Seamus Heaney 1939-2013: Finders Keepers

"Sure it's water."
“Sure it’s water.”

My first job was a little unusual; from around 2004-2007 I was Arts Officer at The Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, working under the late Dr Robert Woof. The job title is a little nebulous. What it meant was I booked and ran the Trust’s contemporary arts program, a huge year-round series of poetry readings, exhibitions and residencies. Robert was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met, and he was insistent on one point; the WT could not depend on Wordsworth alone, but had to continually make itself relevant by helping to pay and promote today’s writers and artists.

I say this only as background because Seamus Heaney, of course, did not need promotion in any sense. He was great friends with Robert, and any time he’d visit was An Event. The first time I met him was at the 2005 opening of the Jerwood Centre, the WT’s research complex, and by that time Heaney was a Nobel Laureate and perhaps the most well-known poet in the English language, hence the affectionate nickname deployed by many contemporaries: Famous Seamus. As with almost everything, Professor Heaney thought that was a great laugh.

Though that was the first time I met Heaney, it was only the latest connection in a long line between himself, the Trust, and more importantly Robert. On this occasion Heaney wasn’t doing a reading alongside the opening, which Robert cunningly realised was a chance to book him in for the next year’s program – and Heaney agreed this was an excellent idea. It soon turned out that the opening of the Jerwood Centre came just in time; five months afterwards, in November 2005, Robert died. This was not unexpected, but it was devastating; for me and, I know, many others.

I remember my hesitation in writing to Heaney at the end of 2005, to find out if he’d still come. It felt somehow inappropriate, but I needn’t have been concerned. The Wordsworth Trust’s postcode was LA22 9SH, and the reason I still remember that now is his first reply came back with a big circle around the last two letters – pointing out that this, surely, was fate.

Heaney came to see us and deliver the biggest reading of the year in August 2006, visiting with his wonderful wife Marie for five days and attracting such a crowd we had to move to a larger venue. I remember his turning up on the first day (Marie was getting a train a day or two later) in a cab I’d booked from Liverpool airport. I was horrified to see the company had sent one of the old-school black models, which must have been very uncomfortable for a man in his early sixties to ride in for hours. “Ah well, I’m sure I’ll be comfortable enough now.”

I made sure of it, as did we all. Tagging along with Heaney for the next few days, what struck me more than anything was that he had time for everyone. It didn’t matter where he was – in a restaurant, a bar, walking along or even reading a book – if someone made the time to come up and say hello he gave them it back in spades. He was an incredibly funny man, too, and seemed to rejoice in opening conversations with a one-liner, more than a few of which made me the butt. “Excuse me are you Seamus Heaney?” “Well yer man’s in trouble if I’m not!”

I especially remember, on the day of the reading, my mum coming over to Grasmere from the North-East – she teaches English, and so is intimately familiar with those poems of his on the syllabus. Despite the fact he’d clearly had that conversation a million times, Heaney propped himself up on a wall outside the Jerwood and talked to her for an hour like some kind of softly-spoken saint – and eventually I was the one that had to break them apart.

I’d call him a class act, but that has some implication of artifice and with Heaney there was none. Instead I’ll do something he’d have liked and take the phrase straight from my father; Heaney was a top-class man. A few miscellaneous memories. On his visit to open the Jerwood, we went for dinner at an Italian place in Ambleside – and I can’t quite remember what we all had to eat, because of the four bottles of top-quality red it went down with. God the old man could drink.

At that second reading, the Low Wood hotel totally screwed up the sound system. This was a problem because there was an audience of 300 people and one incandescent boss (mine) who, after ten minutes of amateur fiddling, grew increasingly irritable until Heaney decided he’d take it upon himself to project a little over this long room – and, by merely talking about this and that, quietened the hubbub enough for us to fix the issue and get things underway. From the bottom of my heart I still thank him for that.

I remember, too, on that second occasion watching nervously as he signed what must have been hundreds of copies of his own books over the days. Eventually I worked up the courage to ask if he’d sign my books, and of course he would, but the problem was I had a copy of pretty much everything. So he said that was fine, but I’d better take him somewhere quiet first and get the drinks in. Over what turned into quite a few glasses, he not only signed every book I had but wrote something unique in each one. This is my favourite.

Finders Keepers

One final thing. The Wordsworth Trust is not a rich organisation. Every year it was a battle to stretch our budget as far as possible, and every year we’d just about make it by the skin of our teeth. Robert’s approach was simple, and I stuck to it like gospel. We couldn’t pay a top fee, but what we could do was pay a decent fee, plus all the travel, plus put you up for a few days in the heart of the Lakes. It is interesting who does and does not go for this.

After Heaney’s reading, I wrote to him for one of the last times, thanking him for it all and enclosing a cheque for his travel and the fee. He wrote back enclosing a donation to the Wordsworth Trust, and never cashed the cheque. It is the kind of act that not everyone can afford, to be sure, but even so a special one – giving without expectation. As the man himself put it in a very different context, it is receiving a gift that enjoins you to remember the giver.

