Monthly Archives: March 2009

Jenson Button wins!

Not a massive fan of Formula One, but have always liked Jenson Button for being a racing driver with a personality – especially putting Lewis Hamilton to shame. So pleased that he’s managed to win the Australian Grand Prix – especially with all the turbulence that the whole Brawn/ex Honda team have suffered over the last few months.

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There will be a lot of praise for him, and rightly so as he drove an excellent race, ably supported by Rubend Barrichello. Glad Jarno Trulli snuck a third place in as well, he’s always struck me as a lovely man and a good solid driver – along the lines of Giancarlo Fiscichella. Whether or not the Brawn car will prove to be strong throughout the season obviously remains to be seen, but for now – diffuser problems aside, who can say anything bad about such an amazing moment.

Praise also for the BBC coverage – they kept the core duo who made the ITV experience watchable – Martin Brundell and Ted Kravitz, and got rid of the deadwood like James Allan. Overall, a lovely day to be British.

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‘Green Street’ review

‘So he’s a Yank, AND an undercover “journo”, looks like we’ll have to give the boy two funerals.’

…and so we have Green Street. Although Bilbo Baggins playing a Harvard drop-out come football hooligan might sound like the worst idea for a film since ‘Honey, I shrunk the Kids!, Elijah Wood manages to turn in a convincing performance, as Matt Buckner, a visiting American who falls in with a group of West Ham United fans who love causing trouble.

Whilst the film is guilty of pandering to too many stereotypes a la ‘The Football Factory’ (cockneys, violence, beers, lads) ‘Green Street’ also manages to imbue a slightly lighter side, to the darkness that surrounds the film. As old rivalries are settled, and punches are thrown, there is always the odd glib one liner which stops the film from becoming too overblown and pompous.

The actual plot (two rival gangs from opposing football sides seek to prove which is the ‘ardest’) is a fairly substandard affair with no real surprises. A decent supporting cast offer some depth to support Wood, most notably Geoff Bell, as the feared and loathed villain ‘Tommy Hatcher’. Leo Gregory, whose star is rising rapidly with four Hollywood movies in the pipeline for 2009, cuts a dastardly wideboy with his portrayal of urchin ‘Bovver’, and Claire Forliani makes a welcome return from the wilderness with a fair, if slightly stilted turn as the only woman in the film.

Interestingly, the director ‘Lexi Alexander’ is female, not that it shows as the film lurched from fight to fight, or as Pete Dunham, the films only weak point (seriously, the attempt at a cockney accent is up there with the worst impressions in history – think Sean Connery’s disastrous Irish accent in ‘The Untouchables’) opined when he compared his ‘firms’ scraps with their rivals as being ‘like the Israelis and the Palestinians.’

Overall, Green Street is a watchable, slightly above average film that will appeal to anybody even remotely interested in gang violence or football in general. Sure it’s no Citizen Kane, but it never set itself out to be – if you like films like I.D, Fight Club or anything with fighting in, you might just be pleasantly surprised.

Wrestling

Ask a cynic about professional wrestling and you’ll get a glut of routine answers. ‘That shit is fake man!!!’, ‘What wrestling? Only kids watch that!”, “you a poof or something mate? Enjoy seeing other men roll around in their underwear?” These people are not just misguided; they’re ignorant to the extreme. Except the rolling around bit – sometimes it’s good to be open minded!

It is said that to look at the positives of anything, you have to view the negatives as well. ‘Wrestling’ as seen as a legitimate contest between two men is dead. The word ‘Kayfabe’, is a term used in the industry referring to the portrayal of events within the business as “real”, as opposed to being staged, or ‘worked’. Nowadays, everybody knows that the results of wrestling are pre-determined – including the premiere wrestling company, the WWE, who coined the phrase ‘Sports Entertainment.’ This was intended to move wrestling away from its olden day image of sweaty men grappling each other for hours at a time, into a sparkling world of pyrotechnics and glamour, mixed with gritty realism, and creative storylines.

