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No, feminists aren’t scared to write about the Cologne attacks

The people who asked why I hadn't written on the attacks weren't really interested in my opinion - they wanted me to say what they wanted to hear.

One of the occupational hazards of writing a column – apart from a slow but inevitable ballooning of the ego – is being told off for all the columns you haven’t written. There is a certain species of person who enjoys emailing columnists, brandishing how they haven’t written about Subject X as evidence of a) their moral shortcomings; b) an establishment cover-up; or c) rank hypocrisy. The model is columnist-as-Pez-dispenser: issuing regular and precisely calibrated condemnations of every evil in the world. Sometimes I feel like Bridget Jones at the book launch, where she starts by praising Salman Rushdie and ends up having to be nice about Jeffrey Archer to seem even-handed. (“Violence against men . . . is bad as well!”)

Which brings me to a question I have been asked recently: why haven’t I written about the Cologne attacks? Women reported a string of sexual assaults in the German city on New Year’s Eve, with many of the perpetrators said to be of “Arab or North African origin”. The story became inextricably linked to Europe’s debate about refugees.

There is now no doubt something awful happened that night. On 18 January, a 26-year-old Algerian asylum-seeker became the first person to be arrested over the sexual assaults; nearly a dozen other men have been arrested on charges of robbery. However, not all recent claims of migrant violence have stood up to scrutiny: a 13-year-old girl who claimed she had been kidnapped and raped by “Middle Eastern” migrants later retracted the story, saying she had invented it to avoid punishment for skipping school.

This fuzziness was my initial reason for not wading in. The reports were sketchy, in a language I abandoned after GCSEs half a lifetime ago, and from the start it was unclear if the attacks were perpetrated by existing migrants, new refugees, or even German citizens of Arab or North African origin. Besides, what did I have to offer beyond a straightforward condemnation?

As a feminist, I am opposed to all sexual harassment. It is a crude but effective weapon for making women feel that they are not welcome in public spaces and in public life more generally; I’ve been writing on and off for five years about internet abuse and how that puts off women from participating in discussions online.

Yet, for many, that simply won’t do. It is not enough to say that misogyny comes in many forms, and is depressingly ­universal across cultures and history. We have to cordon off the Cologne attacks; erect a little white tent around the crime scene and give thanks that we are safely outside it. Ah, how blissful it is, here on the outside, where the person most likely to kill a woman is her intimate partner, and where 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped every year.

And that brings me to the other reason I didn’t want to write about the Cologne attacks. All the people who piously enquired as to whether I, as a feminist, had “anything to say” about them didn’t really care whether I did or not. They wanted me to say what they wanted to hear: that Muslims are uniquely sexist, and that letting in refugees from Muslim-majority countries will mean rolling back women’s rights and importing the worst excesses of sharia law to the streets of Coventry. Unless Western liberals wake up, Islamists will be chopping off hands outside Pret A Manger by 2018.

To put it politely, this is not the framing in which any reasonable conversation about women’s rights can happen. First, the terms are too vague: is the problem Muslims (all one billion of them)? Or men from specific countries? Or just “brown men” or “foreigners”? Without identifying the problem, there is little hope of a solution.

Then there is the musty undertone of paternalism mixed with white supremacy. When Dylann Roof stormed a historically black church in South Carolina, one of his grievances was that “you rape our women, and you’re taking over our country”. This formulation – “our women” – was also used by Tommy Robinson, formerly of the English Defence League, after the New Year’s Eve attacks. Reread the commentary on Cologne and count how much concern is expressed for migrant women, shackled for life to these attackers, or for the families that unaccompanied male migrants have left behind to live in poverty. You won’t find much. In this formulation, the problem is not that certain men are misogynist; it’s that the targets of their misogyny belong to someone else. To me, the unspoken coda to “You rape our women” is always “. . . and that’s our job”.

You can see this most clearly in the rhetoric of the self-described men’s rights activists, whose usual response to allegations of sexual assault is disbelief. (Their websites are full of accusations that women routinely lie about rape.) And yet, in the case of Cologne, they have become instant converts to #ibelieveher. Why? Because this allows them implicitly to reproach Western feminists for not seeming grateful enough to men for allowing them the freedoms they currently enjoy. In this way, women’s ability to walk safely in public is cast not as a fundamental human right, but as a special privilege, nobly granted to them by European men.

At the women’s charity where I volunteer, there is a poster that says: “She’s someone’s daughter, sister, mother.” All the qualifiers are crossed out, leaving the simple statement: “She’s someone.” Each of the women attacked in Cologne was someone. What matters is not that “they” attacked “our” women, but that the patriarchy and male violence endemic across the world took a particular and extreme form that night in Germany. And so I parry the accusation of hypocrisy against me with one of my own: if your interest in misogynist violence starts and ends with Cologne, you don’t really care about women at all.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

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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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