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Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1950) 381 p.

Gormenghast: the second titanic novel in Mervyn Peake’s brilliantly unique fantasy trilogy. I enjoyed Titus Groan quite a lot, but Gormenghast has the sophomore’s blessing: having grown accustomed to Peake’s writing style, and knowing more properly what to expect, I enjoyed this novel even more. But really, they’re inescapably linked; they very easily could have been a single book, and indeed I’m reading the series as part of a hefty single-volume Vintage edition.

Titus Groan covered the first year in the life of Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan, who will one day inherit the rulership of the ancient, crumbling, city-like castle of Gormenghast, and who loathes the boundaries of his gilded cage. Gormenghast is a little wonky with the passage of time, but appears to cover ten years, beginning with Titus aged seven and finishing when he is seventeen. Gormenghast remains an enormous, rambling, labyrinthine castle with a myriad of characters and storylines to match, but there are two key threads: Titus’ growing misery at the fate his birth has laid out for him, and the Machiavellian ambitions of the ruthless Steerpike, who escaped the kitchens in Titus Groan to worm his way into the service of the Master of Ritual, and in Gormenghast sets his aims higher still.

Peake’s writing style is a key element in what makes these books unique, or rather, what successfully makes this gargantuan castle and its bizarre inhabitants feel like the cast of an epic tale rather than an odd little artistic experiment by a gifted eccentric. Ponderous, wordy, elaborate, drawn-out: there is no doubt that Peake could cut most of his sentences down in volume by three quarters, but to do so would be to destroy exactly what makes his writing so brilliant. Here’s an example, which may be the longest quote I have ever inserted into a book review, but which I think illustrates the style of Gormenghast perfectly – especially since it happens to be simultaneously horrifying and hilarious. Deadyawn, the ancient and wheelchair-bound headmaster of Gormenghast’s school, arrives in a classroom with the faculty for a surprise visit; mere moments ago the schoolboys where playing a game beneath the nose of their sleeping teacher which involved the use of a waxed and slippery floorboard, which now remains upturned.

How merciful a thing is man’s ignorance of his immediate future! What a ghastly, paralysing thing it would have been if all those present could have known what was about to happen within a matter of seconds! For nothing short of pre-knowledge could have stopped the occurrence, so suddenly it sprang upon them.

The scholars were still standing, and Mr Fly, the usher, who had reached the end of the passage between the desks, was about to turn the high chair to the left and to run it up under Bellgrove’s desk where Deadyawn could speak to his oldest professor, when the calamity occurred, and even the dreadful fact of Titus’ disappearance was forgotten. For The Fly had slipped! His feet had fled from under his perky body. His cocky little walk was suddenly a splayed confusion of legs. They shot to and fro like a frog’s. But for all their lashing they could get no grip on the slippery floor, for he had trodden on that deadly board which had been returned – upside down – to its place below Bellgrove’s desk.

The Fly had no time to let go his grip of the High Chair. It swayed above him like a tower – and then while the long line of the staff peered over one another’s shoulders and the boys stood at their desks transfixed, something more appalling than they had ever contemplated took place before them.

For as The Fly came down in a crash on the boards, the wheels of the high chair whirled like tops and gave their final screech and the rickety piece of furniture leapt like a mad thing and from its summit something was hurled high into the air! It was Deadyawn!

He descended from somewhere near the ceiling like a visitor from another planet, or from the cosmic realms of Outer Space, as with all the signs of the Zodiac fluttering about him he plunged earthwards.

Had he but had a long brass trumpet at his lips and the power of arching his back and curling upwards as he neared the floor-boards, and of swooping across the room over the heads of the scholars in a riot of draperies, to float away and out through the leaves of the plane tree and over the back of Gormenghast, to disappear for ever from the rational world – then, if only he had had the power to do this, that dreadful sound would have been avoided: that most dreadful and sickening sound which not a single boy or professor who heard it that morning was ever able to forget. It darkened the heart and brain. It darkened the very sunlight itself in that summer classroom.

But it was not enough that their hearing was appalled by the sound of a skull being crushed like an egg – for, as though everything was working together to produce the maximum horror, Fate had it that the Headmaster, in descending absolutely vertically, struck the floor with the top of his cranium, and remained upside down, in a horrible state of balance, having stiffened with a form of premature rigor mortis.

