Never Mind the Butterflies, Here’s the Snooker Players

15 February 2016
By Robert McKay

Matt Collishaw, Insecticide 13,

If a crowd laughs and cheers when someone powerful crushes something delicate and beautiful, you know something has gone very wrong…

Do you love to watch exuberant displays of moving colour? Do you find it hard not to admire nature’s capacity to produce ecstatically beautiful but inherently random patterns of colour through adaptations within a set scheme of possibilities?

If so it’s not the beauty of butterflies you want, it’s a nice game of snooker, right?

It’s said that nothing is more characteristically British than the love of animals. But a somewhat less self-congratulatory and more clear-sighted view of the matter is that nothing better suggests the national character than the love of snooker.

This is borne out by the response to the recent intervention of a butterfly into the UK Snooker championship in York. It’s a quietly menacing example of the deep absurdity and denial that underpins Britain’s delusion that it is a ‘nation of animal lovers’.

So how does this dark love of animals express itself? Through laughter.

Some might say that snooker is little more than a Beckettian parody writ large — there surely isn’t a better précis of the seven-hour match ending at 3.21 am at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre between Terry Griffiths and Cliff Thorburn in 1983 than Didi’s line from Waiting for Godot: “Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.”

But snooker has a deep relationship with a more normalising, and self-reassuring kind of humour: the couthy drollery of old boys’ banter at seniors’ matches, and John Virgo’s player impersonations.

And certainly through the warm laughter at the UK snooker championship butterfly fun, it is the human community that is being enjoyed, celebrated and re-confirmed.

At 00:04, watch the audience’s delight at the slapstick effect of the butterfly’s alien presence disrupting the normal activity of the snooker game. Here, of course, the butterfly isn’t appreciated in itself but is enjoyed as it were as a principle of misrule—the ‘chaos’ of this ‘butterfly effect’.

At 00:12, then, spot the audience’s heightened joy when the game’s figure of authority—the referee—is bested by his nonhuman adversary. Here, erupting into 21st Century York we find the pre-modern world of the beast-fable, the special kind of animal story in which beasts outwit the human characters to revel our own foibles and weaknesses.

But as any good theorist of comedy will tell you, comedy fades away pretty quickly if it seems as though the principle of disruption might just take over and fully replace the usual principles of order.

The butterfly’s appearance is that rare act of nonhuman freedom that reveals an apparently deep desire amongst Britons not just to live by the rules, but to be ruled. Nothing more perfectly evidences the way such a desire is embodied by the game of snooker than the fact that the referee removes his gloves when he tries to capture the butterfly. Usually, we would expect humans to put on gloves in order to assert their distinction from the nonhuman world. This idea has been theorised enigmatically but brilliantly by Walter Benjamin.


In a disgusted reaction to animals the dominant feeling is fear of being recognised as a result of touching them. What is horrified, deep down inside one, is a dim awareness that something is alive down there so familiar to the animal provoking disgust as to be, perhaps, recognised by it.

                        All disgust is in origin disgust at touch. Even self-control can tame that feeling only by means of abrupt, excessive gestures: it seeks violently to embrace the agent of disgust and consume it, while the zone of the most delicate epidermal contact remains taboo. That is the only way of meeting the paradoxical moral demand that calls for the simultaneous surmounting and meticulous cultivation of a person’s sense of disgust. A person may not deny his bestial connection with the creature to whose appeal he responds with disgust: he is required to master it.

(from ‘One-Way Street’)

Benjamin is quietly ironising the idea of human exceptionalism by pointing to the circular impossibility of finally separating humanity from animality—we fetishistically purify our hands by covering them with tanned leather gloves in order to avoid touching the materiality of the animal body.

Back in York, though, the dress-code of snooker is quite oblivious to this irony: the referee’s gloves are worn to ensure both the purity of the play, both literally, by keeping the snooker balls clean, and symbolically, by signifying his sovereign status over the game. The referee is a figurehead for the exceptional rule-of-law which stands apart from the play: he is a perfect principle of the exceptional human, ensuring that the heat of competitive sport remains cooled as civilised play, and doesn’t revert to the violence that sport sublimates. For all these reasons the gloves must come off when he is to come into contact with the beastly butterfly.

Finally and inevitably (at 00:38), the audience explodes into laughter, cheers and applause when the referee successfully traps the butterfly, crushing it in his fist. In close-up, the ugly clumsiness of his thumping hand appears in terrible contrast to the astonishing delicacy of the butterfly’s evanescent movement and the sheer lightness of its place in the world. The clean rule of law, it seems, will always reveal the dirty force of pure violence that subtends it.

It is quite astonishing that hundreds of people should laugh and cheer at this naked display of power and its violent re-imposition of order in place of unexpected and delightful serendipity: this the pure crypto-fascism.

Of course, it is hard to see this attitude hidden in what is a perfectly usual response to the seemingly playful disruption of the proper order of things: human beings create games and convert them into audience spectacles; the game of snooker exists as an organisation of pure play, and an orchestrated form of some humans’ innate skills of dexterity, spatial planning, creative responsiveness to randomness, endurance and persistence. Games thus celebrate humanly ordered chaos.

And yet, the delight that many of the audience feel in the game is, I’d wager, fundamentally based in a response to its utterly inhuman visual exuberance. Snooker is perhaps the most colourful of sports: its visual design—a vibrant spray of colours moving on a pure bright green background—is reminiscent of nothing if not the astonishing capacity of evolutionary adaption to produce the chromatic diversity animal life in nature. And if snooker were not fundamentally a celebration of the colour spectrum then I don’t think there wouldn’t be such delight in Ted Lowe’s classic ‘Colemanballs’ comment. Snooker fans, more than any, should surely love the butterfly, perhaps the most sublime examplar of natural colour.

“Steve is going for the pink ball – and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.” – BBC snooker commentator Ted Lowe

And so it’s for all of these reasons that the killing of this butterfly is so horribly ironic (or, I would suggest in a more macabre vein, so socially necessary). This insect was a being that by its very nature revealed both the power of animal life to visually astonish, and the paltriness of human capacity in imitation of that power. It revealed too the astonishing possibility of freedom that lies beneath the regulated world of human social endeavour, a freedom now only vestigially present in our playing of games. Finally, it revealed the strange pleasure so many of us take in the humorous testing of authority precisely because this reminds us of the security of authority’s ultimate and exemplary reinforcement.

So: is Britain really a nation of animal lovers? You’re having a laugh.