Thursday, 3 May 2012

Snooker loopy

"Snooker loopy nuts are we ..."No doubt the current World Championship in Sheffield and on BBC2 is drawing respectable audiences. And if Ronnie O'Sullivan wins this year it will give the sport a fillip. But snooker feels some way distant from it's all-conquering pomp back in the 1980s. Indeed, the very notion of O'Sullivan, Judd Trump and Ali Carter teaming up with the current equivalent of Chas and Dave (Olly Murs maybe?) and getting in the charts is so ridiculous it has a sort of charm to it (not that I'd want to hear the result or anything). But it's ridiculousness does emphasise how far snooker has fallen since those halcyon days.
Or rather maybe it's a reminder of how, for a while, Britain went a little demented over the sport.
In John Landis's glorious 1981 horror movie An American Werewolf In London, if I remember rightly, the American director's had a character trying to watch British telly and finding only ads for the News of the World and darts on the box.
If the film had been made, say, five years later, I suspect Landis may have opted for snooker, so ubiquitous was the sport in the mid-eighties. Indeed it reached its apotheosis in 1985 with the most celebrated final of all, when Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the black ball in the last frame, prompting a letter of praise (among many others) for Taylor from the H Block.
We know that because Donald Trelford, former editor of the Observer, mentioned it in his 1986 book Snookered, a book which itself was a symptom of the game's infiltration of the culture. Indeed the same year also saw the late (and often great) Gordon Burn - best known for his books on Damien Hirst and British serial killers - publish Pocket Money about "Britain's boom-time snooker".
Today only football has the same cultural penetration as snooker had back then. It was inescapable. Not that I wanted to escape it. I was one of the millions who sat up to watch Taylor's incredible victory which seemed at the time a double victory. I could cheer because the winner was a fellow Northern Irishman (and I did), but also because Davis seemed to represent the enemy at the time - he was a Tory for a start. Then there was his mechanistic playing style, that ability of his to grind out results.
And why was that a problem? Well probably because the man who had made snooker the game it was, the man who put the game on the cultural map was never a man for grinding out results.

Alex Higgins won his first World Championship in 1972. "Snooker was never the same again," Clive Everton, the doyen of snooker reporters, told Trelford. Higgins was a very seventies figure in many ways. A lad who liked his drink and liked women and liked showing off. He was a George Best for the baize (the temptation to link the two was one I couldn't avoid in Whose Side Are You On?). He even carried with him,the Daily Mail said at the time, "the raw sense of the streets".
That, of course, was always the problem with Higgins. His emotional volatility and vulnerability saw him drink too much and fight too often. Most notoriously, he once threatened that he'd have his fellow countryman Taylor shot the next time Taylor was in Northern Ireland. Given that Taylor was a Catholic and Higgins a Protestant it's difficult not to see a sectarian element in such a dumb sentiment.
Higgins was always a problematic hero. His neediness, his kneejerk anti-authority attitude, the man's emotional explosiveness meant he did a lot of collateral damage in his life. But bloody hell could he play. He brought a louche danger to the staidest of sports and a jerky nervous energy that radiated off the TV screen. The afterglow of that hung around him, carried him through his own excesses and meant his death prompted an outpouring of genuine sorrow in Belfast.
I'm not sure if it's a sign that I'm now unmistakeably middle-aged but these days I find myself rather liking Steve Davis. Yes he was a Tory but he is wryly funny and loves his soul music. I think he'd be good company. I'm not sure in his later years you could say the same about Higgins. For some sense of what he could be like I'd recommend you read the first chapter of Bill Borrows's excellent biography of the man.
But without him would we be watching snooker in the first place?

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