The soft, imponderable, flaccid Deadyawn, that arch-symbol of delegated duties, of negation and apathy, appeared now that he was upside down to have more life in him that he had ever had before. His limbs, stiffened in the death-spasm, were positively muscular. His crushed skull appeared to balance a body that had suddenly perceived its reason for living.

The first movement, after the gasp of horror that ran across the sunny schoolroom, came from among the debris of what was once the high chair.

The usher emerged, his red hair ruffled, quick eyes bulging, his teeth chattering with terror. At the sight of his master upside down he made for the window, all trace of cockiness gone from his carriage, his sense of propriety so outraged that there was nothing he wanted so much as to make a quick end to himself. Climbing on the window-sill, The Fly swung his legs over and then dropped to the quadrangle a hundred feet below.

A quote that long really breaks the bounds of good taste in a book review, but I can’t resist. I find it hilarious. The Fly’s immediate, silent, wordless suicide is the icing on the cake, a scene straight out of Monty Python. It’s also worth mentioning how pitch-perfect Peake’s names are for his strange, amusing characters – Deadyawn, Flannelcat, Opus Fluke, Rottcodd, Perch-Prism, Bellgrove – a cross between Dr Seuss and Charles Dickens.

I’ve seen other reviewers comment on how much Peake’s prose style appears to be influenced by his primary calling as an artist and illustrator; how so much of Titus Groan and Gormenghast involve the careful construction of painted scenes with words, a series of motionless, epic moments bound together to form a story. I’ve used the word “unique” too many times in this review, but there’s no other way to describe the world of Gormenghast Castle: not quite Gothic, not quite Dickensian, not quite Baroque. The BBC made an adaptation of the series about fifteen years ago, which I don’t know anything about apart from the fact that it was poorly received. I’m not surprised, because these books are unfilmable. They’re far too weirdly unique to properly exist anywhere outside a reader’s head.

I’ve avoided reading too much about the third and final book, Titus Alone, but I’ve heard that Peake’s health was declining as he wrote it and that it’s a very different sort of book from its predecessors. Some people hate it, some love it. We shall see. In any case, even if it turns out to be a clanger, Titus Groan and Gormenghast will still comprise one of the 20th century’s greatest works of literature. They are, quite simply, must-read novels.

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000) 299 p.

I was at a David Mitchell talk at the Piccadilly Waterstone’s a few months back, and after getting my copy of The Bone Clocks signed I noticed Michel Faber was also in the audience, so I went and talked to him. I was fairly pleased with myself, because anybody can buy tickets to see an author but it takes a skilful eye to pick one out of the crowd, you know? So it was sort of embarrassing to admit to him that while he was on my TBR list, I hadn’t actually read any of his novels, and had only recognised him because he was on Meet the Author the previous week. (Not that he cared, he was really nice.) So anyway, now that my namedropping is out of the way, time to review Faber’s first novel Under the Skin.

This will actually be a frustrating book to review, because it’s a) the kind of novel that raises lots of stuff for discussion, but b) also the kind of novel you want to know very little about beforehand. Suffice to say that it follows Isserley, a large-breasted but weirdly proportioned woman who drives around Scotland picking up healthy, muscular male hitch-hikers. At first the reader assumes she’s a nymphomaniac – then, perhaps, a serial killer? The actual truth is bizarre and horrifying, and if that sounds like a good read to you (and it is, indeed, a really good book) then stop reading this now.

I think I was actually spoiled on the plot years ago, which is possibly how it ended up on my TBR pile in the first place. Faber is apparently reputed for writing books which are all very different from one other; his other well-known ones include The Crimson Petal and the White, a historical Victorian novel, and his most recent work, The Book of Strange New Things, about a Christian missionary bringing the Bible to aliens on another planet. So I knew that Under the Skin was a science fiction novel, and that Isserley is in fact an alien, although I’d forgotten that the young human men are being harvested for food. (To the publishers’ credit, the blurb keeps all of this vague, at least in my edition, as does David Mitchell’s introduction.) I was somewhat surprised to find that Faber isn’t a vegetarian, given how horrifically gruesome the factory farming process is shown to be when the tables are turned and it’s young human men being castrated, shaved, de-tongued and fattened up. Under the Skin may not be critical of eating meat per se, but it’s certainly an damning indictment of factory farming, of the vast industrial nightmare that millions upon millions of sheep, cattle and pigs are fed into every day.

