The dog pile: How I Infuriated A Few Hundred Final Fantasy Fourteen Fans To Death Threat Levels

(Contains some mentions of sexual assault, violence, suicide)

At an unremembered age, I created a Super Nintendo. It was composed of a box (cardboard) and string (string). It did not have any discernible function apart from to assuage my own feeling of child’s inadequacy and self-doubt. My infinite brothers and sisters had played the real Nintendo, the ownership of which was in constant dispute, the controllers jealously guarded as it was played in various neutral zones between bedrooms, and they joked with limitless reverb that I would never defeat the first level of Super Mario Brothers 3. I would not allow them to be correct. If it took the construction of a fictional entity incapable of producing sound, light, colour, or happiness, then that is what I would do. I worked on the cardboard Nintendo for a full hour, and then I showed the results to absolutely nobody.

At night, some time later in my childhood, my father would sit with zealous fervour in front of Jeremy Paxman, journalist and anchorman whose pompous visage and alligator-length face on the regular current affairs programme Newsnight only complimented a merciless interview technique which used contempt as a weapon, and inquiry as a means of inflicting blunt force trauma to the ego of myriad politicians too brave or stupid to say “no” to an interview. My father laughed when politicians stumbled over their words, when they were caught in a trap. He gestured with delight at the TV, his fifteenth-hundred cigarette of the day in hand, grinning with the joy of all the Irish foxes in the fields outside our home. He pointed at members of the British establishment forced into corners by their own slavering rottweiler. I absorbed this bloodsport willingly. I too was captured by the inviting cudgel of journalism.

At 18 years old I left the slabs and tarmac of my Irish hometown for the slabs and tarmac of a northern English city, where, for a time, I entertained the idea of becoming a “real” journalist. That idea died in the magistrates, crown and coroner’s courts of South Yorkshire, where human beings routinely regurgitated lifedata about other, less fortunate humans who had burned to death, hanged themselves, overdosed on drugs, drowned in canals, or committed hellish atrocities upon third-party humans, who themselves gave testimonies from behind opaque screens, or via internetted television. The televisions were surreal, antiquated wheeler-TVs, and would have reminded me of lackadaisical days in primary school when a teacher was sick and the cathode ray TV shared among the entire scholastic institution was rolled out of its hiding place to show us episodes of Ghost Writer and Through The Dragon’s Eye. The wheely TVs of the courtroom would have reminded me of this, yes, were it not for their grim content. Against the varnished grain of lawyer’s pulpits and bat wing smocks, the TVs recounted witness statements in unwanted detail under cover of technological anachronism. During one day of my reporter’s training, a woman burst into tears in the juror’s stand as several rape charges were read aloud to the court, and as she was dismissed from her civic duty on the grounds of emotional contamination (or whatever arcane legal code they used to announce that, hey, maybe this lady shouldn’t be here) I thought: no, this is not a room I want to spend my life in.

I discovered the more populous slabs of London city some years after becoming a qualified raker of daily muck, and decided to return to video games, the old ember that had burned in my belly ever since I built my first false console. I hobnobbed with such recklessness and lack of foresight, and wrote with such misplaced confidence, that I fell head first into the pages of manifold internet magazines. By night, I constructed strange shapes on digital touchscreens for The Guardian, for an audience of perhaps dozens, and at the close of every work shift I received a free copy of the following day’s newspaper, its contents already out of date even as the wet ink came off on my fingertips in the 2am taxi home. It was a good job, until the video games came for me with fortitude. We all knew that day would come. When I eventually left that job, my friends at the desk I worked gifted me an old iPad. One of them had built an entire miniature arcade cabinet from wood, electronics, and affection. You slotted the iPad into the cabinet, you see, and it became a fully functioning Pac-Man machine. On the side of this mini-cabinet, I was depicted in a mural as Luke Skywalker with various co-workers as supporting cast. It is much better than a cardboard SNES.

By the time I landed a full-time job at Rock Paper Shotgun – the violently named care bear treehouse of good words and solid people – I suspected that a games journalist was not that different from a “real” journalist. The differences were minor. We were still supposed to put a fire under someone every now and then. Only it was sometimes unclear exactly who. Significantly, I could soothe myself with the knowledge that nobody in this industry would ever die four yards from their front door after their walking frame collapsed during an unstoppable blaze. If you can spend your life never knowing what is discussed at coroner’s court, I recommend doing that. The only people who die inside a video game are the bad guys. And they are often Nazis.

Like many of my colleagues in the industry, I kept myself entertained during these years by collecting lanyards as if they were the pelts of endangered beasts. For every event that I visited, upon returning home, I would secure my amulet of access upon whatever post-fiesta podium my contemporary workspace allowed. I have since lost many of these not-quite-treasured possessions, a loss I have never felt in any way emotional, but for the purposes of this essay (I suppose it is an essay) please entertain the image of me typing this next to a hat stand with innumerable laminated name badges cascading from above, rather than a sadly adorned corner of mirror, where a mere six lanyards hang limply like unutilised laurels of garlic. Or let us say there are twelve, if you count the reflections.

One of these badges has upon it all-caps print reading: GUEST. FINAL FANTASY XIV FESTIVAL. 2018. LAS VEGAS. I have inserted the full stops for the sake of clarity. It is a reminder of a good time gone bad. I attended this festival both as a matter of duty for my editor and as a sort of “fun thing” that would take the edge off a rotten year. I was by this point in my career, completely wiped out. I could barely think of a video game before my hand reached up to rub another hair free from my temple. Maybe this was down to having recently given up the demon alcohol, who comes for all members of my genetic pool eventually unless they escape into the still waters of urge and sobriety. I had chosen 30 years of age to make this run for better health and late life. It just so happened to coincide with a cross-globe house move, and a year of completely explicable tiredness and low-key sadness that couldn’t be assuaged with video games. The flashing realm of gunfire and noise that usually made me feel good and focused now only sucked me deeper into the idea that I had chased a worthless life and produced nothing but dross that would be forgotten as soon as whoever controlled the internet died and forgot to tell their family the master password. I’m saying I was burning out. This was my mentality in 2018, completely unbeknownst to my workmates (or perhaps it was beknownst, and they just didn’t let on to their beknowing). The trip to Final Fantasy XIV Fanfest was something I privately felt worried about and faintly excited for in equal measure, if only for the chance to resuscitate my enthusiasm for distant worlds which do not, and will never, truly exist.

Aside from the giant billboards welcoming me to the city of Las Vegas, and offering “Dynamic Stem Cell Therapy”, aside from the advertising miniscreens embedded in the back of taxi passenger seats, and the billboards further down the airport road asking me if I had recently suffered in a motorcycle accident, and if so to immediately call 1-800-LAW-TIGERS so that a giant feline roaring with all the might of on-demand legal representation may set things right for me, aside from having to endure all that, I was happy to be doing something vaguely worthwhile. Reporting on an event most people would not be able to go to. An event most of our readers would not even know existed. My brief, my mission, as it often had chance to be, was to write about this festival with some gentle fun-poking, some accessible information about the game, its inhabitants, and ultimately admit that, although this was a gathering beyond my fickle ken, it was a perfectly reasonable and heartfelt pilgrimage for any true fan of the massive fictional region of Eorzea. A place where people who kill monsters come to hug each other.

Between nights playing roulette and eschewing all theories of pattern by placing cheap bets on red every time, I spent my mornings and afternoons talking to the fans of the game, trying to understand who they were, why they came, and what they did in the game itself. Each short day in Las Vegas, I would find myself more recharged by their happiness, their freindliness, their warmth, and their enthusiasm. I interviewed a namazu, a mythical creature of mythical lakes whose arms hide within the cavernous shell of its body and erupt out through the mouth with human hands, because yes, the namazu is a person in a terrific costume. At night I changed notes for dollar coins. Tried to gamble and to know that I was gambling. I felt the adder of addiction slowly coiling around my limbs, my fingers, my diet coca-cola, and learned the true goal of the Las Vegas visitor, which is to know that you’re not really chasing dice. You’re playing chicken with your own psychology.

On the first day of the event, myself and a handful of other games journalists from the UK, whom I had not met before and have only partially met since, made our way to a Q and A session with the head creators of the game. We were told shortly before entering this session that our one-on-one interviews with the game’s director, Naoki Yoshida, glowing hero of Square Enix, were now impossible. These private interviews had been dangled before us like so many laminated press badges, yet now time itself dictated that the chattings would not occur after all. We would have only this public Q and A session to ask whatever questions we had. This is not an ideal thing to happen, but it is also not an unusual thing. And so, in a hall filled mostly with subscribers of the game, enthusiastic YouTubers, and supportive Twitch streamers, the most challenging question I would hear came from (I think) a journalist at the back of the room, asking when the game would finally be translated to Spanish. Yoshida’s response was as non-committal as the grip with which I held my pen above my notepad.

In an atmosphere like this (hushed with wonder, eager with wide-eye) there is already a cooling effect on open and free speech. It’s very difficult to imagine that a developer (or at the very least, their squadron of PR spitfires) is not aware of this fluffy cloud of easy talk, the softball mist that forms in such a room. In a room like this, you do not want to ask a hard or unusual question. I know this because I have had to overcome my nerves every time it happens. It is embarrassing to be the negative guy, the weirdo, the naysayer, the killjoy, the muckrakerist, the asker of rude questions. It is extra embarrassing when you are, like everyone else, shackled by time, and the question you have plucked out of your interview-ready list to ask involves players masturbating to cat girls in thigh-high digital socks. This will make sense shortly.

The PR gestured that I should get the microphone. I asked my question. The words came fumbling out of my gullet awkwardly, like fully inflated animal balloons.

“It’s an odd question but, uh, it’s no secret that there are players who have sex in the game… or cybersex if you will, and, uh…”

Yes, I had used the professor-like phrase “cybersex, if you will”. I was tumbling down the chasm. The blood was in my ears. I could hear it.

“I was just wondering… that’s not a problem unique to this MMO… but I was wondering what the position is, what your position is on that. Is it something that you quietly discourage or quietly encourage or is it something that you just turn a blind eye to?”

Yoshida’s interpreter began translating. I realised I hadn’t asked the question. I had not asked it well, and I had not asked it at all. I had wanted to know what the official line was on the game’s brothels. Because I had read an article on Kotaku that went into these in-game dens of sexuality and spoke to their erotically charged role-playing inhabitants, completely free of judgement and moralising, and I was curious. The Kotaku report hadn’t discussed what the developers thought about these houses of assignation that existed in their world of friendly monster hunting. But I reflected that they must know about it, if they have any knowledge about their game at all. They must have splurges of data in the form of dirty talk filling their chat fields every day, unfurling like so many rolls of magnetic tape filled with kink. I wanted to know: what does a developer of video games even do about that? I suspected that their unspoken policy is to do nothing, because, well, to each paladin their own. What happens behind closed doors in unreal worlds (a game producer might understandably conclude) is none of their business. I wanted to ask about this. But it felt now, in the seconds after asking my question, that I had simply asked Naoki Yoshida, rising phoenix and fan favourite of Square Enix, whether he thought plain old cybersex between the people in his game was, I don’t, weird, or what?

“I should clarify,” I said, “that the sex is paid for…”

“Ohhh,” said the interpreter, who continued to translate. I had to trust that she understood the gist of my question: what was Yoshida’s position on players exchanging the in-game currency for cybersex? Is Square Enix a lassez-faire overlord, or a Victorian moralist, or something of nuance in between? Yoshida’s translator spoke sideways to him. She had been working non-stop during the course of this monster weekend of Chocobo and Buster swords, and in my downtime I would see Tweets and Reddit posts jest-demanding that this translator, so often on stage and language-dancing for seemingly every Japanese member of the development team, be allowed to sleep for heaven’s sake. She probably did not expect my question.

“…as in, there are player-run brothels.”

It was my final clarification. In the time it took my question to be translated, I was aware of that hum of embarrassment, that familiar sense of dinner table tension, when you bring up something everybody knows about, but nobody wants to acknowledge because it will upset grandmother. That tension dissipated as soon as Yoshida screwed his face up and said:

“Huhhhhh!?”

The room burst into laughter, and I felt fine, even as I recognised the act of using humour as deflection. He then answered the question with all the expected airs of officialdom, telling me what he has probably told dozens of other reporters a dozen times before. If anyone breaks the terms of service, he explained, they will be punished. He didn’t go much further than that, which was disappointing but not surprising. He didn’t reveal any of his personal feelings about the game’s red light districts where one can, if one were so inclined, ask a sex worker in a blindfold to emote at you suggestively and whisper fond lewdnesses into your non-real video game ears. He also didn’t say explicitly what the precise rules were around sex in the game. That was somewhere in the broad-armed terms and conditions, and not for discussion in Q and A sessions. He simply gave a cookie cutter answer: the tickbox of rules acceptance reigns supreme. Square Enix are not Victorian, nor supporters of free love. They’re just another equivocal corporation. It happens.

I considered the topic covered. I was relieved. For the purposes of my article, it was not going to be a big deal. Mention of these brothels and the response by Naoki Yoshida, revered luminary of Square Enix, would, days later, appear in the 40th paragraph of my piece. The fact that this mega-populated fantasy world has fully functioning bordellos was not the focus of my article, nor was it ever intended to be. It was just one more element of a living game that might make it interesting to an outsider. Something to mention. In any case, cyber sex work in video games would be better covered by someone who did not look like most of the sex worker’s own clientele, the spectacle-clad white millenial male. Even before I had asked my bumbling question, I surmised there was no other unseen angle to this weekend’s events. I would do the job I had so often done before. Make gentle fun, admit any bafflement, and sign off with some conclusive happy note.

But there was some lingering unease that, perhaps, I should have sensed. On the way out the door, escaping the positive haze of the Q and A session, the group of UK journalists I had been hanging out with during the trip gave me looks of schoolboy mock-horror. One of them said “fair play” or something along those lines. I couldn’t tell if they were supportive of my line of questioning, or deeply embarrassed on my behalf. It could have been both. Our allotted PR minder walked with us and joked that he would be in trouble now. I laughed, and maybe I even said “sorry”, feeling, against my conditioning, that old pang of sympathy and humanity for these people who are by design my adversaries.

