Cardboard Carpenter – City of Remnants

Image courtesy of Plaid Hat Games, by kind permission. Art by John Ariosa. All rights remain his.

It wasn’t the most dramatic or interesting moment of the game, but it was arresting.

A gang of hulking, violent heavies breaks into a stronghold held by a police patrol, directly in the centre of the city. A few cards on the table and a roll of the die. The right cards meant it was almost a certainty, but dice don’t often deal in certainty. It was an aggressive move, rude even. It wasn’t their stronghold. Unoccupied until the police moved in, presumably putting off the gang who built it. A fruit for picking, for the prestige as much as anything.

Three Iggaret scrappers checked their guns, ran round the corner and climbed the walls of the stronghold. They rolled the dice, and set the police on fire.

I realised after I succeeded that I’d basically just done an Assault on Precinct 13.

City of Remnants is a game that deserves a John Carpenter soundtrack. It is threatening, it is tense, it is lean and beautiful. It is just a little scary.

I won’t go deep into the rules, you can find plenty of reviews that do that. The short version is that you are a gang of refugees, dividing along racial lines and fighting for renown in a bleak wasteland of a city.

The game has a backstory only slightly more detailed than that single sentence. The manual provides a paragraph, and a short story at the back. But this is a game full of stories. It makes stories with its mechanics, and it tells stories in little flashes of detail.

Each card in the game has at least a line of backstory, something someone said, a little slice of insight. These fragments build a world. You could miss that world if you didn’t read it, but I don’t think there’s any way you can avoid what’s going on in this game.

You are hard up. You are building yourself up, but you are building by treading on other people’s faces. Not even just the other gangs. There is slavery. There are drugs. There are fight clubs and gambling dens. The game is fundamentally about gangs divided on racial lines, and some aliens don’t play nicely with others. At the end of every round, you will get stomped on by the police. If you fight back, there’s a real chance that they’ll just stomp back harder. Bribery often feels like the safest option.

So much of this comes directly from the rules. The story is clear. Every decision is a fight. Every fight is for your life.

Each turn is a single choice. You can only do one action. There aren’t that many actions.

Each fight is a gamble. You don’t know what your opponent has, and if you have to fight a second round, you may find you’re playing blind. If you lose, you could lose an important linchpin of your strategy. Every item, gang member and ability is a card. If you only put one gang member into a fight and you lose, that gang member is gone. Even if it’s your leader.

Put it in the box. You’re dead.

There’s weight to actions. Choosing what to do is a little agonising, but you’ll almost always get some benefit, so it doesn’t slow down the game. There’s a lot of ways to get ahead. It’s just deciding which one might work. Making a plan. Making it work.

And then it’s gambling, pushing your luck, and playing cool when things get desperate.

Desperate is the word. This world is desperate, and you will be too. You have not got much time, and you can lose momentum quickly.

The game is the theme is the story is the world is everything.

This is a game with a lot of moving parts. Set up takes a while, and once you get there you’re left with a lot of piles of tokens and stacks of cards and a small army of little plastic miniatures. Each person has a gang pool, a draw deck, a discard pile and a hand. You can recruit gang members, buy contraband or build developments. You have to position your people, and your buildings; a rude combination of tetris and chess. Make sure everyone is protected. Make sure everywhere is efficient. You build an economy. You build a gang. You get angry when you die, or you lose ground. You get revenge.

I think this is a lean, taut and brutal game. It is immediately engaging, despite the initially intimidating appearance. It’s straightforward to teach (although probably not enough for boardgame beginners), and it quickly becomes clear how much possibility there is.

It looks complicated. And in a way it is.

But at the same time, each element is simple. You can play these cards any time during your turn. These cards are for battles. Everything does what it says on the card. Positioning is important and clear. Having neighbours makes you stronger.

It’s all a series of simple choices, simple mechanics, combining in a well thought out, solidly balanced way.

And more than all of that. It feels right. It feels like you’re scraping by with very little. It feels like you’re building a precious, precarious empire. It feels like every time you expand you just make it more likely the police are going to knock down your door. It feels like you have a gang. A gang made of remnants. A gang you could lose.

It feels like proper sci-fi. Grim, dirty, desperate and intriguing. Not a story, but a world.

And then you make your own story.

This would not be my game to win people over to boardgames. It’s a bit too complicated (but actually it doesn’t waste a drop of anything), it’s a bit too grimdark cliché (but actually the world is much richer than first glance) and it’s a bit long and slow (but actually it’s tense and pacey and ends just at the right amount of a little bit too soon).

But once someone has taken their first paddle into the cardboard waters, and started to see that there’s more going on than they thought, I think this is the game to show them just how deep the water is.

I can’t stop thinking about it. About the mechanics, about the tactics, about the world. It doesn’t ever feel like just a game. It feels like a City. A place where people live, somehow, and die.

I can’t wait to put that City back on my table, and tell some more stories in it.

Further reading:

I’ve already linked to the Shut Up show video review, which might get you almost as excited as me. I’d also recommend the Cardboard Republic review. I particularly like their explanation of why it is good for different ‘gamer archetypes‘. Not entirely sure I agree with their definitions, but I like the idea, and it’s a good critical tool.

Much of my boardgame enthusiasm and knowhow comes from the chaps at Shut Up & Sit Down, so here’s an obligatory link. They’re great, fun, and informative.

Obviously check out Plaid Hat Games to see the developer, they have great how to play videos, and I think they are genuinely lovely people. The SU&SD interview confirms some of that loveliness. Also, check out Plaid, although they have nothing to do with Plaid hat, and some people even say they pronounce it differently.

Thanks to Plaid Hat for permission to use John Ariosa’s picture for the header. Ace customer service, I’ve had two email responses directly from Isaac Vega, the maker of this game. Which makes me feel cool.

 Oh, and the Escape from New York and Assault from Precinct 13 soundtracks are awesome.

Posted in Boardgames, Culture, Thoughts | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

This is Cardboard – Plastic Pieces and Cardboard Worlds

Cardboard Worlds

A few nights ago, a friend almost had a panic attack because she couldn’t work out if she could trust her husband.

A few years ago, I played a game about undercover robots with a group of people who had recently discovered an old friend had been an undercover cop.

