The Big Push: 2003-09-24
The first cold day of the season at the chilling hour of 5am, a dark and unforgiving cloud weighed heavy on Roden Street and the surrounding London borough of Islington. A depressed setting for my final big push into my new life, no doubt nothing as terrifying as the trenches of WW1, but daunting nonetheless, I was under pressure to leave the comforts of home for a new way of life on the road. This re-birth was enough to make any 30 something Londoner cry and rejoice with anticipation simultaneously. On the one hand leaving the warmth of my love, friends, family and a good home, on the other a vast unknown of days and nights that could find me anywhere between heaven and hell across the uncertain political globe. My departure was dogged by a lack of basic preparation even after 8 months near full-time planning. I had stupidly failed to do a pack test prior to the offing. So instead of springing boldly from the loins of No.4 I stumbled over myself with complications of baggage not fit for my journey. There was still too much stuff, too many ideas and needs all trying to squeeze themselves onto my ark, a motorcycle, the unwieldy beast. Even after whittling down 30+ years of redundant baggage I was still trying to bring the kitchen sink with me. This was perhaps my most frustrating half hour of decision making to be done in my planning phase.
For these last 8 months I had the privilege of time, space and easy living, affording me the luxury of making conclusive decisions I could count on. 8 months of listening to advice from others, not to go, to miss this out, to take that, or leave some other unnecessary item or goal behind or pick one up along the way, had all been part of the process, but now I was sick of it all. There are so many options, too many choices in our privileged world, enough to have me planning in front of my computer for the rest of my life without actually doing anything at all, if I let it be that way. During all this time, Chu, my poor love, had to suffer every insignificant crest and trough of my struggle to find a good reason for leaving, all the while knowing, that like it or not, I would have to be leaving her too. Of these 8 months preparation I would say about half this time was devoted to concept, a quarter to bureaucratic documentation and the rest was up for grabs. Conceptualising my "Quest For Gameplay" was probably the most obvious mission I could have set myself, given my background in the computer games industry, but it had somehow eluded me for such a long time. Once this mission was set the rest fell into place, but not an easy task.
So anyway, there I stood with almost everything on the bike with my mother Annie and Dave her boyfriend standing patiently in audience waiting to see me off at this ungodly hour. Chu would have been there too, but she preferred the ideas of leaving the UK before I left, mostly so she didn't feel the full brunt of being left behind and was in fact herself moving on to a new life too. A tent, hammock and spare helmet were the culprits that I did not want to part with and were preventing me from leaving. OK, its stupid to take another helmet, nobody else would, but I had a few ideas in mind that made it worth taking. Still there was no getting round it I had to lose one of these confounded hard hats. "Damn it, which one shall I take?", the voice of Dave's wisdom spoke "Take the most practical I should think". I hated my white full-face flip top helmet that made me look like some kind of mounted policeman, it just didn't go with the rest of my attitude or hopes of stylish travel. I looked longingly at my bright yellow open face alternative and heard the voice of toad screaming, "It's the only way!" So Dave of Peckham and Toad of Toad Hall were my conscience for this moment in time. Should I trust in common sense and reason or fiction and fantasy? My fore coming journey has all been a fantastic dream for so many days, weeks and months until this penultimate moment. Visions of myself in far off places doing the daring or the mundane, delusions of grandeur or nightmares of gruesome torture and a myriad of accidental deaths have run rampant through my fervent imagination. So Toad seems to me a perfect companion, a foolhardy character with a passion for fast and precarious modes of travel with wild and colourful ambitions. "Whoops!" Yes hang on, Toad also said that a lot too. Didn't he end up in all sorts of terrible trouble with his harebrained ideas? Suddenly l returned to the real world with a bump. It was a cold and inhospitable morning, I had a long way to go and I didn't have much time to get to Harwich before the boat left for Hook van Holland without me. I needed comfort and this could only be satisfied by the voice of reason. So I dumped the bright yellow dreamer and felt better for it. It was strange to dump the tent, but even harder to lose the hammock. Annie thought of the best thing to say "We can always send them onto you if you want them". So that was it, I was finally on my way.
Once on the road, the road takes over. I'm thinking bike, baggage, tarmac, traffic, road signs and my boat to take me away. Then as the tension eases off and the way forward feels tangible, my mind begins to wander. Once out of London the road ahead begins to weave a rhythm softly bending left and right and on and on. Take me away, deliver me from this grey dull life and the machinations of business, endless meetings and mechanical thinking. Bring on the new life of bracing cold or scolding hot temperature, generous or dangerous people, love, hate, bold emotions and a sense of living each day to its full.
HAL9000 runs a line through me "I just want to meet the best of my potential etc…isn't that what we all strive for?" I think that's how it went, but a chilling moment is realised during that movie, when a computer seems to have a better grasp of what it might all be about than our fallible human selves. Of course HAL breaks down in a quite human twist of madness and it's all over for him. Bursting through my idling comes a sudden force, seemingly not of my own will, yanked my jaws wide open and jumpstarted an almighty scream "Yeeeeeehaaaaarrr!" The sum of all my anticipation and longing had all clapped together to light a spark in my mind that could only be answered with a scream only heard by myself as tore down the motorway. Adrenalin pumping, excitement and a great feeling of happiness were upon me. It didn't matter that the air was cold enough to freeze my knees locked or my nipples to drop off. I had my dream, and I was living it, nobody can take this away from me, its all mine, mine for the taking.
Waiting at the port, the journey feels as if it is truly beginning for the water will surely separate me from my past. I meet my first comrade motorcyclist, a man who works for an oil company. We briefly talk of outmoded and new fuel types, the virtual reality 3D building software for new plants and rigs as we board the ferry and strap our beasts down. His is a BMW 1150 I think, fit for a tour across Africa or any place you'd like to take it really, but he was just commuting to his office in Den Haag that day. My Triumph Thunderbird is just as heavy, suited to the US highway, but I was willing to take it across Africa anyway. It's just one of those teenage fads, that never dies I suppose. I'd always wanted a classic styled beast of a bike like this one, but was always denied this desire since almost all my girlfriends refused to go out with a potential accident. This time the worm had turned; I had seen it in a shop and went back for it the next day without hesitation. I didn't care about all the advice anymore; my youth was calling out to me and dumping everyone and everything else behind it.
Whilst strapping my bike to the floor of the ferry I took more time than necessary and found myself being the last down in the vehicle hold. One of the Dutch crew hands dressed in a white boiler suit passed me by, "Niche bike." "Yes" I empathised, "I hope to take it around the world." Now that I had his attention I thought it a good opportunity to tell him about my mission, partly in the hope of striking gold, but also simply to communicate. "I'm on a quest for gameplay. I'm looking for games that say something about the country they are from. Do you know any?" I wondered if it was fair to burden a complete stranger with this question and during the pause that followed it, I thought perhaps I had gone a yard too far. "Oh yesh dere are some Dutch game" came the reply "I don't see it anywhere else this game where you draw squaresh on the ground and jump through the numbersh." Of course this is instantly recognisable as 'Hopscotch'. I was later to discover that this is one of the most well known games in the world and almost everybody mentions this game first. I quickly pursued him for any other games "Don't the Dutch play a lot of board games?" "Oh yesh, that's true we are playing a lot of board games in der vinter time. I don't know how you translate it but there is this game 'Mensh ärgere dicht nicht'." I had already heard of this game from a number of Dutch and German sources back in London. The title translates as something like 'Don't get too angry' and is what we call in the UK, 'Ludo', which is latin for 'I play'. "Yesh we are playing this game a lot in vinter when we are all cosy indoors and can play for many hoursh." I had by now finished tying my bike down and looking back up to the deck hand I saw him look vaguely on as if there must be something else he should be getting on with, but instead clicked back into conversation mode; "We have some new gamesh from Asia up on deck, but nobody ish playing them. Thoushands of cushstomers but not even 10 pershent are playing." In that moment I felt he had a nuance of pride or perhaps concern for the economic success the ferry's business. In business we often attempt to instil the workforce with a natural exuberance for the welfare of the presiding company. It is quite rare to find this attitude in the UK, especially not from an individual working in such a mundane position as this man, or should I say Marvin. Not that Marvin was his name, but because he sounded a little like, and performed his duties as Marvin the depressed robot from 'Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy' might do. I almost expected him to turn around and say something like "Oh all right then, if you really want me to, I don't suppose it'll make the slightest bit of difference if these games are plugged in or not though." But of course he would never say something like that, he was too conscientious to be so miserable. Continuing his assessment of the ship's entertainment facilities, he started to sound more and more like a sales representative, "Yesh there are many attractions aboard the ferry thesh days. You can watch the moviesh and…" he went on. Perhaps I should have taken a little more interest in his wares, it wasn't as if he was expecting a response nor was he chasing me for one, he sensed the natural end of a contact between us. Another look at the bike, a nod of approval to it, me, then silently moved off to another task without another word.
