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Archive for April, 2013

For two years now I’ve been sitting on a half-finished continuation of my Confessions of an MMO Addict articles, which detailed (and yes, admittedly in quite arcane detail) my experience of playing the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMO) Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO). The further in time I got from the experience itself, the less relevant and interesting it seemed to me. When last I left off in this series, I’d just returned from six weeks travelling around South East Asia. What lay ahead of me was an even more intense indulgence of my already dangerous gaming habit.

What follows is mostly from two years ago, with continuations. It is worth pointing out that I wrote this whole series with the idea in mind that I was creating both a personal account and a historical record. It might seem fanciful to imagine that my blog or its content will still be readable in, say, two hundred years time, or of interest to historians for that matter, but should it be the case, then it might prove insightful to anyone interested in the detail of game mechanics, online social habits and the psychological impact of online gaming. As someone with a PhD in history, I greatly appreciate the efforts of those who have made detailed records of their present in the past. It is for this reason that I included so much detail in these accounts. In several hundred years time this period will be seen as the time of earliest origins in an entertainment media – computer gaming – that is already well set to dominate the future as a means of narrative storytelling. If I can make some contribution that might furnish future history PhDs with primary source material, then I’ve to some degree justified my education : )

 

Confessions of an MMO Addict, Part VI

“God I’ve been asleep so long, I’ve been away

Back from software limbo the natives call today

I let their promises bind me

I let seductive logic blind me

I embraced a machine, I went through the routine,

And I hid from the people who were trying to find me.”

– The Church, Tantalised

 

I had hoped that my holiday to South East Asia would help me kick the Dungeons & Dragons Online habit, but I returned to Sydney a desperate junkie. My travelling EEE PC, bless him, had struggled to render the game at all and I had been forced to play solo, with the sound off and graphics turned down to minimum. All I could manage was to farm low-level dungeons on the easiest level for collectables, to buy and sell from the brokers and thus make money on the auction house. It had, in reality, been the very worst sort of grinding, but it kept me going on those heavy hotel-room nights on the road. I couldn’t wait to get back to my desktop, log in, team up with some random bunch of heroes and play the game on full specs in magnificent wide-screen. My New Years resolution had been 1680 x 1050 and I was aching to go from the grind to the grandeur.

Sadly, my return to Sydney also marked the end of my relationship with S. I hadn’t exactly been the best companion much of the time and I was, quite rightly, let go, so to speak. I was a terribly sad way to end things, though it was at least amicable. I was left feeling pretty awful all round – not entirely enamoured with myself. What, however, was most alarming, was that I didn’t really mind all that much. I was used to being mildly unhappy and at something of a low ebb. Nor did my response have much to do with S herself, but it was all about my being so utterly consumed by the game. Without a partner in real life and working part time, I was almost entirely free to game at will.

When I hadn’t been playing the game during my trip, I’d spent my spare time using the DDO Character Planner to experiment with multi-class character builds so I might build these characters upon my return. Now that I was back, however, I realised that my first priority must be to take Hallifax Bender, my long-standing stalwart bard hero and favourite alter-ego, to level 16, the then level cap.

This target was really part and parcel of a grander scheme, which was to achieve 1750 favour with the various representatives of the different Houses of the city of Stormreach. The city contained four different wards, largely populated by the different, major player races. There were the Elves of House Phiarlan, the Halflings of House Jorasco, the Dwarves of House Kundarak and the Humans of House Deneith. These different districts tended to specialise in different classes, and earning favour with them allowed access to certain privileges in the form of new vendor options, buffs and useful reward items.

The city of Stormreach was run by a group of people known as the Coinlords, and currying favour with the Coinlords was of particular importance as this granted extra inventory space. There were also the mysterious Twelve, the Free-Agents, the Church of the Silver Flame and the Agents of Argonnessen. If one achieved 400 favour on a single character, it unlocked the Drow race, whilst earning 1750 favour allowed one to build a character with 32 build points, as opposed to 28. This was by no means insignificant, and for those who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, I shall elaborate.

The six principal attributes of a Dungeons & Dragons character are Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma, and, in the original rules, these scores were generated by rolling 3D6, or 3 six-sided dice. This produced scores ranging between 3 and 18, with the higher score being the better. As it was such a significant disadvantage to have a 3 or, indeed, anything below 8 in an ability score, most players rolled 4D6 and ignored the lowest scoring die to generate their attribute scores. There were always other fudges allowed, such as rolling the numbers first, then allocating them to each particular attribute, or, for example, subtracting a point from one attribute score to be added to another. In the pen and paper days, as was so often the case, it all hinged on the famous “DM’s discretion.” In other words, if the Dungeon Master said it was OK, it flew.

The character creation system in DDO took the dice out of character generation altogether. It followed a similar pattern to that used in Neverwinter Nights and was designed to ensure game balance, so that players would neither roll a completely crap character, nor spam the generation process until they rolled an uncannily high set of numbers, as one could do in Baldur’s Gate for example.

The system worked as follows. Each character would begin with a base score of 8 in each ability, and be granted 28 points to allocate to the aforementioned attributes. The cost of allocation was one for one, until the score reached 14, at which point any subsequent increase would cost two points. After 16, however, any subsequent increase cost 3 points. Thus, for a human character, it would cost 6 points for a starting Strength of 14, but 8 points for 15, 10 points for 16, and 13 points for 17. One could choose either to focus on particular attributes or go for a broader spread. With non-human races, who had racial bonuses or penalties to particular attributes, say, for example, Elves, who have a racial bonus of +2 Dexterity and -2 Constitution, the starting score would be lower or higher accordingly, as would be the bar at which increasing the attribute began to cost more. Thus, the starting Dexterity for an elf was 10, and raising it to 16 would cost 6 points, whilst the starting attribute for Constitution was 6, and raising it to 12 would cost 6 points, whereas an increase to 14 would cost 10 points, with any further increases costing 3 build points per attribute point.

It therefore made a not insignificant difference to have 32 build points with which to commence a character, allowing the player either to increase a class’s most important attribute, such as wisdom for clerics, or to avoid penalising another less important attribute. It also gave one the option of increased specialisation or flexibility, the latter being particularly important with multi-class builds.

I have documented elsewhere my obsession with creating characters, and DDO was the most dynamic means yet for testing the efficacy of certain builds. It was not only the functionality of the characters that interested me, but the personality I’d give them through their name, style, appearance and, where I could be bothered providing it, their biography.

Before I could really go to town and start creating a whole slew of new characters, I needed to advance Hallifax to level 16 and hit that much coveted favour target. The process took me no less than a month and a half of solid play, every weeknight, every weekend, with occasional breaks when exhaustion became so overwhelming that I simply couldn’t concentrate any longer. Even then, I often pressed on, both impressed by and ashamed of my incredible ability to endure.

Yardley The Scissors Bruce in the Vale

As I ran Hallifax up through levels 12, 13, 14 and onwards, I was continually coming across new quests and explorer areas I’d never seen before: The Vale of Twilight, The Orchard of the Macabre, Ataraxia’s Haven, The Menechtarun Desert, The Ruins of Gianthold and The Reaver’s Refuge. The novelty of running these areas for the first time kept my enthusiasm for the game at a very high level, despite the hit and miss nature of the groups in which I found myself. One of the greatest attractions of computer games is the ability to surprise and to fascinate through exotic locations, interesting challenges, impressive artwork and terrifying opponents. DDO had a lot to offer on these fronts and sharing the experience with random people, especially when they too shared my enthusiasm for the task at hand, made it all the more pleasurable.

