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Archive for May, 2012

Immerse yourself

It’s Saturday afternoon in a quiet corner of London’s most peaceful borough. All week now unseasonably hot sunshine has roared down to assault the pasty skin of the natives (well, the few Londoners who were actually born in England). Yesterday I picnicked in Regents Park by the lake, nibbling on homemade sausage rolls brought by the fine young English filly I’ve been seeing lately. Today both Dante and I have patches of sunburn and a lazy demeanour.

We are lying in garden hammocks under the horse chesnut trees. It won’t be long till all the conkers have fallen to the grass and we can begin the annual house conker competition. Dante is wearing a panama hat and making gin pahits. We’ve decided its 1935.

Recently I discovered a personal pattern in my hobbies to synchronise my media. Let’s imagine I’m reading a memoir of a South African mercenary, learning about life in the Liberian civil war. A good book is immersive and makes me want to experience more of the world the author is painting. What to do? Naturally I found a video game that closest represents the vibe (Far Cry 2) and listened to the music he casually mentions. Then I’ll dig around for movies of chaotic warzones in oppressively hot climate such as Apocalypse Now or Beast of War. This will often kick off a mini-cycle of interest until I’ve learned and felt alot more about this little corner of life. Then I move on.

Other examples:

  • Bioshock kicked off an art decor interest that had us listening to 1940s jazz, smoking cigars in dark lounges, reading old magazines and books such as Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead.
  • A few Hard Case Crime hardboiled novels switched me on to LA Noire, LA Confidential, and drinking neat whiskey in the middle of the day.

So right now Dantes is dipping into W. Somerset Maugham, an imperialist writer of the early 1900s who regals his audience with short stories of empire and the indolent, self-satisfied, interesting characters who always have an anecdote or two spare. Hence the panama hat and gin pahits. It’s sweltering hot now.

I fancy a game of billiards. Perhaps we’ll be bathed and dressed for seven, then a slap up meal at the Savoy and a rubber of bridge in Mayfair.

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While I show you what a real man looks like….

Jobbers fascinate me.

Ok, back up. Hold on. Let me explain a jobber. And no I don’t mean a wet paper ball that you throw from the back of the classroom at the blackboard. As with everything in life, it can be explained by the concepts of professional wrestling…..

Let’s first break the kayfabe and acknowledge that inside the ring it is a co-operative activity in which two athletic performers act out a series of moves to progress towards a predetermined ending (called a “work”. On the rare occasions where no winner is planned, it’s a “shoot”). If you didn’t already know this, perhaps you’re reading the wrong blog. Professional wrestling companies are faced with a surprisingly intractable problem: how can you persuade large audiences to pay money to watch a contrived “fight” between two co-workers? It’s tough enough for boxing or MMA promoters to do that with real fights.

The answers are found in pantomine. The pro-wrestling industry structure blends together the lessons of travelling carnivals, pantomime, and soap opera so that you have four levels of show:

1. Weekly digest: Every week there is an edited highlights show broadcast on free-to-view television on a slot watched by children, such as the Saturday morning Superstars Of Wrestling I used to devour as a child. This is the “roper” (in hustler parlance) which draws a steady stream of new interested viewers and introduces them to the characters and the storylines. It’s always a few days after the event and teases more than it shows. This is so you upgrade to the…

2. Weekly live content: At least once a week on subscription cable is the standard show (WCW Nitro, WWE Smackdown etc) where all the wrestlers have normal matches and progress storylines (“feuds”). These shows are in themselves satisfying with full live matches and bring in revenue for the company (and likewise involve high costs to create steady new content). However, one thing you will never see is the matches you really want to see – the payoff bout between two stars that settles a feud. They’ll almost fight, often interrupting each-other’s matches with sneak attacks (“run ins”) or mouthing off until friends drag them away (“a pull apart”). This is because the 6 week storylines are all designed to naturally reach their climax at the….

3. Pay Per View event: This is the big moneyspinner that you’ve invested six weeks of your life anticipating so you can invite your friends around, crack open the beers, and enjoy four hours of highly scripted entertainment that is the pro-wrestling equivalent of a porno money-shot compilation in which all storylines are resolved, good triumphs over evil, and a clear champion is crowned.

