Otra Vida

otravida

I was walking along the fuming streets of San Pedro and singing songs with my friends in a Newry bar when the headache started. They always said you couldn’t be in two places at once, but as I was belting out ‘Oró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile’ between slugs of Smithwicks and marching along the calle principal in sordid December heat, I reflected that a lot of what they said had turned out to be bullshit. They’d said, for instance, that your tongue was split into sections and that each of these quadrants was responsible for a different taste. They said you couldn’t get sunburned through glass.

And strangers. They said that you should never talk to strangers. But I had a total stranger to thank for the drunkenness I was feeling now as I walked past the buses on the busy street in the middle of the day, and for the sweating I was doing inside the dark pit of Guinness and smiles in my old home. Yes, I thought, a lot of what they said was wrong. Why does my head hurt?

I walked by a pack of schoolboys in short-sleeved shirts and ordered another round of drinks. I turned my body to one side to let the school kids pass, and bashed my hip on the side of a concrete wall. The boys laughed and the boys laughed. I turned around with my hands full of pints and started to limp my way back toward the laughter, to the table where my own old schoolmates waited and sang some more. Outside, under the stars, the frost was forming on car wind shields. I was sweating in the heat.

The calle principal is a long road by San José standards. The district of San Pedro was full of school kids from Escuela Roosevelt and students from the university campus. A crowd of kids in medical uniforms waited by the side of the road. I looked at them and started to sing the ‘Wild Rover’.

One of my friends put his arm around my shoulders as we sat on the musty chairs of the pub. It was Fiachra.

“Ha ha ha,” he said. “Jesus your eyes are bloodshot.”

I rubbed my eyes and continued walking. My hip was starting to hurt. I laughed and spat phlegm onto the hot pavement.

“I’m fucking knackered man,” I said, smiling.

“Ha ha ha,” he said, “keep her lit.”

I thought about going back to the casa. I lived nearby but I couldn’t give you an exact address. They don’t do street names in Costa Rica. If I wanted to direct you to my house, I’d have to say something like “300 metres west and 50 metres south of the Universidad Latina” or just pick the most colourful building nearby and tell you to meet me there. People here tended to round directions up to the nearest landmark. There’s a whole district of San José called ‘Coca-cola’ because there used to be a factory there. It was dismantled decades ago.

The fellas started roaring at each other, talking about the time that psychopath Conall McAlinden threw a ferret out of a twelve-story window in a Liverpool flat during our university years. I shook my head and walked past the Iglesia San Pedro, where songs of Spanish prayer fell out the doors before being immediately drowned out by the sounds of trucks and cars and cheap coaches headed to Guanacaste. My head was thumping. This wasn’t the first time I’d suffered the headaches. They had been coming and going for months.

I had met the stranger on an island beach in Bocas del Toro, during an impulsive trip across the border to Panama. For twenty US dollars the taxi boats of the Caribbean would take you out to a deserted beach and leave you artificially stranded on the blazing sand (along with any other wanderers they could wrangle) with nothing but an icebox of beer and water for the afternoon. Your boatman would come back three or four hours later, having done the same thing to other groups, all abandoned on their own islands according to a criss-crossing list of schedules. I don’t know how the taxistas kept it all straight in their heads. I was sure some people, by this point in the island chain’s history, had also been stranded completely legitimately. The tourist’s eternal search for authenticity had probably resulted in crowds of Canadian teenagers becoming marooned for real. I couldn’t tell if this worried me or made me happy.

I had walked my fill of the beach and was ready to lie down under a bush and drink my last three cans of Atlas when I saw one of the taxistas coming over the horizon in his motorboat. It wasn’t my guy – he wasn’t due back for another hour. The motorboat whined closer and closer, weaving around the reefs and shallows, until he got close to shore and cut off the engine. He jumped into the water and pulled the boat toward my part of the beach with a thin blue rope. Then he gestured to me and I walked into the surf and grabbed the rope. We heaved the boat onto the sand and after a few minutes he threw the rope lazily into the foam. The weight of the boat would keep it where it lay.

He turned around and looked out at the sea.

“I’m going soon,” he said to me in Spanish.

I squinted.

“You’re leaving?” I said.

He was wearing a yellow shirt, soaking from the collar down. The New York Yankees baseball cap on his head was tattered and bleached, as if he had found it floating in the sea circa 1979. He didn’t reply.

But, um.”

“I’m going,” he said.

He stood there, hands on his hips, catching his breath and looking out to sea. Then he looked at me with an expression that said: “Well?”

I looked confused. He must be here to pick up another person, I thought. He’s getting me confused with some other passenger.

The taxista looked at me and said: “Well Malachy, are you coming or staying or doing nothing at all?”

I looked around. The other faux castaways were still at the other side of the island, encamped beside ice boxes and determined to boil themselves alive until they heard the sound of an engine coming for them over the waves. I felt a surge of confusion. Maybe my Spanish wasn’t good enough – I’d misheard him. Or maybe I had made some deal with this guy and completely forgotten what he looked like. Maybe this man was sent by the taxista who’d brought me here, and had simply got the time wrong. That would explain how he knew my name. One of my feet moved forward and probed a thin layer of sea water as it oozed in over the beach. The other foot dug its heel into the sand and curled its toes.

“You’re going right now?” I asked, and looked around.

“Yes,” he said. “Are you coming?”

I felt something, like uncertainty or embarrassment. It was both those things. A tonic of cultural confusion and social awkwardness. Did I just not get something here? An urge swelled up in me – the same instinct I’d get any time I became confused or lost at the customs of Central America. The urge to be gone. To go home, back to Ireland, to forget this whole sorry experiment that I’d once called my otra vida – another life. And a simultaneous anti-urge. The thought that kept me here, that going home would be a form of surrender. That I’d be missing out on all the dumb quirks of the place I now lived.