Of course with creamy highs come spongy lows and none so moist and well risen as Owen Hart’s tragic fall, at the Kemper arena in 1999 during a live Pay-Per-View. Hart was a popular and well loved wrestler, whose death at the tragic age of just 34 raised questions into wrestling, which have continued to this day. The death toll is not pretty. Since 1999, over 60 professional wrestlers have died under the age of 45, mostly due to heart related illnesses caused by steroid and painkiller abuse, but also of darker events – Ex World Champion Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son in 2007, before killing himself – an event which was blamed on his addiction to steroids. Whilst wrestling has sought to clean up its image, it will forever be tainted by a reputation of lack of care, and lack of security in the job.

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John Lister, author of two books on wrestling, including ‘Turning the Tables’, believes that although wrestling will forever be associated as a niche product, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He told me “wrestling has always been a minority interest, even at its peaks. While casual audiences can help boom periods, in the long run it’s more productive to make money from people who like it, rather than to try to make other people start liking it.” This is not to say that wrestling is akin to windsurfing, Kabbadi and happy slapping – ie, something heard of by many, but perused by few. WWE’s flagship shows regularly get millions of viewers on television all over the world, and often feature celebrity appearances, ranging from boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr (who actually had an in ring bout with grappler ‘The Big Show’,) to a range of leggy blonde models bought in to increase the sex appeal of the shows.

Lister also noted that ‘The Benoit situation hasn’t put me off wrestling, though combined with a general lack of interest in the product, I’m less inclined to spend money on it or feel less guilty about downloading stuff.’ I was intrigued by that statement – and wondered if wrestling fans were as immoral as some of the content they were watching. A straw poll on a wrestling based internet chat forum revealing that 95 per cent of the members would stop watching the shows if more of their favourites died, reaffirmed my faith in my fellow connoisseurs of the squared circle.

A common criticism of wrestling by non fans is that of the ‘fake’ aspect. Yes, the result is decided before hand, and yes they’re not really punching each other in the head (well, not all the time), but the majority of the manoeuvres actually do hurt. These men are not throwing each other onto mattresses; they are being slammed onto hard canvas. 6 times a week, 52 weeks a year. They don’t get breaks like other ‘legit’ sportsman. There is (rightly or wrongly) no off season in pro wrestling.

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I challenge anyone to throw themselves onto a hard floor 340 days a year, and not under the guise of lovemaking. I also find that these cynics are the sorts who watch meaningless soap opera, without realising that the true drama is taking place in a wrestling ring, ably supported by interviews to match the most charismatic celebrity, storylines that wouldn’t be out of place on Eastenders, and all topped off with incredible athleticism inside the ring. These men should be applauded for their bravery and talent, and not lambasted for not really cutting themselves open night after night. ‘Why would anyone want to be a wrestler?’ you ask. Why would you want to be a hero? For the pride, the rush, and the thrill.

Can wrestling be ever considered as ‘cool’ though? Gareth Campesinos, lead singer of the much touted band ‘Los Campesinos,’ is renowned for being a wrestling fan. On their second record, a song entitled ‘All Your Kayfabe Friends’ references wrestling, and I asked him what his inspiration was for using wrestling terminology in one of his songs. He said, “There was some hope that it might cause people to talk about wrestling with me at shows or in interviews, but that’s yet to occur.” I asked him if he felt there was any links with indie music and wrestling – two forms of entertainment which usually live on the edge of the mainstream.” I don’t think there’s any real link between indie music and wrestling,” he mused. “Wrestling is big, big business, and that’s supposed to be the antithesis of indie music I suppose – but wrestling isn’t something that’s seen as being cool, in the indie community at least, and what’s more indie than that?”

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Essentially, professional wrestling is like wine tasting. Some people can’t get past the performance aspect of it all, and long for the simplicity of life without spice, and without pantomime. To those that do like the slightly more absurd in life, the melodramatic and the magic – wrestling might just enchant you.

Top 10 sporting ‘David’s’

To some, names mean everything. My own personal favourite forename is David, and so I shall be celebrating my all time top 10 sports related David’s. In no particular order.

1. David ‘Lord’ Triesman. The maverick chairman of the F.A has made waves during his first year in office, most notably by dismissing Brian Barwick as chief executive, finally disposing the F.A reputation of an ‘old boys club.’ The verbose, erudite Triesman is also the first ever independent chairman of the F.A, and boasts four years as a member of the House Of Lords, and perhaps more saliently, seven years as a member of the Communist Party, during the seventies. A believer in power to the people, here’s hoping that he continues to make the right decisions first, rather than the safe ones.

