Monday, February 23, 2015

Short Story: The Prime Time Of Your Life

A grand plaza constructed of finely cut white glass stood in the centre of the pristine metropolis, refracting the blinding sun’s piercing rays like the brightest of diamonds. The sound of laughter echoed clearly inside the gleaming space, the volume so that it might provoke the tiniest of cracks. But this was no ordinary laugh. It was a peculiar type of snorting, with the kind of breathy intermission one would expect from a perceived hilarity.

Huge glass walls projected the footage on a loop: a large jovial woman in her mid-thirties chortling away uncontrollably at some off-camera in-joke. Despite lasting but a few seconds, the gathered crowd were enthralled; mesmerised by the jest they were not privy to and the peculiar laughter that followed. They quietly observed, eyes concentrated with such fervour that the glass might have permanently imprinted their reflections.

The same woman passed through almost unnoticed, her face the hardest of stone and dull eyes empty of emotion, for she could not laugh any more.  John watched her, his attention not held by her better image. She passed him by, casting the same haunted indifference.  Words were not spoken, and no touch was shared - not even the slightest of eye contact - but John was still vindicated to have encountered someone sharing the same quandary.

John’s particular problem was that he could not cry. He had to be careful when he coughed, ate or drank: swallowing the wrong way could result in his death.  Even being outside proved a danger as the sun bounced off an infinite number of golden white surfaces. He had taken to wearing dark sunglasses as a precaution. John’s mind unravelled to the last time he had cried as it tended to do. Almost three years ago, he was at home, watching a movie entitled Total Recall, and became engrossed in the main character’s quest to recover his true identity in a city much like his own.  In a moment that seemed lost to him now, a single tear trickled down his cheek.

Violently jolted out of his unwilling fugue by the shattered ambience of the disappointed crowd, John left the plaza driven by his mindless yearning, and aimlessly wandered the palatial paved streets. Extravagant shops lined every corner, the window displays showcasing the happy memories of previous customers: the joyous fitting of the perfect wedding dress; the purchases of the latest fixtures and gadgets; the relief of ice-cold refreshment on a sweltering day.

Eventually reaching the part of the metropolis best described as a diamond in the rough by the metropolis judges, what appeared to a wealthy man and a dishevelled woman were accosted by an officer of the law.

“I’m sorry but you are not permitted to fraternise with this person as per addendum 33-B”.

John did not stop to witness their judgement and intended to continue on in his lurid exploration, but paused when his peripheral vision caught the briefest glimpse of something darting between the shadows to his left. A bustling alleyway filled with delinquents, paranoid street preachers, and those ignored and discarded by the image-obsessed society awaited, bursting with delights none of whom would ever dare to admit a liking to, not for fear, pride, or want of living.

John saw a boy; the dishevelled child did not have parents, or a home. A single tear trickled down his cheek. Immediately, alarms rang and citizens dispersed, fleeing the sound they had so aptly learned to fear. The immaculate white glass turned blinding red and metal shutters slammed down all around. John did not move, save to slowly kneel and extend his hand in an act of compassion, careful not to frighten the terrified child. The boy hesitated with nowhere to run, but relented as tears began to stream down John’s swollen face. He drew closer and tentatively reached out to grasp John’s strong hand; his wide eyes betraying what he knew would come soon.

John took his sunglasses off with his empty hand, and carelessly discarded them amongst the filth; their fingers made only the slightest of brushes, and John smiled, conveniently forgetting the reality of the situation.  Suddenly, humanoid figures clad in black stormed the area, wrestling John away from the boy before their hands could meet proper. A soft, matter-of-fact voice with a British accent pierced the continuous low droning of the deafening alarms.

“Leave the boy” it said. “He has done nothing wrong”.

A small, hunched man emerged swiftly from the shadows, dressed in a white pastel suit as if almost cut from the glass itself. He wore pure black loafers, and large faded golden-rimmed glasses that did not fit the rest of his attire. A large black and white clipboard rested comfortably in his hands. Dragged away almost effortlessly, John defiantly struggled to break free, flooded tears turned to white-hot rage. He fought the pain of twisted arm and bended knee to voice one last protest.

“You can’t do this to me! I have rights!”

“Yes. Yes, you do. But not these ones”. 

The man’s back straightened as he simply stared at John, wrinkled brow furrowed in abject curiosity and small sharp eyes seemingly absent of sympathy. He continued to gaze for the briefest of seconds, his body unmoving and devoid of emotion, before his neck sharply snapped downwards to peer at his clipboard. A few seconds passed, and the official deftly turned on his heels, leaving as quickly as he had appeared. The alarms ceased, and the shutters raised; the glass restored to its original state. John’s image filled the streets, a single tear trickling down his cheek.  Crowds began to gather, and the fascinated silence began to descend once more.

“Bloody repeats. What’s on next?”, the official asked himself in feigned surprise. “Ah, that’s right: Television Rules The Nation”.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Confessions of a Dangerously Normal Mind

The following post is a guest submission from Pilgrim, and is well worth a read. It's another lovely, brave and sincere bit of writing, and I'm glad he's chosen this blog as a forum to post it on.

Hi, I’m 25 years old, and enjoy playing video games, listening - and singing badly along to - varied genres of music, watching anime and foreign films, reading and writing, exercise, and I’m also Autistic. For the purposes of this article, you may call me Mister J.

And if you're Harley Quinn-inclined, feel free to call me Mister J anyway
What was the first item on that very eclectic list that stood out to you? If it was “Autistic”, then, how judgemental are you? Please, don’t be offended and stay with me, as it’s extremely easy - and difficult - not to give something or someone a label based on first reactions and long-standing perceptions.
Like "Twat"
How many of you will admit that most - if not all - of your knowledge about Autism comes from that friendly public information film known as Rain Man? Well, did you know that Dustin Hoffman's Autistic character is based off real-life Savant Kim Peek, who was not Autistic, but actually had FG Syndrome, a rare genetic condition - that like Autism - also causes developmental stunting?

Yes, it’s a widely accepted notion and persistent myth that every person with Autism is some barely incomprehensible demi-god able to recall vast amounts of information at the slightest whim, but has zero possibility of progressing beyond the social capabilities and desires of a toddler. Information about Autism is becoming more and more prevalent today thank goodness, and the customary Savant label is slowly being diluted and stripped away, like a tattered and worn medal awkwardly awarded to the wrong nominee. 

