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1229 Coffee

All too rare – the silky cappuccino

Australia is now hailed as having one of the world’s most developed and sophisticated coffee cultures, and not without good reason. Australia benefitted hugely in the post-Second World War period from a huge influx of migrants from Europe, among them, many thousands of Italians, who set up cafés right around the country and introduced European coffee culture. From this, slowly but surely, an appreciation of coffee and a skilful artistry in roasting, preparing and serving it has grown, something which would never have occurred had Australia remained an Anglo-Celtic monoculture. It took a long time, and there were many mishaps along the way, but here, now, in the 21st century, Australia is truly a coffee powerhouse, exporting both its artistry and coffee styles to the world.

Yet, whilst very excellent coffee, very well made can be found with relative ease, it’s not that uncommon still to stumble upon a pissweak, milky latte, a bitter flat white, or a foamy, not silky, cappuccino. To make a somewhat random comparison, the quality of Australian coffee is certainly up there with that of Rome, yet its consistency is lacking. During eight different visits to Rome over the years, including living there for four months in 2003, I don’t ever recall being disappointed by the quality of Roman coffee. Being a bit of a “milkdrinker”, I always tended to order either macchiato or cappuccino, which is roughly on a par with what I drink in Australia and so makes a good comparison. In Australia I drink macchiato or latté, but the latter is roughly the equivalent of the Roman cappuccino, which is far creamier on top and blended more evenly into the subsurface ocean of coffee, rather than floating on top like a rough, spongy scum, which is sadly, all too often my experience of Australian cappuccinos. It’s probably worth considering that, according to my mother, in the 1950s, she and her peers referred to a cappuccino as a “frothy coffee”. Perhaps the newly arrived Italian migrants thought Australians would drink their coffee if it looked more like beer, which an Australian cappuccino can often resemble. And, yeah, I get the whole chocolate on top thing, but it seems a bit of a clumsy ruse in all honesty. Is this the reason why we are really a nation of flat white drinkers? Because the cappuccinos aren’t actually that great, and the flat white is, in fact, more akin to the Roman cappuccino – a superior and silkier coffee.

Whilst nations overseas are now embracing the Australian flat white, it is for me, the Australian latté which deserves the most praise. Done properly, it can be a masterpiece – creamy on top and smoothly potent underneath, yet with the transition from the surface being soft and never too abrupt, hot or bitter. The elements should be both in juxtaposition and harmony, which, texturally, to put it into gelato terms, feels more like the slide between hazelnut and dark chocolate than say, going from lemon to fudge. It is not heavy, but light. It begins like dessert, but ends refreshingly.

Until recently I felt quite confident that I could get a great latté most places I went in Australia. Yet, lately, there have been whispers of discontent with the latté. I myself have suffered the indignity of such offenses as boiled milk; a pissweak and milky blend; frothy rather than creamy surface; low-fat milk when it wasn’t asked for (the difference, texturally and taste-wise is vast); and overly hot, thin coffee. On a recent visit to Brisbane, despite buying coffee on five different occasions, in five different locations, not one of them got the latté right. It was a disastrous mix of over-milky, watery, overheated second-rate gruel, and not the whole porridge once. I mean, the coffee was drinkable, and I drank it, but I never really enjoyed it, which is surely just as important, if not more so, than satisfying the chronic caffeine dependency which drives most of the developed world’s economies and societies. I just hope that Australian coffee hasn’t already peaked, and a decline set in, born of our seemingly innate complacency. Please, for all our sakes, don’t let it slide.

Sweeping Nuns, Rome, October 3, 2013

Sweeping Nuns, Rome, October 3, 2013

 

Sticking with the theme of nuns, this seemed an appropriate complement and contrast with the last-posted Favourite Shot, wherein nuns could be seen enjoying themselves and wielding pizza. In this image, taken along the Lungotevere Gianicolense in Rome on the way to the Vatican around 0740 AM in the morning, rather than kicking back, these nuns are al lavoro. I’m not entirely sure in what capacity they are working; perhaps there was a religious institution of some sort in the immediate vicinity, or are they an order who contributes to the cleaning of the streets more broadly? Perhaps someone can tell me. At the time, we were marching very rapidly in order to get in line for the Vatican Museums, famed for their length and the duration of the wait, and so I didn’t pause any longer than to take this shot.

Cleric-watching, including taking an interest in clerical artefacts and ritual, can be one of the more mild diversions when in Rome. As might be expected, there are various shops which specialise in items for the clergy ranging from the luxuriously opulent to the most austere. The sight of things such as beautifully crafted ceremonial items for giving mass on the fly, stylishly arrayed in velvet-lined, chic suitcases, is a curious reminder of the degree to which religion is a kind of craft. The stores specialising in underwear considered appropriate for nuns and priests can be très drôle for the unsuspecting tourist.

Incidentally, it’s my birthday today, and, as is traditional these days in our society, I thought I should draw attention to that fact. It’s also my first birthday as a father. I’m not entirely sure whether this makes much of a difference, but it is true that having a child draws a clear dividing line in life of the before and after. Perhaps, therefore, an image of people doing chores is an appropriate choice for this birthday.

6049 Sunlit man with nuns (with pizza)

Nuns with Pizza, Broadway, Sydney, November 2, 2011

Nuns with pizza, enjoying themselves, say no more. This was one of those fortunate moments when one is thankful for all the time (and energy) spent carrying a heavy camera around. I’ve probably said something along these lines before, and would hardly be the first person to say it, but one of the things that makes photography so enjoyable is when everyday life offers up a scene with artistic potential that is entirely random and neither planned nor expected. I’ve often doubted my ability to create compositions, in a studio, for example, and tend to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to taking shots. This can be as frustrating as it is pleasing, for often there is nothing worth shooting in real life, or a scene which might be worth shooting is too poorly lit or interrupted by something – usually a car. Have I mentioned how much I hate cars? The bane of urban photography.