I had felt this mix of emotions before. One day, I walked into a supermercado in San José, where a shop assistant stopped me in the bread aisle and told me that I had to “check my bag in”. He pointed to the bag of shopping I held in my hands from another store. I was brought to a desk at the store’s entrance, where a man with a grave face and a thick neck gave me a ticket, like it was the cloakroom of a nightclub. I examined the ticket (47) and handed over my plastic bag of juice and eggs. I bought what I needed quickly and retrieved my groceries from the egg bouncer, then I frowned the whole way home to my hollow casa, thinking desperately that I might walk in and see my brothers and sisters there, smoking and laughing and telling each other to shut up. When I got home (quiet, empty) I just laughed. A fucking egg bouncer, I thought.

And I had felt the same when the backpackers of Bocas del Toro and Puerto Viejo and Montezuma would open their mouths and vomit Californian or Essex accents at me, praising the waves and explaining their tattoos, saying how they would start their business on the beach, man, make some spending cash off those jade necklaces that you can make from stones in the sand, yeah? Start small and live easy, yeah? I had looked at the stones on the beach many times. They were green but they were not jade. Some of them were weathered glass.

That same harsh cocktail of feelings came over me in Panama when I stood beside the taxista. The urge to split, to get home as fast as humanly possible, and eat a fried breakfast with my family. And the competing urge to hold fast and laugh at all the oddities of the otra vida.

The stranger in the dead Yankees cap looked out to sea and breathed deeply. The sun was still high.

“Are you coming?”

My foot moved forward and my heel dug in, then I said yes and shook my head.

I waded out to climb onto the boat and I stayed on the beach, I felt wet and dry.

The boat engine started up, I saw the taxista wave over his shoulder at me as he left, and then I felt him slap me on the back as the wind of the sea air went passing by. I was going home, and I was staying here.

That was six months ago. Now it was December and everyone was home for Christmas.

I squinted at the elderly women and long-trousered men filing out of the iglesia and flicked a beer mat at Fiachra. I smiled, took a slug and staggered down the calle principal. It was a 40-minute walk to the Paseo Colon, and although I knew this was my destination I had long forgotten why. I walked past the hot, empty car park of an Office Depot and listened in the bar to Fiachra telling the story about McAlinden the psychopath between taking sips of cold, black liquid.

My head throbbed. I heard my own voice, muttering to myself.

They said I couldn’t be in two places at once.”

The big roundabout by the San Pedro Mall lay ahead. A huge junction that all the fatalistic drivers of San José despised because nobody in Costa Rica can agree on what indicator lights mean and nobody is prepared to call a meeting about it. I stepped out onto the road and grabbed Fiachra by the sleeve, shouting: no mate, no, it didn’t happen like that, ha ha, listen, the ferret was yer man’s pet. I took another slug of Smithwicks and got hit by a blue Jeep.

I winced. Fiachra looked at me and my bloodshot eyes. There was a bad taste in my mouth, a bad taste spanning all those quadrants on my tongue. It was either sour or salty, I couldn’t tell.

“What’s wrong with you mate?”

“I’ve a splitting headache,” I said.

I lay in a bloody pile on the side of the road and laughed at my own joke.

“Ha ha ha,” I wheezed. “A splitting headache.”

 

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Eighty Pages To Archimboldi

I have been reading the same book for ten months, a monster by Roberto Bolaño, and writing the same novel for 5 years. In the book I am reading, which is sitting beside me now like a sphinx, prostitutes are murdered in droves and the persons responsible remain out of reach of the Mexican police force, who are incompetent or overwhelmed.

In the book I am writing, which sits on a whirring hard drive by my knee, nobody is dead yet. I want to correct this, but also I doubt that I ever will. On that same hard drive, which spits out the Tetris theme as I type, through headphones perched on the corner of a tiny desk, there are 4 other abandoned novels.

1. The Misfortunates – in the 1920s, a man with a form of malevolent vampirism cheats mortality by sustaining himself via schadenfreude. His memory is fallible. He discovers he is the Wandering Jew, the man who laughed at Christ as he carried the cross to Golgotha.

2. In The Nidhogg’s Mouth (or ‘Londerground’) – an orphan, now grown, and his energetic friend become part of an underground videogame collective in a subterranean city of the future, which constantly shifts around and entices all citizens to take part in a collective social network game.

3. Hey! Atlantic Ocean! – an 11-year-old boy crosses the Atlantic from Donegal, Ireland with an anthropomorphic jellyfish. But this story is being told by four different people in four different places, and each version is different, introducing new characters – giants, creatures, pirates. In the end the four storytellers meet. They are siblings, and have gathered for their adoptive mother’s funeral – the woman who first told them the boy’s sea-faring story. They argue about the ‘canon’ ending of the tale and the story collapses on itself, killing the jellyfish and other characters in the process. The boy of the story is left alive, on the shores of Newfoundland, mourning the deaths of his friends.

4. The Backwards Pilgrim – a man without faith walks the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in the opposite direction intended by the followers of St. James the Apostle. He writes a guide for those who follow and learns three ghost stories along the way. There is no ending.

5. The Age of Openness (current?) – a dozen Londoners collide over the course of a single day, as told by an unknown narrator. A former Call of Duty champion with carpal tunnel, an impatient local news journalist, a charity PR scouring Tinder for pointless romance, an unemployed Spanish immigrant, and others. All of the characters are linked. One of them, an Algerian professor of computing, gives a lecture on artificial intelligence. The narrator, we learn, is an AI she invented.

I hate all of these books. I say “books” when I mean “files”. A yellow folder of word processor documents filled with text that will never be complete enough to love, nor skant enough to delete.

The book I am reading, 2666 by Bolaño, is really five books. They were put together against the author’s wishes following his death, but the characters and places are nonetheless meant to intertwine. One of the characters is a tall German author called Archimboldi. In the first book he is the focus of a group of critics, who travel to Mexico trying to find him. They are unsuccessful. The middle three books do not mention him. The fifth book is called “The Part About Archimboldi”. I am still eighty pages away from it.

