These are dark days for Britain. As chaos engulfs the land, a venal and vicious ruler has risen up, interested only in seizing power by whatever means are at hand. Some have sunk into despair while others have abandoned their morals and thrown in with their twisted rulers. Amidst collapse, disease, and the dying throes of a nation turning in upon itself, you must gather your courage and your friends and make your way to the Field of Camlann, where King Arthur awaits your aid.
Wait, what did you think I was talking about?
Inkle Studios’ newest game, Pendragon, arrives at a fortuitously relevant time (for it). Its themes of loneliness, loss, and struggle in the midst of desperate times might cut a little close to the bone for some players, but that struggle also heightens the rewards of connections both new and renewed and reminders that hope is never entirely lost.
Inkle has a strong heritage in narrative games, with both the wonderful 80 Days (if you’ve never played it, seek it out—on almost any platform at this stage) and the more recent Heaven’s Vault, an archaeology-themed translate-‘em-up that’s only available on PC but is highly rewarding for those willing to delve into its science fiction worlds. Pendragon is a game on a smaller scale than Heaven’s Vault but it’s just as creative and rewarding.
The core gameplay of Pendragon consists of a series of chess-like encounters between Arthur’s followers, friends, and family as they crisscross Britain in their quest to reach Camlann before the once-and-future king’s final encounter with his bastard son, Mordred. A single play through of the game takes less than an hour in most cases, but with the opportunity to tackle different difficulty levels, unlock a variety of starting characters, and experience the twists and turns of the game’s narrative engine, there’s ample encouragement for replay.
The chess-like gameplay strikes a careful balance between being too intimidating and too simple. The basic concepts of threat and territory control are easy to figure out and amply signposted by the interface, with the special skills of certain characters suggesting particular strategies. Each encounter takes place on a limited battlefield, and though it can become crowded with enemies, their abilities and preferred tactics are likewise clearly signposted. Every battle provides the information that the player needs to win it, though victory isn’t always possible, and sometimes necessity or failing morale will see you fleeing the field.
In fact, victory is rarely a simple matter. Learning Pendragon takes the player along a specific path: First, learn the basics and simple strategies. Then learn to think a few moves ahead so that you don’t end up in a trap. Then learn how enemies act and where their weaknesses are. Then learn how to lure them into traps and dispose of them safely. Then … well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. I’ve yet to even hit the middling difficulty levels.
Amid all of this tactical back and forth, Pendragon’s story engine does its best to weave a compelling tale. Each starting character has their own reasons for seeking out Arthur. You begin with the disgraced knight Lancelot and his lover Guinevere, both freighted with guilt, but other collectible characters who join on the journey do so out of a love of battle, a need to make amends, or sheer vicious spite. In addition to these main characters, there are others who may become your allies, their motivations created randomly and shifting in response to the choices you make.
These characters join you both on the battlefield, where their own skills open up new tactics, and around the campfire, where tales can be shared each evening of knights, faeries, and other Arthuriana. One of the game’s greatest strengths is how well it nails the feeling of the Arthur stories. The ultimately doomed nature of the best intentions in the face of time and dissolution is a recurring theme within both the original stories and Pendragon’s Britain. The world is unkind, and it only takes one person with bad intentions to make it far worse. Only through trust and determination can something better endure.
Mechanically, Pendragon has clearly been honed through multiple iterations. The short duration of each attempt at the game is a priority, with the constantly depleting morale counter pushing the player ever onwards. Characters can sacrifice themselves on the battlefield, to be rescued when the day is won, but this is a trick that can only be repeated so many times, with the food that extends its use always being in short supply.
In short, even on the lower difficulty levels, Pendragon instils in the player the sense that they’re racing against time. Both within battles, due to that falling morale, and on the longer journey as food runs out. Even once Camlann is reached, the pressure of time remains as you face Mordred, who grows stronger as the final battle proceeds, regardless of who faces him.
Mordred is, perhaps, the game’s biggest weakness. Depending on your character’s talents and the randomly generated battlefield you face him on, it’s possible for the final battle to feel unwinnable (in some cases it can even be unwinnable). This is exacerbated by the decision in this confrontation to remove the need to confirm moves, which is present all through the rest of the game. Changing the gameplay in such a way seems an oddly artificial way to up the stakes, and all it achieved was to annoy me when I lost twice to Mordred as a result of misplaced clicks. To have a quest end in such an anticlimax undercuts all the hard work done by the game’s narrative.
In a year like 2020, Pendragon will either match your mindset or undercut it. With its themes of learning how to cope with adversity, of maintaining the struggle even when things seem bleakest, it might feel a little too downbeat for some. For me though, the atmospheric narrative and gorgeous stained-glass art style kept me going through the initial stumbles of plumbing its gameplay depths. This is a tale of camaraderie and persistence in the face of a crumbling world. We could all do with a little of that.
For the moment, Pendragon is only available on PC and Mac, but it’s not an expensive purchase. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow 80 Days onto a range of other platforms. If it drops onto one that you frequent, do take a look.
I’m not as good at keeping this blog up to date as I was in the LiveJournal days. Sorry about that. The good news to report is that as of the most recent doctor’s visit, everything seems to be holding steady. I am a little worried about my medicine-induced low heart rate and the encroaching winter combining to turn me into a hibernating blob, but my workplace’s decision to run a “Walktober” event is at least encouraging my more active habits. We’ll see how well that lasts when the weather turns nasty.
There is also the issue of the ongoing global bastard (as one of my favoured YouTube channels calls it). Numbers are spiking in Ireland, especially in the North, which means that I may become even more housebound than I have been in recent months. My immune system is okay, but avoiding any trouble for my lungs seems sensible. I hope you’re keeping safe too, wherever you are. If we’ve ever met or talked, rest assured that you’ve been in my thoughts at some point during all of this.
If you were to drive to the far northwestern corner of County Mayo in Ireland, and then, just as you seemed to be running out of road, turned left, you might find yourself heading downhill to the sheltered cove of Rinroe Beach. Not far from this tiny strand is a graveyard. Or, to be more precise, two graveyards. The one nearest the beach is neat and square, with modern, polished gravestones packed in regimented rows. The other is older, its gravestones tumbled and strewn across a larger space, growing older and sparser as the graveyard extends towards a nearby stream.
It’s where that stream meets the graveyard that the mound sits. Taller than a man, it’s decorated with a few old grave markers, but exactly what it might be isn’t clear at first glance. I thought it might be some form of cairn, perhaps raised over the bodies of seafarers lost in a nearby Atlantic storm centuries past. Wikipedia suggests that it’s the remains of an early Christian church and resting place of St. Galligan, from whom the townland of Kilgalligan and the cemetery itself take their names. However, no one actually knows, as no archaeologist has ever investigated this remote mound. It remains what it first appears: an appealing mystery.
There’s much that appeals in this remote corner of Ireland. Myself and a friend (we’ll call her the SysAdmin) decided that if Covid-19 was going to isolate us, we might as well be isolated with a change of scenery, and so we rented a cottage (she did most of the organising) and drove there from Dublin (I did the driving). A four-hour drive, not counting stops, it was surprisingly uneventful for someone who is more familiar with the state of Irish rural roads as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. Whether due to investment in the Gaeltacht* areas (which Rinroe, Kilgalligan, and the village of Carrowteige in which we were staying form part of) or the more recent “Wild Atlantic Way” tourist promotion, serious effort has been made to make these areas more accessible than they once were.
Our AirBnB was a little way downhill from Carrowteige, with its single shop-cum-post office, and a little further uphill from Kilgalligan Cemetery and Rinroe Beach. It was while searching for the cottage that I first saw the cemetery, and I’d see it again multiple times as we walked past on the way downhill for an Atlantic dip or uphill while shivering. The mystery of the mound was never answered, despite the multitude of local stories that our AirBnB host had to share, but there was plenty nearby to explore.