A few decades ago, I spent all my spare moments reading through the rules of a game I could never play. I wanted to know what every dice roll could lead to. I didn’t have the dice, I didn’t have the pieces, I didn’t even have the right rule book, but I read that book from cover to cover.

I’ve been obsessed with boardgames for as long as I can remember, but it feels like it has only recently become a hobby that I actually have.

I want to try and get across some of that passion, because as happy as I am to have a broad group of lovely people to play games with, I feel like I want more. It’s not even just that I want to play more boardgames, it’s that I want more boardgames to be played. I think people are missing out on something genuinely special by not playing boardgames together.

It’s a hard sell, I know. ‘Boardgames’ mean Monopoly to most people. I hate Monopoly. I want some way to scour it from the collective consciousness, so that people stop associating the word boardgame with endless spirals of estate agency capitalism. As I understand it, the game started out as a parody of capitalism. That boredom? That futility? That’s the point. It actually does it’s job fairly well, so I shouldn’t criticise. It is the perfect simulator of economic alienation. But the problem with capitalism is that it’s only fun for one person, and then only if they’re a sociopath.

Cluedo isn’t much better, just a banal logic game with randomised dice friction. I’ve spent days with Risk, but I recognise it’s problems.

I don’t want to talk about these games any more. I want you to stop thinking about them. I want you to think about what games could be. What games actually are.

There’s a lot of them out there. You can do everything from wage interstellar war to building countryside in medieval France. You can be a gladiator or a treasure hunter. You can get eaten by sharks or murdered by Lannisters.

But that’s not the magic bit. The magic bit is that you are doing this with your friends. Sometimes your best friends.

I read a game theory book once, and it talked about the idea of the magic circle. When you start playing a game, you get together with a group of people, and agree to ignore common sense. If golf was really about putting a ball in that hole over there, you’d pick it up and walk over there. But it isn’t, it’s about putting a ball in that hole over there with a grand scheme of arbitrary limitations to make it interesting.

When you play a boardgame, you put aside reality, and you build your own new one for a while. You learn some rules, you work out what you’re trying to do, and then you make it real. You put down pieces of card, and you pick up pieces of plastic, and you turn them into a universe.

Even the most competitive games (and there’s plenty that aren’t competitive) are an act of collaboration. You all agree to not be a dick, whilst agreeing its okay to be a dick. You encourage each other to try and best each other, to try and bear grudges, to lie and betray. All those things you can’t normally do without being horrible? You’re supposed to, and you aren’t even really doing it. You’re doing it with pieces of card and plastic that don’t mean anything apart from all that emotion you’ve invested in them.

The game means nothing. It’s just words and cardboard, bits and pieces. Except it means everything. It’s a world. A world you made, out of someone else’s ideas and rules and art and hard work.

You buy a box, and you can dive into it as often as you can get a group of people together, and the right box, the right game, will have you aching to play again.

I’ve played some gruelling games of Game of Thrones (of thrones), a boardgame that can easily eat a whole day. At the end of each one there’s been a bit of my brain saying ‘I need to do that again, right now’. It’s intense. Superficially, it’s like Risk, a map, some cards and some little plastic pieces representing armies. It isn’t Risk, it’s an engine for betrayal. When you plan your move, you feel like you could know what the best move is, because all the information is right there. The rules and the pieces and the cards. They’re all there in front of you. You could almost forget about the people, trying to make the same calculations as you, second and triple guessing every action. You secretly put down tokens to say what you’re going to do in the turn, and then you all reveal together.

It takes a while to sink in, nothing has happened like you expected, and you might still not notice the knife in your back.

Because you know the game, but you don’t know the people. Even the people you know best.

This weekend we played a game of ‘Avalon’ a follow up/expanded version of a popular game about lying called ‘The Resistance’. Basically, you are going on missions together, choosing who you trust to go, if you pick the wrong people you fail the mission, fail too many missions, and you lose the game. I worried for the health of my friend, as she tried to work out if her husband was being calm in order to reassure her or in order to manipulate her. The game consists largely of talking, there’s a logic puzzle going on, but it’s almost always over-ridden by the more social and more fallible ‘do you trust me’ game. Lies and trust. Look me in the eyes and tell me you’re a good guy. If you’re lying to me, I may never be able to trust you again.

But what happens in boardgame-world stays in boardgame-world. It’s like Vegas, only you’ve got a chance of winning. And you don’t need poppers to have fun.

I love it. I love it so much. I love getting together with real life people, and making something impossible happen, just by following some rules, and bothering to care.

I can spend hours poring over rulebooks, reading reviews and finding out how games work, and I love that too. I love reading about a mechanic and thinking ‘that’s incredible’.

But without people, a clever mechanic is just an unwound clock. Beautiful, intricate, and largely useless.

If I’ve piqued your interest, and you live anywhere near Brighton, give me a shout on twitter. I’ll happily show you into one of the cardboard worlds on the shelf in my living room.

Because as stupid as it may sound, I actually think boardgames are important. I think learning how to play with people could change the world (ever so slowly, ever so slightly). I think it’s a better way of getting to know people than going to the pub and drunkenly shouting. I think it’s infinitely more sociable than going to the cinema.

I think it would make you happier.

Come and play. Or go and play.

Something magic might happen.

—-

Illustration by Emma

I can’t recommend enough watching/reading Shut Up and Sit Down if you want to find out more about games. I have a crush on all of them, and want to be their friends. You can watch them playing Avalon (with the extra bits) or read them talking about Game of Thrones, for example. between them and Rab Florence (now pretending to be a sentient table) at Rock Paper Shotgun, I have been lured whole heartedly into this hobby. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and they’ve taught me a lot about the way games are structured, as well as how emotionally engaging they are. Thanks, them!

The irony of this ramble, is that I came here to write about mechanics, and I talked about people instead. This is okay. I hear there’s time in the future.

Posted in Boardgames, Culture, Ramble | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Writing Praxis – From Passion to Practice

alex_zpsa8d94fa1

It’s my birthday, so I’ve given myself permission to write something self obsessed to try and dig myself out of a frustrating hole.

I think of myself as a writer. I spent two years tricking myself into actually being one through the creative practice/experiment/collaboration of awesome that was Unstruck. By working with other people and setting myself arbitrary deadlines, targets, and systems of expectation, I wrote over 250,000 words about everything under the sun.

