It should have been Two Years On, really, but I was around a month late last time, and if 2021 was good for anything at all, it was procrastination. A year in which not much went forward and not much went back. A year of holding your breath and waiting to see which way the spinning coin falls.
Plus, if I keep up this trend for long enough, I get to skip year 13 entirely, and that gives me something to aim for. Grab for those slender straws!
Let’s frontload this post with some updates of the kind that I dropped around this time last year. In keeping with the theme of the year, my cancer hasn’t really advanced or retreated in the past thirteen months, though it has thrown up some interesting curveballs. To wit, a small anomalous blob in my left lung was identified as something of concern, so my pill-based treatment was supplemented with some judicious Stereotactic Radiotherapy.
If you’ve never heard of this before, it’s a refinement of older generations of radiotherapy treatments, designed to deliver pinpoint radiation to small targets, like the aforementioned anomalous blob. Quite a bit of setup is required: I had a prep session in which I was fitted for a moulded beanbag bed and marked with some targeting tattoos, rendering me unsuitable for salvation according to several religions. Ah well.
The treatment wasn’t a barrel of laughs, but I’ll take boredom and discomfort over pain and ill health any day. Under the care of the excellent medical staff, I spent five sessions of an hour or so breathing very shallowly (observing the motions of my chest on a monitor so close to my face that I couldn’t focus on it) while the rotating sensor zeroed in on my problematic portions and the emissive elements zapped them into oblivion. Hopefully anyhow. Further scans will tell more.
On the similarly high-tech but much more invasive front, another anomalous blob further south in my torso called for a couple of cystoscopies. On the bright side, this anomalous blob appears to be entirely benign. Similarly brightly, I’ve now enjoyed live HD footage from inside my bladder. Not brightly at all: everything else about the experience, including an infection that dropped me in hospital for a few days after the first scan. The staff as always were excellent, but there are places where cameras are not meant to go, no matter how small and flexible they may be.
Of course, there’s whatever I went through in 2021, and there’s whatever the world at large was going through. 2021 was the year that refused to get better, as Covid worked its way through the Greek alphabet with a series of resurgences as the moneyed powers of the world tried to persuade everyone to go back to spending money even as the elite creamed as much off the top as they could get away with.
Does that sound a bit radicalised? Maybe I’ve been reading Twitter too much, but there’s a depressing refusal among western governments to look towards long-term solutions with regard to anything, pushing climate legislation down the road even as the Antarctic melts and the permafrost vanishes. The sclerotic nature of political systems occupied by people for whom government is a career rather than a job more or less guarantees a conservative status quo. I’ve said before that I think we’re heading into another cycle of revolutions driven by the tendency of wealth and power to accrue more wealth and power, but this time around external factors might end up intruding before any sea change is effected.
It’s funny when having incurable cancer isn’t the worst thing about your life. It’s bad when it isn’t in the top two. Covid and isolation take top spot, and I’m really hoping to at least escape into the wilds more often in 2022. Second place is taken up by the recurring nightmare of waking up in a world where fascist talking points are increasingly aired in public and creep in on the edges of “respectable” media. A world where Trump, Johnson, Peterson, Rogan, and Musk are defended by armies of vehement fanboys online and bitcoin and NFTs are promoted as the be-all and end-all of putting a price on everything in existence, no matter the cost.
Thank you for listening to my rant, and if you haven’t made it this far, please excuse the logical impossibility. 2021 was far from a terrible year for me. It was too quiet for that, in the first place. I got to spend time with my family, adjusting ever so slowly to the absence of dad, and when I was able to, I met up with my friends, whose presence I remain entirely grateful for.
I baked bread, I wrote a novel (NaNoWriMo once again), and I enjoyed the summer as best I could. I also got a new job, and if there’s a positive side to the year, it was this change: the job in question is as close to my dream position as any I’ve ever been in, and the fact that I’m still learning as I go is just the icing on the cake. At some point in the year to come, I may even meet some more of my workmates in person (I’ve met a few, but mostly it’s been a work-from-home year).