Actually no, this is much more awkward
But tradition can be a tricky thing, and a reputation is even harder to shake off. The preconceived idea that Autism equals bad social skills for life, such as a disinterest and lack of caring and understanding for others and a fatal lack of imagination for abstract concepts and beauty as a certain fact is an idea that serves as the template for most Autistic characters that exist today in media, fuelling the already established reservations of the part of the audience not in the know. This is a part of a wider problem concerning stereotypes, and of course, labels.

Sheldon Cooper isn’t some odious TV exec’s stereotype of an socially awkward scientist with Autism? Right, and George Osbourne isn’t a twat. Not that I don’t like the Big Bang Theory; now that really would be strange
My particular form of Autism is Asperger’s Syndrome, named after the lovely man who identified the condition on the Autistic spectrum. Yep, there’s a spectrum, not a beautiful rainbow coloured one mind you; think of it like a plain boring scale of one to ten, one being minor difficulty, and ten being most severe. 

People with Asperger’s are usually located on the lower end of the spectrum and are able to lead independent lives with confidence, having only minimal aspects of the wider spectrum that can barely be discerned, if at all. You may even know someone living secretly with the condition like myself, but do not suspect them whatsoever. 

We’re not closet murderers like Dexter either, as someone on Reddit suggested, but I wouldn’t say no to being Batman. Or Judge Dredd. Or both
My Asperger’s barely meets the criteria for landing on a one; all it means is that I don’t always get every social cue or always fully understand situations from others perspectives initially, am ever so slightly naïve sometimes, am prone to daydreaming and becoming easily distracted, hyperactive and fidget, have bad days where I get extremely stressed and consume confectionery like a starving post-apocalyptic survivor despite being dairy intolerant, and get borderline obsessive over the slightest details and fandoms. 

But hang on, doesn’t that sound like something that every supposedly normal person does every once in a while? Apart from my apparently unpalatable collection of Genesis and Phil Collins records (don’t mess with the Collins), maybe we’re not so different after all. 

Here’s a picture of a horse, because I like dead horses as much as I like bad Phil Collins jokes
To explain further: put me on a stage like the one at MCM Birmingham just past, and I can perform well under pressure; I even get massive satisfaction and enjoyment out of it. Talking face-to-face, I like to think I’m entertaining, engaging and funny, plenty confident and perfectly normal (or so I’ve been told, though I’ve also been told I’m quite attractive, so make of that what you will) and I absolutely love nothing more than hanging out with friends old and new. 

But ask me to talk to a girl I like - or if a girl I like talks to me - and respond without sounding like a blathering idiot or effortlessly navigate these many - sometimes unspoken - intricacies and signals, especially over text messages, everything suddenly goes blank. It’s not that I’m totally incapable or don’t want to talk or don’t want a relationship, but the lack of face-to-face and vocal communication is a huge barrier sometimes, especially when I really care about someone in that way. 

This process is much slower in my brain
In terms of a relationship, the pressure of wanting as it means so much to me usually results in me crashing and burning in a wreck more akin to personal sabotage than nobody’s accident, but it doesn’t mean I like the person any less; I compare this somewhat to Lucas Lee’s rail grind bailout, though I’ve never been the Evil Ex or would ever want to be. 

Not that hilarious 
I often panic and feel like I want to run away because I worry about others not understanding what I really mean and giving off the wrong impression, and struggle to articulate my true feelings without stumbling over words in fear of saying the wrong thing and pushing those I care about away. There’s still a rational voice calling out for calm, but it’s so hard to actually stop, listen, and act on it.

Except there’s no Wallace Wells and no strategically - and conveniently - placed windows. It’s actually a lot more like Ramona’s disappearances than Scott’s, but without the magical Subspace Bag to hide in or speedy rollerskates to glide away on
It's probably why I have a nervous tendency to use words such as ,“I”, “felt”, “like”, “imagine”, “but”, “actually”, "anyway", and "obviously” (you’ll see a lot of those here), appear to talk to myself when in conversation with others, seem self-centred and ignorant, and over-explain  -  and skim over - simple things, and possibly rely too much on emoticons and abbreviations like “haha” and “XD” by feeling the need to add them to every sentence; it’s obviously not abnormal for them to be used if there’s cause, but more the reason why. 

Like trying to make your obsession jealous when he's in love with someone else
The more confident I feel, the more risk I feel there is of saying something I realise much later was inadvertently stupid or not the complete truth; to be clear, that doesn't mean I compulsively lie, or lie at all, it’s just that the truth is not elaborated on or isn't as expansive as it could be. 

Pictured: Not me
As an example: I recently mentioned in conversation about video game themes through Facebook Messenger (I apologise to the person I was speaking to at the time if they regret having this splashed all over the internet, even with total anonymity; it was the best example that stood out to me at the time. I also apologise for my awkward manner and for inadvertently seeming ignorant and not being entirely truthful) that - and I quote - “I really like sonic the hedgehog and megaman themes XD do you listen to any others?”

As I was typing that, I was panicking, and I could hear that voice in the back of my head telling me to either calm down or think of something to say quickly before the other person became disinterested, not that that’s a reflection, characteristic, or my own personal view on the person in question or that this conversation was entirely about me.

But this is a reflection of me
The response to that was, “anything i think of mostly ...... portal is my fave at the moment”, which is almost exactly what I meant to say, as my videogame music collection is far more in range than simply Sonic and Megaman. I can only surmise I had recently bought the Sonic Generations soundtrack and a remix album of early Megaman stage themes which brought those particular brands to the forefront of my very screwed up mind. 

Sometimes I have really thought about pushing everyone away because it would save a lot of pain, but I always come to the realisation that’s that definitely not what I want from life now. I’m not accusing anyone of being the catalyst of my problems; in fact, I believe I am my own catalyst because of the continual pressure I put upon myself to assume a façade of normalness to avoid what I perceive to be fatal judgement. I’m not getting any younger either despite my appearance of eternal youth, and I’m terrified of dying before I’ve truly lived.

