A few weeks ago, a weather system boarded the train home from Birmingham New Street; vortices of hair hair, a cold front of white, white teeth and, walloping along at knee height, two screaming faces; a family, the silvered barometer of a buggy, and their voices. The train was busy, and so the mum took the smaller girl, a grizzling ball of slick, red elbows and cheeks, up the carriage to find a pair of seats, whilst the dad sat opposite his older daughter, next to me. I was not particularly subtle with my gaze; he would look up every now and then and smile at me encouragingly, before champing at his gum, and showing me the back of his throat.
He had the most immense teeth, perfect white in that way teeth are not, even at birth before they have chewed anything. Like a Newton’s Cradle he clacked the ball of gum back and forth, showcasing the sound of his tart, elastic tongue prising it apart, followed by the tinkle of squeezed spit, cltcha, tchsss, cltcha, tchsss, over and over again. He wore his hair in a ponytail and cap, and despite all of this I really liked him, just to look at him. He was obviously quite into his precious stones, and he wore rough-cut examples of each at every pressure point imaginable, except any that required piercing his flesh; over his heart, around his neck in a little papoose, thronging his wrists, purple, green and white. He smiled constantly, with that oafishness that I really cannot detach from the chewing of gum, down at his daughter, who also chewed her own gum.
They both cltchaed and tchsssed, and the two sounds were like two glasses filleed to different heights.
She asked where her mum was, and he answered that she had fallen out of the window; she began to cry, and he smiled and waited for her to realise that it was a joke, that their love was implied and he was only teasing her. She asked him for “the iPad, Daddy”, and he drew it out of its case and opened a learning app for her. It was obvious that he loved the thing; he swooped and tapped across it with all the dexterity of a conductor, his little finger stuck out at all times. He was tricking her into improving her own poise, walking her through games where insects crawled across the screen and she had to squash them, or where a cup moved with a ball inside it for her to follow. She grew frustrated, now and then, and he smiled at her. The screen’s background was of Vishnu sat upon his throne.
I watched them for the rest of the journey, not minding that my gaze was gazed upon, and he not minding either, as he smiled at me, and then at her. She grinned up at him, and he would unfurl his own, gigantic teeth, the gum cltchaing in both of their throats, one a reduction, or a potential, of the other.
I am back from holiday, and starting a new series; descriptions of moments in my life, extended or singular, which held my attention longer than they should. Some of them might be small, some big, but I hope that I can show why I stood or sat or crouched staring at them for so long, filing them away for future use.
I’ve done some drawings for them, as well.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at Heathrow Airport, not waiting for a flight. I watched the various tropes blunder around the too-wide halls on plastic wheels; an American woman, trying to rustle up some enthusiasm for healing crystals in her dour, unctuous English man, who ignored her stoically while she peeked and peeped at him adoringly over his hamburger. I saw very little romance, and when it was time for me to go I wandered into the toilets.
I was, of course, as quick as I could possibly be; the smell was like that of a cure for something worse, and between the lemon-streaked mirrors and the lemon-streaked urinals there wandered a cleaner, looking for a gap in between the muzak. It was tremendous, all-encompassing; tinny, beatless, meandering and almost extinct now, rarely found in an age where classical music is copyright free and all-purpose. Here, its last remnants try to cover the rising smell through a synaesthesia, mixing with the peeps of men’s shoes on the tiles.
As I walked out, trying to hide the damp spots across my thighs, I fell in behind a security guard. He wore a tangerine tabard, bars of argent across the back, and walked with a whistle.
As we approached the door, in less than a single moment, he performed the kindest act that I had seen all day. I was not unhappy, at all, and had seen a more or less trundled procession of expected kindnesses since I got here; the retracting of stretched legs, the attendance of a waiter, an awkward, smiling circle of teenagers steadily being planted by their parents, drooping under backpacks.
But the security guard tried to slip his past me; at the entrance to the door was a sort of plinth, made of white plastic and topped with three buttons, red, yellow and green. It was a feedback system, a convenient way for the men who held their breath and tried not to touch the porcelain to give their opinions on the experiences. Beside each button was the image of simple face, one smiling, one apathetic, one disgusted.
The security guard has not even been to the toilet – I had certainly not seen him leave a cubicle or a urinal – but as he swept past the altar, his hand flicked down, with a pam, into the green, smiling face, before he whistled off, like a plane, into the bright depths of the airport.
I do not think I gave any feedback myself, but I did watch him go. I decided then and there that I would actually record this gaze that I forget about sometimes, that can make people uncomfortable, and begin to catalogue the minuscule things. I do not know if this man knew the cleaning staff personally, or whether it was just a genuflection that he made without thinking, on seeing that big, green button, but it was one pam closer to a commendation for them, or a night off, and I knew that he would never tell anybody how he helped them.
Of all the people who have ever written about the English landscape, and the trepanning pressure that such a landscape has on their own brain, distinct from everybody else’s, the most revelatory, and devoid of mawkishness, is the poet Ted Hughes. I have adored him ever since I found my mother’s copy of Crow, the cover dominated by the unshaved talons of the titular bird, picked out in Scarfe-like ink, and turning to a page at random read my first of his phrases; “utility coat of muscles”. How could I not love him, after that divining glance?
As only a cursory glance at both of us will satisfy, I have climbed up by his impressive tail and into my own writing. There are certainly differences; I wish that I was knapped out of chert like he was, saturnine like an idol. Every time I read my work or his aloud I stove in the words with a hobnailed, patent tongue, all London consonants and Oxford vowels. Listening to him read his poetry on record, his tongue was like a fishtail, or the paw of an otter, wet and clever and naughty. As a Yorkshireman and, later, a long-time inhabitant of England’s wisdom-tooth counties in the South West, he perhaps understood better than any other the length and breadth of the various British landscapes, and what gave them meaning and gestalt. Landscape, as any amateur psychogeographer worth his site-specific salt will attest, is a political, anecdotal, circumstantial, psychological and traumatic gumbo of stuff, far more than the sum of its parts. Hughes was intimate with that knowledge, and the quality of his work shows that; Seamus Heaney, also introduced to me through my mother’s ancient copy of North, dubbed him “a guardian spirit of the land and language”. Consider the following lines, the first-ever from his first-ever poem in his first-ever collection, The Hawk In The Rain:
I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth’s mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step of the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grace, but the hawk
Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
A man, for all the controversy and the ease of forgetting in his own life, who was after my own heart, years before it had been germinated. His death in 1998 went past unnoticed, as I was only ten years old, and busy playing commissar to my brother’s comrade in the back garden. I would have mourned him, if I had known. A man who both loved and very rarely hated the English landscape, who could not really live without it. He was, by passion and topography, within it, much of the time. Through his art he compartmentalised it in a yet-vast breadth of life, a canon of work that weighs down the table next to me, as I type this. On paper it is thicker than my two arms. A man so divorced from machinery that did not require petrol, or the piston of a human foot, that he is more like an ettin, or an elemental, in my mind. I cannot even imagine him using a kettle; Hughes was not a man of high technology.
Now, it is very typical, amongst contemporary commentators, to be assured of the fact that a historical figure would have “adored” a certain technology, had they only been alive to see it. Jane Austen would have loved Twitter, they say, Newton would have loved Wolfram Alpha, and Gilgamesh would have been a media-savvy archon, allowing himself to be papped leading Enkidu from the wilderness in a blacked-out Jeep.
I think this is a dreadful rhetorical tactic, but I am now going to make an assurance of my own; I think that Ted Hughes might have hated the idea of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, a videogame about upper-class robots where a new England is generated for every game, every stile, hedgerow, moor, tor, weald, ward, county and side of country calculated with mathematics. I think that he might have hated it because it conducts a bowdlerisation of what it means to stand in a field in England, a typically English field, and how to speak about it.
This is precisely where I cleave away from my maker, and get severely interested in what Big Robot Games are attempting here, what their attempt at a truly “local” exercise in procedurals denotes.
I am not writing this to preview Sir, You Are Being Hunted, or offer a critique on its “Stalkers and Walkers” aesthetic, or give much opinion on a game that I have only glimpsed in alpha, over the shoulder of somebody who has actually paid for it. What has interested me about this game is the phrase “procedural English landscape”, and how the accompanying philosophy to that phrase seeks to align a modern dichotomy; the generic outputs of procedural generation, and the colloquialism, and specificity, of a digital England, with a jolly big E.
I am also not seeking to compare the efforts of Big Robot and Ted Hughes side-by-side, or ask which is superior. You will have your own, most likely guessable, conclusions on this matter.
