Wednesday, 11 August 2010

How I Became Addicted to 'A Room With A View' (1985) and the Consequences

As anyone who has followed this blog for any time will know some of the greatest detriment I have done to my own life is to have been afraid, primarily in two areas: travelling and relationships with women.  In many ways in my teenage years and twenties, I was a very lucky man.  Despite having some minor ailments, not being sporty; appearing very freckly, and gangly in how I walked, and having my self-confidence blown apart by my parents telling me I looked as if I was mentally disabled, girls/women of my age would ask me out on dates.  These women were certainly not desperate for male companionship and when rebuffed by me, as was usually the case, went on to have other relationships.  My fear that somehow they were doing it for dishonest motives or simply as a joke, was insulting to them but also meant I ended up lacking the experience of having youthful relationships which then meant I had little chance as a man in his late twenties and into his thirties to engage with these properly.  Part of the problem stems from how I perceived relationships between young people should function and for this I have to blame, in large part, what was my favourite movie for many years: 'A Room With A View' (1985).

I was 17 when I first saw 'A Room With A View', so had already been making many of the mistakes I have listed above.  However, at that stage things remain retrievable in a way they are not when you are 34.  To put the movie in context, it was one of the most successful in the UK produced by the Merchant Ivory partnership (formed in 1961 of the two lovers, producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory) working with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  With 'Heat and Dust' (1983), 'A Room with a View' (1985), 'Maurice' (1987), Howards End (1992) and 'The Remains of the Day' (1993) at the time of the TV series 'Brideshead Revisited' (1981) and 'The Jewel in the Crown' (1983) [not made by them but of a similar genre], movie culture in the UK was defined as being focused on the period of the late 19th century to the 1930s.  Subsequently with the very successful television version of 'Pride and Prejudice' (1994) for the following decade the focus stepped back to the late 18th/early 19th century.  Perhaps in the grimness and rioting of the 1980s we were looking for escape to an apparently nicer middle class existence in which manners and behaviour were more refined, though certainly in many of these movies not all behaviour is like that; homosexuality, in particular is suppressed and women are fitted into rigid roles, though this was a contributing factor to the rise of Post-Feminism that personally I began to detect from 1988 onwards.

With my parents away on holiday I began going to the cinema alone to escape the tedium of what was on television, a habit I was to continue more vigorously from when I finally left home and lived alone, 1987-2005 .  This was my first foray into that kind of activity, that you did not have to be with anyone to watch a movie, and, in fact, it could be better that way if the movie was what had drawn you rather than the social experience.  I watched 'Mona Lisa' (1986) the week before seeing 'A Room With A View', so it must have been still doing the rounds from the previous year.  'Mona Lisa' is an unpleasant British movie, well made, but it left such a bitter taste in my mind that I wanted to blot it out with something more refined, hence going to see 'A Room With A View'.  (I was to do something similar the following year, going to see 'Poussiere D'Ange' ['Angel Dust'] (1987) deliberately after being unsettled by 'Angel Heart' (1987)). 

Of course, I was utterly swept away by 'A Room With A View' with its stunning scenery of 19th century Florence combined with stirring music which I have written about before.  It is a funny movie in many parts but also a lovely romance.  The hero, George Emerson (played by Julian Sands) sweeping the heroine Lucy Honeychurch (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) off her feet in a wheat field and them later sitting in the window with Florence in the background, kissing while Lucy reads a letter, were scenes that I loved and wanted to replicate in my own life.  The tension comes around Lucy being unwilling to admit her passion for the unconventional young man who is of a slightly lower class (he works for the railways and his widowed father is a thinker and politically interested), but ultimately does.  There is a wonderful range of quirky English characters played by skilled performers such as Denholm Elliot, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Daniel Day Lewis and Simon Callow which charm you too.  I have always liked women with long dark hair and Bonham-Carter fitted that perfectly.  She went on to appear in other period movies, notably 'Where Angels Fear to Tread' (1991 - from another Forster novel also set in Italy);  'Howards End' and 'The Wings of the Dove' (1997).  Once I had the video I would watch it on my birthday and dream of such a romance.  I could clearly post myself in the rather awkward, public servant, intellectual role of George Emerson and somehow anticipated women would love to be swept off by me even if I was not a fraction as handsome as Julian Sands.

Of course, I knew I was not living in the 1890s (and the director seemed to set it back in time a little from the 1908 source novel by E.M. Forster which features electric trams in Florence that do not appear in the movie), but had a belief I would meet a woman who would be intrigued by me and would not scream if I swept her off her feet in an Italian field.  At this time, I did envisage travelling around Europe far more than I was ever in fact to do.  My mother had always said that when she had been a teenager in the 1950s the way young people 'learnt' how to have relationships was through watching the movies which would show them how to behave and even how to kiss.  She felt that the trouble with the 1980s was that too many movies showed abusive relationships in which sex was the key focus and so men in particular did not learn how to behave around women.  In fact, for her son, the complete opposite happened and I ended up having my approach to women set by 1980s visions of late Victorian behaviour.  This was exacerbated by my friends all being of the 'Dungeons and Dragons' types and not having relationships with women until they had passed thirty and by the fact that by the time I reached university it was beginning to fill (especially in my accommodation hall) with Post-Feminist women actually seeking not even a Forster-style relationship but an Austen-style one. 

The trouble for me was that I knew that women did not want you to assert your desire for them and increasingly if you did, then you risked being charged with assault.  We were advised that touching or kissing a woman even innocently, in the times of increasing litigation, was hazardous and there was talk of signed permission before sexual intercourse (I do not think some universities know how much they screwed up their students' lives).  I mixed with too many people from private schools who were only encountering the opposite sex for the first time on a regular basis and who like me expected it all to proceed as if it were 1887 rather than 1987.  I had no appeal for them, being from the wrong background and too politicised and yet I lacked all the tools to engage with the kind of women who might have liked me.  There were no wheat fields, there was no time for walking in lush landscapes working up to ask permission to kiss the woman and yet, leaping in was clearly ruled out by what we had been told.  Consequently years went by with no relationships and now that women expect a man to have a sexual CV by the time he reaches 21, I was increasingly ruled out on that basis.

Hampered by the Victorian approach that had shaped so much of the end of my teenage years, the relationships I ended up in were increasingly termed as 'Victorian', i.e. very chaste.  I would go shopping with the woman, have tea with her, go and see a movie, but nothing else happened.  I wanted to kiss her, but the chance never came up and the women themselves seemed to expect me to make a move and yet I feared they would then cry assault.  Ultimately I ended up as almost a female friend, they would do domestic stuff with me then go off on dates in the evening with their boyfriends.  They would come and tell me about all their difficulties with these men who were clearly so much more exciting than me, when in fact I wanted to be their lover.  It took a woman who wanted me as 'the other man', i.e. to have an affair from her own marriage and was very straight forward about asking for sex, that managed to shake me out of the situation and get the tools to be more proactive.  Though I did continue to have some Victorian-style relationships, funnily enough until I left London.

I suppose the lesson of all this, is do not live your life by how it is shown in movies.  Perhaps we have gone to the opposite extreme from that period of the late 1980s/early 1990s when behaviour of the previous century seemed to be returning; the internet has had a huge impact on this both in terms of what you can learn and who you can meet.  I have lost my affection for 'A Room With A View' though I still would recommend it because it is an enjoyable way to pass the time.  I am angry now that I let it shape my expectations far too much, though I recognise it was not helped by having such critical parents and ignorant friends.  The visuals and the music are engaging but it was a mistake for me to be seduced by them and then hamstrung in thinking that such a fictional approach would work in the late 20th century for real.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Me and the 'Total War' Series of Computer Games

In a recent posting looking at my favourite computer games of the past decade:  I mentioned that there was one set of games that I would leave for a separate posting of their own.  These are the 'Total War' series of computer wargames.

Shogun Total War
The first, 'Shogun Total War' was launched by The Creative Assembly in 2000.  In many ways it owes a great deal to the board game, 'Shogun' (released in 1986; new version 2006; also known as 'Samurai Swords') which allowed up to 5 players to take on the role of one of the Japanese samurai clans fighting for dominance in the Sengoku period ('Age of War') between 1467-1573 CE.  The victory of the Tokugawa clan in this conflict led to the establishment of the Shogunate which ran until 1868.  The aim was to conquer territories and eliminate opponents either in battle or through assassination.  It was often difficult to get together a group of five players, so the appearance of a computer version in which you could play one of seven clans, fighting against the computer, was ideal.