The article I wrote ended on its predicted positive note: “When I think of Final Fantasy XIV from now on,” I wrote later from a hotel room, from an airplane, from above the wastes of Greenland, “I’ll remember the namazu.” (That is, the large, odd creature of fishmyth) “It’s big, it’s slightly unsettling, and I don’t really understand it. But it makes a lot of people smile.”

This is no longer true. Within a week, my defining memorial association with Final Fantasy XIV had become the dog pile, the hate tweets, the froth, the suicide encouragement. The most unsettling mal-tweeter surfaced in my Twitter DMs like a rat from a toilet bowl and said they won’t be surprised when I am someday arrested for paedophilia. I reported all of this. I’m not sure what effect it had. I discovered someone had posted a Reddit thread about me two days after my article’s publication. Two days after that, a YouTuber had made a video about me. If I were to define the resulting mass of communications on the Saffir-Simpson scale, I would judge it a category 2 tropical cyclone of hate. Weatherable, unpleasant.

It could happen to you too. A fan of some massively populated otherworld hears about your stuttering question, a sex question, a question so completely out of keeping with the good and strong requests for official information emanating from good and strong fans like sweet, ambient music from royalty-free internet libraries, and he becomes incensed. He hears about your question. Sex stuff! Maybe he receives a hastily written transcript of your question, maybe it is just a paraphrasing, because whoever was taking the notes for their own fan coverage of the game did not bring a voice recorder, or never got around to learning the Teeline shorthand required to rapidly note all the details of eg. a pathologist’s report on a naive user of heroin who died standing upright in the kitchen of a South Yorkshire home. Maybe another fan sees this Reddit post, this bundle of semi-notes, and he creates a video four days after your article has already been published, quietly scanned by the site’s usual readers, and happily forgotten. He unforgets it for everybody, but mostly for his subscribers. He calls you “ignorant” and “condescending” and “disrespectful”. It gets 60,000 views and is titled “Rock Paper Shotgun Writer Dumps on Final Fantasy XIV Fans at Fan Festival”. Even I can applaud and seek to learn from the alliterative quality of such title case theatrics.

When my father squirmed with joy, all those years ago, to see a member of Her Majesty’s cabinet roasted upon a fire of Paxman, I inherited that joy, for better or worse. I do not know if any of my infinite brothers and sisters did so also but, statistically, they should have. I took that oil-black joy into school the next day, and the day after that, and forever, until one awkward 17-year-old day I found myself facing the head priest of this uber-Catholic all-boys scholastic institution, because yes, Ireland was as segregated by gender as it was by religion during my cold years of secondary school. I faced the priest in a large ring of seated people, composed of every boy in my year. This assembly was called to address some misdemeanor or another and would be using the heretofore unseen novelty of allowing us, the students, a moment to speak if we so desired it, as if this were a town council meeting and not a proverbial dressing down. When it came my time to talk, I channeled my best Paxman and pretended to be good at pointing out all the flaws in our head priest’s commands to us as students, students who would soon be leaving to go to university and finally know the embrace of an actual woman. I argued and cross-examined this priest long enough to impress my friends and infuriate my splotchy-faced maths teacher to the point of internal combustion. He gripped my arm after the debacle and I thought: “Jesus, this fella is gonna hit me.” He didn’t. I felt good. Boys who had never known or spoken to me before winked and laughed and now said my surname with the slightest tones of praise. I thought I was the big dick, is what I am trying to communicate.

I did all this because I hated it when teachers told me to “respect” the school’s priestly overseers. Many years later some internet meme or another explained to me the difference between “respect for other humans” and “respect of authority”, and pointed out that usually those with any modicum of power, or those with a mindset to authoritarianism, tend to think of these things as one and the same. In 2018, months before I flew to Las Vegas to meet a lot of mostly decent people, the head priest of that school was investigated by the police in connection with things that priests are often investigated for. In the meantime, I had long revised my opinion of Paxman as a bastion of democracy, a person to emulate, but I would never really change my belief that sometimes questions cause discomfort. And sometimes discomfort is good for society. Last week a woman put a frighteningly long cotton stick up my nasal cavity so hard it made my nose bleed, all part of the testing process for the howling winds of neo-pneumonia currently blowing across the planet. My viral test came back negative. I had done what the health professionals advised. It was uncomfortable.

At the fan festival, I continued to ignore the idea of respect to authority. I didn’t think anything of it, this is just who I am. Even if that authority was Naoki Yoshida, blinding star of Square Enix. Because I had not asked about downloadable content or new pets or, I don’t know, the graphics, I was disrespectful to him. I was disrespectful, the Reddit fans had decided, the Tweeters had deemed it so, the YouTubers had consecrated the fact thus. Despite the content of my article, written with the same crib-rocking pseudomockery and curious eye as I had employed on countless other topics and countless other games, a small group of annoyed fans (most Final Fantasy fans are pretty chill just so you know – I’m one of them) were willfully ignoring that tone and sending emails to my employer suggesting that he fire me. He did not fire me; he sighed with familiar weariness. For two sweet days before that storm descended I had rekindled my fire for video games, the flicker of a smile I had always held primarily for their absurdity, if not for their creativity, because that is what video games were and remain. They are exercises in absurdity, let us not pretend otherwise as we stab our 200th person in the neck with a makeshift shiv, as we bonk our 10,000th spaceship off the face of the universe. As we kill our fourteenth anthropomorphised cactus. In those days after the event, I even downloaded and played some Final Fantasy XIV. It was OK, as those games go. It was pretty OK.

But that brief moment of passion-bellowsing was cut short when the DMs came rolling in. I tried to defend myself in the comments of the article, dropping in to give a classic Paxman defence. I am not at these events to be polite and respectful, I told one commenter. I’m there to ask my question.

“Makes me laugh,” replied an anonymous internet person to this defence. “Like, dude, you write about games, you’re not a real journo.”

I cannot dispute the veracity of this assertion. It is what I routinely say to other people when they ask about my job.

By this point I had already written a full article about the cosplayers of the festival as an accompaniment to my report. It was basically a list of impressive people I had spoken to on the show floor about their fantastic costumes, their wild plastic plumage, foam swords, false beards, wondrous sleeves. In the hatred-wake that followed, this would never be published. I would disappear from the Slack channel of my employer, where my workmates offered knowing condolences, and stand around my home grimacing into cups of tea and glasses of cola that contained precisely zero millimetres of alcohol. My workmates had all visited this precise point in life. It was my turn in the trash compactor. I had disrespected the fans, I had disrespected the developers, I had disrespected the game.

I had asked about the sex stuff.

The most disappointing thing in the quieter days that followed was to notice other journalists, or former journalists, even some I had worked with, shaking their heads with that crowd. Some of these people played the game themselves and, feeling their subculture more significant than their vocation, they judged my work as poor. I should not have asked this question, they said. It was not relevant. It was not appropriate. It was hack behaviour. Some of these people, I realised as I checked their bios with a sadness I have often known since, were no longer journalists after all. They now worked in PR or community management.