One of the best stories he had to tell related to nearby Portacloy Head. There, on an exposed headland, a large ÉIRE marker had recently been restored. This marker was accompanied by a nearby number also marked out in white stone: 63. The name and number marked the site as one of Ireland’s Coast Watching Service, established during World War II (or The Emergency, if you were Irish at the time). The lookout posts aimed to watch Ireland’s coastal seas and skies, while the ÉIRE markers and numbers were to warn off planes (probably American) that might have lost their bearings. There were 83 in total, put in place during 1942–43, most along the west coast, but number 63 had one further twist: shortly after its restoration, part of Portacloy Head had tumbled into the Atlantic far below, taking a corner of the ÉIRE sign with it. We ventured up to see it, past some blasé sheep, and viewed both the marking and the gap where part of it had once been. It’s worth the trip for the view alone, but there are plenty of other markers to see around Ireland, some of them even quite close to Dublin.**
Over the three-ish days we had in Carrowteige, we did as much exploring as sea swimming and a desire for rest and relaxation allowed. Our trips usually began with us seeking out coffee for the SysAdmin (for SysAdmins need coffee in much the same way that the rest of us need air) but we ventured further onto nearby Belmullet, both north to the lighthouse and south to a rocky promontory where we found a stone spiral erected as part of a sculpture trail, where the peaks of Achill Island can be seen across the water.
Across the headland from Rinroe Beach, we found ourselves looking on the cliffs of Benwee Head near sunset. An Bhinn Bhuí, or The Yellow Cliff, in Irish, it towers over the Atlantic waves below, and the opposing promontory (the best place from which to view the cliffs) also hosts a sculpture of the Children of Lir that took abstractness in its representation to a whole new level. The cliffs themselves were more than enough to validate the visit on their own, forming perhaps the natural highlight of the whole trip. (And providing the header image for this post.)
Further east, we found our way to the Céide Fields. Buried for millennia under peat bogs, near the strikingly striated Céide Cliffs, these unprepossessing stone walls are in fact as old as the pyramids and form Ireland’s most extensive Neolithic site and the world’s oldest field system. Covid had closed the nearby interpretive centre, so it was hard to get a feel for the extent of the site (only part of which has been excavated) but its story of deforestation, climate change, and population collapse struck close to home.
After all, Mayo has a far more recent history with depopulation. In 1841, a census marked the county’s population as 388,000. Twenty years later, following famine and emigration, this had dropped by a third. The population reached a low point of 110,000 in 1991, and even though it has since rebounded a little, it remains at just a third of its pre-famine population. Looking over the remoter areas of the county in a satellite image, it’s not hard to spot the shadows of old fields and walls, as well as the shells of old cottages and farm buildings, left empty by those who sought a better life, or just any life at all, wherever they could find it.
It’s not difficult to see why An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger/Famine) hit Mayo so hard. The arrival of the potato as a staple crop that reliably produced food in small plots of land, even in cold years, had enabled a population boom in Ireland. The arrival of blight in 1845 removed that food source for the desperately poor farmers and the policy of the British government exacerbated the disastrous impact. If you’re interested in learning more, I can recommend the Irish History Podcast for its in-depth and even-handed series on a topic that still stirs hard feelings 170 years later.
Before we left, Mayo had one last brush with history to provide. As Storm Ellen barrelled towards us from the Atlantic, I told the SysAdmin the story of Oíche na Gaoithe Móire (The Night of the Big Wind). This tale I learned from my father’s love of history, and it dates back to just a few years before the famine. In January 1839, a mighty storm blew across Ireland, damaging buildings, costing lives, and leaving its mark in Irish song and story. Thankfully, Storm Ellen, though it rattled our windows all night long, wasn’t half so destructive, and we were able to pack up and leave safely when the morning came.
Covid-19 may have robbed me of any chance to travel to and across far distant countries in 2020. But it did serve to remind me that I have a car now, and a country full of sights I’ve yet to see at my doorstep. While I’m once more back in my own place and isolating as per normal, there are other isolated spots out there, and yet more sights to see. Whether or not you choose to start with Carrowteige and Mayo, it’s an option I’d definitely recommend taking.
* A predominantly Irish-speaking area. The Irish language, despite government efforts to support it, has long been in decline. Gaeltacht areas when I was younger were mostly known as the sites of summer holidays for children aimed at teaching them everyday Irish. How successful they were at that is questionable, but with more people than ever learning Irish online, there may be hope for the language yet.
** After years of neglect, there has been a rush of interest in these markers in recent years, and several of them have been restored. The Eiremarkings.org site is an excellent resource if you’re interested in learning more.
One of the nice things about the trip was getting to be a little more active. Work keeps me seated most of the day, whereas sightseeing requires a little more walking. And sea-swimming required a little more walking and a lot more physical courage than has been asked of me lately. So I was happy enough to enjoy the benefits of fresh Atlantic sea air.
The trip began directly after a CT scan in St. James Hospital, and I got the results of the scan this Wednesday. The good news is that the medicine I’m on is doing its job—the cancer has been stopped in its tracks and has neither spread nor grown. I can’t speak for the effects of traipsing up and down Mayo’s peaty slopes, but I remain one of the healthiest-looking lung cancer patients you’re likely to ever come across.
It’ll be three months until the next scan, so I don’t know if there’ll be a health update with the next post. If there isn’t, I’ll probably be doing fine, keeping active as best I can and wishing I could get off on my travels at least once a day. Updates will continue though, as I’m thinking of extending my general disuse of Facebook into actually leaving that miserable platform. In which case I’ll just point people here if they want to keep up with me. No decision yet, but it feels overdue. Until then, keep well and try not to let 2020 get you down.
Apple Inc. is, by some measures, the biggest company in the world. From a near-bankrupt state in 1997, it has turned itself into a globe-spanning colossus, worth somewhere in the region of a trillion dollars. In an age of corporate technology titans, it’s been at or near the head of the pack for years.
And this week Epic Games declared war on it.
Not just on Apple either. On Google too, which along with Facebook and Amazon, forms a modern tetrarchy of technology. It’s a war that’s being fought on legal and public fronts, but exactly how does Epic plan to win? And how did these corporate David and Goliaths come to be at odds?
Founded in 1991, Epic Games started as a video game developer before segueing into developing the tools that others use to make video games, most notably its Unreal Engine game engine. Just as sellers of shovels made more money during Gold Rushes than most miners, so Epic did pretty well out of that move. Then, a few years ago, it released Fortnite.
You’ve probably heard of Fortnite. Even if you don’t play it, you know kids who do, or maybe just kids who watch video streamers who do. A free-to-play game with battle royale, creative, and cooperative elements, its in-game purchases have proved a massive cash cow for Epic, pushing the company’s valuation into the tens of billions.
With all that cash weighing it down, Epic decided to throw its weight around. Casting itself as Robin Hood, it first took on Steam, the dominant storefront for PC games, promising players cheaper games and developers a bigger cut of the revenue. The verdict on this ongoing war remains open, as while the Epic Games Store continues to host exclusive titles and offer free games to tempt new customers, many PC gamers are heavily invested in Steam. However, it’s now clear that this was just a warm up for Epic’s biggest fight.
Apple has faced years of criticism for its “walled garden” approach to releasing software on its iPhone and iPad devices. In short, if you want your software to run on an iDevice, you follow Apple’s rules and give Apple its 30% cut. While the ecosystem for Android devices is more open, the Google Play store, which has adopted similar rules and a similar revenue cut, is the quickest and easiest way to find and install new software. Hence, most users will use it.
This week, Epic said “nuts to that” and implemented a new feature in Fortnite, whereby users could make in-game transactions directly from Epic without giving a cut to Apple or Google. Apple swiftly removed Fortnite from its App Store: if you already have it, you can continue to play, but there’ll be no new users and no updates. Google followed suit not long after, delisting Fortnite from the Google Play store.
For players, the immediate impact is minimal. The difference will only really start to show when Fortnite’s new season begins. Unable to update, iOS and Google Play users will miss out on the new content. But Epic didn’t wait to let them know about it. Not only did they slap Apple and Google with a lawsuit accusing them of monopolistic practices, but they also hosted an in-game video that mocked Apple’s famous “1984” advert, arguing that Apple now held the same position as the corporate behemoths it once opposed.
