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A long but worthy read on Ronnie O'Sullivan
Snooker legend and now novelist Ronnie O’Sullivan talks addiction, prison – and whether he'll go on Strictly
“I’ve lived a parallel life,” Ronnie O’Sullivan says. “People have seen the story with the snooker but they haven’t realised what’s really gone on.”
O’Sullivan has been hailed the most naturally gifted snooker player of all time so often it’s become a cliché. But equally as famous as The Rocket’s prolific potting is the love/hate relationship he has with the game. It’s a subtle affair – sometimes he loves to hate it, but at the moment it feels like he hates to love it. He said last month he is “not good enough” to compete at the top level, then quickly proved himself wrong by reaching the final of the Champion of Champions tournament in Coventry.
Back in the 1990s, O’Sullivan’s talent on the table was matched only by his ability to court controversy. The press could not resist writing about the ‘Two Ronnies’; a mercurial yet fragile genius who could make a maximum break in five minutes and 20 seconds, only to be knocked out unceremoniously in the next round. He assaulted an official during the 1996 World Championships, was stripped of a title for failing a drugs test – but the parallel life O’Sullivan refers to is being a globally celebrated snooker superstar while never being able to escape the shadows of his past.
The next unpredictable step in O’Sullivan’s story? He has written a hardboiled crime novel called Framed (see what they’ve done there?), which draws extensively on his background and early life. Like O’Sullivan playing at his best, the book is tight, pacey and keeps you guessing. Set in the 1990s, as Britpop is breaking, the hero of the tale is Frankie, an alter ego for Ronnie, who has to fight to clear his brother’s name when he is wrongly accused of murder. The world of Soho gangsters and shady snooker halls is clearly one the author knows well.
Sitting in the office of his publisher, O’Sullivan is calm, composed, kind and keen.
The Big Issue: What appealed to you about the idea of writing a crime novel? Ronnie O’Sullivan: Ehm… to be honest with you the idea was brought to me by Orion, who I’d written two autobiographies with. We sat down to discuss some of the experiences I’ve had, jazzing it up to become a bit of a page-turner.
Where does Frankie end and Ronnie begin? A lot of Frankie’s life is how my life was(1) – a very close relationship with my father, and although I don’t have a brother, I have a sister that I feel protective over, and there’s things that you do out of loyalty for your family whether you’re a snooker player or not. I’ve had to do things for my dad just because he’s my dad. I’ve been in situations that are in the book but I’m much more on a straight and narrow path. I know what goes on. I can’t mention names or situations but like a fly on the wall, I hear a lot of things.
How did things change when your father was sent to prison? I suppose I didn’t have any responsibility until my dad went away. There was always a safe place to go – home. Mum, dad, sister – everything was great. Then once he got taken off the streets, things turned. I was the man of the house, if you like, at 16, and I wasn’t ready. I was a young kid who just played snooker. That age where you’re just coming to be a man, all of a sudden – boom – you’ve got to deal with stuff you probably don’t want to deal with.
Was there a chance you would be drawn into a life of crime? Absolutely. When my dad went away he left quite a successful business. At the time I thought, rather than play snooker, why don’t I just take the business over? Someone’s got to do it. And my dad said to me: “Don’t be crazy. It’s not your world.” But I was itching to get out of snooker then because when my dad went away I lost my way. Mum and dad both going away had a massive affect on me(2). I lost myself for about five, maybe six years then realised I had to get my head down and be quite selfish. I had to kick the booze, get rid of a circle of friends and focus on trying to become a successful snooker player. Snooker was definitely the reason I stayed out of following in my dad’s footsteps, of running an adult bookshop business. Who knows where that could have took me, especially with the addictions I encountered.
I couldn’t relax or socialise without having some form of chemical inside me, whether it was dope or alcoholFrankie seems to take a drink on most pages. Is that what life was like for you I only started smoking when I was 19, I only started drinking when I was 19. I know what addiction is like. I’d have a little drink when I chose to but quickly it became that I didn’t have that power of choice. I needed it to function. I couldn’t relax or socialise without having some form of chemical inside me, whether it was dope or alcohol. There was a period for four or five years where I was either topping up or obliterated because I couldn’t deal with what was going on. I was trying but it was a bit too much for me.
What helped you deal with addiction? I went to the Priory, I needed that little bit of support. AA has helped but now I choose to have a healthier lifestyle. I spend a lot of time running, in the gym, trying to eat right. So I don’t really do much AA but a lot of what I learned has helped me not turn back to drink. I know where it could lead for me.