It was quite fun.

For that period, I felt creatively engaged, challenged and entertained. The way that I was working with different people meant that even if I didn’t feel happy with my own work, I could see other people being interested, and look at these stunning illustrations that had indirectly had my input. It was quite incredible. Last September(ish) I decided that as it approached 500 posts (of 500 words a piece) I should stop, have a break, and do something new.

Guess what happened.

I’m still broken, it seems. In the intervening period I’ve probably written about four pieces. I did about 10,000 words of a novel for nanowrimo, but realised that I was killing a good idea for a story, and so stopped before it sucked all the joy out of it (that story is still pootling around the back of my head, so I think this may have been the right thing). I’ve written a few politically inspired pieces on here that I’m faintly happy with, and one gig review that was probably a bit too self indulgent.

I do think Unstruck is ‘finished’ and so I want to do something new, but I appear to have forgotten how. Let me explain a few of the ideas I’ve had to get me back on track, and see what you think. Please tell me if you’d like to see these actually happen, as that might help.

  • Unconsequence – A sequel to Unstruck, getting rid of the questions, but chaining all the pieces together. An illustration is written about, and then the writing is illustrated, and then that illustration is written about (hopefully differently), and then that writing is illustrated and so on for eternity (or until there’s a natural end). I think this could me much harder work for me and the illustrators, and has more potential than Unstruck to go horribly, horribly wrong, but…well, it’s appealing, as I know this sort of system could motivate me, and it could lead to more ‘fiction-like’ pieces than Unstruck allowed. I would need more illustrators to get on board though, and I think it would need more commitment than Unstruck.
  • Sharing Needles – I hate writing about music, but perhaps if I explored individual records in a deeply personal way (without being allowed to use the adjective ‘visceral’ unless talking about actual viscera, for example), I could challenge this. This all leapt out of realising that the moment I put the needle on certain disco records, I feel like I’ve made a decision to self medicate my bouts of depressiveness. And it works. Records as medication, hence the needles, writing about it, hence the sharing. One of the things I like here is that Emma could do illustrations, based on distortions and manipulations of the album covers I was discussing. She seemed ‘up for this’.
  • Thingsnowball – Another blog, this time based on ‘things’ and the cascades of thought that can build up around them. Basically, an excuse to write what I wanted, with the caveat that it had to be based on a particular thing encased at the top of the article, be it a quote, a picture, a sculpture, a piece of music, a sculpture or whatever. I would encourge people to send me things to write about, as the audience participation element of Unstruck really kept me on my toes.
  • The Land of Cows and Bees (working title) – Stepping away from blogs (unless I decide to write it as a fake blog), this is my failed nanowrimo, reimagined some. Basically, a not hugely successful journalist, writing about fortean hoaxes in a cynical way, gets invited to the heart of a secretive cult (on a Scientology scale) to interview the nameless and massively private leader. The leader proceeds to be a complete money grubbing dick, but also performs genuine, impossible miracles. Journo has to work out what this means for the universe. I’ve got a good climactic scene in my head for this, but I’ve still not nailed how to write proper fiction without strangling myself in overindulgence. I like this idea enough that I don’t want to do it too soon.
  • ‘The Vampire Jesus project’ (a nonfunctional placeholder)- This resurfaced today, after reading about Pope Innocent VIII drinking the blood of three young boys, to try and save himself from dying. His anti-science stance had led him to ban the translation of a document about blood circulation into latin, so he wasn’t aware this wasn’t how you did blood transfusions. He died, so did the boys. I’ve been intrigued for years about the vampiric symbolism of the catholic mass, and would quite like to write something about the intensely blasphemous notion that Jesus was the Ur-Vampire, and that the ‘true’ christianity is only practiced by vampires. The council of Nicea tried to eradicate this and turn catholicism into something a bit more humanic. Vampires are massively overdone, so I’m not sure about this one, but it does intrigue me just because I think it would make a good comic. Would need a pretty dedicated collaborator to make this work in the long run though. I’d also be shocked if nobody has already thought of this idea and ran with it.

You get the idea. Possibly. I do still have ideas, but I’m not executing them. Fear and paranoia and not wanting to leave a further string of failed projects littering the internet hold me back. The heartfelt conviction that I am a writer, can’t bear writing too much more dreadful prose. Unstruck practiced a certain type of writing, and I think made me a thousand times better, so part of me knows that all I need is to get writing, and keep writing until terrible becomes good.

But ideas. Ideas. They are slippery.

Sometimes I realise that I am just not creative. I don’t have a million ideas, and I’m terrified of running out. Unstruck didn’t exercise that muscle, because the people asking the questions had to do all the heavy lifting. Those two story ideas upstairs? One is the only really workable one I’ve had in the last year. The other is about five years old. I’m not churning these out daily.

So I have a few options. I can jump into another blog project (I am addicted to starting new blogs, but never writing them), with a big system and a programme of thought and all those things that help me focus. I can start writing ‘novels’ and try and get some of the big stories out. Or I can spend time properly formulating. Planning, Trying to force myself into being more creative by pushing my brain into new places. I’ve been reading semi-random sections from Scarlet Thomas’ creative writing book recently, and it’s really firing me up to spend some time actually exploring ‘devices’ for goading me into creativity. Judging from how much inspiration I’ve had from just thinking about it, this seems worthwhile.

But it’s all so easy to put aside.

I get excited by things (if you’ve met me or read me for a while, you probably know this). I’m a jack-of-all-interests, master of nothing. I find myself constantly diving from one interest to another. I want to make a boardgame, at the moment. And don’t know if I should let myself be distracted from writing by this. My bones don’t tell me who I am, they just tell me that I have this passion. These passions.

But how to I put passion into practice, when I’m such a flittering, ranting, rambling, moody, lost and vortexed mess.

The truth is, I just need to do it.

I know this, and I’ve spent a good chunk of the last year throwing my life into turmoil so that I have the mental-space and time-space in which to do it. Now I have to do it.

Perhaps it’ll be hubristic, but I’m thinking of this piece not as a blog, but a line in the sand. Not a barrier, but a line stretching out in front of me, clearly delineating that something must be done.

If I don’t start doing it now, and have come a long way when I look at this again in a years orbit. I will be filled with shame and self loathing. My brain is fragile enough that I can’t afford to do this.

