Category Archives: Exploratory Articles

The Phantom Pandemic or The New Hope?

All our lives have been impacted immensely in the past year by the effects of the Covid19 pandemic. And its impact has meant that we’ve had to look at new ways of living our lives, doing the things that we had taken for granted, and leaving us – perhaps – more time for reflection than ever before.

One of the things that I most enjoy doing is gaming, because it helps so much to be able to switch off from working at home and the general depressing nature of the news, by being able to immerse yourself within a fantasy environment and focus on achieving a goal. And most recently one of the games I’ve been playing is a title called ‘Star Wars Racer’ on Nintendo Switch.

Now, this game has a rather more complex history, having been first developed due to a sequence present in ‘Star Wars Episode 1; The Phantom Menace’ released in 1999 and was developed by LucasArts – the studio responsible for most of the official Star Wars output. The title was originally released in 1999 on Nintendo 64 and Game Boy, later having several launches through systems including PC, Dreamcast, Mac and even later, the Nintendo Switch, XBox One and PS4.

Ironically, the games re-release on Switch was delayed in part due to the pandemic, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that LucasArts wanted to release the game on a new generation of systems at all, considering it still holds the Guinness records for the best-selling sci-fi racing game of all time, having worldwide sales of 3.12 million above arguably more well-known franchises such as Wipeout and F Zero.

Many consider ‘The Phantom Menace’ film itself to be a mixed bag, yet even its harshest critics will have a soft spot for pod racing, the sequences within the film which allowed it to be (albeit partially) saved in comparison to it’s later sequels. For those unfamiliar, pod racing is a sort of galactic Formula One event, where creatures from across the galaxy partake in an extremely dangerous race. In the film, our main ‘hero’ Anakin Skywalker pilots his own pod racing craft – something that humans are not meant to be able to do, due to the complexity of working such machines – and manages to succeed in winning his race and securing his freedom from slavery.

In the film, Anakin was played by Jake Lloyd, who reprised his role for the video game. Born in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1989 he was chosen for the role of Anakin on the back of his role in ‘Jingle All the Way’ alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1996. He’d previously made his acting debut in four episodes of ER which were released in the same year. At the time Lloyd was only 6/7 and given he was born in March of 1989 is only separated from my younger brothers age by just 2 weeks. When our family went to see The Phantom Menace in 1999 at our local cinema, there many comparisons made between Lloyd and my sibling.

Although Star Wars helped Lloyd achieve global fame, like many child actors before him, he struggled with the idea of such responsibility and was impacted negatively by the films overwhelmingly harsh criticism from such loyal Star Wars fans. He appeared in the film ‘Madison’ in 2005 but this film itself had been delayed in post-production and so Lloyd had filmed his own involvement before his retirement from acting in 2001. In 2012, he announced he was writing a documentary and later spoke about how bullying at school had also impacted on him deciding to retire from acting entirely.

In 2015 police responded to allegations of an assault, where Lloyd was accused of assaulting his mother, who refused to press charges on the grounds Lloyd was suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse, and he was later incarcerated that same year when arrested for driving without a licence, giving the name Jake Broadbent to arresting officers. Police also engaged in a high speed chase after Lloyd initially refused arrest and was suspected of being under the influence of narcotics.

Failing to secure bail and held at a detention centre for over 10 months, Lloyd was eventually released and a statement in January 2020 released by his family says he has now been officially diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia and is doing much better, much closer to his family. Progress had been hampered by the death of his sister, Madison, and Lloyd’s diagnosis of further mental health issues which made the acceptance of his condition much more difficult.

Lloyd’s treatment from fans and the toxicity which exists within Star Wars culture towards what fans perceive as subpar performance is in no way unique but does severe as a powerful indicator to the price of fame. It reminds us that even when we feel someone may be untouchable and on the route to stardom and success, they are in fact as human and as fragile as everyone else.

During the pandemic I’ve been gaming, but also looking at stories like Lloyds, giving me time to research what happened to actors who had such impact on us – actors and performers who may no longer be in the public eye for one reason or another. It’s not always so negative, of course, but this story remains hopeful despite the depression. That we may all go through bad periods, and they may take time to heal, but ultimately, we will come out of this and we will be stronger for the experiences learned.

Stay Safe. Stay Strong.