Everyone experiences ups and downs, but are the highs higher and the lows lower because snooker is about two extremes of either winning or losing? No, because I’ve won tournaments and felt down and in bits because I’ve been beating myself up, doubting myself. The key for me is to know that even if you’re having a bad day it’s going to pass. Emotions are very fickle, they come and go. When the good emotion’s there, you roll with it; when the bad emotion’s there, you think – you know what, tomorrow morning when I wake up and have a run I’ll feel fantastic again. Let’s just get through this, try not to throw my toys out of the pram, which I’ve done in the past, walking out of matches, throwing tantrums. I’m trying to be the best I can be on any given day. Some days you’re not going to be at your absolute best but you can give 100 per cent and then at least you come off feeling no regrets.
Have the kind of snooker clubs you write about in Framed survived in a gentrified London? There are not as many – snooker was massive in the ’90s – but they still exist. Sometimes I just pitch up and play, giving them 100 start. It’s the game you get excited by, the opponent is irrelevant sometimes. It’s just that competitiveness you crave.
Do you still feel as competitive now as you used to? In a different sort of way. I’m not competitive where I think, I want to win this and I want to win that and I don’t care how I win it as long as I win it(3). Me, I want to master the game, I want to be the best that I can be. When I was growing up Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry were my heroes and I liked the way they won. I wouldn’t enjoy winning tournaments if it was the way Cliff Thorburn or one of the slow safety player types did. I like to go out there and grab the game by the scruff of the neck. My determination and drive comes from a different place. I’m not thinking, I want to beat Stephen Hendry’s record of seven world titles, I just want to play. How good can I be in my 40s? Can I still win a world title in my 40s(4)? It’s little challenges like that. I like to surprise people. That has always been a motivation for me. Whenever people have knocked me and said: “Oh he’s finished, he’s not the player he was,” I’ve always enjoyed coming back and showing them that I’m not done yet.
I believe that running helped me find a purpose in life. It was another addiction but a healthy addictionWhat advice do you have for people battling their own demons? Never give up. Never give up. Always have hope. I believe that running helped me find a purpose in life. It was another addiction but a healthy addiction(5). And if you don’t like running, I always think walking is just as good but try to get into nature, where you’re away from cars and buildings and the rat race. I always find getting out to the country, to the forest, getting into nature is something that makes me feel good to be alive. A lot of my life is based around that. I want to be happy. I’m not very good integrating with the human race. I have good friends but I think it’s important to slow down sometimes and enjoy the simple things in life.
Do you listen to music while running? Never – I always like to listen to the rhythm of the feet hitting the floor. I couldn’t jog – running is a different thing. When you get fit and you start to cover the ground quickly, there is no better feeling. But I know some people listen to music and it works for them. Whatever gets you out there in the fresh air, I say, just do it.
Nothing could get me out running in the fresh air on a day as cold as this. Maybe start off with half a mile and once you’ve done that you’ll want to do another half mile. The hardest step is the one out the front door. Once you get going you think, wow, fantastic!
I’ll try… Don’t try, just do it. Make a commitment to yourself.
Do you run every morning at the same time or is it whenever you can fit it in? I am routined up. I feel like I’m in the army. I’m up at half seven, over the forest at eight, run for an hour, have a shower, have my breakfast. Then I go to the snooker club or round my mum’s. I’ll have a kip on the settee then do my two, three, four hours practice, then a bit of food-shopping and cooking(6), go and see my father or have a cup of tea with my friend. For me that’s a fantastic day and I try to repeat that every day.
Snooker, writing, running, cooking… you’re only missing one thing from the list. Would you consider going on Strictly Come Dancing(7)? No, I wouldn’t do any of them shows because I know what I’m like, I get bored very easily. I don’t think it would be seen as a very positive thing, to get halfway through Strictly and say: “Look mate, I’m out of here.” I don’t think that’s fair to the public or the people. So I just stick to my own little bubble, which is a bit of snooker, a bit of running, writing some books, having a bit of fun, keeping life simple, and that’ll do for me.
(1) Frankie, who like Ronnie has Italian heritage (Ronnie also has Irish roots), takes over a snooker club after his father is sent to prison. In real life, O’Sullivan’s father, who ran a string of sex shops in London and was well known in the underworld, was sentenced for murder for killing an associate of the Krays in 1992 when Ronnie was 16. He was released 18 years later in 2010.
(2) After his father was jailed, Ronnie’s mother Maria took over the business and was convicted of tax evasion in 1995 when Ronnie was 19. She served seven months.
(3) O’Sullivan has won dozens of tournaments since he turned professional in 1992 at the age of 16, including five World Championships. He has scored perfect 147 breaks a record-breaking 13 times in competition.
(4) No player has won the World Championships in their 40s since Ray Reardon in 1978.
(5) O’Sullivan’s best time over 10km is 34 minutes 54 seconds.
(6) Ronnie often shares his culinary creations on Twitter.
(7) In 2013 O’Sullivan became engaged to actress and Strictly star Laila Rouass.
Framed by Ronnie O’Sullivan is out now in hardback (Orion Fiction, £16.99)