Dimension door in the desert

The higher level quests were, on the whole, more colourful and complicated than some of the low-end dungeon crawls, though there were certainly a few outright slogs. In so many ways DDO failed to live up to the true promise of Dungeons & Dragons. It was too fast-paced, magic items were as common as muck, most players were focussed on end-game builds, rather than the journey, which invested them with an impatient zeal to farm as much XP as possible. Almost no one tried to role-play in character, and those who did were generally ostracised for not acceding to the meta-game narrative. By metagame narrative, I mean talking about the game as a game, not as an immersive role-play experience; discussing the mechanics, the structure, the rules and parameters rather than the story or narrative.

The 3.5 edition Dungeon Master’s Guide states:

“Any time the players base their characters actions on logic that depends on the fact that they are playing a game, they’re using metagame thinking. This behaviour should always be discouraged, because it detracts from real role-playing and spoils the suspension of disbelief.”

It was, indeed, immersion breaking, to have some nerdy kid ramble on about his weapons, or whatever inane thoughts were on his mind. All too often it was this metagame narrative that drove the conversation; babble about character builds, favour-farming plans, crafting, magical items, the effectiveness of spells, special attacks, strategies, boasts about lucky loot hauls etc. Much of this could have been contained or disguised within a more theatrical role-play, yet almost no on in the game was interested in doing so. Add to this the fact that so many players were non-native English speakers, lacked microphones or were unable either to hear or interpret chat, and you had a situation where communication in the group was largely limited to the task at hand, discussed in the plainest possible meta-game language.

Once players knew the game well enough, metagame thinking became the only sort of thinking. This was, of course, very sensible as knowing the mechanics of the world and the tendencies of the game designers made it possible to make better predictions about what lay ahead. Also, for players who had run quests several, possible hundreds of times, there was, quite simply no mystery remaining, only the satisfaction of a swift, efficient, error-free completion. The game did not foster an environment in which role-play was at all practical or desirable for people joining pick-up groups, though it could be, if one were able to play regularly with the same, like-minded people. For the vast bulk of players, this was simply not possible.

Jyzze with an extravagant companion

Whilst in many ways DDO seemed very different from Dungeons & Dragons, it was oddly true to it in other ways. Many of the quests involved treks through long, complicated dungeons, replete with traps, riddles, tricks, monsters and loot, locked doors, secret passages and illusions. The impossibly long corridors under the city of Stormreach and in the ruins and settlements surrounding it resembled those of E. Gary Gygax & co.’s earliest dungeons. They were classic dungeon crawls, which, if mapped onto pen and paper, would not be entirely out of place in a pile of First Edition modules. The principal problem, however, was the pace at which they were run. If the quest Walk the Butcher’s Path were played as a pen and paper game, it might take an entire day of careful dungeon-crawling between mob fights to complete. Yet, in DDO, an efficient party could smash through it in nine minutes, possibly less, with everyone running the entire way, as is most often the case.

Winter in Stormreach harbour

This high-octane, fast-paced dungeon crawling was very much de rigueur on all servers and almost every group contained a player, if not several, with sufficient experience to spoil the surprises by giving advance warning of what was to come. It was a very useful preventative, but stripped the game of immersion and, at times, suspense.

Despite these short-comings, the game was still thoroughly enjoyable, especially when running quests for the first time. Some of the lower-level quests could seem quite bland, but things certainly became more diverse and colourful as time went on. The exciting newness of the locations and challenges, the landscapes and environments – be they interior or exterior – was sufficiently immersive in itself. As Hallifax Bender first began to make his way through higher level quests, I was also very fortunate in finding good groups who did not spoil the excitement, but rather encouraged it. I mentioned in earlier instalments one stalwart companion, a bard by the name of Holz, with whom Hallifax regularly ran. Though I had started playing the game some time before Holz, we both hit mid to high levels at roughly the same time, and thus experienced many quests for the first time together.

By the time Hallifax finally hit level 16, the in-game level cap had already been lifted to 20. I found some good people and made the final push for 1750 favour out in the craggy, burning wastes of Gianthold, with its depressing, relentless brown and purple landscape. Despite my great love of the character of Hallifax and my pride in his many achievements over what had now been more than a year of gaming, I knew that the instant I hit 1750 favour I would be abandoning him. So it was that, that same afternoon, I created two new characters; Barronio Morrowind and Snowfell Vanish of Mirabar.

Barronio Morrowind

Shortly prior to this, as Hallifax was clambering towards level 16, the Favoured Soul class had been introduced to the game. Favoured Souls were Divine casters, using essentially the same spells as Clerics, yet with a spell progression and spell point allocation similar to Sorcerers. Barronio was an attempt to create a versatile, combat-capable support character and, with my usual zeal for experimenting with multi-class combinations, I made him a Human Monk / Rogue / Favoured Soul. I’ve mentioned earlier that I don’t always get it right with multi-class character builds, but that depends on how you look at it. When it comes to the end-game, at level 20, they are unlikely to hold up as well as specialist characters, largely because in a twelve-member raid group, all the bases are already covered and such diversity of talents is not required by one single player. Indeed, in the end game they tend to be too compromised in all their fields to be as effective as the specialists. That doesn’t make them useless, yet it makes them seem somewhat second tier to the pros.

At lower levels, however, and, I would argue, all the way through to around level 15, their effectiveness was unquestioned. Barronio Morrowind, on account of his mixed talents, was not only a formidable combatant with great durability and incredible saving throws who regularly topped the kill count, yet he was also a maxed rogue splash who, with spells and a backpack full of wands, could act as a back-up healer and buffer. I should also give myself some credit for equipping and playing him with expertise and precision. His rise was meteoric and he was always appreciated as a standout character.

Snowfell Vannish, meanwhile, was another indulgence of my multi-class zealotry. An Elf Monk / Wizard / Rogue, I too saw him as a combat-capable support character. The plan was originally to take him to level 2 in Monk for the abilities, saving throws and armour-class bonuses, level 5 as a wizard to access haste and displacement on top of other protective spells, then put the rest in rogue. After several months of play, he finished up Monk 2 / Wiz 5 / Rogue 7, at which point I decided to retire him for a good long while.

Clive Morrowind, another multi-classing experiment

Snowfell’s effectiveness was also incredible, if I may say so myself. He regularly smashed the kill count using unarmed attacks, was practically unhittable, could boost the whole party with haste in moments of need and was a top notch trap-monkey and sneak artist. Playing him was also very satisfying in that, strangely, a lot of people didn’t see the point of the build, nor could they determine what his role was, but he never failed to impress. Indeed, he was the only character I ever had who made it past level 10 without dying a single time. Ultimately, I decided that, for the sake of durability, he should in future only level as a Monk, but even then, I suspected that his effectiveness beyond level 14 was doubtful.

The creation of these two characters was just the beginning of a massive expansion of the playing roster. I went to town coming up with further multi-class builds, most of them following more traditional combinations that were tried and true. There was my ludicrously named Elf Ranger / Rogue / Monk Applefrost Loveblossom; the equally keenly named Drow Rogue / Ranger / Bard Honeydrop Sundew, the specialist Elven wizard whose name I borrowed, Faffle Dweomercraft and several others, some of whom were ditched shortly afterwards as failed experiments.

Many characters came and went and the quality of my game-play rose continually with experience. I gradually became far more familiar with the higher-level areas which improved my capacity there at the cost of my sense of wonder and excitement. I met many excellent people and played with my fair share of irritating dead-shits as well. As time wore on I stopped caring about the outside world altogether. I lost interest in my friends, family and other activities. I was impatient whenever other responsibilities arose and often accepted invitations to things, to which I would invariably fail to turn up.

