A Night on the Tiles

In which The Author develops a new addiction

As I’ve mentioned before, my non-prescribed drug of choice comes in a pint glass, sometimes a can, or (very occasionally) an optic. Mind you, after a totally lost weekend last November involving a bottle of white wine, a fair amount of vodka, twenty-four hours of sickness, and numerous Unexplained Drunken Injuries, I think I’ll stick to pints from now on.
A great many of my friends are smokers, and a fair number of them have tried giving up (with mixed results) over the years. Jason D., my old work pal, is on the nicotine wagon again – possibly his fifth or sixth attempt at kicking the habit. He seems to be doing okay this time around, but he’s a long way behind Mark Twain. That legendary cigar-chomping wit once said, ‘Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I’ve done it thousands of times.’ I know a fair number of dope smokers as well, and very few of them have ever talked about giving up. Draw your own conclusions, folks…
Meanwhile, judging from what I see, hear and read in the local papers, it’s pretty easy to get hold of just about any substance you like if you know the wrong people. I know a number of people who’ve gone down the heroin route over the years, and I’ve been offered pretty much everything over the years. Those drugs have never interested me. Considering that a fair proportion of the music I listen to, the books I read and the films I watch could be considered as drug-inspired, it’s odd that I’ve never gone down that road. Maybe I’m content to just get passively wasted and let other people suffer the ill effects.
Mind you, the dreams I’ve had since switching to my new medication have been quite spectacularly weird. About a fortnight ago I dreamt that an unknown woman and I were assigned to steal secrets from a shadowy corporate building in London. It was like a surreal episode of Spooks – and yes, before you ask, my mystery accomplice was wearing a black poloneck sweater. Their security people pursued us to the rooftop, where we were caught up in a gun battle with them, the police, and two chavvy girls who were just there to score drugs. It segued seamlessly into a branch of Iceland, where the manager had gone berserk and smashed up all the freezers and fridges. Who needs LSD when you can take Mirtazepine, eh?
No, my addiction is much more in keeping with my general lifestyle. I’ve been a cryptic crossword enthusiast for years, starting with The Guardian and working my way up to the weird ones, as I related in A Turn-out For the Books.
I never jumped on the Sudoku bandwagon, though. It’s a good logic puzzle, I suppose, but people who claim that it exercises your mathematical faculties are way wide of the mark. You don’t actually need any mathematical knowledge to do Sudoku – any random assortment of nine arbitrary symbols would do just as well, whether you chose letters of the alphabet, the names of different fruits, or even symbols from the Wingdings font.
[A digression: When the 11th edition of The Chambers Dictionary came out, I thought it would be a nice idea to make a display near the Games and Pastimes section in Waterstone’s. I highlighted the new edition, surrounded it with cryptic crossword books from The Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times stables, and made a header on the computer in the office. It read:
Su Doku is Japanese for ‘Just for little girls’ – are you ready for a real challenge?
All was well and good until Yasmine, who was a huge Sudoku fan, spotted it on her way to the staff room. I swear it’s the only time I’ve seem someone completely incandescent with rage, with steam coming from her ears.]
In terms of Japanese logic puzzles, the next step up is Kakuro, where you do need to be able to add up – as far as 45, anyway. They look like crosswords, only with numbers instead of letters, like this:

Kakuro

That was far more to my taste, and I bought every book of puzzles I could get my hands on before I finished work. I’ve only come across one subsequently, in a charity shop in Pontypridd. My initial confidence was soon dashed when I learned that even the ‘easy’ puzzles are much harder than they look. The Guardian publishes one kakuro a week, but I usually fail to finish even their ‘medium’ puzzles. The problem with Kakuro is that, just when everything seems to be falling into place, you cross-check your sums and find out that you’ve buggered it up somewhere. And by ‘somewhere’, I mean just that! It’s virtually impossible to retrace your steps to see where you’ve gone wrong. My books at home are filled in at least three different colours of ink, where I’ve restarted the same puzzle and tried a different route to reach the solution.
Since the initial Sudoku explosion, these Japanese puzzles and others like them have spread like wildfire across our newspapers and bookshelves. The Guardian even ran a wonderful story about the latest sensation – Maru-batsu. It was only when you were halfway through the piece that you realised they were describing good old Noughts and Crosses (or Tic Tac Toe, as my US readers would call it.) I don’t know why they didn’t sit on it until April Fool’s Day.
I never got into Hitori or any of the others, in spite of trying to get to grips with them. Maybe my logical faculties aren’t as well-developed as I thought. Even so, Kakuro is incredibly addictive. You work your way through one, (possibly) get a result, and turn to the next one. Before you know it, several hours have gone by and you’re hacking away at the top left-corner of the twentieth puzzle in a row.
This brings us to the next bit of my own personal puzzle. Apart from as part of a gang playing the quiz machine in the pub, the last time I’d played a computer game until very recently was about thirty years ago. Keith E. and I were sitting in Frank’s Café on the Gadlys, playing tabletop Space Invaders on a wet Sunday afternoon, because there was nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. In some respects, Aberdare hasn’t changed much. Frank retired to Italy many years ago, and the machine is long gone. However, there’s still nothing much to do and nowhere to go. At least the rain’s holding off (for now…)
At about the same time my brother had a Vectrex, which by today’s standards would look extremely primitive retro, an all-in-one games machine/ monitor/ joystick set-up, complete with games which loaded from cartridges like cassette tapes. (In fact, it bore a passing resemblance to the Apple IIe computer, which I once described as ‘the thinking man’s Vectrex.’) The default game was Minestorm, in which a spaceship came under attack from extraterrestrials. Unlike the orderly rows one was up against in Space Invaders, these alien invaders came from all directions. As you progressed from level to level the numbers increased and the weaponry became more sophisticated. Over time I developed a technique which a military shooting instructor might charitably describe as a ‘turkey shoot in a locked barn’ at best. I just held down the ‘fire’ button, spun my craft in continuous circles, and shot off to another part of the screen whenever I was hemmed in. One afternoon I reached Level 71 of the game, our all-time best at home, but there was nobody else to witness it. Honour was extremely satisfied, and I resigned my commission from Starfleet Command that afternoon. (I’d much rather join the Time Agency anyway.)
In the thirty years since then, games technology has advanced to such a degree that it’s very difficult to tell computer graphics from high-end animation. I’ve heard of the popular games, of course, like Halo, Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, but I’ve never been remotely interested in playing any of them. In that regard, at least, I’m saved from total Geekdom.
When I was visiting Helen R. last summer, Thomas was glued to Call of Duty: Black Ops on his XBox 360. He called me in to have a look at it, and I admit that I was blown away by the sophistication of the whole system. I’m still not sure whether I’d have let him play it if he was my son, to be honest, but I suppose it’s no worse than news coverage of the civil war in Syria. The only difference is that, on TV, the rebels don’t get back and carry on once they’re blown to pieces by a jet fighter.
When I first put Ubuntu Linux on my Netbook, I uninstalled the games without a second thought. I wasn’t going to use them, after all. Why would I break the habit of an adult lifetime? This time around I must have missed a bit while I was setting my system up. I came across the discrepancy last night. I might live to regret it.
I’d listened to the Radio 4 documentary and the repeat of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, and I didn’t fancy sitting through The Moral Maze. After the ten o’clock news I switched the radio off and put a CD on instead. It was Torment and Toreros by Marc [Almond] and the Mambas. I’d had a copy on cassette, dating back to the time when I saw Marc with The Willing Sinners in 1985, but my machine ate it years ago. I bought the CD when I wasn’t going out with Jenny, as I thought it would appeal to her sensibilities. She never got to listen to it – not in my company, anyway. Emma J. and I had been chatting on Facebook during the afternoon, and she reminded me of the great Soft Cell song Torch. I felt like a nostalgia trip (see Zigzagging Down Memory Lane), so I listened to the whole of Torment, then put on three Throbbing Gristle CDs back to back.
At some point I scrolled down the installed applications on the Netbook, and came across a game called Mahjong. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never played it in my life. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has played it, apart from the odd customer who wanted to buy the Know the Game book. Out of curiosity, I opened it up. I was presented by a screen which looked something like this:

Screenshot from 2013-06-30 16:32:47

I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do next, so I clicked the ‘hint’ button a few times. After watching several pairs of matching tiles disappear in short order, I thought I had the general idea. I clicked a few pairs of tiles myself. Some of them vanished, and others stayed stubbornly put. There didn’t seem to be any underlying reason for this difference in behaviour. I could have given up there and then, but I have to admit that I was intrigued.
I hunted around until I found a pull-down menu with an outline of the game. It turns out that you can remove a matching pair if, and only if, at least one long side of each tile is not touching another. For example, I could get rid of the blue blocks at the left-hand side and in the bottom-but-last row, but not the one in the bottom row (because it’s hemmed in by its neighbours.) The pair of tiles with the two blue coins can go as well; so can the pair with the four blue coins, and so forth. After removing a few pairs, the picture becomes a bit clearer.

