Try Me

High on her own hype

In 2002 Indobrit, a quarterly magazine for British Asians, was launched at the Cinnamon Club in Westminster. London's media world turned out to celebrate with 35-year-old Farah Damji, the editor. But what should have cemented Damji's return to London after almost a decade in New York was short-lived. Three years later, and ten pages on in her woefully titled autobiography, Try Me, Damji was in detention at Holloway Prison. She had been sentenced to three years in jail for fraud and perverting the course of justice. ''The truth is nothing more than a previously agreed upon set of lies,'' she writes, quoting from the Desperate Housewives voice-over to explain her predicament.

Born in 1960s Kampala, Damji was brought up by her ayah. Her parents were "blurs", and she formed an early attachment to her grand­father, a former adviser to the first Obote government. Following an abortive kidnapping in 1970, her family fled to England and, stripped of its wealth ("We had lived like make-believe maharajas in a land we couldn't call our own"), started again in a semi on Ealing Common. When her grandfather went into hospital for a check-up and died, her childhood ended. "The monochrome seeped from the sky into my lungs. England became home."

Try Me is an occasionally harrowing but, above all, angry account of a charmed and troubled life. Wanting for nothing (her father became a property tycoon), Damji was a King's Road schoolgirl, attending the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in South Kensington against the backdrop of 1985's Live Aid and hanging out at Annabel's. At her father's insistence, she applied to study law at University College London and was offered a place. One can only speculate on her success as a barrister had she turned her intelligence and talent for condescension to better use. Instead, desperate to flee her family and its expectations, she headed for New York on the pretext of studying French and art history at NYU.

New York provided the perfect home for Damji's reckless and addictive personality. She made an easy transition from going to clubs and gallery openings to working for a drug dealer, Michael Rubin, "a nice Jewish boy". Impressed by her cut-glass vowels, he gave her a job running his escort agency. "I was given a percentage of every call I booked and a cut of the takings." Adopting an uptown uniform of Chanel suits and long, glossy hair maintained by the stylist-to-the-stars Oribe, Damji "looked more like a banker than a whoremonger".

Here lies the paradox of Damji's life - and book. Her sense of self is entirely out of kilter with her actions. Intent on trying to outsmart the men, she launched herself into the worlds of the mafiosi, ruthless art dealers and "handsome and dangerous" City boys. She proved adept at making professional gain from personal risk.

She landed a job with Parish-Hadley, the interior decorators responsible for redoing the White House for Jackie Kennedy, mastered it, then moved on to the art world, opening her own gallery. What eluded her was a much-sought-after sense of achievement or belonging. "Part of being an exile is living on empty dreams," she writes, and curses the fantasy of flight.

If there is a general theme running through this book it is the rejection of the female British Asian archetype, and Damji's desire to make her father suffer for his domination and infidelities. Her chronicles of New York when, as a federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani was chasing the Mob boss John Gotti, and the art world was bloated with Wall Street cash - a world familiar from Jay McInerney's novels - are thrilling in their detail: "Princess Caroline wore the same outfit to meet the Pope that day as she did that night at Xenon, a black leather blazer, white blouse with a black velvet tie."
It is a shame that the rest of the book is used to avenge the men who betrayed her and to collude in her own hype. "My truth [has] been mythologised," she writes. I would challenge this; certainly no one I know has heard of Damji. I would also question the merit of a book that seeks to apportion blame. Men exposed for similar crimes are exalted for their daring and reinvent themselves accordingly, while gender stereotypes condemn women. Perhaps this is wrong. Yet I left Try Me feeling disturbed, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture