Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Lenten Lantern and Other Stories

I did Lent this year, which is to say I gave a thing up for it. This is quite fashionable lately, from what I gather, among the secular: Lent is conveniently situated just long enough after New Year to put the failure of Resolutions behind one, and there's not a whole lot else going on. In fact it probably suits the unchurched better - as a Catholic friend of mine put it "whoever put St Paddy's Day during Lent needs shooting".

I'm not a Catholic (for the same reason I'm not a drag queen: it's all a little showy for my taste, and I can't sing, and I have no desire to go there anyway) but I did give up alcohol for Lent, as well as takeaways. The latter was a bigger deal, to be honest - my circumstances do not allow me much kitchen time so resorting to expensive and caloritastic dialouts is an ever-present temptation, whereas drinking is something I've only ever done for entertainment, like watercolouring.

After doing my Lenten duty I returned to takeaways, albeit nowhere near as often as before. Drinking however didn't come back so easily. Forty days is not that long, even if you include the Sundays (traditionally one does not, apparently, so that Catholic priests can still do Communion), but it was long enough to break alcohol for me.

I tried hard to get back into it. A very fine bourbon reserved from Christmas, a few real ales, my favourite summer Corona... none of them drew me back in, although the bourbon came close. Alcohol had developed its own discrete taste while I'd been away, a sticky chemical tang. Occasions arose where I found myself driving to a party so that I would have an excuse not to drink - a necessity because, without an excuse, people in pubs think you're deliberately trying to spoil their fun by not drinking, haunting them with your sobriety.

I found myself a while back trying to explain to a teetotaller why people drink. It's very easy for someone who has never imbibed to believe it is purely a drug addiction, a weakness of character, a fleshly desire for cheap pleasure that drives the rest of us.

It isn't, of course: drinkers drink because alcohol helps us to empathise. It's not a modern drug, but modern society seems to need social lubricants more than ever - getting to know and trust people enough to be able to love them ('love' as in 'love your fellow man', not the romantic sort) is a difficult and time-consuming process for which modern life leaves little room. Alcohol doesn't have its own sensation: it only allows a normal human emotion to surface more readily. To be drunk - the good kind of drunk - is to feel love for your fellow human, an unnatural position particularly for the young, or the British.

It became apparent as I tried and failed to become a drinker again that it had simply ceased to be worth it. I have drunk less and less over the last few years, more and more through social obligation and habit rather than desire - I used to drink when writing anything difficult, but even that only seems to work 50% of the time these days. I've grown up enough to love my fellow man broadly unassisted.

So, I stopped. Or rather, I remained stopped. I'd like to be able to say I've been X days sober but I honestly can't remember when my last drink was - it just wasn't a big enough deal to note. In a way I feel like I'm devaluing sobriety by giving up when I wasn't an alcoholic, wasn't suffering liver failure, wasn't caught drink-driving (I've never even driven with a hangover, let alone a drink), wasn't at the crescendo of some drama demanding a life-change. I just didn't feel like the upside was worth the downside any more, and stopped enjoying the taste.

I still like beer, don't get me wrong: beer has a lovely flavour but the alcohol (or, in the case of Becks Blue, whatever acidic crap they put in to replace the alcohol) spoils it. Thankfully things have moved on since Kaliber (remember that? I first drank Kaliber at fourteen: that'll date me) and some excellent European NA beers lurk in my local Tesco. Now I don't have to worry about being able to rise early for a run or a swim, or not being available if I need to give somebody a lift in the car, or about all those extra calories... it's not a revelation or anything, it's just a few less things to worry about. And if you say in the pub "I've given up drinking" then people generally respect it, even if they do expect you to drink J2O, which is a crime against flavour and common sense.

Oh yes, I have a new car. A 2002 SEAT Leon mk1, in black: £1,000 worth of neglected and poorly hatchback which I have spent several months restoring to glory. Her name is Lucia and she drives like a dream now, like a Golf in a much sexier dress: she's not Sylvia, but there's something of Sylvia in her, I think. I choose to believe that one's car reincarnates, like the Doctor.

A few weekends ago I was in Eastbourne again, Lucia tucked up in the NCP car park, me sat outside a coffee shop on the beach scribbling in a notepad (the next novel: the title is Take It and I will tell more soon). Clear skies, clear head. It felt good.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Events In A Linear, Er, Line

Several things have happened, or have continued happening, over the last few months. Some edited highlights:

I turned forty. That was not unexpected, in fairness. I dealt with it as best I could, and strangely no bourbon was involved, only the company of several truly wonderful friends who took me to Weihnachtsmarkt in, er, Birmingham, which is apparently a thing, and a rather fantastic thing too.

I got the hang of front crawl, more or less. I can at least swim a length without suffocating, which is a marked step forward. I continue to swim, and look forward to that mythical land called summer where one can swim in the big blue thing at the rim of the world.

I began attending a Salvation Army corps, and developed a (kind of accidental) interest in Christianity, which I'm enjoying very much, thanks.

I survived a car crash, which left me unharmed but wrote off my beloved Sylvia. I am now carless, clipped of wing and resentful of train, saving money for a successor to my wonderful Focus.

I set no New Year's Resolutions. None. Not a sausage. I'm taking a year off to bum around, in a purely Resolution-y sense.

I celebrated New Year itself in a nightclub on the end of Eastbourne Pier, during a storm. That was interesting, and has promoted Eastbourne to a venue for the book I'm working on (well, one of them. I'm coming to that).

I accidentally bought a trombone. Bourbon was involved that time. I can play two notes on it so far, neither easily identifiable, neither entirely deliberate, and occasionally at the same time.

So, right now I'm working on no fewer than three books simultaneously - The Vagrant And The Snowflake, which I've spoken of before and possibly needs some more percolating before I really go to town on it; an untitled crime novel with an unusual USP, which is going very well; and a nonfiction account of some of my recent adventures in real life, which for once actually seem to merit publication, at least for a fairly narrow segment of readers.

I'll explain more about that one another day. Nonfiction is much easier to write, actually - I am able to use my natural tone, the same with which I pen this blog, and it flows nicely. For reasons also to be explained another day (possibly not the same day. Revelations are best parcelled and served in discrete courses) the crime novel is much more... crafted than my usual work. It needs to be assembled, polished and painted in ways that my usual writing doesn't.

There you go, then: a full-length blog post saying precious little concrete, except that I lived life for a bit and forgot to say anything. I'll try not to leave it so long next time.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Or, I Could Just Moisturise and Lie About My Age

It's been a busy couple of months. Having got the hang of driving (broadly speaking - I still have a tendency to use solid objects as supplementary braking devices) I turned my learning gland towards shaving with a straight razor, which took less time than I thought, then toward swimming, which didn't.

I can swim, if by 'swim' you mean 'delay drowning for a short period while drifting in a named direction', but I cannot swim well, fast, elegantly or on my front. Swimming was taught in schools even when I was young, but teaching was done differently then: one watched an instructor swim a length, then one was harangued to imitate him. Failure to get this right resulted in eyerolling and advice to keep trying until one got it right. In fairness, this is symptomatic of a common misconception about swimming, namely that it is a natural function of the human body like running and can therefore be improved through repetition.

This is not the case. Running improves through conditioning because it is fundamentally an endurance activity: swimming is a technique and simply doesn't come naturally to most people. Unfortunately swimming is frequently taught by the minority to whom it does come naturally, which perpetuates the myth.

It starts with floating. You're not taught to float, you're told to lie back and just do it, and if you sink it's because you're mucking about and not taking it seriously. But floating itself is a skill, with tricks and techniques and methods to make it happen: talent is not required, only knowledge. Total Immersion are very good at this sort of thing, teaching floating and balance skills before building up the stroke itself (although be warned: the books tend not to cut to the chase until quite late on - expect to wade through a lot of anecdotes and opinion about how poorly you were taught before) and I took notes (mental ones, obviously) with me to the pool.

I had signed up for an intermediate (i.e. has-seen-water-before) swimming course, and the first lesson (actually the fifth for the rest of the class) had gone pretty badly. Ninety percent of my effort was going into drowning prevention, leaving little for movement, and I emerged exhausted and deeply ashamed of my inability to breathe during front crawl. The 25 metre certificate I obtained in school was obtained through an epic doggy paddle. The hole in my skillset had never seemed critical enough to fill.

The following week was spent studying YouTube videos and books, the digest of which I took to the pool to experiment before work. I burned a lot of calories, learned to float and improved my backstroke markedly. I also developed an alarming fluffiness to my hair and persisted in failing to breathe underwater.

I turned up to lesson two feeling way behind the curve. Fortunately the instructor has more patience with me than I do, and some progress was made with a float. But there's a long way to go.

Why now, then? Not just with the swimming, but with driving, knitting, Android development, playing ukulele and the dozens of other assorted skills I've set about learning over the last couple of years? Well, put simply, I'm thirty-nine. I will turn forty in a few months and I'm having a crisis of sorts. For most men this is a reaction to being a husband and father and realising you've had no time for anything else for the last few years and forgotten what it is to be a person; for me, wifeless, childless and mortgageless, it's simply a sense of having fallen horribly behind.

I routinely associate capability with manhood: a man should be able to turn his hand to anything, no matter how unexpected. So it's important to me to plug as many of the gaps in my life as I can before I hit that complicated fourth decade, to catch up with who I suspect I should really be by now. If life begins at forty then I want to have the tools in my bag before I start.

The other thing, of course, is the writing. In the absence of kids, books are my legacy: while I feel no need to write a magnum opus (I doubt any author wants to be remembered for just one work, complicated and egotistical bastards that we are) I do want to leave as many behind as I can. At the moment I'm writing two: The Vagrant And The Snowflake inches forward, while I moonlight with a new project that I'm not ready to explain just yet.

The short version is, I've had a busy couple of months and it's only going to get busier. Getting old is only a matter of ceasing to improve, I think. It's not entirely avoidable, but there are choices.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Penultimatum

I can't make any sense of it, really. I was pulled from PS2 to Xbox (the first one, which I am no longer able to call Xbox 1 as the next Xbox is called Xbox One, tragicomically abbreviated to 'XBone' by the internetterati, perhaps in vengeance) by the latter's focus on games. A games console is primarily about the gamery: my PS1 could play CDs, by PS2 DVDs, all very useful and lovely but not the point of the purchase.

Sony screwed the pooch royally with the PS3. First there was the stumbling and shambolic early PR, where corporate high-ups sniffily insisted that the PS3 was not a console, because consoles were 'toys for children'; the exorbitant price tag excused (well, not even that) by the now-infamous comment that gamers would simply have to work harder to buy one. The constant banging on about online and social connectivity, all the while downplaying the games.

Just read that again, and absorb the magnitude of the idiocy restrained within like a psychopathic genie in a grubby lamp. Sony were downplaying the importance of games and gamers to a games console. This was a level of batshit stump-fuckery hitherto unencountered by gamers, and remains a notorious nadir for our hobby and the curious world it has created.

Sony had - that is, possessed in whole - the lion's share of the games market, and they threw it away by trying to market the PS3 as a media hub, an entertainment centre, as anything but Gods forbid a filthy games console. Xbox had an arguably less powerful machine with a tighter focus, and they won. Analysts will piss and whine about Japan's domestic market but, let's face it, Microsoft won.

Now we have Sony focusing on games, even apologising for losing focus in the last round of the console wars. Now we have Microsoft pushing the XBone as a glorified set-top box for US TV viewers, effectively deleting the entire pre-owned games market, telling gamers in no uncertain terms that this games console is far too good for the likes of them... and acting all surprised and offended when the customers rebel. I am genuinely unsure what is most astonishing, that Sony have learned their lesson so well and quickly, or that Microsoft have so thoroughly unlearned it.

I have a 360 and have enjoyed it thoroughly. I am no MS fanboy: I took mighty persuasion to trade in my PS2 (please note the words trade in: most of us cannot afford a gaming hobby without a pre-owned market. Microsoft, I understand that the games retail sector shafted your publishers but kindly punish them, not the customers). Already I am looking Sony-ward. The £429 price tag for an XBone is not itself off-putting: the fact that it is over a hundred pounds north of the price they're charging the US is. Pissing on about localisation doesn't cut it anymore. This is gouging.

Sony have not revealed a price, nor a box, nor a clue about their own pre-owned ecosystem plans (they surely have them). Sony may turn out to be just as draconian, just as mean, just as slavering in their thirst for cash. But at least they admit they were wrong in the past. At least they want gamers to want their machine. At least they don't consider gamers the dirty, pathetic embarrassment that Microsoft appear to; don't consider us, their customers, the geeks that their marketing football jocks must suppress and denigrate to feel big.

Customers aren't dumb. We understand PR, we know when we're being courted. Under those circumstances, in that world defined by marketing departments, we no longer listen to what we're being told: we watch for what's being done. So far Sony are doing more, and they haven't even shown a damn logo yet. Don't insult your customers, Microsoft. The mainstream doesn't exist: we are all you have. Fix this or lose us.

Monday, April 01, 2013

How Maddox Found His Focus

The story of how I met my car - and be sure that it is in fact a story, not merely a sequence of events, but for brevity I'll try to keep it in York Notes format tonight - is a romance. A traditional, classical romance, full of twists and turns and strokes of luck both good and bad, familiar to chick-lit readers everywhere and as hoary and cliched as it is essential and familiar.

I learned to drive in a Ford Fiesta. It was brand new - they all are, AA learner cars, presumably to provide as neutral an experience as possible, lest the student learn to negotiate the car's quirks rather than the road - and did precisely what it was designed to do, namely ferry persons from point A to point B without any unexpected deaths or embarrassment. It was a device, a travel machine, nothing more.

Despite being an avid viewer of Top Gear even as a pedestrian, I had never really understood the idea of a car having a personality. The Cult Of Car was beyond me: they were practical inventions, a means to an end. I learned to drive for practical reasons, not to belong to a culture - between Top Gear and The Fast & The Furious (both things I found, and find, enjoyable, by the way) there didn't seem to be that much actual culture to go round.

Having passed my test such practical concerns became the primary driver of car choice. It seemed sensible to get something small, old and cheap: Fords of various kinds are plentiful and easy to find spares for, so the Ka (the original, not the bloated replacement) was my first target. Small, easy to park, easy to buy, eminently maintainable. A small car from a time when small cars were in fact small: modern small cars seem to have been inflated with every passing generation.

My best and dearest friend, who is a passionate and committed petrolhead (well, dieselhead), warned me off the Ka due to it's poor safety record, a factor I admit I had not considered, my plan being to Avoid Crashing. A Fiesta, she opined, would be safer.

Some Googling revealed that the Fiesta of that era - the Mark 4 - was indeed slightly safer according to Euro NCAP, and somewhat cheaper: a curious-looking beast, a 90s car with 70s looks, it was much less popular than the revamped Mark 5, which endeared me to it immediately. I did my research, checked insurance costs, scoured AutoTrader and decided a 1.25l LX would do.

Then something weird happened. I had a dream about driving a car, and it was a Focus. I have never liked Focuses (I know, I know, Foci, but we're not on the PassionFord forums here) - bank manager cars, dull and commonplace, a staple of company fleets and lower-middle-class families everywhere. But there it was, a dream. Like one of those dreams where you make love to someone you never fancied before, and the next morning you find you feel differently about them in real life too.

I have a rule, possible pagan, about such things: once is odd, twice is coincidence, three times is the gods shouting "it's behind you". The 'twice' in this context was rewatching the clumsily-titled but otherwise underrated 2Fast 2Furious and spotting what appeared to be (and later confirmed to be) a heavily modified Focus in a background shot. Tertiarily (shut up, it's a word) I entered the details of a 1.6 litre Focus into MoneySupermarket out of blithe curiosity, only to find it around a third cheaper to insure than a 1.25 Fiesta.

On the face of it, this makes no sense - the Focus is bigger and more powerful - but I suspect the apparent dullness of the thing combined with the sheer number on the roads brought the price down. Cool cars cost more, and nothing is less cool than a Focus. Well, except a Lexus, perhaps, or a Dacia. Anyway, three things! So, back to AutoTrader and off I dove into the pit of vipers that is the second-hand car market.

Make no mistake, car dealerships exist outside the law. Legal requirements mean nothing here: statute is something that happens to other people. There is a whole subculture of Britain that sees the law as something that only suckers adhere to and that is optional to the rest: most of this subculture work in the used car trade. Dodgy as fuck. Of the first three cars I went for, one had undeclared modifications which I could never have insured; one had sported an apparently fake numberplate for the last eight years, so no meaningful history could be had, and the last was an insurance write-off. If you're buying a second-hand car for Goddess' sake do an HPI check on everything.

Finally I found a silver 1999 1.6 Ghia at a dealership a few miles from home, situated by a canal in an old quarry that had been converted (very minimally) to a business park. The walk there, through marshland and forest, was quite picturesque and muddy as hell, but as soon as I sat in the car I knew it was the one. The test drive - a couple of miles through congested Rickmansworth side roads - told me little bar that it worked at very low speeds, but it was good enough for me. Sometimes you must follow your instincts.

On taking it home (a couple of days later to allow them time to re-MOT it) I found myself on proper roads, at a proper speed, alone, for the first time. The Fiesta I had learned in had been a dour, doubtful, frigid librarian of a car: reacting to every turn of the wheel with a faintly irritated are-you-quite-sure-about-that? The Focus on the other hand was nothing like that. When I steered, it did not just comply but positively threw itself round the bends. She (by this point I'd already decided it was a she) punched her way through traffic, hurled herself round roundabouts giggling maniacally and just generally made driving fun.

I had never had fun driving before, and fell in love immediately. The Focus looks boring but isn't: at the time it was a radical design, it's only the massive popularity of it that gives it that girl-next-door look. Some Googling revealed that this was an open secret among car people: if the Fiesta is a librarian, the Focus is a drunk, horny librarian with a gun, blowing you a kiss as she straps on a parachute at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Sylvia (she's silver, you see) is fourteen years old, so she has her foibles and flaws - idles high when cold, the electric mirrors only work sideways and the driver's door won't unlock in wet weather - but she has personality. Car people - and I suppose, after an hour rambling about this, I am such a one - don't fetishise the automobile: they love it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Truck Pun #124

It's remarkably difficult to find a driving simulation. There are plenty of racing games that endeavour to simulate (Gran Turismo, Forza, various incarnations of F1), and driving games that don't, usually because the driving is more of a way to pad set-pieces than an end in itself (GTA and Saints Row stand out here, though the customisation and sheer size of the latter franchise lends itself well to long drives), but games that simulate driving on ordinary streets in ordinary cars are few and far between.

A few have tried. In the console world Test Drive Unlimited did a pretty good job of an open-world driving experience, but was let down by a lack of reality in the cars themselves. Forza Horizon is probably the best expression of the sub-genre, but like TDU it still revolves around racing as the core of the experience: so, no traffic lights, roundabouts or unexpected contraflows.

You can fake it, to some extent. In Forza Horizon cars do indicate (although you can't), and the world is large and detailed enough to be worth exploring within the speed limits. The in-car view is exceptional, and the addition of a handful of right-hand drive cars (which Americans apparently loathe going by the forums, perhaps missing the point of the import tuner scene) makes it almost realistic for a Brit. But one still has to drive on the wrong side of the Colorado highways. In fact, I've only found one game in all of Console Christendom that lets you drive on the left in traffic, and that's the Hong Kong-set GTA knockoff Sleeping Dogs. Not bad, but no cockpit view.

Needless to say, my quest for a console driving sim has been driven (ha) by real-life events, the aforementioned (actually, twice aforementioned - I managed to forget the first time I posted about that and repeated myself somewhat) driving lessons. With no car of my own (and no available parent to watch me drive) I had no opportunity to practice outside of lessons so I wanted to find an alternative - something just realistic enough to help me practice British roundabouts. Having been failed by the console world, I broke with lifelong habit and sought a PC game... which I also failed to find.

I can't imagine why a driving simulator set in the UK is such a rarity: the pass rate for UK driving tests is 42% and learner insurance absurdly expensive. Can there really be no market for this?

Well anyway, I did find one in the end, sort of. Euro Truck Simulator 2 (yes, this is a a real thing that really exists) has UK roads and rules, right-hand drive, cockpit view and no necessity to race. It's also - and this surprised me as much as it will you - the most insanely addictive game I've ever played. This dragged me away from Skyrim. Seriously.

It's as near to a a lorry-driver RPG as you could imagine: there is XP, levelling, day/night cycles, customisable trucks (with real-life manufacturers), little popups saying "You have discovered Grimsby" and the like... once you've got the hang of motorway driving between industrial estates (which is the bulk of the game, and like NASCAR a lot harder than it sounds) the game opens up, rapidly becoming a business simulation as you hire drivers and expand your garage. European countries - with their own signage and road rules - are unlocked, and seem to have a lot less rain than we do. Best of all, you can listen to online streaming radio via the cab of your truck as you drive, which is how I was introduced to Radio Antenne Niedersachsen, which I liked so much I installed the app on my phone.

Yes, it's all nerdy as hell, but ETS2 is one of a whole bunch of real-life job sims (Agricultural Simulator 2013, anyone?) that understand a fundamental truth of game theory: more or less any activity that has goals, a skill requirement and complexity can be turned into a video game. Remember Tapper, or Burger Time? They were classic gamifications of onerous real-life activities, and way more fun than the real thing.

I think it took me playing a proper simulator to make me appreciate how far games have strayed from real life in recent years: games are seen as an escape from humdrum life into an impossible world. Maybe it's just as compelling to escape into somebody else's humdrum life.

Either way, I passed my driving test last week. Without Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Forza Horizon, I probably wouldn't have.