I would not say the sex question haunts me. But it has given me enough emotional ammunition to create a 6000+ word piece of autobiographical tumblethought, so it must have left some lasting psychological damage on the tissue of my brain. Even tonight, as I played back the recording of my own question (always back up your work) in order to transcribe the real, actual words I used and not the paraphrasal conglomeration of bogus sentiment produced elsewhere, I found my heart thumping. The honey badger of public humiliation coming to gnaw at my throat once more. I was assuaged when I heard the question end. It was not that bad. I’m glad I asked it. If I had asked this question, as planned, in a room solely consisting of Naoki Yoshida, shining light of Square Enix, his over-worked interpreter, the PR, and myself, there would have been no Reddit post, no YouTuber video, no outrage, no rats in the toilet bowl of my nightmares screaming “arrest the paedophile”. It would simply have been the 40th paragraph of my article and nothing more. Again, it is hard to fathom a public relations company who does not understand the self-policing mentality of fandom. It is hard to envisage a reality where public relations might care to function in any other way. I say that as someone who personally likes the PR man who accompanied myself and other journalists on our trip to Las Vegas. I know him as a good person. But just as all cops are bastards, all PR are spectres of conformity. You would be too, if the man dispensing your monthly pay cheque was not a man at all, but a giant spreadsheet housed in glass and steel.

I knew then, and I still know today, that what I had just lived through was only a taste of what women and other people less schoolroom chalk in complexion as I, less beardspectcled in demenour, have been through in our accursed kingdom of video games and beyond. It is a single flush of the cistern compared to what they go through with maddening regularity. I had experienced a vertical slice of harassment. A category 2, not a category 5. A touch of the bad stuff. I recognise the tactics today used to far greater degree against academics in the US, mentioned in the very article which made me open this word document and begin to write and never stop. Video game hatred has infected reality, or the other way around, it is hard to tell. Life and its digital counterpart has become the thrall of fandom, and yes, we journalists, Paxman apologists or not, have played our part in the ongoing limescaling of democracy. Even if all we do shake our heads at our peers in anti-solidarity because of a perceived disrespect directed at our favourite starlets. Even if all we do is encourage a fellow wage slave to buy this fun game about shooting more soldiers in the knees, and to think no more about it. Don’t get me wrong. I love to shoot a soldier in the knees. I’m from County Armagh. But even I must reconcile my place in the degenerative disease currently fingernailing its way through the gut of the body politic. Even I get tired of the endlessness of it all.

A year after the events laboriously described above, I quit my job. I did not quit because of that window of hatred that I had briefly opened, the incident I now call the dog pile. But I can’t look at you through the flickering glow of this screen and say with honesty that this scurrilous lowlight of my career, this Final Fanticide, did not contribute to the snowballing feeling I had been living with for years, that video games have been, for me, a simultaneously glittering and dark obsession. They have been, since my box-engineering days of childhood losery, a lightning rod for all my purpose and drive. They are the Zahir I can’t leave in my pocket. Even now, in October of the bad year, I have become ensconced in a personal project of questionable scope (it’s a podcast – I’m sorry), completely and utterly reliant on the whims of our cracked industry, resplendent as it is with slimes and firearms and anime-flavoured sexual safehouses.

The quitting of my full-time job came from a long way off. The sentiment had bubbled away quietly within me. The burnout had a long tail. I long ago made the decision, on a terrible, sober summer evening during which I glimpsed at that endless ticker tape of internet and saw the phrase “Kingdom Hearts 3 will have 80+ hours of content” and knew that I wanted out.

Some time between the dog pile and my last day, I went to another event, this time in the Basque Country, close to where I lived and easy to reach on an idle weekend. I thought of it as easy pickings. A chit to this developer, a chat to that publisher. I stood in the cacophonous hall and drank a shot of café solo from a medicine cup. I listened to a famous game producer speak her truth not quietly nor clearly but with the assertive dominance of a Victor Frankenstein of language. I sat with the rest of the audience, subjected to a wall of verbal vaguenesses, trying to absorb her responses well enough to write a sensible sentence, in Teeline shorthand or otherwise, inhaling the fog of executive-grade non-answers she gave to her on-stage co-nonsenser and I wished that everyone in the room would turn to crystal or granite or smoke, so that there would at least be peacefulness alongside the ungraspable mundanity of it all. As I later pissed away the futility of my whole Saturday afternoon into a too-white urinal, I could only hear the word “jaded” ringing around in my ears, because that is the one thing I could remember her advising the crowd of aspiring code wranglers – not to become jaded. A small god ray of truth streaking down into the toilets, bouncing off my skull and landing on the tiles, unabsorbed. I frowned at my own urine and felt the world not much more bright or interesting than the piece of self-flushing ceramic in front of me. Well, at least a urinal has cake.

On the way out of the center, I discarded my press pass for the event, lanyard attached, atop a rubbish bin outside the glass doors, leaving it there for some kid to find, some chancer to abuse. It was both a pelt I had not earned, and a trophy I didn’t want. I took the train home remembering only one other thing from that vaprous talk. “Be honest with yourself about your goals,” the speaker had said. But after years of workmanlike and completely non-real journalism about video games, I didn’t know what my goal was anymore. If I took that itinerent executive’s cloudlike advice to heart, the only admission I could make now was that I no longer wanted anything to do with this ultrastrange sideshow of an industry, that could produce both wonderful namazus and life-threatening DM rodents with the same colourful breath of code, crunch and community.

Two years after the Final Fanfestasy, I was eagerly unemployed. I wrote a handful of listicles every month, and thought of them as a sort of gentle retirement. I took a course to teach people the English language for money, and then bitterly remembered that if my ancestors found out I taught the Queen of England’s language to people, and not the old tongue of the ancient Tuath Dé Danann, I would be relegated to all sorts of bog hells. I supped from my savings as a sailor dips his hands into a barrel of rumbullion. Gladly, warmly, generously, without thought. One night, I received a DM of friendly warning from one of the good people of my past. Another YouTuber had made a video about me.

This time, it was OK. Because it wasn’t really about me. Internet man and axe-wielding fury of the Left, Hbomberguy, known as Harris Bomberguy, known as Harry Bomberguy, known as Harry, known as Harris, known as the man who sticks his head through a wall to shout at ill-educated fascists, had summoned onto the cables and capacitors of Earth a two-hour-long video about the plague-themed video game Pathologic 2, timed a mere two months before an approaching real world pandemic (kinda sus). It was a game which I had had the misfortune to review some – let me check – six months beforehand, in a blistering whirlwind of impatience and concision for my now former employer Rock Paper Shotgun. I had given the game no score. Because we don’t do that. This game was also OK.

As a YouTuber Harry Bomberson was unlike the previous hitsquad commander who had sent angry internet people to my inbox and who shall remain nameless lest he materialise before us like a spirit of Christmas malice. But he did start the video by insulting me and calling me a bad critic. Me! A bad critic! Doesn’t he know, I am the man who asked the sex question. I have seen Jeremy Paxman for many nights in a row, I have known the fury of that aging interrogator before he was let go and sent to host a University quiz show with (for some reason) none of his questionable sneering misanthropy removed.