It’s a fair comment. Apple is “the man” now, just as Google has long since ceased being a scrappy garage startup. Both companies have their share of questionable practices and wield ludicrous economic and social power. Yet the fact that Apple got a video whereas Google didn’t suggests that Epic is relying on public opinion being on its side in this fight. Specifically the public opinion of millions of young Fortnite gamers who might end up missing out due to this corporate spat over revenue sharing.
Apple’s argument is the same two-pronged one that it’s used to fend off anti-competitive arguments in the past. First, it built the App Store, and the host devices, and their operating systems. If Epic uploads a free-to-play game and makes billions through in-app purchases, it’s effectively freeloading if Apple doesn’t get a cut. To which Epic might respond, well, isn’t 30% a bit much? In their turn, Apple can say that the same rules apply to everyone, no matter their size. Epic might then point to Steam, which responded to the competition posed by Epic by implementing lower by altering its terms for revenue sharing. It’s a back-and-forth argument but not Epic’s strongest suit.
Apple’s second argument sees it on shakier ground: it controls its walled garden by checking the content it hosts. This has kept Apple’s App Store largely free from the knockoff apps and rubbish that plagued Android in the past, but it also means that the everything on the App Store has to be Apple-approved. With Apple having recently banned Microsoft and Facebook from hosting their own game-streaming services on iPad and iPhone, this is an opportune moment for Epic to draw attention to how Apple’s corporate culture defines what its users get to experience.
The stakes are high. Apple makes a good chunk of its earnings from hardware sales, and losing Fortnite could see it lose a chunk of those (it’s already facing threats to its Chinese market from Trumpian “diplomacy” to add to its vulnerability). On the other hand, Apple has more cash-in-hand than most countries and can weather the storm, whereas Epic is for the first time putting its cash cow at risk.
On the other hand, if Epic can’t quickly find acceptable terms with Apple and Google, some of its players and streamers might just move on. No game lasts forever as “the big thing,” and my own nieces and nephews are pretty happy with Roblox. Epic is not lacking in competitors who would be more than happy to carve off slices of the Fortnite billions.
Of course, Epic has its own war chest to fight this war, and the lawsuit against Apple and Google may prove to be nothing more than a negotiating tactic. After all, implementing changes to the law does require the presence of a justice system with the will to do so, and the U.S. has its own issues at the moment. Europe would be a more friendly venue in which to argue the merits of the tech giants’ market power, but that’s not where the lawsuit was served (as far as I can tell).
Which is where Epic’s social media strategy comes in. The video mocking Apple was a call to arms for Fortnite players to rally to the game rather than the platform. To think about a world where Apple doesn’t take a 30% cut of Epic’s earnings. Which, given that the game deliberately targets younger players with its marketing and in-game purchases, comes across as just a little bit skeezy.
Ultimately, this is a fight between companies worth billions about who gets how much money. Just because it’s the little guy doesn’t make Epic virtuous. As shown in its conflict with Steam, it’s quite happy to leverage its riches and fight dirty. Similarly, just because Google began in a garage and had a motto of “Don’t be evil” for years doesn’t make it the good guy either. And though I’ve been an Apple user for most of my life, I’m more than happy to see people calling it out when it’s getting things wrong.
This is particularly true in the area of games. It’s something that Apple has never quite got to grips with; a legacy of the Steve Jobs era. Now offering its own subscription-based games service, Apple Arcade, it looked dodgy in throwing roadblocks in front of Microsoft and Facebook. It’s a sore point that Epic has targeted, and it’s one in which Apple could do with reviewing its practices.
I’m just not convinced that there’s much more to this fight than money. There’s a possibility of a more even playing field that delivers benefits for consumers emerging from this spat, but believing in that takes optimism that’s in short supply in 2020. Epic wants more money, and it believes that it can force Apple and Google to the table. Time will tell if it’s calculated correctly, and in the meantime Fortnite users will be the ones to pick up the tab.
The gameplay of Ion Storm’s Deus Ex, released twenty years ago, begins with a choice. Preparing to deal with a group of terrorists, the player chooses one of three extra weapons: a rocket launcher, a sniper rifle, and a mini-crossbow loaded with tranquilliser darts. Unusually for a game of that era, Deus Ex announced from the start that the player’s choices mattered.
On my first full playthrough of the game, I selected the mini-crossbow. I had already been an active player of roleplaying games for years at that point, and I was happy to play into the fiction of the game that those trying to kill you might have valid reasons for doing so. (The sniper rifle is the choice for players unconcerned with lethality, whereas the rocket launcher is best suited to taking out robots and inconveniently locked doors.) This fiction is carried through the game’s plot, in which the initial truths you’re presented with are undermined and other characters react to whether or not the player is happy to shed blood through the course of the game.
Although a seminal game in showing how player choice and morality could be integrated into games, Deus Ex proved a hard act to follow. It received only one sequel, and its 2011 prequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, received notable criticism for forcing players into unavoidably lethal boss fights.
One year later, in 2012, a spiritual successor appeared in the form of Arkane’s Dishonored. In this title, the player adopts the role of a vengeance-seeking assassin but the developers leaned into stealth as a mechanic and decided to provide the player with the opportunity to find non-lethal resolutions to all of their goals. Not that these are any less dark in some cases: one “fate worse than death” sees a society hostess and supporter of the corrupt regime delivered to an obsessed stalker as an alternative to being murdered.
The ten year gap between these very similar games presents a degree of progression. Deus Ex asked players to think about how they solve problems and whether casual murder can be justified within the fiction of the game. Dishonored asked that question again, and reinforced it by pointing out that just avoiding murder wasn’t enough to make you a good person. Vengeance takes you to dark places.
At this stage, I ought to point out that both Deus Ex and Dishonored are first-person action games. The player literally sees out of the eyes of the protagonist, so opportunities to distance themselves from the morality of what they’re doing are limited. Action-oriented first-person shooters, such as Halo or Doom, tend to either present inhuman enemies like aliens, demons, or zombies as cannon-fodder or lean towards the multiplayer experience, where the targets are usually other players and an immersive narrative is tossed out in favour of an arena atmosphere: you get shot, you respawn, it doesn’t really matter.
The multiplayer-focused Call of Duty series does engage with this issue but in a fashion that passes over player choice. A mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s single-player narrative sees the player participate in a mass shooting. The mission is flagged for “disturbing content” and players can choose how to interact, but the massacre happens regardless. The narrative requires the deaths to happen, regardless of player choice. They’re a necessity of the narrative, just as the mission itself is seen as a necessity on the part of the player character. No moral choice is made.
Step forward another decade or so and we come to 2020’s The Last of Us Part II.* Once again the protagonist is hell-bent on what initially seems to be justified vengeance. As with Modern Warfare 2, the player has no choice but to deal with the deaths they cause. Worse still (from the perspective of the player character), an in-game switch in narrative perspective does its best to rob them of any belief that their vengeance was just in the first place.
Admittedly, The Last of Us is not the same type of game as Deus Ex and Dishonored. It’s played from a third-person perspective and is less a playground for player creativity than a canvas for the creators to tell a story. It’s also unrelentingly grim in tone, and its apparent theme of just how much choosing to kill costs is one that many players seem to have resented confronting. Even so, it’s another step on the same spectrum: engaging in a work of fiction requires emotional investment, and regret, shame, and horror are all valid emotions to feel around making the choice to kill.
Narrative is one of the strongest tools that artists have to generate feelings in consumers of their art. We have literally centuries of practice when it comes to affecting emotions through stories and of making listeners, readers, and viewers reconsider their preconceptions. Video games, as an interactive art form, are much newer on the block, and it’s hardly surprising that they’re going to crib from what came before. The first few decades of film, after all, copied heavily from theatre until the new art form developed its own language.
Yet the linear narratives that other art forms have developed sit uneasily within video games. The Last of Us hews closely to linearity and while it clearly knows the story it wants to tell, it gives players little real moral choice. Even Dishonored, where the player has the freedom to devise their own solutions to problems, has a linear narrative to follow and an external marker of morality: the more murderous the player is, the more the city they inhabit falls into chaos around them.
