In this week’s New Statesman: Eton Mess

Cameron’s clique and the rebirth of the British ruling class. PLUS: Nigel Farage writes the diary.

Eton Eternal: Jason Cowley interviews the Eton headmaster

From the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of No 10’s policy unit to top stage actors and the PM – Etonians have resurged into in public life. In our cover story this week, Jason Cowley meets Tony Little, the school’s headmaster. Is Eton guilty of creating “a peculiar form of conformity” in the upper corridors of power? Jason Cowley asks Tony Little. The headmaster replies:

“ ‘There or thereabouts’. I think this is one of those little moments in history that won’t be repeated. I’m pleased that it’s not just the Conservative Prime Minister, but the Archbishop of Canterbury and actors [Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Dominic West], who have a rather different take on the world. And that reflects the Eton I live in. The exciting thing about being in a place like this is having bright, young, aspirational people who see the world in very different ways. That is the optimistic view. Whether it holds up to scrutiny is rather more complicated.”

While debunking misconceptions about this centuries-old school for boys – such as the high percentage of “Russian plutocrats’ ” children in attendance and the notion that all Eton students “come from castles” – Little also addresses the British education system’s role in “flatlining” social mobility and assesses the reforms by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove:

“The good bit is rattling the cage and rattling it mightily. We now have these pinpricks of light, of some outstanding practice . . . the Teach First scheme . . . is the single best initiative that has happened in my professional lifetime.

“[However,] I see no joined-up plan. Nationally, I’m talking about . . . Huge amount of reform, maybe too much. I think most of the people I work with can’t see the big picture we are aiming for. People can see merit in the individual things that are going on, but we don’t yet see the whole picture . . .”

Plus, Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, explains how social mobility got stuck.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

Nigel Farage: The Diary

Storming South Shields, dodging photographers and a new Nigel on the Eurosceptic scene. The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, recalls a less-than-ordinary week, from the local elections and television appearances to gutting fish and Brussels

[On Thursday evening, I take] the train to London to film This Week with Andrew Neil, with a live studio audience and his dog, Mollie. The atmosphere among the programme’s acolytes is fantastic, almost cultish. I have since been told their audience figures stretched well beyond a million so I hope it is a format they use again. A few drinks after the show, and it is time to head to my hotel and await the results from South Shields. By around 1.30am the count has finished and Ukip is looking at a staggering 24.2 per cent. Not enough to steal the seat but a breathtaking vote share, in the light of such a short campaign where 60 per cent of votes cast happened via postal ballot. It’s a situation that needs to change, castrating the chance to campaign and communicate with the public and protecting the party in power. I am intending to sleep, but as the early results start coming in from Lincolnshire I know that something incredible is burgeoning. I finally turn my phone off at three.

The week ends with an unexpected political lift: “Bank holiday over and it’s back to Brussels. Tuesday continues the weekend theme of Nigels, as Mr Lawson speaks out against British membership of the EU. The world is slowly becoming a far less lonely place.”

Laurie Penny: Letter from Reykjavik

After the financial crash of 2008, Iceland refused to bail out its banks and overthrew its government. Five years on, has its flirtation with an alternative to austerity ended? Laurie Penny visits on election day. Laurie Penny writes:

Iceland is a little human crucible bubbling away in the middle of the north Atlantic, and an experiment in how to build and run a modern democracy. For most of the past 30 years, it embraced aggressive free-market capitalism. Then its banks failed, its population lost faith in conventional politics, and it began to be an experiment in something else entirely. Desperate people across the eurozone cling to the fairy tale of Iceland as a plucky country holding out against austerity – but Icelanders see things differently.

Rafael Behr: The Politics Column

Everyone’s talking about Nigel, but it’s Nick who has shaken up Westminster for good, says Rafael Behr in the Politics Column this week. He argues that there is a stark choice facing British politics, expressed in the form of a rivalry between two party leaders with distinct styles and incompatible creeds. Those leaders are, of course, Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg:

Labour and the Tories have fought each other to a standstill. We already know the contours of every stone they throw. David Cameron is the haughty toff who cuts public services for pleasure. Ed Miliband is the gormless wonk without the strength to grip the axe. Their repetitive skirmishes win no defectors from the opposite tribe.

Read the politics column online now.

 

IN THE CRITICS:

 

Jesse Norman on Edmund Burke

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, John Gray reviews Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by Jesse Norman MP. Burke, John Gray argues, is “the thinker who more than any other exemplifies the contradictions of conservatism”. The principal contradiction in Burke’s conservatism is between his hostility to “political rationalism” – the notion that society can be remade in the image of abstract ideals – and his commitment to a species of providentialism, according to which the steady advance of liberty is evidence of a divine author at work. Margaret Thatcher, Gray goes on, saw the political settlement she achieved “as a chapter in a Burkean grand narrative of liberty. Unsurprisingly, this settlement has now collapsed.”

 

Brian Eno: The Critics Interview

The NS pop critic, Kate Mossman, talks to the musician, producer and all-round creative force Brian Eno. “The art world bothers Eno,” Mossman writes. Eno tells her: “The art world has got into the habit of believing that its prices reflect its importance.” Eno himself has sometimes been on the receiving end of the kind of snobbery that reigns in the art world, mostly for his production work with mega-selling bands such as Coldplay and U2. “People don’t think my production is cool,” he says. “[But] I like working with both those bands because they are at the centre of something I’m usually at the edges of . . . Snobbery is an English disease.”

 

Plus:

  • Sarah Churchwell is decidedly unimpressed by Z, Therese Anne Fowler’s novel based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald
  • The former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont reviews A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran by Peter Oborne and David Morrison
  • Sophie Elmhirst reviews John Crace’s biography of Harry Redknapp, Harry’s Games
  • Nick Spencer, the research director at the think tank Theos, reviews The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold as Science by Steve Jones
  • Daniel Swift reviews an edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters edited by Dan Wakefield
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Our Children, the new film by the director Joachim Lafosse
  • The architect Amanda Levete explains why “resistance is the fuel in the process of design” and why “cities are never perfect”.
  • And much more.

Read our full “In the Critics” blog post here.

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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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