I watched Harris the Bomb Boy’s video. It was good. It made me want to be better at the job I no longer did.

The low-frequency anticipation of incoming hater-mail I had been feeling since my friend sent their helpful heads-up was unnecessary. After a day or two it became clear that I would, this time, receive no entreaties to hang myself. Although I do have Harris Bombardier, video game acknowledger and noted AOC necksnapper of the Left, to thank for one thing. The top suggestion after my name in Google is now “brendan caldwell pathologic 2” bringing attention to a piece of criticism I do not rank anywhere near my best work. That would be my review of Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown.

Since this savaging at the jaws of talent, I have spent the last few months rolling hateful ideas of a comeback around in the place where my brain once yelled endlessly for cheap Polish lager and cola-flavoured rum. For a brief time there, I was quiet and happy. Then the old obsession wormed in and did its darkness. Also, I was running out of money. I started once again to slurp up the work of other video game journalists, writers, YouTubers, even the dreaded Twitch streamers, in an attempt to understand what is good about each of these things. Could I, with my cracking courtroom knuckles, with my aging head, sagging and wordless, infiltrate and destroy these people? But, y’know, in a good way?

I didn’t know. I still don’t know. Probably not. But I have long suspected that I produce my best work under pressure. Like one of those magic escalators that only goes up or down if someone is standing on it. I read an article tonight about online harassment and it made me wretch, gag, and vomit out these 6000+ words of… what? Foreshadowing? While I write, I do so comparing myself to those around me. I am conscious to “anxiety of influence” levels that I am replicating the rolling wordseas of Tim Rogers, a writer of known quantity, introduced to me many years ago by a friend and colleague who asked in the confines of a prisonous London if I had ever read this man’s work.

“No,” I said.

“He’s really…”

My friend struggled to find a word.

“Dense?” I offered. I had read Austerlitz. I knew that “dense” meant “good”.

“No,” said my friend, “he’s SPARSE.”

And so I learned that “sparse” can also mean “good”. Isn’t writing unusual?

I make this digression so that I might divulge to you that, in the past week, I have watched 100 percent of Tim Rogers’ own 3-hour long video unreviews of Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, and Doom, including all bonus material, asides, and epilogues. Roughly two and half hours into the infamous wordhoser’s review of Doom, Rogers interjects with a recording made months later, interrupting his flow of observations only to apologise for said observations, visibly depressed in a way that makes it hard to know if this is part of his ongoing self-fictionalising or a genuine, grasping, human doldrum of auto-brutalising, recorded self-consciously over a backing of sorrowful piano. “Some day,” he says, “I’m gonna do something good” fully understanding (or perhaps not understanding at all) that he has been doing something good for decades. The parenthesised possibility is terrifying, because it means none of us will ever be happy. Still, this is how I proffer myself to you now, having platinumed a man’s YouTube channel and absorbed, for one night only, the sum total of his Funesian powers. I will not apologise. I am buoyed as much as I am saddened by the human drive to do something good while standing in a litter of failure. I will continue to write, about video games or otherwise, until the aquifer runs dry. But writing, it feels increasingly to me, is not enough. I’ve got to build myself a new machine. Even if no one looks at the results.

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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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On Scratchcards: The Correct Way To Scratch

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[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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On Craic: I’m Telling You, There Is No Word For ‘Yes’ Or ‘No’ In Irish

This essay is mostly about the 'craic', not to be confused with the 'cráic'

This essay is mostly about the ‘craic’, not to be confused with the ‘cráic’

At school I disliked learning Irish. Mostly because the teacher was stern and angry. When I discovered that he moonlighted as Santa Claus in a local shopping centre at Christmas, I was pretty much done. He clashed with my traditional concept of a kind and joyous St Nick, so that was me finished with Santa and, subsequently, the Gaelic tongue.

Not that I would have necessarily carried on learning it anyway. Gaelic as a language was so obviously ugly, guttural and unwieldy that everything sounded like it was the same foreign, unpalatable dish of intestinal slop. With its ‘fuinneog’s (windows) and ‘peann luaidhe’s (pencils) it isn’t a language that appeals to vain schoolboys, unless those vain schoolboys are fans of Lord of the Rings for whom Elvish proves too tricky. As a teenager this dislike was compounded by the observation that everyone associated with the language was infested with patriotism or an intense religiosity – and often both. Since the time of the Celtic Druids, Ireland has been the victim of a priest class who interfered with superstition in the political and social life of the country. Inevitably, this religious influence has found its way into the nation’s dictionary. The Gaelic language shares with Arabic, among others, the puncturing of sentences with religious sentiments. You can’t even formally say ‘dia duit’ (hello) without technically having just said ‘God be with you’. (The characteristically verbose response to this welcome is to say ‘dia is muire dhuit’ – God and Mary be with you).

But then I got a bit older and, maybe, a little more forgiving of spiritualism. I still find the priest class to be a void of moral authority – but I no longer extend that lack of credibility to the Irish language, even if it does pay homage to a Christian god every once in a while. As an adult, I’m interested in the language, not because I think it pleasant – it still sounds brutally unattractive – but because its quirks and cogs more than make up for its uninviting tone.

For instance, there are no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in Gaelic. It’s the truth. If you want to answer somebody in the positive or negative, you actually have to refer back to the question itself in the form of a positive or negative statement. So, when somebody asks you ‘ar mhaith leat cupan tae?’ (would you like a cup of tea?) you cannot just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – there simply aren’t any words for that. You have to keep up the chatter by answering: ‘ba mhaith liom cupan tae’ (I would like a cup of tea) or if you’re feeling lazy you can reduce this as far as ‘ba mhaith liom’ (I would like) but absolutely no further. Never mind the possibility that you could just answer with the word ‘please’ and nod your head – because this course of action is just as long-winded by English standards, requiring you to say ‘le do thoil’ (literally: with your will).

The concept of possession is a similar peculiarity. The common way of saying you can speak or talk in Irish is to say ‘ta Gaelige agam’ which means ‘I have Irish’ – as if you carry the language around with you in your bloodstream as a kind of benign infection. This possessiveness doesn’t restrict itself to pursuits of knowledge, obviously, but becomes more confusing when talking about things which actually are attached to you. To say the colour of your hair is black you would say ‘ta mo chuid gruaige dubh’, which translates to something like ‘my share of hair is black’ or ‘my portion of hair is black’. The same goes for teeth: ‘mo chuid fiacla’ (my portion of teeth).  This word ‘cuid’ is used when there’s an indefinite quantity of something in the world over which you do not have full ownership. Which makes it seem like hair is only ever spoken about in its ethereal Platonic Form, and it is everybody’s ‘share’ of it which differs in colour, probably according to personality. All of this adds to the impression of exuberance and lengthiness which the Irish language leaves on the non-speaker.

The suggestion is that, historically, the Irish people often had nothing better to do but talk to one another, and as a result have developed an unusually long-winded mode of speech. To adopt a single word for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ during a conversation with me as an Irish person would be bordering on rudeness – I would instantly accuse you of ‘being awful short’ with me. You impolite fucker.