I do not know why any of this is important.

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I’m Moving To Costa Rica. Here Are Some Things I Wrote In 2015

costa

I’m leaving London. Bye!

When I first arrived in the Imperial City, with the gleaming eyes of a child, I stayed on the floor in my sister’s flat and also, periodically, in the bath tub of my aunt’s high-rise in Kilburn, a district still popularly known as the 33rd county of Ireland despite now being composed more of Eastern European newcomers than anyone else. These places have been seared in my memory as wondrous disembarking-grounds, the likes of which you find in massive online RPGs, where you learn how to click on things in the correct order. But in London, the tutorial encompasses the use of Oyster cards, the Job Centre’s XP system, and navigating shops stocked exclusively with Polish lager.

One evening in those early days, my sister told me, from her lofty position above ground-level, that it takes time to get to like London. The common saying was that “it takes three years” to know it well enough to enjoy it. I recognised this logic from my formative months in the muddy trenches of videogame reviewing. London was like Final Fantasy XIII. You have to play it for at least 20 hours before it was any good. I can now report that this idiom is false and politely request that all current users stop repeating it. Having spent almost five years (note that this is much longer than the requisite three) trying to enjoy the place, I have found that the highest level of familiarity and kinship I can attain with the capital is that of Tolerance. I tolerate London.

Well, not for much longer. I am moving to Costa Rica. Don’t ask me why, I haven’t fully deconstructed all the incidents which have led to this moment. All I know for certain is that it involves my girlfriend. She has told me that she is being thrown out of the UK because her Canadian Visa is due to expire and we need to decide on a new temporary domicile. I have since become aware of many legal schemes one may use to extend one’s visit to the UK as a Canadian citizen and I dimly suspect she has known about these all along. But I have ignored these suspicions in order to achieve my own dark motives RE moving to a country where it is never below 16 degrees Celsius.

Why Costa Rica? Well, the PR line I have been feeding people is that we considered many places, almost scientifically, and one by one we each vetoed the places we thought unsuitable. She suggested India because she has been there before and enjoys the privilege of understanding approximately 10 useful words of Hindi or Urdu or one of the other languages, I’m not sure. I vetoed this because I enjoy defecating in a seated position, atop a cylindrical bowl i.e. I am a small-minded Westerner. This reasonable elenchus continued over many months, covering a vast array of countries and sub-countries. Eventually, a continent was decided upon (Latin America) and then a country (Costa Rica). Did you know Costa Rica has no standing army? It’s true. I will never be conscripted there.

In preparation, I am learning Spanish (yo aprendo Espanol) and we have both been stabbed multiple times in our arms with tiny amounts of tropical diseases in a bid to ward off Typhoid, Hepatitis, and other illnesses that are so tropical I can’t spell them with any reliability. I am also in the process of hawking my room out to strangers on the internet, like some petty administrator of a crumbling property dystopia. One of the species I have grown to despise in London are the Estate Agents and it sickens me to think I may be adopting their likeness. I have nightmares that I have grown mandibles and that my wallet is absolutely stuffed with cash, all stained with the blood and mucus of my past self, whose body lies dead, eyes still gleaming like a child, looking up at the famous London skyscraper, the Shard.

Did you know that in Costa Rica the average monthly rental cost for a  two-person casa is the equivalent of about £200?

Anyway, I leave toward the end of January (SURPRISE!) and I will miss the many amazing people who made London bearable and sometimes even enjoyable. I love you. Not with an intense familial love, you understand. That’s disgusting. I mean with a scholarly, intellectual love. The most under-appreciated of the loves. We are having a party to celebrate our leaving. If you have not been invited, it is because I do not like you, I have never liked you, and I will be glad to be free from the social mores of this grand, grey city that, for some reason, dictate that I should pretend we are friends. Either that, or I have forgotten and you should definitely get in touch and ask me where it is.

I will still be serving in the vast army of videogame journalists (periodistas de los videojuegos) and my writing will still grace the glowing screens to which we now live in continual serfdom. So do not panic, I am not really going anywhere, if you think about it, since we all live as words on blog posts and communicate exclusively via Snapchat videos of passing scenery on trains. With this in mind, here are some of the things I did in 2015 which are OK. There will be more.

So long

(Hasta luego)

Brendan

(Brendan)

***

A story about learning to play chess again, and all the associated devilry, fear, cunning and accomplishment

rooky

An article about how fast travel is rubbish and overused and you should be more adventurous you awful, awful person

2_skyrim

The first of my Ridealongs, where I go for in-game journeys and conduct interviews a la Louis Theroux, with citizens of “Cyberspace”. And an audio version of the same

altis6

My new weekly column on free games, which is something you should check every week because it is weekly and that is how it works

freegames_dec26_1b

A review of else Heart.Break(), one of my favourite games this year, as well as one of the smartest, most stylish and most overlooked

heartbreak_crack

A memoirish compendium of all the dumb games I have played as a child and semi-adult, and a eulogy to their loss

lurgan

A top ten list article on hacking and computing games because top ten lists are excellent, let’s stop lying to ourselves

hacking3

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How (Not) To Write About Videogames

WRITING

It is a question that has tortured many. Just how do you write about videogames? Well, do not worry. Writing about videogames is easy. All you have to do is avoid cliché.

So, here are some words and phrases that you should consider carefully. Sometimes, they are worth using because everyone knows (or seems to know) what they mean. Sometimes, you should delete them. But you should always think about it.

The Big Ones

Immersive. My childhood home had an immersion heater, which meant that any time you wanted a shower you had to put on the immersion and wait 100 hours for the water to heat. Does that sound immersive to you? Games that are immersive take you into their world and away from your own. Immersive is what all games want to be. But very few actually are.

Intuitive. A game is never intuitive but parts of it can be. Intuitive controls are great. But an intuitive user interface is boring. Intuitive fighting mechanics may sound excellent but describing the sound of a breaking bone as a punch connects to the ribcage of your foe may read better.