Lockdown, Right Down, with Emotion…

My fiancée purchased me a Ramones T Shirt for my birthday at the end of March. I’ve never been a huge Ramones fan, but I fell in love with the shirts design (the bands classic logo in a multi colour haze) with tour dates from an American leg back in the late 70’s reprinted lovingly on the back. Excusing the fact the shirt was actually in my size, and within the UK for accessible shipping, it just made sense for me to pick this up. Even if the most Ramones music I’ve listened too is Metallica covering ’53rd and 3rd’ and the B Side’s to the St Anger single in 2003.

But my crimes against music, namely wearing a T Shirt to “support” a band I’ve never really listened too before aside, what happened after she purchased my gift has been far more interesting.

My birthday fell on March 30th, not long after the Government put in place measures to restrict the potential spread of Covid-19 within the UK. Non essential shops, workplaces were closed and my own workplace migrated from an office environment to working at home from my spare room. Suddenly I found my routine changed in an incredible way; there were no weekend trips to the record store, no working from the office and no charity store browsing. By the time the shirt had arrived, although it didn’t take long, I was already working from home and decided to leave the item within it’s plastic packaging; in a dresser drawer.

In the first days of the lockdown, Lord Wolfson (the owner of high street clothing chain NEXT) was quoted on BBC News as having said that “People do not buy a new outfit to stay at home” when speaking about this own companies significant losses in the wake of the (then new) restrictions. In reality, my shirt remained in that dresser drawer, since working from home meant I had neither nowhere to go to wear it nor reason to put it on. To help myself as much as possible, and protect our family against the spread of this deadly virus, our weekly shopping is delivered to our home, pharmacy prescriptions are collected by post, our online shopping for non essential items has also decreased. As such, unless it was for our daily Government exercise, nobody was leaving or entering the house.

To help ourselves even further, although I admit probably partially unnecessarily, we also routinely changed our clothes when returning from daily walks and exercise; so normally aimed not to wear the newest T Shirts understanding that these garments would probably get covered in sweat. As such, I can certainly empathise with Lord Wolfson, as there was absolutely no emphasis whatsoever for me to wear my new T Shirt – I mean, what would be the point?

My father used to say I was a slave to fashion. He’d still tell me this now, but I haven’t lived with him since 2008; and given that his main concern throughout this national crisis has been getting a haircut once it’s all over, I can certainly see where I get it from. Granted, as I have mentioned previously, I only purchased the shirt based on the design and the theme and not due to the specific artist. But I still bought it because I thought it looked good, and in line with the reason everyone purchases clothes (beyond practical no nonsense purchases like work outfits) I bought it because I wanted other people to see me in it.

I’m vain enough to admit that I buy clothes that my intention is to spark interest in. A shirt with a logo or design from a popular TV series, for example, is no doubt bound to create conversation with a random stranger – and has, on occasion (to the ultimate annoyance of my fiancee) been the reason why I’ve been stood at a bus stop chatting to random for 15 minutes. It only happens to me, I’ve one of those faces; apparently.

Taking the bins out in style….

Others must have thought of this too, I wasn’t the only one, as social media platform Tik Tok began encouraging people – or they began encouraging each other, I’m still not sure how that starts – to take out the bin in style. Women got glamoured up in evening wear, children dressed as superheroes and others even wore nothing but tin foil in order to take out the bin – ultimately, the one big event of the week whilst the world was under lock down. If you’re reading this article about 30 years in the future, I’m curious as to what you actually think of all this, and whether my career as a writer managed to flourish in the way I’d hoped.

Ultimately, without routine, we all start to go a little crazy – and that’s obvious from the devolution of the office, where a lot of employers now say that even when restrictions are lifted they’d rather invest money in employees over real estate; with many seeing this as an end to chats by the water cooler and trips to the copier.

But if office culture is removed entirely, this also removes the chance to socialise, to mix with colleagues and form long lasting relationships. Much like School or University, offices create a natural place for either single one night encounters too marriage; as well as sports teams, quiz nights and decade long friendships. On the other hand the office can also create some pretty hateful relationships, with vicious bullying, rumours and awkward politics – and maybe those people would prefer to stay at home, so long as they’ve got their own social network already established; otherwise they’re going to live a lonely life of solitude.

Our entire sitcom culture is based on the idea of office politics, everything from ‘Scrubs’ to ‘Friends’ and – of course, even ‘The Office’ is routed in the idea of shared experience in triumph, success, disappointment and grief. Few successful comedies have ever been based on the idea of solitude and separation. Even ‘Porridge’ let them out of their cells.