Hughes often focusses on an apolitical, personal, subjective view of landscape. Another poem, this time “The Thought Fox”, a confluence of the writer and a vulpine immigrant:
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
Though no specific landmarks are mentioned here (as in many other of his poems), Hughes here conflates his process with his inspiration, that view, that night, just outside the window, in an England full of its own semiology. His self-generation of England is directly connected to his experience of it, interpreted through the gaseous, widening influence of the brain. This is where procedural generation and specific art concerning landscape, personal to the author, comes into contact; both are imperfect semiological systems. In his book Mythologies, a collection of essays concerning the symbolic significance of mass culture, the French philosopher and cultural commentator Roland Barthes wrote about the differences between the sign, signified and signifier; how the representation of something is different from the meaning of something, and how to measure that difference. Barthes uses examples as diverse as soap adverts, professional wrestling and a patriotic photograph of an Algerian soldier to discuss his views, but the concept of “the English landscape” will do for our purposes just as well.
In poetry and in algorithm, the landscape of a place has its signified and signifier very close together; without descending into psychogeographical masturbation, the landscape as it is and the landscape as we represent it are close, but not the same. One is distilled from the other. So, we see that both poetry, Hughes’ chosen form, and computer maths backed by artistic direction, use abstraction to create a “personal” view of landscape.
Now, I am aware that Sir, You Are Being Hunted takes a more ribald and at times atlanticised view of the English countryside; the ‘Englishness’ extends out from the dead trees, moorland, hedgerows, ambient soundscape and foul weather and into more political, humano-centric stereotypes, such as the passive-aggressive village signs (randomly generated, of course), the granite war memorials, the specifically English foodstuffs, the tweed, and the class-war paradigm between humans and robots.
I thought of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Dickens, Austen, Withnail And I and indeed Hughes himself when poring through screenshots of the game, and it is likely, given the nature of the developers, that this is deliberate. The developers have stated that the game is a “mockery of the English country gent and his ecosystem”, and the the core mechanics certainly back up this claim; the player is a human, hunted for sport across Hebridean islands by upper-class robots, utilising stealth, scavenging and manipulation of the classist paradigm to survive. It skewers English inherited privilege quite nicely indeed, and the introduction of middle-class “squires”, as well as numerous peasant non-combatants, could create an environment of which the player is only a small part. However, such a political message requires a stage to set it, and this what the splatmaps and Voronoi diagrams and almost-endless coding provides; a billion billion different stews, of all the ingredients that make England English.
This coding provides the game’s islands with hedgerows and walls which, in the real England, would be the product of thousands of years of land law and primogenital gerrymandering. It brings into being randomised villages whose roads would have been linked by utility, festival, tradition and desire over centuries. The algorithms are extremely elegant, nested one within the other; the islands themselves, and their fractal, eroded litorals, are dotted with towns, dotted with houses, their gardens, and each informed by the other, by a set of rules that will produce, unfailingly, until the internet’s wake, a googleplex Albions. And within each of these algorithms are qualities that paint the stones with moss, the trees without leaves, and the wind with its whistle.
I believe that these qualities are commonly called “lived-in-ness”.
They are one of the El Dorados of videogames; a set of systems that will artfully, and infinitely, create the signifiers of heritage in a gameworld.
Bethesda Softworks used Speedtree, a propritary flora-generation tool, as well as their own in-house technology, to create softly rolling wealds, skittish venery and rich copses of biologically appropriate species in their games Oblivion and Skyrim.
Minecraft utilises the concept of biomes to create worlds that give the loosest signification of true landscape, while creating a separate semiology all of its own.
And Sir, You Are Being Hunted loads, albeit very slowly, a new country with every boot, using Perlin noise and what they call “blurring and dithering”.
And so procedural generation creates, if not a different poetry, then its own take on the narrative co-opting of landscape. Though the technology was developed in the late 20th century as a solution to memory issues in the hardware, procedural generation has become a staggeringly popular tool in game development, and is an unpredictable, zesty component in the debate surrounding “ambient storytelling” and the way that games can herd narrative without becoming extremely attractive cattlegrids.
I do think that Hughes would have hated the process, perhaps seeing the most sacred of English traits, to be witnessed within their context and subsumed by their uniqueness, reduced to a series of sliders in a development suite, or patterns that can be replicated over and over again into nonsense. However, there is something telling about the developer’s focus. They begin their apologetic for their game with the words, “we live in the English countryside”. In these words, they become as valid interpreters as Hughes ever was. Whether they, and the technology, succeeds in telling an adequate story of English landscape remains to be seen; perhaps that is not their aim. I will still love Hughes more, but that is my prejudice. This game is, at least in its technology and direction, an inheritor of a literary tradition of abstracting one’s environment. The difference between it and Hughes’ oeuvre is one of method, not message. Hughes pulls the thought-fox from his head and lays the tools, one by one, down on the page. Big Robot lay the thought-fox in an orrery, containing the elements of Englishness in constellation with every other, and set the spheres turning. Of course, sometimes the spheres clash, and a village is drowned in a lake by faulty contour mapping, or a hedgerow hangs rootless twenty feet above the ground, but perhaps this is where the artistry lies; in the bug queue.
My work on Black Crown has elicited a particular style of art, of which I am still sounding out the boundaries. I’ve never been known for any technical ability in art, preferring to stay close to pen and paper. No blue pencil for me, no drafts.
Whilst sitting in the rain on Kinver Edge this weekend, in a particularly ergonomic saddle of sandstone, I drew the following.
They all have names, and histories; I just have to find them out.
The village of Eyam in Derbyshire has hundreds of graveyards, like many settlements its age; but there are three of them, set in a triangle of vastly differing geographies and altitudes, that stick up bright and strident on maps, like the pins of a wall plug.
Most of the others are minuscule, no more than allotments for suddenly-beheaded lineages. If you walk through the sump of blossom in the village square, and out to the cottages made into modern Promethei by broadband wires, you will find the churchless pits sheltered by drystone and ivy. A few are lucky enough to retain their stones, and even fewer have retained the blazonry to tell you who lies crinkled up beneath them.
The legends on the stones no longer matter, really; none of them retain their bodies. They were masoned a long time ago, and everybody knows the way it goes with bodies and soil.
Myself and the Ski Ghost (pictured throughout, shrouded in blue nylon) drove up through the stunning goth-stone of the Derbyshire Dales, into the very coccyx of the Pennines and this village, to conduct research for my project, Black Crown, a fungal digital epic of disease, claustrophobia and broadness of spirit for which Eyam’s history was a major touchstone. It is a history which is not little-known; many books have been written about it, including A Year Of Wonders, a novel which, despite its bizarre, Googlesque globetrotting in the last chapter, captures much of the lonely topology of the place and spreads it out subtly, like healthy amounts of butter.
Eyam is lonely, and subtle, the crinkle-cut of the Dales stunting its growth down the centuries; it is little fatter than it was four hundred years ago, though the larger roads do come near here now. The A623 bounced us there like a tightrope pulled taught, and along its length is an excellent bookshop, apparently the highest in the UK, but with an appallingly anorexic collection of science fiction.
This isolation is the curated tool by which Eyam remains famous, sheltered, unlike its inhabitants, from any degradation. In September 1665, far from the Great Plague in London, an Eyam tailor named George Viccars took in a bolt of new cloth from the city, and within a week was dead. The plague passed between the clustered cottages like festival food, and the tightly-bundled families, their lives spent sharing blankets and cloaks to keep out the northern chill, began to die in that horrific, inconsequential way that seems quite unthinkable to us nowadays with our weighty presences and endless influence. They were buried in narrow plots, beside houses that outlived them like every house, or in pits where the soil is unusually fertile today. In the year and two months that the plague was extant in Eyam, nearly three-quarters of the villagers died.
When we arrived we ate a National Trust lunch, smelling of plastic and grass, in our car. The wind up in those hills is ferocious, even in the prickly April sunshine. We avoided the gift shops and the converted stables, and wandered down towards the Plague Cottages, following the official map designed for the parish council by the Ski Ghost’s uncle. She is more local to the area than I am, and had come up that way many times before. The first time I visited the Dales, she had shown me the old mine shafts, some deeper than a church spire and covered with thin, booming steel that neither of us dared walk across.
Despite its conservational sympathies, the village has drawn the tarmac right up to its history. The main road runs past a five hundred year-old watering trough, a fifty year-old mutton spit, and then a line of stone cottages, where the plague began on the backs of fleas on the backs of cotton on the backs of men; George Viccars’ lodgings are nestled right in the middle of the tenement. People still live here, though I am not sure if I could; the temptation to air the house every spring, and to view every seldom-used coverlet with suspicion, would be too great. The bacteriayersinia pestis has a hardiness like Lazarus, and I have heard grisly stories about Blackheath Pond in London, near where I once lived for a year. The council apparently still test the water, and nobody drinks it or dips their toes; Blackheath was one of London’s largest burial pits during the Plague, which certainly gives me pause when I sit on top of it, drinking mead and eating cheese straws.