Yet, even worse than failing to capture a scene that was fleetingly there for the taking, is not having a camera with which to shoot it. Sure, one likely always has a mobile phone as back up, but no matter how much phone manufacturers bang on about their cameras, the lenses simply aren’t good enough and suffer tragically when attempting to zoom. Surely I’m not the only person who finds the photos presently advertised as “Shot on iPhone 6”, a little underwhelming. They’re nice landscapes for the most part, which pretty much any camera could capture adequately. Just as one might struggle to take a bad photo of say, Anne Hathaway. Having said that, I don’t mean it pretentiously, or to deny that people do take amazing photos with phones. It’s simply that given the choice between a phone and an SLR, surely no one in their right mind would choose the phone.

This photo was just another case of being in the right place at the right time, with a camera. I’ve always found it mildly ironic that the man is the one lit by the afternoon sun, and not the nuns, who seem to be, somewhat contrary to their supposedly sober nature, having a very good time. This was shot on Broadway, Sydney, on a late spring afternoon.

Varanasi

This collection of photos was first included as a gallery at the end of a short story I published in October 2012: Hot and Bothered, which is a largely autobiographical story fictionalised with my favourite literary “avatar”, Dirk. The photos, however, seemed to be languishing in a not especially well-presented gallery, so I decided they deserved more prominence. A couple of these shots have already been published in my Favourite Shots collection, but they belong with the others and so are republished here.

The short story, Hot and Bothered, pretty well sums up my experience of Varanasi. I arrived there tired and somewhat melancholy, having just left the beautiful mountains of Darjeeling. Varanasi was fascinating and engaging, yet it felt too crowded, hot and dusty, so I retreated inside myself and just focussed on taking photographs in relatively short outings. I was very happy with some of the photos and will always remember Varanasi as something that goes above and beyond the rather mediocre mood I brought with me.

Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi train station

Varanasi washerman

Ganpati Guest House, Monkey deterrent

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi

Sleeping man, Varanasi

Varanasi

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi muscle-man

Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi

Band - Varanasi

Varanasi - the goat-keepers

Dudes Inc.

This story was first published in Island Magazine #116, Autumn 2009, then republished on Tragicocomedia in 2011. I am re-posting it as the title wasn’t included in the URL and it wasn’t coming up in searches.

Xanea, Harbour, December 1996. Scan of photo print

Xanea, Harbour, December 1996. Scan of photo print

Tortoise Kiss

“We haven’t had an argument in months,” said Sarah.

“I know,” said Paul. “It’s great. I hate arguing.”

“Really? You always seem to like arguments.”

“Not exactly. I just don’t like letting things go. It’s not about winning, or being right, it’s about clarifying.”

“Maybe,” said Sarah, “but only if it’s something you want to clarify. Not always with things that I want clarified.”

Paul shrugged and Sarah fell silent. It was Christmas day and they both knew the danger, so they turned their eyes back to the water. The little humps of brine shone white against the inky dimples.

They were sitting in the Venetian harbour of Chanea, Crete. Across the water, to their right, lay the long arm of the harbour wall with its lighthouse. Behind them was the white dome of the Mosque of the Janissaries; supported by four curving buttresses and situated behind four smaller domes above the façade, it looked like an octopus squatting on eggs.

“I do feel more at ease,” said Paul. “Like we’re friends again.”

Sarah took hold of Paul’s upper arm with both her hands and pulled him closer.

“It has been very peaceful.”

Paul continued to look ahead into the water; kicking his feet idly.

“Anyway,” said Sarah, “you don’t try to run away now when I kiss you.”

“No,” said Paul.

She kissed him. He smiled.

The awnings of the buildings around the harbour hung like droopy eyelids. They left Sarah feeling sleepy. Behind them was the gradual, yet dramatic rise of the White Mountains; dusted with snow from the peaks to the hills behind the town. It was blinding, inspiring, exhausting.

“I’m glad you like me again,” said Sarah. “It’s easier to believe you still love me.”

Paul grunted.

“Of course I still love you. It’s just that sometimes there’s so much noise in my head I can’t separate it. You know what I’m like. Gus reckons I have Aspergers. I sort of one-track everything and the confusion of all the rest, well, I hate it. It makes me uptight. Being on the road is different. I don’t feel petty. I feel mature.”

“You certainly act more mature.”

“Then I guess it’s true. Really, what it is,” said Paul, “I feel so uprooted. All the accretions of stagnation, the quotidian, all the bullshit, it’s gone. Gone in the drift of things. I mean, how long ago does work seem? Or even England, or Spain? We’ve been away four months now. It’s like an eternity.”

“Working was horrible. All that effort just to get here nearly wrecked everything. With us, I mean.”

Paul locked his gaze more firmly on the water.

“Well,” he said, “after we moved apart I didn’t go out much. There was all that tension.”

Sarah seemed to be looking down his line of sight. Perhaps she could see something of what he was thinking in what he was seeing.

“I guess it did sort of wreck everything,” said Paul, “But, then — ”

“Anyway,” said Sarah, holding tighter to his upper arm. “I hated working. I don’t ever want to have a job again.”

“No,” said Paul. “Neither do I.”

“We needed to get away.”

“We need to stay away.”

Later they walked past the mosque in the brilliant sun. The stones and pavement reflected clean, dry light. They had noticed, since arriving in Greece, how familiar the light seemed. Not softened by haze, or yellowed as it was in the angled north, the light in Greece was white and reminded them of Australia. The air was still.

Just past the mosque lay a row of Venetian storehouses. The long sandstone wall fronting onto the docks was capped by five triangular peaks that followed the shape of the roofs. It looked like a parapet. Standing out the front of this was an ancient, grey-haired man in the fisherman’s caps so common around the Aegean islands. He wore tightly pressed trousers, a white shirt, cream sports coat and polished brown shoes. He seemed both peasant and aristocrat in one. He was portly and dignified and toying with a set of amber beads.

The old man watched as Paul and Sarah approached, then began to walk towards them. After a few steps he held up his hand in greeting and said “Hello,” in English.

“Hello,” said Sarah, smiling.

Paul nodded. He did not feel like talking to strangers.

Reaching them where they had stopped, the old man held out his hand.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Merry Christmas,” said Sarah. She took his hand and shook it.

