Capturing the beauty and tragedy entrenched in our Irish heritage, in particular the history of Croke Park, I present to you this beautiful song written and performed by my friends, Tourist Walk.
To paraphrase the author himself, Haruki Murakami is like a fine whiskey, first you gaze, then you drink. I first learned of Murakami’s work through my sister. She owns his entire bibliography and enthusiastically recommended them for being utterly unique. This week, after borrowing my sister’s books for so long, I took the plunge and bought my own complete set. It is money well spent. His writing is consistently brilliant, thoughtful and insightful.
Murakami’s books are post-modern, surreal and yet imbued with a melancholy and subdued nostalgia for people, places and emotions that ground the protagonist in a recognisable reality. I have long tried to put into writing the moods I feel, often wishing I could convey emotion and colour the way certain songs can. Murakami is possibly the closest an author has come to doing so in my mind. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald (whom Murakami has translated into Japanese), Murakami captures fleeting moments with a delicate longing and resolute nobility.
He also has a lifelong obsession with music, inserting plentiful music references into his books. In his younger days, Haruki Murakami owned a jazz bar and his love for the genre is apparent in everything he does, from off-kilter rhythms, to lilting melodies. His love for music is something I identify with. In fact it is perhaps his passion for his hobbies (which also include marathon running) that translate into passion in his writing. He is an author who is resolute in his passion for life and it carries into his work. It is inspiring.
If I can follow his trajectory, I know I will have achieved something worthwhile. Not in terms of acclaim or success, but in his passion for living.
Haruki Murakami’s latest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is released in English in the UK on August 12th.
I sit down at my desk and nothing comes — no ideas, no words, no scenes. Not too long ago I had a million things to write about. What in the world’s happening to me?
—Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
Despite the haughty dismissal often afforded to video games by the cultural elite, the medium has emerged from the underground of the eighties and nineties and exploded into the forefront of the entertainment scene. Perhaps the most unexpected development from their increase in popularity is their progression as a story-telling medium. Some of the greatest stories I have ever encountered have been in the form of video games. Over on IGN.com the editorial staff have been compiling their favourite games of all time and it has inspired me to take a look back over my own history with video games from Sega to Sony and present to you, my ten favourite games of all time.
In reverese order:
10) Unreal Tournament
Unreal Tournament on PC had me hooked. It was a game based solely around multiplayer and it was sublime. The endlessly customisable options and frenetic, run and gun gameplay was complimented by intelligent A.I., a great soundtrack and a buttery smooth framerate. It did every classic shooter game (deathmatch, capture the flag, etc…) with style and awe and it was never bettered.
9) Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness & Beyond The Dark Portal
I played Warcraft II on the Sega Saturn and it was my first foray into the RTS genre. Before the juggernaut online World of Warcraft (which I never bothered with), developers Blizzard were kings of the Real Time Strategy game and Warcraft II was a glorious Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones mash-up with depth and character. I lost hours to Tides of Darkness and its expansion pack Beyond The Dark Portal, gathering resources like wood and oil and forging catapults and battle ships to stop the Orcish Horde.
8) The Sims
Who knew the mundane tasks of everyday life could make for a compelling video game? Maxis did, and when they unleashed The Sims on PC in 2000 they enslaved millions to its intensive micromanagement and quirky humour. In all honesty I still got a twinge of excitement when researching screenshots for this post and recalling the feeling of achievement when I bought my struggling Sim his first sofa.
7) Pokémon Red
In 1999 Pokémon ruled all. I have probably sunk more hours into this game than any other. It was always on my person, every spare moment was spent battling and completing the Pokédex. There was no escape from the phenomenon that was Pokémon and with my treasured Bulbasaur, I caught them all. I even took my team on the road. Pokémon Championship 2000 toured the UK and my best friend and I went to Belfast to compete. Perhaps that was Pokémon’s biggest achievement: it brought a social element into the game through the trade mechanic and multiplayer battles.
6) Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus on PS2 was one of those games that made you stop and stare. It was a gorgeous, challenging and thought-provoking game that centred on a young man’s attempt to save the life of a girl. To do so, he is tasked by the celestial voices of a temple to find and slay 16 gigantic colossi, beasts that roam the expanse of this forbidden land, and release the power that resides within them.
