Dear Mr Johnson…

Dear Mr Johnson,

You have suffered from covid-19 – indeed, you were in intensive care and nearly died. For those days and weeks, you were in the same situation as tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people in this country. Your special advisor, Dominic Cummings, was apparently in a similar position, facing a dilemma that many families throughout this country have faced.
It’s a shame neither of you learnt anything from this experience, or if you did that you hide it so well. Because according to you, Mr Johnson, Mr Cummings was entirely right to ignore the guidance that you and he helped put in place, perhaps more than once.
This guidance has caused hardship and misery to many, many people. From people who’ve been ill yet had to manage children, to others who’ve not been able to see family, to bereaved people who’ve not been able to say a final goodbye to someone they love – this guidance, these rules, have caused unimaginable hardship to many.
And yet we have willingly kept to it. Because we know, as we thought you did, how serious this is. Because we don’t want to get infected. Because we know that for these rules to work, everyone has to keep to them.
Mr Cummings clearly doesn’t believe that; he seems to believe that he can ignore those rules based on his “instincts”. And you seem to believe that he is right in this and that your need to keep him as an advisor over-rides any need to act as one of the people of this country, to show that we really are “all in this together”. If ever that phrase was true, it is utterly meaningless now.
How must people who have made huge, costly sacrifices in order to stop this disease spreading now feel, seeing what has happened, hearing you and your cabinet colleagues defend Mr Cummings? They have faced similar dilemmas with far fewer ways out, yet at incredible cost to their own health, physical and mental, and in many other ways have kept the rules. It’s hard not to think that they are better citizens than any of you.
For Mr Cummings to have made these trips is one thing. For you to not even show any understanding of why many people are upset and furious at this, for you to defend Mr Cummings without any suggestion that you think he might have done something even a little wrong is truly breath-taking. At the election in December, you won an 80-seat majority. Many people voted for you for the first time, believing they could trust you: on Brexit, yes, but implicitly on other things as well. You have shown that you do not deserve that trust, that it was utterly misplaced. You have shown what many of us believed all along: that being in power is the most important thing to you with little or no regard for the consequences of your actions to gain and hold that power. You have traded that trust just to keep hold of one advisor, an advisor you’re supposed to be the boss of. Mr Cummings will never be accountable to us, the public, but whether you like it or not you are. You may wish that this will all blow over and be forgotten about the next time we come to vote; you may be right, I sincerely hope you are wrong. Mr Cummings clearly should have been sacked or forced to resign, as other high-profile officials and advisors who have broken the lockdown rules and guidance have done. The fact that this has not happened shows you hold him in higher regard than the people of this country and all that they have given during this crisis.
Many people will now believe that you have no moral authority to enforce the lockdown rules and that if Mr Cummings can break them with impunity then why shouldn’t they. I hope they don’t, I hope that they prove themselves better than yourself and Mr Cummings and continue to act in responsible ways, recognising the mutual dependence we have on each other in order to overcome covid-19. But if they do, could you entirely blame them? Would you have the authority to blame them? All through this, I’ve felt that we have some personal responsibility as citizens: that even if the guidance or rules are unclear, we know in general what we are supposed to do. Mr Cummings’ actions, and your refusal to consider any sanction against him in spite of them, makes it clear that you don’t believe that, or that it doesn’t apply to him.
We needed a government and a Prime Minister who were effective, sympathetic and clear to guide us through this crisis, a government we could believe were on our side. Despite not voting Conservative, despite being so disappointed that you became Prime Minister and the Brexit has happened, I wanted to believe that you could rise to the occasion and lead a government with those qualities. Any hope you might have done that has been quickly eroded by the last few weeks and has been utterly destroyed by this weekend. It would be a small justice if those who happily voted Tory and rejoiced when Brexit happened changed their minds. You clearly have no particular regard for them.

Happy Birthday, SimCity!

So, SimCity, the original and classic city-building game, is 30 today! It was released on this day, 2 February 1989, on Apple Mac and Commodore Amiga, before being released later on just about any and every system going. It’s fair to say that it’s one of the most important and influential computer games ever released. And, it’s perhaps the computer game series that I’ve played and enjoyed the most over the years.

SimCity on the Commodore Amiga
SimCity on the Commodore Amiga – it looks basic now, but this was a revolution when it first came out.

My first experiences with the game were on my Amiga 600 in the early-mid 90s. I don’t remember when I first became aware of it, but I do remember getting hold of a copy from a friend and loving it. I never got very far with any of my cities because I didn’t have a blank disk to save them on and I always cheated by typing “FUND” loads of times before playing, which gave you extra cash.
But I was hooked. It’s such a cliche to say, but it was truly original and utterly unique. The freedom, the creativity and the sheer sense of power it gave you were wonderfully addicting. You weren’t tied to traditional levels, there was no Game Over (unless you ran out of money), the game wasn’t trying overtly or covertly to direct you down a particular path or towards a particular outcome – it just gave you some land, some cash, some tools and let you get on with it. You could play it ultra-seriously and try and create a proper, working, realistic city. Or you could just muck around and see what happened, often resulting in some nightmare dystopian hell-hole, just like <insert name of least favourite city here>.

It was geeky as anything, a far cry from the norm of computer and video games at the time. Even the creator, Will Wright, looked wonderfully geeky. And this distinction from what videogames were “supposed” to be about was even reflected in the story of its inception: Wright was creating a helicopter shooter for the Commodore 64 called Raid On Bungling Bay, but found he was having more fun with the level editor than the game itself. Fuelled by his growing interest in urban planning ideas, he worked on this until it grew into what became SimCity. See? Even its creation is a story of breaking free from conventions, embracing the eclectic and seemingly-uncool and making a success of it.
And perhaps that’s why it clicked for me, the uncool, awkward kid who wasn’t quite into the same stuff as everyone else (for heaven’s sake, I liked Queen who were not a popular choice for teenagers in the 90s.). It fitted me perfectly and I played it loads.

I clung on to my Amiga all through the 90s, hoping against hope that despite Commodore’s demise and the rise of PCs and the 32-bit consoles, it would stage a miraculous comeback as a platform.
Clearly this wasn’t going to happen.
So I missed out on the next two installments, SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000. A friend at uni had 2000 on his PC and I went and played it from time to time and it was clear that it had taken things to the next level: an isometric viewpoint? Water pipes? Schools? What wonderful, complicated, stunning madness was this? Seriously: this was like the holy grail of computer gaming: surely nothing could beat this! But although it came out on Amiga, it was only on the top-end Amiga 1200 and 4000 (and apparently ran like my thick porridge on both those), so I made do with the original and, occasionally, A-Train, which was good fun and kinda, sorta looked like SC2000 if you squinted a little.

SimCity 3000 on the PC
SimCity 3000 on the PC – it’s still early days for this city.

I grew up, got married in 2002 and my wife finally persuaded me it was time to ditch my Amiga and embrace the ways of the PC. And though I was sad to see my Miggy go, when we got a decent Windows XP PC I did enjoy it (say it quietly). And SimCity made an appearance on my PC: I got hold of a copy of 3000 in a strategy games compilation and if memory serves it’s the only game out of it I consistently played.
SC3000 was and still is a great iteration of the series. While there hadn’t been massive developments in the gameplay, the graphics had been seriously improved; now it looked cartoon-y and fun and happy. A newsticker replaced the wonderfully bizarre newspapers that 2000 had used to keep you up to date with happenings in your city: and it was equally mad, amusing and helpful. I played this a lot, and was unable to help myself when SimCity 4 came out, especially when it was on special offer with its expansion pack: I had to get it.

SimCity 4 might appear to be the most difficult of the series: it’s complicated, it’s a lot less “cartoony and fun” than 3000, there’s huge depth to it and it needed a fairly decent PC at the time to run it. But for me, this has always been the most involving and time-consuming installment of the series. There’s something about that depth that sucks me in: I can lose hours to any version of the game, but especially to SC4.
What made this even more so was the all-new regional play. Ever since 2000, there’d always been neighbouring cities in SimCity games, but all they’d really been were ways for you to buy and sell excess water, power and garbage. Now in SC4, you could play those cities. You weren’t just mayor of one city: you were boss of the entire region. You founded those extra cities, linked them up with your starter city, signed the deals and shaped them to make one living, breathing region. The scale of it was mind-boggling, the opportunities it presented immense. For some it was too much; but for me, it was the game I spent the most time with ever.
And the modding scene only added to that. Seriously, go look at the Simtropolis website; the community for this game was and still is immense. There are houses, shops, factories, parks, replacement power stations – right up to mods that replace the entire traffic system in the game. More than 15 years after its release, SC4 is still going strong for many people.

SimCity 4 on the PC
Suburban sprawl in SimCity 4

Hmmm… there’s a lot more to say on this – the story of SimCity post number 4. But I’ve typed a lot of that already and it’s huge. So we’ll leave it there for this post, with the slow-burn success that was SimCity 4.
But if you’ve never played a SimCity game, try and find a way to do so. The games from 2000 to 4 can be bought quite easily on various digital game shops and it’s not hard to find CD versions on ebay etc. So you’ve no excuse to lose yourself in a thoroughly geeky, but wonderfully addictive and freeing computer game experience. And if you want another, very personal account, of how special the original SimCity was, then watch LGR’s fabulous 30th anniversary tribute to the game.
Happy 30th birthday, SimCity!

Anxiety is…

So it’s six months today since I finally went to the doctors with what turned out to be an anxiety disorder – something I’d been wrestling with, it turns out, for a very, very long time. I never intended for this blog to become an “anxiety blog”; nor is this supposed to be the definitive statement on what anxiety is for everyone who suffers and struggles with it. This is just something I had to write for me: to get off my chest and put into words something of what this has been like for me, what anxiety is in my life and experience.

Anxiety is replaying every conversation, comment and social interaction in the worry that you said something that was taken as offensive, rude or upsetting.

Anxiety is your mind going blank when talking with others, literally being unable to think of anything to say – then being afraid of the silence.

Anxiety is wanting to be part of the conversation or the party, but not knowing how and being afraid of it. Then feeling left out.

Anxiety is not wanting to talk, even to someone close to you, because you just can’t handle conversation today. So you just keep walking (apologies if I’ve ever done that to you – I wasn’t being rude, honest!).

Anxiety is playing up even the smallest obstacle into something huge and either impossibly difficult or terrifying.

Anxiety is the constant worry you’ve let someone down. Or the nagging feeling you’ve done something wrong.

Anxiety is being unable to do anything apart from waste time, because every choice either seems bad or risks missing out on something else.

Anxiety is when you don’t want to be thinking what you’re thinking, but can’t stop and end up just making it worse.

Anxiety is when the noise – just the ordinary, family noise, nothing out-of-the-ordinary – gets almost overwhelming and you just want to be somewhere silent.

Anxiety is the constant thought that they’re laughing at you, or suspicious of you, or think you’re an idiot or whatever – with no justification whatsoever.

Anxiety is what I’m struggling with, wrestling with – but chipping away at. Anxiety is what I may never be cured from, but what I will never be overcome by either.

“Cast all your anxiety on Him because he cares for you” – 1 Peter 5:7, The Bible. I will try, keep trying, to do just that.

Bicycle Race (Mercury) and Fat Bottomed Girls (May)

When I first began the predecessor to this blog (which you can read here), for some reason I decided to do a “review” of every one of Queen’s UK singles. I haven’t written one since April 2008, so it’s probably past time to carry on with them. They’re not really proper reviews, more my own musings on the songs hopefully written in a vaguely interesting style. So here we go…

By 1978, Queen were becoming huge – massive audiences, huge record sales, and increasing wealth (after several years of earning surprisingly little, despite their success). And their success was showing in other ways: this was the time when the wild partying and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyles really began – the over-the-top-ness of their records spilling over into their real lives. Queen also became tax exiles in this year, spending the maximum time possible in the UK before they became liable for higher rates of tax (this was the period when they discovered, and bought, the Mountain Studios in Montreux; studios that would play a hugely important part in their career, not least in the years leading up to Freddie’s death).

And this outrageousness shows in their album of that year, Jazz. To be frank, it’s a bit bonkers. Not bad, not by any stretch of the imagination. Just somewhat off the rails, taking their experiments in genres outside of rock to the limits including Freddie’s quasi-Islamic sounds in Mustafa. This is the album that gives a home to Don’t Stop Me Now, which tells you pretty much all you need to know.

And then we get to these two songs, released as a double A-side. Fat Bottomed Girls is probably the most straightforward: a pretty much by-the-numbers Brian May rocker, with healthy amounts of guitar, harmonies and Freddie’s hardest rock voice. Oh, and a pretty good breakneck drum solo from Roger Taylor.

What’s it about? Sex, apparently. May has apparently said that he and Mercury were exchanging knowing glances and grins as they went through the song. Lines like “I was just a skinny lad” and “heap-big woman, you made a bad boy out of me” add a somewhat sordid tone to the whole thing, perhaps reflecting the band’s increasing, er, extra-curricular activities outside of the studio (and perhaps inside as well – who knows?).

(On the album version, which is substantially longer than the single mix, there’s a weird bit of production, where May’s guitar only comes through one side of the mix for the first few seconds. Is this deliberate? Or did Queen, reunited with Roy Thomas Baker, simply overlook it?)

I probably sound like a bit of a prude – probably I am. The song, especially the chorus, is as catchy as hell and no doubt the group would want it to be heard with a knowing wink. But it’s hard not to ignore the subtext.

If the album as a whole is a bit bonkers, then Bicycle Race is the point when it gives up on all pretences of sanity. In less than 3 minutes it passes through numerous key changes, time signature changes and gives us perhaps the first ever bicycle bell solo in a top 40 record (unless anyone knows otherwise). And those “Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle”s just keep crashing in, in case we weren’t sure.

Meanwhile, Freddie proclaims his dislike of Jaws and Star Wars, his disbelief in Superman, Frankenstein and Peter Pan and his reluctance to become President of the USA. All he wants to do is “bicycle, bicycle, bicycle” (apparently, however, Freddie’s fascination with said mode of transport is less to do with bicycles and more to do with someone who was riding one as the Tour De France went by). And who are we to stop him?

These two songs, along with Don’t Stop Me Now, capture the excess of this period of Queen’s career perfectly. They’re rough round the edges compared with the perfect production of most of the groups earlier songs, bawdy and quite, quite bonkers. Whether that’s a good thing or not is entirely up to you.

Videos: Let’s start with the straightforward one. Fat Bottomed Girls is another performance video of the group. Or rather, it’s a video of Freddie singing with occasional glimpses of some other guys playing instruments. Listen to the commentary on the Greatest Video Hits 1 DVD to hear Brian and Roger’s understandable complaints about this.

And Bicycle Race… Someone (Freddie?) decided that what this song needed was a bunch of naked models riding around on bikes. So that’s what they filmed. Clearly EMI weren’t going to be happy releasing that as a video, so they made a second version with the offending shots of the models overlaid with obscuring video effects, interspersed with random shots of people on bikes and cartoons of Superman et al. The “clean” version was released on the Greatest Flixton VHS release, the original on the Greatest Video Hits DVD. Both of them are available on YouTube, though for some reason the first one is easier to find…

Oh, and Raleigh refused to accept the bikes back afterwards.

A Brexit non-rant

So nearly two years ago (was it really that long?!) I went off on one about Brexit. And I still feel pretty much as I did then: that Brexit is a terrible mistake that will hurt this country hard and that the whole process from the referendum onwards has been handled catastrophically by most of the politicians involved in it.

But (and this “but” is going to go on a long time, so get a nice hot drink and settle yourselves down somewhere comfy).

There’s something else that’s equally, if not more, dangerous than just the financial and other implications of leaving the EU. Which is that during this whole Brexit palaver, we’ve lost some crucially important things: more than just our place in the EU, more than just whatever economic losses we may/will suffer as a result of that.

I think we’ve lost the ability to listen to others with a different view. This may just be me spending too much time on Twitter and the Guardian’s comments section, neither of which are hotbeds of calm, rational, well-thought out debate and discussion. But so much of what passes for debate in this is two sides shouting at each other, two sides who think they know what the other side is saying and responds according to that, not necessarily according to what they’re actually saying. Labels are flung at each other (“Remoaner”, “Brexiteer”, “traitor”, “racist”, “elitist” etc.) with wild abandon as if to do so immediately nullifies the other side’s arguments.
But no one’s listening to anyone else in the heat of these debates. None (or very few) of the remainers are trying to hear and understand why people voted Brexit. And none (or very few) who voted for Brexit are trying to understand why so many of us who voted Remain are so upset about what’s happening and would want to stop it.

There was an article in the Guardian before Christmas which addressed some of this. It was commenting in part on how the film It’s A Wonderful Life might have some lessons for us in these polarised times, about the virtues of not being self-righteous, so certain of your own views that you refuse to listen to others. And it also referenced a Twitter thread by the author Frank Cottrell-Boyce on why walked out of a Dylan Moran gig after jokes the latter made against people who voted against Brexit. The article’s point was basically that these binary divisions between Leave-Remain are simply unsustainable and damaging to the country. Predictably, the comments were full of the same old arguments about Brexit and, I’m slightly ashamed to say, Remainers making the same old “bigot”, “racist”, “stupid” comments about Leave voters. Very few of them were willing to take any step towards any sort of reconciliation with the other side.

(Stephen Colbert, the US comedian and late-night host, made a similar point in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump in this video.)

The thing is, though, assuming Brexit happens, we are going to have to live together in whatever arrangement this country ends up in; there’s no way around that. And at the risk of sounding overly-simplistic, or like a politician vainly appealing for unity after spending years promoting division, we’re sooner or later going to have to somehow work out how to do that together, if only to try and make the best of a catastrophic job. And name-calling, self-righteousness and all the rest of it are only going to make that infinitely harder. Or, to put it another way: we Remainers may be proved right, but we’ll suffer for it as much as those who voted leave.

There’s something else we’ve lost as well, or at least badly messed up. I mentioned above both sides not listening to the other side, as if even to acknowledge any concerns, however wrong they may be, is to somehow give them a validity we believe they don’t deserve.
The flip side of this is the argument that if we don’t leave the EU, then the wishes of the majority (or that poisonous, incorrect phrase “the will of the people”) have been ignored; they haven’t been listened to because what they said hasn’t been carried out – even if no one can define what has been said.

But the referendum result hasn’t been ignored. The government has spent the last two and a half years trying, very badly, to implement the result. To listen to someone doesn’t mean you have to do what they say all the time. One can listen, but disagree or set out your reasons why you’re not going to do why they asked.
And to listen to someone who’s views you profoundly disagree with isn’t to necessarily say, “actually you’re right” as many Remainers seem to fear. Better listening, actually more respectful listening, might actually be to hear and understand the other’s point of view, and then explain why you disagree, why you believe them to be wrong. To take one of the main drivers of the Brexit vote: you can listen to someone’s views on the apparent dangers of immigration and still disagree with them, try and explain why you think they’re wrong.
But in the current climate, to do that is either to give something a dignity it doesn’t deserve or, from the other point of view, to ignore what they’re saying – even if you’ve spent time carefully listening to them.

What’s the way out of this? I don’t know. One frequent comment on that Guardian article that had validity was that it’d be a help if politicians did that.
But perhaps we can’t leave it to them; as the late, great Simon Hoggart pointed out, most politicians’ horror at “politicising” a terrible disaster or such like is mainly because they didn’t think to do it first; it’s almost in their very nature (a few honourable exceptions aside).
No, I think ordinary folks are going to have to do this. Perhaps they/we are: if you know where this is happening then please let me know in the comments! But sooner or later, someone’s going to have to let down their defences, take a step out of their self-righteous bubble and listen to and acknowledge the other side’s view, however wrong they believe that view to be. Because the alternative is that the divisions keep growing and growing until we reach a very dangerous place – if we’re not there already.

As Stephen Colbert put it, we’re in danger of overdosing on politics in a very unhealthy way – and it’s poisoning us.

(And if you are going to comment – keep it civil!)

On backlogs, indecision and anxiety

I have a number of backlogs: piles of things I have bought with the intention of reading, watching, playing, listening to and not got round to yet.

My video games backlog, most of which is stored digitally on my PC and XBox One (although it also spans several of the consoles I’ve acquired over the years) must be around about the 100 mark – although that’s not that big compared to some people’s.

My film/TV show backlog encompasses many DVDs, box sets and a few things on Amazon Prime.

And books! I have shelves and piles of books, all waiting to be read.

So why don’t I play/watch/read them? And why buy more of these things when I haven’t finished the ones I’ve got?

Those are really interesting questions – really, really interesting questions…

Wish I knew the answers.

Part of it is (confession time) impulse buying. Part of it is the fear that if you don’t buy it someone else will, or if it’s on sale that the price reduction will end. These are not good reasons.

But I think there’s something else. I am horribly indecisive, terribly so (probably – sorry, couldn’t resist). So when I have some time to watch something or play a game, I spend so much time just trying to decide what to watch or play. Endless scrolling up and down game lists or combing DVD shelves for that one right choice, the one that will bring me the satisfaction that I seek.

The truth is, there is no “one right choice”. And when the truth of that hits home, I will tend to go into my comfort zone – either playing a game I always play or wasting time watching YouTube videos, both of which leave me feeling frustrated and empty, like ending up eating plain toast for breakfast because you couldn’t choose between all the nice things.

I put anxiety in the title of this post because part of me wonders if my anxiety has something to do with this or not. It can make me feel anxious, certainly, having what is essentially too much choice. And I think what makes it worse is the worry of what I’m missing out on by making a choice: if I play this game, I’ll miss out on that game. But then I end up missing out on both!

And that’s one of the many troubles with this anxiety: you end up putting yourself in a no-win situation. You expend so much energy in looking for the perfect solution when there isn’t one. And when you finally realise that there isn’t one and you’ve wasted so much time just to end up in your comfort zone, missing out on the pleasure you could’ve had – the frustration grows deeper.

So then you buy more stuff because this time it will be the one that will be that one right choice – and of course it isn’t, and it just ends up on the backlog.

Fun, eh?

So what’s the answer? Still not sure I know. Probably, hopefully, to try and shut down that anxious part of my brain that says “but what about this” every time I want to enjoy myself. To try and focus on what I’ve chosen to do, rather than worry about the thing I’m not doing.

For some, no doubt, that’s easy. For me – not so much. But I will keep at it, keep trying to enjoy and find fulfilment in what I’m doing in the here and now. And maybe, maybe, the backlogs will start coming down.

New year, new habits, new blog posts?

Happy 2019! Let’s hope we can still say that in a few months’ time… (cheerful start, huh?).

So I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, largely because like 99% of people, I’m rubbish at keeping them. (There’s a good blog post about this here.) But there are some things I would like to try and do, perhaps some good habits I’d like to try and develop, without beating myself up. I might write about them later.

But one of them is that I’d like to get better at writing this blog, if only because there’s no point in having a blog if you’re going to update it; it’s also a way of getting some of the stuff in my head out of my head. So without making any cast-iron promises, I will try (try) and update this daily if possible.

Cue cheers and rapturous applause.

Ah well.

I’ve dug out my rather ratty Bluetooth keyboard and everything so I can write from my iPad without having to use the on-screen keyboard.