“You are travelling?” asked the old man.

“We’re from Australia,” said Paul.

“Australia? I have a grandson in Australia.”

“Oh, right,” said Paul. He had heard it all before; it was a common enough story in Greece. So common that he didn’t any longer believe it.

“How do you like Crete?” the old man asked.

“I love it,” said Paul. It’s a beautiful place.”

“And today is a beautiful day. In Germany now it is snowing. But here, Zeus is happy.”

He beamed, flashing a fine set of false teeth and suddenly Sarah and Paul were glad he had approached them.

“Yes, he’s been happy for days,” said Sarah, and they all chuckled diplomatically.

“You are walking to the harbour? To the lighthouse?”

“Maybe,” said Paul. “We walked to the lighthouse yesterday. We were just taking a stroll before lunch.”

“My mother is buying us lunch!” said Sarah, gleefully.

“Your mother is here too?”

“No, but she sent us some money.”

“For Christmas?” asked the old man.

“Yes, to buy us Christmas dinner.”

“That is nice.”

“I like to walk to the lighthouse,” he said. “Can I walk with you?”

“Yes,” said Paul, who hadn’t exactly said he was going there, “if you like.”

They resumed their walk along the waterfront. It was not at all busy, with only a few families and three or four other tourists. The old harbour of Chanea was larger than those of Rethymnon and Iraklion, also built by the Venetians. Here the sea entered deeper into the town, which hugged it like a lake. It was still and flat, with the water slightly latticed by the faint, occasional breeze. Just a week before, while Paul and Sarah were in Iraklion, a great storm had struck right across the Aegean. Watching at dawn, they had seen the ocean heave and seethe. Outside of the harbour wall was a leaping mass of water, yet behind it, on the inside, was complete calm. The yachts gently bobbed and swayed, but the violence stopped abruptly at the wall. Never before had the utility of a harbour been so apparent.

Since Iraklion the weather had remained fine. Just last night they had witnessed a wide, red sunset; the water ripening to deep aubergine. Sarah thought of fishermen, while Paul made an ineffectual sketch. They had hardly spoken; the long weeks of space had rebuilt the comfort of mutual silence.

“What do you call the beads you have?” asked Sarah of the old man. “All the men seem to have them.”

“Yes,” he replied. “They are Komboloi, worry beads. All the men have them.”

All the old men, thought Paul.

“Here, you try.”

He handed the beads straight to Paul, who was taken by surprise and took them reverently, as cautious as if handed a child.

“Komboloi?” he asked, handling the smooth, thick amber. The old man said nothing, he just smiled at the beads in Paul’s hands. They tapered in size and were strung on a yellow cord, ending in a soft tassel. Paul wanted to hand them to Sarah, but perhaps they were only for men. Sarah feared the same and looked closely as Paul spread them across his open palms.

“These are beautiful,” said Paul. “I can see how they might be calming.”

He was used to choosing his words carefully now; trying to limit his vocabulary to the basics. It was, in its way, exhausting. He wondered if “calming” was simple enough, wondered about the conditional, the subjunctive. Still, the old man’s English was unexpectedly good. He handed back the Komboloi.

They walked around the turn at the narrow elbow of the harbour. The old man remained silent and, after a minute or so, Sarah and Paul began to feel the choke on their conversation. No longer free to be at ease with saying nothing, they could think of nothing to say. They had explained themselves so many hundreds of times in the preceding months; where they came from, what it was like, what they did, who they were and why, that apart from beginning to wonder at the truth of it all, they were frankly quite sick of it and no longer wished to volunteer the information. In other towns they had met with many travellers, which they had appreciated, but here in Chanea, the last two days had been a pleasant void.

Half way along the harbour wall they stopped to look out to sea. Paul had a sensation he’d not had in years, of being chaperoned by a boring grandparent. Watching the seagulls in silence, however, he soon ceased to care. As the minutes ticked by, smoothed by the wash of the waves and the odd resounding echo of the town, any sense of concrete understanding vanished altogether. Sarah felt it too. An air of dissipation hung over everything, as though purposelessness were slowly lessening the gravity that held all the atoms together. Then she remembered lunch. It was something to hang on to, something to steer by.

It was at this point that the old man surprised Paul by touching him on the shoulder and saying, “Can I kiss her?”

“What?” said Paul, more abruptly than he would have liked.

“A kiss?” said the old man. “Can I kiss her?”

“Well,” said Paul, “you shouldn’t ask me. You should ask Sarah.”

“A kiss?” said the old man, turning to Sarah. “For Christmas.”

Sarah was as surprised and bewildered as Paul. The man seemed so old to her, even beyond grandfatherly. She had almost forgotten about him entirely.

“Well,” she said, reddening, “I don’t see why not.”

Sarah turned her face sideways and offered him her cheek. The old man was slow in his movements, but determined. His wrinkled neck strained and quivered as he leaned slowly into the kiss. He closed his eyes and puckered his mouth into a beak, while his liver-spotted hands reached out with the rigor mortis of a golem. He clumsily took hold of her shoulders and brought his face close to hers. Paul watched all this in profile; saw his girlfriend being taken in the arms of a mummy.

Sarah knew instantly what the old man was about and was having none of it. He had taken too long in crossing the distance. She was gorgeous and voluptuous, wearing a knee-length skirt. It was all so clear to her now. When he placed one of his dry, papery hands to her cheek and tried to turn her face towards him, her charity vanished. His stiff upper body was craning like a tortoise. He came in close, his nose brushing hers, but she snapped her head back in time and shook it from side to side, emitting a weak “no” in protest, ducking from his grip.

“Hey,” said Paul, reaching forward limply. He was paralysed by the man’s age, and, rather than reaching for him, he reached for Sarah, to help extract her. Yet she had, by then, extracted herself, stepping back several paces.

“No, not like that,” she said, out of breath with fright and embarrassment.

“What do you think—” said Paul, but something stuck in him; something about himself.

