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5146 Lisbon

Praca Figuera, Lisbon, Portugal, September 6, 2007

The sunlight was blinding in the square below, the air already on its way to another hot day. For the last hour a blind man had been calling aloud the title of the journal he was selling at the metro entrance – a publication from what sounded like the Borda d’aqua. Every ten seconds or so the title would roll off his tongue, finishing up with a rhythmic flourish of “Borda d’aqua.” It seemed a sorry task, attracting little interest, yet he went about it with dignity and determination, sustaining his pitch through the morning’s indifference.

Later research found only the following link, the Borda D’Agua almanaque of 2008, which certainly fits the context as it was September 2007 at the time. It seems the almanac was designed as a guide for the coming year. Though I haven’t quite conducted the most comprehensive search, the lack of more recent hits suggests this almanac might have since ceased publication.

The bright glare of the square made a delightful backdrop against which to shoot. The man here with the newspaper is not the aforementioned blind man, but merely a passer-by troubled by the intense sunlight. I spent a lot of time with my head and shoulders poking from the small hotel room window above Praca Figuera, the square below. This was, however, not merely because of the great light and people-watching opportunities, but on account of the intense orange-scented smell of the cleaning product with which someone had cleaned the room the day before. So intense was it that I had had trouble sleeping and the scent stayed in my clothes for weeks afterwards. Clearly, I should have switched rooms, but this one did have the view after all, and on that sunny morning, it was worth it.

Halki, Naxos, Greece, September 22, 2013

Halki, Naxos, Greece, September 22, 2013

This table sits in the intimate central square of Halki, a village on the Greek island of Naxos. Like so many villages in Greece, Halki is blindingly beautiful – brightly coloured doors and white walls concentrate the sun’s glare, filling the streets with an almost tangible lightness. It is the simple low-maintenance beauty of something done exactly right. Outside the village the land is dry and yellowed; outcrops of ochre and umber lending a pervasive orange glow to the thirsty green. Pockets of well-watered garden with swollen aubergines exude a moist fertility; the silver-backs of the pale green olive leaves reflect a million points of light, overexposing the scenery. Naxos is a dry and rugged island – its centre like another planet – yet it thrives on good fortune and nurture.

On a sunny September afternoon, in the mild heat amplified by the absent breeze, the shade of this tree-covered square was most welcome. There was nothing to it but to sit and eat and drink, so we ordered the perennial Greek salad and an onion tart, mineral water and coffee. Simple things done immensely well, it was a brief yet memorable stay.

I like this photo for its pleasing colours, indicative of the ease with which Greece achieves harmony. Perhaps it is a quality of the light – the clearest and brightest I’ve seen outside Australia – or perhaps it is that white and blue make such a neutral base from which to work, that even contrasting colours fit effortlessly into the picture. The soft focus of the background perhaps does not reflect the sharpness of the light, yet I’d like to think it captures the dreaminess of the old towns on the islands, which always seem far too incredible to be true.

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Apostrophes were clearly suppressed in the dystopian future

For years I’ve been telling people that the best science fiction series made for television was the BBC space opera Blake’s 7. Many might consider this a rather bold claim – after all, what of Doctor Who, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, old or new? What of Buck Rogers, Farscape, Firefly, Babylon 5 and the like – each of which have huge legions of fans willing to argue the virtues of their chosen favourite. I too had begun to wonder whether or not my preference was some age-old nostalgic attachment or a genuine critical preference. To decide this matter once and for all, I recently began watching the series again, only to discover that Blake’s 7 is even better than I recall. Before reading further, it is important to note that this contains MAJOR SPOILERS.

What makes Blake’s 7 so great is a combination three key elements – great scripts, characters and concepts. Like all good science fiction, Blake’s 7 wrestles with important moral and ethical questions about the future, as well as exploring concepts relating to human colonisation of other planets and the nature of the societies that develop. Yet, ultimately, Blake’s 7 is concerned with freedom from the oppression of a totalitarian galactic empire – The Terran Federation.

It is the significant grey areas that Blake’s 7 establishes in response to the moral and ethical questions it raises which make it so compelling. Often there is no clear right and wrong and actions taken in favour of the greater good often have fatal and devastating consequences for some, or indeed, many. The lead characters are in many ways dysfunctional or significantly flawed and, despite their best intentions, they make questionable moral decisions. The tone is frequently dark and unsentimental – support characters are killed ruthlessly or suffer a martyr’s death – a fate to which Blake’s crew are by no means immune.

The story begins on Earth – the centre of the vast and tyrannical Terran Federation, which has been extending its power and colonies throughout the galaxy for the last seven or eight centuries; maintaining its control through the use of mass surveillance, drug pacification and brainwashing. Roj Blake, the eponymous character of the series, is a former political dissident and rebel leader who, after being captured and having his memory suppressed through psychological conditioning, was put through a show trial in which he was forced to denounce his movement.  When he is approached by a group of dissidents and invited to attend a meeting outside the citadel in which he resides, he is initially doubtful and unable to recall any details of his past life. Curious all the same, Blake attends the secret meeting and arrives to find it is a trap. He witnesses a Federation massacre of all those present.

