Not all sun and sea: a beach on the Italian island of Elba. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: Real life always intrudes on holidays. That’s how it should be

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. Your own emotional weather. 

I’m writing this column on a sunbed by the pool. Don’t hate me. We’ve taken our holiday a little early this year. A week in a rented villa in the Med. It’s not like this is my life or anything. Although, as usual, life will keep intruding, even here.

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. I was in denial about this for most of my adult life, insisting that holidays were nothing but joy, berating anyone who wasn’t having enough fun. But I’m getting better now, and coming to terms with the fact that, however idyllic the setting, you cannot help but bring with you everything that’s happening in your life, or in your head. Your own emotional weather.

I could also add that, because I’m an anxious person (I’ve told you this already), everywhere I go I take the contents of the bathroom cupboard with me. My suitcase resembles Mary Poppins’s holdall and can, on request, produce remedies, balms and unguents for any ailment you may choose to develop while travelling with me. This makes me a great person to go on holiday with if you’re prone to insect bites, allergic reactions to insect bites, infections of insect bites, or alarming complications arising from insect bites. Not such a great person to be around in the run-up to a holiday, when my anxiety levels rise at the same rate as the piles of lists.

This time, however, the weather proves ominous even before we leave home when we get the news that a friend who will be joining us on the holiday has just lost one of her closest friends to breast cancer. She’s going to come anyway, but warns us that she is sad, very sad. And then another friend due to meet us there has to cancel as he is in the grip of a debilitating depression and can’t get out of bed, let alone get on a plane. Sometimes the weather is so bad you can’t even take it with you. Sometimes rain stops play.

Holidays are supposed to be time out of time, perfect and dreamlike, but still they insist on coming at awkward moments, while we’re waiting for exam or biopsy results, or on the day a period starts. In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”, W H Auden talks about how moments of suffering take place “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. Or indeed, on holiday. We can’t separate holidays from the rest of life, however hard we try.

Still, here I am in my bikini on my towel, and there is light, a lot of light, along with the shade. Other friends have arrived with their new baby, and nothing lifts the mood like the sight of that tiny creature, wriggling and gurgling, opening her eyes wide at the play of light through the leaves, all of us adults competing for her smile. Nobody’s weather changes faster than a baby’s, and the speed with which she can move from contentment to misery, nothing but a sneeze or a hiccup in between, is like a dramatisation of how close to each other those two states are.

The actual weather is interesting, too, bringing us a night-time Gothic thunderstorm, followed by a day of strong winds that leave shutters banging and send bottles of sun lotion skidding across the lawn. In between the hours in the pool and the sun, the youngsters have discovered Fawlty Towers and are practising their Manuel impressions. From somewhere inside the house, “I speak English VERY well, I learn it from a BOOK” comes ringing out. Hoots of laughter.

So, all in all, the week is working, but as I started out by saying, its tone isn’t entirely benign or neutral, any more than any other week.

There are teenage mood swings and menopausal mood swings; an earache, a splinter, an argument. A close friend texts to say that her mother has died. The boy bursts his football on a cactus. Through it all we bask in the constant warmth, the long evenings drawn out with wine and lazy chat, the things that enhance and soften everything.

And so, if anyone asks, I’ll say we had a lovely time. And we did, we really did. Look, here are the photographs to prove it. That view. Those smiles.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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