I used to watch a lot of snooker. In the late eighties and early nineties, when Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry reigned supreme, and there were only four TV channels, and no Internet, I often found myself sitting in front of the TV on winter afternoon, glaring at BBC2. My dad likes snooker. When he arrived in England from Argentina, he hadn’t heard of the game, although he was obviously familiar with pool, but he grew to like it. After he moved back to Buenos Aires, he’d visit London for a month or so every couple of years and I have bittersweet memories of spending time with him, watching snooker. When I was a teenager, we would sometimes head down to a snooker hall near Wood Green; we never actually played snooker but we’d have a good few games on the pool tables. Whenever I visit him in Argentina, we wander 10 blocks from his apartment down to a dodgy little café in Boedo and play pool. It’s a typically old-school Buenos Aires café. The front room has a couple of ramshackle pool tables and the vast back room houses larger tables for pool and billiards and in between there is always a table of shabby middle-aged men playing cards. You never, ever see a woman enter the place.
I remember the first time I played snooker for real. I was at university in Leeds and there was a working men’s club a mile or so from our flat. I mostly went for the cheap beer and the occasional game of pool, but together with a flatmate I did play a few games of snooker. I was awed by the sheer size of the tables – a single frame might last an hour as we attempted to pot something; anything. Being short meant half the shots were impossible. Pool was more my style. Still, I may not have played much, but I watched a lot of snooker at university. There were fewer distractions back then. On cold, rainy Yorkshire afternoons when I had no lectures – or had skipped the lectures I was supposed to go to – I would lounge around the flat for hours, eating the crap that students eat and watching Ronnie O’Sullivan prowl around the table. Snooker took on an ambient role; always there in the background; silence punctuated by the cough of a spectator, the clunk of balls and the sensual whispering of a commentator (not John Virgo).
These days I try to watch snooker, out of a sense of duty or nostalgia, but I struggle. There are too many distractions. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, pornography, endless news sites. Certain sports seem incompatible with Internet usage; football slots in well with modern life; ninety minutes of high-tempo action can be a welcome distraction from The Internet. Even cricket works, as long as you accept that it’s a game suited to radio rather than TV. But somehow I struggle to get snooker to fit in. It’s not quite gripping enough to hold my attention and yet I find it distracting as background noise; it’s like working with the window open and being forced to overhear increasingly inane conversation. The players don’t seem as compelling either. I remember in the 1990s there was a “crisis” in snooker. There was the perception that after the heyday of the eighties, there were no longer any personalities in snooker. But I found the drab cast of Nigel Bond and Alan McManus and Stephen Hendry quite appealing; these days the game has younger, more dynamic players but I somehow find it harder to root for them.
Still, I’d always been quite tempted to watch some snooker live; but being lazy I never bothered. It was either in Sheffield (too far away) or Wembley (still too far away). So when The Masters moved to Alexandra Palace, a few minutes walk from where I grew up, I decided to seize the day and buy tickets for myself, my mum and my brother-in-law. I’ve been twice in the last two years, and it’s an odd experience. I suppose any live event, whether it’s snooker, football or a gig, is an odd event for me. I’m accustomed to watching sport on TV, where there’s an immediacy and intimacy that is (ironically) missing in live events. On TV, with its close ups and replays, there’s a sense that there’s a connection between you and the participants; that it’s just you and the “actors”. They are in your face, larger than life. Whereas watching in real life, you find yourself herded into an arena (snooker) or stadium (football) alongside a load of people you’ve got nothing in common with, watching from a distance as the drama unfolds without commentary or replays – without plot or structure or meaning. I remember going to the football for the first time as an adult, having not been for twenty-odd years and realizing that I was just watching a load of men running around, chasing a ball. On TV, every moment is captured, every second of drama paused and replayed; real life is magnified, slowed down and edited into drama. It’s a fiction, in the best sense.
I actually quite enjoyed watching the snooker live, but there was an disconcerting sense that watching it live was second-best to watching it on TV; it was just men wandering about, potting balls. It was like watching a local amateur dramatic society doing a theatre adaptation of Die Hard – I wanted the special effects and storytelling and thrills of TV, not the drab spectacle of real life. I suppose I have always secretly believed that things are only meaningful and important when they are on TV. I have a sneaky, unspoken desire to be an actor – to be onscreen, simply so that I can feel more real; more alive. I sometimes wonder if famous actors feel cheated when they watch themselves onscreen – that whilst their cinematic counterparts lap up the glory, they are still stuck in real life, having to watch from the shadows. Real life often feels like a prelude rather than the main event.
I think this stopped being about snooker some time ago. My mind wanders.