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L to R: Gan, Cally, Blake, Vila, Avon, Jenna

Blake is then captured once again and put on trial under false charges of child molestation. The trial, little more than a farce, results in a guilty verdict and Blake is imprisoned pending transportation to a penal colony on the planet Cygnus Alpha. It is whilst he is in the holding cell that he meets some of the others who come to form his crew. During the long journey, Blake and the other prisoners attempt to take control of the ship, but are foiled. When the prison transportation ship comes across a drifting spaceship of alien origin, the crew decide to investigate and dock with the stricken vessel. The forward party are, however, killed by an automatic defence system and Blake is sent with two other prisoners, Kerr Avon and Jenna Stannis, all of whom are considered expendable, to investigate. Fortunately they are able to overcome the psychological horror which the ship uses as a defence and take control of what is soon named “The Liberator,” a highly advanced ship capable of speeds considerably faster than Federation pursuit vessels. Freeing themselves from the prison transport, they vow to follow it to Cygnus Alpha where they will free the other prisoners. Thus begins their career as freedom fighters against the Federation.

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The Liberator, a later illustration

The show, created by Terry Nation – inventor of the Daleks – was originally pitched as the “Dirty Dozen in space” and this can be seen in the criminal backgrounds of most of the core characters. Blake’s crew consists of a corrupt computer genius – Avon; a smuggler – Jenna Stannis; a thief and security expert – Vila; a murderer with a brain implant to curb his violent urges – Gan; a telepathic guerrilla soldier – Cally; a computer with a distinct personality – Zen; and the most advanced computer in the galaxy – Orac, which retains the personality and temperament of its creator, Ensor, and is capable of tapping into the databases of all other computers across the galaxy. Season three saw the introduction of  a naive weapons expert – Dayna and a highly skilled former Federation spaceship commander, now turned mercenary – Del Tarrant. In season four, the crew are joined by Soolin, a high-tech gunslinger and an obsequious computer – Slave.

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The original crew

How typical of England to produce a completely dystopian future as opposed to the air-brushed future of Star Trek, with its prosperous and harmonious populations on Earth having, apparently, settled their differences and moved on to peacefully exploring the galaxy. Occasionally, like Star Trek, the show dissolves into pantomime – poorly choreographed fight sequences, wobbling model spaceships, melodramatic exchanges, clumsy gender politics and implausible courses of action. Blake’s 7 also lacks a large cast of extras and thus most of the galaxy seems almost entirely unpopulated – the Federation, a vast galactic empire which has been extending its power across the galaxy for centuries – has very modest-looking facilities – claustrophobic space stations, small planetary outposts, and a lot of brightly lit, small, white interiors. Yet despite these limitations, the quality of the ideas and the scripts, the intensity of the dialogue and dramatic sequences and the richly drawn, complex characters win through.

At the heart of the show is the rivalry between Blake and Avon, arguably the most intelligent and capable members of the crew, who have distinctly different personalities and motivations. While Blake intends to use Liberator to strike against the Federation, the others are often reluctant followers – especially Avon. Blake and Avon’s clashes over the leadership represent a conflict between idealism and cynicism, emotion and rationality, and dreams and practicality. Both roles are wonderfully played by Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow and while Blake is more hero than anti-hero, in some regards Avon is the more admirable character, despite his dark cynicism and blatant self-interest. He often shows Blake up for what he is – an idealist who is willing to sacrifice people for the greater good. Avon’s sharp wit, high intelligence and utter disdain for those he sees as beneath him – practically everyone he comes into contact with – is a delight to watch.

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Julius Caesar eat your heart out

DAYNA: “Don’t you ever get bored with being right?”

AVON: “Just with the rest of you being wrong.”

Most fans of the show cite Avon as their favourite character and in many ways he is the most complex of them all. His prominence also increases through the disappearance of Blake at the end of season two. A YouTube video offers some of Avon’s finest quips, and it is worth mentioning that all of the episodes can be watched on YouTube.

Blake, idealist that he is, can be a demanding and cantankerous personality. At times he is difficult to like – demagogic and forceful, he often raises his voice unnecessarily, at the absolute limits of patience with his crew. He is not always forthcoming with his plans and intentions – not entirely trusting the others to go along with him or agree to his plans. Yet despite this, Blake is still a warm and very sympathetic character, burdened by the choices that he is forced to make. Often he is faced with difficult moral and ethical decisions and, in his somewhat determined pragmatism, can appear heartless and utilitarian. The show constantly asks the question – what exactly is the price of freedom? If a few die so that many might be free, even if freedom leads to circumstances worse than slavery or the oppressive, heavily sedated rule by the Federation, is that acceptable? The grey areas are at times confronting, at times shocking, and we are invited to judge for ourselves through the obvious discomfort of the characters – ever on the brink of mutiny against Blake. Even Blake himself wonders at his cause and his methods.