So it’s write or die. Apparently.

Wish me luck. Feed me encouragement. Goad me, challenge me and shake me until I’m writing. If you like, tell me what to write. I promise that if anyone asks me to write something, I will write it. I won’t necessarily let you publish it on your money making website, but I will write it.

And I’m going to work, and it’s going to work.

I hope.

—-

Illustration by Emma, not specifically for this piece, but for a birthday card, which freaked me the hell out.

Posted in Mild Mania, Ramble, Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Without you my live would be boring – The Knife, Pan’s People and pushing buttons

Image

I wonder if the Knife aren’t happy with being famous any more. Heartbeats and Silent Shout burst onto a wider scene than they felt they were right for, and now they’re trying to turn off as much of their mainstream appeal as possible. People are calling the record pretentious nonsense, and they’re putting on live shows that people are walking out of. Something tells me they don’t mind.

I went to see them at the Roundhouse last week, and behind me there was a man who spent a good chunk of the show shouting at Karin Dreijer Andersson to ‘do some singing’. After about ten minutes of pretending to play imaginary instruments made out of papier mache and tinfoil, the ten piece ‘band’ crossed their hands (and drumsticks, and glowstick bows) above their heads, as the music burst on without them.

In case it wasn’t clear, the music was not being generated on stage.

They proceeded to prance about for the next hour and twenty. I’d been forewarned that the show was like a cross between Pan’s People, a cheap theatre school production and “Riverdance for cunts”. All these elements were present. The whole thing smelt of 70s Doctor Who, 80s aerobics, 90s acid and titting about on youtube. The vocal line would be mimed intermittently by different people, to the point where I had no idea if Karin Dreijer Andersson was even on stage, let alone emitting noises from her vocal chords. I have no idea what Olof Dreijer, Karin’s brother and the other half of the actual band, was even in the country.

It was well lit, and it looked like fun. Despite being cheap and amateurish, it was constantly shifting, often disconcerting, and genuinely funny. More than anything though, it was thought provoking. From where I was standing, the man behind me getting increasingly irate at his wasted thirty quid, started to seem like the absurd one.

What exactly are you paying for, when you buy a gig ticket? Where exactly does the authentic experience of live music lie? I’ve seen Matthew Herbert play with equipment scattered around different bits of the stage; in a tent or up a ladder; just so that everything can go wrong and sound horrible, so you know he’s doing it live. I’ve seen Orbital’s so called ‘best live show ever’ that’s basically just a fuckload of lasers and a Belinda Carlisle/Bon Jovi mashup. I’ve heard stories of Aphex Twin delivering live sets that have actually been generated by artificial intelligence on his computer, with him having no input whatsoever.

And most of all, I’ve seen a hundred people, hunched over laptops, with nothing exciting in the noises, and nothing to look at but a glowing white apple, sometimes with a sticker on it for anti-corporate credibility.

And that’s just the electronic stuff. I’ve seen the Born Ruffian’s play with a lead singer who couldn’t play his set because his voice was too broken for high notes. I’ve watched Caribou just be incredibly fucking tedious. I’ve seen hundreds of grumpy long haired teenagers (of all ages) staring away from the audience and doing their mediocre job.

The crowds though, we eat it up. We jostle to get to the front of the stage so we can be closer to the sullen faces of our ‘heroes’. We’ll happily stare at four people on a stage in the same pose as every other four people, going through the same motions. We’ll get pissed off at the tall person in front of us, grabbing angrily at his lustrous curly locks (I get this a lot), despite there being nothing whatsoever to see.

What is a great live show? It’s a horde of arseholes staring at a much smaller group of other arseholes.

This is a lie. A great live show is generally some kind of weird musical feat. Most of the top of my list is filled with people with more than one drummer. The top of my list is occupied by the Boredoms, with 9 drummers. There may be a direct relationship between the number of drummers and how happy I am with a live show. The only time that Caribou show was even remotely bearable was when Dan Snaith briefly got onto his drum kit along with his drummer, and the sound filled out to something with just a tiny bit of depth.

The Knife had no drummers, but two drumkits, and I’m pretty sure someone was hitting the megacello at one point. But it didn’t matter. For me, it was incredible.

I’ve fooled myself into believing that Olof, the sibling responsible for the music, was actually tucked away behind stage somewhere adding some kind of liveness to the soundscapes. Part of me refuses to believe that it was purely a backing track. It sounded too perfectly moulded to the space and the speakers. From a violently reverberating bass exploration at the opening, sounds that tore through your flesh and worried your bowels, to the relentless battering drums of ‘Full of Fire’, the music sounded immaculately present. Backing track or hidden Olof, the music was absolutely the star of the show. The sound was visceral and all encompassing. It wrapped you up and pulled your body around. It was everything I wanted.

So whatever the show looked like, it sounded amazing. Could it have sounded ‘more live’? I have no idea. What does that even mean, in a world where the music is generated not in echo chambers and vibrating strings, but by the twist of electrons on a circuit board? Why do people get angry when an artist acknowledges that they’ve made music that is going to make a dreadful live show if all they do is press the right buttons? Why do we celebrate people for making impossible musical structures, and then get upset that they don’t do a limp-wristed acoustic version in person?

The whole performance seemed to be asking for someone to provide a definition of ‘authentic’, ‘live’ and ‘performance’. Infamous for incredible audiovisual shows, creating an atmosphere and having intricate lasers, the punchline was felt at the end. They played Silent Shout and revealed they still had the incredible laser box of their last tour, they just chose not to bother with it. The tone of everything changed as people gazed upwards into the intricate patterns etched into smoke by the perpetually re-arranging lights. It felt like a rebuff: ‘This is what our last live show was like, and it was just the same as this, distracting nonsense’.

A live show with something to look at is fine. A live show that may not be live is fine. A great live show is nothing more than a presentation of some music. If that music affects you. If that presentation takes you somewhere, mentally, then the live show is a success. Particularly if it takes you where the band want you to go.

That’s art. And you probably don’t get your money back if you think it’s shit.

Maybe the Knife have destroyed their reputation as a great live show. Maybe next time, they won’t sell out all their venues in an hour. Maybe next time they’ll tour smaller venues, and be left with a hardcore of queers, freaks and weirdos that still love them whatever.

