the archetypal member of what politicians now call the aspirational classes. “In love with fame and fortune and their inevitable descent on his family”, as Miller said of his Uncle Manny, the model for the character, Loman has nothing in his life except selling, polishing his car, aspiring to greatness for his sons, trying to dissuade his wife from darning stockings (a most unaspirational pastime) and philandering with a woman in Boston. We never learn what he sells. In reality, he’s the buyer, not the seller, and he’s bought something worthless: the American dream.

Miller’s play, written in 1948, now seems astonishingly prescient. Until recently, most Americans genuinely believed they were middle-class and upwardly mobile. Now nearly 48 per cent call themselves “working-and lower-class”, up from 35 per cent in 2008. The American dream has turned sour, creating lives, like Loman’s, of futility and frustration. Before Labour leadership candidates try to sell their version of the dream to the British, they should watch Miller’s play.

 

Cricket is too thrilling

Whatever has happened to Test match cricket? In the first of this summer’s Tests, New Zealand scored their first-innings runs at just under four an over. In the second match, they upped the rate in both innings to just under five an over. (In 1996 the West Indies, then regarded as the world’s most exciting team, scored at well under three an over.) Otis Gibson, England’s bowling coach, remarks: “I don’t really know what to make of it all, the way they bat and stuff.”

I sympathise. Cricket will not benefit from boundaries being hit every over any more than football would if goals came every few minutes. Torrents of fours and sixes may work in Twenty20 matches, lasting under three hours. But who can cope with constant thrills for five whole days? Test matches should allow periods for quiet contemplation, dozing off, browsing the newspaper (or a tablet, if you must) and sipping a pint. Those who need perpetual “highs” should try a substance of some kind.

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 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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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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