In front of those cottages we made those futile kowtows of tourists, and pored over the information boards, themselves weathered antiques now. Eyam has been fascinating people for a long time; I wonder how it must feel, to live there in the present, to look over the place every time you bring home shopping or look away from the Internet and out the window, and think of the story that people are telling about this place.
Whatever the residents may think, it is a good story.
When people began to get ill, the villagers and their rector, a remarkable man named William Mompesson, took several precautions that would stand out in an age of apotropaic superstition and intellectual runtishness as strikingly sensible. Firstly, they relocated their church services to a small valley nearby named Cucklet Delph, to keep everybody and their dribbled psalms out in the open air. The villagers must have known that whatever it was moved amongst them like a ghost, and the more space between them, the further it had to float.
And then came their most astonishing act; the village, almost as one, voted to cut themselves off entirely from the world around them. Nobody would leave and nobody would enter. The people of Eyam would chew down this bitter meal by themselves, and stop the spread of the plague northwards; any supplies that they lacked, and the currency to pay for them, would be exchanged with the nearby villages by means of asynchronous barter. At the top of the village and the bottom, two empty markets were designated for the goods to change hands, though the hands would never meet. On a high hill behind the village is a drinking trough that has now been immortalised as Mompesson’s Well, and its opposite was the Coolstone, a large boulder to the south escarped above the neighbouring village of Stoney Middleton, drilled with holes large enough to fit a pillar of coins. This money would be left in these repositories, and a few days later the coins would be gone and in their place scant provisions provided by sympathetic, but mercantile and distant, neighbours. The Coolstone’s holes were filled with vinegar, it is said, to clean the currency of sickness.
We made our way up to Mompesson’s Well first, through the first graveyard, grown out from the church like an inedible spring of mushrooms. I longed to touch the Saxon Cross behind the railings, but instead we snuck inside (whenever you enter a country church, you cannot help but sneak) to look at the remains of the biblical murals and exchange a pound in the honesty box for a green leather bookmark. Every artefact was underneath the sort of clattering, plastic sheeting that gives the impression that they have been wrapped for a packed lunch.
Out of the kissing gate the hill grew steep, and we puffed past farms of alpacas which, in the time of Eyam’s fall, were still the stuff of bestiaries. Here and now they are bred for jumper-wool.
A true road winds up where the horse-track went once, through a wooded holloway in which the wisdom teeth of this landscape show through. They have grown less keen over the years, and the wind whistles less piercingly through their heights, but we still stood in the leaves and listened, for a while, to absolutely nothing. We wondered if, had we lived in the village during those fourteen months, we would have been selfish, and tried to escape across the Dales. It would have been so very easy to do.
But nobody did.
We ran our hands over moss that curled like pubic hair across the walls as we climbed, and then we were out into the wind again. The crossroads were confusing, and we nearly died under the wheels of hissing, barely-glimpsed sports cars before we found Mompesson’s Well, the second graveyard, though there were never any bodies buried there. It hunkers in a ditch at the edge of a bright moorland, a dodecahedral stone cap hiding the older, more sinuous stream downhill. This is where the horses lapped down peatwater on their trundles from the villages in the north, Hathersage and Padley, where the land is even rougher and more insular. I don’t quite remember, but I think that I tasted the water, for an unspoken dare, and it was very sweet.
We wound down through a conifer ridge holed like Emmental with badger sets, and back into the village, sheltering amongst the dusty jugs and rusty ploughs of the village pub. I remember being terribly depressed about something or other, and we listlessly bumped against the ice-cream shop windows, fingering our change. I lost my new bookmark somewhere, or it was pilfered by the wind.
But the Ski Ghost and I were killing time, really. Eyam is so small, so concentrated, that we had drifted through so much of it already. Its story is not an epic one; it takes place in a square mile or so of dull, stacked stone, not far from Bakewell, another village best-known for a cake of almonds and raspberry.
We had climbed up to the very tip of it, and looked back down, like those in the past who had been tasked with collecting the bread and cheese left by kindly neighbours, the burlap packages suspended in the flow of the stream to kill the daemons that feasted upon them. The only other thing to do was walk out, along a central ridge curved like an hourglass, to the third graveyard free of anybody; the Coolstone.
Black Crown is a narrative that has polarity asone of its concerns, of going and coming back, of two limits and the traversal between them. Some of you will already have blundered down the hillside in the game and found the little hollow where one solitary yew stands beside a tall monolith, carved with a pig’s trotter. My boundary may be a little more grand than Eyam’s, but Eyam’s was here first, and the Coolstone was the foundation that sited every other angle in the game’s setting, the Widsith Institute. Black Crown’s Boundary Stone is more than a marker, it is an anchor, stopping the Institute from sliding into the ocean, and as we walked along the tracks past houses full of electricity and plastic rinse aids and fruits from very far away, I thought about the Coolstone as an anchor for the village of Eyam. About whether any of those long-dead farmers had frenziedly volunteered for the task of walking out here to leave money or collect goods, just to remind themselves that, despite the auto-cannibalism of their loved ones, some things do not change. The stone was still there, and it remains there, and was there long before them.
When myself and the Ski Ghost walked that path it was spring, and we were plunged through a postpartum nebula of sheep, attended by the gas-licks of lambs still knock-kneed and cartoonish on their feet. A rusted engine lay like an organ across the fields, and a steel gate had been molested by a randy bull. The walk is a beautiful one, and we squeezed through several of those traditional northern stiles which rely on sheep being fat and man being nimble. All at once the path opened out into a wide brow, the grass mown by the eternal breeze, homogeneous after millions of years.
The Coolstone is exposed and scoured, about the size of an ottoman and evidently much older than the events that brought me here. I can find no information on how long it has been used as a demarcation for the village’s edge, or even how long those deep drillholes, like the evidence of greedy fingers in dough, have been there. They were there before the Plague, and the villagers evidently saw their provenance as unimportant. The Coolstone is one of those unspoken stagings that nature leaves scattered about the world, a prop around which a ritual can be formed. It was an important ritual, one which kept the people of Eyam alive, as a single mass, and which also, I imagine, grew a mismatched community with whichever Stoney Middletoner was kind enough, and fit enough, to climb past Lover’s Leap (where a thick-accented Romeo and Juliet took their lives, or so they say) and leave their bare trimmings for a village of dead folk.
The Ski Ghost wandered off to drift around the field, putting distance between us, using the webbing in her coat’s armpits as a mizzen. Somebody had left a gesture of pence in some of the Coolstone’s holes, and I was looking out on the green fields when the layers of sunlight came. They filled the valley, like a succession of hands giving comfort at a funeral.
Dark, light, dark, light, dark, dark, dark.
The clouds came back. I called across to the Ski Ghost, twirling on the spot, but she could not hear me, and I allowed myself to be alone a little bit longer, here at the edge of the world, before I chased her back towards the car.
The Black Crown Project has a hearty stew of new content being ladled directly into your chops this week.
I very much hope that you enjoy it, but it does pay to remember that Black Crown is not only centred on the Storynexus content. When conceiving the project, I wanted to use the infinite savannah of the Internet to spread things out a little. So, whether you are a new piglet or a haunted senior \___clerk____, do not forget that there are plenty of other things to explore.
Have you read Lincoln’s Bedsheet, a short story depicting Abraham Lincoln as a bed-bound sorceror?
Or Mour, Mour, Mour, the drowned fragments of Jon Praester’s last voyage?
Have you seen our Tumblr, or studied the Excavations that you have made in the Marvel Ouse?
You have? You’re full to the brim?
In the Peak District Visitor’s Centre, at the foot of Kinder Scout with its flannel of runtish rock across its brow, there is a moulded plastic map, the shale, tracks, scarps and peaks coloured in such dingey hues that it looks as if the victim of a steam-rolling has been lain out on a table built expressly for their shape.
It has the texture of traumatised skin, and colours that might once have been siloed blood and jaundice and minor moles of a white body. There are greens in the cracks and seams where elbows and armpits have been mangled. It looks disgusting.
But then you peer in closer, you prise out the names. Tigwizzle. Mam Tor. Castleton and Edale and Hope, and from there tiny signposts to Manchester, Sheffield and Derby. On the road atlas which we brought with us, this area of England is satisfyingly free of roads. You imagine that it is a portion of the land which has not been corsetted yet, and from every cave and crack will come a resounding, grunting pleasure, like a tight pair of trousers being unzipped, ever so slightly, under the table.
I have just woken from it in the middle of the day.
It conducts a scorched earth policy, destroying every legend that I ever loved. It begins simply enough, in the plains around Troy, where Achilles licks dew from his cold shield. His face appears above this little parapet, and his face is that of Brad Pitt.