It was a lonely game that made the player think about the consequences of his or her actions. Each colossus was a challenge, a level and a boss in one and taking each one down was an achievement, except one which filled you with regret. Here you were in a sacred land and each majestic creature you felled took with it a piece of your soul. Who was really the villain of this story?
To this day, a masterful experience.
5) Final Fantasy VII
I spent an entire summer playing only Final Fantasy VII. Its story and characters are among the most iconic in gaming and the love and care in its telling make it one of the most memorable games in existence. From the dilapidated ruin of Sector 7, to the scarred town of Nibelheim and the rustic charm of Cosmo Canyon, the world of Midgar was vibrant and alive. It is the cream of the RPG crop and one which has inspired countless imitators.
4) Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles
My earliest gaming experience was playing the original Sonic the Hedgehog on my uncle Cormac’s Sega Mega Drive. I was the obligatory bored child at an adults dinner party and my aunt Alison sat me on a tall chair in front of a portable television in the kitchen and showed me Sonic the Hedgehog, quite possibly the greatest thing my three-year old eyes had ever seen.
Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were two parts of one epic game. Each was playable on its own but the S&K cartridge had a lock-on feature which allowed you to connect it to the Sonic 3 cartridge to play the full Sonic 3 & Knuckles game. It was the Sonic formula at its absolute zenith and is probably the purest gameplay experience this side of Mario.
3) Final Fantasy X
I fell in love with Final Fantasy X. The characters, the story, the battle system: each was perfect in Square’s first PS2 entry in the series. It was also the first to feature voice-acting.
FFX felt like a grand adventure. Protecting Yuna on her pilgrimage became my life’s goal. The player’s character, Tidus, was a man out of time, as new to this world as we were, and every new experience or location resonated because of it. I grew to care about my allies, about the people of Spira and the ideals of different people when confronted with disaster and tragedy and when the final emotional wallop hit near the end, I was devastated.
It pays to invest in Final Fantasy X. It had a rich levelling up system and side-quests as well an engaging art design heavily inspired by Japan’s Okinawa region. The way it channelled the player’s emotions with savage, often emotionally charged boss battles, and quiet delicate character moments was expertly handled by the geniuses at Square. They still haven’t yet returned to those heights.
2) Resident Evil 2
I can’t remember how many times I have played through Resident Evil 2. It is a focused, tense, gory masterpiece. Depending on which disc you started playing, you took on the role of Leon S. Kennedy or Claire Redfield (sister of Resident Evil 1’s Chris Redfield) and played alternate stories as you tried to escape the city and uncover the truth of the Umbrella Corporation’s bio-weapons programme.
The game was pitch perfect in it’s script, music and art direction. The gameplay featured the original’s “tank” controls but instead of a hindrance they became a way of making you claustrophobic, enhancing the idea that you really were trapped here, that the dead are slowly closing in around you and there’s not enough ammo.
I can still hear the ominous chimes of the R.C.P.D. Main Hall in my dreams.
1) Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Metal Gear Solid 3 is the greatest game I have ever played. It is an emotionally gruelling, often astonishing game. Taking place in the mid sixties, you play Snake, a special ops soldier sent into the Russian jungle to kill your old mentor who has defected.
The trek behind enemy lines will test you every step of the way as you try to remain hidden with camouflage, infiltrating camps and bases, taking out guards and tending to your injuries. The boss battles against the Cobra Unit are expertly realised. There is one in particular, a real time sniper battle across miles of jungle with a Cobra member called The End, that is a true highlight. It tests your endurance and your tracking abilities as you lay in wait, listening for bird calls and setting traps, peering through your scope for hours in the hope of catching a glimpse of the old sniper. And it really can last hours.
The battle is followed by a 3 or 4 minute ladder climb that gives you time to take in the awesomeness of what just happened.
The story is a juggernaut, dealing with betrayal, patriotism, guilt and survival. The cast is iconic: Snake, The Boss, Eva, Ocelot, the Cobra Unit… Each are fully realised with motivations and goals and fears, propelling the story, the finale of which is an absolute powerhouse. I won’t spoil it, so much to say as I was left speechless in front of the TV screen, on the brink of tears as the credits rolled.
All Metal Gear games are special but Metal Gear Solid 3 was perhaps the series at the point of true art.
Sim City 2000, DMC Devil May Cry, Devil May Cry 3, Final Fantasy IX, Doom, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Sega Worldwide Soccer ‘98, Valora Valley Golf, God of War 3, Batman: Arkham City.
I wish to write; I wish to write about certain things that cannot be held. I want to create a sea of freely-flowing words of no definite form and shape waves of fluent exactness.
It all started with a begging letter. I, of soundish mind and body, had thrown dignity to the wind and fired off an email to Waterstones head office begging to be placed on the reserve list for a once in a lifetime event, a private meet and greet, reading and signing session in London with Neil Gaiman, exclusive to Waterstones employees. The 100 odd seats had long since been filled but I had not seen it advertised until it was too late. Or was it?
Never have I been more proud to wear the W on my chest.
It was Matthew, the event co-ordinator who emailed back, polite chap that he is, saying he could squeeze us onto the guestlist. A quick celebratory air guitar shred was followed by a quick phone call to my girlfriend. “Debs, you know how we’re in London for your birthday next month, well i’ve only gone and bagged us a meet and greet with Neil Gaiman!”
We are both huge Neil Gaiman fans, having absorbed most of his creative output, be it his novels, his comic books, his TV shows and films… Deborah even has an Ankh necklace fashioned after the character Death from Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed Sandman comic book series. It’s one of the things I remember from when I first met her.
The burning question in my mind was, “What do I say to him?” and more than that, “What the hell do I bring to get signed?”
I considered his excellent novel “American Gods” and Book 1 of The Sandman, but a month of deliberation ended with the graphic novel “What Ever Happened To The Caped Crusader?”, a love letter to Batman on the night of his wake (following the events of Batman RIP). As you all well know I am nerd for anything Batman so I thought what better than something that connects both Neil and myself than a character that inspires both of us?
On the afternoon of the event, having met a few of the other lovely Waterstones people from other stores who had travelled to London for the day, Waterstones had kindly arranged for us out of towners to take a trip around Bloomsbury Publishing, famed publishers of the Harry Potter books, Khaled Hosseini, and many others. Located in an old, renovated town house, Bloomsbury is staffed by a conspicuously young workforce. We were plied with wine and cake and led on a tour of the building, shown into little offices where among the endless paper stacks sat unreleased, prototype Harry Potter boxsets, Lego Christmas books, paintings of Hogwarts, and awards. It was interesting to see the other side of the book industry, not the retail side, but the planning and marketing and hectic schedules.
We returned to Waterstones Picadilly around 6pm for a quick browse of the mammoth store and then, passing through the hidden conference doors, eagerly took our seats for the event. And then he emerged from a little side door and took a seat near us. Neil Gaiman was sitting two rows away. Like it wasn’t even a thing. Matthew took the podium and welcomed the now full room. “Some of you have travelled quite far to be here tonight, but hands down the champions, travelling a massive 457 miles, from Waterstones Newry and Lisburn, Billy and Deborah!”
"And as a little thank you we would like to give you these personalised gift cards," he said presenting us with two prototype giftcards, bearing illustrations from Coraline, and each carrying a handwritten message from Neil Gaiman.
We looked over at Neil who smiled and waved. I was so excited I planted a kiss on Deborah’s cheek. Looking back on that, it probably seemed like Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch. I’m such a tool.
Afterwards, Neil Gaiman gave a funny and insightful speech to the room before reading a chapter from his new children’s book, Fortunately The Milk. This was followed by a long Q&A from the fans on any topic they wished. He was always courteous and candid, telling stories that involved Terry Pratchett, his inspirations, and covering all aspects of his work.
We queued after for the signing session and upon reaching his table, he shook our hands, then in his lilting English accent, “You’ve come quite a long way.” On Deborah’s Sandman Book he wrote “Happy Birthday Deborah” and signed her American Gods novel.
"You’ve come quite a long way too," he said to me.
"Wouldn’t miss it for the world," I blurted back. I told him how I had finished his latest novel, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane in a single evening and thanked him profusely for the gift cards and he wrote a note in my Batman book. "You’re entirely welcome," he said as I bowed my thanks and left.
I got back to Deborah and opened my Batman book, “Billy - Bats Wishes”.
The creative buzz that surged through my veins was a high like no other. We cornered Matthew before we left and thanked him for getting us on the list. He had really gone out of his way to make the trip a memorable experience and he thanked us for coming.
I’m actually a little hazy about most of it now. It’s one of those memories that will linger on as an emotion of happiness, inspiration and energy, the kind that lights a fire that won’t go out. The kind that sparks a page of ink and ideas and hopefully, that lights a pyre in the mind spinning out an inferno of words.
To Matthew and the other folks at Waterstones, thank you so much.
To Neil Gaiman, you have inspired me more than I can say. Thank you.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for me, is about brotherhood. It’s about family. If you strip back the fantastical concept, it is a story about four brothers trying to find their place in the world. And I have loved it for over twenty years.
The four brothers: Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo started out in Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book in 1984 and from there moved onto a phenomonon of a kids cartoon, toys, live action movies and videogames.
Many remember the kids cartoon but it is really only a fragment (albeit a large one)of the TMNT legacy. That core dynamic between the family is what hooked me and still gives me butterflies when I read it.
Leonardo is the stoic, straight arrow leader, Donatello is the quiet, reserved one, Raphael is the hot tempered brawler and Michelangelo is the loveable jokester but it’s so much deeper than that. Leo is burdened with the pressure of leadership, the expectation of both their sensei Splinter and his brothers weighing heavily upon him. Each success or loss takes its toll on him and what makes him interesting is how he strains to keep both the team together and his state of mind.
Raphael is a ball of unbridled rage, an adolescent firecracker who lashes out sometimes violently. In one issue (Raphael #1 Micro Series - 1985), Leo orders Raph to leave to cool off after attacking Mikey with a wrench. Raphael is shaken and wracked with guilt breaks down on a New York rooftop. It’s heartbreaking and we all know the confusion and anger that we feel as teenagers.
Donatello is the thinker of the group and the informal second-in-command. He and Leo are certainly the calmer of the brothers. He is also known for his skill with computers and mechanical devices. During the turtles’ exile in Northampton, he obsessively fixes things around the farm, and as the comics progress he takes an increasingly pacifist stance. I think a lot of people can identify with Donnie. He has a desire to learn and a meditative personality. If Leonardo is Splinter’s best warrior, Donatello is his spiritual successor. In one particularly moving moment, when Donatello is recovering from injuries sustained in the City at War arc, he meditates with Splinter and sees an older version of himself hiking in the hills of Japan. When he asks Splinter why he would be in Japan, at Splinter’s home, his sensei replies simply, “To bury me.” Donatello is very much the closest in character to their “father”, and this aspect makes the family dynamic even more compelling.
Michelangelo is very much the heart of the team, exuding an earnest appreciation for life and a happy go lucky nature. The youngest of the group, he is also our window into the lighter elements of the story. He regulalrly cracks jokes and his solo outings have a focus on a smaller, human element such as taking care of a kitten, or Christmas. His good heart and big eyed wonder of the world around him make him as vital to the story as any ninja shading.
The main draw for TMNT in my opinion is watching these brothers relate to each other. The arguments, patch-ups and love between their unique family is unparallelled in comic books.
Also, the environments they are depicted in, be it New York or upstate in Northampton, or even other worlds, all serve to divide or draw them together. Like many teenagers finding their feet as adults, so too are our ninja turtles. They explore and follow their curiosities and they stick together when danger finds them. The love of their Master Splinter is a striking and often moving feature of the TMNT lore. The brothers are often without him, and seeing them struggle to stay together without his guidance is heavy, heavy stuff. I am constantly blown away with how powerful the themes they explore are. The vulnerability, the weakness and prevailent melancholy that hangs in the air for certain issues is stunning. They even explored this in the first movie to an extent.
I don’t have any brothers. I have three perfect sisters and a number of cousins I proudly call family. When I think of TMNT, I feel that family bond and it warms me. I recognize my friends and the way our story still continues, even if at times we cannot see around the next corner. I fight every battle and laugh at every joke. I want to go after Raph when he storms out. I want to go find Leo when he is out on the snowy rooftops of Brooklyn. I want to help Donnie fix a boiler and I want to zip up a warm jacket and wander the streets of New York with Mikey at Christmas.
More importantly, it makes me want to do all these things with my own family. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles taught me how important family is, even when we don’t get along. The hardest path to take is often the right one. I can’t believe that the turtles will be 30 years old next year (2014). For as long as I can remember, I have known and loved their story. They felt like a family growing up alongside me. Now, with the new Nickelodeon TMNT cartoon, a new generation is going mad for everything green. It’s understandable and it gives me a lot of joy to see kids being inspired by them as I was and still am. Here’s to another 30 years. Their story is timeless and I hope it never ends.