Deus Ex had things easy, after a fashion. Technology wasn’t advanced enough to create realistically human opponents, so the moral choices facing a player had a level of abstraction. Ten years later, Dishonored provided a more sophisticated world with more sophisticated inhabitants, but it was still a playground of sorts. That twinge of discomfort when handing over Lady Boyle is one of the strongest memories for players of that game because they were forced to reflect on their choices. In that moment, they were reminded that whatever the narrative might tell them, they might not be wholly the good guy.
A decade further on and The Last of Us Part II is even more sophisticated in its world building and character portrayals, but its directed narrative might be a dead end. By all accounts it is an amazing achievement and perhaps a pinnacle for current-generation technology, but if the player has no agency in the choices the narrative makes, how powerful can the moment be when the game forces them to reflect on the morality of those choices?
This problem of ludonarrative dissonance is hardly new, and people within the games industry have been hacking away at it for years.** In these few examples, I wanted to take a look at how some games flag the choice to be a killer and how they can either lead or force the player to reflect on that. The technological capacity for doing so has definitely advanced over the years, and narrative sophistication has likewise grown, but it doesn’t feel like the two have come together yet. I wonder if and when they will.
** I specifically limited myself to a few examples to restrict the length of this piece. The Mass Effect series is one that deals heavily with morality within the narrative, though less so with the morality of killing.
Yes, it’s been a while, I know. For what I hope are understandable reasons, my enthusiasm for writing anything here was at a low ebb for a while. Restoring my mental momentum took a while, and there was a recent recurrence of the whole coughing-up-blood thing that distracted me a bit too.
As a general overview though, I’m doing fine. A round of scans and another bronchoscopy found nothing too egregious (well, nothing that they didn’t already know was there) and I’m back on track, taking my medication and doing my best to dodge Covid by the simple expedients of wearing a mask, limiting the number of people I meet, and washing my hands (not all at the same time, admittedly).
My biggest worry for the moment is becoming a couch potato, which is all too easy when the couch in question is only two feet away from your work chair. Still, I have an isolation break to look forward to shortly, and in the face of Ireland’s fitful summer, it’s not so bad to be indoors. I’ll try to keep up with the posting in future, though no promises. In the meantime, I hope you’re all keeping well and safe.
Early morning calls are rarely good news. When the call is from your brother, his voice freighting two words with loss and grief, it’s about as bad as it gets.
The call came at 6.45 AM on Sunday. For a few hours, I ran on automatic, alternating between doing what I normally did and trying to figure out what to do next. Actually confronting the news would wait. Would have to wait. My family were a hundred miles away from me in the midst of a pandemic. Could I be with them? Through the morning, I narrowed in on that question, and by lunch I had an answer from my doctor: yes. A visit to the hospital and a Garda checkpoint later and I was heading north.
I arrived not long before the body came back. He’d died at 6.00 AM, and as always with these things, matters followed their own course. My parents were lucky enough to have most of their immediate family living close by, so my mum had support as what needed to be done was done. By the time I arrived, I was there to fill in a missing piece. To offer support and presence, and to help figure out what came next.
My big contribution that day was to provide a photo of him that people could use. He wasn’t the most comfortable photo subject — in most photos of him, his smile was thin, if there at all. Perhaps he’d just gotten used to the formality of the job he’d held as head teacher of a primary school for 40-odd years. I found a different one. One where he was laughing. One of him and me, as it happened. I cropped myself out of it and sent it on.
The photo came from a couple of years before. My mum had been ill, needing heart surgery and then a lengthy recovery in hospital. I was between jobs, so I decided to head north and stay with him for a few months. Despite the circumstances, I appreciated that time we had. I think I told him that. I hope I did. The photo was of the two of us attempting to bake an apple tart. Despite it being the middle of summer, we’d decorated it with the only pastry shapes we could find cutters for: Christmas trees. Maybe that’s what he was laughing at.
The tart turned out pretty well, in the end.
After the pressure of the first day, the next few were all waiting. We had time for realisation to sink in, as the body lay in repose in the house with us. Mum fielded condolences from her and dad’s expanse of family and friends. I did useful things, like cancelling his satellite TV subscription (awkward) and deleting his Facebook account (easy enough, as he’d never really posted much there).
The last missing piece arrived on Tuesday night. My brother flew in from Australia and arrived a little before midnight. Like me, he’d needed permission to travel through the pandemic, but his journey had been much longer and the prospects for his returning after were far more questionable.
The day of the funeral was … strange. I suppose it always must be, but then 2020 hasn’t been a normal year so far. The weather seemed to feel the strangeness. There was sunshine before and sunshine after, but during the funeral itself, there were two hours of squally, cold rain. Even so, the road between our house and the chapel was lined with people seeking to pay their respects. Not able to attend the funeral due to the pandemic, they did all that they could.
I helped carry the coffin to the grave. Helped lower it in, along with my brothers and uncles. Then we walked home again, through the easing rain. I found myself wanting to do everything I could but not knowing whether anything I did could make a difference. The funeral was over, and now the living without him had to begin.
It’s a huge gap to fill. Most people probably feel the same way about their parents, so please excuse me if I talk about him for a bit. I often tell people that I know that I’ve been pretty lucky in life. A strange thing to say, given my medical history, recent and otherwise, but my mum and dad are at the base of why I believe it.
He was born in Ardglass, County Down, a few years before World War II ended. Grew up there, made friends, got an education, saw a bit of the world, then came back. Got a job in a local school, became headmaster, got married, had four kids, retired, played golf. A life summed up in a paragraph; accurate but missing almost all of the important things.
His four kids are pretty different in temperament. We each took different things from our parents, but all of us learned from his curiosity, both about the world and the people in it. How to treat other people is the most important lesson that parents can teach, and he and mum aced that.
When I was young, I was constantly amazed at how many people would come up to him on the street and start chatting. As a shy kid, it was incredible that so many people knew him. Part of that was down to his job, which brought him into contact with so many. But mostly it was because he was interested in them, and they picked up on that. Not that he always remembered who they were on first meeting, but he never let on and usually figured it out quickly enough.
You could see that attention repaid in the crowds who braved rain, wind, and pandemic to line a narrow country road and see the coffin go by. You could see it in the generous tribute in the local paper, written by the father of several children he’d taught years before. The letters that crammed into our letterbox as the days went past after the funeral. He’d given out love into the world, and the world gave it back.
He loved sports, though for different reasons. Most of his sons picked up on his love for rugby and football, but I was the only one whom he snared into supporting his beloved West Bromwich Albion. He was a little more successful in passing on his contempt for Manchester United. He liked horse racing too, and golf, and he’d watch cricket as well, if only to see England lose.
He loved history, a love that kept my own love for it alive after school had done its best to bore it out of me. We’d planned to visit Venice and maybe other sites before the lockdown came in. He loved stories, both reading them himself and reading them out to his pupils. He’d have drained the local library dry of books if he could.
He loved quizzes more than almost anyone I knew, and they gave him an outlet for his curiosity and ability to retain odd scraps of information. It’s a love and a trait that I inherited too. He took part in several TV quizzes, most notably Mastermind, where his specialised subject was the Second Punic War. As a kid, I accidentally taped over his recording of that appearance. As an adult I retrieved a copy of it from the BBC archives.
Above all, he loved my mum. An ex-girlfriend of mine once turned to me after meeting my parents and said “They never argue!” or words to that effect. Which wasn’t exactly true. I imagine they were being on their best behaviour at the time, but the fact remains that they were together long enough to see several of their kids get married and have kids of their own, to build their own house in a beautiful part of the country, and to enjoy a retirement that saw them travel to various parts of the world both sunny and historical on a regular basis. If they argued, they loved and knew each other well enough to know that the arguments weren’t the important thing.
He wasn’t perfect. He could be a grumpy sod, especially when West Brom were being managed by Tony Pulis, the Irish rugby team were hoofing the ball into the air for no good reason, or Rory McIlroy was failing to putt properly. He had a tendency towards temper when driving that I’ve inherited as well. The world is full of idiots, and most of them are on the roads (a good proportion of them driving BMWs).
He never quite settled into retirement. His curiosity and need to be doing something wouldn’t let him. He churned through library books, wrote a book of his own, joined the local golf club and ran it for a while, volunteered to help out with charities and his old school, and did his best to fill his days. When his grandchildren came along, he loved them too, though they at last managed to remind him of the value of moments of peace and quiet.
I could go on adding detail until my memory ran out and all my readers had given up, but no matter how many words I added, it wouldn’t amount to more than the barest glimpse of a life. That he died so suddenly, without warning and a chance to say goodbye, hurts for those of us left behind, but the silver lining is there to see if you can manage it. It was a good life — it could hardly be a better one — and it ended without suffering. He left behind the best of memories and having done his best to leave the world better than he found it. We should all be so lucky.
For his family and friends, we now have to adjust. As much as death is an inevitable part of life, saying goodbye to a massive part of your life isn’t something that we’re taught to do. We have to figure out what our lives will be like in his absence. We’ll have to cope with the grief of all the moments that will never be. To be reminded every now and then that there won’t be another chance to talk with him. To see a photo, or read something and think of sharing it, and be pierced to the heart in an instant.
The sun is shining and the world is still. There are terrible things going on, and it sometimes feels like the worst people are running everything. But most of us have examples we can look to and know that it can be better. My dad was that for me. He is still.
I normally think of myself as a pretty stoic person, but starting to cough up blood the night before my dad’s funeral, while waiting for my brother to fly back from Australia in the midst of a global pandemic pushed me as close to panic as I’ve been for a long time. Exactly what the cause was, I don’t know, but the odds are that wearing a mask for extended periods of time was too tough on my lungs and a blood vessel went pop somewhere. Then I made it worse by taking part in the funeral while wearing a mask too — though that part I don’t regret at all.
As a result I haven’t been able to stay at home as I wanted to — even with the pandemic, there are still people dropping by to offer their condolences, and I need to be isolated so I don’t have to wear a mask. I did get myself checked out at the hospital and there are no signs of anything worse going on, and it’s now been several days since the last spot of blood, so I think I’m on the mend. Still, it’s a reminder that despite the good scan results recently, I need to take care. Especially amidst everything that 2020 has become.
When I was younger, newspapers were fond of stories of people who triumphed in the face of adversity. You know the kind of thing: “I lost my job but invented a hairdryer and now I’m a millionaire” or “I learned to play the piano while going through chemotherapy and now I’m playing Carnegie Hall!” Reading these full-page stories, usually accompanied by photos of the people in question, smiling beatifically, the younger me tended to agree. Taking a traumatic event and turning it into something positive; that was good, right? That was what you ought to do.
Then, when I was nineteen, I got cancer myself. And despite having ambitions of being a writer, I spent most of my eight months of chemotherapy glued to the couch, exhausted, constipated, or both. No writing got done, and for a long time afterwards I viewed those eight months as wasted time. I could have done more with all that free time. I should have done more.
Fifteen or so years later, I had another life upheaval and reacted differently. I lost a long-term job while I was still reeling from a painful breakup. No physical illness to add to my troubles, thankfully, but a similar form of mental adversity. This time I took a step back and thought about what I needed to do. I travelled and made plans and shifted my life in a direction that I hoped would make me a better, happier person. I wasn’t suddenly in a different place, just moving in a different direction.
So I handled the second crisis much better, didn’t I? Got lemons and made lemonade, whereas previously I’d just sat on my couch and done nothing, right? That’s how I saw things. It took me a long time to realise that I was wrong.
It’s not just that the circumstances were different. In the first case I was still a student, reliant on my parents and suffering from both a disease that had taken a huge amount out of me for a year and a half and a treatment that wasn’t much less gruelling. In the second I was in receipt of a decent payoff from my old employer and more emotionally mature, despite any relationship trauma. What I could do in the two circumstances was worlds apart.
It’s also that my needs were very different. In the first case I was ill, and getting better was the priority. Putting pressure on myself to write wasn’t helpful, whereas resting, spending time with family and friends, and enjoying being in one of the most beautiful parts of Northern Ireland certainly was. In the second, I’d been uncomfortably static for a long time and needed to shake things up. Travelling gave me time to think and learn from new experiences, and I followed it up by going back to college and trying out several new jobs, putting a new shape on the next decade.
In both cases, I did what I needed to, which was the best thing for myself in the circumstances I was in.
Right now, we’re sharing similarly traumatic circumstances. Covid-19 has circled the globe and everything feels like it’s on shutdown. Circumstance and carelessness have ballooned a crisis into a potential catastrophe that people all across the world are working, sometimes at risk to their lives and health, to forestall. For the rest of us, we don’t know what the next few weeks or months are going to bring, but most are spending a lot of time at home, our normal habits and activities disrupted.
Amidst all of this, I’ve seen more than a few suggestions that people should take advantage of this disruption to tackle the mountains that loom in the back of our heads. To finally write that novel, learn how to play that instrument or speak that language, take up baking or knitting, or get fit and cut out the junk food. My sympathy is far more with those who respond to such calls with a simple, “Eh, no.”
Don’t get me wrong: if the need’s been in you to do something and you have the time and energy, go for it. But take it from someone who knows: don’t beat yourself up for not doing the things you think you ought to be doing. Figure out what you need instead. And if you’re struggling to cope with the day-to-day news, isolated from your loved ones, or even spending three hours a day trying to persuade those loved ones to go to sleep, then what you need might be to curl up on your couch with Netflix or Disney+ and the relaxing beverage of your choice.
As for myself, I’m doing what I can. I’m isolated enough that I’ve taken to speaking to myself just to hear a voice, but that doesn’t make me any more crazy than I already was. I’m getting as much exercise as I need, experimenting with baking and cooking because I enjoy the experience and can eat the results, reading more than I have in ages, and catching up on a load of TV shows. I haven’t done much writing, and there are three unpainted miniatures on the table in front of me most days, but they’ll still be there if I need them.
So do what you need to do, however active or inactive that might be. If you achieve something new, that’s awesome. If you come out the other end of this in a good mental and physical place, that’s even better. I’ll meet you there, and maybe we’ll swap stories.
A brief and positive update. Last Thursday I had a CT scan, which turned into a bit of a trial, though thankfully not a lengthy one. This morning I got the results: The cancer is responding to the treatments and the tumours that the doctors are watching have all shrunk. So that’s nothing but good news. More details will come, but for now let’s be thankful for medical science and living in a country with a mostly functional health service. I’ll keep taking the pills and staying as far away from Covid-19 as I can. One life-threatening illness is as much as I want to cope with right now.
Well, we’re now officially in lockdown in Ireland, also known as the golden age of video chat. (I had three video conversations yesterday evening, which is more than a little exhausting for an introvert like myself.) It also might be the golden age of sourdough baking. All of a sudden almost everyone is stuck at home, with large stockpiles of flour that need to be turned into something, and sourdough was already having a moment, even before all of this.
Since I’ve stuck images of my loaf attempts up on Instagram, a couple of people have asked me how to go about it. Why they’re asking me when there are literally thousands of YouTube videos on the subject, I don’t know, but I thought I’d explain my own method anyway. I may not be a baker, but I am a technical writer, and if there’s one thing I can do, it’s write instructions.
Necessary caveats before we get started: This is my method, cobbled together from various sources, and it shouldn’t be seen as the best way to do anything. It changes from week to week and will probably continue to change as I come across new ideas. Yours should too — take everything below as a starting point, or even just as a collection of ideas to pick and choose from.
Beyond the ingredients, you’ll need:
A couple of bowls, one large and one normal sized
Cling film and a tea towel to cover the bowls
A set of scales for measuring — everything is done by weight below.
A dough scraper (this is a piece of hard plastic with a curved scraping edge — they’re cheap and easy enough to find and they’ll make your life a lot easier)
A container for your starter, which should have a cover and be made of glass or clear plastic
A cast iron Dutch oven and a baking tray or shallow dish (these are optional, but they help the final result)
A willingness to get your hands covered in sticky dough
Sourdough is pretty simple in terms of ingredients. You don’t need anything more than flour, water, and salt to begin with. The flavour and rise come from the sourdough starter, a culture of natural yeasts that you feed on a regular basis and use in place of store-bought yeast.