Of course, if I really did want to call you an impolite fucker ‘as Gaelige’, I would literally be lost for words. This is because there are no swearwords in Irish. Like ‘yes’ and ‘no’, they simply don’t exist. Every Irish teacher I have had has been adamant about this point, even proud. Although if you turn on TG4 – the Irish language TV channel broadcast throughout Ireland – you’ll probably discover the occasional soap opera character saying ‘cac naofa!’ (holy shit!) or even ‘bud ceann’ (dickhead). Strictly speaking, these aren’t swearwords either, because the words involved are the anatomical words. ‘Bud’ is the word for penis and doesn’t really hold the same forcefulness as ‘dick’ or ‘cock’. ‘Cac’ is likewise closer to the English word ‘poop’. All this means the words are funny in their own way, but it’s a silly kind of humour as opposed to anything tinged with anger or playful aggression. (If you’re curious, the Irish word for vagina is ‘pit’ – pronounced ‘pitch’ – and you can have as much or as little fun with that factoid as you like). Ultimately, if the English language is a vulgar one, with all its ‘cunts’ and ‘shits’ and ‘bollocks’, then Irish is a prudish language, in which it is impossible to summarise your absolute distaste without seeming like a clown yourself.

At least, it is impossible to show your disdain for someone in any terse way. Once again, the talkative nature of the language comes out. Should it be necessary to curse at someone, you would have to do just that – curse them. There are any number of websites that will tell you the phrases to use in these circumstances: ‘Imeacht gan teacht ort’ (may you leave without returning), ‘go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat’ (may the cat eat you, and may the Devil eat the cat), ‘Go mbeadh cosa gloine fút agus go mbrise an ghloine’ (may you have glass legs and may the glass break). Sadly, such elaborate cursing is more common as part of the explanation of the ‘no swearwords’ rule. You’d be hard-pressed to actually hear an Irish-speaking person say these things. They’re far more likely to simply switch languages and swear at you in English, possibly because – as the film Lord of War pointed out to us – people tend to revert to their first languages in moments of pain, frustration or ecstasy, and the first language of many Gaelgors, though they might be loath to admit it, is English.

Of course, it is the opinion of many linguists that language is a malleable and generally untameable thing, and although swear words might not be recognised by purists, that doesn’t mean they won’t find their way into the language. Any language is in constant flux – always evolving – and new words will insert themselves into our vocabulary as irrustobabrously as they please. It’s just that, so far in Gaelic, no swearwords have seemed to stick. Possibly this is because forceful swearwords are a very English Thing. And the Irish are nothing if not ‘Not English.’ The language’s dislike for English loan-words or general English influence is noticeable in the creativity with which such loan-words are destroyed. When the escalator was invented, there was no Irish equivalent for the word, so it became the barely-altered ‘escalator’, pronounced esh-cah-lah-torr. But this was much too close to English for comfort and was soon replaced by an Irish substitute – ‘staire beo’ – which literally means ‘living stairs’.

Which brings us to the unusual case of the word ‘craic’. The origin of this unmistakably Irish word isn’t Irish at all, but Anglo-Saxon. ‘Crack’ was a slang term for ‘news’ or ‘gossip’ in England as far back as the 19th century and only became really popular in Ireland, primarily in Ulster, in the 1950s. As late as the 1970s it was still spelled the English way in songs and writing. For whatever reason the word has recently been Gaelicised and then re-borrowed into English, giving the distinct impression that it is an Irish word through and through. Most young Irish people today are convinced of its Gaelic purity. If you’re English, why not try writing ‘what’s the crack?’ on your Irish friends’ Facebook walls, and when they indignantly try to correct your spelling, you can give them a lesson in etymology. Your Irish friends will be very grateful for this.

That being said, craic is now an Irish word, simply by virtue of its quintessentially Irish definitions. It no longer simply means ‘news’ and is distinct from English counterparts. You can still ask somebody ‘what’s the craic?’ to ask what the news is, but ‘having the craic’ has come to encompass a wider concept of ‘good times’. A direct English equivalent doesn’t exist. Having ‘fun’ is too frivolous and civil, while having ‘a laugh’ is close but still too limited in its meaning. ‘Banter’ is sometimes put forward as an equivalent, being a similar mixture of conversation, joking and story-telling. But this doesn’t work either because there is a subtle difference between the two – banter involves jibes and insults and is more frequently practiced between work colleagues, who might not necessarily have been friends otherwise. Whereas real craic is more common among very close friends or family members, contains a lot more story-telling, anecdotes, reminiscing and fewer jibes at each others’ expense. Banter is essentially combative – craic is essentially co-operative. When having the craic with your friends, you ‘pass’ the laugh on to somebody else, who then keeps it ‘flowing’. When indulging in banter, you ‘serve’ a laugh like a tennis ball and wait for the rebound. Neither of these concepts is restricted to one culture – there is English craic and Irish banter – but my experience is that each culture appears to prefer its own particular blend.

Craic can also extend far outside of a single group in a way that banter cannot. Say a group of young men and women (mostly English-speaking but culturally Celtic) gather in a house for a drink. They sit in a circular fashion, enjoying the chatter and tales and generally catching up with whatever misadventures have occurred. At this juncture there is ’some craic bai’. This is not a diminutive phrase. ‘Some craic’ is still a good amount of craic. But it’s at this point the drinks are finished and the group must move from the house to another venue, almost certainly The Pub. Here, the group will undoubtedly split off into several cells, mingling with the other patrons and night-outers. Intermittently, these cells will meet up or run into one another, trade members and generally shout amusing things. Of course, the other patrons and groups in the bar have unwittingly brought their own craic to the bar. The usual effect is that all the craic becomes compounded until somebody stands on a chair or something and gives an impassioned speech about nothing in particular and everybody laughs and shouts ‘yerrrooo’. It can now be said that the craic is ‘mighty’. It is no longer simply a conversational concept, but an atmospheric one. The danger now is that somebody ‘kills the craic’ by saying or doing something sorrowful or aggressive. But for the sake of argument, let’s say this doesn’t happen. Instead, somebody’s cousin arrives through the door with a violin and a friend of his follows with a bodhrán (an Irish instrument – a handheld drum). The bar is small but packed and yet somehow there is room for the cousin and friend to sit on a stool in the corner and play what will be referred to tomorrow as ‘a blinder’. When the music reaches its peak and everybody is enjoying themselves – but not necessarily dancing – it can then be said that the craic is ‘ninety’. This, the consensus goes, is the craic at its absolute peak. If the craic has ever passed this point, it has never been documented or recalled. Thankfully, ninety is the optimum level of craic. Craic is at this point an atmosphere and, simultaneously, an experience. The craic cannot be killed at this level – it will only fade away slowly. Furthermore, it continues to exist as a moment in history long after the fact.

Retrospectively, you might expect the craic to be nullified by the force of the resultant hangover – but this is not so. Craic is simply cemented and preserved by a hangover, so long as the hangover is sustained by a large enough group and the night’s oracular chronicle set straight. The previous night’s craic now exists outside of space, time and the group(s) in which the craic was conceived. At this point, the craic has ebbed gently and the language used to refer to it must be reflective and respectful, usually in the manner of the previous night’s pre-drinks. It hereafter reverts to its conversational form. The collection of young men and women have had ‘some craic bai’, which, as I have said, is quite some craic, let me tell you.

