Green baize vampires – my childhood nights of snooker
‘Listen to them, the children of the night – what music they make!’
Bram Stoker, ‘Dracula’
‘The Miss rule is arbitrary
Hairy hands O’Sullivan, be wary
Ken lizard scarface, be wary’
The Country Teasers, ‘Deliverance from Misrule’ 1
Football may be ‘the beautiful game’ but for me only two sports have true poetry and exert a genuine aesthetic fascination. One is cricket – though professional cricket is almost totally unromantic these days – and the other is snooker. The chief reason I developed a passion for snooker was not its pin-drop hushedness and ASMR clicks, its curious rules and lore, or the simple beauty of the way it looks – a perfect flat green landscape constrained on all sides by raised dykes, threatened with submersion not by the sea but by nocturnal semi-consciousness. It was that it allowed you to stay up really late.
It was on TV for bloody weeks at a time. Something like the World Championship – which would sometimes attract audiences of nearly 20 million – legitimately entitled a pasty ten-year-old to be glued to the telly all day long, curtains closed, however gorgeous the weather was outside. There were morning sessions, afternoon sessions and evening sessions. You could start watching it pretty much after breakfast and still be going at midnight.
It was a mystical environment measured not by clocks or light but by break-building and endless, formless safety play. A single frame could last an hour (cheers, Cliff Thorburn). For a child, a major snooker tournament was Election Night, every night. We were little vampires, mesmerised by a clot of red corpuscles, waiting for them to be picked off.
Colour TV is often cited as the reason for the sport’s massive uptick in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s certainly a game that lends itself to the small screen (I have watched snooker on massive screens in pubs, which confirmed for me that a lot of the sport’s appeal lies in its domestic intimacy). Get your cameras in place and you literally can’t miss any of the play. It has neither the aristocratic pointlessness of billiards nor the preamble-to-a-bar-fight vibe of pool.
The pace of the game also lends itself to even the most feeble-minded and dopey of commentators. No pundit has ever screamed ‘What just happened??’ during a frame of snooker. The sheer distances involved on a full-size snooker table mean that simple laws of physics help the brain keep up with the ‘action’.
It has a hypnotic quality, and at times a dreamlike illogic: the ‘Miss’ rule ensures that no player can gain advantage by not trying hard enough to escape a snooker, making it the only game/sport/whatever I can think of where the referee must judge the intention of the player rather than the objective reality of the shot they’ve played.
Which was all good. I had found a sport that exerted a narcotic pull, but was considered acceptable to watch non-stop, and didn’t involve my grandmother continually tutting at the competitors for ‘hugging and kissing each other’ – a regular soundtrack to ‘Match of the Day’. It was also one that would never ever run the risk of someone seriously suggesting we went to see it live. I had a deep horror of events, public performances and mass celebrations of any sort but luckily snooker tournaments happened in remote provincial sheds and barns in places like Reading, Sheffield and Preston. To this day, I have never met anyone who has been to a live snooker match.
After a while, though, doubts started to creep in. Snooker was in its heyday and for me, Romford’s Steve Davis was the ultimate snooker icon. Modest but deadly, poised between the creepy stars of the ’70s and the bland ones of the noughties, Davis was a brilliant player, potter and tactician, and quite different from the stars we were used to. He didn’t appear to have wandered in from the wedding reception next door like Terry Griffiths, or to have been delivered by wagon to Reading Hexagon in a box of earth like Ray Reardon. Most of all, he was the antithesis of Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, a wildly dark snooker genius for whom fate seemed to have little or no pity.
Higgins frightened me. He looked like he was made of tripe. He regularly made the tabloids, and once headbutted an official. He would eventually starve to death after trying to survive exclusively on Guinness, like a working-men’s-club Gogol. I hadn’t yet understood ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ as a lifestyle concept, and I wasn’t used to seeing public celebrities on afternoon TV living on the very edge of sanity. (Later, my adoration of Mark E Smith would lead me to revise my view of Higgins, but you probably wouldn’t want to go caravanning with either of them.) The papers loved him.
In the ever-modest Davis, Britain had a bona-fide homegrown sporting superstar, a man of consistency and professionalism. But tabloid hacks love salt, and in the rise of Davis, they could see an underseasoned gravy train pulling out of Pot Black Central without them on board.They derided him for being boring and, with neanderthal sarcasm, christening him Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis, a joke they repeated ad nauseam2.
Even as a child, this struck me as unjust – there were plenty of men all over the country who were easily as boring as Davis and not good at anything, never mind better at something than literally every other person on the planet. Davis’s treatment as not being fun – ie dysfunctional – made me look more closely at the game.
I began to see that Davis, not Higgins, was its true outsider; the spell the game had cast over me began to weaken. (It also transpired that Davis wasn’t so uninteresting after all – a fan of extreme experimental music, he later co-presented a radio show with a member of The Cardiacs, and once challenged Steve Albini to a game of poker.)
There would be other sober, professional, ‘boring’ snooker players to come – Stephen Hendry, John Higgins, Ken Doherty; some would nearly match Davis for skill, but none would approach his grace and elegance. Davis’s defeat on the last black ball of the last frame of the 35-frame World Championship final in 1985 to Irishman Denis Taylor remains one of the abiding tragedies of my formative years.
The year after Davis’s defeat, Chas ’n’ Dave had a Top Ten hit with ‘Snooker Loopy’, a song which reflected the game’s existential crisis and made me start to properly go off snooker. The disjunct between its weird archaic syntax (‘Snooker loopy, nuts are we’) and horrible ashtray singalong quality seemed to echo the tug of war between a dark, troubling past and an anodyne, glossy future – the fight for snooker’s soul. What was Steve Davis doing on ‘Top of the Pops’ as part of ‘The Matchroom Mob’ ffs?3
Worse was to come: 222 episodes of primetime BBC gameshow ‘Big Break’, featuring John Virgo’s mordant minicab-driver humour and human veruca Jim Davidson.
But snooker’s bloodless corpse had one more, magnificent trick shot up its sleeve. Ronnie O’Sullivan was inconsistent – prey to what seemed like a non-stop house party of ‘inner demons’ that meant he’d often mentally jack in a match after just a few shots – and probably the greatest talent that snooker has ever produced. He made a maximum 147 break in competition when he was only 15; one sunny afternoon in 1997 I sat on my sofa and watched mesmerised as he made a maximum break in just over five minutes.
O’Sullivan had some of the Faustian-pact qualities of Hurricane Higgins, some of Davis’s balletic refinement, and something indefinable that was entirely his own. The mournful French Canadian Alain Robidoux once accused O’Sullivan, Pushkin-style, of ‘insulting’ him by playing – and winning – a match against him left-handed. In O’Sullivan’s pomp, his randomness both on and off the table, had a kind of eccentric Britpop flavour: certainly, that time Graham Coxon was sort of run over in front of a load of music journos and the time O’Sullivan played a match on crutches after kicking a flowerpot on his patio are intrinsically linked in my mind.
The truth is, snooker’s ‘Drowning by Numbers’ quality will never really leave me. There is, for me at least, still something of the night about it, beyond its visceral connection to a childhood spent praying that someone would draw level and help me postpone bedtime for another half hour. With its classical unities of place and time, it is truly theatrical in a way that almost no sports are. But there’s also a gothic quality to its etiolated servant boys, its eccentric tragedies, its weird off-camera happenings and its hushed, somnolent commentary. Like all vampires, you must invite it into your house – but once it’s there, it will feed on you, sap your will and place you in its thrall for ever. Though you’ll still find the ‘Miss’ rule completely unfathomable.
Next week: When this baby hits 88 miles-an-hour, you’re going to see some serious shit
The ‘Ken’ referenced is Ken Doherty who has what appears to be a facial duelling scar. The truth is slightly more prosaic: ‘The distinctive scar on his right cheek dates back to his seventh birthday, when he fell off a shed roof onto a metal dustbin’.
And that eventually became the name of his autobiography.
The derivation of ‘loopy’ is obscure but it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suggest it might have a root in the Latin for wolf, ‘lupus’, suggesting an altered, lycanthropic state of mind.