Michael Cera is usually the go-to guy for awkward young adolescent roles, but it’s a little known fact he based his entire acting repertoire on me, albeit in an extremely toned down state as my own tense awkwardness isn’t exactly photogenic in the slightest. For legal reasons, I’d also like to point out I am not in love with my cousin
I’m also extremely empathetic and willing to listen and council anyone’s problems; some people I’ve helped might even tell you I’m more mature and wise beyond my deceptively young appearance and (dis)ability will dare to allow. Hurt my friends though, and bear in mind I’m pretty adept in martial arts and a worthy opponent in kumite, prone to fits of grizzled rage brought on by everyday injustice, like a drastically less stoic and obviously less awesome version of Liam Neeson.

Just as soon as I figure out how to say that clearly in text and stop obsessing over whether you’ve received and read it. I may have to call my service provider to find out. You’ll probably be dead of natural causes by the time I reach an operator. Crap…it went to answerphone…
You may be thinking, “How, with such a (dis)ability, can he be accurately aware of his social strengths and shortcomings?” It’s a fair question, but you have to realise that maturity cannot be defined by age alone; it too is just a label until the realisation and action is there to support it. The same applies to stereotypes: it does not define the person underneath or their capabilities. In base terms, this principle could be best described as “The clothes do not make the man”. Or, to further the metaphor, the label came off in the wash of life, probably because it was a knock-off from the back of a fallen lorry in the first place.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Fashion
Living with a (dis)ability like mine is both a wonderful blessing and a dreadful curse. On one hand, you have this incredible vision of what seems to be two different universes - the one where logic prevails and the other where humanity rules and logic sometimes ceases to exist at all - and the constant struggle to keep them in harmony with one another. 

If I could liken it to anything in existence, it would be the Sea of Doors from Bioshock Infinite. For those reading who haven’t played the game, it’s basically a infinite nexus of different universes - represented by doors - each one slightly different to the last through major and minor details, but with a recurring theme of a man, a city and a lighthouse. It’s actually not too uncommon to the holiday doors and “What’s This?” sections of The Nightmare Before Christmas. 

Exploring what you perceive to be the framework of your mind painted as a stunning otherworldly vista part of a haunting parable stuck on repeat with fantastical physics is at once both a liberating but very alarming experience
To me, all those doors are open, and I can see everything, all the time. All the worlds, all the possibilities, all the reasons, all the logic, and I can’t turn it off even if I wanted to, which probably attributes to my tendency of being a night owl - though my pale skin, lithe but strong physique, inherent youth, OCD, and sweet tooth would also suggest I’m a real-life vampire - and difficulty making decisions sometimes.

Thought I haven't yet figured out how to sparkle in the sunlight
It sounds crazy - it DEFINITELY sounds crazy to me as I’m typing this, so it must sound totally insane to you the reader - but just imagine not being able to pinpoint exactly why something happened or why someone did something, and having a small buzzing sound at the back of your skull constantly bother and cripple you to analyse and relive particular dialogues and situations until all the reasons are found - if at all the real one - and then try to match that to pure logic, something that virtually nobody is capable of living by all the time. If I’m not even a one on the spectrum, then I dread what being even a two is like, and feel extremely thankful I’m not, and sorrow for those that are more severe than I. 

Many people wondered how sweet Elizabeth could turn into a femme fatale at the end of Bioshock Infinite, but it wasn’t hard for me to understand, even without all of her father issues
It’s a lot to take in and perhaps fully grasp and relate to, so I’m going to try and explain this in different, simpler terms, not that I’m accusing any readers of lacking the means to understand.  One night, I stumbled across persons in my house watching Coronation Street, to my chagrin (everyone knows Neighbours and Home and Away are superior).  

In this particular scene, a character named Roy Cropper was in a nondescript supermarket for some reason, and was having a mental breakdown due to the fact that, in his eyes, the packaging of a particular product was extremely wasteful to the environment. His rant caught the attention of the staff, who had to have him removed by security. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it, but this scene involving Roy’s attempted purchase of out-of-date strawberries serves as just as good an example

For those who don’t watch Coronation Street (myself included; I wonder how many more of you there actually are) Roy Cropper is a middle-aged café owner with impaired social skills, and has long been rumoured to have Asperger’s Syndrome, though this has never been explicitly stated to my knowledge. 

Anyway, this entire scene is not only horribly evocative of occasional news items detailing the abhorrent lack of care for sufferers of mental conditions, but is also a microcosm for the nature of the pure logic side of Asperger’s and Autism in general. 

I’m nowhere near as severe as Roy, and I certainly have never broken down in a supermarket - or anywhere else for the record - over something as small as product packaging or out-of-date food. But I really resonated with Roy’s plight and reasoning, because of one simple word: why?

Imagine that word obsessively reverberating in your head, even over the slightest detail. Now imagine wanting nothing more than to live in a world where everything makes sense, and there is no war, no suffering, and no loss of innocence, like a Disney film with none of the social inequality or pantomime villains.

Not that I’m a disbeliever of the “magic key” theory - where complex mental problems can be miraculously eased and sometimes solved with a series of simple realisations - but remember, you’re free to leave your house, but are still a prisoner inside your own mind
But pure sense and logic can sometimes breed injustice, and a total lack of humanity. Remember when Richard Dawkins and some other prat from UKIP said that children with Downs Syndrome should be aborted? 

Looking at this objectively, there are financial and arguably humanitarian benefits to this - though quite where and how all the abortion resources would be funded and managed appropriately is another quandary - but it is absolutely and unquestionably without a single ounce of mercy, compassion or social responsibility.

Everybody knows dinosaurs are cool, but surprisingly, Richard Dawkins missed that tweet
It’s an eternal paradox, and not one exclusively relegated to mental conditions either: to desperately yearn to escape the rampant horrors, injustice, and just sometimes general mundaneness of this world. 

Don’t get me wrong: if Andrew Ryan existed and Rapture was built tomorrow, I’d be the first one in a Bathysphere down to the darkest depths of the Atlantic Ocean, despite the dystopian consequences. The same goes for The Walking Dead: I’d jump at the chance to dive in and have a long conversation with and fight alongside David Morrissey’s compelling portrayal of The Governor, even though the character is - for the most part, a villain - and a complex, vindictive control freak. 

And a post-apocalyptic pirate missing only a wise-cracking parrot companion and a wooden leg. Oh wait…
But as I’ve said, what always makes sense doesn’t always equate to perfect harmony, and that’s the irony at the core of humanity. Turn your back on it though, and you leave everything beautiful this world has to offer behind, and forget why you wanted to relocate in the first place. 