'Shogun Total War' was never a mainstream success, but gathered a very loyal fan base, many of whom who have continued to buy all the Total War series in the following decade.  One reason why it was never going to be a mainstream success is that it is very involved, like any wargaming.  The game spreads over decades and it combined strategic planning on a wonderfully rendered map of Japan on which you could move soldiers representing your armies (so replicating the board game) with three-dimensional real time battles when your armies came into conflict with other. As with many strategic games, provinces you controlled varied in terms of resources and the types of troops that were the strongest recruited from there.  You could develop your tax revenue, harvests, trade, and troop training and equipment by constructing various buildings, so you had to balance the economic as well as military aspects.

The province-running had been seen in many games before, but the use of three-dimensional battles was what really marked a leap forward in computer wargames. Previously you had to settle for static icons or at best the small animated sprites of the kind used in the Talonsoft wargames.  The battles were real-time rather than turn-based, as all the other computer wargames of the time used.  In 'Shogun Total War' you got three-dimensional units moving independently across the landscape.  A huge reason for the success of the Total War series is that the game controls become intuitive allowing you to fight a battle effectively even when you have hundreds of soldiers on various parts of the field.  There are factors like tiredness, experience, morale, running out of ammunition, to take into consideration. You did not have to play the full campaign, you could play sequences of reconstructions of historic battles or create your own if you just wanted to concentrate on fighting rather than management too. Those facilities would appear in all the other Total War games. 

Alright, each soldier looked the same, but you could zoom down to their level and 'march with' them across the landscape, a huge leap forward. These days the graphics might look a little simplistic, but still hold their own against many other games.  The varied landscapes of Japan which impinged on your troops, (i.e. one column in your square could move slower than the rest if it went into the trees or a slightly steeper slope) and the very varied weather made the game all the more engaging.  The attention to detail of the troop types, assisted by the highly renowned historian of medieval Japan, Stephen Turnbull appealed to gamers like me who were looking for an authentic experience.  There is historical reference to things such as the arrival of the Portuguese and Dutch in Japan, and the appearance of firearms and Christianity. Of course, the minute you start playing you are moving into counter-factual scenarios, but it is nice to have that in a genuine context.

One flaw in the game that was not a big issue in this one but would become so later, was the strength of 'special' units. In this game, the key unit type was the Yamabushi, Buddhist warrior monks. They were a strong unit that could easily defeat others though were not invincible, especially if outnumbered. Conversely, there is no point recruiting arquebus or musket carrying troops in the game as they are so weak; it is better to stick with archers. In reality by the time of the Battle of Sekighara in 1600 the one commander who brought archers was laughed at for being so behind the times. Saying this, as late as 1815, the Duke of Wellington noted that his troops would have had more effect if they had carried bows rather than muskets. However, it must have been more than fashion that led daimyo to abandon bows in favour of guns by the late 16th century. In this, however, game you are lucky if a whole unit of musketeers can kill a single infantryman or cavalryman.

The styling of the game was important in adding to the engaging experience.  Things like the style of the frames, the shouting of the soldiers in Japanese and especially the music and incidental sounds gave the game a real flavour.  Unlike the following games in the series, this first one made great use of mini animated movies, notably when you are approached by the representatives of other daimyo (provincial rulers), the Portuguese or Dutch and when you launch an assassination attempt against a general or daimyo.  Ninja feature in the game as do other strategic characters like ambassadors.  After a while the movies became a little repetitive but were great for adding flavour.

The cut scenes at the climax of the game had an approach I would love other wargame programmers to copy.  Assuming you are victorious, a little movie plays outlining what happens in Japan after your faction has won.  Even if you have been a Christian faction you end up kicking out the foreigners and banning Christianity in the way the Tokugawa did.  However, the final scene is of a precinct in modern Japan at night and the camera goes past a statue of whichever leader you picked to play the game as.  As a counter-factual fan I just loved seeing an Uesugi or Mori or Imagawa shogun being celebrated at the end because of what I had done.

One of the advantages of battling in medieval Japan is that it is finite.  Though you could easily spend weeks playing the game, the conquest of Japan could be achieved in a few days' worth of hard gaming covering a few decades of conflict.  This is in contrast to subsequent games in the series in which you can be battling over four centuries to conquer the whole of Europe or North Africa, fun, but a different experience.  The Total War series has evolved in sophistication since 2000 and it is nice to see that a sequel 'Shogun 2: Total War' is planned for 2011 with you able to play one of eight factions in the years following the Onin War of 1467-77 CE.

The success of 'Shogun Total War' led to the release of expansion kit in August 2001.  This added extra troop types and historic battles to the original game and altered the representation of the maps, doing away with some of the movies too.  However, the game now opened with a extract from the movie 'Ran' (1985) by Akira Kurosawa which certainly got you in the mood for gaming.  The expansion allowed you to start you campaign in different periods rather than always starting from the same year as in the original game and it was interesting to start in an era when each of the factions was much weaker.  The big new opportunity was to play in the 13th century facing the Mongol invasion of Japan, which they attempted to do in reality in 1274 and 1281.  The Mongols had a whole different set of troops and the challenges of being an invading rather than an indigenous force.  The Japanese still had crossbowmen, a unit that had gone out of style by the 16th century.  It was interesting to play a different type of army and at least in this game the Mongols can be beaten.  A new ending was added for if the Mongols won which showed a statue of Kublai Khan in the precinct, talking about Japan as just a province of the great Mongol empire, very nicely counter-factual.

Medieval Total War
The release of 'Medieval Total War' in August 2002 by The Creative Assembly and Activision was as much of a step forward in computer wargaming as the release of 'Shogun Total War' had been two years before.  This game also won mainstream appeal and topped the charts for sales.  You did notice though a lot were dumped onto the second hand market pretty quickly as a lot of gamers more used to first/third person shooting games sold off their copies pretty quickly.  'Medieval Total War' needed real commitment.  Its scope covered all of Europe and North Africa in the period 1087-1453 (i.e. the fall of Constantinople to the Turks) and evenings could go by and you would find you had only covered a couple of years in the game.  It could take months to complete a whole game, though you could start in 1205 or 1321 if you preferred.

The approach of the game was similar to 'Shogun Total War' combining the strategic map divided into provinces on which you moved the tokens representing your armies and then the three-dimensional battles.  In 'Shogun Total War' there had only been one battlefield per province.  In 'Medieval Total War' the battlefield you came onto in a province depended on the direction you had marched into the province from.  There was again a variety of weather, everything from snow and thunderstorms to desert sandstorms.  Sometimes it was almost impossible to find your opponent in the fog or whirling sand.  There was a huge range of factions, covering the leading powers of the time.  A lot of actors were employed to give appropriate voices to the different nations which varied from England, France and the Holy Roman Empire right over to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and the Egyptians.  There was a huge range of different troops, some unique to particular factions.  Covering such a time period there was evolution in weaponry as the years passed.  Religion also played a part with priests, imams, crusades and jihads, all available.  You could win by achievements such as building a particular cathedral or holding specific provinces but the usual way to victory was conquest of the whole map.  I found when I travelled to the countries concerned, and in this period I went abroad far more often than now, I would come back wanting to play the state I had visited.  In this way played 'Italy' after visiting Venice and the Holy Roman Empire after travelling around Germany, France after a holiday in Normandy, then Spain after going to Barcelona.

Again, there was attention to historic detail (though in some cases playability meant conflating some things, such as having an 'Italy' rather than a multiplicity of states) and the landscapes and buildings were a delight to look at.  The atmosphere was assisted by the voice acting (even the sounds of camels were used where appropriate) and the music was different for the location you were battling in.  There was also a greater role play element as different rulers, generals and agents developed different characteristics and could become more or less loyal to their faction, offering the chance for rebellions and civil wars. 

This was an immensely engaging game.  You could play the same faction and have completely different outcomes.  Developments could be happening in other parts of the world without you being aware of them.  I remember realising when playing 'Italy' that history had diverged greatly when the 'Earl of Wessex' turned up in a battle and he was from the Egyptian faction.  You could award your generals various titles adding to their management or command abilities, a nice feature that was dropped in subsequent games.