The old man was entirely unmoved. He stood in the end point of his manoeuvre as though nothing was amiss. He remained silent and lowered his arms; recomposed himself.

Sarah and Paul began to walk slowly; away from the man, away from the lighthouse, back towards the town. They stepped deliberately, as though tied in some way to the location of the incident. It was courtesy that kept them from running; courtesy, embarrassment and the length of the stretch, for the harbour wall ran for another hundred feet, open, exposed. They were trapped in the aftermath.

Sarah was inwardly fuming. It was the assumption that angered her so much. That man, that ancient, rubbery brothel-creeper with his revolting, antiquated misconceptions.

“Why didn’t you do something?” she said, thirty feet on.

“Do what?” hissed Paul “Do what?”

“I don’t know. Just make sure it never got to that.”

“But, but it all just sort of happened.”

Sarah was looking at her feet. She was ashamed and angry that she should feel something so contrary to her role in the matter.

“It’s easy for you,” she said, “you’re always kissing other people. I don’t… It’s horrible.”

“Don’t start that again,” said Paul.

“Why can’t I start that? I never get to start anything.”

It was all back in her, all the burning ‘errors’ she’d forgiven. She knew this wasn’t his fault, but it was just the sort of thing that happened to them now, and only because of him. Must everything always fall so short of what she hoped for with Paul? She allowed herself to believe his assurances, unable to see how far his bleakness and sabotage went, but her belief was no longer tempered by trust. It was simply that when he was on her side she felt stronger, safer. He was a useful ally. She hated that her love for him had deteriorated into something so utilitarian. He was as cold as a stone buttress.

“Just…. not now,” said Paul. “Not today. It’s fucking Christmas. Let’s just forget it. The whole thing was an innocent, silly mix-up. I thought he was going to kiss you on the cheek.”

“So did I.”

Sarah looked at Paul. Paul opened his mouth but said nothing. He was always in the wrong, and quite genuinely. If he hadn’t learned to avoid being in the wrong, he at least knew it wasn’t in his interest to start discussing why he was in the wrong. He had only learned this recently. Naively, he had always primed excuses and deployed them pre-emptively. He was good at excuses, but Sarah was better at truth and the one always countered the other.

His eyes relaxed. Her eyes relaxed. They both began to smile. They had reached the end of the harbour wall and turned around its hairpin to the stretch beside the storehouses.

“I’m not,” said Paul, “saying anything.”

“Let’s just say nothing,” said Sarah.

Paul looked behind him. The old man was ambling along, about twenty metres behind, toying with his beads.

“Fuck that old goat,” said Paul, “what’s his game anyway? Let’s make a run for it. Come on!”

He grabbed Sarah’s hand and broke into a run, pulling her with him. She skipped and hopped and then she was running as well, running with a widening smile. They ran until they came to a junction beside the weathered Venetian warehouses.

“This way!” shouted Paul, growing hysterical with mischief, turning away from the harbour. They came to a half-collapsed and roofless building. There was a boarded-up entrance that had been pried open, kicked in. Sun was streaming through the open top and the inside space was light and warm.

“Come on,” said Paul, “let’s hide in here.”

They stepped through the opening and placed their backs against the wall beside the doorway. Now they really started laughing, big gulping laughs and exhalations. They looked about. The ground was covered in rubble and overgrown with tall weeds. Half-broken planks hung from the wrecked floor above. It seemed a beautiful, happy ruin.

“Let’s go up the stairs and hide properly,” said Paul. “Just for the hell of it.”

“Is it safe?”

“I don’t know. The stairs look sturdy enough.”

They climbed up the stairs to the landing and stepped along the remaining edge of the floor, where a few beams protruded. Here they stopped, still breathing out the flurry of excitement.

“Seems pretty solid.”

The post-holes in the walls shuffled with nervous pigeons; seagulls cried overhead like polished glass. The sandstone was pocked and crumbly; honey-combed like frail conglomerate. Paul was drawn to its wear, to its ruin. He fingered the loose fragments of wall; it was bound here and there with dusty web. Sarah peered over the wreck of a window ledge to the street below. She sought the old man, but he was nowhere to be seen. He was likely still meandering by the harbour; likely still feeling the brush of her nose, the softness of her shoulder. She shuddered.

Paul sat down on the stairs. He was calm again now, overlooking the warm ruins. He had come to Europe to look at ruins; come to see the relics. He felt right at home with ruins. For one thing, they were never pressing, having lost all their urgency. He kicked his foot against a pebble on the stairs. It skipped down into the matted, weedy rubble.

Sarah watched the pebble bounce. How good it had felt when they ran together! It was so long since they had been in such unison. Ever since she had read his diary, when the dust finally settled, everything had been so cautious, so careful. She longed to be free of this deliberateness. Her eyes moistened and she fastened her grip on the weathered window sill. She was always waiting for Paul now. It wasn’t fair, but she could not face leaving him. Just now, she could not face him.

Paul began to think about lunch. He was a man of strong appetites, even at his most apathetic. How he loved the novelty of foreign menus.

“What do you want to eat?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Sarah. “We can have a look in town. You decide.”

She held tight to the sill, wanting to place herself back in the happiness of running. It had flushed her like a sugar high, and now she was coming down. How like Paul to have moved on already; to be thinking about something else. Slowly, silently, she began to cry; saddened by her weakness.

Paul failed to notice. He was thinking about pork chops; staring ahead into rubble.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century is a problem I’ve spent far too much of my life thinking about, including doing a PhD on the subject. The what-ifs and may-have-beens are innumerable and incalculable, yet there was certainly nothing inevitable about what happened. Had the Empire collapsed during the third century “crisis” we might have assumed, with historical perspective, that this was no less inevitable. Yet it didn’t collapse then, and it needn’t have done so in the fifth century. The unique combination of internal and external pressures faced by the Western Empire, some of which were all too deliberately deflected from the east, were not insurmountable. Clumsy policy, poor leadership, lack of responsiveness, in-fighting were all factors which had plagued the Empire throughout its history. There were many turning points and missed opportunities. Even as late as the 450s and 460s, had the Vandals been driven from Africa, a task which should have been far easier than it was made to look, the west might have found its feet again, though things were already quite far gone by this stage.