There are two ways to create a sourdough starter. The first is to grow your own, which is a complicated and tricky task, and I have no intention of going to go into that here. If you want to know more, seek out Seamus Blackley on Twitter, as he‘s something of an expert. Instead, I’d recommend the second option: get someone to give you some of their starter.
I got my starter as part of a one-day course at The Baking Academy of Ireland. Many sourdough starters that you’ll see on YouTube or TV are goopy messes that need to be fed every day, like a demanding child. You don’t need that, and I don’t have the patience for that. Mine lives in the fridge and gets fed once a week.
Perhaps it’s a good thing I’m not a parent.
To feed this “Hard Levain” starter, do the following:
Take the 80 grams of starter you begin with and split it into lumps of 20 grams and 60 grams. Put the 60 grams aside.
Put the 20-gram lump in a bowl and add another 20 grams of warm water to it. Mash it around in the water until you have a milky, lumpy liquid.
Add 40 grams of flour to this liquid. I use a mix of strong/bread flour and rye flour, in a ratio of approximately 5–1.
Stir and mix the flour and liquid together for a while. Once all the flour is incorporated, you should end up with an 80-gram dough ball.
Put the dough ball into a clear, covered container (I use old plastic takeout pots) and set it aside for four to six hours.
At the end of this resting period, check the bottom of your container. You should see bubbles forming at the base of the dough ball. This means the natural yeasts in the starter are getting to work, eating up the flour.
Stick the container in the fridge. This will slow down the yeast, so that you don’t need to feed the starter again for another week. When you do, just start again from the top.
You don’t need to wait a week to bake with the starter. Just feed it every time you do. Also, if you forget to feed it once a week, the yeast can probably be revived. It just might need to rest for a little longer in step five.
As for that 60 grams we set aside in step one? There are three things you can do with that. If you’re just feeding the starter and not planning on baking, you can throw it out. I wouldn’t blame you — I’ve done it myself. Despite all the benefits, baking sourdough can require exhausting work and forethought. Again, like children.
The second option is to share your starter. Split the 60 grams up into three 20-gram portions and feed each as in the instructions above. In these lockdown times, sharing samples of biological materials is probably a no-no, but I can arrange dead drops for anyone who’s interested. Not abroad though — I don’t want to end up in jail over this (and the starter likely wouldn’t survive).
The third option, of course, is to bake. So now we get to the fun part.
The Loaf Itself
All the Ingredients
As stated above, this process is almost certainly not the best one to use. It’s just the one I use to get the bread you see in the images all over this page. It’s also prone to change due to experimentation and forgetfulness. I can say that one advantage of sourdough is that it generally tastes good, even if it doesn’t turn out looking the best.
The instructions below ended up a bit lengthier than I expected them to be, but it’s important to note that making sourdough involves a lot of waiting. Only the kneading requires consistent effort, and even that’s only for 10–15 mins. Amid all of the waiting, you can, and probably should, be able to do any amount of other things.
Stage one is to take the 60 grams of starter and turn it into more starter for the planned bread. You’ll need to do this a day or two ahead of when you actually want to have an edible loaf, so bear that in mind.
Put your 60 grams of starter in a bowl. (I like to use Pyrex/glass so I can check the state of the starter, as above, but it’s not mandatory.)
Add 65 grams of warm water, and once again mash and mix the two together until you have a milky, lumpy liquid.
Add in 120 grams of flour (100 grams of bread flour and 20 grams of rye flour for me) and 1 gram of salt.
Mix the whole thing together until you have another, larger dough ball.
Cover the bowl with cling film and set aside to rest for 18–20 hours, until it’s doubled in size and has all those lovely bubbles visible from below.
This gives you the starter for your loaf. Once it rises, you’ll need to add it to your “autolaise” to create your dough. The autolaise itself is pretty simple: just add 290 grams of flour (250 grams of strong flour, 40 grams of rye flour) to 215 grams of warm water in a large bowl to form a sticky mess. Set that aside for at least half an hour to rest, covering the bowl with a tea towel.
While all of that is resting, measure out another 8 grams of salt into a small container. It’s the last thing you’ll need for the loaf, and you’re now ready to start.
Build Your Loaf
Uncover the squidgy mess that is your autolaise, in which all the flour should now be properly hydrated. Scatter over the salt, then use your dough scraper to remove the starter from its bowl and add it to the party in the larger bowl.
With damp hands (so the dough doesn’t stick as much), take a few minutes to mix the ingredients together. Do this in the bowl so that the salt doesn’t scatter everywhere before it’s properly mixed into the dough. Once everything is incorporated, use the dough scraper again to turn the dough out onto a smooth (non-floured) surface.
You are now ready for the form of exercise known as kneading, or alternatively, smacking the crap out of your dough.
There are lots of techniques for doing this, all of them with the goal of developing the gluten in the dough, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m particularly good at it. However, in the interests of completeness, I will describe my preferred technique: the slap and fold.
Grab the lump of dough with your clawed fingers from front and back.
Lift and turn it 90 degrees, so your hands are to either side.
Slap the dough down onto the surface, as if it was a towel you were smacking someone with (this is the best metaphor I can come up with and it’s not a good one — really, watch YouTube to get your own technique).
Fold the dough that remains attached to your fingers over the slapped dough.
Grab once more from front and back and repeat.
This will occupy 10-15 mins of your time, during which the dough should become more coherent and stretchy. Essentially, kneading it in this or any other way improves its internal consistency. It will also exhaust you, so have some TV, podcast, or music entertainment on and run a timer while you work. At the end, you’ll probably have to use the dough scraper to scrape dough from your fingers too.
Ideally, the dough should become stretchy enough to stretch to almost transparency without tearing, but I find that hard (and not entirely necessary) to achieve. Once you’re happy enough with the dough, scrape it up and put it back in the big bowl. If it’s still noticeably sticky, you might like to scatter some flour over the top of the dough, then use the scraper to flip it over, so the floured side is down.
Don’t worry — the kneading was the hardest work you’ll do. We’re on the home stretch (ahem) now.
Next comes a bit of repetition. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and wait for an hour. At the end of the hour, uncover it, grab a side of the dough, stretch it out, and fold it over the dough itself. Turn the bowl and stretch and fold again, until you’ve done it five times and your dough looks like a squishy pentagon. Cover for an hour and do this again. Then cover for another hour and do it again.
After your third stretch-and-fold session, leave the dough covered for another 20–30 mins. Next up is the final shaping. This is traditionally done in a basket called a banneton. If you have one of those, you are far more fancy than me. I use a bowl and a floured tea-towel.
Take the tea towel that was covering your dough and use it to line a small bowl. Liberally scatter rye flour on the inside surface of the tea towel.
Scatter strong flour on a surface and turn your dough out onto it.
Grab the bit of the dough furthest from you and fold it over the rest of the dough.
Grab the left side of the dough and fold it over to the right.
Grab the right side of the dough and fold it over to the left.
Grab the nearest edge of the dough and fold it away from you.
Use the dough scraper to flip the dough package you’ve just made, so that the folded edges are down.
Place one hand on each side of the dough, in contact with the surface, and slowly turn the dough, tucking its edges in under itself, until you have a rounded boule.
Once again, use the dough scraper to flip the boule into your hands and drop it into the tea towel-lined bowl (or banneton, if you must) with the folded side uppermost.
Fold the excess parts of the tea towel to cover the dough. (This isn’t necessary, just neat.)
The next bit is your choice. You can either let the dough boule rest in the bowl for an hour and a half, or stick it in the fridge overnight. Either way, the dough should double in size. If it hasn’t risen when you take it out of the fridge, leave it to warm for half an hour while you prepare for … the baking!
Yep, after everything you’ve gone through, you’re almost ready to have edible bread. I hadn’t expected these instructions to run on for so long. Honestly, you should’ve just watched YouTube instead.
Anyway, take your cast iron dutch oven and put it in the oven. At the bottom of the oven, put a baking tray. Turn the oven to 220º C.