My thoughts stayed with him a little while longer, Marvin I thought, quite happy to entertain a conversation to break up the boredom of being an intergalactic car park attendant, but nevertheless broken in, given up and disenchanted with the prospect of any new horizons. I felt as if we were two opposites, I had my adventure, a thousand new sunups and downs to look forward to, but Marvin the Dutch deck hand was destined for his remaining years below deck leading a quite miserable life. Well I'm certain I've blown that encounter out of all proportion, but that's what a journey is all about I suppose, no journey can me the same. The time, place and person are all changing perpetually so that it is impossible to ever relive, reconstruct or recall anything but one perception. Incidentally the perception that you are reading now is one that is written on route. Some notes go down on the day or a few days later into my sketchbook, then when there seems to be a little spare time, something hard to come by on such a journey, I make some effort to collate the thoughts. I do this mostly because I'm worried I will forget some important thought or notion to the wind, but I'm certain there is value in distilling the text before unleashing it on the page too.
Creak, creak, creak are the sound that my off-road style motorcycle boots make as I plod up the steep steps to the deck above. You can tell it's me coming from a mile off with all the noise they make. I've tried oiling them, but that doesn't help, so instead I try to step without too much ankle movement, only thing is that makes me look like some kind of Frankenstein monster with no functioning joints to speak of. I must do something about it before I hit Africa. Africa you see holds all the darkest and most foreboding scenarios in my thoughts of nomadic travel. This is the place I expect to feel most vulnerable, alone and open to some terrible end. I live in hope that it may be otherwise, but when I hear my boots creaking I see myself attempting to hide in a bush, village, sand dune or wherever, but failing miserably due to the sound of the brash creaking of these darn boots. Let's just say these boots are not made for walking or hiding, but the best in motorcycle wear I've ever purchased.
Now sitting in the comfort of the large seating areas of the ferry, I was able to take stock of my first mini journey, draw a quick sketch, of my surroundings and gaze across the water and into my dreams of the future once more. My sketch was poor to say the least and several to follow were pretty bad too, it would take sometime before I could actually draw again as I had been our of practice for many years. I wrote a lot about my previous life as a company director of a computer games company, my desire to search for culture in games, the charity appeal I wanted my industry to support, but I don't want to write about it here again, for another time perhaps. It was time however to figure out where I would be sleeping tonight. I could try for a hostel I had heard about that is actually a castle, but then it's so much more useful and comforting to be with friends, or friends of friends.
In this case Danny Akker is a friend thrice removed who lived with many other students and creative types in an ex telecommunications, KPN, building in Den Haag. The office block was about 2 minutes out from the centre of town and sat quietly among the equally silent local industrial estates. It appeared that there was a serious depression underway in Holland given that so many office blocks were not in use. Even though there must have been hundreds of thousands of unoccupied square footage around the area, the developers were still beavering away at more of the same, either undeterred, head in the sand or just gambling on a turnaround. Danny and associates were very lucky indeed, when I arrived I could not believe the luck they were having. Each inhabitant that had colonised this '80s style telco block was afforded the luxury of at least 3000sqft or more if they so desired, all legal and above board for a minute fractional cost of typical student accommodation. Only a few floors were occupied and of those there were several office spaces still empty, one of which was used for playing football in it was so big. Danny welcomed me with a warmth and huge smile that can only be his. He immediately made me feel at home, although I had never had a home such as this. We immediately clicked and set into an evening of much discussion, laughter, eating, drinking and music. From time to time a neighbour might drop by or a visitor come to stay for a while, all doors were open here and the enormous spaces propagated a strong sense of wellbeing and a stress free lifestyle. I was transported back to a time when I felt like this more often. More than 10 years at least, back to when I was at Art College, where big open spaces were a natural must for a sculptor. Even though I don't think of myself as old I'm sure that Danny and comrades age, 24 or so, must have helped me back to this time of free thinking. Free thinking is what these guys are all about, trying to find a way to generate positive thoughts and action within communities, networking people together to bring back a sense of place, which they felt had left Holland some years past. So although Danny and the other Danny were both student anthropologists, they were more interested in the community projects that they discussed so fervently. In the following days I was invited, on more than one occasion, to sit in on meetings and I found myself listening to a wide variety of potential motions and events that were brandished as good actions for local and even world communities. When I was finally asked what I thought about it all I had to admit, "it all sounds like a lot of talk a not so much action". There was some agreement and even a passionate knee-jerk reaction to head out into the night to knock on some doors of an unsuspecting neighbourhood and make some collective waves. This idea was soon put to sleep under murmurings of the other members, a shame as I was secretly enjoying the idea of following the group around a 'rough' dutch neighbourhood, if there is such a thing. I couldn't help recalling the Judea People's Front from 'Life Of Brian', their rantings, endless passing of motions and discussion of their plight, but never actuating their beliefs, instead perpetuating the pending possibility of such an act. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that both these groups were entirely made up of males and even more bizarrely, as in the film, only interrupted by a female character and in this case her name was Femi. Femi is a beautiful young singer studying music but already performing with a deadly professional sounding rare groove come hip-hop sound of an outfit. Although not all conversation was cut when she entered the male dominated room, there was certainly some attention diverted to her presence. She came straight at me and asked me something, but I must have missed part of the sentence when all I heard was "How can you call yourself a man?" I was stunned, what had I done or not done to deserve this. Actually I had never thought myself a man, always an upstart of a boy never succumbing to maturity, but when put like this I hate to think I couldn't meet her standards for whatever reason. She left the room again as suddenly as she had entered, a welcome interlude to the mundane murmurs of man, even if it was to bring me down a peg. Soon after I learned she was actually asking me whether a sentence she was writing for a song would make sense in English. At that moment of realisation I failed to follow my instinct to leave the group and spend some time with Femi, someone who was actually creating something.
I may have put Danny's crew in a bad light here, but actually they are all a very good lot, commendable in there efforts where most of us would never have spent the time even contemplating the greater good. I knew that Danny and co. had certainly got substantial events off the ground in the past and that it was beneficial to plan before doing anything rash, I'm sure they are doing some great things right now, and all my best wishes go out to them and their fair maiden.
When it was finally time for me to sleep I had the luxury of my own office of at least 1000sqft, with huge windows overlooking the front of the building and furnished only with a mattress, I wouldn't be afforded such a space as this again. I had truly landed on my feet here, the vibrancy of those that I had met and the ever essence of this place put me squarely in a story of my own. So here I slept the first night of my journey, as I closed my eyes it was as if my thoughts and dreams were unlocked by the emptiness of the blank faceless room, letting them run free to make an exploration of their own, floating beyond the office block into the mystery of the night. In this I felt a strange new empowerment where my every nerve ending was reaching out into an unknown void searching for new islands of knowledge, but finding roots in nothingness, nothing tangible was required, but the freedom to roam was the prime and I was hungry to learn its secrets. A peace fell upon me and I slept better here that I had in years anywhere else.
I stayed in the KPN building for another 2 nights, happy to wander about with the ever-excited Danny. I was overjoyed to learn that both the student anthropologists were quite surprised and in ore of how I had taken such a simple and honest approach to the anthropology of games. Of course I'm no academic and they are obviously not authorities in the field, just yet, but they did invoke me with some notion that I was doing a worthwhile job and that there was some real value to be had from the mission.
I had a busy few days ahead of me; I thought I might return to Den Haag to edit any material I had sourced on Dutch games, seeing as there was a wealth of space here and no need to rush on. On leaving for an interview in Amsterdam, however, I realised I couldn't very well go without taking all my belongings in case something useful might be left behind. Besides if I was to dare to strike out and find new ground I certainly wouldn't find it by going back on myself. I was also worried that I might get too comfortable and enjoy a Dutch feeling that Femi first described, called Gazellegheid.
I was in Amsterdam to meet Martin de Ronde, commercial director of Guerrilla Games, to interview him on his thoughts surrounding game development and if Dutch culture had anything to offer games of the future. Indeed it seems that a meticulous attention to detail, efficiency and pure design are inherent qualities of Dutch manufacturing culture that I would later find in other Dutch products and games. I was in Amsterdam for only 2 hours as I had another appointment in Utrecht that evening, bringing my total hours spent in this city to 6, the other 4 having been spent here in '87 during a summer Interail trip, if you know the score you can imagine what that was all about.
Utrecht was to be the place of my first game discovery. I had already picked up a lot of names of interesting Dutch games, but had not yet seen or played any of them. Somehow I wasn't too perturbed that I might not find a Dutch game, perhaps it was because I was enjoying the journey so much, or maybe it was because deep down I knew it couldn't be that hard, or the fact that I knew one of Willem's house mates had 50+ board games in his room. When I arrived at Willem's once squat turned commune, I had no idea what was in store, but boy was it good. Willem Wolzak looks like 40 going on 20 and has the pep and go of a teenager. Down to the gym in the morning most days, rollerblading to most destinations and chilling out at the sauna on Sundays, Willem has an energetic and full time life going. Once through the door and up the stairs and bags on the floor, Willem left no time to waste and in his hurried voice he started, "Well err supper's on its way now, but while we're waiting for the others to turn up perhaps you'd like to here a song, does that sound good to you Tim?" What a lovely surprise, and how could you deny anyone who wanted to perform something from their heart and that's just what he did. I love Willem's song "I'm trying to be here not there", which of course has a lot of meaning for Willem, but I also found poignant to my current situation but also with universal appeal. There is a very strong sense of the 1960s in Willem not least in his song writing and although his and my feet are planted squarely in the 21 st century, I could not help but feel transported to another time, when people travelling and bumping into each other like this must have been more commonplace. It didn't matter though, this was here and now and it was beginning to swing the way I liked it anyhow.
At supper I was asked what exactly I was up to on my journey, where I had been and where I was going. At this stage I had not been far, no more than a few hundred miles, so the best I could do is recount what my mission was all about. Over the next few hours many Dutch games were recalled to our attention. I wrote vigorously into my sketchbook to try and keep up with all the names, rules and reasons for being Dutch games. Then out of nowhere and with a complete understanding of what I was looking for Willem proudly walked into the kitchen lifting Sjoelen into view. This is an impressive vision when you consider the size of this long wooden board and that most people don't have such substantial and eclectic objects in their homes these days. I had never seen this game before; it met all sorts of prime requisites for being Dutch including its sober design, construction, simplicity, materials and family social appeal. I had struck gold, or rather Willem had struck it for me. So that night we played Sjoelen, Willem, Harrie, Frank and I. It had all come together so beautifully, no fuss or struggle to arrange and such a wonderful social game that it was a great way to break the ice too. I set about recording the game as we played and even this seemed a simple task when it could quite easily become a hindrance. I delighted in how Dutch imaginations had been stirred that night, to recount the games of time past and present, especially from Harrie who had a particularly strong love of games, he did after all allow at least one third of his room to be occupied by them. When we had finished Sjoelen, I was on a high and was spurred on to play a board game with Harrie and Frank, Die Siedler. This was not a Dutch game, but a very popular German board game. It had been a long day with the driving the interviews, Sjoelen and now this was one game too many as my mind struggled to keep up with the other 2. I had to sleep and boy did I sleep well that night. I thought the nights before in Den Haag were good, but this was far superior, in that I had achieved or at least started to achieve what I had set out to do. Here I was out on a limb chancing all my wealth and wit to bring home a story about games across the world and in the first country I visit I find a gem, you couldn't have found a happier bunny that night.
I stuck around for a few more days in Utrecht, some time spent with Willem either in the gym, coffee shop or skating around the city like a couple of kids out of 'Jet Set Radio'. I was hoping to play another game with Harrie and Frank, but this didn't come to fruition. One night was party night though and this was a great way to end my visit to The Netherlands. Although Willem is young and sprightly he wasn't up to coming out that night but it was blast all the same. Some of the guys in the house were in a band, which would rehearse at some studios, who were having a party as they were moving to a new location. The most common form of transport in Dutch towns and cities in the bicycle and this was how we all got to the gig. There were 8 of us I think all peddling our way to what proposed to be a night of rock und roll. The bicycles didn't seem so rock n roll, but actually it was a great way to move through he streets, hold a conversation with Joost my tall angelic blonde cycling neighbour or politely smile at Romina a dainty Italian brunette riding side-saddle on the back rack of a cycle ahead. The venue had 2 DJs, some drum n bass in one room, with soul classics in another, but to my astonishment no live bands. I suppose they would all want to play if one group had started up. Someone must have heard me moaning, as one more rehearsal room was opened up that night to make way for the remains of a piano, some musicians and a 3 rd DJ. Whilst the turntable spun an electrified lute player twanged away to the rhythm of anyone who fancied bashing a beer bottle against the strings of the piano base lying on the floor. It was a wild cacophony of opposing sounds and droned on for many hours in what felt like some kind of Warholesk movie down a dungeon. Romina by now had drunk enough to throw herself into a deep primal dance, something you might expect to see in a film like 'The Land That Time Forgot'. She swung about in a heated trance that had an hypnotic affect on me and passers by. I had to join in seeing as we had performed various acts of salsa in the drum n bass room together, I stole a kiss from her but only as a affirmation of an intoxicating night, the returning smile and insane glint in her eye was my reward. Eventually I tired of the eternal winding and grinding of this tribal incantation and pursued conversation with a bassist from a metal band who said she really wanted to move into jazz, the cacophony was not only in the music, but also in the sights and sounds of the people around me. Perhaps 10 bottles of beer and half a bottle of Tequila later it was finally time to leave, or at least it was for me. Trying to unlock my bicycle resulted in a domino effect of all the other cycles standing there this evening. "It's OK it happens all the time, don't bother picking them up again" instructed a woman entering the venue. I couldn't just leave them all lying there. My drunken stupor not only helped me raise the 20 odd cycles, but also allowed me to cycle aimlessly into the night without a clue of where I was or where I was going. This bicycle like my boots had an irritating noise about it. On each revolution of the peddles the crank would grind against the chain guard and arouse attention from passers by, not that there were many of those at this hour or that I really cared that much. What I did care about was getting back to home to bed. I thought this a good opportunity to test my orienteering skills and on this mini adventure I rediscovered the pleasures of being completely alone to solve my challenge. In the desolate myriad of underpasses that scar many Dutch towns and cities I pottered about Utrecht cranking along on with the character of my cycle to keep me company, looking out for any landmark or reference that might lead me to my bed. It would have been easier to wait with the others before leaving the venue or to have gone back to anyone else's place for the night rather than face the possibility of a night in the gutter. Perseverance paid out, just as in London, like a drunken lab rat on autopilot, I managed to find my way back to the place I could call home, No4 Oudernoord. Sleep well I did and all had come to a good end in Holland, the journey, the friends, the games and a party to round it off. Hoorah! Three cheers for Timmy the dog.
After that it was off to Hamburg and Berlin in Germany, but that is most definitely another kettle of fish.