'Medieval Total War' had a siege function which allowed you to attack castles and forts.  It was seen as rather simplistic and the catapults wrecked castles in minutes rather than the days or weeks it took in reality (even when cannon came in), but I suppose that was a compromise to playability.  The problem of special units began to be very apparent in this game.  You would see a single Kataphrakt cavalryman (a heavily armoured unit from the Byzantine Empire) managing to battle off two hundred spearmen for ages, inflicting a numerous casualties.  While the special units should have been tough, in this game they became superhuman.  In such a situation the Kataphrakt would have probably been crushed by the crowd let alone pierced through with numerous spears.  The Mongols appeared in this game and were hard to defeat even in circumstances that they were defeated in real life, i.e. fighting in forests or over ploughed and hedge-rowed farmland.  I know that the Mongols were a potent force and drew on sophisticated Chinese technology to successfully besiege cities and it was more luck that spared Europe from them, but they were certainly not immune to damage and coming up against longbowmen, the Mongols and their horses would certainly have suffered far more casualties than the minimal ones they do in this game. 

Rebellions and civil wars are always a challenging aspect of wargames with a strategic aspect, but in 'Medieval Total War' they were particularly troublesome.  The key difficulty was that the rebels and groups, such as returning factions that had previously been eliminated, would have such strong armies suddenly appearing meaning that you could do nothing except flee the province.  These armies were often far larger than the province could have sustained, and yet, even holding a single province these rebels did not lose troops over time in a way you would have to do yourself with such a small territory as you would not be able to fund the upkeep of the troops and would soon face bankruptcy.  I can accept that medieval rebels often had noblemen and knights at their core and that they could often draw on foreign forces and mercenaries, but certainly they could not draw people from the future.  Often you would find the rebels with far more sophisticated weaponry than the highest level available anywhere in your empire or those of your neighbours, making it very hard to raise an army well enough equipped to defeat the rebels.  I am glad to say that this aspect was rectified to a large extent in the following games.

Another difficulty which would increase in subsequent games was using strategic agents.  These were people like princesses, ambassadors, spies and assassins.  In the latter case it was almost impossible to build up their expertise as their death rate when carrying out the first few missions was prohibitive and it was pretty much pointless spending money to recruit these agents.  Despite these flaws, this game kept me entertained for years.

In January 2003, the expansion 'Medieval Total War - Viking Invasion' was released.  It added some new factions to the original game and things like flaming arrows.  Importantly you now could line up the order in which different reinforcing troops would arrive on the battlefield rather than having them coming randomly as before, which meant often your weakest, smallest units would appear and soon flee, just when you needed the best troops to tip the balance of the battle. 

The expansion also introduced a whole new campaign, purely focused on western Scandinavia and the British Isles 793-1066 CE, i.e. from the start of the Viking raids to the Battle of Hastings.  In this era, generally the technology was less advanced; in particular it took longer to develop farming.  As the game wore on some units appear which really belong in later centuries, but given that it is counter-factual if the Vikings had gone to war in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland as they tend to do full scale in this game, then new types of force may have developed.  The Viking expansion campaign is one of my favourites.  I liked turning the whole British Isles into a Pagan Viking kingdom, though you can convert to Christianity if you like.  You can play as Saxons, Mercians, Lancastrians, Welsh, Scots and Irish too, each with distinct units. For the first time, rebel factions were named and would collaborate with other rebels rather than just clinging to a single province.  I think, as with 'Shogun Total War', the finite nature of the game focused on one region adds something.  Again, the early medieval music and styling of the game really contributes to your engagement with game.

Rome Total War
'Rome Total War' was released in September 2004.  It is probably the most seen game outside the gaming community as it was used as the basis of the television series 'Time Commanders' (2003-5).  In the programme teams of non-wargamers had to command a particular force in an Ancient battle, sometimes doing surprisingly well, for example, defeating the Germans trying to kill Varus's legion in 9 CE and other times failing very badly.  The graphics were of a standard deemed good enough to use on television so it is unsurprising that we waited with anticipation for the game to be released.

The game covered the period from the 4th century BCE in the preliminary stage and then 270 BCE-14 CE in the main part of the game. Now, rather than having a map of provinces into which tokens representing your armies were put, the armies actually walked around a relief map and would often struggle to find a fast route or get backed up behind other armies.  The computer-run factions never made such errors, always moving the armies precisely which put humans at a disadvantage and needed you to make regular saves when trying to assemble a sizeable force just in case your army decides it wants to walk to the target location by a very round-about route.

Conversely the ships that your opponents use are far better at tracking down your fleets than even modern day warships are with all their radar and other equipment.  I found it galling that, given even in the 1800s, Lord Nelson had to chase the French fleet back and forth across the Atlantic before bringing them to battle, in this game I found that whenever one of my ships or a fleet set out it was immediately intercepted by my enemies, no matter which route it took.  As with the agents, this made it very difficult to build up an experienced fleet which meant that even if you came up against a weaker fleet you would often lose.  Given that much of the game is around the Mediterranean, again this made it far harder for human players.  In contrast to the computer-run factions who always found you straight off, as a human you would often spend ages sending your ships back and forth trying to find the elusive enemy fleets, just as Nelson was to do 2000 years later.

Though the graphics had been improved and the successful mix of strategy and three-dimensional battles was continued, during development, playability seems to have won out over historical accuracy.  The attention to detail in terms of armour and weaponry was excellent, the key problem was in the political set-up.  Rather than having most of Italy under the rule of the Roman Senate, in the game this only controls the Rome itself and much of the peninsula is divided into three Roman factions: the Brutii, the Julii and the Scipii.  Annoyingly it is as one of these factions that you have to complete the preliminaries before unlocking other factions.  The Gauls are shown as controlling less of Italy than was the case in reality.   A key problem for all the Total War games from this stage on is that there are really too few cities on the game (this is often one of the first thing fan-created modifications alter) and, with your armies having to tramp between them, it can be very frustrating.

Another flaw is the portrayal of the Egyptian forces.  By the time the Romans interacted with the Egyptians they were under the control of the Ptolemies, a Greek dynasty, who had been in power since 305 BCE.  Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt in 332 BCE and, after Alexander's death, Ptolemy, one of his companions, took over running Egypt in 323 BCE, ultimately establishing a dynasty.  Whilst the later Ptolemies (the last of the dynasty was the famous Cleopatra VII, lover of Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar) tended towards Egyptian dress and style, the earlier ones had been clearly more Greek or, at least, Macedonian in culture.  Thus, it is anachronistic to see the Egyptian forces in chariots and with axes of a style that was centuries out of date by the time this game begins.  Their forces should look more like those of Macedonia or the Seleucids, another successor kingdom to Alexander's empire, controlling modern Iran.  The game developers apparently did not want another phalanx based army and felt mainstream gamers would prefer the traditional Egyptian forces.  They are fun, the chariots are unstable but deadly.  However, it would have been better to have an expansion or something that went back in time to before Alexander if they wanted to include these.  That would have been interesting as you could have also had the tribes of Italy such as the Samnites, Latins and Etruscans battling for dominance of Italy.

Obviously the game allows lots of nice counter-factuals such as Carthage being victorious and the Roman Empire being destroyed by the Gauls or even the Macedonians.  As in all the Total War games, the scope for shaking up history is immense.  What I also like is that the Marian Reforms kick in at a different period each time you play the game.  In our history these were introduced to the Roman Army by Gaius Marius in 107 BCE and transformed the leveed, three-line structure into the legion system with the armour and weaponry that we generally think of as being the classic Roman Army.  In the game, these reforms can come earlier or later, because some other general introduces them instead.

I enjoyed 'Rome Total War', but, like many players, was irked by the anachronisms and lack of historical accuracy.  This is when I was told about how fans were developing their own modifications to games.  This has always been the case with strategic games, it was a phenomenon I noticed as far back as the days of 'Caesar III' (1998) a classic city-building game set in Roman times.  On the internet you are able to find tens and tens of new scenarios, some historic, some fantastical (e.g. Romans in China or in a chequer-board land-lake country) developed by fans.  Strategic games requiring months of work to play attract attentive people often with the computing skills to develop modifications.