And maybe that’s the other point. This was a show that felt aimed at some kind of subset of Knife fans. The ones who get the genderbent artifice of the whole thing. This wasn’t one for the hipsters. Or this was one for the hipsters, depending on your point of view. Or where you keep your hips.

It’s possible that I only got to enjoy the show because I had been forewarned. If I’d gone expecting lasers and darkness and I got Pan’s People and glitter, maybe I would’ve been pissed off. But then, I once hitched to Germany to watch their opera, which they weren’t there for, and it was still incredible. Maybe I’m the problem here. Maybe I just refuse to believe I wasted a healthy chunk of my meagre income on going to watch an episode of Top of the Pops.

But part of me knows that it was a brutal, powerful, intense and dark experience.

Part of me was transported, and that’s all I’ve ever asked of music.

Illustration by Daniel with many thanks.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared on themonitors last month (when the phrase ‘last week’ was still truthful). You should probably follow them for music news, because theirs is still new.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Spot the difference – Solidarity, Intersectionality, Empathy, Compassion, Love

Sharing

This is in response to a lot of things that I don’t think I’m going to address directly. If you’ve been following the people I follow on twitter this weekend, you know what it’s about. There’s been some awesome responses, particularly here, and shockingly, three years ago, here.

The thing is, we’re all so very different from each other.

This is the thing you have to learn, again, and again, in order to be really good at being a human being.

It’s not easy, but if you look closely enough you can see that we are all different. Your viewpoint on anything is not the same as mine. We have lived entirely different lives, lived through different experiences, and so become different people. We’re also made up of entirely different genetic material, so even our starting points are different.

Sometimes, when fighting against injustice, we use words that hurt someone. Sometimes we’re not even fighting against injustice.

Because we are not other people, we cannot always hear when we’re hurting someone.

Here’s the key.

When someone says you’ve said or done something hurtful, you should probably stop and listen, because they are giving you a chance to use their ears to hear your words.

It’s an incredible opportunity, the thrill of communication. By listening, we can actually learn something about the way someone different from us thinks. Language is this incredible gift, it’s clumsy, and its easy to make mistake, but it gives us the opportunity to share experiences.

You use it best when you listen, or read.

If you’ve not heard of intersectionality, don’t worry, it kind of means the same as all the others. It’s the idea that we’re all part of multiple groups. Some of those groups are mistreated by ‘society’ (that’s a word that means ‘us’, by the way), and because people fit into more than one group, they may have their mistreatment multiplied, and that can be really fucking difficult. It also means that you may be mistreated as part of one group, but also have ‘privilege’ (I’ll get back to that in a minute) in as part of another.

What this means is you can experience being white and a woman. You can experience being gay and disabled. You can experience being Jewish and black and transgender.

Depending on these experiences, your life may be different.

This should not come as a surprise. There are a lot of people out there, and a lot of groups, defined in a lot of different ways.

Privilege is a word with a couple of different meanings. It’s easy to think of it as meaning rich. In fact, we mostly think of it as meaning ‘something other people have’. When we’re talking identity politics (which I’m pretty sure we are), privilege means a lot of things, the simplest of these to understand is probably social capital. Some people, in a room, will be more likely to be listened to on the basis of what they look like and their apparent life histories. Some people are valued more than others. This reinforces itself because when people listen to you, it’s easier to assume that you’re right. These same people will have easier access to spaces, resources and all the other things that are divided and controlled invisibly on the basis of spurious ideas of ‘social status’.

That whole thing is a form of privilege. The ability to speak, to command attention, just by having lived a certain life (or being seen to have lived a certain life), is one of the things we must be challenging constantly.

And we must do it ourselves.

It sounds like a tricky thing. To recognise something that is invisible. It is tricky, but not because it’s complicated, just because it’s hard. I’m trying to explain all of this in the simplest terms possible, because I think it really is simple. Even if applying it is difficult.

We are all different.

The only way to know what it is like to be different to you is to listen.

Ear View

If you think there’s any chance that you’re in a position of privilege, that your perceived life experience has made your life easier, then when someone different from you says you’re being hurtful, you should shut up and listen. Hear their words. They are reflecting you back through them.

Doing this, is an act of solidarity. Recognising that we are all different, and trying to cross the bridge of those differences, is empathy. Caring enough to do that. To pay attention, listen and think, is compassion.

We can’t change the world by putting people down, but we can if we change ourselves enough to recognise that our very difference is what unites us. Our ability to listen and care is what makes us powerful. We are different, but if we listen to each other, we can be more than just individuals.

You cannot speak for other people. I cannot speak for other people. I am only myself.

But you can listen to other people. You can always listen, and that gives you a broader base of experience, that expands your unique viewpoint on the world.

If we all listened hard enough, maybe eventually we would almost be the same.

That’s an impossible, but we can aim for that. Aim for everyone taking the time to understand everyone else.

It’s not derailing the struggle to think about this stuff, this is the personal face of the struggle.

The personal is political, and the political is personal.

I have not figured it all out. I am trying constantly, to recognise my failings as a person. I get things wrong, constantly. I get called out, all the time. But I hope I do one thing right. I try to listen, I try to let what I hear change me.

We are different people, but by listening to each other, we build bonds of empathy and understanding. With compassion, we become powerful.

We can fight for each other, with love.

Illustrations by Emma and Helen

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Mounting Darkness and Creative Destruction on the Dark Mountain – Uncivilisation 2012

Uncertain Ground

To civilise is to build.

To uncivilise is to destroy?

I may just be tired, but I actually feel very lost. Last year’s Dark Mountain Uncivilisation Festival made me grounded and full hearted, my mind swirling with ideas. This year, the thoughts are still torrential, but my physical form feels adrift.

It’s a scary place to be. But I think that might be part of the point.

There are some things we need to look in the eye, and they are going to be terrifying. The future is real, and it’s not far away.

Someone this weekend bought together a number of statements under the heading ‘why am I here?’ I was reminded of my fear and dread of why questions, and the leaps they ask you to make. It remains my conviction that no ‘why’ question has an answer that isn’t guesswork or an act of faith. Reasons aren’t available, no matter how hard we reason. A why asks a fundamentally different kind of question. We don’t tell people why the sky is blue, we tell people how air bends light. Or we just lie and make up an answer.