Not such a problem. He has been Achilles before, in Malta and London, his body strigiled of hair. But now, now he comes across every plain like a late-night emotion, transfiguring every antiquated hero, every man who has ever lain against a pot in paint. The Greeks go first, Perseus and Theseus and Orpheus, and then the Norse, and the Russians now, Koschei with that thick brow and sparkling eyes. Every single hero is Brad Pitt, now.
And they all stand before me, and they are talking amongst themselves, excited at this transformation. They are excited at their dominance, and I realise then that the heads on poles all around us, on the walls of Troy and the tents of Agamemnon are the real heroes. With forgettable faces and underfed, brittle hair. They are worse than extras in their own stories. They are prosthetics.
My friend Sophie is little. I do not call her Little Sophie, but nobody would think it was unfair if I did. Our entire relationship has consisted of her treating me like a particularly stubborn rockface, gargantuan but still baroque enough that she could most likely find a handhold and someday make it to the top. When we walk along I can see the grain of the various emotions that her hair has been through, most of them hot.
The Lange Wapper, in the original Dutch, seems to have the tatterdelion appearance of the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, but none of his homely edges or dullness; he is at turns witty, charming, deviant, quasi-malevolent, tricksy, handsome, clumsy, devastating and mostly repellent, his apparent monstrous nature enhanced by the very lack of compassion that we expect our monsters to have nowadays. He is a far more elderly figure than Els Pelgrom imagined him in 1984; a giant of 1500s Antwerp, tricking women out of their breast milk and falling into rivers with alarming regularity.
Sophie was given this book by her father, who now lives in Amsterdam and whom she sees only occasionally. There is a beautiful little message to his “Little Sophie” written inside, and perhaps her father knew, considering his own genetics, that she would always be little, and so the comparison would always be apt. She came to visit me a few months ago, and very carefully delivered it for my appraisal. I managed to fight my way through it in a cold afternoon on the sofa, as she had a natter in the opposite corner with Hellboy, an old friend that we happened to share.
In the book, Sophie is very unwell. She slowly melts in bed all day, and her parents tend to tiptoe around the house in feet constantly aching from manning the car’s pedals, driving their little girl back and forth from the hospital. Literature is taxed with ill little boys and girls, who are able to peel back the dusty skin on their head and use it as a kite to drift elsewhere. Sophie seems to take no such action herself, but like so many of her feeble companions invites that elsewhere in. The toys which line her room put on a play, one into which she wordlessly compacts to take a role, and as the scenery begins to trundle on greased runners instead of her stunted imagination she falls into a landscape ordinary yet giddy, barely stopping as she is plunged headfirst into every experience a young girl requires to grow up interesting; she joins a circus, is imprisoned in an orphanage, loses her hair (a serenely beautiful moment which came at me sideways and from which I did not extract the obvious symbolism) and nearly drowns in a storm. The world itself is an oddly furcated monarchy, and the inhabitants of this state all possess similar branches, many of them rotting and ready to break. I thought how ugly it all was, as I was trundling along myself as the afternoon drew its knees up from the sun and so climbed up into evening.
Children’s book characters are not often ugly; ugly in a deep sense, ugly under everything else. They are mysteriously shaved of all those uncomfortable things that people do. Even when they betray and lie there is a grandiose feel to it, a numinous reason which penetrates their whole being. Sophie meets Lanky Flop, Terror, the rich bear, the circusmaster’s wife Arabella with the fat ankles and the velvet tongue, and turning the cranks of the world in which the players stand immobile she is framed by August The Clown and Death. I never questioned, until now, why a little girl so unwell would be given a toy Death. It seems an odd aid to an odd lesson.
They are all fairly unpleasant to each other, at times. Arabella drops and picks up weak men that will be of use to her quicker than the pages can turn, and the rich bear justifies his wealth in ways that any current Chancellor would be proud of. Despite their redeeming qualities (and there are many) they function in much the same way that any group of friends do, and their flaws spark the real tinder of the book – many months for Sophie, and pages for me, are occupied with merely trying to convince these supposed “heroes”to put aside their selfishness and save Lanky Flop from execution.
Lanky Flop is the worst of all. Despite his titular role he is absent for vast swathes of the book, courting unpleasant women and stealing food and tweaking noses everywhere. I didn’t exactly like him – I felt that his treatment of Sophie was bizzare and hurtful at times – but he always wormed his way back into a form of virtue, and felt at least a general warmth towards her. The outstanding example of this is when the group visit Lanky Flop’s mother and father, who are so malnourished they have become a collection of newspaper columns blown into the corners of their hovel. Lanky Flop berates them and ignores them until, in the middle of the night, he slips out to a nearby house to steal a vast meal for them. His help is never given easily, and always seems to be laced with caveats.
I think that the important point here is that Sophie is never coddled. She has spent her entire life in bed, and her parents do not even visit her for fear, I assume, that their presence will finish her off. Terror, the writer of the play and actor within it, becomes the closest to a guide that she can find, but his directions often lead to the conclusion that life is full of mistakes, and regret is more easily accumulated than beauty. Lanky Flop bullies her and punishes her for poor decisions, though Sophie remains a clean, ethereal presence throughout, vulnerable yet persistent, still a child but with more than a big heart, perhaps enlarged by her irrelevant illness. She has a basic kindness as stubborn as a wave.
If you are planning to read the book, I would stop reading this entry now.
This text is only here so that you do not skim past the picture and accidentally read the words that I am about to write. Sophie dies at the end of the book. She manages to escape the evil king; mine and Sophie’s favourite scene, ornamented with Thé Jkong Khing’s tight little pen, is when Arabella jumps naked, beaming, from the king’s banquet, her hips wider than a car, her feet so dainty they are barely drawn at all. Only a few butterflies cover her scattered unmentionables. Arabella and Bear and Lanky Flop and Terror all weather the storm with her, mostly intact. The play ends, the rollers and the toys are mostly put away, and she dies very quietly. There is no fineral of weeping animals; they are just toys, after all. Wherever she went in her own weary little head is unimportant, because the burning embers are the bed for a fire just hot enough to read by at the end of the book. Those toys which took her into herself, into all the fragments of every book she had ever read, and every doll she had ever played with, and every fear that she had ever had, lead her by the hand out of her window, climbing down the front of her house, and into Bear’s car, no doubt bought with offshore funds, and they drive off down a road green and endless. The closing down of the brain that made it all is unimportant; it persists, in the manner of her kindness. I am not going to sit here and analyse the thing, though this is what I have been doing.
I suppose that I just wanted to go through it in my head, and see why it affected me so much. I wish that I had read it as a child, all the dense text and scratchy art and characters that lack anything American about them, that could not be written by somebody who had any agenda other than his own. Sophie, the friend Sophie, told me that she has read it tens of times, but that she did not really understand what it was about until she was older. I suppose there is a question as to what use a children’s book is if a child cannot understand its message. But, like my own childhood, it is the texture that I have wrapped around myself like a cloak, and made my own camouflage.
This painting was a bigger challenge for me. I had not worked with acrylics at such a large scale before; goodness, until six months ago I had not painted anything longer than my finger. The canvas is nearly two feet high and nearly a foot wide, and I think it has come out fairly striking. The colours blend naturally when you blink your eyes and the tears turn the whole thing into a pasty of abstract; the lilac opal of the earrings, the wink of blue set in her forehead, the striking fangs of red on the face. I cannot find the image that I worked from, but I removed the blood that originally iced her lips and her cloak; the unpredictability of the paint meant that it could have ended up merely looking like a mistake that I was too lazy to clean, rather than a symbol of what she is.
I had never considered my life as a machine until the early hours of one morning in winter, a few years ago.
I knew that my body was a construction, one that should be constantly examined and maintained, and I had ignored that particular must. I was paunchy with a lazy, listless sort of misery, and I spent many, if not most evenings like this, whilst living with my parents in the too-long holidays between university terms. I usually, as depicted in the photograph above, sat on the sofa, attempting to do work that was racing, Doppler-like, towards that point after which it would become an irrelevance. I would have the television on in the background, two screens each tugging at one of my eyes, after everybody had gone to bed, usually eating food that was healthy but still unnecessary, and praising the ectoplasmic efficiency, evident in all the tools surrounding me, but without substance or truth.
This is a short piece I wrote after a particularly devastating night’s sleep, and the appropriately scouring shower in the morning.
When I came to the shower, I was bottle-thrown by a mob of complaints; I got black leather caught under my thumbnail when peeling an avocado last night, and it remained tender as if, I’m not sure, two years before, a hammer had gulped its Adam’s Apple across it. The last of a cold hung from my nostrils. My back was sweaty, my thighs zip-locked, my beard plugged in and powered, and I felt cold air molesting my stomach for the first time in a day. I reach in and break an eager moss of limescale, and as it falls it is the cold air, not the water, that reaches me first. Imagine experiencing this with sound and light, I tell myself now, hours later.