That’s the 6-week structure to the industry and in the spaces between these TV programmes are the off-TV “house shows” which function like a rock band on tour, pulling in money from live gates and on-site merchandising. So we have a basic ecosystem in which free shows attract new viewers (without this the industry cannibalises itself like boxing did in the 1990s when all the stars went exclusively to PPV) and the subscription shows monetise them, with the PPVs creaming off the most-dedicated. In the 1980s it was common for performers to be wrestling six nights a week sometimes crossing timezones. A punishing schedule and the reason so few of them live beyond 50 years old after succumbing to a cocktail of drink, painkillers, and leisure drugs.

But what of the performer hierarchy?

Well, PPVs need heroes to bring in the money and we call them “babyfaces”. Think Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin. Most feuds involve a babyface being sneak-attacked by a viscious good-for-nothing (“heel”) until he decides to sort him out and restore karma to the world. The goodness of the babyface’s heroism is in direct proportion to the dastardliness of the heel’s villiany. This brings the most cheers (“pop”) when the hero openeth the can of whoop-ass.

Consider the problem – how do you prop up both the hero and the villian so both are credible opponents?

Enter the jobber.

Just as in professional boxing where a prospect can only advance to a TV-marketable 20-0 record if you have perenial losers willing to diminish their own records for a payday, in wrestling you have jobbers. A jobber is the opponent who agrees to lie down for (“put over”) the wrestler who is being pushed towards stardom. At the entry-level of the pro-wrestling TV food-chain that’s the anonymous little guy in dorky trunks who gets squashed by the famous guy on the Saturday morning show. All the stars feed on these jobbers to rack up wins and in the case of the heel, an aura of invincibility.

For one performer to win (and thus build his reputation) another must lose. If you keep having stars pair off in the weekly subscription shows then you can diminish one guy for every guy you elevate – which is bad for business. Hence pro wrestling relies on a steady stream of jobbers.

The unsung heroes of the industry.


Self discipline

Something my brother said to me a few years ago while commenting on the local booksellers and their relatively slack business practices: “I’ve only now realised how working at [private sector company] drilled me with so many effective work habits”

That caused me to think somewhat about what I consider normal standards of behaviour. In the investment bank I used to work for we had meetings. Many many meetings. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to run a financial firm without Powerpoint, Starbucks takeaways, and highlighter pens. Quite frequently I’d be on an away job in, say, Chile and before wrapping up in the office receive a call from my London-based boss: “[Big Boss] from Boston wants you to set up a conference call for 8am with the team and update him on progress to date.” That would immediately set off a chain of events which would culminate in a meeting the next morning.

At 7am I’d be listening to the dial tone to patch through my boss’s boss. In our boardroom there’d be my full team, all briefed, all ready to share their work if prompted. Five paper copies of the agenda and discussion points would be on the desk and a copy in Big Boss’s inbox. Probably even a fresh pot of coffee brewing in the corner.

I considered it absolutely normal to be prepared.

No last-minute fretting because we hadn’t booked a conference call slot in the network, or forgotten to email participants the access code. No paper jams holding up the discussion points. No confusion over which team member is assigned to go into further detail about which issues. No surprise findings that I’m unware of.

It is only when I stepped out of my corporate bubble that I discovered the harsh truth that my minimum standards of competence exceed most people’s performance on their best day. This is not to paint them as devils – people have different priorities afterall – but many unanswered questions as a teenager (“How can people fuck up their lives so badly that they are homeless in middle age?” “How can someone turn up late to their University finals?”) suddenly seemed clear. Some people go through life with the hustle mentality – the people who would jump off a cliff and then wonder why they are falling.

A simple guide for effective living is:

When considering various courses of action, future project what consequences may ensue, what conditions may inhibit completion, and how you intend to resolve these problems.

It’s blindingly simple yet beyond many people.

I’m now sitting in an airport cafe after a short trip to a Greek island where Dante and I visited a few girls we know for their birthday party. Island life in the Mediterranean is relaxed. Clear blue seas lap the harbour walls and the sun blazes down as you partake in fresh-caught fish and cold beer. The Greeks know how to pass time. But these very same laissez-faire attitudes to life are the reason their nation’s only accomplishment since Aristotle has been a single headed goal against Portugal in the Euro 2000 finals. Clearly, from the evidence I see here, they can’t be trusted to run an advanced industrial economy.

I think it comes down to self discipline. As you venture further from the equatorial regions and it’s bountiful nature life becomes colder, harder, and more organised. Whether the inability of Mediterraneans to invent anything, to run any kind of innovative business, or to simply walk from A to B without flopping down for a siesta is due to genetic differences or simply the lure / oppression of hot midday sunshine is not for Cervantes to determine, but just getting to this airport was a challenge for me.