Dark Mountain is looking for new whys. Rightly so. Our civilisation is based on a series of misleading myths that are causing us to eat ourselves. The world is falling part, and we are just digging deeper into it. This weekend’s recurring motif was mythology. Stories that can accompany the logos of understanding. Stories that can tell us ‘why’.

Myth is everything that we think we know, anyway. Our memories of our lives are as distorted as our understandings of history. A well told story is what builds our past. That’s how we remember things.

I am intensely conscious that as I write about this weekend, I am going to create my vision of it. Make it again, after the fact. Ignoring the grumpiness and tiredness. Probably unable to go into why I repeatedly lost my voice and felt afraid to speak. I am here to build my own Dark Mountain myth.

But I am tired, and I am worried it will be the wrong one.

It’s the problem with trying to build our own whys. A new myth is untested in the waters of people, open to interpretation and destruction, a story has as many sides as it has listeners. There is no way to know the impact of a new myth. The inventors of the myths of capitalism probably never saw its natural result as the greed of today. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was supposed to stop this kind of thing, not claw into the world, desperately tearing its livelihood to destruction.

We either need to get this right, or we need to work out a new way of myth making, something that allows us to adapt, something that returns us to the now, allows us to be more present in the moment, more aware of the now.

Steve Wheeler, dazzled me a little, drawing links between the slow disease of ‘progress’, the notion of apocalypse, and utopian, teleological world-views. It’s seems so simple to remember that some of our oldest revelations are not simply about the world ending, but about something new and perfect beginning. The book of John of Patmos does not mourn the destruction of the world, but beckons in the kingdom of god. Even Ragnarok ends with two survivors building a new world. Marx pushes towards another utopia, the apparently inevitable conclusion of wave after wave of revolution.

Our apocalypses are our idealisms.

Steve tried to draw us into the now. To stop wanting stuff for the future. To live in a now that would not rely on desires and fears, that could be content with what is.

It’s that thought from last year. To be happy in the future, we’re going to want to be happy with less. There’s a lot of internal work you can do for that.

Tom Hirons pulled me into the woods, and tried to offer a brief taste of extreme wilderness. The taste and feel of the earth on your face, screaming into the ground, whilst hearing a chorus of others doing the same. It is something I will never forget, perhaps the wildest moment of the weekend (apart form my wriggling terror as I forced myself into the dark night’s woods, jumping at every noise). I admire Tom even more after his talk, in which he talked of trying to create  a rite of passage without appropriating the culture of other peoples. He is one of many people there this weekend, who I am simply incredibly glad exist, and feel blessed to have even passing contact with.

Speaking of passing contacts, I only spoke to Vinay for about two minutes, and still got an intense snippet of knowhow that I think I need to build on.

Stories are better with a little added noise. That was taught by Tom and Rima on the first night, and Martin Shaw the next day.

And an intense debate about I vs We, sent me into tumults of worry about the nature of consensus, and the ability of people to assume its presence. No community is uniform. Be wary of your words when you speak for others. I am not enough, but I cannot know enough of others to speak for them. That is dangerous personal mythmaking.

But then, there is this desire for community, and I suspect that’s what draws the Dark Mountaineers together. The people that really want to leave civilisation can do it. There is still wildness, and it can be escaped to.

There’s more than that, somewhere. There’s a desire to make change. I hope that’s what it is, anyway. Because this isn’t just about personal reinvention, this is about finding a way to make our society stop killing people, and stop killing the planet. I really hope so. Because beyond that goal, I don’t really see what’s worth it.

I feel like we’re sometimes too far up the pyramid of needs of the world. We haven’t found a way to feed everyone, we haven’t found a way to stop burning and poisoning the actual ground and water and air that gives us everything we have, have ever had, and will ever have. We’re obsessing about self actualisation when there are people dying.

But then, as individuals, we need to focus on our own changes and our own world in order to exemplify, promote and build a new way of thinking. Without doing that thinking (and the acres of self destruction and re-creation that accompany it) we can’t make new things, escape old traps or be new people.

So we must be in the now, whilst remembering the past, and building a future that might be able to work for everyone.

The weekend sometimes feels like time travel, or perhaps, stepping out of time long enough to get the overview, seeing how things once were, are still, and always will be. Changed, different, but built from the same stuff.

That earth, that water, that sky.

When I was there, I thought I saw a common theme. I thought the answer was in building mythologies. Finding old stories that can show us new ways. Finding new stories that can reconnect our future to our past. Building worlds within worlds to teach our world new dances.

Now I return, and old fears come back with me. How do we build a right future, built on uncertain ground. How can we decide to teach myths as truths, when we know their truths, and ours, are so malleable, so frangible.

Frangible

I touched the earth, the ground, and told it I was grateful. I acknowledged that it had built me, fed me, made everything I have ever known. I screamed, giving it my voice. I didn’t feel like I was pouring out. Maybe I was feeding, as it always fed me. It was a connection, nonetheless.

So I did connect. And despite my voicelessness, I found connection to people as well. I am not as good at this as I imagine, or perhaps I have just forgotten some of my people skills, or perhaps I’d thought I was going for my self, and not to connect with people. This is probably the wrong way to go into most things.

Or not.

I honestly don’t know. I feel more questioned and challenged than solidified.

But this is good.

Controversial example.

After the festival ended, many people stayed behind to finish off the beer and have one last fire and gathering. A great atmosphere was suddenly interrupted by a story. Someone had ventured into town and stumbled upon a symbol of civilisation, he suggested we burned it. Another chimed in saying we should tear it apart and burn it piece by piece. Properly excoriate.

Before it got far, some raised a complaint. The ritual interrupted, atmosphere shifting as people try to search for something.

The symbol, you see, was a book. The burning of books is a deep symbol, easily misread and misinterpreted. A reminder of savagery, organised violence. Impromptu rituals, a joke to celebrate the destruction of civilisation, worry of what that destruction is, or means.

The story needs to be told in bits and pieces, with weird disjunctures, because it was a hundred stories.

I for one, felt my mind tumble through them.

The book burned, but not by consensus; the owner took charge. A line was drawn between burning ‘civilisation’ and burning ‘Civilisation, by Kenneth Clarke’. The knowledge inside it was given respect by some, the author disdain by others. The iconography was terrifying. Reminders of oppression. Oppression is still everywhere. This is not safely ironically distant territory.