I last read Heaney only a few days ago, when some half-remembered line from Death of a Naturalist sent me in search of my dog-eared old copy. One would like to think of him up there, but Heaney was more than anything a poet of the Earth. So I hope he’ll forgive me for raising a glass in his memory rather than offering a prayer. And I hope you’ll agree that the reward of a life well-lived is in itself – or, at the very least

               heaven enough,
To be going on with.

                               (To Mick Joyce in Heaven, District and Circle)

Finders Keepers

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Resident Evil 6: up-close and monstrous

Resident Evil 6 is a very simple game, really, which is why I think it’s provoked such differences of opinion. It has one ambition, which is to be a mainstream action game, and in this it succeeded – in some parts, magnificently so. But the fate of such a well-loved series is expectation. Many folk don’t want a straightforward action game from Resident Evil – they expect something more… well, surprising. I’m not arguing with that perspective, in fact I think there’s a lot to be said for it. But for my part, I had a blast.

I am luckier than most, of course. I reviewed Resi 6 over a blissful week, holed up in a dark attic with beer and cigarettes, blasting my way through wave after wave of monsters. I wouldn’t argue it’s a forward-thinking game, or any kind of progression for the series. But if you want uncomplicated blasting action, it delivers in spades.

One area of Resi 6 that I think didn’t get the credit it should have was the monster design. This is probably because it has some real red flags – specifically, the zombie types that owe a lot to Valve’s peerless Left4Dead series. Unoriginal as these were, I actually think the designers did a superb job in giving them a Resi flavour. And outside of them, there are some truly brilliant designs – my very favourite being the grotesque Lepotitsa.

These are photographs of concept art from the Resi 6 working environment. I’m sorry that a couple are blurred, slightly skewed, or have camera flashes on them – but I think they’re pretty interesting to see regardless. Enjoy!

Ustanak. This ugly chap is a kind of mecha-tyrant that chases Jake. For some reason, the combination of stringy hair and scoured pate freaks me out.
The Needler. Ranged enemies aren’t common in Resi, which is what can make this such a nightmare to deal with – ESPECIALLY when it’s human-controlled in Agent Hunt.
Invisible enemies in games generally suck. But this one was handled very well, I think, particularly in the way Resi 6 handles the build-up.
Speaking of which, these are concept sketches for just that build-up. In-game I don’t remember it being quite so toothy.
Really sorry about the focus on this one, got a close-up for the next shot tho – this is the snake picking off one of Chris’s team.
EXXTREEEMMMME CLOSE-UP! Of all the horror cliches, being attacked from above is still the one that makes me go ‘brrrr’ a bit inside
The Fly is one of the weaker enemies in Resi 6, in terms of how you engage with it. But I think the design’s wonderful – look at that hand at the bottom.
The Ogroman (where do they come up with these names?) looks a lot different to this in the final game, and not all for the better. It’s a bit more exagerrated in its features, but I prefer this more understated and pallid interpretation
Leon’s first encounter with the ‘Whopper’, and you’ve got to love that name. These artists are amazing, aren’t they?
The Whopper in action. These turn up a few times, and it’s a kind of running joke they get stuck in a few places. Resi 6 has a sly streak of humour running through it, one of the things I most enjoyed.
This is the Shrieker, which dies in the most awesome way if you pop its throat. Love the detail on its spinal column, and the visualisation of its dysmorphia from various angles
The Lepotitsa, one of my favourite Resi 6 moments. The concept of this enemy, and its various characteristics, is matched perfectly to the situations in which you encounter it.

Wish I had a few more, particularly of the other bosses, but this was what was on the walls. Hope you enjoyed! 

Let’s visit Capcom HQ!

Video games, eh?

It’s good to remind ourselves why we love them. And so I thought it would be nice to share some photos I took while visiting the Osaka HQ of Capcom. This company is one of my all-time favourite developers, responsible for more great games than almost any other thirdparty, and I was lucky enough to go there during the development of Resident Evil 6.

I’ll separate out the photos of Resi 6 concept art and put them in a different post, for convenience’s sake. Here we’ll get a look at the building, the devs, and the most awesome merchandise room in the world.

It may look nondescript, but this… this is a MAGIC FACTORY
Capcom’s front door!!! I know!!! XD
This was the Resi 6 development floor. Look at them beavering away.
Another shot of the devs – at the back, you can see a reference mannequin for the BSAA troops
They actually have the Resi typewriter!
I’m giving you another angle on this sweetass setup, because I know you want it

OK. Those of you with no patience for toys had better beat it. Here comes the good shit. 

A Fryuit machine?
You KNOW you want to insert a coin in this bad boy
OK, loads of games. we get it Capcom. SHOW US THE TOYS
I hate this meme, but sometimes you’ve just got to say shut up and take my money
Yep. Dante, DMC3-style. They’ll never better him.
DMC3’s Virgil. He knows Dante’s the boss. Loser!
What the hell, why not let Virgil share the spotlight for a moment.
How could you say no to such an attractive salesperson?
Stop the world: Capcom have invented this.
If you don’t realise why this shit is awesome, you don’t dig Monster Hunter. Get orf moi land!
Monster Hunter Kitchen?!? I’ll drink to that!
OOS A GOOD BOY THEN
I SEE… YOUR SOUL
Your eyes do NOT deceive you, fucking GOLD AND SILVER MEGA MAN!
GOLD MEGA MAN, I SAY!

Hope you enjoyed them! I’ll whack up the Resi art soon enough, keep an eye on the old twitter. 

Apology and Retraction

The following relates to tweets made on the evening of Wednesday 10th October.

In a moment of anger at Future I said many things that I should not have. I retract them in full and they should not be repeated or reported as fact. I apologize to Future and all parties referred to directly or indirectly in my statements.

If you see anyone referencing my now-deleted tweets, please point them here.

I will be making no further comment on this matter.

 

Ouya Looking At?

There’s an unseen prototype, allegedly

I wrote a Saturday Soapbox this past weekend on the Ouya, the Android games console that dominated the news last week. Something struck me about it as fishy right from the off, and lo and behold today the company has announced it’s seeking more funding. As you’ll see from the end of the Eurogamer article, this is one of the scenarios I though might be lurking behind the crisp pitch.

“There are three possibilities with Ouya. One is that it is an outright scam. One is that its makers are sincere but hopeless dreamers. And the most likely is that this Kickstarter is to impress real investors. The gaming public is being leveraged in the hope that their money can be used to attract even more money.”

It’s hard to call something an outright fraud, because by their nature frauds can be convincing. But I think there’s a case at the very least here that the company behind Ouya has obtained money through misrepresenting what the Ouya kickstarter was for. People thought they were handing over $99 for a console to be delivered in March, it’s as simple as that.

Will they get it? I wish them luck.

Anyway. One thing folk picked up on is that Minecraft and Madden are already on the Android store, so my saying they won’t be on Ouya is wrong. I clearly didn’t make the point well enough – Ouya is a home console, being sold on the ‘TV experience’. Do you really think Pocket Minecraft is what they’re implying will be on the machine, or the mobile version of Madden? This is another example of how Ouya and its supporters are twisting definitions in order to fit a narrative.

This dashboard mock-up owes more to Xbox Live than fresh open-source thinking

Ouya is going to be the name of a famous cautionary tale, mark my words.

Football by the numbers

Statto, Statto!

Football is the global sport: a phenomenon that crosses all borders. Its exact origins are lost in time, but the modern game was born in 1863 with the rules of England’s new Football Association. The English are, of course, better known for bureaucracy than humility, so I think it rather fits that their claim of having invented football rests on having come up with the rules.

This goes hand-in-hand with another trait of the English football fan, a love of statistics that goes far beyond attention to detail. A fan of any team can reel off their triumphs and worst years. But there is a part of the English that delights in historical form, possession bars and completion percentages. I remember growing up and watching Statto on Fantasy Football League. Here was a character that was originally written as a joke part and instead became a cult hero, probably the most enduring part of the show’s appeal.

The English love statistics. After England’s defeat in Euro 2012, the national post-mortem focused on passes completed. Shots, corners, tackles. Players were ranked, compared, analysed like racehorses. But England’s greatest contribution to the modern game, for me at least, has nothing to do with Wayne Rooney. Instead, it’s the amazing world of Football Manager. It’s not just a videogame. It’s far more important than that. 

“I think it is important to win a match, but I think what is even more important is the manner in which you win.” – Jock Stein

Created by Sports Interactive, Football Manager is the pinnacle of statistical simulations – and I’ve lately come to think that its obsession with minutiae reflects its cultural origins. And the numbers suggest a story: roughly half the series’ 15 million lifetime sales have been in the UK.

Football Manager is a game of numbers and pattern-spotting, a world where every player is broken down into a dizzying number of individual statistics. In the 1990s the details were convincing and accurate. But recently they’ve become incredible. It blew my mind to find out that Everton now pay Sports Interactive for access to its scouting data, and I bet they’re not the only Premier League club.

Why? Football Manager has something incredible behind it: an invisible army of researchers criss-crossing the professional leagues of the world and feeding back information. Each region is headed up by researchers that employ others, so in total there are more than a thousand scouts reporting to Sports Interactive. One of my mates worked for them a few years ago reporting on lower division Welsh league games. Think about that level of passion for a minute. I can’t even name three Welsh teams.

It is a scouting network unique in games, and more thorough than much of what’s in actual football. Such quantity of data might seem excessive, but it is the entire point of Football Manager. The mental pleasure of football is in directing players, comparing stats, and playing out what-if scenarios. The match is everything, but the context creates it.

Football Manager is for football fans obsessed with stats – in other words, it’s not for everyone. But anyone can see its player database is one of gaming’s great wonders, a visionary intersection with the sport that has no parallel. You can tell Football Manager is made by an English developer, I think, because its fascination with football goes so far beyond a mere enjoyment of the physical sport. The England football team rarely live up to the expectations and pride of their fans. But from every one of Football Manager’s endless and accurate statistics, the nation’s obsession shines forth.

This is an edited version of a piece originally published on sportbox.ru