Essentially Blake and his crew do what terrorists do – unable to defeat a far more powerful enemy, they undermine and degrade their enemy’s morale and capability. Rather than confronting the Federation head on, they work on the fringes much of the time, helping other resistance movements to liberate outlying colonies. Seen as nothing more than criminals by the Federation, they are pursued throughout the series by the wonderfully theatrical Servalan, a stalwart nemesis present from go to woe. Servalan’s sexually charged cruelty not only makes her a deliciously immoral opponent, but also brings her into the arms of Blake, Avon and Tarrant at various points.

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The wonderfully vicious Servalan

She is assisted by a range of expendable side-kicks and, for the first two seasons, by the ruthless and capable but overconfident and ultimately bungling Space Commander Travis. Travis is a delight in Season One, artfully played by Stephen Grief with a camp and thespy tone not unlike that of Servalan. His replacement by Brian Croucher in Season Two was a terrible error of judgement – not only is it one of the most consistently awful performances I’ve ever seen in a television show, but Grief’s sinister fruitiness is replaced with clumsy thuggery, robbing the character of all nuance and plausibility. Fortunately, however, though Travis plays a key role in some episodes, his efforts are not sufficient to ruin things entirely.

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Stephen Grief as Space Commander Travis

Things begin to come undone for Blake and his crew in the second season. In Episode 5, Pressure Point, Blake steers the Liberator within range of Earth to launch an assault on what he believes is the Federation’s control centre. Not trusting the others to agree to his plan, he does not inform them of his true intentions until they are within teleport range of Earth. Jenna, Vila, Gan and Cally all agree to go with him, as does Avon, in his own time, yet they only agree on the proviso that this is no suicide mission and the whole venture will be called off if the risk is too great. When, ultimately, Gan is killed on what turns out to be a wild goose chase, the tensions escalate to the point that in the following episode Blake considers leaving altogether and, indeed, takes off alone to a supposedly uninhabited planet to consider his options. Blake’s conversation with Avon prior to his departure is typical of the increasingly tense exchanges between the two:

“I’m going down on my own, Avon, it has nothing to do with you.”

“Nothing at all. But it occurs to me that if you should run into trouble, one of your followers – one of your three remaining followers – might have to risk his neck to rescue you.”

“Then you must advise them against that, Avon.”

“Oh I will.”

“They might even listen to you this time.”

“Why not – after all, I don’t get them killed.”

“True.”

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Avon and Blake, likely the best ever on-screen television rivalry

In the final episode of Season Two, Star One, Blake is faced with a momentous decision with dire consequences. Destroy Star One, a highly secretive operations centre on a distant planet, and the Federation’s control centre is gone –breaking its ability to monitor and rule the many star systems and planets throughout its empire. Yet, destroying Star One also means destroying all the automated systems which control the terra-formed atmospheres and environments on those planets – resulting in the deaths of millions upon millions of people. How could anyone sanely make such a decision and live with the consequences? Would such an action really be justified? This dilemma is made plain in a conversation between Blake and Cally:

CALLY:  Are we fanatics?

BLAKE: Does it matter?

CALLY: Many, many people will die without Star One.

BLAKE: I know.

CALLY: Are you sure that what we’re going to do is justified?

BLAKE: It has to be. Don’t you see, Cally? If we stop now then all we have done is senseless killing and destruction – without purpose, without reason. We have to win. It’s the only way I can be sure that I was right.

CALLY: That you were right?

Blake initially decides to go ahead with its destruction, choosing freedom from Federation slavery over life and death. Yet, upon finally finding Star One – a small, barely habitable planet orbiting a dying star in interstellar space on the edge of the Andromeda Galaxy, Blake discovers that it has been infiltrated by aliens who have assumed the form of the few scientists left to maintain and refine the facility’s systems. The aliens, from Andromeda, have been destabilising its operations to create chaos on Federation planets, and working to disarm a vast orbiting minefield built by the Federation in anticipation of an Andromedan invasion. It is only when Blake realises that this invasion is imminent – a fleet of 600 ships sits just outside the minefields – and that humanity will likely be defeated and enslaved if attacked unprepared, that he changes his mind, arguing that humans will need all the resources and facilities they can to win the impending war. He also notifies Servalan, now acting president of the Federation, having assumed power under the guise of crisis, of the position of the enemy battle fleet. Though Blake doesn’t hesitate to make this decision, it further reflects the complexity of the dilemma, both moral and ethical. Only the Federation can defeat the Andromedans and thus save humanity. It is, in effect, another utilitarian decision.

Ultimately, Blake gets what he wants without having blood on his hands. The ensuing battle results in a great Federation victory – yet it is dreadfully pyrrhic in nature, costing almost the entire Federation fleet. In an Andromedan counter attack, Star One is destroyed. Season Two ends with Avon at the helm of the Liberator, and the wounded Blake – having been shot by Travis, in the medical bay. It is the last time we see Blake until the final episode of the series – a whopping 26 episodes later, with the exception of a brief appearance at the end of season 3. Were one not aware that Gareth Thomas, along with Sally Knyvette who played Jenna, had chosen not to return for season three, one might be inclined to think that Blake had decided enough was enough. Were the moral implications of his actions too great? Had his conscience got the better of him? The Liberator is damaged in the space battle and, we are told, Blake and Jenna are fired off in life-support capsules, gone from the show.