So 2022, or the ten and a bit months of it that remain, is not without things to look forward to. There are medical worries hanging over my head, but that’s par for the course these days, and as long as I can enjoy the open air and the working day, I’ll consider myself fortunate enough. Hopefully the year will bring enough good things that others will be able to say the same.
If Kyoto felt like a pitch-perfect blend of Japan’s past and present, the latter half of my sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun saw those two elements divided and explored in isolation. I had four days left in Japan, and while Tokyo was the inevitable end goal of the experience, I still had a day to spend in a capital city of an older vintage.
Nara sits in a quiet valley south of Kyoto and east of Osaka. It’s something of a quiet adjunct to those major metropolises now, but back in the 8th century AD it was the capital of a nation that was still in the process of forming itself. Long before the age of samurai, Japan was developing its connections to China and Korea and absorbing influences like Buddhism. It was probably a chaotic, uncertain time, as can be seen in the fact that the Nara period lasted less than a century, but for me Nara proved a peaceful getaway in the midst of an overwhelming week.
There was an element of familiarity to the layout of the smaller, older city. Like Kyoto, Nara’s city centre is small and manageable, and to its east lies a much larger temple complex that is probably the main draw for most visitors. Booking at short notice, I ended up in a hotel instead of the ryokan I’d enjoyed in Kyoto, but in both cities I ended up spending most of my time wandering and exploring.
The key memory I have of Nara is the deer. If the temple district is where most tourists go, then the deer are the stars. The deer know it too. Regarded as divine messengers, they have absolutely no fear of tourists, and when it comes to eating some of the biscuits that shops sell to feed to them, they will practically bully their way into your pockets to get at them—as I learned no more than 30 seconds after buying some of those biscuits. Lesson learned. For the rest of my wanderings, I contented myself with watching them rather than encouraging stampedes.
There’s plenty to see amid the temples too, even discounting the deer. A massive statue of the Buddha and some pleasant country walks offering lovely views over the entire valley add to the appeal of the temples themselves, some of which were founded back in the Nara period themselves. (Although, given their wood construction, the odds are that very little of the material inside actually dates to that period.)
On the other side of the city centre, there are more solid remnants of Nara’s storied past, in the form of the keyhole-shaped kofun tombs from centuries earlier than the imperial period, and the remains and reconstructions of Heijo Palace, where the imperial family dwelt back in the day. Exploring all of that, as well as Nara’s restaurants and chilled out nightlife kept me engaged without being exhausted, and even if it didn’t have as much to offer as Kyoto, Nara proved the perfect addition to my exploration of that city.
Which left Tokyo. A short train trip took me back to Kyoto and a connection with the Shinkansen line. For the second time, I was hurtled at high speed through the Japanese countryside, on a packed train with tiny windows that created the feeling of being on an earthbound airplane. For the first time, I got a view of Mount Fuji, even if it was more limited than any that Hokusai might have enjoyed. I’d get another few before leaving, but I was short the extra day that I would have needed for a day trip from Tokyo to visit.
I’d actually managed to book my accommodation in advance this time, and while I’d considered going for a capsule hotel in pursuit of the true Japan experience, I ended up in a room that wasn’t much bigger and was definitely made for someone much shorter than a six-foot-plus Irishman.
The great advantage of this hotel though was its location. I was just a short walk away from Ueno train station, which meant I was right beside the museum district and just a short stroll north of the famous Akihabara district. Despite being one of the world’s genuine megalopolises, Tokyo’s public transport system is amazingly efficient, so picking the perfect location for your hotel isn’t the most important thing, but it worked for me given my love of walking whenever I can.
Talking about the next few days could end up as a long and mostly boring travel itinerary. Not only would that not work for my hypothetical reader, but it would also entail a lot of work for me in terms of checking exactly what I did. And that’s against the spirit of these reminiscences, which are mostly about what I remember and how I felt at the time. And what I felt about Tokyo is that Kyoto had been practice, Nara a short rest, and Tokyo the real deal.