As I watched the book slowly explode and burst outwards, I wondered. Were we ready to destroy civilisation?

The noise of thought processes around that fire. The arguments and emotions. The fear and the anger and the humour. A real, deep sacred happening. Sacred and scared.

If we are truly to become uncivilised, this is not the only taboo that will need to be put to the flames.

But do we want to build our world on destruction? Is there even a choice?

How to we destroy destruction? How do we consume consumption?

Dangerous symbols make for dangerous ceremonies. It was the first time the festival had felt dangerous. And something was created from that destruction. Every mind focussed and intensified. Not necessarily for the best, but it’s good to shake things up.

A simple act. A simple fire.

It was a terrible and beautiful moment.

I felt like it shouldn’t have happened, but I felt it was needed.

Written down, it probably doesn’t have the power. But in the moment, my gut was wrenched.

What would it really mean to undermine and challenge the very fundaments of our civilisation. To not just nibble at the edges, but cut to the centre.

To burn something up.

Last year, I was reminded of what it was I wanted to protect and connect too. This year, Uncivilisation felt like it was more about facing up to how challenging it will be to change the world, and the self. The things we need to destroy are dear and dangerous. The arguments we need to have are heartfelt and hurtful. There will be pain, if we are to wrench our world into something new. There will be a risk, that we will turn into things we despise even more than our current state.

Dark Mountain remains a very civilised festival, full of very civilised people. It’s hard not to see it as having a taste of that kind of middle class avoidance of privilege that is so common. This was expressed eloquently and emotionally by someone who noted that they wanted to scream, from knowing that in their day to day life, they did not always live what they believe. Trying to connect, from behind a wall of socialisation and comfort, to something more primal, honest and pure than the myths of progress and futurity is painful and difficult. I am aware of how lightly and slowly I am treading that world, kept wrapped and safe in my comfort and my privilege.

Eventually, there are parts of our selves we will have to burn up and cast aside. We need to do it inwards, and then outwards. Our black iron prison will need to be burnt. Watching that happen may feel a lot like tearing hearts out. It is not safe, it will be misunderstood, it could lead us closer to destruction.

We have to be wary of the myths we create. They can make us destroy, they can convince others to destroy. I don’t know how to do this right. I feel paralysed, knowing that the destruction I am living in now is killing, but that any step forward could do the same.

I want to run away and cry tears into the ground. Let it know that I don’t know what to do and how to live any more.

I am cut adrift, my anchors burned off.

Actually, somehow, I feel like something in me has been uncivilised. More than before, I am adrift from my assumptions. I do not feel like I went to the same Dark Mountain as most. Even though I had plenty of (wonderful) company, and was shown some beautiful things, I feel like a scaled a height, was torn apart, and will now fight to put myself together.

This is probably only a first step, still. I think I need to work on this more. Work out where it should take me. Work out where I should take it.

My heart is opened up.

I come back down the mountain, and the world swirls around me as it always has. Will this be enough to make a difference. Will I be able to leave my heart open in this other world, that will not care for me as the community of the fire would? I am worried I will become overexposed again.

It’s scary, but I think that’s the point.

The work to be done, on self, on the world, is scary.

I feel I have walked into a fire. Sunk into the earth. Drowned under the water. Dissolved into the air.

And yet I am still here. In the now.

I do not have a replacement for self, for civilisation.

I do not know what to do next.

Illustration by the incredible Helen. Apologies this is being posted so late. I had a crisis of faith in it.

Posted in Culture, Mild Mania, Politics, Ramble, Thoughts | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Unbearable Darkness of Mountains – Uncivilisation 2011

Last night, as the sun set, I wandered into the woods. Dosed up with Valerian and on barely any sleep (third hangover of the year, too soon after the second) I was already hazy, and I became totally and utterly conscious of how terrible my eyes were.

In the dark of the evening, as everything turns into greys and blues, everything seems to dance. When I stopped walking to take stock, the sound wrapped around me. Tiny titters of birds, bleating lambs far away, owls some closer. But closer, there were the snaps of twigs, the rustle of leaves, the shifting undergrowth and mulch. Footsteps not mine. Movement all around.

And me in the middle, vaguely terrified, and unable to tell what movement was my eyes playing tricks, and what was the forest itself.

It was incredible. Not least when I understood, as my sense reached their limits, that this was all playing around me, but I was nowhere near the centre. All around me was life that cared not for me. I was barely a part of it, even as I felt connected to it. This swirl of noise, the clatter of life, slowly going it’s own way.

I was not in the middle. The world was. I was just a tiny thought, drifting across the surface.

This was the evening after Uncivilisation 2011, the second ‘festival’ of the Dark Mountain Project. It was the first time it started to feel really uncivilised, and was an incredibly intense experience. Not quite has scary as returning to the city, and feeling some of those sensations again, only related to the thing I’m supposed to be used to. The swirl of noise and the clatter of life, amplified and drowned out all at once, but I’ll get to that. Maybe.

Basically, it was a weekend for creative types interested in the manifesto of the Dark Mountain, to get together and talk. There was a lot of great talk. There was a lot of fascinating stories and people. There was so much going on in a very small space, often seemingly rushing towards you like the ground as you fall.

My brain is genuinely aching. Though my heart is swollen.

I didn’t really expect it to be like this. I was expecting to hear politics and get fired up. I was hoping to learn and grow and solidify.

Instead, I just feel like I have been put in contact with a part of me that has been missing.

This is also good.

I’m not going to talk too much about the speakers and the talks, or even the bands. I’m sure other people will post much more eloquent responses and critiques of what was said. I don’t remember many huge bombshells in the actual programme. Nobody has many answers about what to do next apart from look after yourself, pay attention, listen to stories, tell your stories, and learn how to live with less.

Possibly the simplest and most obviously true statement of the weekend was something along the lines of  ‘get better at enjoying non-material things, because if you want to be happy, those are going to be the only things you can rely on’.

In shorter, if everything runs out, make sure you’ve got something that can’t run out to make your heart sing.

That wasn’t actually shorter, was it.

I’m not good at brevity right now, maybe. I’ve got a lot of listening to try and take in and and process. At some point I think a lot of things in my brain are going to pop, in various different ways.