In Season Three, without the drive and purpose of Blake, and perhaps as a consequence of less uniform characterisations by different screen-writers, the show briefly loses its way, becoming a rather too whimsical and downright silly sequence of stand-offs between the crew of the Liberator and Federation President Servalan. There is a seeming inconsistency in the sudden elevation of Del Tarrant, another alpha male like Blake and Avon, to an all-too assertive leadership role – one which Avon seems, at times, oddly willing to ignore. Yet despite some inconsistencies, the show retains its enormous sense of fun and its savage critique of both power and revolution, though at times it feels as though this has come at the expense of the gravitas that pervades the first two seasons.

When season three begins, one feels Blake’s absence most acutely. For the first time, his strident, yet passionate, argumentative, yet reasonable, almost dictatorial personality is missing from the show. Avon, with far less heart or conscience than Blake, yet, arguably, far greater intelligence, finds himself in charge – a position he always wished to occupy. Episode 2, Powerplay, an absolute cracker during which Avon returns to the abandoned Liberator to find it occupied by Federation troops, introduces Del Tarrant, a skilled spaceship pilot who is unwilling to bend to Avon’s will so easily. A new rivalry develops between the two, in which Avon is often willing to take a back seat, allowing Tarrant to assert himself. The new dynamic is equally electric, with the more agreeable but strong-willed Dayna also joining the crew.

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Season Three crew L to R: Tarrant, Dayna, Avon, Cally and Vila

Season Three ends with the loss of the Liberator, which begins to corrode uncontrollably after passing through a strange cloud of fluidic particles that eat the hull. In this episode we also catch a glimpse of Blake, whom Avon finds in a medical bay on the planet, Terminal. Blake, however, is merely a hallucination – part of an elaborate ruse by Servalan to get hold of the Liberator. Servalan agrees to hand over Blake in exchange for the Liberator, not knowing that the ship is doomed. Likewise, Avon is unaware that the Blake he met was only an illusion. This was intended to be the end of the series altogether, a sort of defeat for both parties. The popularity of the show, however, and the enthusiasm for it of various figures at the BBC, led to the commissioning of a fourth season.

Season Four has a very different character again. Without the Liberator, desperate and trapped on an inhospitable alien world, the crew initially appear like gangsters – commandeering at gun-point the ship, Scorpio, of their would-be rescuer, Dorian. Whilst Avon is right to distrust Dorian, who has plans to kill them in a mystical process to rejuvenate himself, his behaviour is most cavalier and brutal.

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Those Gauntlets. Avon in Season Four

This theme runs consistently throughout season 4 – a constant questioning of the actions and motivations of the crew, especially regarding the risks they are willing to take with other people’s lives. In Episode 4, Stardrive, they “rescue” a certain Dr Plaxton from a group of speed freak punks called the Space Rats, along with her incredible new stardrive. During a daring escape from Federation pursuit ships, Dr Plaxton works furiously to connect the drive on the ship. With seconds to go before plasma bolts strike, Avon engages the engine, ensuring that as soon as the last connection is made, the drive will fire, resulting in Dr Plaxton’s death. “She’s dead anyway,” he says, perfectly truthfully. Yet after she has died, when Dayna says to him, “But what about Dr Plaxton?” Avon coldly replies, “Who?” It’s a savage world.

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Scorpio

The tensions between the group continue to simmer – especially those between Avon and Tarrant, and while Vila comes across as somehow more capable and resourceful throughout the season, in contrast to his weak and cowardly nature throughout the first three seasons, he also reaches some of his lowest, most pathetic points. Perhaps the saddest, most tragic moment in the whole series occurs at the end of episode 11, Orbit, when he and Avon are stuck on an overloaded shuttle that lacks sufficient fuel and power to reach escape velocity. Destined to crash, they desperately start stripping the ship’s fittings and firing them out the airlock to reduce weight. When Orac informs Avon that a further 70 kilograms are required, then adds that Vila weighs 73 kilos, what follows is a truly awful, yet wonderfully tense moment when Avon, having realised again that it’s a simple, clear choice, goes after Vila, genuinely intending to kill him and throw him out the airlock. The scene in which we see Vila cowering behind a bulk-head, tears in his eyes, is perhaps the most traumatic of the whole season. It is made more venomously poignant by the fact that he had stated, at the beginning of the episode, that he always felt safe with Avon – which is why he was with him at the time. Having found another solution and survived, at the end, when Vila says “it’s a trip I’ll never forget, Avon” Avon rather evilly responds: “Well, as you always say Vila, you know you are safe with me.” How they can continue to work together after this is anyone’s guess.