Once in the game, however, I was unstoppable. The insatiable desire to start new characters never went away, however, and so I rarely ever took my characters through to level 16 or beyond. I’d usually make it into the teens, or at the very least to level 8, then switch out onto another toon and run them up. I often sat there, staring at the screen, scrolling up and down my list of characters wondering – who do I want to play? Once the game had switched to free to play mode and the option was there simply to pay for additional privileges, such as extra character slots, I bought up a good few and soon had 15 different characters on the one server: Lucessa Rainsinger, Rhodon Froste, Lusetta Sorrowdusk, Yardley “The Scisssors” Bruce, Jyzze Badajon, and Swimm Lantern to name a few.

When new servers were opened and announced, I logged straight in and created a whole host of characters, in effect reserving names that were otherwise impossible to have as they had been taken from the start. Names such as Summer, for example, which can only be used once on any given server. On the Sarlona server, where much of my gaming took place, I’d had to run with Summerr – in the time-honoured tradition of variant spelling to get around the unique name issue. It was a fair compromise, I suppose. Most of these characters I never returned to and, I must admit, I feel a bit guilty in retrospect for denying those names to others. In some ways it was like having multiple personalities, and I would always, to some degree, try to be in character, at least in my own mind.

Bethanie, fresh off the boat at Sorrowdusk Isle

Time flew on by and, seven months after returning from South East Asia, I was more immersed in the game than ever. My first real attempt to break with DDO came in March 2010 when I travelled to India for two months. I had no intention of playing the whole time I was there and felt a wonderful sense of liberation once I was away. That trip to India, which I have written about elsewhere, was one of the key experiences of my life. I took over twelve-thousand photographs, wrote a lot, met great people and visited amazing places. I thought I had pretty much shaken off the DDO experience once and for all.

Upon returning, however, after a few nights of dedicated photo-editing, the desire got to m and I logged back in to DDO. As was typical of my habits, I instantly created a new character – Jasparr Krait of Luskan – who was a dual heavy pick wielding kensai fighter with rogue and ranger splash. I enjoyed being back so much, and was so enamoured of my character with his Tom Selleck Moustache, that I became lost in the game again for the next two months.

Jasparr in the Orchard of the Macabre

My second serious attempt to exit the game came in July, when I was asked to mind a friend’s parents’ house in Paddington. Despite the gnawing desire to stay with the game, I decided not to take my desktop with me and try instead to free myself of the addiction. I succeeded quite admirably and, were it not for a sinus infection that lasted a month, I would have used the time even more wisely to reconnect with friends etc. Soon after this, I briefly moved back to my own parents’ house before another move. I thought I might have shaken off the bug and logged in only intermittently. Yet, shortly after moving and settling into my new house, the bug got me again and I was back in Stormreach, hacking and slashing and zapping my way to glory.

The lovely Honeydrop in the Vale

There’s an advertising campaign about quitting cigarettes at the moment, which states that every time you quit, you get better at it. In the first instalment in this series, I’ve described that final moment when I deleted the game and never went back. It was a tough decision, but it was made a lot easier by having walked away so many times before. It ultimately came when I realised I was not getting the same joy from grouping any longer, as my patience had worn thin over the years. There were also too many elements of the game that required a lot of grinding. To be effective at the highest level required running the same old raids on scores of occasions in the hope of looting the desirable crafting materials, of which there was no guarantee. It was just too frustrating and nowhere near as much fun as the low and mid-level ambitions of levelling and developing the character build. When I realised I’d had enough of the low and mid-level game, and believe me, I did it to the absolute death, there was simply nothing for me any longer.

Minotaur fortress

One of the more curious bosses

Like any MMO, the game’s growth continued from its inception. As it progressed, I found that generally the updates improved elements of the game. The new quests, character classes and races, new look armours and outfits, the new prestige class options for clerics and sorcerers were all welcomed. There were, however, a couple of major changes that, in my mind, changed things considerably for the worst.

The first was the introduction of Guild Airships. This in itself was a fantastic thing – they made it easier to get around, provided an exciting place to visit and gave being a member of a guild some real oomph. Where they were flawed, however, was that the best airships offered characters the chance to buff themselves to quite a ludicrous degree, giving them so many simultaneous bonuses that people began to joke about it as God Mode. This also created a huge disparity in many quests between those with ship buffs and those with none. It also created an often long and frustrating wait to begin a quest because players would insist on getting ship buffs first. In the end, I got fed up with it all.

Airship interior

I did, however, create my own guild: The Frozen Spine. This might sound like an awful medical condition, but was actually an homage to Icewind Dale and the Spine of the World Mountains. It was fun to have my own guild and to buy an airship – the cheapest and least attractive to begin with as it was level-restricted. Yet, in the end, it just felt like something else to manage in game, when I was already busy enough with the auction house and so on.

The other upgrade that I especially didn’t like was the new crafting system. Indeed, this was the final straw. I would have welcomed this in theory, and did so initially, yet the consequences of it were, in my opinion, dire. Within weeks the auction house became flooded with countless replicas of the same item, and instead of selling their excess loot to the brokers in the market place, most players simply broke it down into magical essences etc. The items that were sold to the brokers were then bought en masse and deconstructed by wealthier players, so that the brokers never had anything left to sell. In effect, this killed one of my favourite in-game hobbies.: shopping for second-hand goods and finding overlooked treasures to sell at auction. In many ways, for me, DDO was like a grand, fantasy-themed episode of Bargain Hunt.

Dual-wielding +2 Tennis racquet holders of Greater Potency

When that pleasure was gone, I felt such a sense of loss that I didn’t really want to hang around any longer. I didn’t like the sort of rinse and repeat grinding and farming that it encouraged and the process itself was rather tedious to carry out. I’m sure I might have given it more of a go, but at that late stage, when I was already looking for an exit, it just seemed like a disappointing nuisance.

A fine day for getting your armour rusty

At least I had a good last hoorah. In my last phase of play, between February and April 2010, I spent a lot of time running as Jyzze Badajon, a sorcerer specialised in electrical spells. It was awesomely good fun and I was impressed with how much I nailed not only the build, but also the performance. Despite my lack of experience in the highest level quests, all of which I’d done at least once, I was pretty hard to beat in the rest of the game. Jyzze was a wonder, so good in fact that he often spoiled the fun by killing everything before anyone else could swing a weapon.

New quests, new locations

Jyzze with trees

Jyzze

Jyzze in Gwylans

There was something wonderfully visceral about using maximised Shocking Grasp and Ball Lightning and despite spamming these spells, I never seemed to get bored of them. Still, even this had its limits, and ultimately, it was the same old arenas, same old dungeons, same old mystical, magical settings. Perhaps it’s not at all odd to think how bland and run of the mill they could be after a couple of years.

 

As the game slowly became less appealing, so the outside world grew in stature for me. Then, over the course of a couple of months in 2011, I slowly emerged, blinking, into the real world. It was the Arab Spring that dragged me back to reality. I became so engrossed in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and the subsequent civil war in Libya that I went from running DDO to live-streaming Al Jazeera full time. I also took up writing about the revolutions and spent a lot of time researching Middle Eastern affairs further. Suddenly the world was very exciting again, with the onset of what seemed like a major historical shift in that region. It was a long-overdue re-engagement with reality.

I got my life back on track with other new projects, a new partner and, leaving the dreadful embrace of the machine, embraced instead a more active life. I fell in love again and, when in June of that year, it all ended in tears, the revolution was completed. That break-up proved the best misfortune I’d suffered in years and, after some deep despair and depression, another move and frequent visits to a psychologist, I came out fighting and haven’t looked back. It all made me realise what a low gear I’d been rolling through life in, and just how much underlying depression there was after having spent so much energy in preceding years writing unsuccessful novels.

Since then, despite the occasionally overwhelming desire to re-install the game and log on just one more time, I’ve been, as my old friend Justin would say, “keeping it clean.” Ironically the strongest desire to play again hits me when I’m most bored with computer games. It’s because, deep down, I love gaming and likely always will, but what is missing most of the time is the human element. Online gaming might be anti-social with respect to the real world, but it’s a highly social activity within the context of the game. The game itself has moved on with new character classes, higher level advancement, new adventures and the like. In many ways I’d love to have a look at it, but the idea of going back and not quite knowing the deal helps keep the game at a further remove.