My father would have had a shower before work three or four hours ago, and the atmosphere inside the glass door has only just recovered from all of that nonsense. Now I come along, its barely nine o’clock, and ruin it all over again. Air doesn’t want to be heated, I don’t think; what would want that roiling tumble, that hazing from liquid to gas and back again?
The water in the tray is still cold, and my feet look like aubergines under the surface. But the stream is hot, and the air too, and as it rises I smell everything the night has given me. First the shoulders go under, which I forget to dry everyday and where I am now tormented by pike skin. The hammered thumb disappears inside a pillar of gravity, and that black leather is sought out and sorted into the only file the shower has. I grope for the shower gel, which claims no fruits or flowers but smells simply soft. This shower gel paints a myth that soap oozes from the trails of slugs, and we collect it with strygils as a folk activity.
My legs are mottled roasting joints now, and the heat is really getting to me, it’s in my nose. I fart and plot the acoustics, before my neck is plunged into the transparent throat like that of a ringworm, full of teeth. That nibbling is really what we all go to bed for. It is so marvellous I think I faint briefly, though as I am still half-asleep it is hard to make the distinction. You can scour a hangover off your flagstones with something like this, at least temporarily. Nothing hangs about too long with such a feeling drumming on your spinal column.
I rock forward and my ears and the crown of my head are under now. I am swallowing water by the cupful, far more than eight. I try to focus on the differing roars in each ear, trying to echo-locate the unique tunnels of air that exist on each side, and then realise that there is a hiss in the middle. I didn’t realise that my head had a centre, I thought that such revelations were for people calmer and more introspective than I am, but there it is, a hiss that uses my cheekbones as an amp. I stand for ten minutes like that, puzzling out that hiss.
I always try to turn off the water as quickly as possible, to leave my body shocked. It barely realises that it has thumbs, now, let alone one in pain. My beard is like a painting against my face, my thighs see daylight between them, and as my chest hardens in the face of the open window (opened by my father before dawn, to prevent mould) and the brisk rubbing of a towel that cannot dry in this damp air, I walk away trouble-less, at least until dust begins to settle on my shoulders again, and my feet gather dirt, and all the fluids in my body come drip, drip, dripping out of hiding, to see what a tidy state the shower-water has left behind.
This one did not take quite as long as the last one. The canvas is about the size of an envelope, and was a gift from my girlfriend when I gave her the Totoro painting. I have a couple of plans for my own paintings in the future, but there was another Ghibli character that I had always felt drawn to in a distinctive fashion.
The Radish Spirit.
This character is not actually named in the Japanese version of Spirited Away, but has garnered a healthy digital respect from all quarters. He does look a little like a radish, I suppose, bulbous and peppery off-white, with hints of red about him giving the suggestion of discarded skin; the Japanese certainly have a certain soft spot for the vegetable. He treats Chihiro with a silent kindness, and I believe instantly struck a chord with many Ghiblians. Of course, in painting him I found another attraction; his shape. Like Totoro, he is eminently symmetrical, composed of simple, soft shapes and easy shading. He was certainly an excellent candidate for my second painting.
With this painting, I wanted to see how quick techniques could bring about a more spontaneous finish. I was less concerned about quality, but how organisation and quick iteration could still produce an image that had depth; after all, Ghibli thrives on creating complexity from simpler tableaux. I completed the painting, from drawing to final touches, in around three hours, which is much less than the ten hours or more that I spent on Totoro. Granted, that painting was bigger, but in this instance I split the process into distinct stages of colour and increasing detail.
As you can see below, when held up to a light behind, the painting shows the flaws that such an approach can bring; the weave of the canvas and my speed meant that I missed many of the hollows and divots, especially around the black outline. This gives it a piecemeal appearance if viewed in such a manner, but of course paintings are rarely viewed like this. I think that this can be solved by painting the outline after the larger blocks of colour; I tended to be quite timid with my colouring brushstrokes, afraid to go over the outline even though I could paint it back in later.
I have a couple of other paintings to do, which I will post as soon as I am able. The Radish Spirit was a lesson, at least, and he still looks good on my wall.
Despite the tags that I have designated for this piece, designed to provide humour to the eagle-eyed and cater to some whineless, almost-human organisation system of which I will have need in the future, this is not an essay. The word “essay”, coming from French or Latin or Greek (I feel a little ridiculous looking it up, when a hyperlink would serve just as well and make me look no more stupid) implies study, careful thought, attribution, development of argument, structure, and a thousand other conventions which are designed to provide a consistent language in which new thought can be accepted by an establishment coated in self-awareness.
I have not done any of these things. I have not researched, to see if my thoughts have already been thought. There will be little attribution, except to those individuals who form an unwitting subject of my watchings. It does have some structure, but it is too vestigial to be called anything so stentorian as an essay.
What it comes down to is that these ideas are, collectively, something that will not go away, that even if previously expressed I have never heard expressed in this way. Also, that title has been sitting in my draft queue for about three months and it is about time I did something about it, before the idea disappears completely.
Pompeii was a great Roman city, as every British schoolchild knows. It rode the back of the world on pillows of black soil, its crop thick, its people rich, and the mountain Vesuvius at its back quiet, for most of the time. Like my classmates I defined it by its fall, the story passed down as a morality tale when really it was a combination of geographical necessity and geological ignorance. I never really thought abut that moralising element of my education until today, and I find it distasteful. The British public school system has a strange relationship with the Romans, at once venerating them as entirely countable generations have done before them, as well as seeing the era as a wonderful tool for teaching about the folly of pagan greed and fallen beauty, like a painting where an Imperial port is decked in ivy and Renaissance costume. I do not think it is coincidence that the elves have taken their place in our intellectual imaginations.
One of the most idosyncratic elements of the Pompeii story, aside from the causted molds of human beings in their last moments, which are so incredibly sad one cannot believe that nature created them, and instead they must have been made by the same man who makes the waxworks at Madame Tussauds and placed there as a metaphor, is the graffiti that was left behind by these reductions. The city was forgotten for thousands of years, and now that the concept of “misery tourism” has caught on, the arbitrary palimpsest of thousands of real people has been preserved, whereas anywhere else they would be covered up by something boring, like a beautiful fresco or a row of statuary.
Reading the translation of some of this graffiti, I see the same things that I remember from school (the knob jokes, the timeless catalogue of vaginas, questioning of virtue, accounts, lists, and more accounts; did you know that the first piece of recorded writing in human history was a bank statement?) but now there are other, more subtle things that appear, that escaped my notice when I was younger. Now I not only see the ephemera of people who were just like me, but I see a world that, while not digital, operated on the same soupy principles as our current Internet Age, principles that we feel are entirely modern but are, as with everything, borrowed.
The first half of my rather clumsy titular designation refers to the popular image-sharing website Imgur. For the complex, snobbish cultures of the internet it is a latecomer, Reddit’s nursing home, where memes and viral content are nurtured in a more homogenised, more instantly judgmental atmosphere. Imgur’s comment ranking system showcases a far more interesting strata than the images themselves; most are drek (this will always be the case, and has always been the case, with any culture, and for people to think otherwise is to rifle through memory dishonestly).
Imgur and Pompeii, if the portmanteau did not clue you in already, have much in common. Moment to moment, as is the nature of binary-based technology, and thus all technology in our civilization, Imgur performs a new archaeology upon itself – it moves forward constantly, onto the newest image, the newest comments, the most popular comments, a constant fakir’s rope (and I do not mean that unkindly) winding up on itself into the ceiling. Paradoxically, the site is never anything other than an archive for the human viewer; the actual nano-state of the website is a concept only. In logging into the site we view a flash-caught set of motifs. Using this metaphor, it is easy to triangulate Pompeii and its graffiti, not just in its archival nature, but its content; the racism, the sexism, the plumber’s language. But there is another point of contact that I have noticed. I call it “the strive for relevant community experience”. Or the Imgeii Effect.
I’m not sure if it is a linguistic meme or not, but on Imgur there is a formula which is resolved in the comments of almost every image on the website. It goes:
I am [profession or lifestyle relevant to image] and I can confirm that [original opinion or previous statement is correct].
I have no way of knowing if these people are who they claim. For there to be heart surgeons, volunteer mental hospital volunteers, undertakers, ex-prisoners and a thousand other professions represented on a website mostly populated by twenty-something students is dubious. For some, there is an intense interrogation process (which on Reddit is actively encouraged by the site’s moderators), for others instant dismissal (though this is actually quite rare) and for many rather blind acceptance. Their viewpoint is assumed into the milleu with all the others, but with a slight mirth of interest in the general millpond that is more than most commenters can hope to affect in a lifetime of online interaction. To call the activity of this website a millpond is only to extrapolate the activity to the scale that such communities operate at, with millions of active users. For one person to even register in its quotidian operation is remarkable.