Avon’s ruthlessness is again apparent in the penultimate episode – when they are trapped inside their destroyed base, with a deadly in the atmosphere, Avon allows a woman, Zeeona, to whom Tarrant has become deeply, if very rapidly attached, to risk her life to solve the problem, suspecting she will take her own life in the process out of guilt (long story). The satisfaction that he receives from Tarrant’s very visceral emotional devastation is extraordinary. Another grim smirk marks his cruel pragmatism.

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Season 4 crew, joined by Soolin, far right

The final episode of the series, Blake, has long been famous for its tragic conclusion. With their recently acquired base on the planet Xenon now destroyed, the remaining crew of Avon, Tarrant, Dayna, Vila and Soolin, set off in Scorpio towards the planet Gauda Prime, where Avon believes Blake to be hiding. Avon admits that he sees Blake as the only real candidate for leadership of the resistance against the Federation, a cause which he has reluctantly come to realise is his only real option. Scorpio is attacked by patrol ships and crashes on the planet, steered to the surface by Tarrant, while the others teleport down. Meanwhile, Blake who is indeed alive and posing as bounty hunter, rescues Tarrant from the wreck and brings him back to base. There he learns that Tarrant is part of Avon’s crew and implies to Tarrant that he will turn them in to the Federation for the bounty. Tarrant manages to get away, not realising that Blake is simply testing his loyalty. Tarrant meets Avon and the others and together they confront Blake. Before Blake can convince Avon he’s still on their side, Avon shoots and kills him. Suddenly, a squad of Federation troops run in and shoot everyone down save for Avon. Avon does not surrender, but smiles and stands over Blake’s body and raises his gun. Over the otherwise silent final credits, we hear the sound of guns firing.

The tragic conclusion to the show is heartbreaking and frustrating, especially after such a lengthy and intense emotional journey. That it should come down to a misunderstanding after such a longstanding rivalry and collaboration, marked as much by mutual respect as distrust and resentment, seems appropriate. Avon’s last words to Blake, just prior to shooting him, alarms pulsing in the background, reveal the deep offense and horror at the thought that Blake might have betrayed them. “Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?” It reveals, at the very end, just how much respect Avon really had for Blake’s commitment and loyalty all along. And, with the death of Blake, the somewhat confused and questionable course the crew have been pursuing in his absence seems finally beyond redemption.

That the show should end in tragedy only adds to its greatness, just as Shakespeare’s tragedies are his greatest works. This is a story of the desperate struggle of the weak against the powerful, and the at times immoral and unethical means to which they are forced to resort in their desperation. That the fight should prove ultimately unwinnable makes it far more telling and true than a convenient and morally unambiguous victory over the forces of evil. The rebellion in Star Wars has some parallels in that it is a galaxy-wide revolt against an evil Empire, yet the story lacks any of the moral ambiguity and equally, the characters, with perhaps, the exception of Darth Vader, lack any real moral complexity. Blakes 7 dared to see the future as a sort of authoritarian nightmare, a very real and, perhaps, more convincing extrapolation from the present. If you can excuse the bouts of silliness into which the show occasionally dips, then it is, without a doubt, the most interesting, well-written and complex science fiction series ever produced.

Bethanie in Markarth

Bethanie outside Markarth

On the day of its release – the 11th of November 2011, I went straight out and bought a copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Few game releases have gotten me so excited, and they certainly hadn’t for a while. The sense of anticipation with Skyrim was palpable across the net and it was also widely advertised off the net. In a sign of how computer games are increasingly coming to dominate the entertainment industry, there were even advertisements on buses and stencils spray-painted on pavements around town. Fortunately, the game more than lived up to the high expectations.

Skryim Cometh, King St, Newtown

Skryim Cometh, King St, Newtown

I plunged into Skyrim with all the enthusiasm I could muster, and it was not misplaced. As I made clear in the review I wrote at the time, this is a very special game that offers hundreds if not thousands of hours of totally immersive enjoyment. As with all previous Elder Scrolls games, Skyrim’s key strength is the size of the world created and the complexity and skill with which it has been done. Few games ever give a player so much freedom to customise their character and direct their own playing experience. I quote again a passage from a review in PC Gamer UK, which makes this point so well:

“The games we normally call open worlds – the locked off cities and level-restricted grinding grounds – don’t compare to this. While everyone else is faffing around with how to control and restrict the player, Bethesda just put a fucking country in a box. It’s the best open world game I’ve ever played, the most liberating RPG I’ve ever played, and one of my favourite places in this or any other world.”

The Elder Scrolls games have always offered a welcome alternative to the more common RPG experience of being railroaded through a core storyline with a limited number of cookie-cutter sidequests . Even with the games that have come from Bioware’s incredible stable, there has been relatively little freedom to shun the main quest and explore the world freely. Baldur’s Gate I set an early precedent for this, but few games have followed up as successfully and impressively.