For 'Rome Total War' the modification which stands out above all others is 'Rome Total Realism', released in 2005.  It made the game into what it should have been.  It has an immense attention to historical detail and more complex development in terms of building up your territories.  There were a great deal more cities which made the game more engaging and playable.  It also stretched the map East as far as India allowing much more involvement of the Seleucids and the Bactrians. Development has gone on to the stage that we are now at Version VII with sub-sets such as battle for the western Mediterranean and the Carthaginian invasion of Iberia.  I never went back to the original game.

There were official two expansions to 'Rome Total War' and the first of these 'Barbarian Invasion', released in September 2005, is probably my favourite of all the Total War settings.  It covers the period 363-476 CE when the Roman Empire had split into two and Europe was facing 'hordes' of steppe peoples, notably the Huns and people they had displaced, such as the Goths and Vandals, coming into the continent.  In this game, when rebellions break out, especially in the Roman empires, new factions can appear which is a nice aspect rather than having generally nameless rebels to oppose.  You can actually enter into diplomatic relations with these rebel forces.  In previous games you could only bribe them to join you.

It is a difficult game, because if you start as a settled faction or are one of the nomadic ones which settles (as happened with the Goths in Spain and Vandals in North Africa in reality) you have these immense hordes to contend with and it is difficult to bring sufficient forces to bear on them.  However, this is an era which is less well covered in popular histories and elements such as the nomadic peoples, the competition between Christianity, Zoroastrianism (practised in the Sassanid empire of modern day Iran/Iraq) and Paganism is interesting.  Within Christianity some individuals follow 'heretical' views too, such as Arianism or Donatism.  The troop types are very varied, being the link between the classic Roman legions and more medieval style units.  I ended up playing a modification which started in 420 CE but allowed you to play more factions and gave the Sassanids some half decent infantry for the first time.  Playing as the Romano-British restoring the empire is fun, as is playing as some of the horde factions.

The 'Alexander' expansion set came out in the Summer of 2006, but I was deep in 'Barbarian Invasion' still and though I bought it, I have never played it.  It covers the brief period of Alexander the Great's conquests 336-332 BCE.  Rather than encompassing a season or a year as in the previous Total War games, each turn in this one covers 7 weeks.  It allows you as the Macedonians (the only playable faction) to fight some of Alexander's greatest battles.  This kind of approach was not followed up with other generals, it would have been good to follow Julius Caesar or as with the latest Rome Total Realism expansion, Hannibal.  Despite the timing I wonder if the release was triggered by interest in Alexander following the 2004 movie.

Medieval II Total War
This was effectively an update of 'Medieval Total War' introducing the relief map approach pioneered in 'Rome Total War' to the medieval period.  It was released in November 2006.  Though The Creative Assembly developed the game, the publisher was now Sega rather than Activision.  Sega also took over publishing the previous games and the various bundled packs that included them.  It maintained the mix of strategic turn-based and tactical real-time battles.  It covered a longer time period running from 1080-1530 though in 2-year turns.  Of course, many of us added on a modification to return this to single year steps.  The longer time period allowed the introduction of the discovery of the Americas and the chance to build an empire there, fighting groups like the Aztecs.  This opened up wonderful counter-factual opportunities such as an Almorad empire in Mexico.  Gunpowder units also got to play a larger part by the end of the game.

Many of the flaws I have noted above, continued, for example the fleets able to flawlessly track you down.  In this game the Mongols were even tougher than before and it was basically pointless playing eastern states such as the Poles or Novgorod after the Mongol invasion of 1240.  Interestingly, given that the Mameluke Egyptians were able to defeat the Mongol forces in reality, they find it far harder to achieve that in this game.  In addition, forces such as the Timurids with elephants carrying cannon on their backs (a historically authentic force) are again almost impossible to defeat.  The only way to see off such forces is to jam them in the streets of a fortified town.  Even here the Mongol cavalry are far more effective than they would have been in reality.  The overwhelming nature of the Mongol faction totally imbalances the game and makes it pointless to play some of the factions.

The use of catapults on the battlefield was ridiculous.  Siege weapons were wheeled and as a Channel 4 programme proved a few years ago, trebuchet actually work better when on wheels rather than fixed.  However, never in human history were catapults able to move around the battlefield like armoured vehicles of modern day.  Even a ballista, effectively a huge crossbow would take time to move into place, let alone to get it firing accurately.  However, in 'Medieval II Total War' you can have your troops aligned at a top of a hill and find they are being shelled accurately from the first shot and at angle that would be challenging even for modern day artillery.  Try doing the same in reverse and you find your catapults drop rocks everywhere else but on the enemy.  I know they are supposed to build up experience and become more accurate over time, but it proves very difficult to gain experience as you only get that when your missiles kill enemy soldiers, not from breaking down walls which was their prime purpose.  This is a terrible imbalance between the human players and the computer ones.  The sight of catapults trundling around the battlefield (even in Napoleonic times cannon were hauled by up to 16 oxen) and firing so accurately up hill, would be comic if it was not frustrating.

The problem with agents was increased.  The introduction of merchants who could be sent to exploit particular resources was a nice addition.  However, they were driven out of business almost immediately by more experienced computer-run merchants.  This meant your merchants could never build up the experience to see off such challenges.  As with other agents in the previous game, this left you feeling there was no point in recruiting them. 

Inquisitors sent by the Papacy or other factions could also make your life impossible, especially if the Papacy, as a military power, turned against you.  When playing Spain I could not move any of my generals out of cities without them being seized by an inquisitor and being immediately executed.  Despite diplomatic efforts, I could not win the Papacy back over and so was doomed as my dynasty was steadily wiped out. 

The capricious nature of the diplomatic system was also frustrating.  However, hard you worked to build up alliances and good relations, it only needed one state to decide to attack you and generally you found all your allies deserted you immediately and you were almost instantly against the bulk of factions.  On one hand diplomatic relations were hard work, that was proper, but the way the systems crumbled as a result of nothing you had done, was frustrating and again made you not bother to engage with this aspect.  Given that the game designers had balanced playability against historical accuracy, you think they could have better balanced these aspects too.

Ulitmately, of course, I turned to modifications which better balanced the game play and also introduced far more cities and allowed you to play different factions.  The amount of work amateurs put into these modifications is astounding.  Some simply produce new 'skins' e.g. so that the soldiers appear in particular armour; some introduce new factions, I remember Portuguese and Swedish players providing modifications so you could play their countries, others bringing about an overhaul of the whole game.  Being able to tweak the game because of these modifications has certainly allowed me to enjoy it more and be able to overcome the flaws that the game designers seem unable/unwilling to tackle.

The game producers are a very defensive bunch and the official online discussion fora, though very active, are strenuously policed and anything which is critical of the game is shut down.  I believe this comes from the corporate culture of Sega which, in line with many other Japanese corporations, is happy to elicit fans support but is unwilling to stomach any, even mild, criticism.  This kind of attitude in the software/media context was well characterised by the cyberpunk author William Gibson in his novel 'Idoru' (1996) though interestingly he overlooked internet-based updates of a bought database.

In August 2007 the expansion pack was launched called 'Medieval II Total War - Kingdoms'.  This unfortunately did not update the Viking Invasion expansion of 2003 but provided four new regional scenarios.  These were Teutonic campaign set along the Baltic coast in the 13th century allowing you to play the Teutonic Knights, their opponents the Pagan Lithuanians and other regional powers such as Poland, Novgorod and Denmark.  Obviously the Teutonic Knights with their overblown armour and their bullish approach are an attractive force to play.  Playing as the beleaguered Lithuanians is a real challenge, especially if you remain Pagan.  An interesting phenomenon are the crusading 'tourists', European nobles who pay to fight with the Teutonic Knights and reward the faction depending on how much action they see.  This is based on actual historical developments.  The Mongols appear, and whilst a challenge are not unassailable, as they are in the original game.

The Crusader States in the the 12th century, provide another scenario,which is very enjoyable and opens up wonderful counter-factual opportunities.  Of course, if you do not behave as foolishly as some of the crusaders did, you can hold on to Jerusalem far longer.  You can play as the Principality of Antioch (encompassing the County of Edessa and its specific troops too), a state which has always fascinated me (though in the game they speak French rather than Occitan) as well as the Kingdom of Jerusalem (including the County of Tripoli), the Turks, Egyptians or Byzantines.  There are interesting units and it is good to have a finite space in which to operate without the game going on for centuries.