If you’re still stuck, imagine trying to translate an alien language with an incomplete cypher. I probably should have led with that, to be honest.
My education experience taught me a lot about life today, though ironically it was the hellish experience of actually attending and dealing with abrasive personalities than the lessons themselves. 

Eventually I found myself at the end of GCSE - having achieved A* despite mostly playing truant for the duration of Year 11 - and abandoned by my supposed friends (maybe because I didn’t have the internet back then like the cool kids), and the bullies were applauded because they entered higher education fitting their high academic aptitude, but - shock horror - I didn’t, despite my ability, because the system offered no support.

Cue four years of meandering through college, made exponentially worse by the laughably misguided belief that everyone there is more mature because they want “to learn”, gaining a useless IT qualification I can hardly remember, and epically careering through a games design course with all the finesse of an out of control tanker of spirits on an traffic jammed oil-slicked highway in a hypothetical Final Destination film featuring unlikeable lead characters. 

SPOILER ALERT - everyone dies. I almost did for real, but that’s a really stupid story for another time
My aspirations of attending university then faded in a haze of tears brought about by catching even a passing glimpse of anything that reminded me of those times, which was basically most of my aforementioned interests. Pathetic, I know. 

In-between, there are countless years of untreated anger, depression, rejection, suicidal tendencies, manic mood swings, a mental breakdown brought on by OCD, and endlessly dark nights wishing you had someone to talk to and share your interests with, that slowly fuels and poisons your increasingly misconceived actions, and where your thoughts are all that permeate that newly thick skin you’ve had to grow but is never quite thick enough, coupled with probable hearing loss from loud music in an attempt to drown the pain. 

When the only other voices that you truly hear and really speak to you are those through your MP3, music becomes a source of great strength and inspiration, and it has definitely helped to mould my personality and personal beliefs. 

Although an effect of Autism can be above-average sensitivity to regular stimuli, I’m also blessed with chronic involuntary Synaesthesia - a separate, but related, individual condition where seemingly innocuous words, typography, colours, numbers, shapes, smells, touch and other stimuli (physical, mental and emotional) can provoke strong hypersensitive and associative reactions (also physical, mental and emotional) - and not all positive. 

It’s a difficult but fascinating condition and state of mind to describe in a concise manner, and I would love to attempt to explain it better in another article best saved for another time. 

It is said a picture is worth a thousand words, but if a single word or shape can spark several others in me and so forth, imagine what a full size canvas does; this particular piece of concept art of The Citadel from Mass Effect 2 is one of my personal favourites. I intended to buy the actual piece on eBay and put it up as part of pride of place, but I never did manage to get enough money together
My severe form of Synaesthesia means I am extremely hypersensitive to all of the above; it sometimes feels like waking in an living dream where the rules of reality still persist, not that I’m emotionally unstable - though it can, and does, strengthen whatever mood I find myself in - but it hasn’t always been easy trying to figure myself out amongst all my surroundings and the background noise, and it’s probably contributed to my OCD somewhere down the line.  

You also don’t have to worry about what words you use when speaking to me, though that’s obviously not an invitation to throw insults in my general direction.

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will…probably do the same...
But its music that has always affected me the most. Essentially all music totally envelops me in endless universes of individual tracks, albums, sections, rhythms, sounds, instruments, lyrics - even the running time - projected as prominent unique colours, shapes, moods, feelings, emotions, concepts, and alien worlds forever surfing across my enthralled mind.

One of my dream jobs is as a martial arts choreographer - I’ve long associated music with martial arts ever since watching and attempting to mimic Power Rangers as a child - and there’s an Indonesian martial arts film called Chocolate which features an Autistic girl called Zen who has Savant-level reflexes and knowledge retention of Tony Jaa films. 

In the climatic showdown of Chocolate, Zen must fight the son of the lead villain - who is Epileptic and uses an adopted Brazilian Capoeira style mixed with breakdancing - in a dojo.

Not going to lie: I identified with Zen and wished she was real so much so to the point I developed a massive crush on star Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda

Everything in this scene - and anytime Zen is on screen - fills me with bursting pride, because at last someone had acknowledged we were better for something else than counting numbers. 

Critics of Zen and the Epileptic son, who derided the film as pure fantasy and an offensive caricature to persons with said mental conditions infuriate me, as they have completely missed the entire point, and are hypocrites to the same people and principles they claim to defend.

I’ve spent many long nights with my own custom soundtracks playing along to favourite TV shows, films, and games, watching them come to life in a completely different way every time the shuffle function selected a new song (or I at least put one on I actually wanted to listen to). 

Imagine being the director of the biggest music video or FMV in existence, where budget, time, space, genre and imagination are no issue and you’re halfway there. 

Other loose examples include any concept album artwork - Prog Rock or otherwise - Marvel Comics’ heroine Dazzler, Emma - the deaf nurse from Heroes who can manifest sounds as colours - and the below scenes from Scrubs and Spaced. I’m still not sure how I’m alive.

Scrubs is my favourite sitcom; I must have seen pretty much every episode at least five times or more (thanks E4), and the offbeat triggers of JD's fantasies are another loose example 

I once got sucker punched on a busy crossing by a speeding taxi, though I wasn't in rave mode like Tyres here, and I had already been given right of way by a considerate lady driving what I remember to be a white van. Luckily, the taxi only clipped my shoulder, and despite landing a few feet away, the only casualties were (funnily enough) a sore shoulder, my non-existent pride, the stationary I was carrying, and the right wing mirror of the impatient driver's hatchback (I believe it was black).  To my delight and bemusement, the first name of the doctor who treated me in A & E after this particular near-death experience was Sarah, just like the actress behind Elliot Reid in Scrubs

Tyres is played by actor Michael Smiley, who has also effortlessly portrayed more menacing characters in horror film Kill List and gleefully subversive C4 sci-fi show Black Mirror. I find this to be a fitting comment on the multifaceted nature of my Synaesthesia

It was - and still is - a great comfort, and add in the fact that within music, rules and logic are made to be broken and be reborn as whatever you wish meant I had found a well-needed - and legal, but sometimes overwhelming and confusing - drug on demand; a one-way escape from reality, a personal Rorschach test, and a focus for my daydreaming and hyperactive states, albeit with a side-effect of procrastination. 

The only limitation was the amount of free disk space on my player, and spare batteries I could fit into my pockets, both of which were always too small to satisfy my insatiable appetite for new sounds as windows and doors into other dimensions. 

Nowadays the dilemma is finding a socket to fit my USB cable or wall charger; there’s nowhere to do that on a busy train unless you have a laptop or are sat in first class, but my battery powered players have long since been consigned to the bin, probably because I gradually wore them out, like Tony Stark’s arc reactor chips in the beginning of Iron Man 2. 

Alcohol has a strange amplifying effect on my Synaesthesia, making the high - and disorientation - twofold. It’s why I’ve often listened to blaring music when inebriated
The fear of what might be if it didn’t exist cuts me straight through to the core; at one point, my attachment to music could have been described as an addiction or at the very least, a dependence. I suppose I could liken my connection to music as a series of epiphanies or visions; a set of spiritual, even religious, experiences.

This is just a Genesis music video

The wish and desire to communicate through music instead of badly conceived sentences is one I often hold; the flow, structure, tempo and atmosphere of a piece can get across my true feelings in a pure way that complements my Synaesthesia, and lyrics always seem to put across complicated ideas, thoughts, and meanings better in one verse than I can in an entire essay.

If I were smart, I would have created this entire article as a collection of music links from YouTube to save you all the bother of wading through a wall of text, which isn’t actually a bad idea as a companion piece, or a regular Facebook periodical where I can try to describe exactly what I see and feel from a particular song or piece of artwork (let’s call it Synaesthesia Saturday/Sunday). 

Seriously, if anybody has any requests, I’ll gladly have a go; what’s the point of having an entertaining talent if you don’t share it with others? 

That’s a rhetorical question in case you’re wondering, but my Synaesthesia is a talent I’ve kept strictly to myself and suppressed in the public eye until now due to the fact it’s a little hard to explain without sounding ever so slightly deluded when you have difficulties expressing yourself in particular situations anyway. 

And no, I didn’t just listen to Genesis and Phil Collins. I also listened to Peter Gabriel, whose third album cover - “Melt” - is a great source of perspective and imagination. But seriously, I’ve gone through - and retained - every phase, from pop to metal to 80s to Eurovision to funk to chiptune and video game themes, though my clothes have weirdly always remained the same style. I seem to have settled somewhere between the words “alternative minimalistic arthouse gothic house party rock rap electronic techno instrumental vocal mix” for the moment
I know the above reads like a huge excuse and a bitter cry for sympathy and justice with control, trust, and self-esteem issues and that everybody’s got a “sob story”, but this is what made me into the person and gave me the perspective to life I have today.

There’s a lot of dirty laundry being aired here, and it’s a lifetimes worth bottled up over 25 years - and there are people who have endured worse and come out alright I know - but there’s no way I could have shined a light on my strengths fully without delving into my weaknesses, and that brings us full circle in the conversation about labels. 

So what is the actual point of this article? Who is it really aimed at? Is it informational, an admission, or both? 

Well, the answer is unfortunately quite a long one. Prior to my first convention in 2012 at Sci-Fi Weekender (then SFX Weekender), I was pretty aimless. I was still trying to make it as a videogames journalist and getting nowhere fast, due to my lack of contacts within the industry, though I was still the owner of a shiny new press pass. I entered a competition to win tickets to the Weekender through an e-mail sent courtesy of Cineworld, my main local haunt back then, partially due to the fact it’s pretty much always dark and empty, which is actually kind of descriptive of my home town in general. 

My local Cineworld
To my surprise, I was a winner and - long story short - had a great first con experience, meeting good friends I’m still in contact with today. It sounds obvious, but without them, I wouldn’t have been invited to - and have gone to - certain other cons and made more friends. 

Cosplay is a real treat for both my inner child and Synaesthesia; the characters, colours, and human ingenuity is like a living comic book, and if I could describe what it looks like in a very rudimentary and brief manner, it would be the video for A-ha’s Take On Me, but with lots more colour. 

Only occasionally do I hear Morten Harket’s glass-shattering vocals on the wind though

It was only this year I started to ramp up the con attendance, and July marked a real turning point. 

From London Film & Comic Con, everything seemed to fall into place, as I met cosplayers sharing the same interests, helped to found a Facebook group, participated in photoshoots, went to meet-ups, and (partially) wrote and performed a skit in the MCM Birmingham cosplay masquerade with three lovely and awesome people much more talented at choreography, stage direction, acting, and writing (and probably everything else) than I am. 

There go my aspirations of being the next Gareth Evans
But why this confession now? Why not at the beginning of attending cons like a seemingly rational person would have done? 

Over the past few weeks, I have agonised with the decision to take off this particular mask. I don’t want to wear it any more, even though I’m terrified of being judged, but I can’t and don’t want to take the risk of throwing away this amazing second chance at life I’m eternally grateful for just because I couldn’t face my own fear. 

I feel like I learned something...
The last - and also the first - attempt at taking this tattered and worn burden off six years ago started and ended in complete disaster, partly because I was not yet fully aware of myself or my own actions, had an inability to adequately explain at an appropriate time and manner, and foolish decision to put others on lofty pedestals where they could never hope to reach my tough set of expectations at such a young age. I’m not saying there wasn’t a whole lot of discrepancies and bad decisions from certain other people, but I definitely was not clear of blame. 

What I see every time I look in a mirror
Just when everything seemed to be going my way, I could suddenly feel my whole universe begin to cave in from the period around and just after November’s Cardiff Film & Comic Con. Not only was I meeting a long-time Facebook friend for the first time at CFCC, but I was also planning to meet Ellie Kendrick of Game of Thrones and Misfits again, her first appearance at a con since LFCC, and also the first celebrity I had met at such an event. If I hadn’t ventured through the ridiculously overcrowded hall of Earls Court to get her autograph at LFCC, I would never have met particular people at LFCC and founded the Facebook group with them. 

I also probably wouldn’t have had the courage to attend MCM Manchester and the meet-up organised the following week, which lead to me meeting more friends, who introduced me to yet more friends, and scouring the MCM Expo group for recruits to our group, which leads us nicely into MCM Birmingham and the cosplay masquerade. 

I know it’s not a strange idea for people from all walks of life to network and make plans for the future, but sometimes, when you feel surrounded by dirt, even the smallest flecks of gold can feel like part of a grander plan. 