Go where you please, the choice is yours

Go where you please, the choice is yours

In Skyrim, as with Oblivion and Morrowind, it is easy enough to forget that there even is a main quest. After the initial introduction, it remains entirely up to the player whether or not they wish to engage with this storyline. It’s simply a matter of ignoring the quest and going wherever one pleases in this seamless, open world. There are hundreds of other, often extremely detailed, long and complex quest lines to engage with, some of which can span many locations and characters. One could even play the game without engaging in any questing at all. It is possible to spend all of one’s time hunting, crafting, exploring, fighting bandits and looting old forts and ruins. Skyrim allows you to role-play very freely, and, in a sense, to set your own limitations, goals and conventions for your character. Not only does this make for a very satisfying experience initially, it also hugely increases the replayability of the game.

Clive Morrowind in Windhelm

Clive Morrowind in Windhelm. Main quest? What main quest?

I don’t wish to go into too much detail about Skyrim here, having done so elsewhere, suffice to say that after an initial period of hardcore indulgence, I stepped away from Skyrim and took a long break. Skyrim wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry and I wanted to give the community time to come up with the inevitable thousands of mods to improve textures, models, interface, game-play etc, or just to add extra detail to the world. Sure enough, as any quick look at the Skyrim Nexus website will prove, there are thousands of amazing mods out there to download.

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Hey ladies, come in, the water’s lovely

The range of mods is truly mindboggling: ones that alter the entire look of the game, introduce richly drawn quest lines and characters, add or significantly modify entire towns and regions, and the more purely whimsical – some of which are so outlandish, brilliant and, indeed obscure, that any attempt to provide examples is doomed to inadequacy. Great coverage of these can be found on MMOxReview, whose many Skyrim Mods videos review and highlight some of the best and most peculiar. The variety of mods caters for the variety of players – from sexing-up the game to increasing depth and immersion, from greater realism to the more fantastical, from those rooted firmly in lore to those which indulge in amusing postmodern intertextuality and pastiche. The process is made extremely easy now with the Nexus Mod Manager, which manages the downloading and installation of the mods and provides an easy interface through which to keep track of the changes and updates to the many mods one can layer on top of the vanilla.

Bethanie and temple interior

Bethanie and temple interior

I’ve always been a fan of high fantasy and the epic beauty conjured in books of the genre – Lord of the Rings being the most obvious example. It is the paradigm on which most modern fantasy has been constructed and Skyrim’s foundations just as surely rest there, as they do on the shoulders of Dungeons & Dragons, to which every modern role-playing game owes an incalculable debt. Visually, Skyrim continually conjures scenes of astonishing beauty and potent atmosphere and it is the beauty of the game and its immersive qualities that kept me going back. Few games inspire players to walk long distances across a vast world when there is a fast-travel option available, yet in Skyrim, I would frequently forego fast-travel and an entire play session might revolve around travelling from once place to the next, rather than just teleporting there to do the quest.

It is so beautiful to watch and listen to the environment and slow-travel is frequently rewarded with interesting random encounters, survival situations, hunting opportunities and the beauty of watching the day’s cycle moving from light to night. It can feel wholly rewarding just to find a nice, sheltered place to pitch a tent, build a fire and settle in for the evening.

Magical Tent, cast it where you like!

Magical Tent, cast it where you like!

I especially enjoyed the official Hearthfire expansion, which introduced the purchasing of land and the ability to construct a house on these plots. There could have been a wider variety of options so far as construction style was concerned, yet it was still satisfying to go through the stages. No doubt more options are now possible courtesy of the modding community, though I haven’t looked. This expansion also allowed one to adopt children, which provided a nice chance to help some of the poor orphans in the towns and villages of Skyrim. Another beautiful example of just how many different ways there are in which to play this game.

Lusetta Sorrowdusk marking out the foundations

Lusetta Sorrowdusk marking out the foundations

Adopted Daughter in her new bed

Adopted Daughter in her new bed

Having said that, I’m no longer playing Skyrim – having seen and done enough on various characters. I do, however, occasionally fire it up and go for a walk through the beautiful environments. I still feel nostalgic about Skyrim, as I do about Oblivion, and miss the sound of the wind whistling across the snow, the beautiful landscapes, the lulling, transportive soundtrack and, of course, the exciting and visceral action of the game. I certainly miss the sense of wow and wonder that struck me at times upon discovering new areas or being surprised by an element of plot. Sometimes it was the simplest things in the game which provided the greatest joy – like casting Magelight – a spell which sends a brightly glowing magic ball towards wherever one aimed it. As it flies over the terrain, down passages and tunnels or across vast caverns, it lights everything it passes and, upon coming into contact with something, be it a wall, tree, gate, or even a living creature, sticks fast and continues to pour out light. This was a beautiful way to see what lay ahead in the dark, or to provide a light source in the many dim places in the game. It never once lost its appeal throughout the many castings.

Distant Magelight illuminates the dark docks of Morthal

Distant Magelight illuminates the dark docks of Morthal

The following collection of screenshots is just a taste of the game’s variety and hardly representative of the crazy, diversity of mods such as Tropical Skyrim, which speaks for itself. When modding, I was mostly interested in improving the quality of textures rather than changing things completely, and so my Skyrim, for the most part, retains its classic appearance. Not all the textures have been upgraded to the highest standard to avoid reducing frame-rates – a seamlessly flowing game is not only far nicer, it has the added advantage of not inducing nausea. My principle focus therefore was on upgrading characters, clothing and equipment, along with clutter and vegetation.

