Peter Clark: Memories of John Francis Bull

Peter has written a moving tribute to John Bull, our friend who died on Saturday 8th July 2017, aged just 47. I reproduce it here as a guest post.

“I can’t adequately express how saddened I am by John’s death.  He was one of my oldest friends and over the years certainly my best.  With the exception of a few months when I moved to Cheltenham and when he moved back to Suffolk I saw him almost every week.  It’s difficult to comprehend that I won’t see him again.

Although he often portrayed a veneer of combativeness in the way he spoke I always thought he was a decent, quiet and clever man who sometimes hid those attributes from others.  I hardly ever saw him angry and I’ve never knew him to do anything deliberately hurtful to anybody.

I knew John best through roleplaying and wargaming, together we travelled in our imaginations through stories sweeping from the depths of space to the grimy alleys of Victorian London and beyond.  John always added something to the games, bringing encyclopaedic knowledge of certain parts of history and a sharp, clever mind that was often more than a match for any puzzle or plot I might devise.  I know roleplaying is difficult to understand if you haven’t participated but I still remember sessions that John and I were involved with going back over the decades, including one memorable instance in his shop when we only realised how long we’d been playing when the rising sun started shafting in through the windows.  I will also remember the sight of John in his full Lorien Trust gear, clad in his leather armour, sheltered behind a huge shield, an altogether imposing sight.

As well as roleplaying we shared many other interests, John was a military historian like me and we often had conversations about obscure bits of military history that left others mystified.  I realised how much I would miss him while back in Bury last week …. I looked up and saw the unusual sight of an Osprey Tilt Rotor and wanted to share it with someone but I realised that John was the only one who would have understood and I’d never be able to talk to him about it now.

I don’t feel these few words do justice to this good man, I miss him now and I’m sure as the years go on I will feel his absence more and more.

I’m so sorry I couldn’t be at the funeral.  I’m sure my friend was give a send off that was worthy of him.  My thoughts and condolences are with all of you.

Yours,

Peter Clark”

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Phil Mansfield: Eulogy for John Francis Bull

A guest post, in which Phil shares his memories of a dear friend and founder member of the Nameless Anarchist Horde Bury gaming group…

John Bull

I have had the pleasure of knowing John since the early 80s when me met at the Mid Anglia Wargamers. It soon became clear that he was a very enthusiastic wargamer and was quickly joining in games and raising armies. I still recall fondly his very green tanks. 

He quickly showed himself to be an able opponent and was soon collecting armies in very diverse periods but which ever period of history we were discussing, he was able to demonstrate an incredible knowledge of weapon systems and tactics.

John also started coming along to the role playing group that met at Christian’s house on a Thursday. John played his characters in the same style as his personality, they were always particularly well armed, and often in an innovative way. On one occasion in an attempt to out manoeuvre John, CJ said to him as the game keeper you are just carrying a book about flower growing, you are completely defenceless.  “Oh no I am not,” replies John and described putting the book back in the bag and using it as a sling.

Just like John in real life, his characters could be relied upon for their ability to work their way out of a tight spot, with him often coming up with ingenious (or slightly crazy depending on how you look at it) ways of getting us out of trouble. I played more role-playing games than I can recall with John and again, just like in real life, h0e always demonstrated loyalty to his friends.

My friendship with John really took off when, through his shop that he ran briefly in Bury, we found  out about a board game called World in Flames (strategic board game of WW2) which for the four of us John, Pete Dave and myself quickly became a favourite. The problem was we had nowhere to set the game out and leave it set up but on that front John came to the rescue with his offer of playing at his house where he lived with his parents in Stanton.

We must have spent at least three or four summers whilst we were going through university not doing a lot else other than playing Wif. Now John had a knack of rolling dice well, but in this particular game rolling high was not always an advantage. He and Dave were allies and Dave was desperate for the turn to end which it would have done on any roll of a dice unless John rolled a six. Could John managed to roll anything other than a six?  No, and the turn went on and on – much even to John’s amusement about the position that Dave was finding himself in.

Life got in the way of endless Wif games but we still managed to find the way of holding them by for what became known as Wif week when we would literally spend the whole week playing. John and my addiction got so bad we even managed a Wif holiday, going to a convention in Germany. I know now from conversations that I have had with Carol that John as ever was very laid back about the trip as he was with most things in life. When Carrol enquired as to where he was going and where he was staying – Phil’s arranged it and off he went.

John had by now become a very good friend of mine, and when life took him in a different direction with his move to Cheltenham I was disappointed I would not be seeing him for a game or two.

Now aside from a get together to see Dave off move to Australia, I had not seen John for some time. A couple of months ago I heard from him out of the blue to hear that he was moving back to Bury and we were messaging, as is the way these days, about meeting up for a game. My regret is that life again got in the way as before we managed to get that organised his life has been cut tragically short.

The meaning of friendship to me is the ability to talk to someone who you have known for ever but not seen for some time. I know that if we had met up we would have been discussing life, but mainly gaming and it would have been as if we were meeting up to carry on our wif game.

 I have struggled a bit for anecdotes about John because being in his company was a normal everyday occurrence for such a long period of time when we were growing up- it was an every day event.

I am very sad today but more importantly I am proud to have known John, and called him my friend. He would and often did anything to help his family and friends (well apart from Bogbrush). He enjoyed life and I will always remember his grin and him scratching his head as he rolled a handful of dice and crushed my army.

Rest in peace my friend and look forward to gaming with you again in the next life.

Phil Mansfield
 

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Eulogy for John Francis Bull.