I can’t say definitively that I will never again lose myself in an MMO, and with the Elder Scrolls Online coming out some time this year, there are dangerous waters ahead. Yet, I learned so much from this experience and know how to manage my urges much better. There is too much to do in life that is too important, and I just cannot afford the time any longer for such devotion to a game. It seems a lot easier these days simply to say no.

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People keep asking me what Kim Jong-Un is up to at the moment. What is he hoping to achieve? Does he actually want to start a war? Is he really intending to launch nukes? I’m flattered that my friends and acquaintances think I might have an answer for them, but I don’t exactly have a hotline to Pyongyang and am thus privileged to the same information as everyone else outside of the intelligence services. Having said that, I do have an answer of sorts, which is hardly all that original – it’s all just a lot of posturing.

Inspecting weapons

The recent escalation of rhetoric has certainly been dramatic. The bellicose reminder of the state of war between North and South Korea, tough talking about ballistic and nuclear capability, overzealous reactions to even the smallest slight from the south and, more recently, the statement that foreign embassy officials could no longer consider themselves safe in North Korea – all amounts to an alarming increase of tension, but likely little else. As an official at South Korea’s defence ministry quipped – “barking dogs don’t bite.”

Boat trip

Pyongyang’s recent attacks on the south – the torpedoing of the Cheonan, which left 46 dead, or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, both in 2010have been by stealth, or come without warning. That doesn’t mean his threats have no substance, but it does suggests that talking and walking are by no means linked, so to speak.

The joys of authorising strikes

Some years ago a wit described the India / Pakistan nuclear arms race as “Viagra Diplomacy,” a term which applies itself well to the current situation with North Korea. There is something ludicrously phallic about rocket launches, a situation not helped by North Korea’s tendency to suffix its rocket names with the word “Dong.” Take the Taepodong for example, a name which lends itself spectacularly to punning, or the even sillier and counter-intuitive Nodong, which was effectively an adapted Soviet SS1 or “Scud” and, dare I say it, a bit of a flop. Joking aside, there’s no doubt that North Korea has made progress with its ballistic capability and just may have the capacity to mount a nuclear warhead, but the threat to rain down missiles on the United States seems farfetched considering their as yet limited range of roughly 6000 kilometres.

Missile test

Having said that, North Korea certainly has the capacity to target its immediate neighbours; the southern capital Seoul, at just 25 kilometres south of the border, is within artillery range. There is no doubt that North Korea could inflict terrible carnage if they wished to attack the south. Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons aside, the scale of their conventional forces is staggering. A quick glance at the Wikipedia list of countries by number of military and paramilitary personnel puts North Korea on top, with an active military of roughly 1.1 million, bolstered by an incredible 8 million reservists. The Korean war of 1950-53 cost the lives of two million people, and whilst any modern war would prove a very different beast, there is little doubt that it could also cost millions of lives.

Yet what, one must ask, would be the point? Surely, despite the capacity to inflict untold damage on the south, the North would ultimately be defeated. North Korea would have no allies – China would wash their hands of them and Pyongyang would find itself facing off against a broad alliance led by the United States and supported by the U.N. The north might achieve initial successes, but would surely lose the war, and, apart from the disastrous human, social, environmental and economic consequences of a conflict, losing the war would potentially mark the end of the regime, the end of military domination, and the end of North Korea as a state: the end of Kim Jong-Un. One suspects that nothing other than unconditional surrender would be demanded, especially considering how long the situation has festered and how great the desire to avoid any furtherance of this geopolitical cancer. What might follow is anyone’s guess: re-unification, a long and awkward occupation of the smoking ruins… It would all depend on the nature of the war, which, after an initial bout of shock and awe by both sides, could even be over in a couple of days with an internal coup.

Which brings us back to this important question of what the hell Kim Jong-Un is up to? If war is unlikely, what is the point of all this belligerent rhetoric and rocket-rattling? Surely the most likely explanation is that he wishes to shore up support at home.

Hello!

Song Launch

Kim with wife

Just as George Bush, John Howard and Tony Blair all rhetorically escalated the level of external threat to their respective countries after 9/11 in order to shore up domestic support for their imperial ambitions by creating a clear and present external danger, so it would seem King Jong-Un, perhaps struggling to define himself internally and to assert the legitimacy of his rule, wishes to create an almost hysterical climate of fear. If anything this whole business seems to highlight his insecurity rather than his capability or intent. Ironically the very survival of the regime depends on avoiding conflict, but the state largely defines itself through struggle and conflict.

Lovable

The real fear is that with tensions so high war might begin by accident rather than design. Miscalculation, misinterpretation… it seems unlikely, but it is by no means impossible. The levels of readiness are such that hell could be unleashed at very short notice – perhaps before clarity prevails. Should a war begin, even by accident, it will be extremely difficult to stop.

There is also the genuine possibility that Kim Jong-Un is something of a nutcase. He is certainly less predictable than his familial predecessors and less well understood, but he must know as surely as anyone else that war would be the end of his regime with all its privileges.

Kim Jong Un

It’s very easy to parody and caricature Kim Jong-Un as a greedy little brat of a despot, and I have to confess I’ve been guilty of such parody myself, yet whilst it might be childish fun to joke about him, it’s somewhat counterproductive. The belief that he is genuinely mad, propagated by the parodies and caricatures, only fuels the paranoia about his intentions.

Lunch not launch

Keep raffing

Yet, as always with humour, there is a great deal of truth in much of it. He likely is a spoilt brat with delusions of grandeur instilled through constant inflation of his talents and charms, drunk on power. He really does come across as the tubby, nerdy gamer kid with a chip on his shoulder. His recent actions remind me of people on Facebook, including myself, who, when lonely or feeling starved of attention, start posting in a more exclamatory and regular manner. His international threats are like bad-tempered tweets – mouthing off at a world he can neither influence nor change because of his own relative impotence, despite having a vast army at his back.

We must not forget how recent his accession to the throne was. Despite great popular efforts to create a new cult of personality around him, there must be pressure to put his own personal stamp on the regime and cement his rule. Perhaps there is internal pressure from within the military himself. Perhaps he fears the ambitions of those who surround him. Perhaps there is fear of popular unrest. Whatever the case, all this rhetoric seems to be more inwardly focussed, despite its outward broadcast.

The real question now is what happens next, and, to be honest, I haven’t got the faintest idea. I suspect things will die down, flare up, die down, flare up, die down, flare up… for the next decade, possibly even longer. Then again, Kim Jong-Un might be dead next week, assassinated by an ambitious general, or dead by deep vein thrombosis for that matter. Whether North Korea will ever come in from the cold is anyone’s guess, but as unsustainable as the current situation appears to be, we should remember just how long it has been sustained – sixty years this very year. It is hardly possible for this feudal Stalinist regime to become more isolated internationally, and anyway, it is isolation and insularity that allows the regime to survive. Rarely have two nations existed in such contrasting states of connectivity as North and South Korea, the latter the most wired state in the world, the former disconnected from everything, including, it seems reality.

Perhaps somehow the internet will work its magic; perhaps starvation will start a revolution; perhaps there really will be coup, or an unexpected Myanmar-style change of heart. In all honesty I think there won’t be a war and nothing will change. Ten years from today, Kim Jong-Un will still be there, fatter than ever, rubbing his wealth in the face of his own people and waving his latest Dongs at the world.

Lunch - it's alright for some!