Looking at the sort of Pompeiian graffiti that has survived the two thousand years since it was enscribed, this Effect is definitely prevalent. Here are a few examples (all from Pompeiana):
Apollinaris, the doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated well here.
Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls.
Gaius Valerius Venustus, soldier of the 1st Praetorian cohort, in the century of Rufus, screwer of women.
I will admit, it is hard to find examples that do not have a scatalogical element. And one may argue that there is little difference between what I am positing and the universality, in time and space, of the “I woz here” desire for immortality. But what is interesting here is that much graffiti references not only the enscriber’s (or the subject’s) name, but often their position in society. Their job, their military rank, their friends or wives or husbands or lovers form a part of their title. Pompeii, like Imgur, like the web, like any society, is a network, an interaction of thousands, if not millions of people. A name is not enough, because everybody has a name (and now every user of the web has a portrait, a luxury once reserved for royalty). All of these scribblers, and their interactions, have been archived effectively for analysis, and the archive can be distilled into a clear verbal competition, a subtle jockeying for position, that same fakir’s rope that constantly rises faster than people can scale it.
In a society like Pompeii, reputation was everything. How one was thought of by others may not have affected your moods or self-opinion, but it did affect your audience, your friends, your standing and how much you influenced the millpond of day-to-day, furious activity. For a slave who visited a brothel, who knew that he could not stand on the Cardo Maximus and have his opinions heard or heeded, could write in his stall, on the pillar, the peristylum or the flagstone, and not be ashamed of his slavery. His slavery was what brought him to the brothel, and money, at least in those days, could not buy you performance, not even the richest senator. The earthy proclamation is better suited to the earthy individual, anyhow; the natural justice is sweet.
Turning to Imgur, we see Pompeii sped up past the rate of evolution. The size of the community means that affecting any change that is noticeable is a monumental achievement. Creating a meme that sticks is not about the content of the meme, but its relative immortality. And those that cannot create, legitimize. Reddit has its own subset of these people; the Ask Me Anything sub-Reddit, where people from marginal or esoteric professions answer questions set by the Reddit community. This was made more widely famous recently when Obama created one, but the (self-appointed) interviewees range from McDonalds employees and disaster survivors to those with physical deformities. These are not professions, in the strict sense, but they are markers by which an internet hungry for material correlatives will judge a person. They are a point of view that is not commonly heard in the homogenised web, and will be listened to if only out of penny-shop curiosity. For the interviewees, or the commenters, the reaction of their fellows is less important than the fact of the reaction itself. One’s unique position in life, whether formed by the curvature of one’s spine, one’s job or one’s bad choice to drive on an icy motorway, can often provide a relevance, a kink in the rope, that will allow one to rise above the warm crush that we all inhabit.
My girlfriend and I have a certain inner core that claps at the same bell. This is no different, I suppose, from any other couple. To say that we have a lot in common is not understatement, but certainly misleading; it is not necessarily activities that we enjoy together (she views horses with a keen agony, whereas to me they are countryside installations; I play Dungeons and Dragons, and video games, and to her they are a fascinating but ultimately untroubling phenomenon, like an iridescent insect on her shoe) but more of an aesthetic. I’m not sure, if we ever sat down and really talked about it, we could pinpoint exactly what it is that we share, but we could formulate a vast astrology of interconnected chips of culture and art and music that sets that core running in both of us. I suppose, when I think about what the world looks like using all four of our eyes, there are certain expressible elements; we see the world both in a painterly style, where trees and fields take a precedent, where the city is a wonderful tap that runs brown after a while, where quiet mixes with cacophonous engine noise and belches of flame from a very old fire. There are television programs, films, pieces of music, that evoke slivers of the whole mythology, but which never quite latch onto it fully. We both know when something “has the right stuff”, and we accept it into the fold as if it had always been there.
I had told her about the Studio Ghibli films before. She knew of them already, of course; with the success of Spirited Away the “Japanese Pixar”, a national treasure in that country, had spread itself into the United Kingdom with unsurprising ease. Miyazaki and Takahata both adore the West, subsuming it into their own shared core, and converting it to sit alongside Japanese mysticism and romantic poise. All of their films have something of the Weald about them, a rolling openness interspersed with dark natural intimacy that is distinctly European. In Castle in the Sky, Miyazaki was directly influenced by the landscape of Wales, the philosophy of its miners, and its healthy respect for innocent community. Everything they produce has a solid column of environmentalism running through it, an advocacy for appropriate silence and appropriate cacophony (each in their own time), and a love of nature that is so pure it has been mistaken for childish nostalgia. I had loved them for many years, and I knew that she would, also. She began to watch them, with a friend of hers, and both of them became enamoured, as I had been. 2012 was the year in which she caught up on the oeuvre, and in our speech and interactions we began to emulate what we saw on screen, in the best way possible. We were quiet, contemplative, prone to brief but beatific exclamations, watchful, and above all, open. And so, when Christmas lay its belly on the cold ground, and neither of us had much money, I knew what I would be making her as a present.
I’m not sure if many people know that I can paint. I’m not that good, and I often work with artists on projects, preferring their more refined, professional vision over my own self-doubt. I have always been more comfortable with words. I never painted flat images in any great number, but I did paint an extensive array of miniatures. I was a Games Workshop acolyte for many years, rarely actually competing but amassing figures in the tens and hundreds, painting them with an increasing degree of precision. I recently sold my entire collection for nearly £600. I have neither the time, money or inclination to participate these days, but my knowledge of colour, my steady hand, and my homesickness for the smells of acrylic and burning hair in the glare of the Anglepoise drew me back, to my mother’s paints and a gifted canvas, to try again.
I knew that she would adore my efforts, even if they were terrible. I chose Totoro, the gargantuan wood spirit, because of all Ghibli’s films his evokes most purely the miniature wanderlust of youth, of straying too far when too far is only a meter or three into the briarbush, and what you can find there if you just slow down and look. It evokes my own childhood so strongly that I can rarely watch it without crying, and I knew that my girlfriend is a fan also. Totoro has a nice symmetrical shape, and with a couple of sketches I pinned him down for painting. I did not think about the composition too much, or mistakes at all; I just ploughed in. This turned out fairly well, especially in the case of the potentially agonizing fur. My steady hand didn’t do too badly.
As I moved onto the colours (mixing that distinctive grey and yellow was difficult, but with a couple of tries, and the forgiving nature of acrylics, I managed it) I realised just how simple Ghibli’s process is, how refined and elegant. Almost all of their films are hand-painted, and so the sheer work that goes into each is unfathomable. The characters are distinctive yet cohesive, easily drawn by one who knows how, and the colouring is perfectly complimentary, with even garish tones fitting in a way that I struggled to replicate. With only simple shadows these characters are given depth, and as I ran a slick of Titanium White into the pupils of the wood troll’s eyes I saw instantly the picture transform. I fell in love with painting again.
I did change the colour of his umbrella from my reference picture, and this is the only part of the painting that I was not entirely happy with. I would have added a little more depth to those patagiums, if I had had time, but this painting was barely dry when I wrapped it and, fretting over the rain, caught a train across the Midlands to see her, to exchange presents. I had no idea what she was going to make me; she knew what I liked, could quantify it herself in her own head, but I was excited for her to see what her cack-handed boyfriend had managed.
She loved it. She was amazed that I had kept my painting a secret from her, when really I had given up on it completely, until both her and Ghibli had inspired me to take it up again. I had insisted that she open her present first, and so now it was my turn. What did she make me, cooped up alone in the middle of a flooded river valley, an accomplished artist with only this shared core between us?
She sewed me my own Totoro, out of an old jumper of hers. We had barely talked about Christmas, or presents, each terrified that we would disappoint the other. For this to happen, for ideas to fall into place like this, has sent me back to London in a whirlwind. A few more Ghibli paintings, and then I’ll try my own designs, mapping my own core, our core, onto a canvas that makes the brush jump as if on the contours of a ricefield.
1. At a party, the character plays a trick on an associate of his, a woman who he only knows through a friend who performs poetry in her spare time. It is a fancy dress party, and he is dressed as a dentist. He is standing on the other side of the kitchen, speaking to a much closer friend, someone who he slept with at university, and rummages through his cupped hand with his nose until he has only one peanut remaining.
A ship is a dreadful, dreadful reaction to the problem of ocean.
I say this with all the fullness of respect for beautiful shipwrighting, ingenious seamanship, and my own memories of lying in the strung netting of a catamaran with my brother, treading lightly over the waves of the Caribbean sea. I love ships. I love them because they are an imperfect solution to the fact that our universe, in its codes of elements and interactions, decided that carbon-based life needed a hideously dangerous compound very close by, just in order to process energy.
The ship is a depiction of mankind as a child.