Today saw the funeral of my friend John Francis Bull. This was the eulogy I delivered…

Two score and seven years ago John Francis Bull entered this world; and in his unassuming way, quietly and without fuss, he has now left us again. It was typical of John that he went without fuss – but he went here, in the family home, in the county he loved, and that is the single ray of light in the deep sadness he left. John has left us, but he has left us so much the richer for the warmth, the humour, the kindness and the strength that he shared so generously with those who had the privilege of knowing him.

There are many here who knew John better, more deeply than I. We became friends in our teens, and knew each other for some three decades; but John held discretion as his watchword, and much of his life and activities was private. We all knew of those he loved deeply – his parents, the wonderful John and Carol; his grandparents Frank & Lucy who adored him as he adored them; and of course despite all the teasing, his beloved sister BogBrush, or Emma as I understand she was mistakenly baptised? 

And of course we must mention Gremlin his kitten, who loved John as only a kitten can, and loved John only!

John Francis Bull was aptly named.  I’m sure we have all seen depictions of John Bull, the British equivalent of the Yankee Uncle Sam. That  Bull is a stout country yeoman, representing the loyal and brave rural Englishman whose liberties will not be trodden on. Fuelled by roast beef, good beer and patriotism John Bull has the strength to see off all who would attack our island home.

 Our John Bull shared these qualities; he was a warrior at heart, who lived his life with courage and dignity; not in the armed forces, as he wanted, for his diabetes counted against him – but he was always there when called upon. And when called upon, in whatever crisis, John was utterly unflappable. One of his friends, Jo-Dee reminded me that when surrounded by utter chaos John stood calmly smiling, dealing with things that needed doing, totally in the control of the situation. That is true strength, and true leadership.

 John was also a good strategist, but he excelled in small unit tactics, and I learned much from watching him. In one game we were aware that the enemy was above us, and had the stairs covered. John simply moved across the room, aimed at the ceiling, and declared he was shooting through the floorboards. The referee called a kill, and we achieved our objective, winning easily. 

 John admired many of his colleagues he worked with in Security, and learned from them all, speaking very highly of them. It was our countries loss that John could not serve as a regular or in the police owing to diabetes; but it was the gain of many young and vulnerable teens and students whom he looked after in that steady reliable way of his. Physically he was very Strong, and his puppy fat gave way to honed muscle as he worked out. For the gamers, John had Strength 16!

John was fiercely loyal, and honest to the point of bluntness. His dedication to duty was absolute, and must be celebrated. He earned Man of the Month for Abbey Security soon after joining them by working a full shift, and then coming in again to cover for a sick colleague. If John said he would be there, he was. His capacity for hard work as inspiring. 

You need sound judgement and great kindness to do that role, and here the Francis part of his name comes to mind because like St. Francis, John loved animals, and they loved him.  Women regarded John with absolute trust, and felt very secure in his presence. John rolled very high for Wisdom too!
 Yet his Intelligence was even greater.. It took me years to recognise it, and it was not till John joined C23 and I saw him working on problem solving and doing analysis that I realised that he was one of the cleverest, if not the cleverest man I knew.  John was so humble, and his personality at times defensive – he survived rather than enjoyed Culford, and did well in an age that failed to recognise dyslexia as sympathetically as we do today – and John was never one to boast. However if faced with a problem, John would make sudden intuitive leaps, and see patterns in data long before others.

His proposed solutions were often gung ho and witty, if usually a little impractical – hence Haverhill has not  yet been shelled to rubble, despite appearances. John was extremely clever in the best way: he never bored anyone else with his cleverness. Sure if you were playing a game John would “rules lawyer” and minimax, finding every loophole there was. One roleplaying game, Ars Magica 5th edition, was influenced by John designing a perfectly legal character, William Ex Miscellanea, who broke the previus edition by being better than anyone else! William appears as a character in one of the Ars Magica books, and while people play that game John’s alter ego will live on. 

Usually John used his intelligence for good though – if you went to John with your problem, he would come up with solutions. John rolled 18 for Intelligence.

As to Charisma, John Francis had it in spades. He was cynical about gurus, demagogues and people who used fancy words, and in our games club the Nameless Anarchist Horde he was the person who generally kept us grounded. In a world full of idealists and romantics John stood for pragmatism and hard British common sense, and the truth no matter how inconvenient.  Phil Mansfield will read his tribute at the pub, in which he expresses just what John meant to us as gamers, as friends, and as kids growing up. John had Charisma, and that led him to hold rank in the Romans, and as Erin, in the Militia at The Gathering

John’s life seems short to us: but it was extraordinary, though in his humility he passed himself of as the most ordinary chap of all. I knew John Francis for three decades, and countless adventures in dozens of worlds. Now his last hit point has gone, his saving throw failed and we affectionately place his character sheet back in the folder; but the stories of his life, and the tales we told together, will live on. John had but half a life; but what a life — a glorious, fun, generous and exuberant life, exemplifying the finest qualities of England — what we would expect from a member of his family.

And us who live on?  In our games let us celebrate our fallen comrade, in the way we conduct ourselves let John’s example guide us as the good and true man he was, and in our hearts may he live on until we meet again.

Farewell, John Francis Bull.  England Expects, and you did your duty.

  

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Review: Continuum 2016, Games Convention in Leicester

WARNING: Many links contain sound. Don’t click on them if at work.

Last week was spent on my annual holiday, this time spent visiting my parents in Suffolk and from Friday to Monday at Continuum, a bi-annual games convention in Leicester. Continuum grew out of an earlier RPG convention called Convulsion which was highly focussed on Chaosium games and Glorantha,  and I attended a few of the early Continuums as a day delegate, popping in and then returning home on the train having acquired whatever Gloranthan lore was on sale as a con special that year. Back in even the early 2000’s it was still quite hard to find RPG and specialist games shops, and so buying any hobby product often involved lengthy journeys. Nowadays of course  I can buy pdfs and have the product in seconds, or buy physical books and have them shipped to me, but back then a convention was a chance to find cool new stuff I had not even heard of.