Facebook, also known as the “Six Degrees Of Separation”; you might also know this theory by the alternative “Six Degrees Of Bacon”, where Kevin Bacon can be connected to anybody on the planet in five easy steps, but not by 4G
Anyway, the plan was to meet Ellie, and tell her admittedly self-aggrandised tales of my adventures in the few months since LFCC, and explain how meeting her had had a significant impact on my life. That plan quickly devolved due to a massive panic attack when I was in the line for her photoshoot, the result of which I’m not going to share here, not least because of the fact I believe I look like an exceptionally frightened and malformed deer caught in the glaring headlight of a large professional flash camera. 

Much more worse in person than on screen. The light of the flash that is, not Ellie.
Afterwards, I must have appeared to be the worst autograph hunter in existence as I nervously paced back and forth along the ground floor waiting for her to reappear at her table. The pacing still continued when she returned and abruptly ended when she left again a little while after to attend a panel, one which I walked into about halfway through and stood sheepishly at the back, because I had difficulty finding it on the packed and labyrinthine second floor.

I had also unwisely forgotten to turn the volume of my phone notifications down in all the fuss, so it obviously went off with a small bang towards the end, which I’m sure gave everyone - including the assembled Game of Thrones cast - the impression of a inconsiderate imbecile. 

Luckily, this guy wasn’t in the room
When I did eventually manage to muster the courage to approach her after the panel (and balance all my photos in folders in too little hands, both in numbers and size) my ego was put rightfully and firmly in its place when Ellie said she didn’t remember me after I stumbled through a barely comprehensive spiel trying to explain LFCC. 

Then followed another round of uncomfortable exchanges of words and signed photos and prints, before Ellie tried to reassure me that she would see me again, a promise I know may have just been made without actual conviction, but one I intend to follow up on with much more confidence next time.  

Of course, it was only afterwards that I realised saying I suffered from panic attacks - which I do, but not the entire truth  - must have made Ellie feel absolutely terrible and partially responsible for, definitely not the aim I had in mind. 

What I actually envisaged
Back to my friend: he was not only part of a cosplay duo with myself on that particular Saturday, but is an apparent mover and shaker within the cosplay world (seriously, he knows everybody), and standing amidst these wonderfully talented stars in the cosplay area made me feel woefully inadequate and undeserving, not least because I was just a random guy in jeans and a t-shirt, marvelling in awe at the dedication of months of planning brought to vivid life by hard work, while I had spent all of 5 minutes typing a string of search terms into Google. 

Go to 80’s Tees and TV Store Online for all your cosplay needs! Can I get paid now?
So, here I was, meeting so many new people my hippocampus spun, and to make matters worse, my already frayed social cues were still in tatters from my meetings with Ellie.

I was doing my hardest to smile, nod along and chime in where I felt was acceptable (which was blurry at best), but I felt even more of an idiot due to my new nervous but obnoxious tendency of telling people where I bought my t-shirt online, especially those who had bought the “unofficial” version (it’s a fully accurate cosplay, don’t you know). 

Being around the “popular” crowd again brought back unpleasant memories, and I felt a burning desire and unquenchable curiosity - yet terrible reluctance - to attend the “Cosplay and Mental Health” panel scheduled for the following day, but my own inflexible schedule meant the decision was out of my hands, not that I was willing to argue with myself.

It wouldn’t have ended well anyway
Upon returning home, I felt the echo of the mistakes and situations six years ago looming over me as I prepared for MCM Birmingham and the masquerade; the pressure was mounting, and it wouldn’t get much better. 

I was sat in my hotel room for MCM Birmingham all alone on the Saturday night, my plans and dreams I had made for the weekend crumbling into uncertainty, and I genuinely did not know what to do. 

Staring at my mobile phone stuck wondering between the positive and negative ramifications of contacting certain people against my personal desires and their own, and the two masquerade scripts I had carefully personalised with different coloured pens and motifs I believed befitted their cosplay characters - the third I was still struggling to prose for the same reasons as my phone, and it wouldn’t be done until the following morning, when a lack of time forced my worrying to cease any form of practicality in deep thought - a series of progressively destructive thoughts relentlessly hit me: why am I here? What is the point? Was I foolish to have believed in a dream and put my hopes high? Why did this person do that, and that person do this?

Looking into the life-size dressing mirror, staring in self-hate and frustration at the large stress spot on the right side of my face that had suddenly decided to glow bright red - and wishing it would miraculously disappear the following morning despite little sleep - didn’t help 
At one point, I actually considered burying my weary head in that comfy Hilton bed for the rest of the weekend and abandoning the masquerade, a selfish decision I would have massively regretted - and would have been disgraceful to everyone I had met so far, especially considering the awesome events of the day past - not that I’m blaming anyone or I had been perfect (I had forgotten on several occasions to take photos of friends, despite having a camera in my pocket); plans change all the time, people have their own, and it’s totally unfeasible to expect them to stick and converge all the time.

Since my first con, I’ve met people who I can see myself being friends with for years, if not life, who are understanding, patient, and actually have time of day for me, something I never thought I’d ever find. 

They deserve better, and I (hopefully) deserve to afford some much-needed self-respect and be truthful to myself without pretending I can shoulder all the weight of the world and avoid making a single mistake that might make the mask slip for even the slightest second. 

I have the capacity to act completely normal, and it makes perfect sense to carry on as if nothing’s wrong until something invariably is wrong, but that’s the irony of the situation, and my entire life thus far. 

There’s a smartly written poem called “The Lantern” by author David Court (yes, that David Court) I find apt about a man who makes a deal with a genie for eternal life, which goes smoothly until he finds himself floating through the endless void of space all alone until the end of time. 

Irony also hits like a Sucker Punch
I truly believe it’s not the actual conditions and their individual effects, but the pressure of the lifestyle in which I choose to try to be perfect and normal all the time that exacerbates my quirks to sometimes unbearable and uncontrollable levels of self-hatred and regret. 

I even hate the words Asperger’s, Syndrome, and Autism; they make me recoil and feel physically sick, and I barely associate the words with myself, if at all, as they have no meaning to me beyond a label.

I don’t need to wear a badge 24/7 telling my condition to the world - not that there’s anything wrong with the badge approach - I just need to be honest and courageous with myself and with others when I feel the need to do so to preserve and stabilise my mental health at its most fragile. 