Games are often deep. How deep? It is difficult to say. Depth of a game is hard to measure because those who explore such depth can easily become lost. It is possible they are trapped in the game’s living, breathing world.

Gameplay annoys a lot of journalists. Arguably, it fills a gap in language for the concept: “moving bits of a game”. Players miraculously appear to understand what it means, even if editors and angry columnists can’t agree on a definition. If you don’t want to type gameplay, you can use mechanics. But you’ll just be replacing one overused word for another, slightly less overused one.

Visceral is a joke word. When a journalist uses the word visceral, they mean that the game is not very good. Or that the trailer for the game is not very good. Or that the marketing department for the game is not very good. Usually, when something is visceral it is an…

Experience. When was the last time you had a truly visceral experience? You probably earned some experience points. That’s fine. But filling a sentence with abbreviations like XP may have an effect on the reader’s AP and cause him to write to his local MP.

OR HERS. Do not assume the reader’s gender.

Content is important. If a game had no content it would be a completely empty game and the player would be discontent. Games with lots of content or even downloadable content are highly sought. If you are stuck, another word for content is stuff.

Marketing Loan Words

IP means Intellectual Property. Everybody loves new IP, and fresh IP is just as good. Established IP is a stonker because nobody can destroy it, not even with guns. If an established IP gets big enough, it might become a…

Franchise. The best franchises release new content onto the market for loyal consumers every year. If they did not do so, the loyal consumers would be not only discontent but also disenfranchised.

The Next Gen is what everyone was waiting for in 2013. It is currently 2014. Next Gen hardware is available now from certain retailers. But it is not yet current gen. That’s the last gen. To afford Next Gen hardware you may need to…

Monetise. The process of monetisation is going to increase your position well into Q1. Then you will be in a truly great position for Qs 2, 3 and 4.

Some other things you should probably avoid:

To be clear/Let’s be clear/Let’s be absolutely clear about this
This is a phrase used mainly by politicians who want to emphasise a point, in order to bolster the lie they are telling. When you use it, you sound like David Cameron.

Possibility space
What is a possibility space? I guess it is a space in which things are possible. There is another word for this. A space.

Other or otherness
If you are writing for an academic journal (or EDGE magazine) writing about the Other will go down very nicely. If you are writing a preview of the next Call of Duty game for Shortlist, leave it out.

A not small amount of X / Not unlike Y / Not unenjoyable
A large amount of X. Like Y. Enjoyable.

Going forward / Going forward in this space
This is a phrase used by managers and people whose job is to boss others. It means ‘in future’ but also includes some vague implication of progress. The speaker believes this lends them a sense of authority and foresight. After all, they have seen the space into which we are going forward. Maybe it is a possibility space. Hopefully it is not an impossibility space. In reality, the person who says going forward is usually the asshole nobody wants to follow, forward or in any direction.

Note: To my shame, I have used some of these words and phrases myself. I hope to be forgiven someday. Until then, I can only post this as a guideline, so you can learn from my mistakes. The list isn’t a complete one. As always, break any rule of language if it makes you laugh.

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On Scratchcards: The Correct Way To Scratch

scratch-1

[There is an audio version of this essay available here and on YouTube]

Scratchcards – the most worldly and humble of the lesser gambles. Although I am far from being one of the people who are inexplicably and tragically addicted to them, scratchcards nevertheless maintain a power over me. I was talking about them with some friends recently and concluded that my enjoying a scratchcard has more to do with ritual than money. Although, let’s be honest, like all forms of gambling, the money is at the nucleus of its strange charm.

I like scratchcards because there is a very particular method of playing a scratchcard, which goes far beyond the simple physical act of searching for gold beneath the layer of coarse latex, scouring away at that grey scum of possibility. No. The correct – the ONLY – way to play a scratchcard is to adhere with fearsome loyalty to the Caldwell System of Gambling, which I will now describe.

Firstly, you must buy a scratchcard only as an impulse, when buying other things. Arriving one day at the checkout, with your hands full of milk, bacon, chilli-coated peanuts, you will glance absent-mindedly at the stand of colourful cards and be immediately shaken with the intense feeling that you are alive and that nobody can stop you from winning everything. Although, that is not to say you feel confident. This is a feeling more wistful and playful in nature than confidence. It stands to reason that what you are feeling is a sense of fatefulness. If you are an atheist, this is the closest you will ever come to detecting providence in your life. Put down your milk for a moment.

Now the decision comes: which card to choose? This is a simple matter. Do not make the common mistake of believing the £5 scratchcard is in some way superior to the £2 scratchcard, itself more honourable than the £1 scratchcard. This is wrong. All scratchcards were made equal, except the ones with money in them, which have been made rich. The people that create these cards have the most beautiful name – the Scientific Games Corporation – beautiful because such a name is one more glinting jewel of evidence that we live in the Future and that dystopia is redundant. In any case, the Aryan myth of the £5 scratchcard’s nobility of breeding probably stems from the increased odds of winning. However, as we shall see, these odds (fluctuating approximately between 1 in 4 to 1 in 3.5) simply do not matter, as success is mostly incidental to the following proceedings. In fact, to the untrained eye, the Caldwell System appears to want nothing to do with winning. The process can be more likened to ‘having the craic’ or perhaps theatre. Remaining mindful of the excess of customers forming behind you (carrying their milk, bacon, chilli coated peanuts) you should therefore choose the scratchcard with the most modest character, invariably of the £1 variety. This is a part of the story foundation process. If you should ever win big (the Top Prize on these purple ones says £100,000) you will want the story to begin thus.

YOU: I won £100,000 on a scratchcard!

MOTHER: Good God! Was it one of thon £5 behemoths?

YOU: Nay. Twas but a quid. A punt in the dark.

MOTHER: The purple ones! You don’t say?

YOU: I do, I do.

MOTHER: You are a meek one, to be sure. You won’t forget your roots as a rich man.