Ultimately, by removing the workplace from a number of people’s lives, I suspect many will have even less inclination to do the work they should have been doing in the first place. Since the boss can’t see you working hard, there’s no chance at promotion or brown nosing, so what’s the point – why not make less of an effort? Since you can’t be seen to be at work, do certain social norms and workplace etiquette still exist. Should you even worry as much about breaking the rules, when it’s unlikely discipline action can be enforced. In one case I know someone facing redundancy, but only once furlough ends, in a sort of strange Schrodinger’s cat situation where they both have a job, but also don’t.

And as well as an informal suspension on firing policies, there’s also a sort of informal freeze on hiring policies, unlikely to be rescinded or disappear completely until much later on after the lock down is completely ended. So any possibility of future career advancement or job changing (that ‘shooting for the moon’) might be something you really will need to work much much much harder at obtaining.

In the future, I wonder if I’ll even have a chance to wear that T Shirt? Surely I will, in the street, or in the shops; maybe a stranger will even comment on it and I’ll feel somewhat elated by the compliment. Perhaps I’ll just attempt to take the bins out, and post a picture of me doing so on Instagram, with the hashtag #HeyHoLetsGo – who knows what might happen.

But I do know, that during this lock down, I have actually started listening to the Ramones; feeling I now know them a little better then when I first saw this shirt.

Physical vs. Digital Gaming

A few months ago now, I convinced my partner that purchasing a new Xbox One was the right move to make, and although I’d had Xbox consoles in the past, this one would be the first “all digital” console I’d ever owned.

For many years now, I have had a love hate relationship with gaming, in that although I find it an enjoyable pastime, I am also driven to frustration by it.

Unlock-able levels, progression through games, the achievement of trophies and much more besides means that – at times – gaming has left me in equal parts elated and enraged. And although I fully recognise the general price of new release games haven’t risen that much in the past 20 years, in comparison perhaps to other entertainment mediums, I still feel rather upset if I purchase a title for £50 only to later find I can’t get past Level 1.

This is actually something of a shared experience I’ve inherited from my father. In 1991, he purchased a copy of ‘Terminator 2; Judgement Day’ published by Ocean on Commodore 64. I still have firm memories of the family gathering around to play the game at the time – I can’t have been more than 6 or 7 – and haunted by the lack of progression past Level 2, as John is chased by the T1000 into a storm drain. It never prevented me from (much) later enjoying the film, granted, but it was an early example of how sometimes a pastime can be the most frustrating thing in the world.

So, what has all that got to do with Digital Gaming?

Well, my Dad was a member of a social gaming network, and they frequently met to trade games or discuss titles between themselves. Long before the Internet, this kind of gathering was very much in the first person and a monthly basis in a local marketplace. But the format has not changed at all, since members often traded games with each other, sold the games they could not finish to other members and swapped solutions and cheat codes with each other. In the mid-90s, when PlayStation started to control the gaming stratosphere, rental titles at your local Blockbuster made it possible to enjoy a game for the weekend – and if you didn’t like it or couldn’t play it – you’d paid much less than you might to own it outright.

But, with the advent of the internet and the development of modern technology at the turn of the millennium, console giants began to create more complex and large-scale projects whilst traditional gaming mediums in the “real world” retreated. As the creation and licensing of big budget games became more expensive, studios and developers began looking at ways to save money. In truth, the production and manufacturing of games and their accessories (manuals, boxes etc.) and its subsequent shipping was a huge additional cost which, economically, it made financial sense to attempt to eradicate.

The first step was to digitise components of the game, and so you’d find that certain titles were released without a manual, or if they were – it was abridged – to use less paper and for it to weigh less (adding up each game and each box, that’s a substantial saving per thousand unit) and you’d often find this manual was included – in full – as part of the game on your system.

Thereafter, companies like Sony and Microsoft fixed their attention towards digital content, which could either add to a game, improve it after release (to fix bugs and tweaks) or which allowed a gamer to purchase a title in full without ever leaving the screen. Indeed, with modern upgrades and technology, it is entirely possible to begin packaging and shipping a game for release into the world whilst still working on the latest upgrade to solve the problem before anyone even receives it.

Whilst in the early 90’s the size of the add on contents file might have been more than sufficient to create 10 new Commodore 64 titles on floppy disc, this digital medium meant that hard drive spaces needed to increase exponentially to cope with demand. And where we would normally boot up the Commodore before dinner, with it ready to go when we had finished 20 minutes later, gamers began to express impatience if they needed to wait even a few seconds – Loading Screens and wait times becoming a new enemy.

Sony first attempted a digital only platform in 2009, with the PSP Go, which was a UMD less version of their popular handheld. Given the vast catalogue of games available to purchase on the store at that time – through PS3 and PSP – gamers were able to download and play a wealth of titles through the format. The Xbox 360, which had launched in Nov 2005, was arguably the first console after PC to bring digital gaming to the consumer in a big way – and Sony’s handheld was perhaps a trial run at how a digital only system would be consumed in the marketplace.

Fans reacted positively to the PSP Go, but negatively to the idea of losing their accumulated catalogues of PSP titles, ones which – like Final Fantasy 7 Crisis Core – were purchased physically and could only be played on UMD. Around this time, I bought my first digital content, a copy of Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, the PS1 games I had loved so much, through PSN. Despite having a copy of both games on PS1, and the means to play them, their digital purchase meant I could play them portable on the system of my choice and that I could also use them with a more modern television. That purchase would, ultimately, also inspire me to sell a number of pieces of my collection – which were otherwise taking up space, when I later emigrated from Ireland to Scotland.

Now, back in 1991, my Dad would often – albeit frowned upon – purchase copies of games created ‘at a discount’. This made economic sense, and it was practical too, since (if you were not very good at a game) it took the sting out of a full price purchase. Modern technology means that gaming piracy has, to a large extent, been all but eradicated. And digital content has certainly helped with this. Developer sales and discounts, incentives online which avoid needing to include a retailer, mean digital content can often be more affordable than its physical counterpart beyond a certain point in the release cycle.

If gamers are saving money, that’s good news for gamers and good news for developers, with many indie composers relying solely on a digital platform – being unable to afford to create a physical product (at least initially) and hoping consumers will purchase their titles at a reduced or discounted price.

In the days of the ZX Spectrum it was often not uncommon for a game to have been developed by just one person using a home brew format, and digital content allows small development teams and lone individuals the chance – once again – to create truly great games that can be released in a mass market forum. One example of these titles is Rocket League, which itself is a sequel, released originally as Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars on PlayStation 3 in 2008. What began as a small development team slowly grew – to the point that Rocket League itself received more pre orders than any other title when initially released on digital format – and is still being ported and having content developed for it today, over 5 years after its original release.

Personally, I’m not that fond of paying £50 for a digital copy of Resident Evil 3 (which I did recently) only to realise I’m unable to trade the title once completed, maybe helping me to purchase another game or make some money back. Capcom, the developers of the Resident Evil series, have been some of the most outspoken developers against second hand sales – going so far as to include a bug within games (see Resident Evil ‘The Mercenaries’ 3DS) preventing the deletion of save data. Although then Capcom VP Christian Svenson went on record to say this was not a business decision, many at the time felt it was a way to attempt to curb this kind of trade. Regardless of the reasoning, and probably because of the controversy, Capcom have not since repeated this move.

Jill really regretted lending Kendo her copy of ‘Sensible Soccer’ just prior to the outbreak in Raccoon City

On the opposite side of my own argument, however, I can acknowledge that digital gaming has done me an immense favour. Titles like ‘Resident Evil 3’, ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ and ‘Batman Arkham Knight’ on Xbox One’s digital console may not physically be on my shelf but will remain with me whenever I need them. And my original Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid purchases from 2008/9 remain – to this day – on my PSN account, whenever I need to re download them. Circumstances over time have meant that there have often been occasions when I’ve needed to sell a console or material to pay essential bills; and having that digital account preserved for future use has been huge relief, not just on my wallet!

I could therefore argue that I have owned these titles for 12 years, far longer than any other physical game I still have today. I was upset about having to repurchase ‘Final Fantasy VII’ on the Xbox One (the 2019 port of the game) to play the same title I loved on another system – but this was my choice, and allowed me to once again experience an improved functionality and timings added with the latest revision.

The second-hand marketplace, however, very much has its place. Being able to browse titles in a store like CEX allows for me to discover, in much the same way as another gamer might browse the sale section of the digital shop; what is new to me and worth a cheap purchase.

In 2018 I bought a copy of the ‘Arkham Collection’ on Xbox One and needed to return it, owing to a broken disc – another unfortunate side effect of physical titles – but as CEX themselves do not take any account for the codes or digital content that might available in the box of your purchase, I had already attempted to redeem these, finding to my surprise that they were all valid. Subsequently, I had returned a title worth £20 to me for a full refund, but the codes earned from this experience were valued at £36. Proving it always pays to check the codes.

And whilst some may also argue the high street itself is dying, and this could be argued to be true, the advent of Internet shopping in its place means that gamers are still very much given the choice between physical and digital gaming. It does not necessarily have to be on the shelves of your local gaming store (provided you even have one) to be purchased in a physical format.

In recent years, physical gaming has fought back, with companies like Play Asia and Limited Run Games producing physical copies of titles in specific numbers as their USP – allowing those who want to purchase the game physically to do so – but not limiting the games scope or fanbase.

Additionally, by producing games in such limited numbers, it generates hype around a title, sells for a concentrated period at a fixed price (to a largely committed and dedicated audience) and saves on the immense shipping costs otherwise associated with producing so many more titles for the manufacturer and online retailers. Limited Run Games fluctuate in price, as you would expect, and second-hand sale and trade is by no means discouraged either, meaning there’s always a market for those titles.

Ultimately, I love and accept my new Xbox and I really like the convenience and the ease of digital gaming, particularly with current world events. But I will never rely solely on digital titles, as physical gaming represents such a huge part of my gaming memories, from those days on the Commodore, to current respite with my PS Vita.

Whilst I suspect I already know the answer, I’d be curious as to whether a younger generation of gamer, without those physical memories and limitations; will still have such a nostalgia and place such importance on physical gaming. It is always going to be cheaper to avoid a bricks and mortar store, and it is always going to be cheaper to buy digital content.

But in my mind, a healthly mix, of both physical and digital, is enough to ensure even the most casual gamer can make the most of their favourite pastime.

Whilst we dream of electric sheep; we’ve become androids ourselves…..

What happened to game show contestants? You know what I mean, right, Norma from Wembley aged 87 trying to figure out what Michael Barrymore is talking about? Frank from Leicester, the retired Postman whose worked in the village since 1968.

Recently I’ve spent a little time watching Challenge – available on Freeview Channel 46 – which plays those classic reruns of Price is Right, Bullseye and Supermarket Sweep; when the idea of interacting with our television was so novel that you wanted to see your neighbors on the tube. You’d send off a postcard hoping to get picked, you’d nominate your grandmother or secretly hope Noel Edmonds would give you a ‘Gotcha’ when you split that milk in the supermarket.

As the years rolled on, television audiences changed, and so did television. It became slightly less interactive whilst also becoming more subversive. Big Brother, reality television, effectively replaced the need for traditional Saturday night entertainment. You didn’t need to watch Noel’s House Party or Gladiators, not when things were getting saucy and the participants were getting plastered on Channel 4. In general, we approved of this culture initially, and encouraged the likes of Jeremy Kyle, which effectively took the handbook from Soap’s and found people who behaved just like the cast of Eastenders – without actually being actors.

In true style, the audiences rebelled, and whilst game shows like ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and ‘Deal or No Deal’ were always staples of viewing, it was the guests who began to change. Gone were the potentially senile or quiet and shy, discounted were those with interesting jobs and an afternoon off work to attend the taping. Instead, television program participants representing “the general public” now seem to be more exciting, more popular than ever before. Instead of being an accountant or a nurse, contestants are now YouTube content creators, professional gaming enthusiasts or even models.

In some cases television was sent to ridicule you. The Chase and Eggheads presented quiz contestants secretly mocked by the host due to their obscure knowledge of the most random content. Shows like ‘The X Factor’ stepped this up further, sometimes inviting people with genuinely hidden talent to try and catch a magical ticket to their fame. In the process, they needed to endure a stadium full of people watching their open audition, live weekly programs where they battled for the adoration of the millions watching at home and then a phone in where people could vote to eliminate you because they simply didn’t like the person the production team encouraged you to be.

There’s an old episode of Red Dwarf in which Lister reads Rimmer some mail from his mother. In the letter, his mother tells him that his father had died, and as a result Rimmer leads himself to question his own identity – posing the question “what is a man if not his job?”. Another character, Kryten, later challenges Rimmers repeat of this question by asking whether Albert Einstein was a patent clerk, or whether he was the greatest mind in human history?

Using the example of television, it would seem to be that society is now breaking away from the older, more traditional and established social norms. Primarily, things like what your day job is, who you are and what you do for a living are meaningless and practically irrelevant. In my own life I meet so many people who I’m confident would rather be defined by their social activities (Writer, Wrestler or Social Media Influencer) than by their traditional day job. And in some cases I’m almost ashamed to say I don’t even know what that person’s “real” job is.

Now, I say real because we currently live in two worlds, one in the physical and the other in the digital. We’ve been escaping to this world for about 30 years now – either through gaming or vlogging or even in MMORPG – and we’ve perhaps been escaping to a virtual world even longer if you include Hollywood in the picture. But modern technological advances have meant that as the years go on we’ve found ways to become even more subversive. And yes, whilst we dream of electric sheep, we’ve actually become androids ourselves – submerging with our digital lives on an almost hourly basis – texting, posting, tweeting, swiping – mostly commonly through the artificial extension in your hand.

In the case of social media accounts, many people (myself included) now have at least two. One which represents their “real life” or their more personal account, the kind you want your parents to see, want colleagues in that job you’ve just taken to notice; and the other representing an identity, an idea, a fragment of what they want to be – or just representing the more ideal vision of themselves. If wrestlers play a character, that second profile is exactly that – kayfabe for the internet age. A heel or villain to mock fans, a face to thank fans. Just like an actor it can prove useful to be able to submerge in the identity. If that person is a writer, they might choose to be more streamlined and professional on their account, presenting links to their work and encouraging direct interaction and praise with their writing.

And who doesn’t enjoy friend requests? It’s a much wider question to ask what digital friend requests actually mean, but suffice to say we do like the idea that people have taken the time to reach out and extend a digital handshake. Those friend requests you receive may be from a singular account or a person with two accounts. Many times have I been offered a friend request from someone I’ve actually met in the real world, only to find it is not actually their active account, but a puppet account set up to promote their brand. An extension of a personalized marketing tool perhaps. We abhor racial segregation but we welcome digital segregation.

You have to be careful, granted, when your sexuality could be perceived as a potential issue – or when you feel the lifestyle choices or personal opinions you can control are not in kin with everyone (or even someone) else. We enter new jobs in a particular mode, playing a role, acting in a very specific way when absorbing new situations. And we all, no matter who we are, wear masks.

“Plato’s Stepchildren” episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, first broadcast November 22, 1968

It seems like light years now since Star Trek attracted controversy in the 1960’s by featuring the first ever interracial kiss on US Television screens. Of course, that in itself is a popular misconception, as another kiss predates even this infamous moment. But if we ignore the misconception for the moment, we could perhaps see social media as a form of digital segregation. If your Facebook profile is like a nightclub, your friends list is a safe space, where you can invite people to share in your personal expressions. We’ve all seen the Facebook adverts – everybody’s got their own level of privacy, right?

So what if that second profile was your real profile. And within your nightclub, you’ve got a VIP Lounge, a special place where you’ll further filter those who know you. Yes, you’ve heard of me, met me and even spoken to me. But what makes you think I even want you knowing me?

Whether I earn the majority of money in any given year from Journalism is irrelevant. I can call myself a Journalist simply because I write an article like this and post it online. That is 2020. My first ever Journalism tutor told me that to be a Journalist was a calling, something you became once you believed you were just that, a writer, a recorder, an archivist, an observer. Maybe he was trying to sell me the class on the first day and my colleagues were too baked to remember it, but that mantra has stuck with me ever since.

In the years I’ve been writing I’ve probably been taken advantage of – in one way or another – because of my good nature at least once a year. Sometimes its an article that I’ve been promised payment for which isn’t given, other times it’s quitting my job to start a new opportunity and ending up in a whole heap of trouble. I can sincerely understand why people create a safe place, because the world can be cruel. And there’s no assurance of success. People would rather live their character than be themselves, it’s far less painful, and you’ve got far more control in that.

I can’t help thinking that we’ve lost our way. That Instagram likes and boastful posts will only get us so far. But at the same time, the world is encouraging us to use bad grammar, hashtags and slogans – asking you to avoid thinking about the bigger picture and instead simply commit yourself to the fact that you can do anything you want. You can live the role and not the reality, lie to everyone on a daily basis by presenting this false image of yourself and letting the mask take over your life. Without questioning whether you should?

So much of our lives are now influenced by our online personas. We model our lives around this digital world; choosing our jobs, our path in life and even our friends across a digital landscape. Realism? There’s a time and a place, no doubt, but it’s not anywhere after you login.

Time to see what else is on.

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter

The other day I went to Mass for the first time in years. Standing in the room I noticed the familiar signs; the stages of the cross, the dim lighting, the – almost brutalist – architecture of a stone chapel and the dim flicker of the candles lit in prayer. I suppose you could say that I’m somewhat of a lapsed Catholic, I was baptised, communed and confirmed in the faith but whether it was an individual choice or simply one of routine and ritual is another question.

On the day of my Conformation, for example, I took a sponsor. I was 13 and I approached the altar and was asked by the Priest, as I was now coming of age, whether I was prepared to keep up my promise to my Faith. My parents had been doing that for me, in essence, since I was baptised and at conformation I was expected too adopt the task from them, continuing to grow and have faith in line with my religious beliefs. It wasn’t a legally binding contract, granted, but for some it was absolutely just as important and certainly unbreakable.

As the years continued I began to become disillusioned with Mass, rather than religion in particular, as the act of going to Church (and possibly saying my prayers before bedtime) was about all that my membership to the religion seemed to require in my life. So when I’d get up on a Sunday morning and need to organise my day around attending a specifically timed mass at my local church, it tended to react violently with me given I naturally associated it with something else I was required to do – something I had no choice in doing.

My Dad once told me that he had left the church as a believer for a few years, and then rejoined in later life, deciding that once he’d been away it was easier to come back of his own free will – instead of feeling he was forced to be there by his parents or routine every week. I’d tried this, and it never really gelled in the way I felt it would, and on reflection I think that my father recaptured his faith because of his subsequent relationship with and marriage to my Mum. I believe it to be her faith and his love for her that brought him back to that cycle; and he continues to do so today.

When I spent time in the home of ex-fiancee, she and her family attended mass on a weekly basis, always at the same time in the same church on a Saturday night.

The church was in a tiny rural village in Southern Ireland, just across the border from the family home in Northern Ireland. I always found it strange that they seemed to me more religious in this community than we were in Dublin. But of course, on reflection, I realise for them it was much more than simple religious adoration. Their very lives affected by the politics of Northern Ireland, their identities were shaped and labelled by their religion. And since the abolishment of the border, it made sense for them to be making this gesture by attending mass in such numbers – an affirmation of their culture and themselves rather than necessarily their beliefs.

And here I am, standing in a cold, badly lit room thinking about all this. Because there’s no trappings of modern life, there’s no tablets or mobile phones, and even talking is discouraged. If anything the silence is deafening as you wait for something to happen. The whole nature, and acoustics, of being in a church means it gives you are thinking about things because nothing is distracting you. Kind of like going to the cinema, switching off your mobile phone and immersing in cinema. You’re purposefully turning off the outside world.

There’s so much stimulation in life these days. So much opportunity to engage, to label, to interact and to speak. You’re often stimulated to the point that if you’re not a voice, if you’re not expressing yourself in some outlandish way, then you’re nothing. Look at relationships; man meets woman, man meets man, woman meets woman; but we’re constantly told that we don’t have to settle for anything – there is so much choice and possibility that it’s becoming harder to commit to a longer term relationship. Finding someone truly special, someone you can really commit too, can make you very lucky indeed.

I often feel that in 30 years time, this simply won’t exist.

As I glance across at the darting candles, the flicker of the flame, they greet me unlike anything else. I mean we light candles in our own living rooms on a daily basis, but the candles in church, they’re something else, right? You truly believe that each flame represents a prayer; a wish, a hope, a desire or even a life. You feel something when the candles are expunged.

In 2018 I got the chance to visit Lourdes in France for the first time. Asides from the heat, the other overwhelming factor was the nature of the event. Everywhere we go we’re being told that religion and faith (ecumenical or otherwise) is being taken from our lives. But here I saw people of all ages, of multiple nationalities and personalities and all engaged in devotion. I saw the candles and the water and the blessings and it was – simply – divine. A chance to step away from the trappings of the world, to stop and look around.

The organ sounds – my concentration is broke – and several people delight in singing out of key. The priest emerges, his vestments overflow and a golden staff overwhelming; you’d think this was a particularly special event, but it’s just a quiet Tuesday morning mass…there’s no more than 20 people in this room. He walks to the front of the altar, gives his own thanks and praise, and welcomes us to the ritual.

The familiar has returned.