Winter is coming

Total War: Attila is a game I have dreamed about for decades: a grand simulation of a period of history that is all too often neglected. The team at Creative Assembly have gone there before – the 2005 Barbarian Invasion expansion of Rome Total War I dealt with the same period of history and, indeed, contained many of the same ideas present in Attila, such as the existence of horde factions – groups with the ability to pack up and move as a group, thus not being rooted to a city or province. Yet it was, I felt, poorly balanced and unsatisfying. Total War: Attila makes up for all those shortcomings, including many of the shortcomings of Total War: Rome II – a flawed masterpiece in itself. This game too has its flaws and is not as perfectly balanced as it could be, yet its strengths are so great that it ultimately shines through.

The opening narrative is rather sanctimonious and moralising

It's all about the Huns

As with all Total War games, it is the attention to detail that makes Attila such a wonderfully immersive experience. We can’t expect complete historical accuracy – it’s impossible to simulate the complexity of reality – but with Attila we get a satisfying approximation of the initial set of circumstances and existing conditions. It is, of course, an approximation and it is also created with the idea of playability in mind, and thus liberties need to be taken. Many, for example, might question the logic of a technology tree in which the Romans almost seem to rediscover past talents from the earlier empire, and, in which, by adopting religious enhancements, older technologies are forgotten. I would certainly question the tone of the opening narrative, which is rather tiresomely sanctimonious and moralising. Still, we can’t have it all.

Don't research religion! You won't be able to build aqueducts or amphitheatres...

The game kicks off in AD 395, immediately after the death of Theodosius the Great – the last emperor to rule a unified Roman Empire before its division into East and West. In the west, Honorius is on the throne in Milan, whilst in the east, Arcadius rules in Constantinople. The player has the choice of playing a variety of factions; either half of the Empire, the Sassanids, the Huns and a whole swathe of barbarian factions depending on which DLC packs one has: The Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Suebi, Franks, Alans, Burgundians, Saxons, Allamans, Langobards, Picts, Ebdanians, Caledonians, Jutes, Danes and Geats. Some might question the prominence and, indeed, starting strength of some of these factions, yet, after all, it is a game, not an accurate historical simulation. I mention this point again, because I had constantly to reassure myself of this in order to avoid frustration at numerous points with some of the liberties taken.

Choose your faction - Arcadius

Without a doubt, the toughest assignment of all is to play the Western Empire. It shouldn’t be as hard as it is, yet in this game, everyone will declare war on the west and most factions already have huge and powerful armies ready to roll in and cause havoc. Indeed, some factions actually start with armies inside Roman borders. The Romans, on the other hand, begin with scattered, weak armies which are already depleted of troops on account of the civil war which was recently fought to assert Theodosius’ rule. Depending on how rapidly the other factions declare war, it can be nigh impossible to stand up to this wave of invasion. Yet, it can be done.

Maybe things will go better this time...

Rome. Tired and sore, but ready to be awesome once again

Likely the easiest start is the Sassanids. They begin with a number of puppet states across the east and not only command a formidable force of their own quality troops, but are ably backed up by capable allies. They have the eastern edge of the map at their backs, thus limiting the frontiers they must defend and their economy begins in good shape – the coffers filled not merely through the economic wealth of the regions they command, but also through the trade and tribute from their puppets. They can give the Eastern Empire hell as war with the Sassanids inevitably means fighting all their puppets – an almost constant stream of armies will pour from the orient. For the Eastern Empire, it might be best to strike early, and go in hard and fast.

The map after an Eastern Reconquest after western collapse. Puppet Gallic and Britannic states in Gaul, and a rump few regions for the remnants of the Western Empire

The game begins with a cut-scene narrative of a world falling into darkness. Winter is coming and so is a wave of death, destruction and barbarism. The old world is on the brink of collapse and only a herculean effort will save it from being overrun and picked apart, or, indeed, razed to the ground. Appropriately therefore, the first mission issued is to “Survive until AD 400.” It sounds ominous, but then, the same mission is issued to all factions, irrespective of power or starting status. For those choosing to play a horde faction, the game can resemble a survival game. Unless one settles into a region and secures a base from which to grow an empire, you will constantly be on the run from the many potential enemies who don’t like you wandering through and raiding in their lands.

Dynamic fire - cities will burn

The narrative continues with cut-scenes at key historical milestones. In AD 400, we witness the birth of Attila, who, it is said, “was born from darkness and despair.” The scenes are engaging and evocatively atmospheric, yet Creative Assembly needs to abandon its habit of using its battle-field models as actors in these cut-scenes. They are wonderfully detailed for individual soldiers in a strategy game of massive armies, but look amateurishly rendered when viewed close up as protagonists in these animated dramas. In AD 420, Attila comes of age, and from that point forward, you will constantly be asking yourself: “What fresh hell is this?”

Er, can I see the Face Doctor in Riften?

Bad Omens are coming

More portents

And behold, a slightly silly narrative of apocalypse...

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One of the eternal cities

The basic mechanics of the game will be very familiar to any who have played Total War games in the past. It is turn based strategy, based around managing regions, cities, armies and agents. One can make alliances and trade with other factions, subjugate factions and turn them into tributaries or foederati, and, of course, wipe them out altogether. What differs in Total War: Attila  is the ability to raze cities altogether, and, indeed, to refound them.

Expensive, but well worth it sometimes - resettlement of a devastated region

A new city emerges in the ashes of the old

What also stands out is the unique capabilities of the Huns, whose armies spawn repeatedly in the east and drive west and south, razing, pillaging and basically murdering everything in their sight. Their armies are initially comparable to those of other factions, yet, once Attila comes of age, their spawn rate steps up and all their units suddenly become tier 3 merchants of death. They are, without a doubt, far too overpowered for the sake of balance, and their ludicrously impressive units are made all the more devastating by the fact that they inflict a -10 morale penalty on all who face them.

Chosen Uar Warriors - Not one single dump stat on these mothers

That is, trust me, savage indeed, and fighting them can be so extremely frustrating that one is inclined to pile three armies in just to take out one Hunnic force, and hit the auto resolve button to avoid overly raised cortisol levels. The Huns inspire such a sense of utter hatred that I don’t think I can remember any other game in which I was so motivated to exterminate my enemies. And, in truth, the only way to defeat them is total extermination – because otherwise they will exterminate you. Until Attila is dead, the Huns will continue to spawn huge and powerful armies, and even after his death, any lingering hordes can cause havoc.

Attila himself! Just before I put a javelin in his back and trampled him to death

Using terrain wisely - Facing the Huns, you really better get it right. A Heroic Victory was here enjoyed : )

It might, therefore, seem a simple enough mission: kill Attila and then proceed to finish off the Huns. The problem is that Attila, most annoyingly, has a randomly generated number of lives, so even if you destroy his entire unit and watch him killed in battle, he will escape, wounded, and turn up leading another horde next turn. This can drive any player bonkers, especially as whether he lives or dies seems rather arbitrary. I’ve read many opinions in the forums stating such things as the need to kill him twice in non-autoresolved battles, but this doesn’t stand up to repeated experimentation – in one game I killed him six times in battle. It seems truly random. At some point, however, a message will pop up informing the player that Attila was, after all, Only a Man – and from this point forward he is vulnerable and will indeed die if killed in battle or assassinated. Once he’s gone it’s almost an anticlimax, but when he’s there, you cannot rest. This is not a game for the faint-hearted. You will swear a lot, trust me.

No more respawns after this. He's just one big Achilles Heel

The game does not end at this point, but it does lose a certain intensity - still, there is a whole world simulation to be getting on with...

No more Hun hordes after this

Post mopping up

As mentioned earlier, Attila only appears as an active agent in the game after about AD 420, and yet the world is usually already greatly destabilised by this stage and not well placed to meet him. This is largely because the western and eastern Empires often collapse in a balsa wood heap pretty early on in the piece – in some cases, even prior to AD 410 – so poor is the AI at playing these factions. If you want to see them survive at all, generally the only option is to play them, and that’s easier said than done.

Another desperate defence. Time to turtle up

In this regard, the game is problematically a-historical and is largely a consequence of the level of hostility of the barbarian factions towards Rome, and their significantly over-powered nature. When it comes to the Eastern or Western Empire, the AI runs around like a chicken with its head cut off; indeed, it is rather hopeless at defending large empires, but well suited to expanding small ones. It doesn’t know where or how to defend itself and continually makes stupid decisions. One particular frustration is its unwillingness to recapture its lost cities, even when they are undefended and they have sufficient armies sitting outside. More often than not they will sack the city and leave it to whoever presently holds it, even in situations where they could subjugate a faction with a single city, or recapture a vital choke-point and resource. Countless times I have attempted to support the Roman factions by moving armies close to their former cities, but instead of recapturing them, they either sack, raze or completely ignore them. In some cases they leave their armies camped outside pointlessly, turn after turn, and in one particularly shameful case, the Western Empire razed Rome which had fallen into the hands of the Visigoths. Really? I mean, come on. This really needs fixing – some algorithm to prioritise the recapture of former territory, rather than more futile expeditions across the Mediterranean, and some means to stop the Romans razing their former cities, which seems unnecessarily out of character if nothing else.

Barbarians at dawn

The game also suffers from a problem of time-scale, which affects the possible scope of the campaign. I had hoped things might carry on as far as the 6th or even 7th centuries – after all, Total War: Rome II begins in 273 BC and is playable right through to times AD. Yet with four seasons in one year, and thus four turns to a year, Attila moves through time at a much slower pace. This has two significant consequences; firstly, the family tree hardly advances through more than two generations, which robs it of some of the pleasures of creating a dynasty; secondly, far too much happens in too short a period of time, historically speaking. In a way this feels unsatisfying. Playing the Western Empire in my first hit out, I had wiped out the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Sueves before AD 405, which was curiously disappointing, and, as mentioned above, I’ve seen the Western Empire reduced to just a couple of regions as early as AD 408, from a starting point of 68.

The Western Empire, already like a Swiss cheese, about to topple altogether.

The completely a-historical effect of climate change, however, is my biggest gripe in this game. It is far too greatly exaggerated. Every time we have a cut scene – AD 400, AD 420, AD 432 and so on, the game increases its climate effects in a way that is savagely debilitating. Each region suffers a -1 to fertility for each change, which means by 432, you have a -3 fertility penalty to all regions, and it doesn’t stop there, but ticks over again in 445 and, I think, 460.

Er, okay...

Winter is here...

This turns some areas infertile, which affects food production and economic capability. Even more debilitating, however, is that the area of the map which is covered by snow in winter extends southwards with every increase in climate change, and the snow increasingly stays on the ground throughout spring. This means that troop movements anywhere north of the Mediterranean cause horrible attrition. This is certainly a problem for the player, but much more so for the AI which seems to take little notice of the situation and persists with wandering armies through snow until they are significantly depleted.

Yup, frozen Egypt

It’s all rather ludicrous, considering that whilst there were mild climatic changes during the period, they were certainly not this pronounced, and the most significant effect occurred much later – c. 535-6 – when an especially cold period is recorded, both in chronicles and in the archaeological record – a nuclear winter caused by an enormous volcanic eruption, perhaps Mt Tambora in Indonesia. It wasn’t a trend but rather an anomaly caused by a single incident, yet the game persists in this debilitating fiction. I understand that the idea of an increasing climate penalty is a mechanic to drive people further south and add an impending sense of doom to the scenario, yet it is also highly limiting in that its continued application and increasing severity mean that most of the map is designated “infertile” by the middle of the fifth century. That’s pretty stupid, let’s face it.

