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For too many families, Christmas is a time of hunger

In Wrexham, something is being done about the problem - but it needs support from the government to go further. 

Before David Cameron became Prime Minister, food banks were rare. Now their presence is a standard aspect of our country today.

In my own community of Wrexham, our food bank opened in 2012. Now, in addition, we know that school holidays mean real hunger for some of our children. This isn’t just a seasonal problem around Christmas – it happens whenever schools close for holidays. The provision which is made in schools to help provide children with food is – by definition – not there once school doors close for the holidays.

There has been a growing recognition of the problem of holiday hunger across the UK in recent months – an All-Party Parliamentary Group has been established and produced a report which can be seen here. To date, the problem has not been recognised, let alone addressed, by the Tory Government.

One of the All Party’s Group’s suggestions is to share work and ideas, and with that in mind, I wanted to set out the work that we have carried out in Wrexham.

To address the problem of Holiday Hunger which is not being recognise or addressed by our Prime Minister, Wrexham volunteers acted.

Wrexham’s project came together when an experienced community worker observed the existence of the problem locally around two years ago. As the UK Government appeared oblivious to the problem, there was no structure in place to help make sure that the many children who receive up to two school meals per day during term time were catered for in the school holidays. These children were going without food, and Wrexham volunteers wanted to change that.

The project began slowly at first – I approached breakfast cereal manufacturers Kelloggs, who have a factory in Wrexham, and asked if there was anything they could do to help. They provided some cereal bars and volunteers helped to distribute them.

From there, the project developed. Volunteers from churches, charities and community organisations provided food and activities once more at Christmas, applying lessons learned in earlier projects to make the scheme more effective. By the Easter holidays this year, a clear approach to a pressing issue was agreed.

Rather than set up different community schemes with food, we would provide food to existing holiday projects.

Led by Sarah Wheat, a Church Worker for the St Asapah Diocese, we worked to set up a scheme where a packed lunch – a simple filled roll, fruit, raisins and a snack such as a scone – was prepared at a local church. These lunches were then sent out to play schemes in the area. This formula proved such a hit that it was repeated throughout the summer holidays. A local school also opened to give children an opportunity to prepare a simple meal and then sit down, eat and enjoy it. 

This Christmas, hot, chunky soup will be made by volunteers and again distributed to local play schemes.

Throughout this year’s summer holidays, the scheme provided thousands of meals in Wrexham and will do so again this Christmas.

From its small scale beginnings, more and more groups have got involved, led by Sarah and her Church in Wales unit. Wrexham council staff volunteered over the most recent summer holidays; 51 volunteers in all gave their help to the project; local faith groups, community groups and other organisations all pitched in in some way. The enthusiasm and commitment of Church in Wales employees went way beyond their brief. Donations and grants came from the Transformation Fund from the Dioceses of St Asaph in North Wales, Kellogg’s, Tesco and the Salvation Army.

Individuals, businesses and community organisations of different types have come together to take practical steps to address a problem affecting the Wrexham community.

What was most important about the scheme was that it was effective. Children were fed, and their behaviour was improved by having a regular, nourishing meal available. Some, who were convinced they did not like fruit, found by the end of the summer holidays, that, in fact, they did. Groups and individuals bonded over meals and good healthy food was discovered by some children for the first time.

The project provided a chance to simply sit and eat together – a very valuable moment for some.  A report back from one play scheme said: “staff on the playground specifically wanted it stated that instances of bad behaviour were very much the exception rather than the norm and they put this fact largely down to the food available during the course of the day.”

The project has proved to be a success here in Wrexham and is doing good work locally. Volunteers believe that their work has many lessons that could be learnt by other groups doing similar work across the country.

Wrexham’s success has addressed the immediate issue in the town, and by the hard work of many volunteers, helped provide food where, before, there was hunger.

We now need to take that work on across the country. The All-Party Group suggest that the Government: “fund the development of resources and training for organisations to deliver and support new and existing holiday provision programmes; research into the scale of child hunger in the UK and its effects on learning; and develop policy to support holiday provision programmes that include meals and enrichment activities.”

The challenge for David Cameron now is to take the work being done in places like Wrexham – set up by volunteers themselves in response to a problem they identified in their own community – and to think about how to apply it across the country, without cutting across others’ work. Our Prime Minister also needs to reflect on why it is that, under his Government, these projects are necessary when prior to his Premiership, they were not.

After Christmas, it will be our duty to put a system in place in 2016 to confront the real problem of holiday hunger across the UK. Government should be playing a central part in that important task.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

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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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