2. David ‘Hayemaker’ Haye. The former undisputed Cruiserweight boxing champion of the world, and now the number one contender in the Heavyweight division, Haye is one of a rare breed – an intelligent sportsman. Fantastically charismatic, and able to put his money where his mouth is, Haye’s dynamite fists have taken him to the brink of his sports biggest prize. It is a testament to his dedication and mental strength that he was able to bounce back from an early career loss to Carl Thompson, by only choosing the best opponents to fight, rather than cherry pick his way through various boxing bums. An upcoming bout with Vitali Klitschko could cement his legacy within the sport.

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3. David ‘Goldenballs’ Beckham. Perhaps the most famous sportsman in the world, Beckham has seen his stock rise over the last year by actually seeking to improve himself as an athlete as a result of his transfer to AC Milan, from the soccer backwaters of Los Angeles. Despite his enormous fortune, Beckham has never stopped dedicating himself to his sport, and remains one of the finest crossers of a ball in football, which is no mean feat considering Ronaldo’s soirées with male prostitutes in Brazil last year.

4. David ‘Because I’m Worth It’ Ginola. Owner of perhaps the finest barnet in football (sorry Bee’s fans) David Ginola was an elegant, exciting football player who exuded cool on a grand scale, hell he even made black and white stripes look cool. Not many men could appear in shampoo adverts and still remain a fans favourite, but he managed it thanks to his sensational mazy runs, and precise finishing. Although he never really peaked with the French national team (earning a mere 17 caps) he will forever be looked back on fondly, by northerners and southerners alike.

5. David ”Stylish’ Gower. A feared left handed batsman in his pomp, with a hugely impressive average of 44.25, the ex England captain has carved out a successful post cricket career, first with a memorable stint as team captain on sports show ‘They Think It’s All Over’, and latterly as the anchor of Sky Sports excellent coverage of cricket. David was awarded the “Oldie Of The Year” award in 1993, joining an exclusive club featuring such luminaries Tony Blackburn, and Spike Milligan. Also once flew a plane over an Australian cricket ground. A true gentleman.

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6. David ‘Campo’ Campese. Campese was uniquely great in rugby – equally blessed with both genius, and madness. One minute he would be cantering down the wing at breakneck speed, and the next rueing a terrible passing error. An arrogant Aussie – an oxymoron I’m sure you’re thinking, Campese once boasted of being a millionaire. No big deal for a high class sportsman, only rugby had yet to turn into a professional game at this time, and any prize money earned would have been minuscule. Perhaps most notably, he was referenced in the song ‘Self Suicide’, by the most critically acclaimed hip-hop group of all time, Goldie Lookin’ Chain.

7. David ‘Vs’ Goliath. Not one of the more recent David’s that’s for sure, but this David had everything a modern sportsman should have – bravery, dedication, and a slingshot. Some of Britain’s underachievers should study tapes of David’s most famous victory, his annihilation of the dreaded behemoth ‘Goliath,’ a two-hundred feet monster. In scenes vaguely reminiscent of Evander Holyfield’s fight with the lumbering Russian giant Nikolai Valuev, David worked the body with a barrage of sling-shots, and eventually won on a split decision, unlike Holyfield who was robbed. There was no rematch.

8. David ‘Safe Hands’ Seaman. Although he shares a last name with a sticky substance that comes out from seemingly nowhere, Seaman cannot be blamed for spilling Nayim’s cheeky effort in the ’94 Cup Winners Cup final all over himself. In fact, Seaman’s strength of character is huge – who else can come back from such glaring errors, most obviously his horrific goalkeeping jersey during Euro ’96. Luckily for him, his goalkeeping skills, and his uncanny resemblance to the man on the front of Pringle’s tubes are sure to see him through as a true British hero.

9. David ‘Square Jaw’ Coulthard. David, or DC to anybody who watched ITV’s coverage of Formula One at all, was a racing driver who never quite made it to the pinnacle of the sport, but was always there or there abouts. A terrific team mate of Mika Häkkinen during the nineties, DC always maintained a sense of dignity, and always kept his head whilst others were losing theirs. That was until Felipe Massa cut him up at a corner during the 2008 season, and caused him to crash his car. “I know I screwed up in the same way last season, but I took full responsibility for it and I would expect Felipe to do the same,” Coulthard said, reasonably. “And if he doesn’t then I’m going to kick ten colours of shit out of the little bastard.” For that alone, he makes my list.