YOU: I certainly will not.

However unlikely this scenario may seem, it is important to stay honest by buying only the £1 cards. Any other species and a win – no matter how great – is inevitably  polluted by the grandiose gesture of spending five whole pounds on a single card, not to mention aligning yourself with the Übermensch bigotry of the more unsavoury scratch theorists. No. You will recognise the card for you very easily. The £1 cards are plain of colour and font, simple of conceit, sometimes adorned with ungainly mutant scrawls masquerading as cartoon pigs. You should buy only one.

The following phase is difficult for those to whom it does not come naturally. You must put the scratchcard into your back pocket (this is very important) and, as soon as possible, forget entirely that it exists. The reason the back pocket is used and not the front, despite the obvious disadvantages, is that, above all, the principle of fatalism must follow the course of this card for as long as it remains unscratched. This means putting it in your back pocket to allow for the slim possibility that bodily motion will cause the card to slip out unnoticed on the pavement, in the restaurant, in the restroom. Yes, you will lose the card in this case – but this too is a part of the process. Like I say, this phase is difficult for many people to grasp but allow me to put it to you like this: have you ever found an un-scratched scratchcard lying on the ground? (On the pavement? In the restaurant? In the restroom?) Did you pick it up? And did you smile to the blue and white canopy above you as if the sky itself had provided the card? And did you spare a brief thought for the man or woman who adhered to the back pocket routine, understanding all the while the possible costs? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you will understand this adherence to karmic fate – it is an almost Eastern feeling of universal destiny and the acceptance that one is subservient to Events. This includes losing the scratchcard, which you have anyway entirely forgotten about. Never mind, for someone else may find it and win, while the world spins on.

Some time later (days, a week?) something will occur or some words will be idly said and your brain will crack like a sparkplug. The scratchcard! The sensation of reaching into your back pocket to feel the thin sliver of theatre and hope and finding it still there, with all its attendant possibilities, is remarkable. Do you see now? It is for this intense (if short-lived) smile that the previous phase is indulged. This is an important point: the practice of deferred gratification can apply even to the gambler. A person imbued suddenly with a fateful and dreamy impulse at the checkout can also contain within them the most wonderful cornerstone of discipline – a calm forgetfulness. Only now, when the mixture of remembrance and delight has compelled you into your back pocket for the card, is it time to scratch.

The mathematics behind the scratching drill itself are difficult to describe in any brief way. You should be aware that this is a very precise, mechanical operation. The preparations are the easiest part to detail. You will need to find a penny, or a two pence coin. It is IMPERATIVE that you use only these coins. No other coin will do. As an American or other nationality, the smallest equivalent denomination is to be used. The reasoning behind this is similar to that which prohibits the purchase of £5 cards under the system. In fact, a disdain for all ostentation (buying multiple cards, scratching them with gaudy £2 coins) runs through the whole process. Scratching with your house key or car key is certainly out of the question. Using your thumbnail or fingernails is allowed but only if they are not glossy with bright paint or adorned with tiny jewels. However, should the fingernail paint be flaking off, days or weeks after application, then by all means: scratch away. Ignore these caveats and conditions at your own peril.

Get your brown coin or plain fingernail ready. Many minds will have tried to reduce the optimum order of scratching to its base mathematical formula. Yet, there is no perfect ‘Tic Tac Toe’ solution to these flaky grids, and the system I am prescribing cannot be said to be perfect by any means. Nonetheless, it is rooted in a simple emotive idea: that you must keep yourself in suspense for as long as possible, especially while scratching. In the spirit of this suspense, it is perhaps wise to put down your coin so that we may take some time out to describe the ‘Ten Percent’ rule.

The ‘Ten Percent’ rule is simple. If a family member is in the room when the scratchcard has been remembered and retrieved, then etiquette demands that you agree to give them ten percent of the winnings, should Fortune rule in your favour. However, they should refrain from demanding their cut outright, as it is impolite. Still, it is equally, if not MORE offensive to play the card without any comment at all, or with a brusqueness that implies you did not care who won anything. Please practice caution if there is more than one family member in the room, as things may become dangerous.

Now that royalties have been mostly covered, the scratching can finally begin. Take the brown coin, or unembellished fingernail, and scratch the card’s grid methodically, taking time to consider each revelation separately. Remember that suspense is the key to the technique.

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Since there are likely to be onlookers and the process involves a certain air of theatricality, it requires statements be made (“Let’s do this thing!”), updates be given (“Oh! We have two £1000s!”) and summaries be provided (“Okay, we’ve got a £10 and a £100 as a possibility”). This is all not to mention the final flourish when the last possible digit is scratched and revealed, which should always be accompanied with a gambler’s battle-cry – a guttural, growling “come ooonnnnNNNNNN!” descending to a “NNNAAaaghh fuck it” when loss is incurred.

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Should you win, remember to honour the Ten Percent rule, but beyond that the celebration is yours. I know of no process for winning, nor for being rich. Fate has either delivered you to riches, or placed you back in the line for the checkout. If you have lost, look over your card one last time and remember the final act of the ritual, more important than any other. You must tear the scratchcard directly in two.

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The Tear is colossally significant. In this way you have dismissed it all. You have dismissed the riches, the consumption, the possibilities. All the energy of the process may have led up to the point where a gruff cry of hope resounded throughout your home. Yet a shrug and a single swift tear is all that is needed to dispose of it. Do not tear the card again, into quarters – you do not need to. Once is OK. The cars, the holidays, the clothes, the things. They are not for you. You did not want £100,000 anyway. This is perhaps the most necessary part of the process. The final salute to Fate. At the end of a scratchcard, as in all of life: remember the Tear.

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The Unenviable Insomnia of Halloran Kin

halloran_bookcover2

Hallo there.

For the past few months I have been working on a poem. No wait! Don’t go! This isn’t like those other poems! No, this one is good. You know those long, sprawling, spooky poems, like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge? Or twisting, dastardly misadventures like The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew by Robert Service? They’re good poems, aren’t they? And you know why. Because they are long and they RHYME GOOD.

