Good things I wrote in 2017

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I discovered the bookworms too late. They had eaten through a large cross-section of World War Z and several Spanish language text books, so I could at least tell their tastes were varied. Still, their appetite wasn’t sated, which is why my sole copy of the Costa Rican constitution was also found devoured, long streaks of absence interrupting the founding principles of José Figueres Ferrer’s fresh democracy. I frowned at the squirming yellow worms. I was sad to lose the fundamental legal keystone of the tropical country I’d been living in for a year and eight months, the country I would soon be leaving, but I got on with the job. I saved what books I could and packed them in a plastic wrapper. I managed to save 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. But perhaps there were eggs in the spine.

When our bags were packed, we were ready to leave Central America. My girlfriend picked up the cat, a runt she found roaming the streets of San José, begging in its own feline way to be adopted and brought to Ireland, and caged it in a tiny jail cell especially constructed for airborne cats. We threw the books and the bags and the clothes and the cat into the back of a taxi, and left.

“I have written some OK things this year,” I thought.

* * *

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A war in a Polish castle. The deputy editor of the website for which I write could not stop laughing as he proposed this idea to me. “Would you like, heh heh heh,” he said, like some rotten NPC. “How would you like to, haa haaa ha ha…” Eventually the proposal came: would I take a trip to Poland for four days and enclose myself in a 13th century castle with upwards of 40 men who all want to kill each other through their computers? I said yes, of course.

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A Ridealong. I’ve slacked off on this series of misadventures but managed to spit one out. I took a comedian called Glenn Moore into the hellish dimension of Comedy Night, an online game where players take turns to do stand-up comedy routines. I chose Glenn because I know him from university and once made him stand in front of a camera and say unfunny things. That is another story, nevertheless I felt the need to make amends. So I took him to a racist underworld and made him perform jokes.

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Sailing the Northwest Passage. Games let us live out our wildest dreams, like going insane from loneliness on a cold boat while sailing the frigid and treacherous route from Greenland to Alaska. My virtual ship, the Bluster & Guesswork, was a taciturn and apathetic vessel, but we eventually understood one another.

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A podcast. This is not writing and therefore unworthy of your attention. We revived the RPS Electronic Wireless Show. It’s still one of those “what have we played this week” podcasts but we try to keep to a theme. It takes a lot of work but I hope folks get some pleasure from zoning in and out to our chatter as they drive home from whatever clandestine task their handler has given them this week.

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One-line summaries for a summer sale. I liked writing these. There’s an art to the TV guide blurb that I’ve long admired. Punchy entries that reduce an entire 30 minutes to a single sentence. A classic example being the entry for episode 1 of series 2 of the prison sitcom Porridge: “Fletcher and the gang are shocked to discover there is a thief among them.” I didn’t write anything as good as that, but I had my fun and that’s all that matters.

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Diaries are still fun. Not content with last year’s robotic daddying in Stellaris, I tried to coddle the galaxy once more as a race of sentient turtles who lusted for a multicultural paradise. I claim moderate success.

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I liked a lot of games. I liked the warring of Northgard and the double-jumping of Dead Cells. I lost clumps of my hair to Opus Magnum and grew them back in the restorative glow of Steamworld Dig 2. I punched up in Tekken 7, and was slapped down in Absolver. There are more but those are my favourites.

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Some games vexed me. Rokh was the worst game I played. But there were others that left my brain fizzing for mixed reasons. Rain World‘s malicious menagerie was equal parts fascinating and frustrating. Pyre’s netball didn’t win me over, even when its horned demons did. Basically, I admire these two as works of art but I wish I had enjoyed them more as games. Then again, games are dumb as shit. Maybe it’s enough to admire the way lizards move.

* * *

There is sleet falling outside, real sleet. I have 2666 by Bolaño quarantined in a plastic bag in the garage of my parents’ home, next to some suspicious claw hammers. For all I know, the bookworms have followed me back. If I open this bag of books and discover that they too have been ingested by the hungry larvae I had once believed to be entirely fictional, I will be sad. It has been a big, burning bookcase of a year, and it would be troubling to lose another tome.