10. David ‘Trophies’ May. Seemingly at Manchester United forever, May became infamous during the 1998-1999 season, when he was seen celebrating wildly during each of United’s treble trophy wins, despite only playing a mere 85 league games in NINE seasons with the club. Still a hero for winning double the amount of Premiership titles as Alan Shearer with minimal effort. A true hero for the name David.

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Investigation into Margarito/Mosely

The world of sport is perhaps one of the most politicised fields there is. Whilst the glory usually occurs legitimately, this is not always the case. Rule breaking can play a huge part in sporting achievement, and I will be investigating one of the most notorious cases of cheating in one of the most controversial sports there is – boxing.

Over hundreds of years boxing has remained the same – two men, in a ring punching each other in the head. Sure rules have been implemented during time – gloves, judges, standing eight counts, but boxing has always failed to shake off the reputation of shadiness, and deceit. From Jake LaMotta throwing a fight in order to recompense with the Mafia, to Mike Tyson actively paying Lennox Lewis millions of dollars NOT to fight him in the mid nineties, boxing has always had mystery aplenty. The sport was dealt another blow to its credibility, when in January 2009 boxer Antonio Margarito was found to have a foreign substance (believed to be plaster of Paris) wrapped round his hands prior to a bout with ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosely.

Margarito was a tough Mexican fighter coming into the peak of his career. He was not a jobbing boxer struggling to make a name for himself, in fact he had set an audience record of 20,820 at the Staples Centre on the night of the fight. His last bout had been against the unbeaten, seemingly unstopped Puerto-Rican Miguel Cotto, whom Margarito had trounced widely on a points victory. He also held wins over Joshua Clottey, Hercules Kyvelos and had been involved in a pulsating clash with the American Paul Williams. Before the Mosely fight, whispers were circulating of a possible clash with arguably the finest pound for pound fighter in the world, Manny ‘Pac-Man’ Pacquiao. The future was looking rosy for the thirty-year old, who was the bookies favourite over an ageing Mosely, who had struggled for peak performances in the past few years.

It is customary in boxing for both trainers to observe the ‘wrapping’ of gloves for both fighters. It is an old tradition, used mainly to induce a friendly edge to precedings, during a time of complete tension and showmanship. Ninety-nine percent of the time the wrapping and dressing of fighters occurs with nothing untoward happening – but not this time. This time the wrapping was marred in a controversy after Mosley’s trainer diligently spotted an illegal plaster accessory being added to Margarito’s hand wraps, which had to be redone three times before the commission’s officials were satisfied – and only after the offending piece had been taken out.

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The fight itself ended in the ninth round, when Mosely (not a stranger to controversy himself after various doping claims during his career) knocked Margarito out after a barrage of punches, with Margarito’s heart seemingly gone. Margaritos pre match quote of “There are no secrets here, we know our styles and I’m very certain I will raise my hands in victory on Saturday night..” seemed a touch ironic, and a lifetime ago as he lay on the canvas tasting back blood, but perhaps even he wasn’t to know what was to follow.

Boxing might be highly fuelled with dodgy-dealings, but so called ‘loaded glove’ incidents have always been frowned on. It took Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) years to fully clear his name after a fight with Henry Cooper in 1964. As legend goes, Cooper knocked down Ali, and a badly shaken Clay remained slumped on his stool for as long as two and a half minutes or more whilst officials searched for new boxing gloves for Ali – which had been torn during the fight. We now know that the time delay was literally seconds, but it made for a good story, and did in fact have a positive conclusion for the sport, as it then became a rule to have two sets of gloves at ringside, were such an event to happen again.

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Dean Lohuis, the co-interim executive director of the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC), who put on the fight, said the piece was apparently slipped in underneath the legal tape that was already placed on Margarito’s hands by trainer Javier Capetillo. In a hearing held on February 10th 2009, the CSAC inspector Che Guevara testified that the pad inside Margarito’s hand wraps was “not as hard as a rock, but firm and hard.” Unlike his namesake, Guevara was not delivering his words with a flourish, but with a grim face as his sport endured another depressing moment. Capetillo testified that this was true, and both he and Margarito were banned for a year in America. “I don’t want this young man to have his problems,” Capetillo said. “I take full responsibility. I committed this innocent mistake.”