Even so, I really don’t recommend attending conventions this way. Firstly, a day pass is often really expensive, and secondly you don’t actually get to do much as chances are all the games have signed up in advance the night before you arrive (though Continuum does allow online sign ups and reservations). Mainly though, a huge part of the con experience is  sitting around chatting to people in the bar until 5am, getting up early for the breakfast (the food was excellent this year – best ever I have seen at a con, and MUCH better than the woeful standard of as few years back) and random encounters with RPG luminaries likes Marcus L Rowland, Mike Mason or Lewis Jardine in corridors.

So while my early visits to gaming conventions were brief flirtations with a short hit and run shopping visit, nowadays I do it properly and honestly I really advise you to stay over if you can. This was my third Continuum as a delegate staying on-site, and while the accommodation was not as lovely as the flat I had assigned in 2012 it was still perfectly functional, though the absence of any cooking utensils meant my plan to cook for Lloyd Gyan has had to be deferred to some future event. Bring towels, t0othpaste and a saucepan or two plus crockery, and you will be fine, as Sainsburys is twenty minutes walk away and in the heat quite tiring if you have a packed schedule. This year I only had to walk up to Oadsby to the shop once.

So what do you do at a games convention? Well you meet up with old friends, you play boardgames, you drink in the bar, you play roleplaying games, you attend seminars, and you play Freeform larps (live action dress up roleplaying games).  I was due to run three Freeforms, play in one, and also do a seminar slot. People sign up for the Freeform games a few weeks in advance – so they can arrange costume – and unfortunately one of my games 1215 & All That, a comedic take on Magna Carta I first ran at Grand Tribunal last year did not fill up so I pulled it (rather than run with far too few players) a week before the convention.

GETTING THERE

I got a lift up to Leicester this year with Becky, so avoided the problem of bus or taxi. I’m going to guess that the venue John Foster Hall of the University of Leicester is 3 to 5 miles from Leicester station, and I have never met anyone yet who has walked it, though it is theoretically possible. Delegates often arrange to meet and share taxis, but if you have a car there is free parking on site. Once i had arrived, I found Alison |Rider-Hill manning the con desk and was welcomed, given a badge and sent to the accommodation desk to get my keys. I was on the second floor of Leir house, right by the bar, and  there is a lift up if the stairs are an issue. Accessibility was good throughout the site, as one might expect from a modern university campus.

I was amused to find my badge this year was even shorter than usual “CJ”. Am I becoming notorious enough to get way with two letters? Next time I shall go for one, and become “Mr C” – not the Shamen one 😉 – or perhaps hope to lose both and become The Delegate With No Name, or the The Delegate Who Should Not Be Named!

HIGHLY HAUNTED LIVE

On the first night I was running a freeform, Highly Haunted Live, a lighthearted look at a TV show I was associated with many years ago for a while. There were 13 players, each playing a role in the cast or crew of this live paranormal Reality TV show spectacular, and the players were armed with cameras, EMF meters, and complex backstories. Everyone had their own goals and aims, and making good TV was not really high on most of their priorities! The game involved the players running in character around a beautiful house that was made available to us, and much screaming, swearing and paranormal TV in-jokes “a viewer has just called in to say their goldfish is possessed!”…

Twenty minutes in to the show three out of work academics who had set up their own “paranormal elimination” franchise, the Ghostblasters arrived.  As the two factions compete for screentime, the medium Eric Gomorrah and the Presenter Yvonne Dingfield try and jostle each other off camera and various other people try to follow their agendas everything soon dissolved in to highly enjoyable chaos. I probably needed two more referees, but heck it worked – and I have at least some footage to prove it 🙂  I think this is only the second time I have have ever filmed a game as part of the game itself, and it worked well. Four characters escaped in a stolen blood transfusion lorry as Leicester was destroyed in a disaster of Biblical proportions before the end of the game — so a satisfying outcome. Especial thanks are due to Jenny and her son Dave who played the supernatural horrors, without even their character sheets which I mislaid somewhere along the way.

GB2016

I have no doubt the game will be run again one day, and am always interested in feed back from players – email me on chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com if you took part and have some ideas or comments to share.

SATURDAY MORNING & THE SEMINARS

I had  Saturday morning free, and quite by chance I stumbled in to the seminars room. Partly I wanted to check them out before I had to give my little talk on Saturday. I sat through two – and to the guys on the Chaosium panel, and the game writers panel, sorry I was looking at my phone at times but I was ordering The Coming Storm pdf and later looking at Lynne’s stuff on Achtung! Cthulhu on Amazon as I had never really looked at it before. Both panels resulted in my placing orders there and then – so I hope you will understand this was not because I was bored by your presentations, but because i was so enthralled with them and went and bought before I forgot! Both panels were exceptionally interesting, and I spent much of the remainder of the weekend there attending all manner of panels, though I missed two of the very best I’m told – Chris Killey’s, and Dr Moose’s Religion & Roleplaying 8. I wish I had live tweeted what I heard as apart from the reissue of Credo next year I have already forgotten many of the Chaosium announcements.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON: A GRANDIOSE DISASTER

This was an unusual freeform run by Sue but written by an American freeformer. It was highly enjoyable, though there were a few minor oddities that will no doubt be smoothed out before the final version – in this case the Sanity rules (very Call of Cthulhu) and the scene structures. You proceed through lost of mini-scenes, that are set out in advance, but the characters you generate and interactions between them will make every game utterly unique, so this is a game with real replay potential. We played on The Lovecraft Boat – all of the playsets are different disaster movies, and this  one was great fun. I wanted to play a 70’s dreadful media stereotype so I played a hairdresser who dreamed of leaving the cruise ship salon and becoming a singer on the onboard entertainment. One of the other characters defined herself as my boss, with whom I shared a mutual love of Barry Manilow, and one was a New Age cult leader who freaked me out by calling me Adonis. Finally there was a sleazy LA film producer who promised to put me in the movies, and I naively was dreaming of musical stardom and asked if we were doing Disney? Lots of fun, with Lloyd Gyan even louder than me (he played a psychiatrist) and my character died three quarters of the way through, pushing off the lifeboat and going down with the ship singing Mandy

I did worry that somebody might take offence at my ‘fabulous’ performance as a stereotype: fortunately in the context of the comedy disaster movie take on The Love Boat I think I was able to get way with it. Stereotypes are dangerous if used unconsciously, but if you channel the archetype right, sometimes good stuff comes from it. So while I’m not that kind of girl, I really enjoyed myself. Bad tatste rarely worried me, and in fact I was by this time planning how to run the Worst Taste Freeform of All Time and make money off it, when someone pointed out I was inadvertently straying in to the plot of The Producers

ADVENTURES IN MULTI-AGENCY TEAMWORK SOCIAL HOUSING MANAGEMENT

So there was a bit of a problem with the sign up system used. If you were in a freeform, you could not sign up for the slot after yours, and could find yourself without a game. Now on reflection, if you are organised enough to sign up for the freeform, you could prebook to play something rpg related at the same time, and no sign up system is perfect as I know from running Grand Tribunal. Anyway there weren’t any games available for us emerging from the Freeform on Saturday night, and Lloyd Gyan I decided to do something about that. I rushed off to borrow a printer and print off a HeroQuest 2.0 scenario I wrote, and Lloyd quickly got a full sign up sheet for his superhero game.

My game was a little unusual. I jokingly called it “Adventures in Social Housing”, and it involved six pregenerated characters, dealing with bereavement, working with vulnerable clients, social housing management, multi-agency information sharing and… OK it sounds awful doesn’t it?

The situation is that a fairly normal family have been afflicted by a poltergeist, and the son, daughter, mother and three interested parties – the local policeman, the housing association manager, and a clinical psychologist academic come to the house to seek a suitable resolution for the family. The character sheets are a couple of pages long, and despite the fact that as there was simply nothing else to play I only got three signs ups, but I issued the cop, the daughter, and the psychologist and that worked well, with me NPC’ing the rest.

Now this is a game that actually deserves Trigger Warnings. Yes I am serious – it may not be “DARK” – in fact large parts of it were comic, in the absurdity of the normal kind of way, but seriously, this proved in play as disturbing as much of the output of Reece Shearsmith – I’d like to play it with him next time we go ghosthunting together actually. I did not write it that way – it is designed to be a REALISTIC treatment of poltergeist cases (something I am alleged to know a little about). Unfortunately that means it touches on some very sensitive issues, and if you play it straight and seriously as intended, you are going to touch on them.

I have run this once before at home and it worked OK, and I designed it for Continuum 2012 but never ran it there, but this time I lucked out and got three superb players, going from genuinely touching to black comedy and back again, with a few moments of supernatural (?) horror. Awesome players make for great games, so whatever the weaknesses of my scenario (and it is really pretty systemless though HeroQuest worked great) it was a highpoint of my weekend. Onwe of the best moments was when one of the characters crossed out “Wannabe Teenage Witch Adolescent Rebel 17” and replaced it with “Turned Over a New Leaf 17” in a way that made perfect narrative sense. I should have asked the players to give some feedback really for this blog. Anyway you can download the game from my blog here

I really enjoyed running a con game, something I rarely do (I’m primarily the host at Grand Tribunal) and I’m pretty sure in 2018 I will offer Saturday Night Fevered, my Cthulhu scenario. Anyway after a few hours in the bar and Tressy poisoning me – she gave me BEER, and after half a pint I was blotto – I managed to get a few hours sleep before Sunday breakfast.

Sunday at the Laundry

Well Sunday passed enjoyably with more seminars, and mine on the Paranormal & RPG was OK I think,  though I was trying not to retread material from the excellent Horror & the Supernatural seminar the day before. As a result it sis turn up as a bit of a quick tour over obscure corners of academic parapsychology and “CJ tells anecdotes” but hopefully wasn’t too rotten. If you were there you can read about the pterodactyl chap here; how to see a ghost at home here; and there is a theoretical primer on apparitions by me here for anyone really interested. (Actually there is a conference at Reading September 10th/11th that you are all welcome to if interested in this stuff. At least a  couple of folks from Continuum will be there).

The Gehenna Memo

Sunday evening I was running my last event, a freeform by Malcolm Harbrow (LARP Wellington) set in the world of  Charles’s Stross superb Laundry books. This one is actually set at Bletchley Park in 1943, and I have run it before so I knew it was an excellent game. It it does however embrace the theme of bureaucracy and the printing and set up was a bit formidable to organise for a con game. Still with my legendary organisation I got it ready, and with the help of Ed Woods I managed to run it. Brilliant players, great game, the only reason I am not saying more about the outcome or game is that it is not one of mine and it will doubtless run many more times. Excellent fun!

MONDAY MORNING BLUES

My room was almost directly opposite the bar and it was too hot to close the window so I did not get much sleep on Sunday night, but I really enjoyed myself, and Kiki seemed genuinely amazed I actually had a read a lot of romance novels (I have a vague knowledge of the academic literature n the genre too). I chatted to a lot of folks until almost 5am, then got up for last minute socialising with Dr Moose and others I rarely see on Monday morning and a final fine breakfast and still did not get as many sausages as Lloyd or Matt (not a euphemism!)

IN CONCLUSION

This was an excellent convention. I paid £190 for 3 nights including Bed & Breakfast on site, and spent about ten a day on lunch and dinner in the Refectory. I missed  getting to talk to a lot of old friends like Charlie Paull much as I was running around so much myself, and for the first time I never played a single boardgame, but it was great to catch up with so many friends and I have an awesome weekend. It seemed much busier than 2012 despite clashing with 9 Worlds in London; I suspect 2018 will sell out fast. Seriously, if you are a gamer and want a friendly large con, this is still my first choice as place to go…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pokémon Take Back The Night in Cheltenham?

It was about 2.30pm yesterday and a beautiful sunny  afternoon; I was walking along Cheltenham High Street when I first noticed the two elegantly dressed, seemingly normal women. They were in their 30’s I guess, and as they approached I suddenly realised something was wrong. I looked again – businesswomen perhaps, enjoying a late lunch? And then I realised, and my blood ran cold — neither of them had their phones out. THEY WERE NOT PLAYING POKEMON! I thought of taking a picture to prove that deviants like this still exist, but then I thought no, shaming weirdos is wrong. They probably have not even noticed that everyone else in the town centre is trying to throw balls at a Drowsee, collect their fiftieth Ratata of the day  or excitedly gossiping about rumours of a Pikachu seen at Proud Lion the games shop…

machopsYes, I actually was surprised to see two women NOT playing Pokémon. Cheltenham’s only rpg and games convention Grand Tribunal is two weeks off (come along – tickets from www.grandtribunal.org ), and maybe by then the obsession will have wound down. Right now though this is the Summer of Pokémon, and I expect our grandchildren will laugh at pictures of our silly fashions and primitive games, as we smile at photos of the Haight-Ashbury in ’67. In Cheltenham at least, it seems EVERYONE is playing Pokémon

So there can be very few people who have not heard of Pokémon now, the game you play by running around with your phone frantically throwing balls at imaginary creatures. In the very best tradition of Moral Panics since time began the press are whipping up a frenzy with stories ranging from the person who found a body in a river to the teens who got lost in caves while apparently playing Pokémon, not forgetting the pair who walked off a cliff while playing. They obviously had not been paying attention to the loading screen, which shows a player engrossed in their phone about to walk off a jetty while a huge sea monster lurks hungrily, and has a clear warning to pay attention to your environment at all times!

Anyway these stories are not great, because the game is thin gruel for Moral Panic stirrers. The thing is pretty harmless, and while it may have been condemned by a few religious types as ‘occult’ it seems to most simply a kid’s cartoon fantasy game, daft but cheerful and unlikely to scar anyone. Yes a few of the Pokéstops where you collect them may have ended up in inappropriate places, and yes some kids will do daft things. There is just no scandal here. If you get lost in a cave looking for Pokémon you are not so bright anyway, given the game a) works in 2D – being up or down makes no difference to collecting and b) you need a mobile phone signal, and how many cave systems you know have wifi or mobile reception? And if you have a mobile phone and either, how did you get lost? One of my friends points out the cave system in question has geocaches – that is far more likely how that one happened. Pokémon is just getting attention because it is new and hip or whatever the kids say nowadays.IMG_2016-07-17-11280977

So as a games designer, do I think it is any good? Yep. I was working on a ghost based GPS concept in augmented reality, and have been running persistent (real world real time) LARPS for  over 20 years, but this has impressed me. There are a few serious design glitches about the way power escalation works, that should have been obvious at design stage but I need to  play more to see if there are hidden answers to these apparent pitfalls. The game has deeply inadequate obvious documentation, but in a way learning to play, finding the help files and then learning strategies off other players is in itself fun. Anyway that’s not what I’m talking about today.

I suffer from problems with heat regulation, and can’t go out much in the current heatwave scorching town. The last few nights however Becky and I have wandered in to town, to catch pokémon. And you know what? We are now alone!  I have never seen town as busy. Perhaps it is the heat – yet Thursday night had a light rain, and there were still scores of us out walking around. From ten pm through till half two I have been out there, catching Pokémon, and so have probably hundreds of others, of all ages, from maybe 12 to  late 60’s.

Now town is not as busy as it was when I was younger, and half the clubs have closed down. The students are away on Summer vacation, and in Cheltenham that is a huge number. Even so I have seen so many people on the streets that I even risked St.Mary’s churchyard at midnight, and ducked down dark alleys like the one to Cheltenham Chapel and the Elephant Mural up by LIDL. I have walked kilometres – I know as I need to to hatch the eggs I collected in game, and talked to quite a few other players. Mostly though we just nod, or gather around benches, occasionally exclaiming as we run out of balls or a strange creature runs by.

I have felt a few times intimidated by drunks, or a couple of lary lads walking passed us near Dancing Ken’s in the early hours, but mainly I have felt safer than I have in years. I live in a pretty sketchy part of town, by the Lower High Street, and have to pass the junkies and alcoholics every night clustered around the shops, but Cheltenham is actually pretty safe, and we have a good community spirit round here. I regard it as dodgy – but actually the students walk through it every night oblivious to danger,and come to no harm, which says to me there isn’t much?

Now however, the town centre at least is transformed. Young women walk alone with their phones not on an emergency number but on the map,  giggling girls wander round in pairs hunting down Goldeens and Magikarp, and crowds of respectfully quiet adults stand about statues, outside churches and in every public space. From the viewpoint of crime you would have thought this was amazing – a mugger can steal loads of phones – but when you have this many people on the streets, even the most vulnerable folks are suddenly a lot safer. If anyone screamed out there, a hundred ears would hear them, and everyone would come running or more likely call police on their (ready, to hand) cell phones.