Stunning

Snow in Attila is divine

Winter wonderland

The other major issue is the aforementioned weakness of the Western Roman Empire and the strength and number of its foes. In the first few turns, most of the barbarian factions across the border, and the hordes both within and without, will declare war. As the Western Empire begins with a few small, depleted armies, and most of these factions already have twenty-stack armies ready to roll, the west hardly stands a chance. If it isn’t external enemies, it is internal rebellion, civil disorder, lack of funds, sanitation problems leading to multiple disease outbreaks and the like. It doesn’t help that nearly every single faction near the west declares war. The game’s diplomacy works on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, and as all the barbarians are fighting Rome, they all have very positive relations with each other and lend battle support with multiple armies, further making Roman victory a strategic impossibility much of the time and making it impossible to make peace with any single faction. It would be nice to see the Empire more able to hold its own, and a mechanism which encourages the barbarian factions to fight amongst themselves more, as they tended to do.

Defending the ruins of an ossified culture - note the re-purposed arena.

Gripes aside, and they are not insignificant, the game looks and plays magnificently. It is wonderful to see the return of the family tree, which makes the whole business of running one’s faction more engaging and personal. This requires some management to sustain loyalty and faction strength, whilst being relatively undemanding. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of it is the high rate of infant mortality. Likely more than half of your children will die as toddlers, which is rather frustrating, especially considering it takes, in effect, around 72 turns for them to come of age. Best to reload the auto-save; after all, it is a random seed determined afresh each click of the turn button.

The family tree

Assigning governors

With a name like that, he never stood a chance

Ouch

Again we are treated to a gorgeous campaign map and stunning battle maps covering all the diverse landscapes of the entire Mediterranean, stretching as far west as Britain, as far north as Scandinavia, as far East as Afghanistan, and as far south as Sudan.

Hadrian's Wall is on the map now

Crete

Long-legged Italy kicked poor Sicily into the Mediterranean Sea...

A cold spring in Britain

As with Total War: Rome II, the game also offers lovely levels of detail with regard to demographics, diplomatic relations, region growth, fertility and the distribution of religions. These can both be vital aids as well as providing more immersion in the minutiae of this huge simulation.

Faction attitude

Religious distribution on known map

Note how infertile things are getting round the map

Getting harder to produce a surplus in some regions

The weather and lighting effects are achingly beautiful, and the usual attention to detail in troops’ outfits and equipment is laudable.

Gorgeous

Running up that hill

Stormy weather in the east

Gnarled tree

Dawn battle

Autumn forest

Magical snow

Hazy by the sea

Bleak forest

Autumn forest

The option to wait might bring better weather - or worse

Like Total War: Rome II, of which this game is truly a direct descendant, the troops in the armies have a diverse range of faces and emblems, and one’s generals can be seen sporting the face that appears in their portrait, on the battlefield. There are also many lovely illustrations to accompany event notifications which add variety and atmosphere to the setting.

Birth of Attila

Naval Blockade

Religious dilemma

Celtic storyline

Attrition - in desert as in snow...

One of my favourite elements in the game are the cities and towns, which are a real pleasure to witness. The designers have done a great job in capturing the architectural flavour of the late Roman period, as well as referencing some known phenomena such as the re-use of spaces like amphitheatres for residential purposes.

Just bloody splendid - the re-purposed amphitheatre

Interior view of amphitheatre

Vegetable garden in the snow

Fountain in the east

East Roman city

Eastern defensive tower

East Roman brickwork

A remnant of the classical style, still largely present in western cities

Waiting for the barbarians

Sweet little garden

Many cities have abandoned, ruined areas which contain ruins of an earlier, classical style

Wonderful building models

West Roman church

This is likely anachronistic in its rather early occurrence, but it adds great flavour to the image of Europe transitioning into its rather less grandiose medieval phase. This kind of minutiae adds a lot of colour to the game. It is worth taking some time and exploring the map, finding things such as vegetable gardens, laden carts, peristyles, cloisters, georgeous tiled floors etc. amongst the building models in the cities. Coastal towns are especially attractive, and, as in Rome II, the ship models are highly detailed and glide and bob majestically on the stunning seas.

My favourite shot - the harbour of Camulodunum

Coastal city in the morning mist

Longships!

Coming into port

Key river crossing

Maurian raiders!

Coastal city docks

Hillfort and approaching naval assault

Beautiful coastal longhouses

Cities are also now easier to defend, which is a relief. Many players complained about the inability to erect walls in Total War: Rome II, which has now been rectified in that non-capital cities which reach size IV automatically gain walls. All cities and towns now have defensive towers, which unleash flaming arrows of death at approaching foes. Many cities also have internal ramparts, which can really assist in defence by protecting defenders and funnelling enemies into corridors of death. There are, however, too few city and town models to choose from and I found myself, much of the time, fighting in one of a limited number of commonly recurring town designs in Western Europe. This is great for strategic purposes in that one develops an intimate understanding of how to defend each design, but not so great in terms of variety and diversity. The game does, however, do a wonderful job of rendering different cultural architectural styles. They are inevitably, too uniform, in that there is a Near Eastern and African style, west Roman, Barbarian, East Roman etc, but they’ve put a lot of love into each of these and they are beautiful to behold in their own sweet way.

Gates and broken towers

Barbarian hillfort

Snow in the east!

Sweet in the detail - wagon and amphorae

East Roman city in the rain

Fighting over a razed city's ruins

The chieftain's longhouse

Hazy day in the Eastern Empire

Just another splendid part of the battle map

Another most excellent building model

Celtic monument

A beautiful town I'd love to visit

A crumbling theatre

And of course, the game achieves its greatest levels of enjoyment when it comes to the battles. This is always what Total War games have been about, and it is absolutely key that you get in there and enjoy them first hand, rather than playing this as a strategy game and just spamming the auto-resolve buttons. After all, any good general should really be able to win a battle where they aren’t too ludicrously outnumbered, and often enough, with real tactical prowess, one should be able to win battles for which the auto-resolve options only offer ignominious defeat. As in Rome II, one can hit the insert button and get up close and personal with the troops by zooming the camera into a unit view. It’s not a practical way to view the battle as a tactician, but it’s a beautiful way to immerse yourself in the game. Battles in Attila, as in Rome II, can be absolutely epic in scale and duration and it is where the real pleasure of the game lies.