There are 7 daily buses from the Kos town centre to the airport. Inexplicably, the last bus is 9pm and the second-last bus 4:30pm. This despite flights being evenly spread throughout the day and thus plenty of demand for buses between these two times. Bus times differ wildly depending on which day of the week, so for example on Tuesday the last bus from the airport is 5pm although flights arrive on up till 10pm and it’s 25km to the town.

The bus station is a tiny area with five bus stands. However none of the buses are assigned to any given stand so you must wait for the bus to arrive and then look at the destination on the front – completely removing any possibility of orderly queueing and thus guaranteeing a last-minute scrum. They sometimes change their mind which bus is for the airport after everyone is one it, causing a mass-disembarkation. So despite such a logistically simple task to run buses to the airport, the Greeks have made an absolute mess of it. Their are organisational blunders commited every hour that would, were they to occur once a year in Japan, trigger mass resignations and public apologies.

This is why Greece should leave the Euro. They have no business being in the same room as Germany. No self discipline.


Scaramanga

My favourite Bond movie is The Man With The Golden Gun. It’s clearly not the best one but Christopher Lee’s portrayal of elite assassin Scaramanga fascinated me as a child. Much of the Bond mythos derives from creating archetypes of the super spy and the super villians he battles. These men distill the essence of male development (mostly the warrior energy of the Jungian male archetype) as channelled through unrealistic life specialisms. I don’t believe it’s about the impossible dreams of perfection or control over your life, some kind of inadequacy and fear in a child’s real life that is overcompensated through living vicariously through fictional ideals. Bond is a flawed man, especially in the books (and later in Daniel Craig’s portrayal in Casino Royale).

“Men want to be him. Women want to be with him”

This famous description of Bond does not arise from his perfection but rather from his pure channeling of warrior energy into something larger than life. Place such a compelling character into a globetrotting, dangerous life, surround him with beautiful women and you have cracking good stories.

But of course every hero needs villians to fight. The greater the villian he overcomes, the greater his heroism. Scaramanga was my favourite because he was Bond’s equal in living the lifestyle. He was no boardroom-dwelling mastermind (like Ernst Blofeld) nor a calculating automaton (the Soviet assassins) nor a powerhungry fantasist (Hugo Drax). Scaramanga lived one hell of a life…. he just also enjoyed killing people and found a way to make it support an extravagant lifestyle.

Consider for a moment a typical day in his life. He wakes up in a wide expansive bedroom with silk sheets and the soft sounds of the Thai sea outside. Dressing in an exquisite lounge suit he walks over to his windows and gazes out across his private island. A midget butler brings his breakfast and asks what sir would like to do. Perhaps a powerboat ride to the city to meet his contact? Take on a job, follow his prey to a horseracing meeting and quietly assassinate him. Then a look around the night market, dinner with a beautiful woman in a quiet restaurant atop a hundred-storey skyscraper, then home in time for Eastenders.

Except for the occasional deadly tussle with a superspy, I can see the appeal.

Scaramanga carried himself with class. His Golden Gun is precision engineering and thoughtful design of a class above even a fine Lange & Sohne watch. Rationalised into several parts, each of which can be carried as an accessory congruent with his lifestyle (pen, cigarette case, lighter).

Consider his interior decorating. A man’s home is both his castle and his playground. I have a boxing gym, a cinema room, a study, and a snooker lounge in my house. These are the things that interest me on days I wish to stay home. Scaramanga’s interests differ to mine so he has a shooting range. Nice.

While in Thailand, Scaramanga’s country of residence, I tried to find a cigar lighter of a similar style to his. The other pieces would be difficult to obtain and incongruent for a non-assassin such as myself, but a lighter is a necessary accoutrement for a man of class. My search came up empty. Finally, in a small cigar specialist shop in Belgrade I found what I was looking for. Gold restrained look, solid weight, clean sharp snap when it opens and closes. Bliss.

I’ve realised too why I like the Hitman series of videogames. They are essentially puzzle games played by human characters rather than tetris blocks. The highest score in Hitman comes from killing your target and only your target, without any security becoming suspicious of you. In the fourth game you can actually construe your murders to look like accidents so the world doesn’t even know an assassin exists. The contracts take place in mountaintop party lodges, Mardi Gras carnivals, English stately homes….. yes, this game is a Scaramanga simulator.

The Japanese super-assassin

The new game comes out this year. I expect I shan’t go out for a while.