For example: if I’d just had it in mind to tell Ellie my situation instead of being vague with a statement of panic attacks, I’m absolutely certain we would had a full conversation as my friend did - and even more remarkably so when you consider he simply walked up without any intention of an autograph - and not a one-sided one between a talented actress and a glorified - but barely mobile and comprehensible - shelf of flesh and bone. 

So, do I want sympathy, pity, understanding, even love? Well, I’m not making myself out to be a Saint despite the glowing self-assessment (still more accurate than an ATOS one) but I can’t lie either: I do want all those things, and in droves, but then again, I am prone to being an egomaniac, obviously. 

Handsome Jack knows the score
Joking aside (and if you didn’t understand the egomaniac joke, you really need to read this entire article again), all I want is to be accepted by my peers as a normal human being and not treated in public - or in private for that matter - as a social leper, for lack of a better phrase, or be automatically judged for something that has no basis in truth, not that I’m accusing anyone of being judgemental or blaming anyone, as I know not everyone wants to or can talk or be perfect all the time. 

I may need a little convincing or explanation to move in the right direction every once in a while, but who doesn’t? 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a total excuse - or easy way out - to become lacklustre and let my demons overtake me. It’s a constant running battle of evaluating and questioning my own actions, and how they affect those around me. 

Sometimes, I still mess up, but I’m always willing to learn from my mistakes and make things right. 

Pictured: Me from now on (hopefully)
I suppose this cathartic confession reads like an intense session with a therapist; at least it’s a lot cheaper, and a hell of a lot easier than getting an NHS-prescribed one (one more opportunity to call George a twat).

I would bring this to a close with a quote from a well-known laureate or scientist in an effort to sound the least bit erudite. However, I thought it would more pertinent to remind you that, “We’re all mad here”. 

No-one wants to disagree with Harley and the real Mister J, right?
Alternatively, the Jeremy Kyle principle of, “I thought my life was bad, but…” may help. 

The word count of this article is also approximately 7000 words, which I find extremely profound, and to be without coincidence, not that I’ve been systematically and aggressively controlling the amount of letters typed.

Some of you may have twigged who I am and know me personally. If you have any questions, either about the subject matter or myself or have any comments about this article, please do not hesitate to get in touch; I would love to know what you think. Of course, if you just want to talk, that’s cool too. 

Thank you for reading, and I hope I have helped to change your perceptions of not just myself, but of mental conditions and stereotypes in general. Please always try to understand, reach out and ease the problems of those around you, no matter how great or polarising they may seem. The smallest difference can mean the world. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"I'm David Court. Author. Dreamweaver. Visionary. Plus actor. You're about to enter the world of my imagination."

I have a new blog to keep the writing separate from the angry, swearing rants or essays on how I hate bosses in video-games. I'd love it if you'd take a look...

(Thanks to Simon Myers for the Garth Merenghi title quote)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In Space no one can hear you shriek like a child

There have been precisely three occasions when I have been known to shriek whilst using a computer or video-game console.

Incident #1: It's the summer of 1987. A pale-faced teenage David Court squints at the lines of a computer program on an old portable colour television as a shaft of sunlight dares to penetrate this fortress of solitude from the gap between thick curtains.  He's approaching the end of a marathon nine hour programming session and decides he needs a cup of tea. In an incredible demonstration of dexterity he manages to get his foot caught in the power cable and manages to both crash into the closed bedroom door and switch the ZX Spectrum+2 off. A shriek is heard, and a valuable lesson is learned. He never programs without saving regularly ever again.

Incident #2: It's very late on a summer evening in 1998. A pale-faced and long-haired headphone wearing David Court squints at the post-apocalyptic Raccoon city on a new portable colour television as he plays Resident Evil 2 on his relatively new Playstation. All seems quiet – too quiet, in hindsight - as he picks up the ROOK PLUG from a small room inside the Raccoon City Police Department.  A licker suddenly bursts out through the one way mirror inside this room, a shriek is heard and the  heart rate of David returns to normal roughly six hours later. He never plays a Resident Evil game late at night ever again.

Incident #3: It's early one morning in the Autumn of 2014. David Court is sitting way too close to his 40" telly and playing Alien Isolation. Ripley has spent the past five minutes hiding inside a closet and the motion detector isn't returning any signal. The alien can't be heard – through either the familiar sound of it stomping around searching in frustration for prey, or the echoing metallic clanging of it wandering around in the vents.  Ripley throws open the closet doors and it's standing there in the doorway having waited patiently for her to emerge. David gives a shriek just as the alien is on him at the same instant as Tara is walking into the living room with a cup of tea. She sniggers.

So, after nearly thirty hours of gameplay I've just finished the new game Alien: Isolation (developed by the British software team Creative Assembly and distributed by Sega).  I'd say how it's one of the best uses of the Aliens license in an age but if you've ever been unfortunate enough to either play or watch somebody else play Aliens: Colonial Marines (and I use the term "play" loosely) then you'll know that’s not exactly difficult.

Set 15 years after the events of the first Alien film, you play Amanda (the daughter of Ellen Ripley).  Having never watched the movie Alien or having read the tie-in comic or the novel by Alan Dean Foster, she's trying to find out what happened to her mother on board the ill-fated Commercial Towing Vessel "The Nostromo". She hears that the flight recorder of that self-same vessel has been located and is being held at a remote free port space station ("Sevastopol"), so Ripley Jnr. and her companions travel to the space station to find it damaged and communications dead and they space walk over to the station to investigate.

To say that there's an alien on board the space station is as much a spoiler warning as letting you know that the new Call of Duty game contains guns, killing and nine year old American children calling you a faggot. This game is even scarier than those nine year old children.

It's no secret I'm a huge fan of both Alien and Aliens.  Alien³ and Alien: Resurrection not so much, but at least Alien: Resurrection made Alien³ seem brilliant by comparison (Much as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom suddenly stopped being the worst in the series when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released).

It's clear that the game was made by fans. It oozes atmosphere and everything about it feels spot on – from the worn-out and lived-in environments to the technology that looks modern but still has a definite seventies vibe.  Big clunky CRT monitors show green-screen displays, tape reels whirr on their spools and everything bleeps and flashes lights to remind you that it's still on.  Even the loading icon is a tape cassette.