The image above shows a variety of caravels (though not galleons, as these were not built until the 16th century) and carracks typically used in the 14th and 15th centuries, around the time that Mappa Mundi is set. They were light beasts, in general, designed for the lazy buzzing that accompanied European ocean travel. Though there was still danger akeel in the form of pirates and submerged sandbacks, the sight of land on one side mitigated that terrifying expanse of water on the other.
But, as Andre Gidé said, “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
These ships were woefully unprepared for the open ocean. Many chose to swing on Iceland’s hook and up to Greenland, tripping over ice floes and sticking fast. Those that did take a more direct route across the Atlantic regularly had half their fleet sunk, and thought it fortunate it were not more.
Mappa Mundi is what Richard Garfield calls an ‘orthogame’; one which ranks players by their ability and luck into clear ‘winners’ and ‘runners-up.’ Most of what we would consider ‘games’ or ‘sport’ function in this way. A winner is a conclusion to a game that persists in record, and serves a shorthand to the play of it. But a winner on its own is nothing; that winner has to have fought with skill or merely determination to reach that state. And the game, a good one, will challenge them every step of the way, especially if the other players have bad luck or little ability. The game itself becomes an opponent.
I have spoken about randomness in the context of games before, but usually with more than a little trepidation; it is hard to balance a game, and strategise for its execution, where many of the mechanics rely on blind luck. I am still trying to add some elegance to these other systems in Mappa Mundi, but one in which I think randomness works well, both mechanically and narratively, is the system by which these leaking, disease-heaving bowls of human soup traverse the wide ocean.
In both the game and history, the ocean is a process, not an end-state; no sailor wished to grow wiry and white in the middle of the Atlantic. The ocean was an inconvenience that held everything by chance; the weather, the tides, treasures, dangers, and more and more and more, all dipped into this vast expanse that would cost many months to cross on foot. For all its weaknesses, the sailing ship was fast, faster than anything else at the time, and its size made it more than fast, but self-sustaining for a time, packed full of everything needed to keep men alive for their ultimate goal; the New World.
In Mappa Mundi a ship in the waters surrounding Europe may move as it likes, north, south, into the Mediterranean, docking and setting out again as if it had legs and it was on a dry path known to all. But as soon as it creeps onto the white expanse of the A3 sheets, as yet uncharted, as yet unexperienced, they are at the mercy of the ruler and the Wind Dice, poor facsimiles of a navigator’s tools, included in the rules so that players may have some physical interaction that resembles those of the characters which they are playing. I’m not one for abstraction.
The distance in days a ship can travel (a number of inches on the board) is determined by the number of days of supplies that it carries. This is consistent across a player’s fleet, to avoid confusion and micromanagement of individual ships. I wanted player’s to be able to split their fleets at a moment’s notice, to give them flexibility, while keeping strategic resource management centralized, in the manner of any well-made campaign game. If they run out of supplies out of sight of land, they lose a ship and are returned to port; this seemingly light punishment is to stop something which may occur frequently (for some) prematurely ending a player’s game.
A player chooses a direction they wish to travel in, and throws themselves into the waves. They cannot change direction mid-way; using sails and the wind, our explorer’s ships would not have had that luxury. They then roll the Wind Dice, a specialised six-sided dice seen above. If they roll one of the arrows, they instead travel in that direction, at the mercy of the squall. If they hit the whirlpool, they may travel in their chosen direction, favoured by the zephyrs.
To make such a basic mechanic random is fairly risky; gameplay could devolve into merely tacking around the board like birds in a gale. However, I believe that, to properly replicate the experience of being at sea at the time, the random element is essential. To mitigate this randomness, there are several items, cards, and character traits which can add a little more certainty to one’s direction. There is a key symbolic value to the Wind Dice, also. Originally, I included a normal dice for other mechanics. This, however, made little sense; it complicated the ruleset, creating a pair of objects with very different functions but similar appearances, and just reeked of awkwardness. By making every dice roll playable on the Wind Dice, I not only made my system more elegant and easy to understand, but symbolised the nature of chance in the late Middle Ages. For sailors and explorers, aspects of their lives relied more on the vagaries of nature, and the wind, than those of landbound men. The will of God had little to do with cyclones and riptides. And so, instead of remaining safe in their ports, these men and women went out and fed on that chance, allowed it to take them to places where the rewards were greater than all the mines and fields of Europe could offer.
I’m nestled in a little quotation silo, so here’s one more, by William Shedd; “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
However, with just the wind and the white paper for company, these parts of the game would be very boring. Considering how random the Landfall mechanic is, a player may spend several turns or more at sea. The Deck of Oceans provides something for that player to focus on, to rely on for reward and fear for punishment. At the end of every section of movement, no matter how long or short, the player draws an Ocean Card, and plays it immediately. It could be a storm that rips one of their ships in two, a tide that pulls them to their goal, a sinking ship filled with treasure, an island, an omen, or leviathan of the waves. I have tried to match positive and negative fairly equally, but this is always hard when water is so dangerous, and ships so failing.
This weekend, I will be conducting the first playtest of Mappa Mundi ever! I’ll post some pictures and some feedback, but I am woefully underprepared. After that, I’ll make some big changes, write some more cards, playtest it again, refine it again, and then open it up to public playtesting. The website should be up by then, but for now I have added a new section to my website’s Project section, for games exclusively.
I’m off to play some music in Kentish Town now.
BLISSFUL PASSAGE ACROSS THE HUDOREAN, STRANGER
This post is for my good friend and fellow writer Rob Gordon, who told me that he reads all of this nonsense! Thanks Rob!
Mappa Mundi is not a card game. It is most definitely a board game; look upon it (you can’t, yet), it has a board. The randomly-generated board (accomplished, I suppose, through the drawing of cards) is a mechanic I am proud of, as its incubator. However, the game does use cards – and a lot of them. At the moment, with intense whittling, I have managed to reduce the number of decks to four. If this sounds like a lot of cards for one game about sociopathic late-medievals, you would be entirely correct. But keep in mind that at one point I was considering seven separate decks of cards, each with an entirely different function. I quickly realised that I was descending into a faeces-on-the-walls cartopathy, and reined in my love of the mechanic.
I think one of my favourite things such a mechanic is its nature of compression. The best games in history have few rules and almost-infinite permutations; other games, have rules. Lots of rules. I have managed to keep Mappa Mundi somewhere between Dungeons and Dragons and 52-Card Pickup in terms of regulatory material, but at its heart is something to which brevity is anathema; established setting. Most people will come to this game with a preconception of what the Age of Discovery was like. The life of an explorer was often violent, and short, and full of floppy hats, but most of all it was varied. With half the globe to discover, there were far too many wondrous things out there to create succinct mechanics that cover every single one.
Cards! Cards are the solution (the poop dries hard). They are a modular system with little compare. Each card can contain a wealth of mechanical information, background and dispositions, but due to their inherently unknown nature, and the rate of slow revelation through drawing them, a player often only has to handle the information of a handful at a time. They are a universally-recognised veil that you draw across the gears, teasing only what is necessary for the player’s comprehension. Almost everyone on the globe knows what a card is, and what it represents. The drawing of a card is a preparation of the mind for new eventualities, and so the decks of cards in Mappa Mundi complement the relatively sparse ruleset by lurking at the edge of the board and puffing out their mantra:
You will have to draw us at some point. Don’t worry about us yet. Just remember that we are here.
There are plenty of games that use this philosophy; Magic: The Gathering takes a complex ruleset and distributes it across hundreds of cards, each relating to the core mechanics in wildly different ways. Carcassonne has a random terrain system technique similar to Mappa Mundi, and decision-making is drip-fed to the player a tile at a time. Even in Tarot, each card has a separate meaning and designation, that changes in comparison to other cards dealt. Only the cards drawn matter, and in most circumstances, are forgotten as soon as the mechanic is dealt with.
This gradual revelation and discard of mechanic has a drawback, though; it makes strategy very difficult. That last paragraph, despite its informative links and succinct, slender profile, contained a few factual voids. Plans lain by players in Magic: The Gathering are only possible because the player can see their own hand (of multiple cards) at all times, and so mechanics actually have to be compared and contrasted before play. In Mappa Mundi, the reason I pared down the number of decks was so that some things in each game were predictable, and could be used as anchors for a strategy. Otherwise, if everything was left to a literal luck of the draw, players would quickly become frustrated when their schemes had no weight.
For example, originally the traits of each character were drawn randomly from a deck at the start of each game, so that each character was different with every play. However, I found that this made it harder to give the characters any personality whatsoever, as well as not allowing players to focus on a particular style of play. An aggressive player will naturally gravitate towards the monk or the general, for example, while a player who prefers subterfuge the pirate or the spy. If their attributes are randomised, it does not matter which character they pick, and giving them any characteristics whatsoever becomes pointless. The power of choice is instantly negated, and players, obviously, do not wish to concede that the universe is a random collection of swamp gas and pain. By making the traits fixed, the characters now have very visible personalities, and the choosing of them becomes an act of strategy.
Cards do have their place in Mappa Mundi, however. If a player decides to make landfall on a foreign shore, they are at the mercy of the Deck of Wonders.
This deck is a lot of fun for me to devise. It gobbles chance as a fuel, a hodgepodge of blessings, beasts, peoples, artefacts, geography, psychology, and more, that represent pretty much anything that a European sailor in the 15th century believed lay for them out across the mare. Every card is different, and each has an action or effect that the player must invoke. A timely Wonder Card can destroy the best-laid plans, bolster an ailing defence, or take the player in an entirely new direction. They are an element of fate that a good player will use to their advantage, and in which an unlucky player will flounder.
For example, a player’s scouting party may encounter a hyaena that eats ten of them, or one’s character may catch a fever that makes their legs go black, or they may be called back to Europe to answer charges of witchcraft, or they may find the Fountain of Youth, or discover that they are the bastard son of the King Of Portugal, or impregnate a local, or merely lose at dice. The variety of pitfalls and ascensions is almost endless. Each card drawn changes their fortunes, for better or worse, and sometimes not in the most expected way. Some require revelation to the other players, others are kept secret for a time. I think that I have achieved the goal I set out to achieve with this mechanic; to invoke a sense of dread and excitement every time a player is required to draw a card, not just for the drawer, but for everyone around the table. They are drawn every time a player makes anchor on a foreign shore, and I hope that it will encourage the gamblers to ground themselves at every opportunity, just to see what they can find.
The other decks I have created fulfil similar functions; the Deck of Oceans is more dangerous perhaps, containing all the mutability and mythos of the ancient sea with its storms, gyres and leviathans; the Deck of Shores is slotted neatly into my favourite mechanic, the aforementioned random terrain generation. The fourth deck should not really be a deck at all; it is the Equipment Deck, with visible items that the players may purchase to help them on their voyages. I cannot work out how best to present this information at the moment, but cards are certainly not the way; as I said above, cards excel at gradual revelation, and when looking at available equipment, one needs to see every item at once for one’s decision to be informed.
I think there may be a neat dichotomy emerging here. Everything relating to foreign lands, in Mappa Mundi is mutable and wild, both cosmetically and mechanically, whereas everything relating to Europe is fixed, from the printed starting board to the characters and the patrons. This is an example, I believe, of embedding one’s story in one’s mechanics, and I am very pleased with it.
‘La Gran’mère du Chimquière’, a statue menhir outside St. Martin’s parish church on Guernsey. It was perhaps first carved in 2500 BC, and has since been split in half by huffy priests and draped in garlands every year. I wasn’t anywhere near as observant.
You take a gamble walking a coastline. I always feel sure that gravity works differently there, that my feet are biased down the gentle shelf that forms everywhere that creatures do not have legs to fight it. The wind blows inland, making of you a billow, but you feel that it is only a clumsy old thing, and will soon remember itself and with a little ah! it will suck you out and lose you. I suppose that we all have family in the sea, but that’s no consolation; I am worried that I won’t recognise them.
Your health is uncertain too. Even though that philtre they called “sea air” made stencils under the hats of all those Victorian smokers, you are not sure that it will revitalise you. It certainly did not me. It gave me a chest infection that it had sharpened on Guernsey’s hundreds of drowning-rocks. I am not one for souvenirs, and I have certainly had better.
Visitors to the Channel Islands, spat out by Europe when it still blew its nose on the ice sheets and then pocketed them embarrassed, often say that it feels lost in time, just a half-step out of sync with the rest of us. Ignoring the ecstatic choirs of web servers buried like long-ago tenors all over the island, the preys of nodding lawyers in St. Peter’s Port whittled clever by tax cuts, and the airport built ten years ago with more charm than Gatwick has miles of filthy corridor, you could still say that it is a little… … … slower than other places. I spent a day walking covering more than a third of the coast, and I saw the same three bus drivers a dozen times, swapping routes like actors out of beloved roles. One of them certainly knew that he was famous for his shrill manner, cajoling passengers and traffic as if he was jousting. I have also read that people on the mainland are baffled by the island tradition of setting up roadside stalls full of vegetables without any attendants, relying on honesty boxes and an earnestness which that sea wind cannot dig out. How can you trust people to just pay without anyone watching them? What a simple life! They’re lucky that they do not know what it is really like!
What simple life? There’s nothing simple about it. You quickly realise that, if you were to steal some tomatoes or a pot of chutney (and I certainly did not), that nobody would chase you, or take your name. You would walk away, looking up at that sky which cannot decide whether this surprise birthday cake of fields and rock wants to be a paradise or a crag, and feel very stupid.
It’s the sea that sets things back a little. There’s only so much that progress can do to an ocean. We can go beneath it, or on it, or forsake it all together and just watch it twinkle dangerously as we come into land. The ferry is a curmudgeonly way to get to the south of France, and I stood and watched it heft itself up and out of the shallow harbour as if it were rising out of an armchair, trying not to spill the cold mugs of tea gathered on its arms. Guernsey faces two smaller islands on its southern side, Herm and Sark, and the former is so close to that harbour that I thought I could see people, mirroring myself, walking its mantling paths. I never really lost this perspective, in all my walking; the two islands, the sea cushioned between them, and then the hundreds of drowning-rocks, blotting that sea into something more like a dropped glass. On the other side of the island, near Vazon Bay and the Nazi concrete, they come before the tideline in a great jumble of ellipsis, tempting you to find out what comes next. Let me spoil it for you… it is Canada.
While the sea might keep some things ancient, or just dated, other things blow over it with the speed of sunlight. A whole drift of undesirables have come to Guernsey to pave this broad avenue that leads out into the world; Germans, French, and especially the English. The delicious bistros is which we ate gaze past those heavy little islands back towards the gargantuan shadow of France, proud of how far they have come. They are the product of striking out, as are the road-signs, the churches that sit a little squatter than those in Kent or Wiltshire, and the argot that only a few of the islanders still speak. People sailed here, thousands of years ago, in little boats that we cannot even begin to diagram. They found an island bouncy with sweet grass and wheat, squeezed by a belt of fish so thick that each swim was maybe a crunchy affair, tipped with creamy waves chubby with krill. On my walk I found two of these glutton’s tombs, seven thousand years old apiece.
At the first I met two Americans, who kindly told me where to find the council-installed light switch inside, as if we were queuing for a toilet. I certainly wasn’t, though I can’t say what they did in there. The space inside was low so that I had to crawl, and when I stepped out of the wind things got old once more. There was a spicy smell of earth that slipped into every sense. One of the vast boulders which formed the ceiling had a man’s face carved into it, mouth pursed, surprised to find himself hauled up from where he had used to stand as a god of small realms by the door. When I climbed back out into the sharp sunlight, the Americans were standing on the grass dome of the tomb, twirling bronze aerials as lazily as I would look for phone signal. I left them to it, and walked on.
The second tomb had grown a golf course around itself like a pringled beard. Two bank managers ignored me as I trod across the green up to the Millennium Stone, a far more modern attempt at lithomancy. The tomb, entrance overgrown, again forced me to bend and smell the soil, and as I climbed in I almost bottled it; there was only a rent of light from an opening above me, and one of the two pillars holding up the ceiling had the year “1898” chiseled proudly across it. It was certainly very impressive, but venerability is not what I look for in something holding up several tons of rock.
I clumped across the bowl of L’Ancresse Bay, in the very north of the island, buffeting across the leavings of low tide in Ladies Bay, letting the water spill over the top of my boots and keeping an eye out for ormer, that little ocarina of a mollusc that you will not find in England. The weather just tripped across the whole island and I think only one night passed without a storm. Guernsey changes all the time, and stays the same as well. My body cannot handle it, and I’m still sipping Benylin as I write this.
I think the moment when it really got into me, right down into my lungs, was at Fort Doyle. Originally a defense against the French navy, the raw brick, mimicking the lining of my throat, was pebbledashed by the Third Reich. It strikes out to the north, into the Channel, and I approached it as would many of the men who had worked there, from inland, though in my age I emerged from amongst tomato hothouses and mussel restaurants serving hot, limp dill to tourists.
I could feel my trachea narrow with the land. The rain came as I approached the redoubt of the front entrance. I climbed breeze block stairs to a roof which will celebrate its hundredth birthday very soon, still held up by the tricentennial clay that will scoff at kids these days. The rain worsened, and a cloud larger than the island itself, stretching up into space, shouldered its way to us, having finished with England. It hit me so hard I nearly sailed off that roof, and it put something into my lungs that has stayed with me, even though I am now many miles from that sea, and that wind.