I have always admired a piece of poetry that rhymed and told a mysterious story at the same time. Much more than the cryptic, interpretive stuff that people click their fingers to (although that can be fun too). I thought I would do one of these narrative sagas myself, imbued with a tint of gothic modern life. So, I set out to write a long poem that RHYMES GOOD.

The result is a piece called The Unenviable Insomnia of Halloran Kin. Here is the blurb:

“Out to the churn, you will depart,
out to that London din.
And don’t return, without the heart,
of the man called Halloran Kin.”

 *

Halloran Kin lives in Belfast as an idler, just one of a clan of 1001 cousins. But when he finds himself hounded and criminalised by Djinn, he is forced to make a stumbling escape that will take him all across the North Atlantic nations of Europe – from the frozen tundra of Iceland to the foggy wilds of Galicia.

Inspired by poems like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service, Halloran Kin is a long rhyming poem set in a dark world of monsters, animals and Ghasts. Told in seven parts, this macabre fugitive’s story spans a decade of chronic remorse, sleeplessness, betrayal, friendship and faith.

*

There you have it. Most of the tale is related by Halloran Kin himself, as he sits in a bar inhabited by strange creatures. At 1433 lines, the story is over twice as long as the Ancient Mariner, so strap yourself in for a long ride. At the same time, I understand that this can be quite daunting, so please have a read of the extract below, to see if it is something you feel you’d like to check out.

Or, if you’re already sold and want to avoid SPOILERSThe Unenviable Insomnia of Halloran Kin is available now for Kindle on Amazon for about £1.50 or on the Kobo ebooks Store for the same price. If you prefer, you can simply buy a file containing 6 different formats (.epub, .mobi, .awz3, .lit, .htmlz & .html) totally DRM-free from Gumroad! (Even if you do not have a tablet, the .html file will still allow you to read the poem as one long scroll on your internet browser). If you want an EXCELLENT PERSON DISCOUNT, just tweet me saying so (@Brendy_C) and I will send you a promo code! This will get you the book for 99p! 

That’s all the salesmanship I can stomach for now. If there is a little interest I would like to do an audiobook version of the book at some point. But this depends on many Things. Anyway, if you enjoy my writing and fancy a little adventure, be sure to pick it up!

Thank you.

*

An extract from The Unenviable Insomnia of Halloran Kin, in which our protagonist, for certain reasons, has escaped to a strange city called ‘Sheffield’: 

“A dark, dark place, an urban waste,
I’d been run down to a run-down,
but not a face the law would chase
into that ferocious town.
A firm of Adders and of Newts,
needed tough folk for a task,
they’d give you gloves and give you boots,
and questions they’d not ask.

They put us in a warehouse deep,
and told us not to shirk,
but ‘cause I could not eat nor sleep,
all I did was work.
We worked all night, our chests were tight
and there were plenty faintings,
our job for that dank reptile mob,
was framing fake oil paintings.

We’d graft the wood as best we could,
and sand the splinters gone,
varnish the grains, and fake the stains
– the ‘history’ – it shone!
And I filled crates, with two workmates,
called Gallagher and Jones,
and we’d make frames between our games
of Klax and Knucklebones.

Gallagher was kind and round,
and loyal to a fault,
Jones was skeletal but sound,
and drank her pints with salt.
At knucklebones Jones was the best,
she threw the bone so high,
that she could sand and sculpt and dress,
a frame while it did fly.

And skinny Jones, her face so wan,
of this skill she was proud,
and Gallagher, that jolly man,
was always laughing loud.
A year soon passed, with these good two,
in service of the Adders.
When we were asked, ‘what work y’do?’
we said: ‘We’re making ladders.’

And just when my guilt let me by,
and peace I thought I’d gain,
I took some oak, and set to stroke
some grimace from the grain.
And just when I thought, by and by,
I’d left behind my sin,
There formed a face, of that cramped race,
the second of the Djinn.

‘It’s Kin! It’s Kin! It’s Halloran Kin!
It’s him, that very same!’
The Djinn, the Djinn, his hateful twin!
I threw down the frame.
And still it spoke, with funny croak,
‘Kin! You’d best listen true!
I’ve come for craic, with six-a-pack!
I’ve come to humour you!’

With caution now I spoke,
approached the magic oak,
propped up the frame,
and asked the name,
of this merry Djinny bloke.

‘Call me Sofa, call me that,
I’m not what I appear,
I’m a wastrel, but no rat,
come see, just look in here!’

The frame, it shuddered,
the corners stuttered,
there grew a sudden canvas.
A shining screen, was all-between,
and filled with … sneezing pandas?

He played me GIFs, and funny clips,
of cats and dogs and bats and frogs,
and videos of falling down
and getting drunk,
and spinning round,
and children biting children’s fingers,
drowsy dancers, lousy singers,
and though not exactly profound,
the laughter in me lingers.

‘What say you?’ he said with flair,
that living, laughing oak,
‘Though Djinn you are,’ I said with care,
‘you can stay here and joke.
But ‘gainst this wall you will be lashed,
and if you harm these folk,
your canvas will be wholly smashed,
and your frame will be broke.’

And so he watched us as we worked,
and larked with us at breaks,
he played us vids, and yes we smirked,
while finishing the fakes.

He bet on Klax and, with wisecracks,
our games of Knucklebones,
became fast friends with Gallagher,
and solid pals with Jones.

For all his craic and all his fun,
I first did naught but spite him.
But since he was a funny one,
I too came soon to like him.

He watched our games, and learned our names,
told us of merry memes.
And with his ways, the next few days,
was cause of many screams.”

Halloran clasps at his eyes,
as if he’d tear them out.
I would bet there’s more regret
“Barman! A pint of stout!”

His eyes are veined, his eyes are strained,
his eyes are bloody-shot.
He needs another drink, you think,
to really hit the spot.