The Britannia campaign is set in the mid-13th century when part of the British Isles was controlled by Norway.  The ability to build forts across the map had been available since 'Rome Total War' but in this game they can be developed further freeing you a little from the established geography.  This is a pretty straight forward campaign good if you like the standard game but want to play something a little quicker.

The Americas campaign is the most exotic allowing you to play the Spanish settlers in Central America and various tribes, not only the Aztecs and Mayans but also lesser known ones such as the Chichimeca, Tlaxcalans and Tarascans.  Aside from the Spanish, no-one, bar the plains tribes you later encounter, has cavalry, so it is a different form of warfare with specialised troops, wearing outstandingly colourful uniforms, in some cases.  It is again a great opportunity for counter-factuals, especially playing an American tribe pushing the Spanish back into the sea or ruling an Aztec empire running from Florida to Venezuela.  The Kingdoms games all seem pretty balanced and whilst you face different challenges when playing different factions, these scenarios seemed more rounded in the way 'Shogun Total War' and to a great extent, 'Medieval Total War', had been.

Empire Total War
The Total War series has always demanded the latest specification in computers.  I had to delay playing 'Medieval II Total War' until I bought a new machine.  With 'Empire Total War' I had to wait from March 2009 when the game was released until November when I got a job that gave me a powerful enough laptop to play the game.  Unfortunately, having been laid off, my second redundancy in 12 months, I had to give it back and currently cannot play this game. 

'Empire Total War' marked a change in the way you access the game.  Up until now generally people bought the CD/DVD-ROM and loaded the game that way.  Being able to purchase it and download had come with 'Medieval II Total War'.  However, with 'Empire Total War' even if you bought the game on disk you still had to access the game via the Steam website.  This did enable updates to be installed more easily an aspect which was more important after the huge patches such as the 1.2 patch of 613MB for 'Medieval II Total War'.  It did mean, though, that if playing on a wireless-equipped laptop in a town with erratic coverage (as I did), you would often find yourself unable to play whereas before being able simply to stick the disk in and play had been a benefit of the earlier games.  To some degree it may have also been a way to draw some attention away from the modifications provided by amateurs, because these days 'Rome Total Realism' is a bigger draw than the original game.  By letting out new troops and other upgrades at regular intervals, it keeps the interest of the core fans of the Total War games coming back and raises revenue as though reasonably priced these upgrades are not free.

I had long been awaiting a game set in the Napoleonic period and had had my hopes dashed by 'Imperial Glory' (2005) with its pathetically small units and repetitive missions though with surprisingly excellent naval combat that 'Empire Total War' seems to have copied, and 'Crown of Glory' (2007) which was fine on the economic management but weak on the battles.  However, 'Empire Total War' just covered the 18th century.  Again, as with 'Barbarian Invasion' it was a bold move to focus on a less well known period and actually makes for a very interesting game.  There are three zones: Europe/North Africa, the Americas and the Indian subcontinent, though, in fact, you can walk from that zone into and out of Europe/North Africa.  With gunpowder weapons being dominant the gaming is different to the previous titles.  The muskets inflict what seems to be an accurate amount of damage rather than being underpowered as had been the case from 'Shogun Total War' onwards.  You can play a whole host of factions and states like the United Provinces and Poland-Lithuania turn up.  I also like the fact that you can play the Indian states of the Maratha Confederacy and Mughal Empire and can kick the Europeans out of India (and, in fact, out of Europe).

The big jump was in terms of naval battles which is appropriate for the era.  On previous Total War games naval battles were resolved without you participating.  This meant that as a skilled commander you could not pull off a clever victory over a larger force in the way you could on land.  Having been playing these games for a decade now, I imagine if I dropped through time to one of these periods, my experience in fighting hundreds of battles from 240 BCE to 1800 CE would allow me at least to make a good showing with any army I commanded, but that may just be an illusion.  Anyway, the naval combat, dependent on winds and capabilities of the ships, is very interesting and needs you to develop a whole different skill set to charging a group of concealed cavalry in to save the battle.  You can see your powerful fleet outmanoeuvred by a weaker force with wind on their side.

Many of the flaws of the past seemed to have been rectified.  No faction is so powerful that like the Mongols it wrecks the game.  Agents still seem difficult to keep alive, but there are more chances of escape from a failed mission than there have ever been before so you are not getting through spies on a turn-by-turn basis.  You can also control members of your government too, though you naturally have less power in a democracy than those factions with an authoritarian government.

The technological developments are interesting, fostered by 'gentlemen', 'scholars' or 'brahmin' at your universities.  Ironically, the political gains make your population restless for more and you can find yourself demolishing universities to keep down clamour for reform.  Weapon developments have a real impact on the battlefield, for example having bayonets.  They also allow the recruitment of specific units and types of ships.

What is nice is how many factions there are and it is interesting dealing with small states like Bavaria or Savoy.  The diplomacy is rather cranky.  States make unreasonable demands, such as demanding you giving them all your American colonies and they get aggressive if you refuse.  However, if you want to try to swap technology even to get one advance, you have to bribe them with money and a whole slew of technological advancements. There is a real imbalance here.  I accept that states will work to get a good advantage but they seem unwilling to compromise, asking repeatedly for very generous offers even when you are far more powerful than them.  Why does Denmark demand Virginia, steam engine technology and 2000 gold in exchange for just telling me about field enclosure?

The real let-down of this game for me was the 'Road to Independence' section based on the Thirteen Colonies and the American War of Independence.  I had hoped to fight the war in its own right, but rather you get almost a training series of connected missions, the early ones of which are very easy.  You can only get to play the colonies, not the British.  I imagine this is a sop for the American consumers, who, as I have noted here before, are always unhappy with any game that allows players to overturn the 'manifest destiny' of the USA and let another country win. See my posting:  This is a shame because the British could have won the war so changing US and British history.  In the main game, if you rule the Thirteen Colonies well, then they remain a British protectorate and the USA (or another grouping of American states with a crown in the place of the ring of stars on the flag) only appears through rebellion.  As the British in the main game, I never let this gain ground so never effectively has a war of independence.  This element of the game, is not really, as suggested on Wikipedia, an expansion, it is there in the original game.

The real expansion for 'Empire Total War' is 'Napoleon Total War', rather than this being a separate game as Wikipedia suggests.  You need the former game installed in order to put 'Napoleon Total War' on.  This came in February 2010 and finally allowed the playing on the Napoleonic Wars one of the most popular settings for wargamers whether with figures or on computers.  Aside from simplistic, though interesting games of the late 1990s, computer wargamers had been denied a decent Napoleonic set game. 

This game adopts a mission-focused approach with Napoleon's fight at Toulon then his campaigns in Italy and Egypt to get through before you can begin conquering the whole of Europe or playing one of the states opposing him.  This is great fun.  I managed to conquer Russia by 1808 and launch a successful invasion of Britain after the inconclusive Battle of Portsmouth of 1805.  Alternatively, you can unite Germany under Prussian dominion 70 years early.  You do not have to conquer every territory, you can create protectorates which retain their identity but work with you.  This nicely reflects how Napoleon ran his empire, for example creating numerous Italian and German republics and a Polish kingdom rather than ruling them from France.  An expansion kit focused on the Peninsular War 1808-14 is promised.  This would be good, as if you play well in the main game you can have victory by 1808 and so miss out on the Spanish and Portuguese resistance, backed by Britain, which, second only to the Retreat from Moscow, was a key factor in bringing down Napoleon.  I just have to see if I can get hold of a powerful enough computer by the time it comes out.

I have no idea how many hours/days of my life have been spent playing the Total War games.  Some would say it was time wasted, but it has been a key aspect of my leisure time for the past decade and I expect it will be well into the 2010s.  I am not alone in my dedication to and enjoyment of the games, there are thousands of us out there.  Probably many are those men of a certain age who once would have played figure-based wargames on tables, though despite the complexity of the games I know younger people who enjoy the games too.  The combination of wonderful graphics and audio with interfaces which quickly become intuitive and the combination of strategy and tactics are what make these games so easily engaging.  They are not without their flaws and these can be incredibly frustrating at times.  Fortunately modifications produced by amateurs, but as good as much professionally produced work, can overcome these.  The community of Total War fans is an added strength of playing these games and for me has continued my engagment with them when I might have turned away a little exasperated.  As I have noted above, this is pretty common for strategy games, as the woman in my house has found when digging out modifications and additional scenarios for 'Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile' (2005) city-building game.  While the companies may be ambivalent towards fan-produced material, they should see it keeps a base of support alive which is liable to snap up their next official product.  Over the years I have thoroughly enjoyed turning history on its head and I have no doubt I will continue to do so, returning to these games even when they look terribly dated.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Going to Greenwich

This is another of my occasional nostalgic 'memories of' postings.  It takes me back to a time in the mid to late 1990s when I lived in East London.  Thinking about this posting was partly prompted by what I wrote recently about launderettes.  Anyway in the mid-1990s I left Oxford for a better paid job (with far fewer hours) in East London.  First I lived in Poplar which is at the northern end of that southward pointing meander in the River Thames known as the Isle of Dogs (apparently because royal dogs were once kennelled there).  It could have been termed the Isle of Docks because in the first two-thirds of the 20th century it was filled with docks and warehouses unloading ships from around the world bringing food and other materials into London.  This trade began to fade by the 1960s and in the 1980s the docks were closed and Docklands was re-vitalised (in part) by filling some docks, turning others into marinas and putting in office blocks and luxury apartments.  However, alongside these expensive places continued ordinary East End housing, parks and pubs (though many of these clothes), though of course with the work in the docks gone unemployment in the area for ordinary people has always been high.  From Poplar I moved about 3 Km North-West to Mile End but would still often cycle through Poplar and down the Isle of Dogs.

The reason why I would go that way was to get to Greenwich.  This district sits on the southern bank of the River Thames, opposite the southern end of the Isle of Dogs.  Its history has been very different, being a location of a royal palace in the Tudor era and then home to a major naval college.  It is also the location of the historic Royal Observatory on which the Greenwich meridian, i.e. where each stay is deemed to start, runs.  Whist there are districts around Greenwich such as Charlton which are not wealthy, none of the area is as poor as the Isle of Dogs.  It used to strike me when I stood in Island Gardens on the North bank and look over to Greenwich that the divide used to remind me of when I had looked over the West German - East German border in the 1980s, though I must say the difference in wealth was more visible here in London than when I had looked across the Iron Curtain border in rural Hesse.  My trips to Greenwich from the Isle of Dogs generally preceded the extension of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) under the river to Lewisham which was completed in 1999.  From 1994-9 the DLR (first opened in 1987; extended in 1994) stopped at Island Gardens high above street level, but now it dips down and goes under the river with its next stop in Greenwich.  This changed the dynamic of the journey to Greenwich because up until the 1999 extension, DLR passengers had to get off in Island Gardens and then go through the Greenwich foot tunnel.  Thus in the period 1994-9, the foot tunnel probably had the greatest flow of traffic it had seen in decades.  Now they simply ride on the DLR all the way to Greenwich and beyond.

The DLR is a train service without any driver.  It runs automatically around East London linking the City with Docklands but also now North and South London.  There is usually a ticket inspector on board but a lot of children have fun sitting at the front of the driverless train pretending to drive it.  It winds its way through the large office blocks like a monorail at some World's Fair of the 1960s but also passes by very ordinary streets and allotments.  The sharp contrast between the wealth of big business and pretty poor streets is one thing that always struck me.  Of course, generally I cycled rather than took the DLR.  Once when coming back late one evening from seeing friends in Charlton I carried my bicycle up all the steps and put it on the DLR train at Island Gardens.  Aside from me there was only a ticket inspector and one other passenger.  The floor was covered with vomit but the ticket inspector constantly berated me about why I had brought my bicycle on the train (it was not against rules to do so) as there was a chance oil would get on the train.  Given the rubbish and vomit there already I found it rather alarming that he felt the need to have a go at me.  I told him there was no indication when you bought your ticket that bicycles were not permitted and I was not travelling in the rush hour, quite the opposite, but clearly my action exercised him greatly.  In the end I got off at Poplar and cycled the rest of the way back to Mile End.

Even though you can travel direct to Greenwich, I would suggest if you can getting off at Island Gardens and using the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.  You used to pass a classic 1960s tea rooms in Island Gardens (I do not know if it is still there) with the shape of a teapot outlined in white bricks built into its brick work.  Then you step into a huge circular lift with padded seats around the perimeter.  Bicycles are allowed in, but you are not permitted to cycle in the tunnel and the lift attendants have CCTV cameras so they can see who is breaking the rules.  Steps spiral round the lift if you do not want to wait.  The first time I went through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel (it opened in 1902 and was designed to allow dock workers from South London to cross to the Isle of Dogs easily) I half expected to stumble across some underground Victorian city.  The curve of the walls with their white tiles and the glass domed entrances at either end give it a nice steampunk flavour.  Often (though not at present due to refurbishment until March 2011) there are buskers in there and loads of people.  The bubbling voices make it seem very busy at times.  I have been through there with crowds of people and when it was just me and a guitarist strumming away at the mid-point of the tunnel with absolutely minimal audience.  I have even seen clouds down there from moisture that has gathered.  It curves and you have a sense of going under the ground then back up to the surface.  It is often used as a location for short movies; I saw once as a fake Channel Tunnel and then as a tunnel in which a woman was transformed by going into a poster halfway along and from an uptight businesswoman emerged as a kind of hippie-gypsy character.

Anyway, once through the tunnel you emerge in the shadow of the 'Cutty Sark', the famous clipper that used to sail to India and the far smaller and once as famous 'Gypsy Moth' used for single-handed around the world sailing.  These emphasise the maritime connections of Greenwich and whilst it is on a river, you certainly feel like you are in a seaside town rather than part of London.  Now aside from these sights a lot of what I will refer to now is drawn from my memories of the 1990s and there is no guarantee that these things will still be there.  Perhaps someone can email me and update me about what has come and gone since my time.  The last time I went back was in 2001 and on that occasion to the University of Greenwich for a presentation evening.  Greenwich as I remember it was filled with second hand and remaindered bookshops, one classic junk shop, two sorts of flea market and a more stylish covered market selling gift items like soap and stationery and things.  There were a number of decent pubs.  I remember drinking in one on the market and the 'Trafalgar Tavern' further along the river front which many people miss but it does get crowded.  I never drunk in the 'Gipsy Moth' next to the Cutty Sark ship because it was rather too 'chavvy' in contrast to the 'Trafalgar Tavern' which can be very 'yuppie' at times.  I have never drunk in 'The Auctioneer'  but think I was taken to the 'Greenwich Union' by a friend.  There are numerous cafes from chains like Cafe Rouge to indepedent ones so it is good for 'light lunches'.

Once you pass beyond the area of shops and markets in nice period buildings, interspersed with the occasional shop selling seascape paintings or even maritime supplies you begin to get to the historic buildings.  Greenwich has been visited twice by the archaeological programme 'Time Team' who have uncovered Roman remains on the hill and then remains of Henry VIII's jousting arena in the grounds of the former Naval College. The college sits to the East of the district centre and is now primarily owned by the University of Greenwich.  Its long pillared arcades often feature in television dramas (the whole area also features in the movie 'Blow Up' (1966); the tennis courts where the hero inadvertently photographs a dead body are still there, just East of there near Charlton/Kidbrooke).  There is a decent museum in the Naval College too.

Then there is Greenwich Park rising up to the Royal Observatory at the top of the hill.  The park is very pleasant and gives you good views over East London.  I have photographs that I should find out and scan in to illustrate.  The Royal Observatory is a nice small museum in the historic building with information on chronometers.  In its grounds you can stand astride the meridian line and so have one foot in the western hemisphere and one in the eastern hemisphere.  Fascinatingly in the park there is a service road and at some time a diagonal white line was roughly painted across it.  It actually runs North-West to South-East rather than North-South like the real meridian line, but it is in an area you do not have to pay to enter and so there must be thousands, possibly even millions of people around the world who have had themselves photographed straddling this random line thinking they are on the meridian.  You see them in their scores and never want to disappoint them by revealing the truth.

For me Greenwich is always in a bubble of a wonderful summer's day taken up with looking at some history, having a pleasant lunch, browsing for second hand books and dozing on the grass of the park.  For people who live in the packed streets of East London which ironically at weekends in certain areas seem devoid of live, it is a lovely escape to get over to Greenwich which has such vibrancy compared to the run-down shopping streets and closed pubs of the Isle of Dogs.  The fact you can look over from one to another I think heightens the poignancy of it all.  However, I found being able to get away from my single room in Mile End living above a chip shop with a bathroom shared by seven people to a place that was like going to the seaside was a great pick-me-up and even though I live (for the moment) in far better conditions I do miss the opportunity whenever I fancied to quickly go to Greenwich.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Suddenly Acquiring A Teenaged 'Daughter'

Myself and the woman who lives in my house, given the fall in my income since becoming unemployed again, have looked at ways of increasing the household revenue, if not my income.  Like many towns and all cities in the UK, ours has a number of language schools which at this time of year in particular fill with students from across the world, notably other EU states (of which Italy and Spain seem to lead the way) and China.  They come to the UK to learn English and have a bit of a holiday from their parents.  Though increasingly language students are of all ages and business and retired people now come to such schools, their visits tend to be at different times of the year and the summer is dominated by the teenagers.  For many towns, especially run-down seaside resorts they bring in vital funds to the town and while their noise and crowds might be looked down upon disapprovingly by locals, they know that the money is very useful.  The government recently sought to choke off this revenue by effectively saying you could not come and study in the UK until you could speak a pretty high level of English anyway, a good grade at GCSE, a level that the majority of the British population does not have itself.  The industry employs 3000 people and brings £600 million per year to the UK. 

The ripple effects are far wider than that because of the need to accommodate these students.  Unlike, say, university students, most language students who come to the UK only for 2-4 weeks are billeted in private houses usually one at a time, sometimes a couple more.  This brings revenue to literally hundreds of households at any one time.  The going rate seems to be, in the South of England, about £400 per month per student.  Schools vary in size considerably, but having 200 students in one cohort does not seem excessive for the schools I have seen, so let us say each school would be putting £80,000 into the local economy each month.  I have lost count of how many language schools there are in my town, some small, some very large, but it seems apparent that by simply lodging their students in houses across the town they are providing hundreds of thousands of pounds of knock-on money into the economy.

Myself and the woman in my house realised that clearing out one room and providing it for a language student could tap us into these funds.  We had been inundated by offers from schools in vicinity and signed up with three to start with to ensure a constant flow of students.  Under UK regulations if you have language students below the age of 16 you have to undergo a CRB check like teachers and youth workers do, but if they are over 16 you can save the money and of course you get a student who should be responsible for their own welfare.  Thus, we went for this option.  We had our house inspected and were asked about what we could provide and then and sat back and waited for our first student.  We were to provide bed, breakfast and evening meal and a packed lunch when the student went on field trips on the weekend.  Out of the £100 per week this did not see a heavy expense.  Having travelled a lot in my youth as had the woman in my house, we were looking forward to having someone to talk to so she (as it turned out) could practice her English.

I have written before on this blog about avoiding the risk of inadvertently becoming a parent and the dire consequences of that happening.  However, wrapped up in this financial agreement and the business side of things I totally overlooked the pastoral consequences of having a 16-year old Spanish girl living with us for four weeks.  I had enough trouble dealing with a 7-year old and now literally overnight we have a teenager in our midst.  First she needs to be ferried from place to place in our car and the friends she is with too, so that is me breaking off what I am doing to go and collect her.  Her mobile is re-routed via Spain so any texts take hours to reach her so I am wandering round the town scanning groups of teenaged Europeans trying to seek the particular one when she is not at the place she was supposed to be collected from.  I was worried how sinister I must appear and was concerned I would be pulled in by the police.  Certainly the men lurking around there alarmed me and I immediately had nightmares of the student being butchered on her second evening in our town or at least and most likely, being mugged and having her mobile phone stolen.  The school set a 22.00 curfew, but in a house in which we struggle to stay awake passed 20.00, this is a challenge for us.  We gave up waiting up for her and were glad when the school issued her with her bus pass so I was no longer the free taxi service. 

The school she is with is far larger than the average one and has its own catering facilities open 12 hours per day and runs activities seven evenings per week.  This has meant, ironically, that we see our student as little as we presumably would a teenage daughter.  She does not stop for breakfast, just goes from her hour long chore of selecting her clothes and putting on make-up (one error we made at first was not to put a mirror in her bedroom meaning the bathroom was blocked for an hour each morning and before any major social event).  She will not take lunch and we are asleep before she returns.  I worry that in fact she is not eating enough.  After the first couple of nights she has had no meal with us and even eschews the proffered packed lunch at weekends.  Occasionally she remembers to text to tell us of her comings and goings but that is rare and the text usually turns up long after the event.  We have had none of the English conversation around the dining table and our computer has been adapted so that anything you hover over with the cursor comes up with a Spanish translation.

We are not the parents, we are not even in loco parentis, but when you have a young person in your house, especially one who is unfamiliar with your town and who does not seem to be eating enough and going to bed late every night, meaning she is now not rising in time for school, you do get concerned.  However, I suppose in this case we are no more than a bed & breakfast hotel for a guest who only wants the former.  She will soon be gone, but what it has alerted me to is that within 8 years, possibly less, the small boy who lives in my house will probably be just the same and that unless this household breaks up when the house is repossessed as it well might, I will be having to face up to the same sort of demands but permanently.  I suppose with a parent on hand discipline and curfew hours will be able to be enforced in a way we cannot with our guest.  I do feel rather though that I have spent some time with the 'Spirit of Summers Future' and seen all the unease and driving that those years will bring.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

'You're Not As Good As You Appear On Paper': The Interview Saga Continues

As regular readers will know for the second time in 12 months I am unemployed.  Having received a far better redundancy package this year I am not in as desperate situation as last year, but as the money drips away there is still the prospect of house repossession and the break up of the household I have lived in for almost five years.  This year for some reason, perhaps because of higher unemployment, the Department of Work & Pensions seems to be less concerned about my domestic arrangements and have decided to pay me some benefit within a couple of weeks rather than waiting almost three months to start doing so.  Even the council is paying me council tax benefit, though it has wanted a day-by-day account of all the economic activity of the people living in the house whether they want benefit or not.

One of the requirements of claiming unemployment benefit is that you apply for two jobs per week.  There is no specification what kind of jobs these should be.  You cannot limit yourself too narrowly in terms of type of work or location.  I have been looking for jobs over a 190 km radius.  Being keen to get a job, I have in fact been applying right outside my recent area of work, going into residential lettings, working for councils, work for colleges and civil service roles.  Unsurprisingly given how many redundant people there are anyway in those fields, I have not got a look in.  Some weeks I apply for jobs that I know I stand no chance of being interviewed for, just because there is nothing else to show me applying for that week.  Sometimes, as with an interview I attended a week ago, I get caught out and get invited to be interviewed for a job I have no ability in.  I have quickly learned that actually that is sometimes the point and the employers like a few hopeless candidates to make it appear to their bosses as if they are drawing from a wide field when in fact they have hardly anyone suitable or have already set it up to give the job to a friend.

Often the reason why companies have so few candidates is that they have set too many criteria that there is no-one alive who could fit all of them and certainly not for only £25,000 per year.  The number of criteria seems to have fallen in my experience, with last year's record being 36 Essential and 10 Desirable requirements to this year being 25 Essential and 4 Desirable, though you did have to write about each of these in five small boxes on a website within 30 minutes or you were timed out, so perhaps they are just introducing new ways to eliminate people.

In terms of my own industry, however, I have found myself rather too successful.  This should be heartening, but let me explain the problem.  I put effort in completing my application forms correctly, reading all the guidance and seeking to comply with it.  I try to answer every question on the form (some times very challenging when there is a limit on the number of characters and even spaces you can use in providing the answer) and do it drawing on evidence from my career.  Interestingly, at two interviews I have been told that I was the only applicant who filled the form in properly, so I do wonder how other people do it.  It appears that to a great degree this gives me an inappropriate advantage as I am called to interview not on my actual abilities but simply because I have complied with the process.

Despite this, more than 20 interviews on, I still have no job.  I beg feedback from the interviewers and after receiving none from a lot of companies I have been interviewed with, was surprised to get a spate of feedback recently.  The common theme was that 'in person you are not a fraction as good as you appeared in your application'.  The increasing implication is that I must be lying on my application forms.  One person went as far as to say that having met me it was clear I was utterly unsuited for the role that I had applied for and should not go for such roles again.  I have never lied on any application form in my life. In fact when having CV training back in 2005 I was told to play up skills and abilities much more than I do.  However, I keep it plain and simple and certainly stick to the truth.  In fact, given how restricted the space is for writing on these application forms, especially online ones, there is usually a lot more I could say if there was space.

When I get to the interview I try to respond to the questions as best as I can.  One key problem is that you are now supposed to answer complex questions and even scenarios put to you, in what seems like 2-3 sentences at the most whilst drawing on real life examples from your career.  This is something I have failed to master and I tend to give answers at least as long as the question and certainly long enough to address the issues being raised.  However, it is clear that somehow you have to get all of that into the head of the interviewers in fewer words than they have used themselves.  I have also learned that I have been under a misapprehension.  I assumed that if I saw the interviewers making a lot of notes that was a good sign, but fortunately due to the feedback I have now received, it is a sign that things are going badly, I am somehow 'diluting' the answers I give by adding too much.  So if they simply tick their sheet I should see that as good and shut up then.

Sometimes, of course, you realise that, in fact you are not suited for a job.  The last feedback I received said that first comment I had made was spot-on but then the issues I had gone on to were irrelevant to the answer.  From my side, the first comment was a throwaway one while I thought through the answer and what I moved on to was how I feel about the issue and how I see the right way to address it.  What the interviewer saw as me having weak interview skills in fact revealed to me that my approach was completely the opposite to what that company wants.  In many ways, in that case, the interview had done its job.  However, it is presented to me as someone who is bad at interviews.  Interviews are always about second guessing what the potential employer wants and there is no way to get it right every time.  However, my enthusiasm for my work, I now see, means I cannot shift position fast enough to bring what I am saying in line with the company's line, rather I say what I feel is the correct way to deal with an issue and the way I would do it and just have to be lucky if that happens to coincide with how the company sees it.  I am no better at mind-reading than the next wo/man.

I need to change my approach and quickly.  Not being a student or even recent ex-student, I have no access to interview training, which like CVs and everything else in recruitment seems to go through rapid changes in fashion.  If the Job Centre Plus was any use this is what they could be training me in.  It seems that it could get me off the jobless figures pretty quickly.  I seem, unlike many people, to have cracked the application form bit, it is learning how to be sufficiently chameleon-like in the interview so that at least they do not come out telling me I was wrong to have even applied and certainly raise the suspicion that if I am that unsuitable my application form must be full of lies.  Instead I am being sent to a session on my duties when I am unemployed, which I think by my weekly level of applications I am complying with.  I cannot magic more suitable vacancies out of the air and I do not seem able to get people in different industries interested in me at all.  The ironic outcome of all this is that I should begin to be less competent in completing my application forms, then at least if I am called to interview my performance there will not seem so out of step with what I have written on the form, so reducing the clear disillusionment on the part of the interviewers and the suspicion that I am a liar.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Unlucky Tour

I must say that the 2010 Tour De France has been one of the ones I have least enjoyed.  I might have found the characterless Miguel Indurain hammering out his tempo and winning year after year tedious; in 2008 I certainly found Cadel Evans incredibly irritating, but this year there were a lot of things that seemed to spoil the race.  The battle between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, of course, was a classic, but reflecting on Contador's stronger performance all round, it was clear given the time trial, and barring any bad luck, he was going to win.  Of course, if it had not been for the faulty decision in 2008 not to let him defend his 2007 win, then this would be his fourth consecutive win and it would be looking like he would be close to entering that select band of multiple winners, not least his fellow countryman.  Given his youth, he is still only 28, he has a reasonable chance of getting into that kind of category, especially in a sport in which men like Lance Armstrong and Christophe Moreau riding the race almost into their 40s.  Schleck has come a long way even in the past year and showed that he could no longer simply be dropped by Contador on a climb, but whether he can ever beat him in a time trial is a different issue.

Contador can be said to not been particularly lucky or unlucky, but this year being in such a position was itself an advantage.  The first few days had an intolerable level of crashes.  Of course, any leading cycle tour has crashes, but this year it seemed to exceed the acceptable level in terms of severity.  Andy Schleck was able to recover but the greatest loss to him was his brother Frank Schleck being taken out of the race due to injury at such an early stage.  If Schleck was going to beat Contador this year he needed an exceptional team.  Both Saxobank and Astana fielded good teams, Alexander Vinokurov was almost as challenging for Contador on the Astana team as Armstrong was in that role last year.  What would have made a real difference was if Frank Schleck had been there to lift his brother beyond Contador's pace.  It was only bad luck that meant he was not there. 

The other piece of bad luck was Andy Schleck's chain coming loose when he was launching a strong attack on Contador, something which will be discussed for years.  Contador genuinely seems to like Schleck and seems to have been unsettled by feeling he had snatched an unfair advantage.  I think at the end of the day he would have caught Schleck anyway and wiped out any small advantage in the time trial.  However, it is hard on Schleck to think that he could have retained the yellow jersey that little bit longer if he had not had a mechanical fault, but this year they do seem to be common.

Of course, the man to suffer most from bad luck was Lance Armstrong.  I know why he rode the race in 2009 and 2010, but it was a shame for him simply to fade after multiple mechanical faults and crashes.  I do not think he would have had a high finish, but to go out in his final tour this way seems to have been bad luck and it would have been nice to have seen him have a tour a little more like fellow last time rider, Moreau.  Others did not have bad luck, just bad form, notably Cadel Evans who seems to have had a personality transplant and is rather unsettlingly cheery these days.  However, looking back, his slide after a burst of glory has characterised many of his recent tours no matter his personality.  Bradley Wiggins, the great British hope who came 4th last year, similarly had no single bad thing to point to, just occasional lack of lucky breaks and unfortunately as time passed, a flagging of morale.  He now sees last year's position as a 'fluke'.  Perhaps Geraint Thomas, second in the race for so many days, though, it seems, quickly forgotten, will step into that position.  David Millar the rather erratic British rider, was also unlucky, like too many of the riders this year plagued by mishaps and ill health.

Mark Cavendish after a challenging year as a result of his rather fast temper and playful/offensive gesturing showed he still had the power and speed to win sprints.  However, it did become more apparent that his skill does not suit all finishes and the longer run-ins can be taken by Thor Hushovd and even Alessandro Petacchi even at the age of 36.  Perhaps 2010 should be seen as the year of the 'old' men in the Tour De France.  Cavendish in HTC Columbia, perhaps had the best team for doing what that team focuses on, i.e. winning sprints.  I think their success, however, was a little dangerous and whilst Mark Renshaw, Cavendish's lead-out man over the final metres was probably right in trying to keep his space, he was too vigorous with his head and clearly was blocking people trying to catch Cavendish.  Success often leads to a fear of even the chance of failure and a willingness to behave in a way which eliminates even that risk.  It was not bad luck, it was arrogance stemming from too great success.  Cavendish remains the fastest man in the last metres; Hushovd has proven himself to be what the green jersey competition is really about, i.e. consistency no matter what the environment.  Though these two things intersect at times, this year even more than last showed the difference between the two.

Looking ahead, I certainly will watch the career of Canadian Ryder Hesjedal with great interest.  In a more mundane year I think we would be talking much more about him.  At 30 it may be a little late for him to be seen as a newcomer, but I expect to see big things from him in the 2011 Tour De France, just as we have this year over as varied situations as the pave of northern France and the Pyrenean climbs of its South.

Perhaps people will accuse me of asking for too much.  A head-to-head battle for the yellow jersey, surely is excitement enough.  However, I think a lot of space around and behind Contador and Schleck was cleared not by their strength and ability but by too much bad luck on dangerous routes.  This year's organisers got their undecided race until the end but it came at the price of inadvertently eliminating too many other contenders.