Turn of Phrase (Vol. 1)

This post is short and simple. It’s a small collection of song lyrics. Lyrics that have amused me in one way or another. There is no intended theme, least not for volume one. 

Drenge “Face Like a Skull”

And if you cannot take another night in his arms,

Then I’ll nick all the batteries from his fire alarms.

P J Harvey “Who Will Love Me Now”

In the forest, there’s a monster

And it looks so very much like me

Cas “All Hallows”

I’m as English as Fruit And Barley,

Or HP Sauce, on your bacon sarni’.

From a country where coke’s no joke.

Why the fuck d’you think the Queen named her son Charlie?

Tops “Sleepwalker”

Moontalker, tell me when you’re dreaming

Tied down

Hold on to words till you are sleeping

Words you forget in the daylight

Words that you are speaking

Tied down by your dreams

Words that you are screaming


Straight from the horse’s mouth: my father curses the day he introduced eight-year old me to Turok: Dinosaur Hunter. An eight-megabyte video game of 1997, sporting a 3-D digital world where you can be a Native American killing prehistoric reptiles and need not think about much more than ammunition and health represented by a number. If only 31-year-old me could relate. Turok kick-started my 23-year plus relationship with gaming. If it wasn’t Turok’s eight megabytes of code it would have been something else’s, Turok’s sequel, “Seeds of Evil”, sounds a good fit. I surveyed some of my friends’ first substantial games too, they had Wolfenstein, DOOM II, and the parent sanctioned Math Blaster!. In which you destroy Nazis, hellspawn, and maths, respectively.

Subsequently, from Turok, I was champing at the bit for video games by the turn of the century. Society at large was fearing computers would not carry through to the next millennia, from the “Y2K bug”, but concerns central to my eight-year-old mind were Pokemon cards, the next edible thing, and avoiding homework. Video games were not yet prevalent but my burgeoning fixation on them increasingly alienated me from most classmates. In early secondary school alienation peaked, as announcing your enrapturement with the passtime was a proclamation of fealty to nerd culture, and so, potentially, a path to victimhood. It seemed you only got it worse if alleged to be sexually deviant, though at my school there was the one guy who didn’t know the alphabet, who probably knows it better than all of us now. Twelve-year old minds.

Hegemony welcomed gaming in late 2007 whilst I was still in secondary school. The phenomena that was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare penetrated the male masses. Suddenly, in the middle-class bubble of a school I was in, there were bubble-standard athletes gushing over Desert Eagles and AK-47s. Sexy implements of death. “Excuse me, I liked this [video gaming] before it was cool”. Secondary schools across the nation were erupting with talk of COD (Call of Duty), confirmable by the onslaught of in-game teenage trash talk. Testament to Call of Duty’s success, the Xbox 360 got one COD game each year, for ten years, until the Xbox One arrived.

Since the Turok days, I had maintained myself as an attentive classroom student but homework went undone or feverishly completed, as suited for someone with an obsessive habit and meek disposition. Alas, you can lead a horse to water, but if you take it to a vending machine full of energy drinks, you’re going to have a bad time. My life orbited chance to jump into digital worlds. Demands of “Sean, it’s time to go outside” and “Get out there!”, were the bane of my existence. How awful, yes. My parents saw me like this, up close, until my young-adult life began. And I wonder if for them any traditionally rebellious behaviour of mine (partying, alcohol, and staying out late) was a reprieve to the otherwise youthful catatonia on display. 

On an aside, there was a tremendously inane tribalism over what you played your video games on. My year at secondary school was predominantly an Xbox-360 year. PlayStation users had backed the wrong horse and thus had few peers to play with, whilst PC gamers became the solitary, nerd punching bag. Shiny. 

Video games are now prevalent, gaming is enshrined into hegemony and a somewhat normalised activity. By market share, games dwarf the box office, so the increase of media crossovers, from game to TV and film, is somewhat unsurprising. Consequently, I assume teenagers, and society at large, hold much less shame over gaming. Least in the western world. I suspect shame still lingers, and rightly so in my eyes should the passtime be all-consuming…

My peak in gaming, from a time and dedication aspect, came in my early twenties. Another disenfranchised young man, who for less than 24 hours was a professional Team Fortress 2 player. Well. Toward becoming one. As I had been recruited to play on an official-league team. I’d been recruited in a public match for being a “pub star”, someone who dominates public matches but has either no competitive experience or loses their lustre in pro games. I was the former.

Team Fortress 2 is an online multiplayer first-person shooter made by the company VALVe. Players do battle as one of nine classes: Scout, Soldier, Pyro, Demoman, Heavy, Engineer, Sniper, Medic, or Spy. Team Fortress 2’s heyday is long gone, but it can be credited with being the first large-scale game to successfully deliver loot boxes to the western market. Yes, dear gamers, that is how forward thinking VALVe can be.  

Anyhow, regarding my momentary ascension to pro gamer… Players often spectated suspected cheaters, and suspected cheaters often luxuriated in removing someone from play: as being a spectator removed you from either opposing team and allowed you to view all around the map, as well as see the first-person view of any player on a team. You didn’t always know you were being spectated, but it was a safe bet if some of the following had occurred: the now-spectator died to you multiple times in a row and spectated after one such death; most of the opposing team is on a witch hunt for your corpse around which they plan to dance; and, most obviously, if the now-spectator blurts out “CHEATER”, or something else more colourful.

A Heavy player I had killed a couple of times switched to spectate and shortly thereafter resumed play without saying anything. They were only playing the Heavy class, which is represented by a large bald Russian man with a minigun that requires tracking aim to govern the low-damage firehose of bullets. The window of escape for this particular Heavy’s bullets was noticeably briefer and at a longer range than typical: they had excellent tracking aim. The Heavy messaged me, tersely, explaining they were captain of a league team and asked if I wanted to join. The exchange was remarkably devoid of warmth.

I was highly sceptical of the complete stranger though their skill and business-like manner vouched for them somewhat. They directed me to the league’s website, where I looked through the player and team names of who I would be up against. This was reassuring and exciting: I could see the Steam profiles of the numerous league-team players and consequently the thousands of hours each of them spent individually on Team Fortress 2. It was legit. I was to fill the team’s empty spot on the roster for Sniper, given my demonstrated prowess of keeping distance to people. It would be my job to hunt enemy Medics, Spies, and, yes—worst of all, Snipers. It was a much simpler world than outside the window: the crushing pressure of being out-sniped was palpable (I.e., categorically being not good enough), but the thrill of rigorous competition enlivening. 

It was a nice surprise to be picked for an official league’s team yet not shocking. Nearly all hours of my waking day were spent on Team Fortress 2 — it had even pervaded my dreams, wherein I would imagine I was in a testing match. Somehow even then it felt appropriate to sleep on the decision. The next day I had firmly decided this could not be my life and so declined the offer and went right back to putting the horse before the cart — playing Team Fortress 2 twelve-to-fourteen hours a day.

Professional gaming had a different landscape back then (I.e, scant money, scant opportunities). It would be naive for me to say I would not have been tempted to pursue gaming further if the landscape were as it is now in the early-mid 2020’s. However, at the time the crux of my refusal, I told myself and all the privilege behind me, was the lack of physicality and narrow scope experientially of such a career. Gaming would be a job. You’d chase those pixels until either the money came out or your eyes bleed.

As you may have noticed since the starting gate of this blog post, and way into the middle distance, melancholy lingers like a putrid spectre. It is, in fact, so dense, that I wonder if I have been submerged all the way up to the sky by it and, having learned to breathe and see through it, am no longer conscious of it in my day-to-day life but all the same impaired. “What might have been?”.

In attempting to weigh-up the negatives of gaming, for me, what stuck out was the predominance of friendships hinged around the common-ground of gaming. They are comforting to me. However, there’s a penchant for games set up like a competitive Skinner’s box experiment, to which I am a bastion. There is no story. No message. No sensuousness. Departures from end-justify-the-means gaming are at best slivers of jocularity that get beaten to death like a lame horse fallen to the wayside. There is a race to finish. There is a race to win. Anything and anyone impairing that win gets excoriated for having the audacity to do so. It is overly harsh and not at all ludic. 

Unsurprisingly, people often come and go from this passtime only to reappear, and it happens suddenly without warning. Were they dead? Well, perhaps it was just life beckoning—or the toxic environment’s chastising. 

As gaming moved to the forefront of my friendships, spur-of-the-moment inquiries of “I’m going to town next weekend, want to meet up?” and “Hey, want to go see [X thing]?” fizzled out. The horizon narrowed and was redefined. By and large there was sentiment of “Fancy a game?”, and even sometimes just the one word.


Deterritorialization of friendship has been in plain sight for me, and I think to my peers too, but as an open secret. It has been hard to map the ramifications. Social interactions and pre-existing friendships increasingly relied on digital consumption. There was something of a death of language in that most verbal exchanges stuck to utilitarian language for the game’s sake. Of course, given I am talking about my late-teenage years, friendships were subject to coming-of-age dynamics and work-life balance shifts: people relocate, move on and so forth, and games do keep people in contact. 

Undeniably, many good times were had gaming, many hours of bonding with friends, sat side-by-side or, contemporarily, computer-to-computer, often in cooperation akin to some sort of lived wilderness trip, encountering alien landscapes in an ever-developing journey where you’re put through your paces, centrestage, and the dead need not be mourned. In this post I wanted to include some positive gaming experiences free from Skinner’s box but not the rose-tinted glasses. Care now.

1.) Max Payne (2001) is a single-player third-person shooter that had exceptionally smooth gameplay for its time, and still does somewhat even now in 2024. Central to the game’s play is bullet time, a mechanic to slow time during which movement is substantially slowed but the player can still look around to acquire targets at regular speed. This was inspired by Hong Kong action cinema, not The Matrix which serendipitously came out two years before the game and popularised the concept. Bullet time combined with smooth movement and action make the game a joy to play.

However, the fluidity of the game retreats to the background as you play, it is the assumed constant that only becomes noticeable if interrupted. Like an internet connection. A large part of what makes the game memorable is its aesthetic throughline. 

Based in New York, the story paints a gritty urban world riddled by organised crime to which the backdrop is a designer drug-cum-military vestige and corporate greed. The story flows through internal monologues of the main character, an NYPD detective, that are rich in metaphor and wordplay. They are delivered with a neo-noir, hard-boiled tone and style. Sequences of graphic-novel panels are often used to support the narration. It is best summed up in two words stolen from the writer of the game, Sam Lake, that were the initial title for what became Max Payne. “Dark Justice”.

The language and aesthetic tone of the game dovetail with seamless gameplay, this is what made Max Payne so exciting. It is a tight cultural product, it knows its scope (culturally) and has attention to detail stylistically. Little feels out of place. A couple of sections have relatively basic environments and meagre story context and so felt overly game-like (for a game with narrative); and the story becomes over heightened, as in many works of fiction, especially TV series — this is somewhat expected in action games, though varyingly excusable, given the player typically kills more than a town’s worth of combatants. 

These days I am a bit more critical of stories of righteous violence but a third-person shooter (game) is no place for getting on your high horse. You play the hero, antihero, or, occasionally, villain. I played through Max Payne recently and there were numerous tropes I found cringeworthy, tired, or both, but they didn’t stop me from getting sucked into the narrative and into the game’s world. It is a highly acclaimed game so my experience is perhaps not so personal. 

2.) Lost Planet 2 (2010) is a Sci-fi, third-person shooter, always had an air of dysfunction to it. It has the feel of a C-rate action romp, albeit with A-rate set pieces. Dialogue offers a laughable cheese factor, and the trite plot is easily forgotten. Thankfully, the game mechanics allow unimpeded action more often than not.

Centre stage are hostile aliens, anatomically inspired by insects and reptiles. Wings, stings, and scales. They have glowing red-orange weak spots, and vary in size from human- to arena-scale. Human enemies come from a variety of factions, most notably different by their wardrobe choices. And weaponry, lots of weaponry. That, like the aliens, comes in a variety of sizes, from hamster- to human-sized. Lastly, I’d be remiss not to mention the grappling hook you can use freely. 

It’s a bombastic package to which the backdrop, the game’s levels, include resource-extraction sites in lush jungle teeming with alien life, vast-desert train hijackings plagued by an annelid-like alien (think Dune), spec-ops nighttime city raids, ship commandeering, and even an alien’s digestive system navigated with shotgun and grenades to hand. A rich sci-fi tapestry if you squint a bit. 

Unfortunately, the game’s dysfunction reached new heights four years after release, when the service which enabled the online multiplayer, Games for Windows LIVE, was terminated. This struck at the core of what made the game worth playing: comradery. For this schlocky action film crossed with sci-fi wilderness adventure video game was never meant to be gone alone.

I played the game with my good friend Max, whose household at the time had the motto “Effort will be assumed, attainment measured”. We were about eighteen, and men, so likely the target market for the game and, at least half of us, the motto. Regardless of the critics’ views, Lost Planet 2 provided 27 hours of gleeful effort and playful attainment. Sadly, we never managed to convince others in our gaming circle to partake. The game holds a wonderfully ludic place on my gaming mantle piece which too few games approach within my acculturation to action games.  

With years of gaming behind me, and foreseeably in front of me, it has become hard to imagine getting anything more from gaming than the sustenance to keep procrastination and Skinner’s-box, zombie-like friendships alive. It could seem, at this moment in time, that I am beating a dead horse.

(Screenshots taken for post)

License to Laugh

Back in England. Door-to-door a fifteen-hour journey. Task of the day, Monday December 18th, 2023, is to take the train down south, two hours to London. In Wilmslow train station it’s hard to tell there’s money in the air. Outside though, every other car is a Porsche, Range Rover, BMW, or Bentley. Took a day to see a Rolls Royce. At the platform there’s a seemingly stochastic rhythm of interweaved footsteps striding, shuffling, and plodding on hard surfaces. To my mind the surfaces sound wet, but it’s probably a subconscious inference from the myriad of dripping sounds. I am back in the northwest (of England): rain.

In Wilmslow’s train station you’re never far from being arm’s distance away from magpies or well-dressed folk, least when getting the train to Euston. I’m not sure what has happened here, Sunak possibly, but there was an eerie lack of pigeons in this station. As the train slowed its roll through the platform, the well-dressed yet inelegant folk hurriedly marched with an odd smugness towards the front of the train, purpose calling. Only to double back on their forethought on realising their cart was toward the back. I can only assume that where they are going, their gauche style will fit in. But alas, I am on the same train.   

Cart F. Seat 9. I sat down. Apologise to a woman who was resting on the two seats, one of which I had reserved. She moves on. Guiltily, I had not meant to move her, but am happy all the same. By the time the train starts moving, a man, who too just boarded, is making dinner reservations for Thursday. The haughty enunciated voice is not being carried well on the phone’s signal. “The name is Robert. It’s Robert. —Robert”. Ribbet. Upper-middle class heartlands. We are just departing. The upper, middle class, heartlands.

The trains are not as bad as I recall, but no better, having recently been spoiled on Via Rail in Canada, which, to be fair, is very expensive unless you book way in advance. There is the faint smell of urine in the air, likely from the latrine with an open door, but I’m not so naive as to eradicate all uncertainty. A young woman sits beside me and somehow eats crisps silently: a magician worthy of show. I see a pigeon in London Euston station. No ticket checks!

Arrive to Leicester Square Theatre at 6:40pm. The door lady is wearing the Monday blues, impeccably. Staff inside are friendly. Seated by 6:45pm. Seat A10! Front row, dead centre. As the place begins to fill, I’m checking my phone every five minutes, anticipating the start of the show. I start getting some adrenaline, the flighty kind. Guitar driven music is being played over the speakers prior to the show, it has a soft but up-tempo bassline that banks this way and that. It’s soothing. I become entranced on how the stool centre stage, behind the mic stand, is lit. It has red specular highlights and is itself red metal framed. The red, rim lighting pops around its near-edges and the underside of the seat has a red glow from light bouncing up off the stage floor from behind, which is also causing another red rim light but on the underside of the metal frame, which is neon-like given the contrast between it and the relatively dark underside. After many reminders of the time at which the show is to begin, the show begins. It is now apparent that I’ve not only chosen a centre front-row seat, but that the first seat to my left as well as two to my right are no-shows in the 400-seat, sold-out theatre. My first comedy show, and I’m island-like in the front row.

Basic Lee was the show. By Lee’s admission it started with a definition of stand-up comedy that got refined; he put forth, in a joke, that he was actually a literary-art performer not a stand-up. The show’s middle might have been the “But what is” Stand-up comedy, ashamedly I can’t remember. The end was the delivery of stand-up comedy which included the purported mandatory faux sob story.

The show was a blast. I underestimated how close I was going to be. Looking him in the eye was tough to maintain, even if I had wanted to, given the severe neck angle. Being alone at the front and with it being my first comedy show, I was a bit nervous about potential interaction from Stewart Lee. However, after the start of the second half my nerves were put at ease and I laughed freely.

I loved the metanarratives and long-form jokes. “This is me now, for those of you confused”, Stewart Lee remarked at least once. Mid-joke persona changes were easy to overlook at the moment, given the fluidity and pacing of the show, but they were part of the charm for me, and, I assume, part of the dupes and suspension that enable the curtain to be thrown back many a time within a long-form joke that might last upward of 20 minutes.

He opened with topical stuff whilst (as part of his act) complaining about doing topical stuff. Rishi Sunak’s government, and the three other Tory governments that had been had whilst he started writing the show (Jan 2023). Monarchists. He also riffed on his usual audience: men that like high-brow, exclusive stuff who drag their partners to his shows and condescendingly explain why he (Stuart) is so good. Fleabag being the first art form to address the audience, middle-class Oxbridge required—if only there had been working class art forms to do it”… Or something close to.

Lee started crowd work at the start of the second half. Picking on the slogans of what people were wearing. Characterising some audience members: there was the Andrew Tate disciple, Claire from accounting, the guy who likes hyper-violent films and doesn’t care for their cultural impact or historical context, and man with a symbol of a potentially Nazi radio station, oh, as well as me, the reclusive, too good for friends just like the character, Stuart Lee, in the show.

This got me a handshake from the Greatest Stand-up in the World (I think this is a The Times quote). Yes, Stewart, I am your main demographic: bearded man who likes exclusive things and would drag his partner to see them if she was in the same country. So, I do notice and enjoy that I got the only handshake.

Funnily, on the way out, I took a wrong turn and left the venue instead of going to his merch stand where he sells things. I ask if I could go back in, “Yes”. I go. I am the last in line, but Stewart’s merch stand is manned by him and another. I got the other (of course) and already had my money out, so people could move on with their lives, and pay him for a book and leave. I had hoped to get a polaroid picture. But I cannot confront him. Let’s leave it at a handshake, no verbal blunders or disinterest.

This was my first comedy show, and as said, it was a blast. I don’t think it would be possible for me to go to another show quite like this, the act is a big name in comedy nationally, and I was front centre with no one on either side. Perhaps because I was on my own, or because it was my first show, or even my reticent nature, but as an audience member I found it hard to laugh without being self-conscious. I think Stewart Lee treated me delicately, I stuck out on the front, and he only interacted with me in ways that were semi-complimentary or a call back to previous interactions. Comparatively, I would say he flagellated some (in the capacity expected for the context). I’m not sure where the sensibilities he had in dealing with me came from… Probably 35 years of performing. Maybe it’s just decent etiquette to not go for the lone, quiet showgoer. Maybe it was a read of my body language, scarce eye contact and clammed-up joy. Maybe both, or otherwise.

It’s odd, and misguided, but there were times where it really felt like he, Lee, was talking directly to you (or, I should say, to me, to put it more explicitly and expose the ridiculousness of the statement). This might factor in how I see him dealing with me as an audience member. I think, really, it’s testament to him as a writer and performer, knowing how to deliver a show and improvise. Anyhow, Lee’s interaction with me as an audience member did me a great service, it gave me licence to laugh. Consequently, I could relax and, without realising, immerse myself in the show. Probably the best £30 I have spent in a long time.

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