Minutes at Ragnarok

Something silly to get back in to the swing of things.

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Would you yet know what they say?

Gold tooth there spoke
Called things to be
Asked each in turn
To give their share

First then was dancer,
Enthroned in lightning,
From the higher place he spoke
Of ranging field and far
There to bring our wisdom
As we returned wing-brother to our fold
Could and would and must do
Then of further flight
The curve of time
The dancer sang no more

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Would you know yet of what they say?

The huge, the ender
The caller of reserve
Cutter of those ties that bind
Come from the healer’s cave
Warned of a rising tide
Near great as any yet seen
Numbers he tumbled forth
Like jewels
He could not stay
For the healer’s cave
Had need of he to be away

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
You would hear the things they say?

Quick, the fast,
Though earthbound be his heel
He spoke of the stretch of time
And the back and forth
Of the names drawn from names
And of how this could be done
He was done but not finished

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Are you listening to what they say?

From the enders lair
Had the light raiser snatched
Some orderly serpents
Of what more she spoke
Was the three way war
Of names raised up
Only to be cast aside
Ender’s pupil, she likewise
Scattered diamonds

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Are you still listening to what they say?

Barrow mender, the sick watcher
Of her plight Goldtooth knew well
Many doors they had opened
Many names had been set howling
They saw the rising hump
Of many many more raised up on
The back of the new beast
And this more she spoke of
Of those hoarding things they should not
And of locks needing breaking

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Do you know the things they say?

Fighter, fist maker, fresh name
Of her battles we know much
Of those yet to come we know more
Her tale is short for now
But victorious

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Listen well to the things they say

The hammerer then came among them
To speak of those who range high
Enthroned in lightning
The storms has parted
Only to show a greater storm
And then the clouds behind needed tending
All this, the hammerer would do
As dancer stands by

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Would you yet know of what they say?

Coins then to change
Spent wisely
Watch closely
Quick ones variable
And the work of the one away
To record the names of names
As they pass through the gate

There in circle sat
Three across three
And one away
Listen now to what words say

Gold tooth brought the end
Reminding that the end was well neigh
And the time of judgement loomed
And as hammerer and dancer looked at sky
A time of change, the quick, decreed
A time of judgement, said gold tooth
And remember to set your breath in jars

And so the circle broke
And the three across three
And one away
Set apart
Until the Black Horse rides
Or so they say.

Beyond the Wall

On 14 April 2016 I was able to try out this role-playing game by Flatland Games. I ran the game for two of my brothers using voip and an online dice roller. Thanks to the innovation of the playbooks and scenario packs, it was astonishingly quick to set up. It’s a simple game with a lot of elegant tweaks and, while I’m not a fan of the OSR movement in games or Tolkienesque fantasy in general, Beyond the Wall really worked for me.

I’ve played role-playing games for much of my life. I certainly can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a twenty-sided die was for.[1] I think playing games helped me to develops maths and reading skills[2] but also gave me a pretty safe way to pass away the summer months when I was a child. I carried on playing as an adult, probably because it’s a bit cheaper than getting drunk all the time.[3] I think it’s a peculiar hobby, when you get in to it, especially as I usually end up as the games master, a position analogous but not identical to that of a referee in healthier pastimes. Basically, everyone else pretends to be Lord Grim Grimminity or The Sourcerer of Saigon and I’m taking the role of Hannibal Lector, the inn-keep of the Prancing Pony,[4] the armies of the Dark Lord, and also that tree with the net in it. I don’t know that is speaks to anything other than having a slightly administrative bent – it’s less about creativity as it is that I’m pretty good with spreadsheets. I’m being rather off-hand about the whole thing, but I’ve had some great times with RPGs, told some fun stories, and made some excellent friends.[5]

As I have grown, my tastes in gaming have developed and, more or less, solidified. I like modern games with crunchy powers and lots of fights. I am not too fond of role-playing in the acting sense; I enjoy throwing dice because of its uncertainty, I don’t feel I’ve much of a gift for putting on the silly voices. I vastly prefer non-standard fantasy; a sort of hodge podge of influences that allows me to have wizard schools be something between a mystery cult and a kung fu school, naming conventions drawn from anything other than Ye Olde Englande, and less adoration of kings and Lost Golden Ages.[6] Also, I tend not to care for nonhumans, especially hobbits, in fantasy, for a bunch of reasons.

Beyond the Wall then, probably shouldn’t be the kind of thing that appeals to me, but since I grabbed some of the alpha documents way back in 2012(?), I’ve found it rather charming. The initial hook is the playbook system. In BtW you can generate a character the same as you would in any other version of Dungeons and Dragons[7] and be on your way, but the writers recommend you use the Playbooks instead.[8] Each playbook focuses on a particular concept or archetype of adventurer, and then provides some random charts to flesh out your particular iteration. It begins with their childhood and then moves on to their life in the village, how they became an adult, and who their friends are. All the while, it squirrels away bonuses to your abilities, skills and so on, so that once you have rolled through the playbook, you have an idea both of what your character can do and who they are. Character generation extends in to the creation of the village, a process shared by the whole group.

For example, last night my two brothers rolled up an Assistant Beast Keeper, Shirley, and a Halfling Outrider, Cuthbert. Shirley was the son of a smith but learned a bit from everyone. He’s the witch’s apprentice and mucks out the stables. Soon, he’s marrying in to the Miller’s family. Cuthbert is the child of famous local “tobacco” farmers, he befriended a local merchant, and became friends with Shirley when they helped the ghost of a long forgotten murder victim. Of course, they also know that the Miller intended to have the local merchant robbed, leading to Shirley’s nuptials in some no doubt humorous manner. Shirley has a pet mouse he named Queso, Cuthbert is walking around with some treasure maps. This all from about fifteen minutes of dice rolling. While they were doing that, I was able to pull out a scenario pack and, with some rolls of my own, determine that some nefarious subterranean goblins had attacked their village, abducting the local merchant for unknown reasons – that not all the goblins were on board with.

These sorts of play aids are really useful. The prompts help encourage less confident, less assertive players[9] to contribute stuff to the game and the world, and it gives everyone a stake in events. At one point, while Shirley was trying to convince Queso to scout the goblin warren for him, Cuthbert got impatient because it’s his friend down there with the cannibals. I also really liked that I could get an adventure for an evening put together in the same time it took the group to make characters –  and not some desultory hacker[10] but a twisty warren with the potential for interaction and lateral thinking. Indeed, the two of them used peaceful means to get through the first encounters – feeding (and freeing) some hungry gob-dogs, negotiating passage with the lesser king of the goblins.

Locating the game in the village, with the heavy focus on the local and personal, helps resolve some of the problems I have with Tolkienesque fantasy. The characters are not princes or chosen ones, they’re just little locals with a bit more luck or talent than their fellows[11] but not set apart from them. It’s a focus I appreciate.[12] There are miss-steps, such as the continual reiteration of what your fathers did, who your father was, rather than leaving it as parents or parents, or even switching between mother and father. While I dislike the shades of benign aristocracy in the Noble playbooks,[13] I really like that the playbooks contrast and complement with the villagers. There is a difference between the Would-Be Knight, born of the village, and the Knightless Squire, heir to the manor, informing their backgrounds so that, while both might be wielding heavy arms, their origins have an impact on who they are as people.

To return to the specifics of my game session, then, this manifested in a series of rolls that linked Cuthbert and Shirley together. Cuthbert’s motivation for leaving his comfortable hobbit hole was the tales of far-off places that a visiting Merchant shared with him. Shirley is set to marry in to the Miller’s family. This came together when Cuthbert rolled that he had seen the Miller arranging for a thief to rob the Merchant – and Shirley helped Cuthbert to disarm the whole situation. This is a purely random series of accretions that have come together to present the backstory to Orford, but it was really cool in the way it turned out. Shirley and Cuthbert are fast friends because of this event – and in Shirley’s case, it got him a fiancée.[14]

Within the playing of the game itself, once I had determined the motivations of the goblins and the scope of the lair, BtW is modelled heavily after pre-3rd edition D&D systems. When making attacks or saving throws, one rolls high, for ability scores, one rolls low. On first read, I didn’t particularly care for this, it’s a needless complication that will slow down play as each person tries to remember whether they roll low or high this time. There is a sidebar in BtW that explains why this design choice was made: the roll under stat check means that there is a meaningful distinction between ability scores that don’t have a differing ability bonus – so a character with a 9 strength and one with 12 will have different chances of succeeding at a task without needing to proliferate bonuses. That’s pretty sound reasoning, so I kept it.[15] And, as this session featured mostly ability and skill checks rather than the clash of arms,[16] ability checks came up a lot more often. When it did come time to throw down, the combat rules are very simple – roll, hit, damage – but there is the option to adopt stances in combat, which I’ll probably look to integrate more later. I was able to vary monsters a little bit by upping their hit points, a simple fix that I probably wouldn’t have done in a more complex game.

This simplicity is probably BtWs greatest asset and but also a liability; it’s fun to give a little narration to action, but it doesn’t have any impact on the mechanical level. It certainly lacks the heft of 4th edition D&Ds ability to declare what type of attack you are making, or even 13th Age’s variable dice mechanics. There is something to be said for reliably representing outcomes within the system itself – so a warrior knows how to ding an enemy just so and leave them dazed, or a ranger can always find such and such an amount of food. And, as always, while everyone is free to describe actions and chance the dice, magic users retain a set of mechanical tools that allow them to declare that A Thing is Happening. I think that much of the Old School methodology considers this a feature, not a bug, so I don’t anticipate it getting examined at any point.

It’s a game that lends itself well to a decent sized group or a small one. I do think that, with more players, the interactions between playbooks and how that rolls out in the village is an incredible asset. I’d even be happy to look to import the playbook method in to other games. For future sessions, I’m looking to roll out the village generation, traits, and then area and threats. BtW was good fun and I’m looking forward to future sessions.

[1] Stacking up as towers.
[2] Though not language skills. Too much fantasy has left my grammar a pitiful wreck.
[3] I never really went down the rabbit hole of miniatures wargaming. I did have some lizardmen once. I stopped collecting them after being told that painting them like poisonous geckoes was Doing It Wrong. Tough lesson, but probably saved me a lot of money in the long run.
[4] I don’t like Tolkien, doesn’t mean I can’t reference him.
[5] Perhaps, given I have never been attached to a gaming scene, it might be better described that I have excellent friends who have allowed me to share with them my strange hobby.
[6] I am partial to Lost and Obscure Relics – but the thing I want is the past to be different, not better.
[7] Roll dice, pick class, record stuff, fight monsters.
[8] They also offer loads of them for free on their website.
[9] Not a problem with the two brothers I was playing with, mind.
[10] Which, to reiterate my stance earlier, I’d have no problem with. I like fights!
[11] I’m quite left wing. This way of thinking is quite often mischaracterised as thinking everyone is the same; it’s not, it’s that everyone is equal, which is really quite different.
[12] Though I’m not saying it’s a move to speak from the margins, I think it is certainly influenced by this impulse.
[13] The Nobility playbooks also include the only specifically gendered archetype: The Nobleman’s Wild Daughter. All the other playbooks don’t assign gender characteristics to the PC so generated. We could read this gendering as implying that all the other playbooks are neutrally male – especially the predominantly martial types such as the Squire and the Future Warlord, given that her skill at arms marks the NWD as transgressive. That could be a problem for some groups. We could assume that this is a (social) class rooted constraint; a Local Hero can be a woman because gender roles are less strictly enforced on the sharp edge of survival. Still, If one player is making a NWD and another making a Squire who happens to be a woman, it creates a conflict in concept. I also think, that it pays to bear in mind the source materials: that is, not that women did not fight in history, but the fiction that BtW is inspired by, which includes many, many very very popular examples of your women who rose up to fight against the wishes and expectations of their society. It is an example of importing inequality to a secondary world in service to audience expectations.
[14] Which is an interesting connection all in its own right – I tend not to focus on relationship issues within game, but here’s a fresh hook.
[15] Also, one of my players has the most atrocious dice luck, so being able to succeed on a low roll is a rare chance to shine for him. Or to fool the dice gods, depending on how superstitious you are.
[16] Shirley and Cuthbert successfully negotiated with a pack of Gob-Dogs and the Goblin King, though they would later go on to fight the King anyway. It was reasonable in the context of the game.

This Power Might Not Last

During the Christmas shutdown, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft. It’s something to do but, as I discussed with one of my brothers, it is simply fun-ish. Once I returned to Wycombe, I removed it from my hard-drive and decided to look around for a palette cleanser. There was a winter sale on the Steam service. I picked up a few games, which included Dontnod entertainment’s Life Is Strange. The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, the last in October of the same year. I will be writing about my experience of playing this game. The story is a coming of age tale with a time-travel twist and elements of murder mystery. I found it a beautiful, albeit flawed, gem. As always, I will warn the reader now that extensive spoilers are to follow.

Continue reading

The Shadow of a Passing Year

As I write this, I am sat on a train heading north from High Wycombe to Nottingham (transfers at Banbury and Derby). It is the 31st December, the last day of 2015, and I am once again collecting my thoughts before heading to a New Year’s Eve party. Apart from that, in almost every sense, I am very far from the point I was at this time last year.

2015 has probably been my worst year, even considering life-threatening illness, injury, and other sundry miseries that have afflicted my life. I’m choosing not to dwell because there’s little point, but the first nine months of the year can be accurately described as in the shit. I am in no hurry to revisit them, so I shall move on to when things picked up. Similarly, and perhaps a little selfishly, I think that for all the tragic events of this year, others have said it better than I. Sometimes, the only appropriate response is silence.

I have been living and working in High Wycombe for three months now. My job, which I won’t go in to for security reasons, has been going well enough. The people I work with are quite nice people, though many of them are leaving in 2016, including one of the two who have been coaching me in my role. As is always the case when someone departs, there is a wistfulness for those who remain as the change forces them to reflect on their own position. Largely, it is a job and like all jobs something that is done to pay for the things we like – capitalism fails – but right now the novelty of a monthly pay cheque has not worn off. For my part, I am hopeful that the new year will offer me chances to continue my development. I work with a place that offers excellent access to training and I intend to exploit it to the fullest.

If my workplace has been welcoming, my new lodging has not. Nothing sums it up more fully than this: Having returned from my visiting my parents’ over Christmas, I found a Christmas card left outside my door. The message? “Please remember to empty the bins once a week and switch off all lights.” None is the worse tyrant than the petty one.

Socially, High Wycombe has been challenging! I’m not, nor have I ever been, the kind of person who can just go in to a pub or café[1] and start making friends. Yet I did not wish to live in isolation in my new home, if for no other reason than it would be quite boring. I have made a few efforts to meet people that have had some success, using the site meetup to, well, meet up. I have gone to a coffee meeting in Marlow where I met a group of older adults. They were friendly and chatty but I found I had little in common with them. I have also signed up with a reading group, which I really enjoyed and will be going to again at the end of January for The Martian.[2]

The largest and most active group has been the most challenging. After a shaky start at a comedy club, where I largely did not get to talk to anyone, I had two more events with them. The first, at Halloween, was a complete farce. I up alone in costume walking the streets of London as they had missed the train. The next time I met them, for brunch at a local bar, was similarly fraught, as they chose not to sit at the table they had booked. I elected to give it one last shot for a Christmas meal in Marlow. I admit that, with so many false starts, I was a little trepidatious. I half expected them to have changed reservations at the last moment. Thankfully, I went through with it and had a chance to speak with everyone. They seem like very nice people, so I was glad I did.

I have been able to read a great deal more, despite having less free time. I think this is probably a result of having to give structure to my days, what with having demands on my time. I have meant to write a little on the books that I have read since coming to High Wycombe, but I suppose there I but up against the limits of my time. I’ve moved back on to non-fiction for the last little bit of they year, having just finished Flynn’s new biography of Genghis Khan. At some point I will try and look back on some of the things I have read; Rivers of London, in particular, was both better and more thoughtful than I expected.

I continue to write, much the same as I did last year. Having finished ‘The Mountain’s Shadow’[3] I returned to an old, old idea of mine. I first came up with what was then titled ‘Zodiac Rising’ on the train to Stoke-on-Trent to visit my then girlfriend while she was at university. The bones of the tale, a journey of self-discovery, remain; all else – gods, magic, monsters – has gone. I’m a very slow writer but I try to put in 500 words a day – some days I do more – and it currently sits at 100,000 words. Some months ago I returned to rewrite the beginning, which is extending things somewhat. I had originally intended to do one and done but I am now thinking that perhaps it could work split in to two parts. The vital thing for now is to focus on getting it finished, then I can worry about the rest. I suspect this time next year I shall still be writing about it!

Something else that I am looking forward to in the new year is my return to running role-playing games. I and two of my brothers had been dabbling, in a desultory manner, with gaming[4] while I still lived in Gloucestershire. I have invited a few friends to take part in a VOIP game session drawing inspiration from pretty much the entirety of my gaming life. Titled ‘The Road of the King’[5] the concept is that the characters are the children of a band of great and good heroes who were felled by an insidious and triumphant evil – the “King” – and it is up to this new generation to take up the fight. I’ve written a fair bit on the setting[6] and am really looking forward to it – largely because of the excellent character ideas I’ve already received.[7]

The past two weeks saw me back at my parents for Christmas. I visited Liam and Susie in their new home in Quedgeley, which is a lovely little house just right for them. He showed me his pride and joy[8] while Susie jetted off on hers.[9] I went to a Greek restaurant, the Mythos,[10] in Chepstow with Jim. I saw my parents, more of my brothers, and my nieces. I went for a run and, for the first time, fell over while doing so. The foresters appear to have taken a dislike to their trees, hewing them haphazardly and turning the paths in to mud-slicked nightmares. It rained a lot. I ate a lot. I played far too much World of Wacraft.[11]

With the liberty afforded me by salaried employment,[12] I’m actually able to play things for the coming year. In addition to ongoing little things like theatre trips and a triumphant return to watching an awful lot of awful films.[13] Like the world and his dog, I went to see Star Wars VII. It was probably my film high-light of the year.[14] I took two of my brothers on the trip and all three of us were absolutely thrilled. As we left the cinema, we were pleased but as we walked and talked, comparing the little details of craft and wonder, our esteem grew and grew. It was not a film that shocked or surprised, but rather a master-piece of intentional design – much like the original Star Wars film. Others may not have enjoyed it as much as I; I wouldn’t know, I stopped reading op eds about it even before it had screened. Unusually for me, I am keen to see it at the cinema again – I may go while in Nottingham, or when back in Wycombe.

I’m also hoping to get back in to regularly watching theatre. So far, I’ve restricted myself to National Theatre screening of plays, so as to recoup the cost of moving and setting up here in Wycombe, but I am thinking of going to see the Branagh production of Romeo and Juliet in the summer. I have been recommended the Wycombe Swan; at the moment it is panto season (which I do not care for) but hopefully something will tickle my fancy. There have been some mumblings among the social groups I have attached to about going to some cultural events – they’re still of an age where clubbing and rekt is the main diversion – and I think I would enjoy the company.[15]

I also have bigger plans in the offing. Having missed 2Cellos perform in London, I have looked up their tour dates and am planning a trip in late May to see them in Munich. That will be a bit of a double treat, as it will be a chance to see performers I greatly esteem and my first trip outside of Britain since 2012, when I went to Paris. It will be my second trip to Germany.[16] The chocolate comes highly recommended. I am also hoping to return to Edinburgh for the Fringe festival in August. This is being arranged with the Meet-up group so there is every chance it will go wrong. Finally, and most excitingly, my brother Jim and I are planning a trip to Marrakesh in time for Christmas/New Year’s for 2016. It will be the first time I have been off continent. I anticipate growing fat from all the tagine I will be eating.

[1] Not that Britain has a café culture. More’s the pity.

[2] I was a bit pleased that a group primarily focused on literary fiction chose a sci-fi book to start the year. On the other hand, a reviewer I greatly admire has made a good case that ‘The Martian’ isn’t a sci-fi novel at all. We shall see!

[3] At least for now. I have some further ideas to expand it.

[4] 13th Age for those who are curious and care about system.

[5] RPGs are where I get my latent pomposity out, I’m sure.

[6] RPGs are also where I allow myself the luxury of world-building – mental masturbation at its finest. For those who have read me elsewhere, this is a reimagining of the Xerxes/Sol Crucis setting.

[7] I don’t want to tell you about my character, but I really do about these guys! A demon-summoning warrior and the son of a Time Lord and the Old Woman of the Mountain. Sweet.

[8] Playstation 4

[9] A motorbike

[10] I am not an aficionado of Greek cuisine, but the food was excellent and the service great.

[11] I seem to relapse at Christmas. I got a rocket this year.

[12] It is amazing the difference money makes. People parrot the cliché that it cannot buy you happiness but the honest truth is that without it, you will be miserable.

[13] I was so excited for Black Mass and it let me down.

[14] But Fury Road is so close!

[15] I do have a theatre buddy in London, but she is occupied with work commitments most of the time. Those hyenas won’t hunt themselves.

[16] I stayed in Berlin while travelling Europe in my early twenties

There Are No Gods or Monsters Here

On Saturday 14 November 2015, I went to see the penultimate performance of Medea by Almeida Theatre. This was a new interpretation written by Rachel Cusk. While based on a play several thousand years old, there are many alterations made for this version, so please be aware that I will be spoiling the play to discuss them. I saw the National Theatre’s production of Ben Power’s version of Medea last year and wrote about my impressions here.

I saw Medea as part of a day out to London with a bit of an antique focus. Prior to the play, I went to the British Museum to look at the Celts exhibition, though that does span from antiquity right up to the modern age. I had had some chance to walk among the artefacts of an ancient age and, in conversation with the friend I was travelling with, refreshed thoughts of the ancient world.

However, this version of Medea, as with the version I saw last year, was a modern interpretation and even further from the source text. It was composed and produced as part of the Almeida Theatre’s ‘Greeks’ season, which also included Oresteia and The Bakkhai. The set, which is sparse and minimalist, a kind of opened up studio space on two levels, immediately intimated to us that this would not be a simple revival of the Classical text.

Kate Fleetwood is phenomenal in the title role and not equalled by any other performer on the stage, though Andy de la Tour comes close when he assumes the role of Kreon. Fleetwood rages, weeps, rages again at Jason, at circumstance, at the on looking audience. This address of the audience invites us to consider our complicity in Medea’s situation: that we as, voyeurs of her breakdown, do contribute it, that in needing her to go through this we are somehow abrogating our responsibility to feel as she does in our lives.

While I enjoyed the play, I was left with a sense that while called Medea, it wasn’t actually Medea that I was watching. As with the Power version, Cusk had chosen to have the characters speak naturalistically, without reference to lyricism. I am beginning to think that this might be a mis-step with performance in general. While it might seem artifice, I think that when something is performed for that stage, attention must be given to the manner in which people listen, as well as they speak. A certain lyricism carries the watcher on through soliloquies. Furthermore, the exchanges between Jason and Medea become screaming matches which, again, while certainly representative, mean that I was little able to follow the exchange. Having bought the script, I can see the effect on the page, but it did not translate to the stage. The only use of verse was on the lips of the Messenger[1], but I found the structure of these lacking and more than a little affected. I wonder if they were intended to evoke an impression of the otherworldly divine, a Dionysian madness and ecstasy, but if so it didn’t have that effect on me.

In Cusk’s version, Medea remains and outsider but this is less pronounced than Power’s version or in Euripides original. Here she is a writer, considered ‘weird’ by the chorus, difficult, ‘a feminist.’ She is harangued by her mother and enjoys an uncertain relationship with her father, yet they are alive and interact with her. Yet she is not the barbarian outsider, the kinslayer and kingslayer of Colchis, and this robs Medea, and by extension the play, of much of its gravity. Medea is dangerous. We know this from the start of things. She has killed before, killed for, and killed because of Jason.

In the source text, the wrong done to Medea by Jason is profound: for him she destroyed her family and has no life to which she can return to.[2] She came to Athens, bore his children, only for him to set her aside at earliest convenience. It is not just that the divine element is gone, it is that the violent character of Medea is erased. It is important to understanding Medea’s response that she is this violent outsider; she has no other recourse to seek. Cusk’s situation is perhaps more relatable to a modern audience, but the change echoes through the play, reducing the moral gravity of events.

Because Medea has not been so wronged by Jason, her revenge similarly cannot be so terrible. In an odd sort of way, this version itself flinches away from rather than confronting the impossible conundrum that Euripides set his audience. The Messenger tells us that there are ‘other ways to kill than knives’ but part of the impact of Medea’s murder is that she carries it out; she transgresses our societal ideas of the duty of motherhood to carry out the divine justice against an oath-breaker. In this version, she instead gains revenge by being a Cassandra to Jason’s downfall. She simply tells a story that goes on to ruin Jason and Glauce’s life. She does not kill Glauce and Creon; Glauce turns out to be horrible and is attacked by a stranger anyway. Creon in turn goes mad. The boys are not murdered, but instead they commit suicide; a tragedy, to be sure, but it does not reflect on Medea, or on us as a society in our treatment or attitudes to motherhood. In a way, the retributive acts are shifted more on to gods, fate, or karma, than in the original. This version does dwell on the judgement of mothers who abandon their children but the power of Medea is that she does something not just unspeakable but unthinkable: she transgresses the moral laws of Athenian (and our) society by upholding the moral law of her own.

Likewise, this Jason is himself something of a milquetoast. He is an actor, probably, having a mid-life crisis. He is not a hero or a wanderer. While it remains that he and Medea are peers – “uncompromising” says this Aegeus. The visiting friend, now an agent in the US, thought of them as soulmates, that as they played chess that “these two people get to have sex with each other too?” The oath between this Medea and Aegeus is also less conflicted: Medea agrees to ghost-write Aegeus novel, but he will produce a play for her. In Euripides’ play, Medea has Aegeus offer her sanctuary in Athens – binding him by the same traditions that will condemn her as a kinslayer in the end.

By changing Medea’s past, changing her from someone instrumental to Jason’s success, the Cusk version robs his betrayal of much of his force. She is an considered out by her peers, but not the absolute outsider that is her position in Euripides play; in many ways, this allows her struggle to be a reflection of that of all women, but taking out the specificity of her situation makes the conclusions lukewarm. By taking the knife from Medea’s hand, Cusk makes her less easily wicked, but also less active. Indeed, in the play all of the resolution takes place in a soliloquy given by the Messenger; a striking bit of theatre as Medea silently shovelling dirt in to a grave, but less than McRory’s Medea considering her children, knife in hand.

The play, rather than being about moral consequence, simply becomes that unpleasant things spiral out of control. Jason is an indifferent father, Medea becomes an absentee mother, and the children kill themselves; the events are sad, and trigger one another, but there is not the conflicted connection of motive and action that makes each actor culpable. I can appreciate the symmetry here, that as Euripides’ Medea was a killer so kills, Cusk’s Medea is a writer so revenges herself through the act of writing, but the changed version lacks the visceral force of the original. Indeed, by having the children take their own lives, it lessens the moral anguish of Medea’s and Jason’s guilt because, while they might be poor or absentee parents, the children become moral actors on their own account – their deaths are something else bad that happens to rather than happens because.

The changes made are good on their own. Having Medea be a suffering middle aged woman, victim of her husband’s mid-life crisis, is something that speaks directly to the experience of the audience.[3] There is also the symmetry of her as writer using words to injure Jason; as the Classical Medea is a kinslayer, so kinslaying is her weapon of choice against Jason. It might have been of use to have had her writing somehow directly buoy Jason up – some mention of them first meeting when she wrote a play that he starred in, that kick-started his career. The Chorus, while not used in a traditional sense, accurately convey both society’s disdain towards this Medea, but also serve as a useful pacing mechanism: as the play progresses, their initial complacency is gradually eroded as they fragment in to their own voices and desires. Eventually, they will dance with Medea and help her as she disassembles her life.

The Messenger does not lie: There are no gods or monsters here. But perhaps there should be.

[1] The Messenger was an amazing bit of costuming: when she first entered they stage, side on, they were the image of a Monroe like figure. Then, turning full on, we see that she is an intersexual Janus, half-man half-woman. This was really visually striking.

[2] It is important to remember when watching or reading Medea that the play is titled for her, placing her immediately as the protagonist. Euripides could have easily named the play “The Tragedy of Corinth” or focused on Creon or some such. Instead, we are implicitly in a position where we are asked to understand and even empathise with the actions of someone who does something monstrous, that we ask what is was that pushed them to this extreme end.

[3] Having Medea being a middle-aged white woman whose primary source of income is writing be served by a maid who is a woman of colour – the only person of colour on the stage – does eliminate some of the ‘disenfranchised outsider’ that is necessary to Medea’s core narrative.

The Man without Leg Days

About three months ago I embarked on a bit of a fitness jig. While I was in the forest, this involved getting up to do half an hour of sinawali, going for a run in the forest around lunch time, and lifting weights before bed. It’s not a particularly intensive regime – more on that in a bit – but it does mean I’m exercising for between an hour and ninety minutes every day. I’ve, in the main, kept this up in the two and a half weeks I’ve been living in High Wycombe, despite having to find a new running route and adjust my time table accordingly. At the moment, I am up at half-six to get in the time for my escrima.

My motivations for this are as dorkly as anything. I really like dressing up in costume for Halloween and, a few months back, watched the Netflix Daredevil series.[1] I quite liked it, and especially liked the ‘Black Mask’ look. I thought I would poach it but, at that point, I was in shabby shape. The components for the costume were relatively easy to get together[2] but, to quote a phrase, I did not want to look like a bipedal frog, all spindly limbs and bubble belly.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done a bit of ‘get fit.’ I first started caring about exercise when I was about sixteen, seventeen. That was prompted by, of all things, a news article about Michael Jackson hiring a personal trainer because he was worried about bone strength and getting brittle in old age.[3] This made me worry about the state of my bones. So, I started doing a little bit of body-weight stuff – press-ups, sit-ups, and lots of stretching – until my brother Kris invited me to his gym.[4]

ROKO in Portsmouth was basically a giant, well-lit warehouse filled with (then) high-tech exercise equipment.[5] You had a profile set-up recording your range of movement on a given station and then from there you were on your own. You could ask for coaching or help from one of the staff but why would I do that? I’d turn on my music player and just pootle around for an hour every other day, going through my twelve or so stations. It was great fun and, on the way home, I’d reward myself with some chips.[6] ROKO ended when I got so sick I had to be hospitalised and ended with chronic fatigue. I also lost loads of weight, going from a healthy adult male to skeletor in the space of an evening.

I next attempted to climb the hill of physical fitness while living in Greenwich. That pretty much involved more of my old regime and a bit of shadow-boxing thrown in for cardio. It was very, very low impact because I was in no shape to do anything more. I like to think that this helped me recover better than I would have done but I never reached the lofty heights I had achieved at ROKO. This tailed off when I moved to Stoke-on-Trent. While there, I walked two hours each day to get to work, which I figured was exercise enough. Whether it was or not is neither here nor there.

It wouldn’t be for another three years, when I started at Nottingham Trent University, that I would resume the Sisyphean pursuit of personal fitness again. I joined a local gym about fifteen-minute’s walks from home and, once again, started to go every other day. This wasn’t as high-tech as ROKO had been, but was a bit fancier than the local gyms stuffed with hard bodied bros that comes to mind when I think of ‘local gym.’[7] This wasn’t as successful a time as going to ROKO; a combination of stuff that darkened my mood led to me not going as often, or with as much dedication, as I should have done. I stopped going to that gym after a year, though only because the initial incentive low-price expired and I couldn’t in good conscience afford any more.

Another period of laziness followed, which gave way to swimming. I’m not a strong swimmer and I didn’t learn to swim properly until I was in my early teens. The Lenton pool was a tiny little thing, in the abstract a representation of what a local community can do for itself, but my strongest memories are of banging my head repeatedly on the sides.[8] I remain unsure as to why I stopped going.

After graduation, my exercise turned back to the old standards of press-ups, sit-ups, and stretches. I also added, for the first time, jogging.[9] I would get up early and go for a run around the block. Much as now, it wasn’t anything a real runner would consider running, but it made me feel good, especially once I’d managed to actually do my whole circuit without collapsing dead. However, being unemployed does wonders for the mind and I lost my motivation.

About a month after moving in with Liam, I had a small epiphany and started exercising again, and a lot. I would get up at silly o’clock to do press-ups, sit-ups, stretches, and lifting. At that point in time, I didn’t have the money to buy weights so instead I stuffed some bags with books and lifted those instead. Much to my surprise/pleasure it worked. I started to beat myself in to some shape. I actually managed to beat the 100 press-up thing. Later, I started adding escrima to my regimen, buying a pair of sticks and proving myself a menace to my skull and masonry. That bout of exercise tailed off during my time in Lenton Manor, once again putting up with cold and misery sapping my will to keep in shape.

So, obviously, at this point I think it’s fair to acknowledge that to keep this good habit I am developing, I also have to own up to being a bit of an inconstant exerciser. With that in mind, I’ve been establishing to myself what makes for good exercise practice. Mostly, this is things I’ve gleaned from people saying motivational slogans at me as I lift:

  1. Have a goal. This is my own one. In this instance, I want to not embarrass myself when I dress up as Daredevil, even if it’s just in the privacy of my own room.[10] I think it’s important to have something tangible to aspire to, because you can compare yourself against it. This also applies to the structure of your work-outs – I have a timetable for increasing weight and reps for my lifting, so I can see how much I’ve improved.
  2. Finish strong! This one is from Kris. I don’t know if there is an actual fitness reason for this, but I’ve internalised it as a psychological principle. If I finish better than I started – so twelve reps rather than eight – I feel better about the work I’ve done, even if I am tired. It works for me.
  3. Don’t train yourself to hate something. I mentioned earlier that my exercise is low-intensity. This comes from something a friend of mine said, many years ago, about going from unfit to marathon runner: don’t do something until it hurts you, because all you are doing is training yourself to hate it and want to stop. Instead, keep it reasonable, keep it fun, and you’ll want to keep doing it.

So, with those three things in mind, I’m off to do some arnis. Maybe nobody will see my impressive Daredevil cosplay but at least my secret identity will be safe.

DareLuke

[1] All a bit moot now, mind. I was intending to visit Oop North for Halloween but Liam’s moved and Rob doesn’t want to do anything for Halloween. As yet, the RAF do not seem to ‘do’ Halloween. They’re big on Oktoberfest though. Must be the German connection.

[2] The only problems I ran in to: Tactical gloves are illegal and I would love to know how they made the actual Black Mask, because apparently Charlie Cox’s one allows you to see.

[3] Turns out, he needn’t have worried. That’s life.

[4] I believe I did go to the Gym with Jon once or twice as well. Suffice to say, watching Jon lift weights is an experience.

[5] Also free-weights, but I have never been fond of free-weights.

[6] I didn’t think of this at the time, but those chips were probably why I put on any muscle while going to ROKO. Fuel and that.

[7] I would like to take a moment to say I’ve found most gym guys quite friendly, though overly competitive. I’m just not that chatty when I’m exercising.

[8] I swim underwater with my eyes closed. I don’t recommend it.

[9] Perhaps, more correctly, gasping.

[10] Take that, Crime!

Take This Walk with Me

As of 1 October, I no longer live in the Forest of Dean. I’ve secured a job, and a room, and I’ve gone away. Before I went, on 29 September, I took the two dogs for a walk, along with my brother Jim. I wanted to go around the Forest as a sort of ‘goodbye’ to the place.[1] Thanks to his reminder, I took a few pictures. It was a lovely day, the kind of crisp end of September day that, but for the chill, wouldn’t be out of place in the heart of summer.

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As we walked, I reflected that it would be nearly a year to the day since I properly moved back in with my parents; I’d had to arrange collect my things about six weeks after leaving Salisbury. I never came to love living in the country-side but I did come to appreciate the forest itself. Each day I would take a short run through it as part of my exercise regimen. Slightly less frequently, we would take the two dogs for a long or short walk depending on the weather and our mood.

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In Sky’s death, I mentioned that I used to walk with her and it helped me by giving me time to myself, outside of the house, to think. It remained as that, a location removed from the dreariness of life where I could think freely. When walking the dogs with Jim, we’d discuss what we were writing, or thinking of writing or, most recently, my plans for a theoretical 13th Age game.

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One half of the help of the forest came from getting away, but the other half was undoubtedly these chats with Jim. I think, with all sincerity, I would be in a much worse state if he had not been around to talk to.[2] I’m genuinely grateful for his friendship in what has been a properly difficult time of life for me.

The struggle to be front dog

The struggle to be front dog

Most days, to properly exercise the dogs, we’d take hour-long walks. The Forest is well traversed, with paths marked out with stones. Around you, thick limbed trees give the false impression of the periphery of an untouched wilderness. You can see marks on the earth, there are stacks of uneven stone, and if you are lucky you might encounter a deer or a wild boar.[3]

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We went off of the usual paths, opting to take a detour on this last trip, to make it a last adventure. A muddy path, which he soon diverged from, took us across a shallow bit of marsh, past disturbed earth, and all the way to a tiny road running through the forest. It turned out to be a non-starter, and we went back around to where we had begun. Pointless but absolutely worthwhile.

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Otherwise, much of the forest looks like much else of the forest. That’s neither here nor there, good nor bad, it’s just something that is. Still, I’m glad I took the time for this last walk.

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[1] Also, to Freya and Daisy or Thuggle and Doozer as I think of them. It’s a contrast between cats and dogs that I hadn’t thought of before – I have never gotten to say goodbye to a cat.

[2] And, it should be noted, drive me around the country in pursuit of employment, lodging, and a more fulfilling scotch egg.

[3] I once ran in to a jet black deer with a white tale. I’ve seen a young stag, his antler’s bright in the summer air. One late evening, Jim and I were startled by a sow and her piglets. It was rather exciting.