The implications of this could be stratospheric. In a sport that nobles itself on bravery, pride and courage, to hear revelations of this magnitude were astounding to say the least. The sport of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) which is seen as direct competition for boxing was often tarnished with a bad reputation in its infancy, until the entire sport agreed to a set of rules which everyone could adhere too, which meant that anything from health checks, to money earned would be regulated. Boxing, with so many different organisations and so called ‘rulers’ desperately needs some form of control and discipline that will enable that things like the Margarito incident will not be repeated. From a personal point of view, I sincerely hope that Margarito does not box again, as the sport simply cannot afford to have such controversy to tarnish a reputation that is already dangling from a hook. Like the drugs cheats in Athletics, or match-fixers in snooker, or even the sleazy billionaires attempting to bankroll cricket, boxing should eliminate whomever decides to attempt to flout the rules, because only then will they begin to be taken seriously.

Perhaps in the future Margarito’s loaded gloves will be the catalyst to a new era in boxing, rather than the dreaded knock out the sport fears as a whole.

Interview

Imagine dedicating your entire life for one single thing. Darren Smith spent his entire teenage life in boxing gyms, sparring round after round, running mile after mile, taking the beatings and getting back up again. But no longer. For Darren can no longer continue achieving his dream of becoming a World Boxing Champion. And in a cruel touch of fate, his dream was dimmed not by a shuddering knock out, but by an heart condition that affects one in a hundred thousand people.

“It started when I was about fifteen”, Darren said to me over a cup of tea in his local greasy spoon in Dalston, East London. “I’d wake up in the middle night completely short of breathe and would completely panic that my life was gonna end.” Instead of getting his condition checked out by a medical professional, Darren ignored the warnings, and continued his training, putting his mind and soul through rigorous ordeals, twenty-four seven. He thought he had beaten the mysterious ailment, until he collapsed in the middle of the boxing ring, just days before his first professional fight.

Despite his tough-guy bravado, he got choked up retelling the story. “There I was, running through a stretching drill I’d done thousands of times before, when I go spark out, and only wake up a day later with wires hanging off me in some grimy hospital bed.” His eyes turned misty, before his irrepressible grin returned. “Good job the nurses were fit eh bruv!” A cheeky wink informs me that he has said all he wants to say about that particular incident. I understand. It’s rare that people who have had their dreams cruelly snatched from them want to tell the world what has happened. Darren is not some fame hungry faux celebrity slapper wanting to share their problems with the world that they brought on themselves. He’s simply an honest geezer who finds it hard to talk about himself.

I asked him who his heroes were in boxing. “The Prince”, he simply said, referring of course to the infamous ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed, who blew up British boxing in the nineties with a string of electrifying performances before retiring prematurely in 2002. “He was a showman, know what I mean? People slag him down for the Barrera fight but it’s not always about who you beat in life, or who you lose to – it’s how you do things.” When I asked him if he would have answered me like that if he was still boxing, he shook his dead. “Priorities are different when you’re a kid,” he explained stirring some sugar into his tea (he takes four.) “When I was growing up I wanted everything – the girls, the money, the honour – now I’d be happy with just a girl to be honest with you.” His eyes are still dancing, but I sense sadness beyond the humour.

He explained to me that he was currently unemployed, and had taken counselling for depression in the years since his dream dimmed. He’s twenty-three, and questions whether he’ll live to see twenty-four. “The way things are going I don’t know”, he mused. I asked him what makes him happy, and his replies were the stereotypical young about town Londoners interests. “Basically,” he said leaning forward and staring at me earnestly, I just want to drink as much as I can, enjoy myself as much as I can, and fuck as many birds as I can before the big man upstairs tells me my time is done.” He doesn’t train at all any more, his heart isn’t in it he tells me. “What’d be the point doing all that with nothing to do at the end of it? It’d be like driving a Merc with no engines bruv!” For once, I’m speechless.