The weekend clicked for me about five times, after initially seeming like something utterly contradictory and so somewhat failed. When people who are talking about the end of the world get angry and self righteous about a cafe only having jacket potatoes left, it makes you wonder. Dougald, one of the organisers, noted that someone on twitter had described the festival as ‘luddites with iPhones’, he was aware of the irony. Smari pointed out earlier (quite probably joking, but still quite probably right), the people who were prepared were probably somewhere else, being prepared. This was not a place to learn how to prepare for the apocalypse. This was a place to talk.

Which seemed kind of pointless.

Until. Well. Until it started to feel right. Until I realised that this wasn’t necessarily about building bunkers, it was about building soul, heart, spirit or something like it. There are many sorts of preparedness.

The ‘What next’ talk helped, particularly when Paul Kingsnorth (the other founder) noted that the festival had kind of started out as a place to get writers together.

Once you start thinking of it as a writer’s workshop at the end of the universe, it kind of made sense.

But before that, it really clicked, as I got in touch with exactly the sort of hippy I am.

People call me a hippy all the time, and sometimes I get annoyed, but mostly because I don’t know what it means. I acknowledge that I don’t help myself by wearing skirts and long hair and liking flowers, but, well, it still seems like a derogatory term. Something ineffectual. I guess this could be historiographical. During one conversation, Vinay noted that the cultural revolution died because all the clever people died in the first years of battle, leaving nobody to lead that side in the war.

So; failed and idealistic revolutionary? Possibly not that far off. But there are other trappings.

This weekend, for me, was actually a deeply spiritual experience. Despite me not having any clear definition of what that is. The biggest learnings were not about people (though the campfire was one of the most supportive singsongs I’ve ever taken part in. I’ve never sung solo acappella in front of strangers before, and I felt happy to do it and to fail. Thanks to that fire. If you’re reading this, you know who you are.)

Really, the awesome ritualistic theatre of Liminal, was what bought my heart into action. A small prologue, a procession through a series of unneverving dreamlike vignettes, and a  final ritual, of noise and movement in the depths of a candlelit forest. Through that, I felt centred and connected to all of life, all of the world. Like had taken part in some kind of bonding ceremony. My centre suddenly felt further away from me than usual, but in the right way.

I celebrated by getting drunk, which was almost as stupid as some of the decisions on my cycle out from Petersfield to the campsite, which took five hours instead of one, and almost as fun. (Though it was the cycle that nearly killed me, if it hadn’t been for a spanner and a nice old lady called Anne, I’d probably be dead. Or at least very, very ill.)

The next day I was less engaged, but still picking up fragments, and maybe the odd braingrenade from Vinay. My mind was struggling to keep up with some of the learnings of the night before. Not least a weighty discussion in the almost sacredly intimate space of the hexayurt (which I stumbled drunkenly into at four in the morning).

I think spaces need to be small for real weight to be talked about. A conference or lecture is not a supportive or communal environment, it is a space for hierarchy and showing off. There were problems with some of the spaces, that bought out some odd things in people, and made me shut up and feel alienated. But when things worked, they worked.

And actually, shutting up and listening was what I needed. It wasn’t until everyone one faded back to their real lives and I was left in a quite countryside that I really appreciated that. And that I finally got to listen to what I really needed.

I made a new friend, who fed and nourished me in a number of ways, not least with actual physical real food. I need to get the micro infrastructure for cookery into my camping bike loadout pretty sharpish.

After absorbing some silence sunshine and beauty, we talked about sheep, unicorns and ancestors. Myths and futures and spirits.

The thing is, when you have the space to look at the noisiness of the quieter, less verbal world, you realise that these spirits, while metaphors, are utterly, utterly real.

Our myths and stories are wrapped up together, and they can still be shared around a campfire, and nothing will make you new friends like laughing and sharing them.

We are going to be ancestors. Even if we don’t have children, those around us will. We will tell them stories, and they will tell stories about us. Eventually, that is all we will be. Stories.

After my final commune with nature, the final fire of the weekend was shared with total but beautiful strangers. The chance to bounce around some chatter, to hear our thoughts and stories of the weekend shared and stretched and played with. Repeated and explained from different angles.

With the owls for company.

We were not the centre, we were just part of a stream through eternity. We looked backwards, and we looked forwards, and we saw everything stretching out beyond us.

I think we are tiny. I think we make tiny marks. As a civilisation, we have wreaked huge damage, but still, where it is, life persists. We will, eventually, wash away (barring the definitely real possibility of biotech, nanotech or nuclear catastrophe), and leave a world that will move on without us.

But civilisation is not actually us. Not the deep us, at our core.

Politically, we must make sure we demand the world the world deserves. We must learn how to change our civilisation so it does not destroy everything. This will probably not happen until it’s all gone horribly wrong. This is a tragedy for us.

The world will pick itself up and carry on without us.

We need to do something about this. This weekend was not about finding out what. It was about finding out why.

It was about seeing alternatives and feeling them.

It was restorative to something in my heart. Like a tree was growing there that hasn’t been watered in forever. Finally it is growing again, maybe even bearing fruit.

I still don’t know what to do about civilisation. But I do know I need to distance myself from it. My path seems clearer. Move, slowly and safely away from the horror of it all. Find somewhere I can live a simpler life.

The route will not be simple. I don’t have the wisdom and skills and power of my ancestors. I don’t know how to live off land, and I don’t have land to live off.

But. Well. I need to be out there.

Where the real world is. Living and bustling in it’s own way. I must visit it more regularly and learn how to work with it.

These are musts now, not just idle dreams.

I’m not going to stop talking about the problems. I’m going to continue to try and make the world change. But I am also going to make a tent on a darker mountain.

My spirit belongs with the others. In the darkness.

It’s not easy to see in the dark. This weekend, I practiced opening my eyes wider.

With time. I will work on my eyes.

And my heart.

And my soul.

So I can see deeper into the darkness, and maybe even live there.

This is a first response. It is tired and slightly crazy, for that is where I’m at right this moment.I’m going to use Unstruck this week to explore a few questions that came up over the weekend. This is technically breaking the rules, but that’s what they’re for, right?

Posted in Culture, life, Mild Mania, Politics, Ramble, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments