Monday, 10 February 2014

Siblings (1)

The love of one’s siblings is a gift we might often take for granted. Very rarely does a child have a say regarding the family planning conducted by the parents — who would want such responsibilities at a young age, anyway? — and so the age gaps could be small, with a family of young ones grouped together and able to play and develop both collectively or individually; conversely, there could be a whole decade between a person and their siblings. This, then, becomes a conflict. A clash of needs, desires, even wills. It also becomes the delineation of responsibilities.
            My oldest sibling is seventeen years older than me; my youngest siblings (twins) are sixteen years younger. In between these, I also have a brother twelve years older and a brother twelve years younger. The only planning objective (and accusations) I can extrapolate from this, therefore, might be that perhaps I was meant to be grossly isolated.
            Every relationship someone has with their brother or sister is no doubt fundamentally similar to the next person’s in many ways. There exists a love, surely. Question, then. Is this love most noticeable, say, in the relationship between a young child and a teenage sibling, where the teenager must succumb to a new truth? To the inevitable truth that, despite the upcoming imbroglios of life, such as examinations for colleges and universities, the advancement of puberty and the growth into adulthood (albeit a growth which is stagnated by bouts of irrationality through the basic, heretofore inchoate understanding of patience with regards to being their parents’ priority), they are now shelved into second place as far as their basic needs are concerned? As human beings, we tend to reach stages in our lives which we are wholly unprepared for, not to mention unaware of. Puberty, for example. The sudden interest in other boys or girls, singling one out for reasons consciously unknown. What is this, where has it come from? All of a sudden everything begins to become so very overwhelming. The tones of teachers seem to unexpectedly shift, sounding condescending at best, pitying at worst. One’s friends seem to be going through a similar crisis, thank the gods. Yet, blinded by our own struggle, how easy is it for a teenager to not notice that everybody around them is developing at a different rate, a rate each individual’s body is able to cope with? One friend seems to have mastered this disease of feelings and emotions seeping through the body the way a virulent poison might, and look at how coolly he or she fits in with the older kids now, kissing and hugging and growing their hair longer or hiding behind newfound imagery. Imagery which exclaims liberation, yet glowers with corruption. They have isolated this poison and treated it, pragmatically acknowledging the after effects. And what about the friend behind, whose voice keeps squeaking and tears are welling up in his eyes every five minutes when he sees bad news on the television or somebody getting bullied. And just what on earth are the girls constantly darting to and fro between classroom and bathroom for?
Is a selfish teenager likely to understand the arrival of true compassion?
This sibling relationship is one which takes time to get used to. When my first younger sibling was born, I was twelve, almost thirteen. For nine months my stepmother had gone from thin as a twig to bearing an intrusive protuberance and whenever she sat down she belched in a most unlady-like fashion. At this age, it’s hard to separate the self and all the overwhelming fears of girlfriends/boyfriends, irritating teachers, annoying friends and homework which piles up faster than you can finish it. It’s hard to take a moment to appreciate the new member of your life. Somebody who is going to look up to you and want to play football with you and draw with you and hug you when you return from a stint away at university. Somebody who, ultimately, because they are even younger and consequently even less rationally-minded than yourself, will become irritated even more easily than a teenager could.  
When my little brother was born, then, a lot changed. Suddenly playing football with my dad revolved around the baby. He was always tired because the baby was up at night. We couldn’t hear the television because of the baby’s crying; we couldn’t even watch what we wanted because the baby wanted Thomas the Tank Engine. Dear gods what is this wretched sibling doing to my life?
And yet, the first word I ever heard Alex say was my own name, when dad was asking him who people in a photograph were.
I mean…what? How can you even measure that?

Then along came Isobel and Finn when Alex was only three years young and suddenly he’s the one who can no longer be entitled to the attention he deserves, because two little horrors have broken free, and even with a tried and true feed/sleep structure, twins are a whole different gravy. At sixteen I was able to recognize this, at twenty I know that, even with the very close experience I’ve had with the raising of these young cubs, there’s still plenty I won’t know until I become a parent, and therefore I cannot truly measure a parent’s love. An older sibling’s love must come close, though. Your little brother or sister falls over, you panic; they vomit, you panic; they have one of those moments when they cry so hard they forget to breathe…you panic! And when they slip from your sight for just a few seconds…heavens, is this what a heart attack feels like?
My dad and I even have little nicknames for them all. Alex is Dude; Isobel is Princess; Finn is Finndolph (it’s like ‘dolphin’ but backwards…see?) and at twenty, it is so very incredible to watch them grow up. Sure, day-by-day it seems a slow process; yet, when I return home for Christmas, Easter or Summer, so much seems to have changed. My eight year old brother already uses words such as ‘determined’ and phrases like ‘on the other hand’. Isobel treats guests with the respect and dignity of somebody ten years her senior, and Finn…well, Finn is our four year old teddy with what I can only assume is a secret Master’s degree in mathematics, logic and disregard for irony.
And the hugs, oh the hugs! Seeing their smiles for the first time in months is almost ineffable. Imagine a duck’s relief at finding a polynya in the arctic, and you might grasp the sheer power of happiness in seeing those smiles. Saying goodbye for three months is some twisted torture, on the other hand. All of a sudden their school drawings elude you. You can’t see them start running faster or speaking with more intent. All you can do is trust in their parents to keep them safe until you return, and hope that Finn doesn’t fall over more than five or ten times a week…
Indeed, the love for a younger sibling might truly be ineffable.
Next time, I’ll examine what it’s like for my older siblings.


Friday, 31 January 2014


Over the Christmas period, at any moment (brief or extended) when I could wrestle myself away from family, reading or general indolence, I indulged in the game Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Whether or not you are familiar with the game franchise matters not. All one need be aware of, with regards to the game, is that it involves pirates and alcohol. Some of the pirates, the story’s protagonist, for example, are fictitious; others, such as Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Ben Hornigold, Stede Bonnet, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, were all once real human beings — dead now, of course. Their stories are altered somewhat in accordance with the game’s plot, which transcends what we comprehend as possible in certain areas of physics, too. Another nuance for the scribe is that, in my case anyway, I played the game with a bottle of amaretto at my side, pretending it was rum (amaretto is cheaper, okay?).
            As with any story, game or plot, there is conflict. An imbroglio which requires resolution. Hardship, deception and betrayal all abound. There are two sides. An extension of the Knights Templar, known as the Templars, who believe that their grand quest for global peace comes from order, high suzerainty and the surveillance, by this upper echelon, of every person’s every act. Little privacy means little chance of rebellion or insubordination. A belief that in embracing some greater good, whereby the individual surrenders much of his or her ambitions to the oceanic desires of the collective, thus forsaking one of the most sacred elements of their freedom, the collective becomes all the more safe. Their opponents are a quasi-secret order known as the Assassins. Their beliefs include sayings such as ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’ and their rationale seems, at times, to be a purely anti-Templar functioning process. Throughout the entire series of games, the theme of deception tends to run between the chosen Assassin member which the human player controls, and this assassin’s master. The master is presented as pro-liberty, pro-ritual and pro-kill-Templars. There are scenes in-game when the player eliminates a member of the Templar order, and in these poignant moments, stories are shared, sides revealed, secrets dislodged, and suddenly the shelf of certainty the Assassin protagonist has been arrogantly perched upon (thanks to the cunning manipulation of rhetoric by his or her master) seems to be a shelf of uncertain purchase. The road to freedom is revealed as patchy, mottled with doubt and difficulty. Step by step, the protagonist begins to wonder if the tautological anti-humanitarian accusations their master convicts the Templars of are covered in a base camouflage of hatred; if so, the protagonist is being used, tempered, honed into the ultimate killing machine, shaped and managed by the will of this grand master. In fighting to free people from Templar oversight, the assassin steadily understands that he/she isn’t free his/herself.
            The stories are cleverly written, spanning multiple periods of our history and, overall, I had a blast.
            But as you might be able to see, playing the game got my gears grinding.
            Another game I suffered an addiction to was The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. A more classical fantasy fiction-styled game, where dragons, trolls and demons abound, where there are ruined fortresses and grand loot is to be discovered at the end of every cave and the depths of every lake. Where each corpse seems to hold tight to a weapon with its own history. Weapons that can boost the protagonist’s skills or do extra damage to opponents — and what’s more, the human player can control an Orc — how much more unconventional might a game get? ‘Nonsense!’ I hear J.R.R. Tolkien calling.
            Skyrim is a province on the continent of Tamriel, and much of the culture seems to draw on Vikings and the Norse mythology, which in itself is interesting — a move away from Greek and Roman mythology is always worthy of points. And here I must revert back to Black Flag, as this game, too, involves mythology…of the Mayans. Jungles, jaguars, crocodiles. All in there.
            Anyway. One of the quest-lines in Skyrim involves the province’s eventual civil war. There is an empire, and there are rebels, Skyrim loyalists, if you will. The player is his or her own arbiter, able to decide whether to fully liberate Skyrim or to wholly unify it, bringing every jarl to the heel of grand imperial rule.
            Regardless of whether the player is a rebel or an imperial, there is another quest-line involving a brotherhood of assassins who, via contractual agreement, are hired to assassinate this empire’s ruler. Guess who kills the emperor? Correct.
            And this got me thinking, drawing political links between the two games. In Skyrim, the player is given the opportunity to be part of a huge imperial unification, a move which would obviously present consequences and opportunities that the game doesn’t really draw upon, and didn’t much need to anyway. The aftermath; the introduction of new trade routes, the stimulation of employment, the increases in collective wealth. And then, the chance to throw the self-same empire into turmoil by eliminating its figurehead. Obviously, if the player chooses to liberate Skyrim then killing the emperor is the final moment of silencing the whispers of empire, but the freedom the player is given within the game to influence who lives, who dies, who suffers and who prospers, is wholly fascinating at a time where, in 2014, there are countries suffering similar oppression. Countries where people are going to die this winter because fundamental life commodities – food, water, shelter, are beyond what they can even hope for anymore. Countries where political chaos and lunacy all the way at the top of the system are spreading downwards, from spire to roots, enveloping all in a great mass of greed and corruption, leaving the poor and the weak by the wayside. Skyrim and Black Flag are games where the player can be richly rewarded and, ultimately, spend so much time hooked on these games that the liberation of Skyrim, and the grand quest against Templar overlords can suddenly seem more important than the millions of homeless children across the world. Or, if we are willing to (in the moments where we turn off our Xbox 360s or Playstation 3s) inject some of the news — via television, internet or newspaper, it matters not — into our lives, people can see that these games aren’t just great examples of graphics and story writing, they are also — like many good novels and films — reflecting real world issues; we just have to look beyond the swords, the cannon fire and the dragons. Really, an imperialist regime sweeping across the land, and a sect of huge dragons seeking to enslave a province — if that metaphor cannot be unpacked into our current events and enable us to see, think, and fucking sympathize with the people freezing in deserts at night, then I don’t know what can.