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With thanks to Colly Madden for the language lessons. Most of the Gaelige here is Ulster dialect.

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The Not-Quite-Underclass of ‘Sheila’

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I once went to a pub in Battersea with my girlfriend of the time, who had worked behind the bar. She introduced me to her friends who were working that night and to some of the regulars.

I met a girl who had had a kid in her teens and who later rejected an offer to study at Oxford because they were snooty to her in the interview. Instead she decided she was going to be an air stewardess because she had developed a fear of flying after being on a plane journey that nearly crashed. She said she wanted to get over that fear.

I met a guy, pulling pints, who moved from South Africa with the love of his life, who later abandoned him to the English weather, leaving him only his clothes and the mutual tattoo they got dedicated to each other on his hand, which read “Two against the world.”

And I met an old man, who was dying. He consistently refused to go into hospital and get treatment for his illness because his wife needed his care, since she was even more ill than he was. An old man to whom the pub and the people in it were his only leisure.

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It’s been a while since I wrote about a song that really gets to me. Sheila by Jamie T is a song that really gets to me. Periodically, I will listen to this song and, for all its twang and catch, a lump will form in my throat. A sadness, a little tumour of melancholy. Because Sheila to me is not about the amazing music – the steady rhythm, the coalescence of Jamie’s register and the quickfire, bleeping melody (which my big sister insists is some sort of homage to Disney’s ‘Under the Sea’). To me it’s more about the characters contained in the lyrics. Sadly, thanks to Jamie’s hasty vocal style and the shadow cast by the great music, so few people have ever stopped to listen – to notice the tragedies unfolding underneath the brilliant, flippant tune.

Sheila is a song populated by shades of London’s not-quite-underclass. Boisterous alcoholics, jilted drug dealers, addicts, abused daughters. Not every hue of the downtrodden is depicted but neither does it need to be. In Sheila three tragedies are laid out, like bodies recovered from the sea, and analysed with a forensic focus so sharp that it would rival any lauded book of short stories.

Take Jack – a.k.a “Smack Jack the Cracker Man” – whose drug dealing and dodginess (the result of being “dealt some shit hands”) has led him to a life of lonely bitterness, whose only viable way out of a spiral of misery would be the direction, fortitude and love of a decent woman. Sadly, his romantic interest, Lisa, has only gone and had a child with another man. Now Jack dives head first into a deep pool of drink and resentment.

“Well done Jack, glug down that cider,
you’re right she’s a slut and you never fuckin’ liked her.”

His friends are likewise gone from him, being “dependant mans upon the heroin” (pronounced by Jamie with an incredible broadness – “her-oh-waan” – to rhyme with the name of Jack’s old mate Dan). All Jack thinks there is to life now is getting into fights and buying the cheapest clothes he can without endangering his ability to get “glad-ragged up” in an attempt to pull – always unsuccessfully. The only girls that hang on his shoulder are “fag-hags” who have no intention of sleeping with him and who he ends up resenting as “slags” just as much as he resents his old girl Lisa.

The most tragic thing about Jack is that if he’d take the time to look around, he’d see every other fella in the Wetherspoons as identical to him, stumbling down the same bitter, woman-hating hole.

“But this sounds original, superficial’s the issue,
for one dear Jack, there’re 35 doppelgangers.”

Jack is simply joining the ranks of the unhappy alcos and drug users.

Then there’s the Sheila of the title, whose penchant for soap-like drama leads her on binge after binge of alcohol-fuelled misadventure. She is confident, loud, coquettish, a leader among her friends. She can talk to anybody, so well versed is she in London’s spidery dialects.

“Her lingo went from the cockney to the gringo,
Any time she sing a song, the other girls sing along,
and tell all the fellas that the lady is single,
fickle way to tickle on my young man’s ting.”

She brings to mind a vision of a loutish student, friendly to those on her good side, cutting to those on her bad. But ultimately, like so many of Jamie T’s characters, she is also crippled by her alcohol abuse. We are often told that all good tragic characters in the Shakespearian mould have a fatal flaw. It just so happens Sheila’s is melodrama. It’s no coincidence that the chorus starts with her dumping her beer (Stella Artois) over the head of her current love interest.

“Sheila goes out with her mate Stella,
it gets poured all over her fella,
cos she says ‘man he ain’t no better,
than the next man kicking up fuss.’”

Reeling from this drunken argument she stumbles down to the banks of the Thames, falls in and drowns. With a bleak sting of humour, Jamie addresses her weakness by lamenting that nobody heard her screams.

“I guess the carpet weren’t rolled out.”

She is not one of the C-list celebrities she tries so hard to emulate. Sheila is ordinary and thus unworthy of the attention of the media. This is a story that won’t get told in the papers. Only in songs.

But the most difficult story to handle is the third – that of Georgina. Her tragedy is the most innocent and her own character the most blameless of all the darkened semi-hooligans that swagger through the streets of the Jamie T-verse. It’s also the easiest story to understand. Out of respect or kindness, or maybe ‘just because’, the singer dispenses with his more cryptic rhymes and sings her tale in a much more linguistically lucid way. It’s probably worth just quoting in full.

“So this a short story ‘bout the girl Georgina,
never seen a worse, clean young mess
under stress at best, but she’s pleased to see ya,
with love, God bless, we lay her body to rest.

Now it all dear started with daddy’s alcoholic,
lightweight, drinking down, numbing his brain,
and the doctor said he couldn’t get the heart there started
now beat up, drugged up she feelin’ the strain.

She says in a rut ‘What the fuck I sposed to do
suck it up, start, stop, keep running through?’
True but you try, it ain’t easy to do,
she been buckle belt beaten from the back like a brat.

Dunno where she goin’ but she know where she at,
so Georgie, it’s time to chain react,
but the truth is you know, she probably fought back,
tears stream down her face,
she screamed away,
‘When I fall, no one catch me,
alone lonely, I’ll overdose slowly,
get scared, I’ll scream and shout’.
But you know it won’t matter she’ll be passing out.”

Georgina’s story is brutal. Her alcoholic father abuses her until the day he dies of a heart attack. You might think that as the victim of parental abuse she might find some relief or at least some freedom in the death of her abuser. But he is still her father and the death weighs heavily on her. She becomes strained and drugged up. On anti-depressants or something less legal, we are not explicitly told. But her sensitive nature, history of abuse and inclination to stress and tearfulness suggest the former. Eventually, she commits suicide by overdose. And as sad as this is, Jamie’s final word on the matter are as sardonic as they are sorrowful. We can practically see him standing by the ambulance, shrugging dolefully.

“I say giggidibigidiup, just another day,
another sad story, that’s tragedy,
paramedic announced death at 10.30,
rip it up, kick it to spit up the views.”

*

On my last visit to that bar in Battersea with my girlfriend, the dying old man, convinced that he would never see her again, gave her his necklace to remember him by. I walked away and left them alone to speak, under the cover of a trip to the toilets. Mostly, I did that because it felt like a private moment. But also because if she had started to cry, I would have nearly started bawling myself. And I don’t intend to do that in a bar until I’m a lonely old lech.

