How Ronnie O'Sullivan Found Politics
Snooker's mercurial genius understands that breakdowns don't happen in a vacuum.
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband playing pool with Ronnie O'Sullivan. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images
Snooker was invented in colonised India, its rules cemented in the Ooty Club near the Nilgiri hills – which remains to this day a relic of the empire. The rooms of the Ooty Club are filled even now with mounted lions and tigers' heads, a strict dress code enforced and a polite notice framed in the billiards room to commemorate its sporting history. Here, a British lieutenant, Neville Chamberlain, added coloured balls to the original game and assigned their worth, playing with first year cadets who were nicknamed Snookers. For a time, snooker was restricted to "officers of the armed forces, and gentlemen moving in general society", a fact which seems strange now considering the class associations that snooker, like darts, has cultivated.
Class means something entirely else to snooker now than it did when it was invented. One-hundred-and-forty years after its invention under the watchful gaze of beasts killed in the name of British glory, one of the sport's all time greats, Ronnie O'Sullivan, played pool with Ed Miliband. In the Common Room Pool Club in Sheffield, he offered up his game in support of the Labour party.
Miliband played because snooker is a sport that normal, working class people like. Miliband playing snooker is different to, say, Miliband playing cricket. It's different, too, to him having a kickabout with some Premier league footballers, who are inescapably tainted by the sticky residue of outrageous salaries and assault allegations and multi-thousand pound bottles of champagne in bleak nightclub VIP areas. Snooker is different. The anachronistic bow ties and dinner suits are an echo of the working class Londoners who began to play in the 1930s and sought to bring some respectability to their clubs. The silence of the snooker arena exists because it is a game which requires concentration and consideration, a game of patience and stamina. It is a respectable, working class sport – it's authentic, in that intangible way politicians pursue ceaselessly but can never quite achieve.
O'Sullivan is snooker's reformed bad boy, the mercurial genius with a troubled past. He was a dazzling prodigy from the age of ten, encouraged by his father "Big Ron" who ran a string of West End sex shops. Big Ron was convicted of murder and imprisoned when O'Sullivan was 16, a devastating blow which preceded breakdowns and spells of addiction, and a well documented struggle with his mental health. He failed a drugs test and walked out of huge matches and gave reckless interviews about how much he hated the sport. Having always seemed mystified and burdened by the immensity of his gift, it seemed for a time he would destroy it entirely. Then, in 2009, after developing a relationship with legendary sports psychiatrist Steve Peters, he made a miraculous comeback in every sense. He returned to the game with spectacular success, got engaged and began to tackle the legacy of his depression.
Something else happened to O'Sullivan after his mental health problems were finally articulated and addressed. He got politicised. Having never voted before and professing an understandable apathy in the face of interchangeable career politicians, in 2015 he threw his support behind Ed Miliband. Almost overnight he seemed to become convinced that parliamentary politics have the potential to change lives. Since then, he has been a dogged defender of Labour and increasingly vocal about social inequality and poverty.
"I've not paid much attention to what is going on in the outside world," he said in an interview in 2015. "But that has changed now, and it has changed my outlook on life like you wouldn't believe. I now realise how lucky I've been... I get the chance to choose when I play and when I don't play. Most people are stuck in jobs they don't like and have no choice over the hours they work. Or are struggling to find work. That can't be easy or good for the mind."
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It shouldn't be so remarkable that someone financially privileged is capable of empathising with the poor, but it is. When the snap election was called O'Sullivan tweeted his support for Jeremy Corbyn and encouraged his fans to register to vote.
When challenged that he would not love paying increased tax, he tweeted again:
O'Sullivan became political after addressing his own mental illness. At the same time, he began to see how inextricable the relationship between mental health and class is. Once you come to see that, it's very difficult not to be furious at the state of things.
Mental illness is spoken about like a phenomenon which occurs inevitably, like weather or death. While it is of course true that there are countless people who will suffer from mental illness regardless of their class position and circumstance, it remains true that mental illness can be exacerbated and even created by the conditions of living as a poor person in a capitalist society. Sometimes people are wary of saying this because they fear it implies that mental illness is not as "real" as we can perceive it to be if we discuss it as a purely physiological phenomenon. But it is a simple fact that our society is not only neglecting mental illness with a lack of funding, but also actually causing it. A person who is prone to relatively minor bouts of anxiety or depression can be propelled to a much more serious iteration of their illness by living in poverty. If you are constantly stressed about the very basic logistics of life, like housing, food and healthcare, it only follows that your ability to negotiate the messy business of living and having a brain becomes hugely compromised.
O'Sullivan has stated this explicitly:
"We are all human beings, we all have a purpose in life, we all want to enjoy this time on the planet, there is enough in the world for everyone in the world to have the basic needs without feeling under depression. I believe a lot of our illnesses and struggles and suicides and drug addictions and whatever is brought on by hopelessness."
Recently I went to the GP to get a prescription for antidepressants, having spent seven years off them. I felt dishonest in his office, not truly ill. According to the symptom checklist, I suffer depression and anxiety. But even so, I couldn't stop myself from saying to my doctor: I don't think this is because I'm depressed. I think it's because I'm poor. My anxiety about being poor makes it impossible to work, which makes me poorer, and the cycle continues.
I don't know what I was expecting to happen, what solution might conceivably have been offered; but in the end the doctor gave me the pills to make my brain function adequately enough that I can work properly again, and maybe, some day, make enough money that I'll be operative in the world I've found myself in; the one Ronnie O'Sullivan is determined to change.