While the oven is warming, spread out a large sheet of baking paper and scatter flour (any flour will do) over it. Turn your shaped dough out onto it. You should see the shape of the towel impressed into the dough. It won’t be as nice as a banneton would have been, but that’s okay. We’re not that fancy.
Using a freshly sharpened knife or a razor blade, slice into the top of the dough. (There’s a specific baker’s tool for this too, but I’m still not a baker and still not that fancy.) Slice your initials, if you like.
Once the oven has warmed, take the dutch oven out, take its lid off, and use the baking paper as a sling to drop the dough into it. Put the lid back on and put the dutch oven back into the oven. Wait 20 minutes. Perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that your long sourdough nightmare is at last almost over.
Before the 20 minutes are up, start a kettle boiling. You probably should have done that instead of all that sighing. At the end of the 20 minutes, open the oven and take the lid off the dutch oven. Your loaf should have expanded under its own steam, but now it needs more steam to brown properly. Pour boiling water from the kettle into the baking tray in the bottom of the oven. Close the oven and turn the temperature down a little to 210º C.
This last bit is somewhat subjective. After a further ten minutes, take a peek into the oven. How brown is your loaf? If it’s not brown enough, close the oven up and keep baking. Check every five minutes or so. I like to bake until the tips of the crust on top are almost burned, but your mileage may vary. Once it’s the colour you want, turn off the oven, remove the dutch oven, and carefully extract the loaf, placing it on a wire rack to cool.
And cool, and cool. No, it doesn’t matter how nice it smells. Leave it until it’s properly cooled. At least three hours.
And that’s it. You should now have your loaf. Hopefully you have a decent bread knife and something to spread on the slices too. However it looks, I hope it’s tasty. Thanks for reading through all of this, and if a little sourdough helps you get through all that the world is going through right now, then maybe writing all of this has been worthwhile.
A quick one on this front. Not much change from my last report. As Covid-19 cuts a swathe across the world, people being treated for cancer, and especially lung cancer, have more reason than most to avoid infection. Thanks to my particular treatment, I’m not immunocompromised, but I’m still going to be avoiding people as much as I can for the foreseeable future. For the moment at least, I feel good and am getting as much exercise as I can. Next week is my scheduled CT scan, after which I should know more about how things are progressing. Fingers crossed.
Or maybe it didn’t. We’ve been watching the news from China, and then from Italy, for the past couple of weeks now. We’ve seen epidemics spread before, and this is one we had plenty of time to see coming. (I cancelled a trip to Northern Italy a couple of weekends ago, before there was any news of cases here in Ireland. Maybe I missed my chance to be the local patient zero.)
So now we’re all in quasi-lockdown in Ireland. Or at least we are south of the border. Large gatherings are banned, shops have been sporadically denuded of a selection of items (flour, eggs, toilet-paper — sounds like the start of rag week in college), and those of us who can work from home have been strongly encouraged to do so. Which is a bit of a pain for me, as I have a Lego International Space Station set due to be delivered to work, and if there’s a classy way to go mad in isolation, it’s fiddling with a massive set of Lego.
Betrayed by timing once again…
Regardless of my Lego woes, there are bigger problems out there. Even at this first level of disruption, we’re about to find out exactly how robust the systems of our society are, and how much capacity we have to absorb periods of stress. I suspect we’re in for a rude awakening. Plenty of people now work freelance or on contract without support, and when their employers start grinding their gears in the absence of income, that pain is going to get passed along.
I’m not in that situation at the moment, thankfully, and there seems to be an initial burst of solidarity here, which is good to see, but how long that survives is the key question. Schools have shut months before summer was due, putting pressure on parents who may be struggling to make ends meet as it is, and our social services are already overworked. As someone with recent experience of the HSE, I can say that I’m glad my next appointment isn’t until the end of the month. At least I’m not adding more to what they have to deal with.
Ireland, of course, is sandwiched between the U.K. on one side and the U.S. on the other. In the former, a laissez-faire government is currently at war with businesses and organisations that aren’t quite as sanguine about the prospects of selective exposure working out when so little is known about how Covid-19 spreads. On the other, you have a government rotting from the head down and desperate to pass off responsibility for the problem to someone — anyone — while dragging their heels on doing anything. In comparison, Ireland looks like an oasis of calm, albeit one where two weeks ago people were up in arms over the fact that we didn’t have a government, and we still don’t.
We’re stuck this way for the rest of the month at least, which is going to mute the St. Patricks Day celebrations somewhat. Not that I mind — I haven’t been to the parade in years — but it’ll be a bit strange to have empty streets on a March 17th and a bit nice not to have hordes of drunken revellers infesting Temple Bar and staggering home at all hours. So let no one say that Covid-19 has brought nothing good.
After that, it’ll be back to the new normal. Properly leveraging all those many means of communication that we now have to keep touch with our family and friends. Getting out for regular walks so our muscles and brains don’t atrophy from being inside for so long. Making serious progress on your Netflix or Amazon Prime backlog, or your unread bookpile if you’re more erudite than I’ve become myself. And in the absence of my Lego set, I’ll see if I can finally get around to painting those three miniatures that have been sitting on my table for months.
For now, I hope you’re doing well in the midst of all of this, wherever you are, and that Covid-19 is brought under control to the point where our medical services can cope with a minimum of disruption. And as a last bit of entertainment, I offer a little Tom Lehrer (apologies for the lack of embedding — I’ll figure that problem out later):
Not a huge amount of news to share here. I’m aware that once again I haven’t updated in a little while (I had another post planned, but circumstances distracted me) but truth be told, I continue to take the pills and am still waiting on the CT scan at the start of April to find out what sort of work they’ve been doing. In the meantime, I’m doing my best not to become a total couch potato and remaining aware of my breathing (a little short right now but otherwise clear). Obviously, getting sick when my lungs are already below maximum capacity would lead to complications, so I’m going to avoid that too. For now though, life goes on and so do we all.
Over the years, I’ve appeared on a few TV quizzes, including victory in an episode of 15-to-1 that is thankfully lost to the mists of time—thankfully because of the terrible goatee I sported back then. One show that I would still love to appear on is the venerable Mastermind, BBC’s extra-dramatic test of general knowledge. Just the contestant seated in a black leather chair under the spotlight, as questions are fired at them.
One nice little touch in Mastermind has become the show’s catchphrase: should the final buzzer interrupt a question, the host will still let the contestant answer, with the phrase “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.” Thus there’s no frustrating sense of being cut off, and the contestant’s fate remains in their hands, not those of the inexorable progress of time.
This twist on the quiz format fits my psychology well. I’m a completist, and I get irritated when I can’t wrap my affairs up neatly. (Not to the point of being obsessive-compulsive, though you will occasionally find me straightening the salt and pepper shakers during dinner.) The main impact of this is that if I start reading, or watching, or participating in something, I don’t like to step away until it’s finished.
Given that TV shows and book series can turn bad during their runs, this isn’t the happiest of traits to have. Spending my time and money on entertainment that makes me feel resentful instead of happy isn’t logical behaviour, but the fallacy of sunk costs has a powerful grip. If I give up, aren’t I just admitting that I’ve wasted the effort and attention I’ve already committed? Having come so far, I may as well see things through, right?
Like most personal flaws, once you’re aware of it, you can take steps to rectify it. I’ve gotten better over the years at walking away from activities that I’m not enjoying any more. Not that I’m perfect though. If I’m quitting a TV show, I’ll still watch to the end of the current series. I might abandon a book series if I’m not enjoying it (Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was the first I did this with), but I’ll still finish an individual book, no matter how much the experience drags.
My recent diagnosis was a reminder that I need to get better at this. Though the initial impact has faded away, replaced by a return to something resembling normality, the reminder that the time we have available to us is finite still lingers. Wasting time on activities that I’m only persisting with out of a misplaced need to have a tidy ending isn’t a worse idea than it was a few months ago, it’s just that I’m more aware of how bad an idea it is.
This shouldn’t require some grand audit of how I spend my time, either. Just a metaphorical tap on my shoulder any time that I find myself bored or annoyed at a time when I ought to be engaged with whatever I’m doing. Do I really need or want to be doing this? And if not, what could I be doing instead? (This includes nothing—allowing myself time to recharge and decompress is better than spending my time busy when I’m achieving nothing more than winding myself up.)
So, unlike that metaphorical contestant on Mastermind, I don’t always have to finish. I can just walk away if I want to. Though in one particular instance, I might decide to finish properly. You see, the main reason I’ve never been on Mastermind is that my brother works for the BBC—an organisation that’s a bit touchy about potential impropriety. But it seems that an external company has now taken over the show, so that bar to my participation is no longer an issue. Next time they’re looking for contestants, I might just see if I’m a good fit for that black leather chair.
Missed a week, didn’t I? That was careless of me. Still, it hasn’t been a fortnight filled with incident, so you’re not missing too much. I’m just about finished my fourth week on (and hence first pack of) Alecensa, and the major side effect has been a reduction in my average heart rate of around 10bpm. You’ve probably heard enough about my digestive issues already, so on that side let’s just say that everything is under control with only minimal interference on my part.
I’ve also been putting on a bit of weight, though whether that’s down to my lowered metabolism or the fact that I’m back at a workplace which is keen to provide as many meals and snacks as possible is hard to say. Maybe both. In any case, a visit to the doctor in midweek suggests that the cancer has paused its advance, though more detailed results won’t be forthcoming until early April. Until then, let’s hope for smooth sailing (and an absence of coughing).
As promised, something a little lighter. The turn of the year brings with it Oscar season and a swathe of awards-bait movies. Somewhat unusually, this year I’ve managed to see a few of them. This has proved to be good timing. Movies gunning for golden statuettes can tend to be desperately self indulgent, but I actually enjoyed most of the movies that I watched over the Christmas period.
Below are brief reviews of four of those movies (one of them is not an awards-bait movie, but I did see it over the holidays). I also saw The Irishman, Scorsese’s mob epic, on Netflix, which was probably the best way to watch it, as it’s an interminably long retread of ground that Scorsese has already crossed and re-crossed, mostly in the company of the same actors. I’m not a big Scorsese fan but when all a movie has going for it is familiarity and technical achievement, it’s going to be a lesser work.
For upcoming movies, I still want to catch Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and I’m looking forward to Armando Ianucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. However, while I wait for those, on with the reviews, in more or less chronological order:
Knives Out, Rian Johnson
Having become the focus of Internet fan ire a year earlier for his work on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s return with a wonderful modern version of the classic Agatha Christie detective story is a warming success. Garnished with a truly wonderful cast, led by Anna de Armas and Daniel Craig, it does what Johnson likes doing best: takes apart a well-known genre, figures out what makes it tick, then puts it back together in a form just skewed enough to require the audience to pay close attention.
Paying attention pays off in this case, as Knives Out plays fair throughout, providing all the information that the audience needs to figure out what’s going on. Casually mentioned facts reappear later in the story, and no one is entirely to be trusted. Even better, the film lays out early on exactly what happened, turning instead into an exploration of how and why it happened. It’s a subtle distinction, but it brings the characters and their motivations to the fore, much to the evident joy of the cast.
Often when the people involved in a movie have clearly had a good time making it, the movie itself is a bit of a mess. That’s not the case here. Johnson’s script is tight and purposeful, and his cast are clearly having a ball playing a bevy of horrible, entitled people. Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis are all worthy of note, but Craig’s louche detective Benoit Blanc is a constant joy. All the happier news then that Johnson is planning further movies starring him. Bring them on.
Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker, J.J. Abrams
It’s been a tough few years for Star Wars fans at the movies. For all the money they’ve made, the Star Wars films have stuttered for Disney, with production on movies outside the main story having been halted. Which leaves only the final movie in the trilogy of trilogies for now. Following on from The Force Awakens, which was predictable but buoyed up by its appealing young cast, and The Last Jedi, which did interesting things with the Star Wars universe but clunked in several areas, we have Rise of the Skywalker, which lands with the dullest, heaviest of thuds.
The problem lies mostly with the writer/director. J.J. Abrams has a talent for tapping into fan nostalgia and grabbing audience interest with mysterious stories, but if Rise of the Skywalker proves anything, it’s that he has no idea how to plot a movie. He got away with it in The Force Awakens, which could devote itself to setting up mysteries for later films and which in any case borrowed its plot from earlier films in the franchise, but here he’s required to provide payoff for at least two and as much as eight earlier films, and he really doesn’t.
What he does instead is deliver a film stuffed from one end to the other with incident, action, and brand new and unexplained twists and turns. In this constantly weaving spaghetti junction of plot lines, the appealing traits of the core cast are lost and no time at all is taken to build suspense or allow the impact of seemingly galaxy-shaking events to sink in. Despite watching Star Wars since I was old enough to follow a story, my sense of wonder only twitched once, a positive reaction far outweighed by my eye rolling at overt fan service and sighing at yet another pointless hint that never gets followed up on. This should have been so much more.
JoJo Rabbit, Taika Waititi
Imagine the trickiest assignment you could give a scriptwriter. A comedy set in the waning days of World War II, told from the perspective of a ten-year-old Nazi fanboy, with Hitler as his imaginary friend? Oh, and it has to deal sincerely with anti-semitism, tragedy, and despair, all without being offensive or trite. That’ll probably be close to as tough as it gets. It’s entirely to Taiki Waititi’s credit that he took on the assignment in the first place and a sign of just how good a writer and director he is that the resulting film is something close to a triumph.
I’ve seen and heard a few reviewers complain that as a satire it’s toothless as a result of its silliness, which somewhat misses the fact that JoJo Rabbit isn’t a satire. It’s a coming-of-age story, told amid the most insane of circumstances, as the titular JoJo is required to confront the Nazi “truths” that have been drummed into him from his earliest days, embodied by Waititi’s Hitler, an imaginary friend who is by turns supportive, manic, and hateful.
The complexities of the supporting characters are deliberately hinted at rather than delved into: JoJo simply isn’t equipped to understand their despair, devotion, and rebellion. The exception is Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, a jewish girl he finds hiding in his house. Older and more insightful than JoJo, she has a drive for survival that he doesn’t understand, and it’s through her that he finds a path to growing up and developing empathy. By turns hilarious and deeply heartfelt, JoJo Rabbit was my favourite movie of the winter.
1917, Sam Mendes
Most of the attention paid to Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917 prior to its release centred around its unusual editing. The entire two hours is presented as taking place in more or less real time, with a single time jump in the middle. Any edits are carefully concealed, with the result that the camera almost never leaves its protagonists as they struggle through no-man’s land and across the western front during a lull in the fighting.
Does this structural flourish actually serve the movie? Arguably, it increases the sense of immersion, as the audience has little opportunity to breathe or look away across the two hours of the film. By the end of the movie, they’re likely to be just as exhausted as the survivors are. However, film editing is an almost universally recognised language, and at times the refusal of the editor to cut away or switch to a closeup can be jarring and remind the audience of the artifice of what they’re watching.
What’s left then is a solid, well-told story of desperation and heroism amid the horrors of the World War I trenches. Mendes doesn’t shy away from showing how awful the experience was, though the film is rarely gratuitous in its use of corpses and death. The cast, while not as impressive as that of Knives Out, does provide some highlights for viewers, but it’s the core duo of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay that impress the most. The weight of having an entire film production focused on you for far longer than normal can’t be underestimated, and succeeding as well as it does marks 1917 as an impressive feat.
Cancer Update: Towards the end of my second week on alectinib/Alcensa, things are settling down a bit. The most notable side effect has been a lowering of my heart rate, which may have knock-on effects in time but otherwise isn’t bothering me too much for now. My weight has also gone up a bit, but the cause of that is harder to identify. Constipation and returning to a sedentary job with ample access to snacks could both be contributing. So it’s probably a good thing that I started running again today.
Well, I say running. It was more of a 5k run/walk/stagger. However, the breathing wasn’t a problem. Instead, the out-of-practice legs were. So, as before, good news worth taking and I’ll run with that. Once I recover, that is.