The Sevastopol is a huge space station with three main towers and you'll often find yourself retracing your steps as newly discovered equipment opens avenues previously closed to you. You'll scavenge for equipment to construct makeshift pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails, noisemakers and medical kits and your movement through the station will be slow and terror-filled because of that bloody Alien.

Alien: Isolation is an outstanding "hiding in cupboards and hiding under tables" simulator. You'll become very familiar with certain walls of the space station as you stare at them from behind the narrow slots in a locker door as that hiss is heard.

This game has made the Alien scary again after ColonialMarines turned the acid-bleeding razor fanged and clawed xenomorphs into nothing but cannon fodder. It's smart and if it spots you you're dead. You can't outrun it and you can't hope to fight it – all you can do is avoid or distract it.  I've never known a game quite as terrifying – the sound design is exemplary and you're forever straining to listen for the tell-tale signs of its movements - either the creatures heavy feet stomping across the floor of the complex or the sound of a vent opening or the familiar hiss as it desperately searches for you.

The Alien isn't the only threat on the station – huddles of survivors and  SPOILER  will confront you as you make your way around the claustrophobic environments of the station. 

If I have any issues with it - and this a tiny gripe - it's that it drags on a little too long. This may feel like an odd complaint from somebody who regularly moans about the brevity of single player campaigns in games, but the endgame goes on for ages and also features my arch-nemesis of a quicktime event to conclude everything - but at least that's still infinitely better than a boss fight, eh?

So, Alien: Isolation. Buy it, play it, be as shit scared as I've been. It's a survival horror game done right.

Final report of the remote free space port Sevastopol, third officer reporting. The other members of the crew are dead. I should reach the corridor in about six weeks once I've summoned up the courage to come out of this locker.   This is Court, signing off.

Hang on, it looks relatively safe. I'm coming out n-

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Final Plug

My new collection of short stories "Forever and ever, Armageddon" is now available from Amazon in both physical and kindle versions (which will work on any kindle or the free kindle app available for most kinds of Smartphone and tablet).  It contains 24 stories (three added just before the deadline) with themes ranging from satire to horror and science fiction and I'd love it if you'd give it a read.  I'd love to know what you think.  If you liked "The Shadow Cast by the World", and a few of you seemed to, it's more of the same - although I think my writing has improved considerably as a result of finishing the novel and honing my craft, as it were.

On a personal note, I'm really pleased with "Forever..". The physical copy looks great and it's nice to have something that looks more like a book (with writing on the spine and everything) than the essentially very thick pamphlet that was "The Shadow Cast by the World".

The short story below, ThriceSlain, is one that just missed the deadline for publication as there simply came a time when I had to stop work on it.. Now I know how George Lucas feels when he can't help but keep tinkering with Star Wars.


The door flew open and Prince Braxis fell into the room and collapsed against the wall, clearly exhausted and in some distress.

"Wizard-" he spluttered, a tired trembling finger pointing at High Magus Winslow.

"Get your breath back first, boy" the Mage interrupted. He looked at the door to his chamber which had been pierced by a volley of a dozen or so arrows. Winslow shook his head mournfully and sighed – it had only been varnished a few days before. With a gesture from the mages' hand, the door slammed shut.

"I can clearly see from the damage to my door that the enemy are at our gates. In your father's absence tradition dictates that you should be out there leading the charge to repel them, but instead here you are in my chambers. Why is that, exactly?"

The Prince looked up at the mage with an expression of both guilt and sorrow. He looked to the wizards feet, ashamed of himself.

"My father was a great fighter," he muttered, "whereas I am not. I'll be honest with you, sorcerer, in that I am
scared. In this, our cities darkest hour, I have need of your assistance. There are rumours of a magical arsenal in your chambers – weapons or armour with enchanted qualities that could help those such as I with.. less combat experience."

The Mage looked down at the terrified boy and smiled, patting him on the shoulder. He stepped towards a ornately carved wooden chest that sat in the corner of the room and flung the lid open. He reached down into it and with a glint in his eye, his hand re-emerged holding the grip of a mighty silver blade.

"On your feet, Prince" said the Wizard. The young man clambered up to his feet and stepped towards the wise old man.

"This is the fabled blade ThriceSlain" intoned the Mage, "a blade said to be forged from the very metal of the armour the War God wore in his final battle against the Obsidian Mass. It grants the wielder the bravery, strength and stamina of the fabled War God himself."

He handed it to the boy with the care and reverence one would pass the most fragile and valuable of porcelain. The Prince stared at the gleaming silver blade, its reflective surface inscribed with the most arcane and eldritch of forbidden runic symbols.

The mage stared the Prince in the eye and placed his hands on the boys shoulders.

"To war, my Prince."

A look of determination formed on the face of Prince Braxis. With gritted teeth he opened the door to the chambers and stepped outside into battle, the sword gripped tight.

The cold winds of the Northern wilds that would freeze the blood of a normal man meant nothing to Braxis as his hands grasped around the hilt of ThriceSlain. His assembled soldiers in the courtyard of the castle looked on in awe as this boy prince walked towards them with the bearing of a true warrior. Howling a powerful and terrifying battlecry Braxis held the sword aloft and ran towards the enemies at the gate, his soldiers following suit – all suitably inspired and bloodthirsty.

Winslow stepped out onto the battlements and watched as the Prince tore into the front ranks of the enemy. Severed heads bearing surprised faces arced through the air as ThriceSlain sliced and stabbed a bloody path through the overwhelming forces.

The Mage smiled as the triumphant shouts from Braxis and his men drowned out the screams of the dying. The full moon glinted off the perfect silver blade as the Prince stood his ground as the enemy captain – a beast of a man – strode defiantly towards him. Blade met blade and Winslow gasped in horror as ThriceSlain was knocked from the boy's grasp, spinning its way into a pile of bodies.

"My prince!" screamed Winslow from the top of the castle. "Use any sword! I lied to you! ThriceSlain has no magical properties at all – the power was within you all along!"

His heart racing, the Prince grabbed the hilt of another sword that lay at his feet. With a howl of defiance he leapt towards the surprised enemy captain who, with a single swing of his sword, sliced the Princes head clean off his shoulders.

The battlefield fell silent.

"Oh," said Winslow to nobody in particular. "That might have been a magic one after all then. Whoops."