An epic clash with mountain backdrop

Stunning visuals throughout, don't skimp on that GPU

Such majesty and romance in what this game tosses up visually

Legions fighting in the desert

Mopping up after a bloody battle

We have some excellent polish in our cohort...

An epic fort defence. The towers on these things are so effective, you can defeat armies almost three times your size if you hold the gates.

Alans on boats!

Great mix of faces among the soldiers, and a wonderful ethnic blend mirroring the curious cultural mix of the late empire

Riders in the snow, moving to flank

An uphill battle

One of the most epic battles ever - note the size of the two opposing armies - Sassanids in the distance

Enemy ships on the horizon

Desert riders

Elite troops waiting in camp

A monstrous battle for a city

Christianity is now the dominant religion around the Mediterranean, including for many barbarian factions

Roman spearmen in the hills

A barbarian circular fort

Another bloody battle in a bloody world

Cavalry on the coast of Spain

Artillery hidden in the forest. Fire at will!

A lovely day for a ride

Coastal assault

Naval units backing up city defence

Eastern mercenary archers

An unconventional battle array

A hard-fought tussle on the beach

As stated above, cities can be razed to the ground and then rebuilt, though it costs a fortune and half your army’s troops to do the latter. Sadly, all too many settlements end up being razed to the ground. Particularly by the Huns who are the one faction that cannot capture cities and transition from horde mode to settled mode. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to play the Huns. I get no pleasure from being purely destructive, and, anyway, they are so overpowered it would not be a great deal of fun. I far prefer to take them on as the defender of civilization, crush them and see them driven before me. They do, however, create some splendid units available for hire as barbarian mercenaries.

Razing a city - it's pretty dramatic. This is one way to create a handy buffer for the Eastern Empire early on. Go hard and raze every city along the Tigris / Euphrates. It makes the frontier very manageable and buys time to prioritise other pressing business.

What I did particularly enjoy about this game was, as stated in the intro, the ability to take on the leadership of the Western Empire and face down the encroaching hordes. Honorius, a rather weak and ineffectual puppet in the west who ruled for far too long, in my game became a conquering hero, who, after defeating the Huns in eastern Europe, campaigned as far away as Egypt and led the Western Empire to renewed glory. This amused me no end, especially the idea of him leading resurgent western armies against the Sassanids and putting down rebellions across north Africa.

Honorius, the Conqueror, campaigning in the marshes of the Nile

Arcadius - a more than capable emperor in this version of history

The map is huge, the scope is huge, the odds of survival are initially slim, but if you love the idea of rewriting history, or seeing it rewritten before your very eyes, then this is the game for you. Attila Total War is not an easy game, indeed, it can be notoriously difficult and it takes a hell of a long time to play out a full game – possibly as much as 100 hours. It has its flaws and can be highly frustrating, and, on reflection, there are probably more complaints in this review than there is praise, but once you are in there, fighting to death against seemingly impossible odds, the stakes are raised so wonderfully high that victory offers a level of elation and rejoicing rare in strategy games. I can’t think of any previous strategy game wherein I have become so deeply invested emotionally. I complain about these frustrating elements, because I love this game so much – for its setting, atmosphere, scale, intensity and its attractive, if GPU-heavy look. The battles are ferocious, the music is epic, the addictiveness and immersion is supreme. You will shout, you will cry, you will swear and you will punch your fist in the air and whoop with pride and pleasure – but you will no doubt share my conviction: no matter what, that mofo Attila, the Scourge of God, must die.

Natatio, Baths of Caracalla, Rome, October 10, 2013

Natatio, Baths of Caracalla, Rome, October 10, 2013

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.

“Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.

Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered”

– The Ruin, Old English Poem, c. 8th-10th century

It is hardly surprising that across Europe in the early middle ages, many people living in the post-Roman world thought that the earth had once been inhabited by giants. With the collapse of the Western Empire, many of the major metropolises across western Europe suffered vast declines in population – by the late 5th century Rome’s population had shrunk from over a million to less than 400,000, and by the middle of the 6th century, after Justinian’s reconquest of Italy, it plummeted to a mere twenty thousand. A combination of disruption of the countryside, the breakdown of trade networks and supply lines, and the effects of ongoing war, famine and repeated cycles of plague, the 6th century was an age of disappearing cities and towns.

Indeed, in this period, many cities and towns vanished altogether, only to show up later in the archaeological record. The crumbling remains were either entirely abandoned or quarried for materials. In some major cities, the shrinking population abandoned the city centre to live on the fringes, where access to agricultural land was easier. Major edifices were repurposed, making use of the cavernous spaces between pillars, for example, which could be bricked in with a ready-made roof. Amphitheatres were fortified and piled up with houses built upon the rows of seats. In Rome, such was the scale of the city that it broke up into a series of small villages, with shepherds grazing flocks through the abandoned, overgrown streets. It was the world’s first true apocalypse, the first collapse of a “modern” civilization.

This photograph shows the immense brick walls of the Baths of Caracalla. Constructed between AD 211 and 217, they remained in use until the aqueducts were cut in Rome during the devastating Gothic War fought between the Eastern Empire and the Ostrogoths from 535-554. The baths complex covered an area of 25 hectares, with the main building no less than 228 metres long and 116 metres wide, reaching to a height of 38.5 metres. It could accommodate up to 1600 bathers and contained libraries, gymnasiums, restaurants and shops. It required thousands of slaves to maintain and had its own aqueduct built to supply the water. As it lay on the outskirts of the ancient city, it was left almost entirely abandoned for centuries after its water supply was cut. The immense and impressive statuary which adorned the vast complex, such as the Farnese Hercules, was not recovered until the 16th century, almost a thousand years after it fell into ruin.

This photograph shows a view looking from the frigidarium (cold bath) into the natatio (swimming pool), which was roughly of Olympic length, with dimensions of 54 x 24 metres. The epic scale of the wall dwarfs the human subjects and goes someway towards highlighting just how massive this structure was, and, indeed, still is. An hour-long visit to the bath is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon in Rome.

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