But it wouldn’t be a disaster. In a cardboard box lined with a hooded sweatshirt lined with fleece, the runt cat my girlfriend stole from the hot streets of Costa Rica lies, I assume happily, in the aura of an Irish radiator. It is possible she has brought parasites of her own.

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Good things I wrote in 2016

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I spent Christmas amid the dog hairs and beer bottles of my ancestral home, a place and time which would have given a more pensive mind the chance to reflect on a dauntless year, but gave my mind the chance to swell on pints of Smithwicks and the odd blast of gift-triggered serotonin. I also got the chance to meet my three-month-old Nephew for the first time. He did not cry when I held him, which I found endearing and suspicious.

Last night, I arrived back in Central America, where I saw Orion had once again fallen on his side. At the top of my street, the porter welcomed me by picking up a clipboard and revealing a handgun beneath it. The magazine had been ejected and lay beside the gun, with a single golden bullet protruding at the top, like the glinting nib of a ballpoint pen. “What’s your name again?” he asked, smiling and squinting at the clipboard.

Outside my apartments, there was black dust everywhere, a messy film I have come to recognise as responsible for the fifty-five sneezes I endure daily. It comes from the volcano Turrialba, whose consistent eruptions 33 kilometres away cover everything for days in a pathetic ash. At this point, I discovered I had forgotten my keys and I sat down in the black dust, waiting for my girlfriend to rescue me. I took off my my hoody, undid two surplus buttons on my shirt, and rolled up each leg of my jeans.

“I have written some good things this year,” I thought.

* * *

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The Ridealongs. I went flying with a real pilot and stalled 2000 feet above the ground. I roamed through Minecraft’s most offensive server with an archeologist-of-sorts. There were many other ridealongs but my personal favourite was when I explored an abandoned MMO with a player who was once a King of the whole virtual land, but had become reduced to a tiny farm and a stolen horse.

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A War in EVE. Some days, as a games journo, you log in to your various dripfeeds of cyberknowledge and see a single article being passed around like a clandestine floppy disk, over and over again. Look, someone says, Andy Kelly has written about videogame toilets. Or Christian Donlan has wirtten about a 3000-year-old Egyptian board game. When you see this, you understand that this writer has won Twitter today. But some days, if you’re lucky and you work hard, you’re the one on the floppy disk. I felt like that when my story about EVE Online’s revolutionary casino-fuelled war went up. It might be the best bit of games journalism I’ve written, or maybe just the one I’m most proud of.

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Premature Evaluation. I took over this weekly column in the daily thunderstorms of July, and proceeded to fill it with stories of me being terrible at my one job: playing games. This one about management sim Software Inc was probably the most fun to write.

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Keeping a diary. Diaries are the thing I like to write the most. Take an appropriate game, explain the systems and features briefly, then set out to achieve something difficult or weird in-game. In Stellaris, I was a race of human-loving robot father figures. In Rimworld, the manager of an ill-fated desert hotel. But a lesser-known game gave me the most satisfaction to write about. Hackmud was an excellent, complicated multiplayer hacking sim that saw me become both the worst gambling kingpin and a sentient newspaper algorithm.

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Free Loaders. Every week I slap this up, a short list of free games. It’s something I look forward to, because writing it has become an weekly exercise in describing concise things concisely. It’s sad to see a lot of good stories and games still going unnoticed in the deluge of 2016 but also understandable. So I did a list of the best of this year’s freebies.

* * *

My girlfriend has rescued me. I’ve finally made it back into the house, where we will eat pizza and exchange presents while suffering guttural and dark laughter at Charlie Brooker’s annual news roundup. Outside, tiny motes of black dust are still falling, like invisible snow.

 

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

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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

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

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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

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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

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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

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

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

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How (Not) To Write About Videogames

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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.

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

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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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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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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.

*

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’

*

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.

*

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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