Better looking clutter

Better looking clutter

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Better looking floorboards

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Better looking stonework

Without a doubt the most outstanding mod I came across was Vilja in Skyrim. This mod is a remarkable piece of work – a companion character with over 9000 lines of subtly voiced dialogue. Vilja not only engages in conversation, but responds to innumerable locations and encounters, offering her opinions on people, places and quests the player comes across. Not only are there a great volume of dialogue and interactions, but they are cleverly written, droll, amusing and touching.

Vilja – had a buggy habit of switching to her nightdress

Vilja in the background, waiting and watching

Vilja in the background, waiting and watching

An equally impressive mod is Interesting NPCs which adds more than 250 fully-voiced characters to the game. Some of these have quests, can be romanced, and can join the player as companions. Again, the quality and intelligence of the voice-work and characterisation is outstanding, adding many hours of interesting, entertaining and intriguing conversations. This particularly enlivens visits to taverns, to almost all of which (possibly all, I didn’t check) new characters have been added.

I am, of course, like the next man, a fan of sexy characters – be they male or female – which has become a requisite staple of the fantasy genre. Many of the mods revolve around enhancing the female and male body, often to rather ludicrous proportions, along with providing all manner of sexy clothing and armour. However one feels about the message underlying all this, the work is, in some cases, incredibly impressive. The Sweet and Sexy Lingerie Shop which can be added to the city of Solitude is a true masterpiece.

Perhaps black stockings are more appropriate...

Perhaps black stockings are more appropriate…

The costumes are highly detailed and, as a space, the shop itself is very cleverly designed. It was hard to resist indulging in some titillation whilst playing. My fantasy gaming motto has always been look good (or, at least, striking) and play gritty, and that certainly describes the story arc of those who appear below. After all, it is fantasy. The skill and detail of the costumes designed by modders across the board, sexy or otherwise, is astonishing and well worth a look. At present there are no less than 1027 clothing mods.

Japanese Onsen and matching garments

Japanese Onsen and matching garments

As I cautioned in my original review, these shots are all static, which rather diminishes their immersive capacity and allows one to see through some of the virtual illusions. The leaf textures, for example, often look alarmingly jagged in stills, an aspect that is disguised by their subtle motion during play. I spend a lot of time lining up and taking screenshots in games and see it as an extension of my travel photography. In essence, these are not merely captures from a game I played – these are photographs from a fantastical world in which I had the pleasure of spending many delightful hours. Skyrim will forever remain in my heart as one of my favourite holiday destinations.

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4665 Indian beach scene

Palolem Beach, Goa, India, January 9, 2013

Despite having roughly 7500km of coastline, I never much associated India with the beach. Perhaps this is simply a consequence of the sheer richness of India’s landscape, cultural and architectural heritage, which, with the exception of the much vaunted Kerala backwaters, dominates the images of India seen in tourist advertisements. When it comes to considering what is distinctly representative of India, it is sights such as the Taj Mahal, the forts of Rajasthan, the ghats of Varanasi, the desert, jungle and mountains that get more of a look in. Even after my first trip to India, during which I stayed entirely inland across the north and in the foothills of the Himalayas, I didn’t give much consideration to the coast and beaches of India at all.

It was, therefore, a real eye-opener to begin my second visit on the west coast of the south, at Varkala, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Apart from the prevalence of various ritual practises – offerings made to the sea and small shrines or idols present in some places on the sand – Indians seem to enjoy the beach in much the same way as most people – only, they tend to do so in considerably more clothing. This was not universally the case, however, and the men more often than not cover little more than their privates. It’s worth mentioning that across India I was often surprised by the apparent acceptance of nudity. In various places I saw women bathing in their undergarments alongside men, not so much at the beach, but certainly in the Ganges. Without any sophisticated knowledge of the context, I had rather assumed attitudes might be more conservative, and it is still possible that these were exceptions, or perhaps what is acceptable is very much differentiated by social status.

This photo was taken on Palolem beach in Goa. We had never really intended to go to Goa, fearing it would be an over-touristed disappointment, yet we came across enough strong assertions of the beauty of the place and the fascinating legacy of Portuguese colonialism to decide it was worth a look. I like this photo not merely because of the dynamic and graceful posture of the cricketer, but also for what it represents – a culture so recognisably similar to that of my own country, where we too play cricket on the beach. It serves as a healthy reminder that we should focus more on what we have in common with other people, rather than our differences.

8236 Supersymmetry

There are many words in the English language which seem like they ought to have an opposite form, but do not. At least not in common usage. Rather like the predictions of the theory of supersymmetry, which posits that each particle in the Standard Model has a partner particle, so we might conjure the missing partner words for those in our Standard Dictionary. Why, for instance, can we be disgruntled, yet never have the chance to be gruntled? Why can we postpone a meeting, but not prepone it for our convenience? Why can we can feel disappointed about something, yet we aren’t allowed to feel appointed when fortune shines? This alarming asymmetry in the English language needs immediate correction and, without further ado, I should like to offer up some linguistic opportunities which have so far gone begging, and present some sample passages displaying their possible usage.