And here the barman comes along,
some creature made of cloth.
He fixes you with linen stare,
and a feather pillow cough.

“How much drink, d’you have to sink?
What time d’you call it quits?”
Kin just grins: “I’ve had one tin,
and I’ll not sleep ‘til six.”

He sips.
He stews.
He continues.

“There was a day, the Adders came,
and came with Newts et al.
They slithered in, but all the same,
they looked professional.

‘All right, you three, now listen close,’
they slipped around our shins,
‘Two of you have got to go,
That’s how the market spins.
Two of you are fired chums,
you’re to be sacked next week,
we’ve crunched the numbers, done the sums,
output has reached its peak.

Please accept this book token,
our deepest of contritions,
although we hope you three do ken,
our Terms and our Conditions:
There’s only one position hence,
but all three must apply.
Newts! Let’s go talk to our fence,
and sort these issues of supply!’

Yes, we three already knew,
the Terms of this damp, rotten zoo,
not by the skilled,
the position’s filled,
but the one who killed the other two.

*

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Top 10 of Everything in 2013

What a year. What a bumper, crazy year. We saw a lot of strange and scary events take place across the world, from civil unrest to unusual animal behaviour. But there was also a lot happening in the entertainment industry and huge leaps forward in technology. To mark the wondrousness of 2013, here is my personal list of the year’s highlights in games, books, film and more.   

1. Top Videogame: Slug Me A Dram

Slug Me A Dram was a surprise hit on the videogame circuit. Following the difficult post-war life of hardened Interstellar Navy SEAL Chad Mathers, players were taken on a rough and difficult ride through explosive flashbacks. Highlights included the section titled ‘Siege of Lava Planet X’ which saw the player wade through the crisp corpses of his child-soldier victims. But what made the game really unique was that these flashback sequences happened only in sharp, infrequent bursts of 30 seconds or less. The majority of the game (a one-hundred hour epic) was spent playing out civilian life on Earthlike Moon IV – getting the bus, buying your groceries, sitting in silence at the dinner table in your mother’s house. All the while terrified that a sudden party-popper might explode, sending poor Mathers into another violent FPS seizure. Much of the game is spent in the bar and it is no surprise that the ex-SEAL’s catchphrase (and title of the game) “Ack slug me a dram willya Kimberly?” became an internet meme within days of release.

2. Top Movie: Kill Them

Kill Them was always going to be big news. No film can be in production for 17 years without the weight of expectation crushing it into the ground on release day. When thousands of cinema-goers bought tickets for the opening screenings, explaining that the movie was likely to be “so bad it’s good”, they were universally disappointed to discover the reverse – that the movie was so good it was bad. Critics slated it, with a review in Empire describing it: “Spectacular, for fuck sake.” The story focused on the existential angst of Drill Sergeant Grisham Wells who has lost his lust for the march and begins to take an interest in Massively Multiplayer Games in an effort to rekindle his militarism. One after another, the games become dull and lifeless to him, until he tries a children’s game called Pony Hunter out of sheer curiosity. The tale of friendship, care and laughter that follows is possibly the most heart-warming film of the past decade. The derision and contempt that surrounded its release was perfectly summed up by award-winning film critic Silvia Ornst: “It’s excellent,” she said. “Sickening, really.”

3. Top News Story: Calrax’s Entrance

This was a year when civil wars raged throughout many lands and the mass surveillance of an entire globe became known, first as breaking news, then as a Broadway musical in the form of ‘Stop! Whistleblower!’ (see Top 10 Musicals of 2013). So when life from a dimension beyond our own first appeared in the cavernous tunnels beneath Switzerland in February, many people were nonplussed. Calrax, as she preferred to be called, was unusual in stature, being a digitised body of infinite wisdom and cynicism. But that did not stop several tabloids from photographing the blemishes that appeared on computer screens all across the world at the time and splashing these photos across their front pages with headlines like: “CALRAX’S CELLULITE NIGHTMARE” or “The self-proclaimed ‘Bodyless Goddess’ can’t hide THESE snaps”. When Calrax retaliated by removing the email and bank accounts of all Daily Mail reporters from existence, many were worried that she had descended into a tyrannous rage. But these fears were fortunately misplaced. After her rise to power in Belgium, where citizens were glad of a computer to fill the reopening power vacuum, she put forward a global law to the UN which suggested all operating systems come with a built-in ‘Kitten Switch’, replacing all error messages with images of fluffy creatures. The law was unanimously agreed upon and Calrax won the admiration of millions of ordinary citizens. Reports of strange ethereal noises coming from circuit boards across the world have yet to be directly attributed to the Goddess’ interference.

4. Top Fiction Book: ‘Who’s A Sour Mash Man?’ By George Lambast

Fiction in 2013 was riddled with bestsellers. But only one piece of work stood out as a truly clever literary sensation. ‘Who’s A Sour Mash Man?’ was the story we had all secretly expected to exist somewhere in the world but which authors, up until now, had all been too fearful to write. George Lambast took that fear by the scruff of its neck and told it to stop misbehaving. Then he murdered it. ‘Who’s A Sour Mash Man?’ is the semi-autobiographical tale of an East Asian parrot called Barker who emigrates to Texas, where he falls madly in love with a pitiful rogue whom the locals have nicknamed ‘Benny Cough Syrup’. The blossoming relationship between the parrot and Benny is one of both tenderness and cruelty, as we begin to see the psychological warfare that consumes the pair. Increasingly ostracised from the rest of Houston, they turn on each other, resulting in a psychedelic cough medicine-soaked finale in which Barker the parrot states, with a deep, philosophical wisdom beyond his years: “Only a bird in love can know true terror. Caaaw!”