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In April 2010 I spent a glorious nine days in Darjeeling. Originally my intention had been to stay there for just three days; to see some views of the Himalayas, explore the regional heritage, get a taste of the local Ghorka and Nepalese culture and enjoy a break from the sweltering heat of India. Yet, upon my arrival, after a cold and romantic ride up the mountain in the back of a packed jeep, I straightaway fell in love with the place.

Jeep to the Darj, April 2010

Having spent a month in the heat, the cold air was so exhilarating it felt like waking up with a new level of alertness and sensation. The torpor of humidity vanished in the chilly fog. That first night as I wandered through a town shrouded in near darkness, it was as though I had arrived not merely in a different state of India, but in a different country. The marriage of local and colonial architectural styles, the Asiatic faces, the different landscape and climate, the quiet calmness – all were very different to the India I had seen thus far.

That first night still seems like a dream in retrospect. The journey in getting there – a perilous ascent into cloud – the sense of remoteness, the light mist, the lost wandering to find my hotel, the huddled dogs on the streets, the darkness, all combined to give the place a sense of enchantment. As a childhood fantasy genre tragic, it left me feeling as though I had entered a magical and mythical land.

Heavy fog, Darjeeling, April 2010

The following morning only confirmed my excitement. The vantage point that Darjeeling affords – perched high on a ridge so that it looks down into valleys on either side – allows not merely for great views, but also adds to its feeling of remoteness and safe seclusion. It is like a world unto itself, tenuously connected to elsewhere by a winding, pot-holed mountain road.

Yet, while the views of the surrounding hills and valleys were amazing, on that first day the cloud on the horizon prevented me from seeing the mountains. I imagined that at some point the cloud would lift and I’d be treated to the spectacular backdrop, pictures of which had lured me there in the first place. It was not until the late afternoon, after a surprisingly intense downpour, that the clouds briefly parted and I caught my first glimpse of Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world.

The mountains were barely visible in the late afternoon light. Clouds above prevented any direct sunlight from striking the peaks, so they seemed as phantoms, faint outlines in low-contrast. I had taken shelter under the drumming tin roof of Glenary’s bakery and had a relatively clear view from their back window, but I wanted to get a better vantage point and not have to shoot through glass. Concerned about the rain, I set off at pace back to the hotel to collect my umbrella, planning to make directly for Observatory Hill. At the Hotel Tranquillity, I briefly joined some other guests and the owner on the roof for a view of the mountains. The sky was clearer now and the mountains better lit by the sun, yet there were trees, buildings and a large satellite dish in the way. I saw just enough, however, to know that the mountain was the largest thing I’d ever seen attached to the earth. I set off optimistically ready to photograph the living hell out of the mountains. Yet, sadly, by the time I reached Observatory Hill, the cloud had returned. That brief, slightly obscured view from the rooftop was to be the last I ever got of Mount Kangchenjunga.

A single glimpse, April 2010

It was largely for this reason that stayed as long as I did. Not only because I was so entranced with the town itself and its immediate surrounds, but because I became obsessed with the idea of seeing the mountains and photographing them. Over the next nine days I got up early every morning and made my way towards Observatory Hill and the various look-out points along the road that circumnavigates it. Every day, despite clear weather overhead, the horizon was covered in cloud.

There was much to compensate me, however, in the form of pea-soup fogs, great walks, excellent food and tea, friendly people and some smashingly good local weed, but I hung on as long as I could, desperate to see the mountains. It was not to be, and when I finally left Darjeeling, I vowed that of all the places I’d visited in India, it was the one to which I must return.

Heavy Fog, Darjeeling, April 210

There are many places in the world I’d like to see for a second time and doubt I ever shall. With so many countries still to visit for the first time – take China and South America for example – there’s less incentive to prioritise a return journey. Some places have been particularly favoured – Rome, Venice, Paris, London, New York, for various reasons – but on the whole, only a few places ever get a second look. India, fortunately, is big enough and diverse enough to warrant several expeditions and when V and I decided to go there again last December, I immediately began considering making a return visit to Darjeeling.

To cut a long story short, whereas my first trip had been around the north of India, this time I decided to focus on the south. We thus flew into Thiruvananthapuram and worked our way slowly north over a course of four and a half weeks. We had a lot of “targets” – things we really wanted to see – the Keralan Backwaters, Fort Kochi, Hampi, the Ellora and Ajanta Caves etc, but our itinerary was very organic and we made it up as we went along.

Chinese fishing net man, Fort Kochi

Darjeeling, therefore, was never guaranteed and we almost dropped the idea of going there altogether. Yet, with tickets booked to fly out of Kolkata, it made sense to take in Darjeeling since we ultimately had to head east anyway.

I was keen to go to Darjeeling, but was worried about how cold it might be in January. I also felt somewhat circumspect about returning, as I was afraid that I might have a different response this time around. V had never been to Darjeeling and though she wanted to see it and I wanted her to see it, I felt a bit guilty about pushing for it and decided to leave it up to her. It wasn’t until very late in the day – four days before we flew, on our one night in Mumbai – that we booked the flights.

The journey to Darjeeling turned into something of an epic in itself. It really began in Aurangabad, when we boarded a ludicrously overcrowded and chaotic eight hour train ride into Mumbai. We arrived at the airport at 2300, dirty and exhausted, planning to sit it out until our 0600 flight. After a “shower” in the bathroom – the one great thing about squat toilets is the hand-hose! – and a change of clothes, I felt refreshed and ready to face the wait. Everything would have been fine if V had not then become ill from the left-over vegetable biriani we had brought with us from dinner the night before. The next few hours were torture for her, though she did manage to take intermittent naps. Knowing how impossible it is for me to sleep in such situations, I hunkered down with Civilization IV on my laptop, fighting a lengthy war with the Aztecs and Spanish…Khmers 9

When we finally boarded the plane V was still not at all well and had a miserable time. At Delhi – which was refreshingly wet and cool – we had a two hour wait before our connecting flight on to Siliguri.

Pulp Fiction, Delhi Domestic

The second leg of the journey was certainly easier for V, but it was a longer flight, via Guwahati in Assam, and she was still very fragile when we finally touched down around 1530. From this point on, however, everything went completely right for us. A lovely young taxi driver, who was returning to Darjeeling anyway, offered to take us up the mountain for a mere thousand rupees. At less than twenty dollars, this was a small sum for such a long private taxi ride. He also proved to be very patient and helpful – taking us to a chemist to get drugs for V and then to a local market where I bought an el-cheapo so-called “Armani” coat and a pair of extremely unfashionable long trousers. Until this point I’d been travelling with just tee-shirts, a pair of board shorts and thongs and knew that it could get down below zero in Darjeeling in January. The fisherman’s-hat-shaped hood fell off the jacket when I tried it on – an ineffectual zipper being the culprit – but this proved advantageous as it offered more freedom of movement and looked even more fetchingly ridiculous.

Not what Giorgio had in mind...

That ride up the mountain proved a highlight of our trip. I was pleased to see not only that V was feeling a lot better, but that she was equally excited about the journey. Both of us are lovers of mountains and the combination that the region around Darjeeling offers – the quaint, colourful houses stacked along the winding road, the tall cedars, the yawning vistas – was especially beautiful as the sun came down.

Darjeeling ascent, Jan 2013

We didn’t run into any fog on this occasion and instead were treated to a powerful and evocative sunset as we swung past the other jeeps on the road. By the time we reached the half-way point of Kurseong, both of us had completely forgotten about the travails of our journey and lack of sleep.

Darjeeling ascent, Jan 2013

Passing through Ghoom, roughly ten kilometres from Darjeeling, we caught up to the toy train. We had been following its narrow tracks since Kurseong, winding back and forth across the road. The little steam train with its cute, shoebox carriages huffed and hooted like an outsized child’s plaything, chugging determinedly up the hill at a snail’s pace.