Later, after I had been sitting quietly among them, listening to the chatter, gossip and reminiscing, my girlfriend had me alone and asked me what I thought of her friends. I didn’t have to think for very long before saying, “I love them.” She seemed surprised and asked me why. “Because they’re…” I thought for a while. “I don’t know. Because they’re real.”

I’ve always had this feeling like I don’t know any real people. That I’ve been sheltered from the harsh reality of people who “dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do”. And it’s my own snobbishness and shyness that is to blame, really. But sitting in that bar, I felt like I had infiltrated a reality that was beyond Dickens or Orwell. That there was more character in ten square feet of that pub than I, or anyone else, could ever put to paper, no matter how colourfully or plainly we wrote.

And that’s why I love Sheila by Jamie T so much. It feels like he has done what I couldn’t fathom. In just over four minutes, he has musically presented the character and sorrowfulness of London with a richness and depth that rivals great theatre, if not life itself. It is a song that I genuinely rank alongside Dubliners for giving me a window into a world where fiction can be as hard-hittingly real as waking up in the morning from a demented dreamscape. A world where colour exists but only among dominant shades of grey. Where sadness is a blessing. Where people are defined by their strengths, yet made real by their misfortunes.

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Why ‘Time To Pretend’ is the Greatest Song You Must Never Listen To

[Sunny day out. Contemplating drinks on the doorstep. Got no work to do. Both good thing and bad thing. Like life. Contradictions make my stomach feel unsettled. Great. Can’t drink now. Article follows…]

It ends with the image of a man choking on his own vomit, for one thing. But then, you do not hear that bit. You never really hear any of the words. From the moment the first few beats of MGMT’s most popular track bubble up unstoppably from silence, your faculties of negativity and scepticism dissolve. Music that is so undeniably hopeful, that the heel of every happy-drunk hero at the bar taps and turns in quick succession. Yes, you’re at a club. Why wouldn’t you be? Even if that normally bothers you, it won’t tonight. Because the unconstrained happiness of a hundred people flowing onto the dancefloor like milk into a bowl, matching the tune with lipsticked and non-lipsticked o-shaped mouths, is an infection. Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! There’s a cheer in the air. But it’s hard to make an O shape with your lips when you are smiling this much – just like you can’t whistle and smile and the same time. That’s not how lips work. You can have one or the other. But you’ve made your choice tonight. Tonight, it’s O shapes all the way. Tonight, you join the happy people, this nutty bowl of Cheeri-os.  Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP!

You sing and you sing. But you must never, ever listen. You are happy and you want to stay happy. The lyrics to Time to Pretend are not happy. They aren’t exactly sad either. They straddle the line of ambivalence, a line that in the real world would manifest itself as a single yellow line on a Central London side street, in that it makes everyone feel ever-so-slightly negative even though nobody agrees about precisely what it means.

At the beginning, it sounds like an unashamed celebration of youth, fame, money and success.

“I’m feeling rough, I’m feeling raw, I’m in the prime of my life /
Let’s make some music, make some money, find some models for wives.
I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars /
You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars.”

The entire song can be read like this, as an unapologetic chorus of success and all that success brings. Heroin and all, there is nothing to be sorry about because it is “our decision” to live fast and die young. It’s a celebration of autonomy and the triumph of the ambitious individual over a life of menial jobs and a bleak future of shitty nights out down at the school disco after your shelf-monkey work shift, trying desperately to pull off knee high socks.

This triumph of fame and fortune over an everyday life in the lyrics explains the music’s bounciness then. Oh wait no it doesn’t ha ha I set you up it was a lie. The yellow-line ambivalence finally leaks in quietly through the next few lines (but only if you’re listening, and let’s face it – Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP! – you aren’t).

“Yeah, it’s overwhelming but what else can we do? /
Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?
Forget about our mothers and our friends, /
We were fated to pretend.”

But what else could we do, man? We were fated to pretend. MGMT seem to want you to think that personal autonomy had nothing to do with chasing success. Success is a train that drives itself. Like the DLR line. There’s no fucker at the wheel, getting paid absurd amounts of cash because of the poor air quality. You decide one day that this is the train for you, you get on and it just goes whether you want it to or not, unstoppable and unmanned. This is your “morning commute.” The only decision you get to make is whether you get off near Canary Wharf and climb to the top of Citibank like King Kong, swatting down all the other bankers buzzing around you, or whether you get off in Blackwall and hang out in the Marina with all the bohemian boat-owners, making art, darling.

MGMT chose the Marina. The words “fated to pretend” is the giveaway. Art is about pretending. And an artist is just a person who makes things that aren’t real seem real. Artists are pretenders and successful artists are just the best at it.

This makes a lot of art seem like a con. But some art is also lovely. Like this song for instance. Time to Pretend goes quickly from a celebration of a rock and roll lifestyle, to being a selfish fame-chase with the excuse that: “We had no choice, man. Fate made us do it.” And in no more than a few beats it hits us with the hurt and the ambiguous tone of the lyrics becomes all the more serious, in total contradiction to the upbeat tones hammering away in clubs all over the world.

“I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms /
I’ll miss the comfort of my mother and the weight of the world /
I’ll miss my sister, miss my father, miss my dog and my home /
Yeah, I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.”

Listed here is everything that could ever be important to any human being who has suffered a loving family. Childhood, a sense of home, a sense of belonging, genuine companionship, your brother, your sister, your mum, your dad, unconditional love and liberty.

“But there is really nothing, nothing we can do /
Love must be forgotten, life can always start up anew.”

To sacrifice one happiness – your family – for another happiness – success, is among the hardest decisions an average person could ever make. With difficult decisions like these, people engage in a curious (but sometimes ultimately necessary) self-imposed mindfuck. They tell themselves that they had no choice. No decision after all. They were fated to pretend.

This decision – whether it feels like one or not – is both empowering and crippling. The last few lines reveal the pragmatism that now affects the mind of the successful.

“The models will have children, we’ll get a divorce /
We’ll find some more models, everything must run its course.
We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end /
We were fated to pretend.”

Though it reads exactly like it, these lines are not delivered as tragedy. The mind of the success-chaser is already made up. The DLR has departed. And maybe there really is no way out now. These lines are delivered matter-of-factly, with a youthful (if messy) death as the final and foreseeable end but not necessarily a sad one. This is the verse that is sung unapologetically. Fame has a heavy price and the famous do regret the loss of all that was once simple and normal, the loss of family and real friends. But this fare: it is non-negotiable. If it must be paid, then it must be paid. Having learned of all the things the successful sacrifice, it becomes crass to judge them as selfish or self-indulgent. Things are much more complicated. Time to Pretend is not a celebration of fame, nor is it some simple excuse-laden floor filler. It’s a complex and frank plea for empathy, an open letter from the “successful” to all the regular people left behind, stacking shelves and serving drinks and having Sunday dinner with their family.

The choice between one form of happiness and another form of happiness is never an easy decision. You can’t whistle and smile at the same time. You can only have one or the other.

(Da-doo-doo-doo-doo DOOP! DOOP!)

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