To be clear, Kyoto was and is my favourite, but I’d budgeted the largest portion of the trip for Tokyo, spent most of my days there on my feet from early morning until after midnight, and racked up multiple experiences that have stayed with me through the years, and I still don’t think that I more than scratched the surface of this incredible city. It’s too much, no matter where you look, but it’s accessible for all that, and it’s only slightly behind Kyoto on my list of places to revisit.
Perhaps the best way to discuss Tokyo is to talk about its districts. I’ve already mentioned neon-drenched Akihabara, with its array of electronics and games stores and its maid cafes, but it’s just a tiny little sliver of the city as a whole. Closer to where I was staying, there was Ueno Onshi Park, where some of the country’s best museums offer an insight into how Japan came to be and how it sees itself.
Efforts to view the Tsukiji Fish Market took me through the high-class Ginza district, though the market itself proved to be closed. Nearby were the peaceful Hama-rikyu Gardens though, and I passed a pleasant hour in a tea house looking over still waters and calming greenery. A few days later, I’d take a boat across the bay to the Odaiba Seaside Park, with its Ferris wheel, Hello Kitty store, and Toyota museum. From a glance at a map, a lot has happened to that area in the past ten years, but one of my favourite experiences proved to be walking back across the bay, on the walkway of the Rainbow Bridge.
Ignoring for the most part the imperial palace that lies at the heart of the city (as I tended to use it as a shortcut across Tokyo), we hop to the west and come to the districts of Shibuya, Harajuku, and Shinjuku. Shibuya is best known for the famous Shibuya Crossing square, which I viewed from a McDonalds after having a long and tiring walk from one side of the city to the other.
Lest it be thought that I’m a complete savage, I did take the opportunity of a visit to Harajuku to try out some top class sushi and break my long-time dislike of that food before going for a ramble around the Yoyogi Park next door, with its massive Meiji Shrine still heavily trafficked by both Japanese and tourists.
Yoyogi sits on the doorstep of Shinjuku, which is almost a city within a city in Tokyo. Rail lines converge here and buildings reach for the sky. In particular, the massive bulk of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, offers a view not only over Tokyo itself, but all the way to Fuji in the distant west. It was a bit too hazy to enjoy that view when I made my way up there, thereby fulfilling my habit of climbing to the top of the tallest viewing point in every city, but the view was good enough for me to return at night and take in the glittering view of Tokyo in the dark.
Tokyo in the dark needs a mention all on its own. Back in Moscow I’d felt uncomfortable and out of place when the sun went down. In Tokyo, I felt free to explore in a city that felt safe and was more than welcome to keep running on a 24-hour basis. It probably helped that I didn’t drink much, though I did find my way into a hostess bar for an hour or so that thankfully ended when I ran out of the small amount of money I was carrying on me.
Tokyo never stopped welcoming me or showing me new things over the days that I spent there. And I never ventured too far beyond the loop line that connects all the districts that I’ve talked about above. So there’s doubtless far more to be seen and experienced. I haven’t even talked about streetside noodle bars, hidden shrines, or the odd architecture of the Asahi Beer Hall.
However, time runs out, especially when you’ve only assigned yourself a small amount. Eventually I summoned my bags, closed the door on my tiny hotel room, and jumped on a train to Narita airport. There I had one last new experience in Japan: a delay. It was handsomely compensated for with a dinner voucher, and before too long I was decanted onto one of Airbus’s great white whales of the sky, an A380. I had a long flight to look forward to, my first since landing in London, and an entirely new country and continent to cross.
I said that I’d only provide these when I had news to impart, didn’t I? Well, there’s some news. The most recent of my regular scans spotted something untoward in my left lung, and a subsequent PET scan (one of those that leaves me too radioactive to be in the company of small children and pregnant women) determined that it was something that needed treating. So I’ve been referred to radiology for the purposes of thoroughly zapping said something via a tube poked into the host lung. All being well, it’s been spotted early enough to deal with it without too much trouble. I’ve done well out of treatment so far and hopefully that will continue.
On December 3rd, 2019, I got my second cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t wholly unexpected by the time it arrived, but news like that still takes time to digest. You can read more about it here, if you want. My assumption at the time was that this would be the problem that I’d spend the next year navigating. That I would have to shape my life around it, one way or another.
2020 laughed at us all, didn’t it?
From the vantage point of twelve months later, cancer was just one of three major issues I ended up having to deal with. Of the three of them, it hasn’t been the hardest to get past, and it’s actually had the least impact on my day-to-day life. The others were, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended and ended lives around the world, and the unexpected death of my father just as the pandemic was seriously getting started. Amid all of this, I can actually count myself a little lucky: as serious as my cancer is, it hasn’t been a massive burden to add to everything else 2020 has brought.
Yes, my cancer was and is serious. Lung cancer, stage 4, not curable. I have regular checkups and slightly less regular scans to monitor its progress. My running career has come to a grinding halt, and I can still feel the cancer’s presence with every deep breath or truncated moment of exertion. But I had a lucky break: a mutation in the cancer gene meant I was suitable for a pill-based therapy. Four pills, morning and evening. Minimal side effects and no need to be plugged into a saline drip for hours at a time, or have bits of me irradiated.
The result is that after being beaten back at first—allowing me to sleep more easily and largely eliminating my persistent cough—the cancer has been held in check for the rest of the year. The last few scans have been almost boring in their sameness, and my doctor and I have been enjoying informatively brief get-togethers for the past few months.
There have been hiccups, of course. Back around April and May, I found myself coughing up blood occasionally. No cause was ever found, despite a bronchoscope giving the medical profession yet another chance to poke around the inside of my lungs, but the fact that this coincided with the stress of my father’s funeral and the aftermath seems to offer a neat explanation. The pills have not been entirely without side effects either: a rash on my legs and a lowered heart rate that has seen me heading for my bed earlier than I might otherwise. (Typically I’m more of a morning person anyway, as several ex-girlfriends have bemoaned, so I’m not sure that many would notice any difference.)
Back when I was first diagnosed, I expressed some hope that I’d be able to spend some of 2020 travelling and writing. Prioritising things and people that matter to me. As it happened, none of that worked out. COVID-19 meant that international travel of any kind was off the menu, and the stress of living through a pandemic, family bereavement, and a cancer diagnosis turned out to be (surprise!) not conducive to the creative spark.
As the year has drawn to a close, I’ve started to get moving again, though the latest lockdown has kept travel far away. I did the 2020 NaNoWriMo challenge and hit the 50,000 word mark on time, giving me a boost of achievement that was sorely needed. Okay, so I didn’t actually finish the book I was working on, but I did at least prod my writing habit back into life. I’ve also kept up my walking in the face of worsening weather: work’s “Walktober” event probably helped with that.
Last of all there’s been Christmas. A strange, truncated Christmas that I managed to spend with my mum in the face of imminent lockdowns across the island of Ireland. A grab for normality as hopes for 2021 are born in the swirl of Brexit deals, vaccine arrivals, and the departure of at least one straw-haired headcase from the corridors of power.
For the past year, I’ve been appending these posts with a “Cancer Update.” Doing my bit to let people know how I’m getting on without broadcasting it on Facebook. With the end of the year, I think it’s time to retire that. As mentioned above, I’ve been enduring well enough through the year, with minimal side effects and struggles (cancer-related at least). While I’ll keep updating this blog, the “Cancer Update” will only reappear if there’s actual news to pass on. If it doesn’t appear, assume that things continue much as they have in the past year. Though I won’t take it amiss if you contact me to say hi and ask for a more detailed update.
So the time has come to crumple 2020 up and consign it to the dustbin of history. We’ll take our good memories where we have them and look to 2021 for a chance to improve things instead. I’ll continue to post irregularly, no doubt, and hopefully will have a chance to inspire some envy with travel posts before too long. After all, one advantage of cancer is getting bumped up the schedule for a vaccine shot…
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.
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.