Big Mouth strikes again

Despite his offstage outbursts, Morrissey still commands a devoted audience

Camden Roundhouse, London NW1

Just before his new Greatest Hits album gets released, the former Smiths singer Morrissey is exactly where he wants to be: in the press, in the blogs, and mired in controversy. The madness, this time around, began last November. Fifteen years after the NME chastised him for waving the Union Jack at a gig in Finsbury Park, it printed an interview in which this son of Irish immigrants, who had spent the past decade living in Los Angeles and Rome, said: "The gates of England are flooded. The country's been thrown away." Subsequently, amid legal threats from the singer, Morrissey also said that he abhorred racism, but he never clarified his comments on immigration. Having spun a web of mystery around his sexuality and political beliefs for the past 25 years, he shows no sign of stopping.

Only the anti-racism activists gathered in the Roundhouse foyer, evidently green-lit by management, suggested a stand on that subject, and his inclusion of the controversial, if misunderstood, "National Front Disco" came over like an act of defiance. There is a childish aspect to that song's performance, especially so here when he raved "England is for the English!" in front of a stage set comprising three brooding portraits of the very Welsh Richard Burton.

There's something inherently ridiculous about Morrissey in general. I say this as a fan of his music, if not of his outbursts. As a teenager, I spent days dreaming about his melancholy, wit and fabulous quiff. But from the moment he strode on to the stage in a stripy football-manager tie, shouting, "Good evening, West Ham," to the moment he flung it away and stripped off his shirt in an encore, revealing a paunch bolstered by the rigours of Italian living, he camped it up like an embittered dandy. He acknowledged this daftness, offering such waspish lines to the crowd as "Can you bear another new one?" or, when the volume of applause dipped slightly, "Don't be obliged." He was held back only by his vanity, often stopping in the middle of a well-crafted soubriquet to lap up another proclamation of love from the audience.

But Morrissey knows what his fans want: a memory of the skinny, gladiolus-waving 24-year-old who revolutionised pop in the Eighties. This was best proved as the set opened with "How Soon Is Now?", the Smiths' most electrifying hit - it was passionate and utterly thrilling. Three other Smiths songs popped up, too: a brooding "Death of a Disco Dancer", complete with lightshow and gong, "Stretch Out and Wait" and the spry, thoughtful pop of "Stop Me if You Think You've Heard This One Before". These songs exude a sense of danger and drama that is missing from the later work.

Morrissey's more recent songs play on mortality and maturity, but more often with a whimper than a bang. The hugely indulgent "Life Is a Pigsty" is a good example, and on this night as he wailed, "Can you stop the pain?/I feel too cold and now I feel too warm again," he threw himself effetely to the floor.

Much better was a song he claims "nobody likes", 1994's "Why Don't You Find Out for Yourself". Soft guitars and lyrics about "glass hidden in the grass" make the spine tingle much more affectingly than overblown pomp. The album it comes from, Vauxhall and I, remains his best solo effort, teeming with the sort of bruised nostalgia that Richard Hawley plies these days. Sadly, the modern Morrissey is all about bluster.

Morrissey wants to be preserved in aspic, like his many dead heroes. That's why he sings, "You're going to miss me when I'm gone" with such terrifying relish. And his fans obviously will. A mussy-haired man who sneaked on to the stage expressed this emotion best, hugging the singer tightly and laying his head on his hero's broad shoulder. He must have been at least 35. Morrissey tried to look aggrieved, but a smirk played softly across those sour lips.

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Eliades Ochoa
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The famed Cuban country guitarist, courtesy of Buena Vista Social Club.

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7 February, Oxford Brookes Union
The former Pixies frontman is supported by an up-and-coming indie rock band.

Richard Hawley
8 February, Manchester Academy
Acerbic singer-songwriter from Sheffield.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God

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