Becky

Becky says it just feels safer out there.

It was Becky who first pointed it out – she just felt much safer. Busy streets are safe streets, and people playing Pokémon are not drunk, loud or intimidating. I repeat – I have seen young women alone walking around town in freedom well after midnight and apparently unconcerned, standing about catching Pokémon, and feeling safe.

So whatever you think about Pokémon, it has done something unintended but as  wonderful or magical as any Snorlax dozing in your garden for a little while – it has taken back the night and made our cities safer places to be after dark. Long may it continue! Oh and the businesswomen I saw? I realised soon after they had passed me – batteries must have run out. Happens, even to me. Now excuse me, I gotta catch ’em all!

CJ, July 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Debunking myths, Fun forthcoming events, Games, Reviews and Past Events, Social commentary desecrated, Student Life in Cheltenham, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Review: The New Ghostbusters Movie; or I ain’t fraid o no film!

 

[tl:dr: great film go see it]

It all started with a moving candlestick flying across a room; that was how I got involved with the girly ghosthunter, who is now a parapsychologist with a Ph.D in apparitional experience. And today I took her to the cinema to see the new Ghostbusters movie, which starts with a flying candlestick, and leads one in to the world of female ghostbusters. It seems rather appropriate.

Many years ago I met Becky on a ghost night I was staffing for Richard Felix when she said she saw a candle fly across a corridor and strike the wall – that led to a correspondence, then we became friends, she started working with us, did her MSc in Parapyschology and Transpersonal Psychology at Coventry Uni and then her Ph.D in A Century of Apparitions, looking in detail at what people report happens when they experience a ghost. I think

Becky

My girlfriend Dr. Smith, a real parapsychologist I guess. PhD in Ghosts!

Becky is a bit to academic for the press – no one seemed interested in talking to her, and she failed to get tickets to the launch, but there are a lot of other women in parapsychology. I don’t think Hannah Gilbert, Madeleine Castro, Ann Winsper, Hayley Stevens, Mary Rose Barrington, Patricia Robertson, Nicky Sewell, Val Hope or any of the others – and I have just named a handful from the UK – did either. Maybe because Ghostbusters is such an American thing?  One of the new ghostbusters is called Hotzmann, and of course than made me think of Alexandra Holzer, daughter of Hans Holzer. I don’t know Alexandra personally but I hope it is a tribute to her. One of the great things about parapsychology and ghost research is women have been from Catherine Crowe in the 19th century onwards often at the forefront of it.

So I’m dating a female ghost expert, and Dr Becky and I went to see the movie. Now at this point I should note that I myself hesitate to lay claim to expertise about spooks, but I may know a little more than is common. You can read my thoughts here. However I am absolutely not a film critic, having only ever watched maybe 30 films, and perhaps half a dozen at the cinema. My favourite films are Dr. Strangelove, Kindhearts and Coronets, The Producers and if pushed The Magnificent Seven. My taste in such matters is not to be relied upon.

Furthermore actual knowledge of real world spooks is not helpful when considering the Ghostbusters films. The ectoplasmic entities of the film are pure fantasy – and they bear absolutely no resemblance to anything from the Census of Hallucinations or related case collections. Ghostbusters is a wild and fantastic take on spooks – and yet the central premise, that spooks are paranormal not supernatural entities, and obey (unknown at start) naturalistic Laws of Physics which allow for technological solutions to the spooks in the form of PKE meters, proton packs and lots of hi-tech gadgetry is one shared with the Parapsychological discourse, and quite separate from most religious or Spiritualist interpretations of ghosts. Anyway, whereas the original Ghostbusters were clearly in the mould of parapsychologists, the new female incarnations are experimental physicists, and the film is replete with sciencey sounding technobabble. (This may be the films greatest weakness – spooks are simply malign, with only one old friend from a previous film being allowed any degree of characterisation or personality – and having acquired a girlfriend. These are hungry dead, stripped of any link to the humans they were. The chief villain is an exception too – but even he is never really more than a two dimensional psychopath. The ghosts of  the Ghostbusters franchise are really just monsters who need blowing up, not discarnate human beings…

You see – that’s what goes wrong! I forget the plot and get absorbed in the spooks. And where the new Ghostbusters is concerned that is a serious mistake.

GBteam

Now – the women. They are superb. I like women, and make no apologies for liking the new team as much as I liked the old one. I think the accusations of racism levelled at the film are misjudged – seeing a Black working class character in the film was fine, just as there was diversity in the White cast, but I am not in a position to speak for Black women.. I thought the four core team members were all very different, and very very good. The massive campaign of hate that preceded the film based on the fact it was a reboot (or is it a sequel : you can read it either way) struck me as totally misjudged. I did not watch the trailers – but I rate the film as certainly better than  Ghostbusters 2 – but I rate a bout of norovirus in the middle of a hot date as probably preferable to watching Ghostbusters 2 again. GBteam 2

I remember, many many years ago, walking to school along Fornham Road in Bury St Edmunds and seeing a poster with what I know now to be a Ghostbusters logo on a bus shelter. I had no idea about the film in those pre-internet days, and certainly no intention of watching it. I had no idea it was a film. “Coming to save the world”the tag line read – I assumed it was some kind of cult. A few weeks later I was sitting in St. John’s Place reading The Haunter of the Dark by H.P.Lovecraft in my grandmothers garden, casting occasional glances at the louvre boards of St. John’s steeple, when my sister Ingrid arrived.  She took me to see this new film Ghostbusters, and i was not that keen – I wanted to read – but within minutes I was transfixed

GB2016

I thought it was a GREAT film – not just good, but brilliant. My criticism has remained solid for thirty years – it starts so well, and then it becomes more and more fantastic and outrageous, and finally ends in silliness. My favourite bits are the first Act, where they are setting up, being thrown out of the university, and building their business. Ans yes it is a Thatcherite/Reaganite wet dream – small business entrepreneurs face off against Evil government bureaucrats from the Environmental Protection Agency and leave a useless Public Sector to achieve greatness by capitalism “no fee to big; no job too small. Perhaps its really sending up rags to riches films – whatever the case, I love this film, and so do many other people and I can imagine they will be angry at me for critiquing it. The fact when I first saw it I was doing my O Levels (old people speak for GCSEs) has enshrined it in my heart as a forever golden classic.

Now of course none of the Ghostbusters franchise can ever be as roll on the floor till I nearly choke laughing so hard funny as The Exorcist, which may be among the funniest films I have ever watched. Still Ghostbusters 3 of whatever they are calling it is maybe 70% great, 20% OK and 10% weak. This is a solid 8 out of 10 to me.

So the good: the casting, the shot but shot remake feel of the first half yet never actually doing that – if you have watched the latest Star Wars movie, it has the same relation to Star Wars: A New Hope as this film has to Ghostbusters. It often cleverly adopts a visual cue, a scene or a trope from the original film, then puts a spin on it. At times it seems very self aware – the jokes about the firestation costing too much, the explanation as to why they drive a hearse, the Ghostbusters logo design – even how they come to name themselves Ghostbusters. Mostly though this shows up in the references to online trolls, comments and critics – and most spectacularly in the closing scene where the line “That was not so terrible” caused a real laugh in context of all the hate the movie has provoked.originalGB

Also very good are the constant references to ghost pop culture that has developed since the original films. There is a nod to the Most Haunted etc style of paranormal programming when they see a snatch of a show called “Ghost Jumpers” and are outraged – and there is a villain who is a skeptic and debunker who reminded me more than a little of James Randi in his younger days. The physicists have replaced the parapsychologists and knowing psychical research in-jokes of the original movie which even references a very little known element from the Enfield  Poltergeist case -I wonder how many of you can spot that one?  It’s a name and is mentioned in Guy Lyon Playfair’s This House is Haunted. Oh OK, the name Gozer was given my a medium as the name of the “wicked black magic chap” she said haunted the Green Street house). From the viewpoint of an SPR member it is probably not as satisfying for those reasons.

Also the physics and technology has changed. The ghost containment device is only invented at the end, along with the ghost trap. Yes they fire beams from backpack nuclear reactors, but one never hears of a warning about crossing the streams and bizarrely “unlicensed particle accelerators” have been replaced by  “nuclear lasers”, and total protonic reversal and destruction of all life is no longer highlighted in this day of public fears about CERN – and guess vacuum collapse is not something I want to laugh about – but ther eis a mention of I think total positronic reversal at one point in a fire fight. And yes, and this is one of the weaknesses – the film becomes an action movie for the last third – a pretty, high powered, colourful and fun action movie, but still a special FX and loud explosions kind of shebang, which is really not my thing at all. Worst of all, they now basically shoot ghosts, rather than capturing them and containing them in a trap. This means you can have big budget shoot ’em up sequences, but its not as much fun, and means the film is way more violent and involves bigger and bigger spooks for diminishing returns.

It turns out that the explanation for why the ghost tech has been developed twice is that one of the characters wrote a book about it years ago – but the whole film males more sense if you assume the events of Ghostbusters 1 & 2 actually occurred, and were suppressed by the Mayor’s Office. The book provides a way of downplaying that element, but all but one (Murray’s) of the cameos make sense perfectly if you assume this is a sequel set in the same universe.

The cameos were fun; I won’t spell them out here, but only one person was missing as sadly Harold Ramis died recently. I  did not notice an In Memory of Harold Ramis notice on the film credits or opening titles anywhere – I’m not sure why not, as one would have expected that. Perhaps the poor expectations of the film led to it being felt best to leave that off? Bill Murray appears with the largest cameo – but my favourite was the part played by Dan Akroyd. This clearly shows my future career prospects I suspect, if I can learn to drive… ghost

The soundtrack is also better than the original movie using only the famous main theme throughout but with different versions and to good effect. (Watch Ghostbusters  again – much of the music is not so good). There are little homages to the 80’s like Debarge’s Rhythm of the Night, and a bit of gross humour. The end gets lost in special effects, and one character Kevin is just a bit annoying – could have been handled better – but improves as the film progresses. The villain looks great and was rather charming, and — look go see it.

The films weakness is not enough time is spent on the characters, rather than on Special FX and action, and the plot (more Doctor Who or pulp meets H.P.Lovecraft than classic ghost story as normal for the franchise) isn’t as engaging as the original. The bimbo male secretary eye candy idiot is annoying, but maybe that is making a Feminist point. It’s a shame because Janine never fulfilled that stereotype, so there was no reason to reverse it here  — but my housemate Lisa just went to see Tarzan  simply ‘cos the main actor is hot, so let us not underestimate the importance of pretty boys as visual appeal.

I often see a film and love it, and then see it again when it is on TV and really don’t enjoy it – The Full Monty is a classic example – but I’m hoping this one will be a keeper. Clearly there will be a sequence, and you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs – but ZUUL! Becky loved the film too, so put aside your prejudices, go watch it, and I think you might have a great couple of hours.

CJ x

 

 

 

 

Posted in Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Cthulhu, Fresh Flowers & Supermarket Shopping in Bury St Edmunds

“West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentle slopes there are farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages brooding eternally over old New England secrets in the lee of great ledges; but these are all vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs.”

