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In this week's magazine | Anxiety nation

A first look at this week's magazine.

Illustration by Lucas Varela with art direction by Erica Weathers.

Anxiety nation: why is modern Britain so ill at ease?

Plus

Rafael Behr on Maria Miller’s resignation and how David Cameron misjudged the public mood

Unfinished business: Jimmy Carter tells John Bew about his crusade for women’s rights

William Dalrymple on the endgame in Afghanistan

Mark Lawson, critic at large, on King Charles III – the most treasonous royal play yet

Jesse Norman remembers Michael Oakeshott: politician, thinker, lover

Stuart Maconie on the “real” Frank Sidebottom

Unfinished business: Jimmy Carter tells John Bew about his crusade for women’s rights

John Bew meets the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international development expert Jimmy Carter to discuss his campaign to stop violence and discrimination against women.

 

In person, Carter is charming, warm and impossible not to like. In Britain we would call him a “national treasure” – a sort of Tony Benn figure, with whom you don’t have to agree in order to respect his integrity. But as one of only three one-term presidents since 1945, Carter exudes the sense of having unfinished business to attend to.

 

The 89-year-old former US leader tells Bew that he became aware of the scale of the problems facing women through the Carter Centre, which he founded in 1982. And he believes that the slave trade in women is bigger now than it was in the 19th century.

 

Is Carter aware of the recent work by William Hague and the British Foreign Office, together with Angelina Jolie, in campaigning against sexual violence in conflict zones? “Absolutely,” he says, and both he and his aide nod vigorously when I mention the forthcoming summit on the subject in London in June. Hague, Carter says in his Georgian drawl, “is an active hero of mine; he and Miss Jolie are doing a successful and admirable job”.

 

Discussing foreign policy, Carter declares Bashar al-Assad one of “the most obdurate individuals I have ever met” and suggests the US government was mistaken to demand the Syrian leader’s resignation as the civil war broke out.

 

Carter also warns that although he believes Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a “special case”, the US and its allies must present a united front to stop further incursions by Moscow.

 

Rafael Behr: the politics column

The delay over Maria Miller’s departure as culture secretary shows David Cameron is a poor judge of public feeling, argues the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, in his column this week.

No 10 invited Miller’s assassins in the press and parliament to desist but failed to erect a bulletproof shield around her. Her resignation exposed Cameron as a slow reader of the mood in his party and the country.

But Behr also points out that Cameron’s continuing reluctance to condemn Miller has much to do with his unease about gender imbalance in the cabinet:

The joke among Tory MPs is that the only way to get promoted in Cameron’s regime is to be an Old Etonian, female or Matt Hancock (the skills minister is a favourite of the Chancellor, as is the new Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid). It is widely suspected that Cameron’s reluctance to surrender Miller owed much to her precious status as one of the few women in the cabinet.

 

Cover story: anxiety nation

As the number of people in the UK with an anxiety disorder reaches three million, Sophie McBain presents the anatomy of an epidemic.

It is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether it’s just our perception of those feelings that is different: are we increasingly viewing ordinary human emotions as marks of mental illness?

If one in seven of us is taking pills to control or ward off anxiety, are we just medicalising an ordinary human emotion? Did the purveyors of the early anti-anxiety medicines such as Miltown – discovered in the 1940s, and the first in a line of blockbuster drugs including Prozac and Xanax – manage to create a new problem along with the solution they offered?

Or maybe the UK’s epidemic of anxiety isn’t pathological at all but a product of historically unprecedented good health and affluence. Perhaps anxiety is a luxury that comes with wealth, freedom and the privilege of having nothing fundamental to fear in our modern society.

 

Mark Lawson on King Charles III

The NS’s critic at large, Mark Lawson, reviews King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s new play at the Almeida Theatre in London, which, unlike such Elizabeth II fictions as The Audience, “enters areas that British patriotism and tact tend to avoid”.

Half a century after [Harold] Wilson fretted about portrayals of the Mountbatten-Windsors on the boards, Bartlett, a 33-year-old whose previous work includes Love, Love, Love and 13, has written the boldest and most provocative play about the royal family in British theatrical history . . .

While the press and public of the second Elizabethan age may approve of [Bartlett’s] view of Charles as a meddling monarch, they may be more startled by the presentation of William and Catherine as baddies. In the most remarkable scene, the ghost of Diana appears to her elder son, who is now Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. If the Lord Chamberlain still policed the stage, Bartlett would be in the Tower. This is the first piece of theatre to treat the royals like any other subject.

Plus

Peter Wilby: Maria Miller proves politicians can’t master the art of contrition

David Patrikarakos reports from eastern Ukraine, where pro-Putin rebels
are waiting for Russia

Veronese at the National Gallery in London: Michael Prodger on the Venetian colourist who abhorred empty canvas

Helen Lewis on the social lives of micro-celebs and hi-tech teens

Will Self spends a week as a flâneur picking out faces in the crowd

Life aquatic: John Burnside on Rachel Carson’s great sea trilogy

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire has all the gossip from Westminster

Caroline Crampton visits the Angela Lansbury Film Festival in east London

The NS tech writer, Ian Steadman, on why the White House might sue Samsung over a selfie

 

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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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