Darjeeling ascent, Jan 2013

Such was the traffic on the road and such was its narrowness that we were forced to stop repeatedly, thus we not only drove alongside the train for a while, but we overtook each other several times. It was great to get so close to the train and to see it in action again. Tired and emotional, full of intense sensations, my eyes flooded with tears as I silently cheered on this wonderful relic.

Our driver made excellent time and the journey to Darjeeling took only three hours, by which time the sun had gone down. When we farewelled him, we couldn’t resist giving him a big tip for being such a nice bloke and a safe driver. Our early evening arrival at the Dekeling Hotel was equally well-fated. After a steep stair climb, we entered reception to receive a touchingly warm greeting from the young gent at the counter. Indeed, it was the most friendly reception experience we’d had thus far – and not to suggest that the others were unfriendly. He stood in the cold vestibule, rugged up in woollens, his wise eyes showing a hint of tension as he held himself tight for warmth. After the usual passport-photocopying, form-filling rigmarole, he led us upstairs into a cute and cosy space with wrap-around windows, comfortable couches and a wood-panelled ski-chalet décor. In the centre of the room a curly-haired old dog reclined in front of a pot-bellied stove with a long exhaust pipe stretching out the window. Here an elderly lady, perhaps the hotel matriarch, invited us  to join her for a nice hot cup of tea once we had settled in.

Our room was just off this warm lounge area and proved very warm and comfortable. After long, hot showers and a lovely cup of Darjeeling tea in the lounge, we ventured out briefly to find something to eat. It was cold indeed outside, but wonderfully crisp and fresh. Darjeeling shuts down very early and already much of the town was closed. V didn’t have much of an appetite, but we found a place that sold hot and sour soup and sat down to dinner.

We had one last, welcome surprise that evening as we were preparing for bed. There was a knock at the door and I opened it to see the polite young man from downstairs holding two hot water bottles. Having so long dreamed about returning to Darjeeling, and having held so fondly to the memories of the place – all this warm hospitality made it feel like a homecoming.

After an early night, we both awoke at dawn. Through the curtains I could see a clear blue sky, still tinged with pale sunrise pink. I dared to hope that we should be lucky on our first morning and see the mountains on the horizon, but was wary after so many near misses last time. Indeed, all too often the sky overhead had been clear, but the mountains engulfed in cloud.

Early morning mountains

Despite being a mostly rational atheist who doesn’t believe in fate, I am riddled with petty superstitions. I had told myself that if I made this journey again, I would see what I had come to see. Irrespective of that, the law of averages dictated that surely I must get lucky at some point. Nervous with anticipation, I threw off the covers and made straight for the long wall of windows, pulling back the heavy curtains. I lifted the latch and opened one of the windows wide, sticking my head out into the cold air. My heart leapt. There in the distance, tall and seemingly immortal, toweringly omnipotent, was the staggering vastness of the Himalayas. Finally, after so much trying, I had a clear view of Mount Kangchenjunga.

Darjeeling

Katchenjunga from Darjeeling

Katchenjunga from Darjeeling

Katchenjunga from Darjeeling

Darjeeling mountain view

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Something strange is going on and I’m not entirely sure how to get to the bottom of it. I’m suspicious, curious and oddly trepidacious, which is unfortunate because, under the circumstances, I should be feeling thankful and flattered.

That may sounds deliciously mysterious, or perhaps rather dully melodramatic, but I shall explain. Basically, in recent weeks the number of followers of my blog has increased dramatically – from somewhere in the 300s – which took a couple of years and two Freshly Pressed posts to accumulate – to well over five hundred, with a serious head of steam up towards 600. Over the last four days I have received regular e-mails from WordPress informing me that new subscribers have signed up to my blog, yet not a single one of them has liked any of my posts nor made any comments. Indeed, I’m convinced that none of them has even looked at any of my posts, judging by the activity data on the Dashboard, because there has been no corresponding increase in the number of views. In fact, quite the contrary – the last few days have marked a steady decline in viewing numbers – no doubt in the absence of any recent posts.

Puzzled

After my post Back to the Front was Freshly Pressed in February, I received a significant spike in views, likes and subscribers as might be expected, and for which I am still very thankful. Inevitably, as my post moved off the top and steadily further down the page, thus receiving less exposure, that flood of views dwindled to a trickle and, ultimately, down to a daily average that hovers somewhere between 40 and 100. Once a few weeks had passed the number of people liking or subscribing – outside of my posting anything new – also dwindled to the very occasional – maybe one a day at best. This is precisely what I would expect without the exposure offered by the Freshly Pressed page because it fits the pattern I’ve identified over the last few years.

At the end of that burst of activity and attention, I had roughly three hundred plus subscribers. This was a very pleasing number and, it seemed, a group made up of people who had actually read my work or looked at my photographs, judging by the distribution of likes and comments. Then, about three weeks ago, I noticed that the number of subscribers had risen to c. 450 odd. This came as a real surprise because I had hardly received any e-mail notifications of new subscribers in that period, or notice of any activity for that matter. I began to wonder – is this because WordPress no longer informs me when people without a Gravatar sign up? Had I received a torrent of subscribers getting notification via e-mail, but without any presence on WordPress? Previously I had been notified when people without a Gravatar signed up, so, perhaps something had changed. Either way, however, the numbers seemed outrageously inflated for such a short period of time. Where were these subscribers coming from? What was going on?

Then, four days ago, my inbox was suddenly full of WordPress notifications again. My first thought was, oh joy, perhaps I’ve been Freshly Pressed, for outside of a fresh post which receives an uncanny amount of attention, there are never so many notifications. This, however, was not the case, and, as stated above, none of the new subscribers liked or commented on anything I’d posted. It occurred to me that I should Google Tragicocomedia and see if my blog was somewhere being promoted or highlighted, yet apart from a bunch of references to various of my posts, the only other site that seemed to be associated was one called Bloglovin’ of which I’d not previously heard, but which seemed to provide links to roughly eight million blogs on exactly the same subjects – fashion and vanity. This was depressing enough, but also entirely unenlightening, because when I searched through all the categories I couldn’t find my blog anywhere prominent that might explain the attention it had recently received. It also seemed so far removed from the subject matter of the top blog list – which are, quite literally, almost all about fashion – that I can’t imagine anyone visiting that site would take an interest in Tragicocomedia.

F F F F F Fashion, and not much else. Bloglovin.

I was left feeling very deeply suspicious. Was this an example of the sort of bullshit that goes on at Twitter, wherein people buy whole swathes of followers in some desperate attempt to promote their personal brand of self-obsession or some utterly undesirable product? I’d certainly not instigated any such activity. Was this some slightly back-handed flattery, in that my blog had received enough hits to warrant people wanting to follow it for the sake of jumping on the bandwagon, in the hope of drawing attention to themselves? The idea seems both utterly preposterous and also deeply annoying as I had liked to think that WordPress existed outside of that insincere and pointless follow me if I follow you universe. Surely people would only follow blogs because they actually want to read them, right?

Maybe I’m being horribly naïve and old-fashioned about all this. Either way, I certainly have no desire to alienate or upset new subscribers who genuinely are interested in my writing and photography. But if you’re only here to get a leg-up of some kind, then I’d recommend you go back to Twitter, because I’m not in this for the numbers and frankly am not going to follow you back just because you followed me. I’m only interested in following blogs I’ll actually read, which I really ought to do a whole lot more of! Indeed, I just paused a moment in writing this to work out why on earth I never receive notifications of posts from blogs I’ve chosen to follow. Strangely, the default setting is to send no notifications whatsoever. Having now made reparations for this, it seems my inbox is going to be a lot fuller after all and the time I allocate to reading is going to need a serious extension.

Anyways, to finish up, I’m still baffled about all this and would be happy to receive clarification, should anyone know the cause. Either way, what I would like to say is a great big thanks to all my subscribers, especially those who have been following me for some time now. I shall try in future to be more inter-active, as it were, and to pay proper attention to what is going on in your worlds as well. All the best!

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Ruin Diary 1 – Poems

Some years ago I had the ambition of publishing a book called Ruin Diary. The idea was to put together a mix of short stories, poetry and photographs which would, in some way, reflect the theme of “ruin”. Ruin, of course, can be interpreted in a number of ways, but essentially it is the destruction of something, the remains thereof, or the process by which something comes to ruin. This is rather close to a dictionary definition wherein Ruin is described as:

The physical destruction or disintegration of something or the state of disintegrating or being destroyed.

I wanted to combine the physical and the metaphysical – the evocation of actual ruins, alongside the ruin of love, dreams and hopes etc. This might seem like a rather glum preoccupation, and I suppose in some ways it is, yet it is a natural offshoot of having an almost cripplingly nostalgic personality. It also comes from an overactive interest in history, which I indulged throughout my undergraduate degree, my honours year and, later, a PhD in late Roman / Early Medieval Italian history. I’ve spent almost half my life thinking about the fall of Rome and what it signifies – the first failure of a sort of proto-modernity. It’s a sad period, the onset of the so-called Dark Ages, but an absolutely fascinating one. The hangover of Roman civilization, the undercurrents of continuity, and, in the peoples of western Europe, the lingering, shadowing, saddening awareness that greatness was behind them, not in front of them. It’s a period full of nostalgics and studying it only seemed to fuel the emotions which often left me paralyzed in contemplation of the past.

In Ruin Diary I wanted to get this emotion across – in all of my preferred forms of expression: through photographs of actual ruins, modern or ancient, or poems and stories which touched on these places and the atmosphere and moods they generate; through stories and poems about the failure of love and relationships, the sense of loss itself, the effects of loss and failure. It was a naïve and overly ambitious idea, without an agent or publisher or real awareness of the market, but irrespective of that, it was a great spur to develop ideas based around this theme. Indeed, in the end, I accumulated more than enough material, some of which, particularly short stories and poems, have already been published on this blog.

Anyways, without further ado, the following poems are some of those I had in the Ruin Diary basket. I’ve never quite regarded them as complete and have continued working on them until recently. Some have been rejected by publishers several times, and possibly with good reason, others have never been let out of the stable. I find my style a little overblown in retrospect and have resolved not to work on these any longer, yet I still have a strong liking for the core elements of these poems, which, here and there, get it right. It is also the case that the publication of these poems is a nostalgic tribute to the spirit that first inspired them and to my slightly younger self.

I’ve also attached a badly stitched together panorama of one of my favourite ruin sites – Termessos, in southern Turkey. The shots were taken on a crappy film compact and later scanned. The quality is pretty appalling, but I think you’ll want to go there all the same after checking it out : )

Termessos, Southern Turkey

Termessos, Southern Turkey

Achilles Matures

Achilles, ripped and sanguine,

sure to have his way with mortal men

expects no less of softer flesh,

and, heavy with the trophies

of his speed and savage skill,

of having flung into the sand and waters

countless armed and gilded men,

he puts upon a sulky brow

the first onset of love.

Agamemnon’s grizzled manhood

lusts after elixirs, offers

“seven girls of Lesbos, plus

a bunch of even better ones”

and claims Achilles’ catch, Briseis

‘of the lovely cheeks’. Achilles,

sword sheathed, tent-bound, never

traded prize for compromise,

refuses thus to join the fray –

the ache that tore up man and beast

has settled on a girl.

 

“Fight, Achilles! Fight!” they cry.

Achilles likes to stay indoors

and guilty, fucks Diomeda,

who, also ‘of the lovely cheeks’

(how many lovely cheeks, Achilles?)

offers him a vessel for the sour

milk of glory.

How many men as well, Achilles

wonders in the sail-cloth light;

“for once the life of man has passed

the circle of his teeth, then nothing,

horses, gold, nor love

can call the lost life back.”

And now it seems, for love, Achilles

hides behind his teeth.

Achilles sat and sulked a while

beneath the horseflesh moon

and falling from him, slow and sure

the envy of the other men, became

for him, a counterpoint,

of what is true and why.

 

 

Were You Half So Cruel

Were you half so cruel

as the harm your cold and distant

care – you held my hand

to sympathise, and even let

me cry upon your shoulder –

wrought like any mockery,

(all that is scorned is made

foolish) brought to this tired self,

who, wrung out from surfing love

into an ancient cliff, inured

against erosion (some disparity

in the run of aeons –

you eternal, me

a fleeting suitor to your long-protected

chastity) – more wilted spinach

than man – fell upon his knees

to, quite literally, beg,

then, I might hate you.

 

I tried to shake you off on a thousand

dates, a hundred

beds, a hundred bodies pulsed

with throes I told not what the source

of energy, the tears I hid in pillows

bit and never brushed

by your hair, that straightened, elvish

waterfall, never matted with the subtle

violence of sex, the punitive, corporal affair

where love, for which, sparing rods

spoils chides of faithfulness

from altruistic hearts

and minds aligned

in book and thought (high ideals and pedestals

are well enough in orbit) expends

itself in fucking, sends its warriors

to the necessary resolution. Love,

it seems, must be punished,

let die, once

in a while, like the bee that stings

to save the hive.

 

 

l’amour, le vin et le tabac

 (After a visit to the Mucha museum in Prague)

They didn’t mention the women,

– though one photo was of

a “mistress” – of which

there must have been many:

the sleepy-eyed,

pursy Zodiac, (she’s a wet one

and a bonnie tickler)

pure tears and a prim, good heart

though not as good

a sport as the knowing Spring,

all vermicelli hair and blossoms,

languor and vigour both

in the smiling eyes, the curling

lips, the confidence and clip

of a coming bumper harvest.

 

Spring a woman, Summer

a woman and Winter

too, a woman. All these women

and, despite their vivid florescence,

none of them a cinch.

Sarah Bernhardt wanted something

quickly, something new, for

two weeks hence she strode

– Athenian and Florentine –

upon a footlit Parisian stage,

and came to you, a man

so steeped in women, prone

to idealise the softness

and the purity, threw out

the trim and trappings for a rustic

decadence, a fecund innocence,

that of a rural princess

lavish and mosaiced, a frond

in hand as if young Jesus

on a donkey comes, to bring

a message like to be misread.

 

Europe marvelled, eyes aflame

with this sudden wedding seen

upon the streets of Paris, took

the posters home to cherish,

hailed the dawning of some new

art, styled and curvy, bold

and feminine, soon to spread

to buildings, seats and lamp-posts

soon to travel far on soap-tins,

matchbooks, wine, tobacco,

scents and, indeed, anything

which a beautiful woman

might help sell. Innocence,

yet not naïve, with something

other than simplicity

in those invitations.

 

 

Epochs

Most of our epochs (and by this I mean

the parcels within which we group recollections)

are woven of lovers or houses

 

are mapped by the heart and the places

we dwell. And Rome, no stranger

to epochs, though I never foresaw

 

such meadows of learning, of love and of war,

wrapped, like a rubric, in four long

months, a lifetime of potent nostalgia.

 

For three years preceding, my fields

had run wild with some loves

overlapping the brinks of each other

 

so Rome promised, in word and in deed,

farewell to the wet newspaper days,

that left one so close and so permeable.

 

On those frozen-toed, sandalled, Campidoglio

dawns, we were taken to see such masterpieces,

some absolute heroism on a wall, or the pocked

 

boldness, standing victorious in stone

buildings (it was the Renaissance

after all) or frescoed in dim-lit churches half

 

propped with the spolia of past

ages when grandeur first – Roman

hardware, Greek software – crushed the West.

 

And well, that was winter, or January

anyway. How I slept and breathed, having bashed

up my organs in an English climax in parting

 

from an orgy of work. Through a slower,

February of keen archaeology;

drove to ruins in snow-smoothed Tuscan

 

hills; to a frosted, icicle-hung

amphitheatre; field-walked the Tiber Valley,

carried ladders into Herculaneum

 

to measure Roman houses, eyes fixed

firmly on a Manx redhead I hoped

to touch up in Ostia Antica,

 

bracing in sunlight against the February

wind. Soon March was upon us with war

leaning close and the neatness that hedged

 

in behind me the past, the warmer sun

set fresh shoots blooming and, feeling at last I

belonged here, I chirped from my hedgerow

 

a wholly new song. Going now,

to the Pantheon daily, finding

beneath the streets, things hard to believe. Such sights

 

and the bright holding tight to privilege

must have coloured my cheeks just enough

to be bedded by a famous man’s mistress

 

after three congenial dinners in a month

of monasteries: Farfa, Assisi, Subiaco,

Cassino, that ended with hopes pinned

 

to a guest list of girls’ names come for another

stirring course. And what girls, when they came

and were friendly. Tiber Island roared

 

with rains and thaws and on the first April

day, lit like the sun-side of Mercury, I fell

in love, wounded, having dived

 

into a hedge on the post-shrove Wednesday,

slashed and scabbed like Easter’s coming thorns.

She cut my hair with praise for the way

 

these hands kept to themselves, when later we

sat on a colosseum backdrop

slope. There, that milk-skinned kitten, that doe-eyed

 

soft pixie, Lottie of the grass heads, bloomed gorgeous,

legs tucked beneath her, sun streaming

down. I should have run to do her whims

 

– but to be apart from her! So I ran

faster still and she crowned me

with a makeshift laurel; her fingers

 

brushed my ear-tips as she placed

the very grass heads that made her like a flower

when she and I sang with Nils, full of pride

 

for the odd bond I’d knotted between now and then,

salvaged in a day of proclamations.

Unable to lean for a peck; to declare

 

with a cheek-kiss the birth of a new love

while Baghdad enthralled in the common room and April’s

new tone was a blossom of history to come.

 

It was a month that soared on to the winding

down of this heart-wrench of coming and going

and still never knowing which epoch the present

 

belonged in, whereon to prop and nurture

some constant in life and love.

 

 

La Pelosa, Stintino, Sardinia

Tomorrow’s feted high upon this stretch

of Caribbean tints. The sea and sky run through

in lissome strokes; azure and watered cobalt overwrite

a blazing, foreground palimpsest

of lemon essence light, tinctured soft with pearl.

 

Stripy market stalls arise

among the littered towels and humps

of footprints dug by posing youths,

while sagging older bathers prop, as wineskins

hung before a vision inked upon a rippling silk.

 

There is an invitation in the dunes to rest a while,

yet, cool and jewelled, the ocean lures; shallow

is the gradient of shore, invisible the water

lapping near, so creeping up the shins the coolness

comes; the body horizontal, starts its glide.

 

Across this smite of paradise a cannon tower calls

the swimmers on. They fetch up here

to sample lizard heat and squatting shrubs and view

this structure, rough and sharp; its jagged stone

makes weathered shelves for ample seagull nests.

 

History left this island half unmade as epics

gathered round Aegean shores and poets

slung their words to Sicily. Pirates sought

this empires’ afterthought and Spaniards, fearing them

erected towers such as this to guard their chiming ports.

 

Not all we build winds up to be for us alone

for time and seasons bring new dwellers in. So witness

in this structure not our strength in making lasting things

for to the rocks the purpose of our striving soon is lost

and by the weather, transience, is nurtured slow to dust.

 

 

Winter Morning, Campo dei Fiori

I’d been here before at night,

drunk and swearing through spittle;

with Italians singing songs

of bandits and hard-working

peasants; “bella ciao, bella

ciao” – drunk as well, but never

as drunk as a foreigner.

 

Back here I stand where they sang

beneath some martyr who burned

for I forget what. He is,

nonetheless, unforgotten

in a statue – (no hissing

gobbets at dawn in the drum-

fires of the slow-warming men).

 

So here I am hoping for

real scenes, but it’s so real that

I see no mystery, and point

my camera in vain at some

old men; popping off half-arsed

shots in this “field of flowers”

in the winter of the day.

 

Spring comes and flowers come too,

rolling on rusty carts; wheels

fat with weight, and stumpy men

pushing and pulling colour

to make the tents blossom. Blooms

erupt in the piazza

and the stalls wash with women.

 

Sun creeps down the palazzo

and falls in a canyon street.

Again I shoot the essence

as Romans sit on bollards

to thaw beside their mopeds,

and once again the “unique”

pales into quotidian.

 

I’ve drunk from springs all morning

to quench a colosseum

thirst, for I’ve been walking since

oily light infused across

the Apennines; angling low

through the burnished frost; rich clad

in the promise of warming.

 

Once home, my fragility

is paramount. Emotion

strikes, my hands begin to thaw;

the agony, as blood resumes

its course, jewels my eyes with tears,

and, by my Roman window

I cry, weak as a blossom,

but a blossom all the same.

 

 

Ancient Sky

The diesel warmth of the metro breathes

me onto the broken pavement:

Rome, bus station, dawn.

Aboard the bus I lose my eyes

in the smear of road lights;

sinking into holiday’s end,

sinking into thinness strung

across long sleepless nights

and wakeful days.

 

Then it hits me, here at last,

through fatigue and failing

hope, it comes,

the light, the sullen pink;

bloated fire dulled by frost,

fanning from the mountains so

at last I see things as they were

in the silhouette of peaks;

grey-brown, massive, graphed against

this nebula of dawn.

 

From here was marble dug,

the sources flowed, the Samnites poured,

the very spine that Pyrrhus hoped to break,

– the unchanged, ancient Apennines.

And above them, blooming slowly,

a sky as like to those of distant days

when Justinian’s vengeful murderers

shattered Italy to a ruin.

 

 

To Capo Caccia, Sardinia

Dry and rugged, the land about Fertilia;

sharp and rough, the rocks. Bristling

tinder, sparse forest, needles and ochre

yellow earth in suffocating heat.

Until I entered a darker coastal stretch

of deep green undergrowth coolly shaded,

sunk in a fecund gully.

 

This was once a land of pygmy elephants,

dwindled hippos, rhinos shrunk

on an island trapped in a basin of burning

salt; a landlocked sea that came and went

until the pillars of Hercules fell

bringing an Atlantic deluge

to flood the briny deltas

of the Rivers Rhone and Nile.

 

The first peoples left us no writing,

only tombs and bee-hives:

Nuraghi, the rounded citadels;

dusty and softly echoing

with stones like hardwood mushrooms;

iron rich and orange as the cork trees

peeled to an umber trunk and dotting

the tawny grass of the island’s hilly fields.

 

Concrete lattice rises, rusty, weed run;

clicking with insects and the rubbish tipped

in the many failed constructions,

and, just along the coast of these,

the beach resorts milking

sweeps of sand between volcanic

rocks to which the mastic

trees and hardy cistus cling.

 

I remained optimistic, when passing Palmavera,

of reaching the Grotto of Neptune,

beneath Capo Caccia, till from the cliffs

I spied a vast bay and saw how maps

can trick one. Back through the thorns

of briar-trapped forest, a long retreat

in forty-degree heat.

 

Was this because I had swum

and masturbated in a rocky shadow,

spilling my seed in the ancient God’s sea?

Blistered, dry-mouthed and miles from the cape,

I shuffled back to Alghero.

At dusk, the town welcomed me sore

and I took the first hotel to lick my wounds.

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