When I was at university I had a job at a local supermarket. It was mostly in the deli, but on Saturdays I was put in the department simply called “the meat room,” to clean up the mess after the butchers went home at noon. In gumboots and apron, a lot of this involved hosing blood off the walls and floor and fishing chunks of meat and gristle out of the drain-catchers. None of this bothered me one bit. But flip it around, create a scenario where aliens or monsters casually carve up human beings and then spray down the mess, and suddenly it becomes a scene literally out of a horror movie. (Or out of the opening of the fifth season of The Walking Dead, one of the only parts of a generally mediocre series that I found incredibly well-filmed, conceptualised and physically stressful to watch.)

The counterpoint, of course, is that human beings are intelligent creatures. But I’m sure that doesn’t make much difference to the cow. I don’t even like to kill a bug, and if society collapsed and I suddenly found myself having to live off the land, there’s very little doubt in my mind that I’d go vegetarian rather than kill animals by my own hand. The conveniences of modern society keep the living, breathing animals away from me, so I can cheerfully go on eating meat without having my delicate sensibilities harmed. Hypocritical, I know, but there you have it. (I’m practically a vegetarian in London anyway because I can’t afford meat, hey-ooo!) Under the Skin isn’t going to turn me vegetarian, but it’s definitely an unsettling and terrifying read. Highly recommended.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carre (1963) 258 p.

Although I’m not a reader of spy fiction I’d naturally heard of John le Carre, the world’s most famous and best-selling author in the genre, and because of the name I’d always assumed he was French. Turns out it’s actually the pen name of English author David Cornwell, who was naturally forced to assume an identity because he was basing his novels on all sorts of secret stuff when he was working for the British intelligence services in the 1950s and 1960s. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is probably the best-known espionage novel of all time, challenged only by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, also one of le Carre’s.

The book is a classic story from the early, nasty days of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall had only just gone up and many Western agents suddenly found themselves trapped in the East. The novel begins with Alec Leamas, the fifty-something chief of British intelligence in West Berlin, waiting at Checkpoint Charlie for the attempted escape of one of his spies from the other side. The spy is shot dead – the last of a ring that had been targeted in recent months – and with no more agents in the field, Leamas is recalled to London. There, partly to find out how the East Germans managed to uncover so many of their operatives, and partly out of sheer revenge against them, Leamas and his handlers construct a complex triple agent scheme which will see him falsely defect to the East.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is set in 1963, but this is the early 1960s, before the Beatles and hippies and free love and Vietnam. This 1960s is far more like the 1950s: cold, grey, bleak and austere. Rationing from WWII had only recently ended in England, and the war itself was still fresh in everybody’s mind. There is a palpable sense of conflict and tension, of a world being on the brink of war. It’s easy to look back and think that the Cold War, all in all, didn’t turn out too badly, but hindsight is always 20/20. Another turn of events could very easily have seen Europe torn apart again. The most interesting thing about The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is that despite so clearly being a relic of its time, it also feels very modern, because of how cynical and nihilistic it is. The novel’s overall theme is that the West’s methods are incompatible with its ideals, and Communism certainly isn’t presented in a positive light; but the spies on both sides of the Iron Curtain are portrayed as ruthless and amoral, part of a deadly game which has terrible emotional and personal consequences for them, ultimately having more in common with each other than with the citizens they’re supposed to be protecting. It’s very common now, in the age of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, to look back on the Cold War with a sort of nostalgia – a time when the line was clearly, literally drawn, when the ideologies were on a level playing field, when the soldiers wore uniforms. Nowadays, presenting intelligence work as morally murky is par for the course; take the Bourne movies, for example, in which the CIA is presented as a monolithic villain. But for its time, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold must have been very shocking.

Unfortunately, as a product of its time, it’s also deeply sexist, and not in a way that can be overlooked like in the works of John Wyndham. One of the novel’s major characters, Liz, is a woman in her early twenties. Apart from plot reasons, she’s mostly in the book to serve as a symbol of innocence and purity, which le Carre might get away with if not for the fact that this goes hand in hand with writing her as a silly, weak, impressionable, hysterical child, who falls easily and desperately in love with Leamas, as though there was never any question that she would fall for the first man to move into her orbit, and without anybody ever seeming perturbed by their gross age disparity. I don’t like to be too critical of the politics of writers who were merely products of their time, but this was really one of the most irritatingly sexist books I’ve read in a while.

Other than that, though, it’s a solid novel. A little bit too complicated – a lot of characters that go by generic surnames, a lot of doublecrossing and a lot of information withheld from the reader at critical junctures, but I suppose that’s the nature of the genre. It’s a moody, atmospheric work that I enjoyed a fair bit, even though I think it’s one of those books that’s famous for being an influential landmark rather than a particularly great novel in and of itself. I liked it enough to read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy somewhere down the line.

Terry Pratchett and a pig at Hay Festival 2012
What can I say about Terry Pratchett that will add to the chorus of voices singing his praises today? A writer and a fantasist, a witty philosopher, an inspiration and an entertainer of millions of people. A wonderful person, an honest and humble man who faced down his premature death sentence with dignity, bravery and an unflappable sense of humour that I doubt many of us could muster. All I can do, as I’m sure so many of us are doing, is share my own memories and experiences.

The first Discworld book I ever read was The Fifth Elephant. This is the fifth book in the City Watch cycle and certainly not an ideal place to start, but as a kid I didn’t know any better. I must have been 11, I suppose, since it came out in 2000; although I borrowed it from the library rather than part with hard-earned pocket money on an author I’d always been dubious about. (Josh Kirby’s bizarre covers, with their crazily muscular heroes and ridiculously buxom women, always looked a bit off-putting; I was too young to realise that the covers themselves were parodies.) Like any memorable book I still recall exactly where I read The Fifth Elephant, in a caravan at the back of my aunt and uncle’s place down in Capel in the middle of winter. I can’t remember what holiday that was or what we were doing there, but I remember being completely enchanted by a cynical and savvy detective, clever political intrigue in a fantasy kingdom, and a thrilling flight from werewolves through a snowy forest.

That was what surprised me: just how much of a serious novel it was. I knew that Pratchett was a humourous writer, but The Fifth Elephant was so much more than a series of jokes and puns and silliness. It was a proper, serious, dramatic story, involving travel to a far-flung land, political conspiracies, murder, subterfuge, love, family. Although I was probably too young to properly appreciate it, Pratchett was making observations about topics ranging from geopolitics to modernisation to the nature of violence, and hundreds of little things in between; the Discworld books, as any reader will tell you, are peppered with sly and witty observations about the human condition. Dealing in fantasy and comedy, two things which are by definition not meant to be taken seriously, Pratchett was crafting some of the most realistic characters I’d yet encountered in my short reading life. And I was delighted, of course, to find that there were another twenty-three marvellous books like this to read. (Now there are forty, and it would appear that Pratchett completed a forty-first before his death.)

These days, what most people know about Terry Pratchett is that he’s a humourous writer; a comic fantasy novelist. But like most funny people, he uses humour because he wants to be taken seriously. And god damn it, I’m still instinctively writing about him in present tense, because for as long as we knew this was coming it still seems wrong that he’s gone. 66 was far too young for a man of this calibre, a titan of English letters and the finest satirist of the modern age, to be taken away from us.

If you’ve never read any Pratchett before and the collective wave of internet sadness over his passing is making you think you should, all I can say is: yes, please do. You won’t regret it. Start with Pratchett’s own suggestion of Guards, Guards, the eighth Discworld novel but the first of the City Watch cycle and the introduction of Sam Vimes, one of the greatest antiheroes of all time – or the most “fully realised decent man in modern literature,” as Andrew Brown puts it in a wonderful piece over at the Guardian.

After having read The Fifth Elephant, I hoovered down the rest of the Discworld series over the course of my early teenage years. I can honestly say that no other artist or writer – with the possible exception of Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes – had such an impact on my understanding of human nature and the messy, complex, funny, terrible, exciting state of the world. He was cynical, but not a cynic; exasperated, but amused. In some immeasurable way, to some degree, Terry Pratchett shaped my personality; certainly more so than any other books I read as a child. Like so many other young readers, I owe him a great debt.

All I can do to repay it is to urge everybody to read his marvellous body of work, which is a fairly pointless edict, since the public doesn’t need my instruction. Pratchett was popular enough as it was (the best-selling author in Britain, in fact, before JK Rowling nudged him out) and I have no doubt that with his passing, his reputation and his legacy will continue to grow. A comparison with Dickens might seem excessive – but only to people who haven’t read him.

In recent years, despite their misgivings, I put both my best friend and my girlfriend on to Pratchett, and watching them enjoy the Discworld series made me want to re-read it. Now, as a sort of Grub Street commemoration, seems like a very appropriate time to revisit the works of an author who had such a great influence on me. I’m already looking forward to it.

No-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away – until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.

– From Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett (1991)

Regular price: £14.99
Sale price: £5.99

The ultimate prey being man is such an old chestnut of satire that most people wouldn’t know where it originally comes from – the 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell. Sir, You Are Being Hunted certainly has its origin in that trope, but the spin this time around is that the hunters are robots. You play a hapless inventor who has accidentally teleported himself to an archipelago of grey, rainy islands and must attempt to recollect the pieces of his device to send himself safely home.

This is a humourous game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The robots are clad in tweed and top hats, spouting off radio-warbled English pleasantries, and the islands are modelled after a certain concept of Britain – drizzly, bleak and industrial. The food that you scavenge to stay alive includes jars of marmalade, fruitcake and Stilton cheese, and you’re guided by the distinguished voice of your overly polite scientific assistant. In the sense of creating a unique atmosphere, Sir, You Are Being Hunted is certainly a success.

As a game? Not so much. Traditionally stealth games put you in the place of the silent killer in the shadows, from Splinter Cell to Metal Gear Solid to Dishonored – you’re toast if you face the enemy head on, but if you do things properly you’re the hunter, not the hunted; the terror in the night, the stalker in the grass. Sir, You Are Being Hunted obviously flips that on its head – it’s right there in the title – and while the concept is good, the execution is poor. You have a meter in the bottom left-hand corner which shows how visible you are, much like Metal Gear Solid 3, and much like Metal Gear Solid 3 this means the most effective way to get about unseen is by slowly wriggling your way through the grass, inching across the landscape. Sir, You Are Being Hunted has a procedurally-generated environment, with structures which can be looted for supplies but not actually entered, and after a while it seems to feel a bit pointless. It’s quite difficult to  find the missing pieces of your teleportation device, even after you locate the scanner, and the ultimate feeling is one of slowly turtling your way through a repetitive countryside looking for a needle in a haystack.

The game also suffers from a few glitches; more than once I found myself suddenly stuck staring at the sky, able to do nothing more than fruitlessly discharge my revolver. And it would have been quite spooky the first time I encountered The Landowner, and heard his eerie hooting cries, were it not for the fact that he was stuck in a tree and kept stubbornly trying to run through it.

Sir, You Are Being Hunted is a laudable attempt at a creative and original indie game, both in terms of atmosphere and mechanics. But for me, it fell flat.

Sir, You Are Being Hunted on Steam

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982) 429 p.

This is not a book which can be approached uninfluenced in the modern age, because everybody has heard of Oskar Schindler now. Apparently the book was popular enough, but I have no doubt it was the Spielberg adaptation which truly made Schindler a household name. I haven’t seen the film, though, apart from a few scenes I recall being shown in fifth grade. On that topic: does anybody else remember having the Holocaust included in their primary school curriculum at age nine? I mentioned in my review of Maus that it’s probably a misguided idea to introduce an event like that to young minds (not out of fear of scarring them, but because it’s too weighty a subject for them to properly appreciate) but I’m starting to realise that maybe my own education was an outlier; the influence of a single teacher or the ping-pong nature of politically-motivated public school curricula between left-wing and right-wing state governments.

In any case, I began this book knowing full well the rough outlines of the story of Oskar Schindler, and I was somewhat surprised to find, in Thomas Keneally’s introduction, that he was a relatively unknown figure until being brought to greater light by the book and the film. Keneally was in a luggage store in Los Angeles in 1982 and fell into conversation with the owner, Leopold Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. Upon finding out Keneally was an author, Pfefferberg told him about Oskar Schindler and begged him to write a novel about him, after years of unsuccessfully attempting to interest Hollywood producers in his story. Keneally had never heard of Schindler, but after reading the records Pfefferberg gave him and conducting research of his own, he decided to write a novel about him. As Keneally put it, Oskar was witness to almost every step of the Jewish ordeal: “the confiscation of Jewish property and business, for the creation and liquidation of the ghettos, and the building of labour camps, Arbeitslager, to contain labour forces.” As we all know now, Schindler would go on to become a great saviour of the Jews, preserving over a thousand lives by sheltering them as skilled workers in his munitions factory. Much of Schindler’s Ark is about the deception, subterfuge, bribery and greasing of wheels Schindler had to undertake to keep the whole edifice running under the noses of the SS for the duration of the war.

There is obviously no doubt that this is a powerful subject matter, that Schindler was a man who deserves to be remembered as a hero, and that it’s a good thing that Pfefferberg finally managed to find somebody to immortalise him. Whether Schindler’s Ark is a great novel is a rather trickier beast. Keneally mentions from the very beginning that he has “attempted to avoid all fiction, because fiction would debase the record, and to distinguish between reality and the myths which are likely to attach themselves to a man of Oskar’s stature.” He accomplishes this goal rather admirably, never allowing the reader to forget that this is a fictionalised account of a very true story, in which the author undertook meticulous research, interviewing dozens of Holocaust survivors scattered across countries all over the globe. He nonetheless treats his principals as characters, with the reader privy to their thoughts and feelings and motivations, and for the most part Schindler’s Ark reads much more like a novel than a historical book.

Where Schindler’s Ark falters, as a novel, is the areas in which it brushes against a more academic work of fiction: the profusion of foreign names, foreign places, a desire to trace the chronology of this story all the way to the end, concluding with an oddly dry epilogue which traces Schindler’s life from the end of the war to his death in Frankfurt decades later. It ultimately leaves the book in an odd place; a work of art which is worthy for what it covers, what it brings to light, rather than its inherent value as a novel. For me, at least, Maus is undoubtedly superior. I’m glad that Keneally wrote this book, glad that the heroism of Oskar Schindler was finally brought to a broader audience, and I can’t say that this isn’t a good novel. But – without having seen the film – I suspect this may be one case where the movie is better.

age of empires III

Regular price: £29.99
Sale price: £7.49 (bundle, including expansion packs)

Age of Empires is what you might consider a legacy franchise: a hugely successful series which has dominated its genre and set the pattern for rivals to follow. One of my earliest memories of this series dates all the way back to the turn of the century, when I was somewhere on the border of primary school and high school, and – probably as part of the marketing campaign for Age of Empires II – you could get a free CD of Age of Empires I in a box of Nutri-Grain, which I dutifully choked down in order to secure the CD. I also have memories of a term break somewhere in early high school, playing Age of Empires II on the creaking old computer in the cold, draughty back room of my Dad’s house in Karrinyup; that must specifically have been in the winter of 2003, because it’s also linked in my memory with reading the fifth Harry Potter book. That copy of the game was probably bootlegged – not downloaded off the internet, not in Australia in 2003, but probably passed around on burned CDs at school. And again, I recall settling in to play a round against Chris on our notebooks while we were backpacking through China in 2010, one evening in our cavernous room at the hostel in Dali, retreating for a brief spell back into our childhoods from a tiring foreign world.

Thank you for indulging me in that extended trip down memory lane. What I’m getting at is that Age of Empires stirs strong, nostalgic feelings in me, even if I never particularly loved the games. I suppose as a kid, at least at the time, you had fun with what you had access to. That’s probably why I never bothered playing Age of Empires III, because by the time that came out in 2005 I had a Playstation 2, an Xbox, and much more disposable income. So I mostly bought it in the Steam sale out of curiosity, and because the price dropped down to a reasonable level. I honestly cannot fathom how Microsoft thinks it’s reasonable to charge £30 – nearly $60! – for a game that’s almost 10 years old.

While Age of Empires focused on the Roman era and Age of Empires II shifted to the Middle Ages, Age of Empires III covers the Age of Exploration and the colonial expansion of European powers in the 17th and 18th centuries. This is a much more interesting period in history for me, which is why it’s so disappointing that the campaign mode is so bad. I recall Age of Empires II charting a fairly reasonable course across history, pitting you in scenarios based on real battles, with campaigns based on real historical figures like Joan of Arc or Saladin. Any educational merit is tossed overboard in Age of Empires III, which replaces these campaigns with a pseudo-historical load of claptrap about the Fountain of Youth and a secret society of Templars, equal parts Pirates of the Caribbean and the Da Vinci Code. The terrible writing and voice acting hardly helps.

I know that by this point the RTS genre had moved on, and had become much more about online gameplay, which is probably more enjoyable anyway; as always, the computer AI in skirmish mode is solidly predictable. But I wasn’t about to bother looking into whether a nine-year-old game still has active servers; even if it does, the only people playing on it would be dedicated fanatics who would slaughter me as soon as I set foot on the map. So I have to judge the game on its single-player mode, and on that front it fails. Oh, it’s addictive for a brief spell, building up little societies and climbing up the technology chains, but it soon wears out its welcome once you reach the top of that ladder. Every scenario plays out the same: hunker down, build up resources, fend off a few half-hearted attacks by the enemy, and eventually build up a big enough army that you can go out and stomp them in the chaotic scrums that inevitably develop whenever two armies encounter each other in this franchise. Rinse, repeat. I enjoy the building and expanding more than anything else, which is maybe why I enjoy simulation games like Sim City more than RTS games like Age of Empires.

Age of Empires III on Steam

Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (1992) 197 p.

Anglophilia, the love for England and Britain often possessed by Americans and colonials, is part of the reason for the surprising success of Downton Abbey. It’s not just the wealth and opulence and wish fulfilment (although that’s part of it), otherwise the same sorts of people would be watching The Hills and Gossip Girl. It’s the fascination people from more ostensibly egalitarian countries have with Britain’s anachronistic class system, viewed through a forgiving, nostalgic fog.

Never Mind is the first slim novel in Edward St Aubyn’s five-volume Patrick Melrose novels, a semi-autobiographical series charting the fortunes of the wealthy but cursed titular character. It begins when Patrick is five years old at his family’s mansion in southern France, and takes place over the course of a single day in the lead-up to a dinner party. Patrick’s father David is a psychopathic, abusive monster, and his mother Eleanor a drunk. The events of the day are viewed through the eyes of various guests  being hosted by the Melrose family, ranging from a washed up Tory politician who’s as bad as David to an American journalist who is privately revolted by the way the upper class treat each other. Never Mind catalogues the crimes and cruelties of the upper class, ranging from dinner party sniping to outright paedophilia. It’s a harsh, cutting novel.

There is inevitably a type of reader who dislikes reading about unpleasant people, and would prefer to retreat to the cosseted, lacy world of Downton Abbey, where humans behave with integrity and class. To each their own, but to recoil from a book like Never Mind is to miss the point. St Aubyn, a man with first-hand experience, is attempting to shine a light on the disgusting realities of the British 1%. Foreign indulgence of the upper class takes place overseas on TV screens, through hagiographic soap operas like Downton Abbey – harmless enough. But domestic indulgence of the upper class, at home in the United Kingdom, takes place in the halls of Parliament, the boardrooms of the City and the dining rooms of country estates. It is viscerally, damagingly real. There is a strong and persistent misty-eyed love of the upper class in parts of Britain, an unqualified respect which reinforces the born-to-rule mentality of the Conservative Party. It’s how a modern country in the year 2015 has managed to end up with an unelected upper house. The cosy charm of country manors, distinguished butlers, 18th century antiques and glasses of cognac by the fireplace were built on a legacy of exploitation, domination, theft and abuse.

One could argue that St Aubyn’s experiences were purely his own; certainly I doubt most members of the landed gentry are quite as barbaric as David Melrose. But that’s not the point. When the weight of fiction leans so heavily in one direction – as it did when this book was written in 1992, and as it still does today – it’s important to set a counter-example. Never Mind is a devastating portrait of the darker sides of unchecked wealth and power.

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March 2015