H.P. Lovecraft, The Colour Out of Space

Northwest of Bury St Edmunds stands Tollgate Hill, its low slopes blanketed by the neat avenues of the Mildenhall and Howard council estates, now largely privately owned I suspect. Due north of Bury the River Lark meanders through watermeadow and across golf course before it passes an ancient prehistoric cursus. Alan Murdie has written of this area, where I lived as a toddler and again as a teen as one with a  considerable haunted heritage in a recent  Fortean Times article, and of course the Lark Valley was the site for the Battle of Fornham in 1173, a subject to which I often return.

Even before I moved to Bury we used to come here though, for off Mildenhall Road, backing on to the Lark and the remains of a long forgotten mural bridge is a supermarket. As a teen I rafted on the river, inexpertly dug by the medieval bridge  – there is a midden there, filled with thousands of oyster shells, for oysters were the common food – the fish and chips if you like – of medieval life – and fell down the steep banks lined with nettles by the weir.

None of those things matter today – it is the supermarket that holds my attention. I rode there as I have now for forty years in the back of my parents car; mum had forgotten to buy milk, and despite having visited ASDA and Sainsburys, she wanted some things from the CoOp. It seems bizarre this place has a name — it should be The Nameless Supermarket, because it really is like something out of a weird tale. This had never struck me before, but as I clambered out in to the car park there may have been three other vehicles in the acres of cracked tarmac.

Now it is a Co Op; before I think a Safeways, a Gateways, perhaps a Somerfields? It may have once been a Keymarkets — the name changes, but the building endures. You always enter to a bright display of fresh flowers, the local papers and a range of magazines, and wander round the aisles filled to the brim with low cost and well laid out produce. Pop music blares out from the speakers, you quickly find your purchases and walk past cheerful and very helpful assistants, usually young, who seem to wait politely , hovering in case you express a need to locate macaroni or boot polish or a lawnmower.

Once or twice, you may round a corner and suddenly pause, face reddening slightly embarrassed by the sight of another customer. You both smile weakly, and nod, the way you might if you met your vicar in a sex shop — but really it is just surprise. I mean you know there must be other customers — the shop has been here forty odd years, and the levels of stock suggest they sell something — but I am always amazed to find one. There are about ten checkout counters, and the cigarette desk, and sometimes you see a little gaggle of shoppers chatting around that counter, their backs firmly turned to the empty acres of retail desert behind them.

This is the supermarket on the edge of forever – and if the staff are the earthbound wraiths of retail assistants too happy to leave their jobs in this world when they inadvisedly removed a can of beans from the bottom of a warehouse stack or were squished by a badly timed delivery of 16,000 oranges, well it would not surprised me. They all seem happy – if you approach one of the rows of empty checkouts with a trolley, they race past you to open up, and I have never known such a happy, courteous and benign group of shop assistants anywhere. Perhaps they are just moved to curiosity by the sight of a customer?

maltings

There is no photo on the internet of the Mildenhall Road CoOp – and fittingly, the one I tried to take did not work but came out showing only my parents in the car. This may be down to my being crap at taking photos though, but it does make me wonder if I imagined the supermarket! Anyway it is behind this building, now flats but in the 19th century Dunnell’s Maltings.

When we went there this weekend, Becky pointed out it would be easy to miss the turning – there isn’t even a sign. Mum swore this remains the cheapest (and best) supermarket in Bury, and I don’t doubt her. I like ASDA, and Sainsburys, but both have long been discovered by the general public who spoil the mystique of those (perfectly adequate) supermarkets by shopping there. Somehow, the Mildenhall Road supermarket stays in profit and open without crowds of customers?  You’d never get service like this in Waitrose I tell you!

As I walked around the shop, I suddenly realised even the music was in a  time warp – they were playing Suede, that seems modern to me but is probably older than many of the shop assistants. An air of unreality descended on me, and I began to wonder if this was some sort of  Mystic Bazaar from outside of time and space, and the more I thought of it the more likely it seemed. It has always sold the most eccentric things, alongside the rows of perfectly good groceries. There is no logic to it – it seems to change, but specials appear and disappear. Here one day was a selection of wargames, and I bought Harpoon, a rather good naval wargame that even specialist games shops might have looked hard for – not a boardgame as such but a sophisticated  set of modern naval warfare rules.

Back in those days H.P.Lovecraft was out of print in the UK – yet one day there appeared a display of maybe two dozen cheap paperbacks, mainly Dr Who titles, and among them was The Shadow Over Innsmouth and other Tales of Terror by Scholastic Book Services, and American publisher. This was 3 years before Grafton reissued the old Pan series of HPL, and here for fifty pence I found this book that was to shape my life in many ways,, juts a few hundred feet from home. Of course within a week or two there were no more boardgames, or books – but time and time again, odd things would appear on these supermarket shelves, and would be snatched and for a few coins borne home as treasures.

Is there something weird about the supermarket? Is it is a money laundering front for the Co Op Dairy’s secret numbers game? Do the aisles form non-Euclidean angles and at midnight open portals to other spaces and times? Does the manager just have an eye for interesting remaindered stock and a lovely well trained staff who enjoy working there? Tesco on the Fornham Road may have a poltergeist outbreak and a bomb scare, but it does not come close to this place.  The Co Op Mildenhall Road Bury St Edmunds has endured while a rash of other supermarkets have gown up around the town, and I confidently expect that when I am as old as my father it will still be there, selling excellent fresh bread and cut flowers and with staff falling over themselves to assist.

I hope some of you will pop in, and let me know what you think. 🙂

CJ, Valentine’s Day 2016 x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Reviews and Past Events, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | 1 Comment