As we shake hands and bid our farewells, I can’t help but notice the roll of twenty pound notes in his back pocket. I opened my mouth to ask where he got his money from, before catching a look at his knuckles and remembering that heart condition or not, the guy was a highly rated boxer, and decide that maybe some questions do not really need to be asked.

Trying a new sport

My hands begin to shake and tremble as I stutter up to the table. What
feels like a hundred pairs of eyes are transfixed onto me, as I adjust
my stride, breathe heavily and pray to a probably non-existent God.
“Spare me some mercy,” I whine voicelessly. I glance at the sight of
the long, wooden stick and begin to wince.

For my name is Martin Hines, and I cannot play snooker.

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Call it misspent youth, call it ignorance, call it fear – I can’t
strike a cue, sink a pot, or get a maximum. As my friends endlessly
boasted of comeback victories, huge breaks and bets won, all I could
do was nod ruefully, and wish I could join in. Sure, I could talk a
good game. Anyone with access to BBC television over the last thirty
years has seen at least one match of snooker. We all know about the
maverick genius Ronnie O’ Sullivan, the silent assassin Stephen
Hendry, and the bald eagle Peter Ebdon – but try as we might, to
replicate them takes a lot more than running around a field toe poking
a football in-between two jumpers for goalposts. It takes skill,
dedication and courage to become even half decent at snooker, three
qualities I tend to lack in life.

Hence me, nineteen years old but soon to be ninety by the end of this
literally shaking with fear as I chalked up my cue like the pro I
sincerely wanted to be, and pointed it towards one white ball that was
masquerading as my Everest. One poke – nothing. Two pokes – a slight
tremble envelopes my body as I can’t seem to get the ball to move
anywhere, let alone to the jumble of assorted colours that I am
somehow supposed to be casually hitting into pockets. I hear a snigger
and my world crumbles.

Then the old Essex pride comes out. The British Bulldog, the wounded
lion. “What would Churchill do?”, I muse. Not being able to channel
the spirit of a long dead politician, I instead focus on technique. I
alternate various grips, using each individual finger as if I was
drawing up battle plans and determining how many men I could use
before the idea was a dud. Hey, perhaps me and Churchill did have
something in common after all. If me entering this warzone was the
invasion of Poland, then perhaps me actually striking a ball would be
my D-Day. Like the beaches at Normandy I stormed back to the table,
took aim, and fired. Movement! Finally! If war was as easy as this
Snooker lark, then perhaps Churchill didn’t really deserve the
accolades.

Unwarranted confidence is a terrible thing of course. I first learnt
this aged seven, when a lucky streak playing ‘Snap’ drove me to
putting my beloved Pokémon cards on the line, in a winner takes all
battle, with the notorious school bully Simon Huntley. So confident
that I had successfully deconstructed the popular card game into a
technique, I arrogantly opined that not only would I relinquish the
cards if I failed, I would also do Simon’s bidding for the rest of my
life were I to fail. And so, twelve years on, and with Simon’s dry
cleaning sitting in the foyer, I again opened my mouth and stated that
I could beat the best this club had to offer. Bad move.

Out of the darkness, and the illicit cigarette smoke came a
challenger. His gaze said more than words ever could. This meant
business. Channelling Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, I cooly said ‘you
talkin’ to me?’. Alas, my five seconds of being a cool bastard
evaporated as I choked on the smoke. No smoking and no snooker –
what a waste of a life!  To cut a long story short (if a whitewash can
be counted as a long story) I was dominated in a way that only a
masochist could enjoy. I don’t know how he did it. As shot after shot
went in, his cue began to resemble a Harry Potter esque wand. Just a
shame for me, that mine resembled the proverbial wet fish. That was
that. With a patronising pat on the back, and a cheery goodbye, he was
off into the distance, no doubt walking on water as he left the
building. What a cool bastard.

It’s not just being a cool bastard of course. For some absurd reason
the sport isn’t based on how stylish you look in a waistcoat, it’s
determined on how many balls you clear off the table. Unfortunately,
by the end of my Snooker sojourn I had more balls down my trousers
than I had managed to successfully put in the pockets. And so, with
dry cleaning in one hand, and a fistful of broken dreams in the other,
I left the Snooker hall.A beaten man, but crucially, a better one.