The English language, of course, is a collaborative exercise and I must extend my thanks to those friends who contributed further suggestions on Facebook and elsewhere.

 

Appointed (adj) – Feeling pleased about an outcome.

“I felt most appointed when I heard the good news.”

 

Clare (v.) –  To hold back information.

“I’m not saying a word. I have everything to clare.”

 

Combobulate (v.) – to confidently clarify an otherwise confusing situation.

“His answer was most satisfying, positively combobulating.”

 

Concert (v.) – To settle or improve composure.

“His reassuring expression was most concerting, and I entered the meeting with great confidence.”

 

Dain (v. n.) – to show high regard; an expression or feeling of high regard.

“He greeted the lord with a great show of respect; exhibiting a somewhat over-formal air of dain.”

 

Downset (adj.) –  Feeling happy, above expectation; pleased.

“Yes, at first I was unhappy, but when I realised the truth I was pretty downset.”

 

Dulating – to have a flat form or outline.

“The Nullarbor Plain is a dulating landscape, flat as a tack.”

 

Gruntled – satisfied, pleased.

“After dinner I felt completely content, most gruntled indeed.”

 

Gurgitate – to swallow

“Doctors recommend chewing thoroughly before gurgitating.”

 

Gust (v, n) – to cause someone to feel attraction or approval. A feeling of strong approval.

“The smell coming from the kitchen was gorgeous; a wonderful, gusting aroma of cumin and turmeric.” “Her look of gust upon seeing how clean the bathroom was, was heart-warming.”

 

Mantle (v.)  – to put together.

“I bought a new cupboard from Ikea, and now have to mantle it.”

 

Member – (v.) To replace the detached limbs of something / someone. To bring separate parts together.

“In 1871 the various Germanic states were membered into a single entity.”

 

Posable (adj.) – Not intended to be thrown away after use. Long-lasting, durable.

“The market in posable water bottles has flourished in recent years.”

 

Prepone (v.) – cause or arrange for something to take place at an earlier time than scheduled.

“The 1530 meeting has been pre-poned to 1300. Lunch will be provided.”

 

Prosequences (n, pl.) – the positive effects or results of an action.

“There are many significant prosequences from early intervention.”

 

Rupt – (v.) To bring into a state of order and array.

“Amidst the chaos, John managed to rupt most of the guests and get the game underway.”

 

Shevelled (adj.) – Tidy, ordered, neat.

“You scrub up well – you look very shevelled indeed.”

 

Sipate (v.) – Appear or cause to appear.

“It was as though he sipated out of thin air. One minute the room was empty, then, before I could say Jove, Pandarr Zen’Awri was standing before me!”

 

Tant (adj.) – Nearby, close.

“It’s very tant, in fact, just around the corner.”

 

Tort (v.) – Pull or twist into shape. Give a true account of…

“With careful hammering, the front fender was torted back into shape.”

 

Turbing (adj.) – removing anxiety, reassuring.

“The good news was very turbing and I was finally able to sleep that night.”

 

There are, of course, countless other words with a form that hints at an opposite partner, but it would be far too exhaustive to attempt to detail them here. This contrariness might also extend into common expressions and exclamations where opposite meanings have the potential to be at the very least mildly amusing, and, at worst, utterly baffling. Take the expression “a pain in the arse.” Could we not describe someone as a real “Joy in the arse”? It’s all very well to say “Up yours!” and though “Down yours!” might seem counterintuitive, it is strangely absent from our language. “Fuck me dead!” is often used to show surprise or incredulity, and it can used both positively and negatively, yet surely its super-partner “Fuck me alive” could do with the occasional airing. Finally, there are many colourful colloquialisms the world over which could be even more colourful and confusing for foreign tourists were they to be inverted. The Australian expression “Don’t come the raw prawn with me,” which, in effect, means “don’t try to swindle me,” could be even more baffling were it mirrored with “You’re welcome to come the cooked prawn with me.” The rest I shall leave to your own devices and imagination, which I’m sure is sufficiently ripe to entertain thousands more such examples.

First Autumn

My favourite season has arrived in Sydney – Autumn. It begins in the balmy, residual humidity of sticky February and finishes in the dry cool of a winter prequel. Without haze the horizon flattens and sharpens into focus; the sky lifts towards the stratosphere and the shade regains a measure of chill. The sun, for the most part, shines and yet, as longer days shorten, the air acquires the nostalgic foreboding of the onset of loss.

This is my son’s first autumn. At four and a half months old he can’t yet feel those weighty emotions we associate with the shift – it is but a question of warm or cool, blanket or no blanket, hats and socks and jumpsuits. He may be excused for being unsure as to the time of year considering we still go to the beach several days a week. With the ocean at 22C, it’s hard to resist.

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