5. Top Non-Fiction Book: Compendium of Fierceness 2013

If autobiographies were the ubiquitous winner of publishing in the year 2012 (and every year before) then the rise of the Compendium is surely all the more notable. This year publishing house ‘Wrodsmiths’ launched their collections of miscellany to the cheers of billions of enthralled readers. The Compendium of Alertness was quickly followed by the Compendium of Morbidity and, while the Compendium of Lethargy saw a less enthusiastic reception, the Compendium of Malice broke August sales records in every country except Belgium (where the Calrax autobiography, ‘My Plan’, was eagerly bought by 107% of the population). But it was the Compendium of Fierceness which captured the imagination of inquisitive readers everywhere. Filled with comprehensive lists of beasts, monsters, mythical heroes, Amazonian tribespeoples, warriors, sharks, eels, spine-covered trees and hailstorms – all categorised in order of severity – the voracious consumers of the world lapped it up. Next year will see the release of many more Compendiums, according to Wrodsmiths, as well as the launch of an international ‘Compendiana’ – a deadly contest of memorisation and list-building, the exact rules of which are yet to be revealed.

6. Top Poem: ‘When I Yield, If I Yield’ by Charles Quail

A winner of the prestigious Heartbleed Poetry Prize for more than 10 years in a row, Charles Quail exceeded all expectations in November, when he released this resolutely non-rhyming epic into the wilds of the Kindle Store. Who can reliably remember a time when this poem’s great power did not save them from the ultimate destruction of hopelessness? (“I am in a wind. / The gale goes fast. / Oh God, it is not a gale at all. / Help. / Help. / I have fallen off a high building. / I wish I had not fallen off this high building.”)

7. Top Board Game: Party Knife

This was an unusual gambit for veteran board game creator Stanislav Pike, who enjoys almost universal acclaim for his previous party games. In Party Knife, six or more players are dealt hidden role cards. Five of these cards are blank. But one card is coloured a deep shade of crimson and emblazoned with the words: ‘You Are The Party Knife’. Players must then disperse into the house, occupying one room each. They have to barricade themselves in as quickly and efficiently as possible. The ‘Party Knife’ will seek to make his or her barricade less sturdy, as he or she will soon try to leave and begin the Lurking Phase. During this time, the Party Knife will take a meat knife from the kitchen (or other instrument of equivalent sharpness) and stab holes in the doors of the other players. Players who receive a stabbed door must shout out: “Party Knife, Party Knife! I see you! / Spare my life, spare my life! Please won’t you!” then make a guess as to who the Party Knife is. If they are correct, the knife is slid under the door and THEY become the Party Knife. If they are wrong, the Party Knife will continue the Lurking Phase until he or she has been correctly guessed and replaced, or until all other players have been killed, whichever comes first.

8. Top Television Programme: Bust A Crime

When Netflix was bought out in September by the newly formed Calrax Initiative, along with 88 other companies of the FTSE100, television viewers were concerned that the quality of TV programmes would suffer. They need not have worried. Bust A Crime had every age group enthralled from its now iconic pilot episode. Who could not have instantly fallen for the charms of Pleasance White, the gruff but lovable non-gender-specific whisp of intelligent smoke, who solved every baffling police case using only the power of rhyme? Only the Belgian gameshow ‘Execution Live!’ received a higher viewer count than Bust A Crime’s bombastic season finale. Three more series are planned, with scripts for a movie doing the rounds in Hollywood among writers well versed in Rhyming Criminology. Poet Charles Quail invited the wrath of Pleasance fans everywhere when he said in an interview that the series was “Absolute twiddle-twaddle and quite shit” but later rescinded his remarks after meeting Calrax herself at a Royal Ball in October. What did he think of the digitally displaced being of ultimate power? “Absolutely charming,” he chuckled, “I concede she has done great things for television.”

9. Top Music: ‘This Room Stinks & You Can All Go To Hell Especially You, Jerkwad’ by The Elegants

After quickly establishing themselves as the big chiefs of featherpunk in 2012, The Elegants’ second album actually passed many critics by unnoticed. Many theorised that their quieter, less practiced and instrumental direction alienated fans of their post-grank cyber ballads. TRS&YCAGTHEYJ was a shocking tonal shift. Part whamrap, part krumpstep, the album initially baffled listeners by including ten 5-minute tracks of total silence, before finally squeezing every song they recorded into the final two tracks, two minutes apiece. A strategy that many music journalists have now concluded was ludicrously ahead of its time.

10. Top New Technology: The Shuffler

Admit it, you thought the Shuffler was a silly name to begin with. We all did. It sounded like a toy that would come into your house and mix up your alphabetised mineral collection. But it isn’t! The Shuffler, even though it has only been out for a month and a half, has revolutionised the way we think about pets. Before, our furry little friends were stable but bland. Our cats stayed cats, our dogs stayed dogs. But along came the Shuffler – another amazing species from the Calrax Initiative’s pet shop branch. As you read, your wonderful swordfish Fluffy may be cocooning right now, ready to start her fifteenth ‘cycle’ as an adorable stick insect, or perhaps a rattlesnake. The real genius was the decision to remove the customer’s choice from the regeneration process – you just don’t know what you’re going to get! Other technologies came thick and fast this year through the Calrax Rift above Belgium (the Twangboard, the Filth Ray, The Lazzzzer) but the Shuffler took humanity by storm in a way no others could, filling up Vines and Tweets with footage of humourous quadrupeds and the concerned faces of animal welfare officers. When the Shufflers began to mass cocoon over the Brussels skyline, locking the city into a huge humming cone of whitish fibre, some customers were annoyed. But when they saw that the 200ft chimera which emerged was under the caring command of Empress Calrax, the world breathed a sigh of relief. Better still, to celebrate the birthing of the ‘Skyhound’ (as Calrax affectionately named the creature) humanity would be taken through the Calrax Rift by the truckload, where we would all start our new lives as digitised ether in another world. It is my pleasure, dear reader, that when I passed through the glowing purple rupture I was immediately designated the form of the text in this article. I could not have asked for a more enriching and rewarding existence. And it is all thanks to the wondrous Shuffler.

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