Screenshot from 2013-06-30 16:42:06

The tricky part comes about because the tiles aren’t on a two-dimensional surface. They’re actually built up in layers, like a little ziggurat, so that the tiles in the centre conceal the ones beneath. As you whittle away at the structure, the hidden tiles are exposed, and matching pairs become harder to find.

Screenshot from 2013-06-30 16:53:06

It doesn’t surprise me that this game originated in China, with variations found in Japan and Korea. There’s a certain Zen simplicity to it, coupled with a fiendish logical structure which also characterises the popular newspaper games like Kakuro. I imagine that competitive Mahjong would be as mind-stretching as chess, as many various possibilities unfold with each move.
Well, I persevered with the Easy game, averaging ten minutes or so before I completed the clearance about half the time. The rest of the time (as with Kakuro), I got hopelessly sidetracked and abandoned the game. The program allows you to retrace your steps and try a different tack, but (like Kakuro) it’s very difficult to pinpoint the move where everything went supine.
The music played on, and I played on, and before I realised where the time had gone it was five a.m. I switched the Netbook off and went to bed for a few hours. I think I must have almost reached the point where my body clock will reset itself; I woke up at about half past nine feeling as though I’d had a decent few hours’ sleep for a change. I played a few more games before I came out this afternoon, just to check that last night wasn’t a fluke. I’ve also got the weekend’s selection of crosswords (and the Kakuro) to look at when I get home.
So, I’m going to stand up before my readers and make the following declaration: My name is Steve and I’m a puzzle-a-holic. Wow, I feel much better for just admitting it!
Now, I’m wondering whether I can combine my penchant for Japanese-style puzzles with another imported pastime which is catching on in certain circles: Shibari, the art of Japanese rope bondage. I bet nobody’s come up with that idea before. If any young women would be interested in solving logic puzzles while secured to various fixtures and fittings with yards and yards of soft rope, you know where to contact me…
Advertisement

Bugger Rugger

In which The Author risks alienating half the Welsh population

I started typing this in the Library at about eleven a.m. Some twelve thousand miles and several hours away, the British and Irish Lions were playing Australia in the second Test of the series. It was an early start by UK standards – although it’s nothing compared to some of the live boxing bouts and Grands Prix that have been televised in recent years. No doubt a good number of my friends were watching it on Sky Sports. When I passed the Mount Pleasant and the White Lion on the way into town, both pubs were open for the game. The Mount was offering food at half-time. The White and the Conway used to do food at half-time during the Six Nations. When Wales (and, by implication, the Lions, who seem to be mostly made up of Welsh players this time) play, it’s a big event.
It also means that by mid-afternoon Aberdare (and no doubt other Valleys towns and villages) will be swarming with muscular, short-haired, tattooed blokes, full of alcohol, testosterone and/or anabolic steroids, looking to kick the shit out of anyone who doesn’t look like one of them.
(1445 STOP PRESS As if by divine intervention, one such cunt has just told me that if he had his way, he’d chuck me out of the pub. Instead, he got chucked out. You don’t fuck with the pub regulars, regardless of how hard you think you are. Maybe he’s another Neanderthal who’s frightened of my Netbook. For a horrible moment I thought we were in for a repeat showing of The Dreaded Netbook Hurler of Old Mountain Ash. Maybe, like many other inhabitants of this time, that particular fuckwit just hasn’t come to terms with electricity yet. How on Earth do they manage to live with such witchcraft in the world?) Anyway, whatever else happens I’ll be back in the house long before the real trouble starts.
I used to hate rugby when I was in school, but that was largely because we were expected to play the damned game, rather than just watch it. (see Rules of Engagement.) Have a dekko at the various pictures of me dotted throughout this blog. Do I look like a fucking rugby player?
I started watching the Six Nations when I was in my early thirties, largely because the pubs would be showing the BBC live coverage and I got swept along with the excitement of it all. It was almost inevitable that after a little while I picked up a few ideas about the game. After a few such afternoon piss-ups I actually started to enjoy watching the internationals. Even though I never got into the Club or Regional games, the Five (and later Six) Nations tournaments were something else entirely.
There’s no doubt that if you live in Wales, there’s a sense of great occasion over those early spring weekends. When I was working in Cardiff, the whole city got caught up in a fantastic festival atmosphere for a few days either side of the fixture itself. For our home matches, the visitors descend en masse during Thursday and Friday, and often stay till midweek. The pubs and clubs burst with colour and ring with songs in foreign languages and unusual accents. There’s a tremendous sense of camaraderie and friendly rivalry which one doesn’t find whenever there’s a soccer match.
Laurie and I once strolled over to Kitty Flynn’s for our lunchtime libation the day of a Wales v Ireland game. In Caroline Street, crowds of people in red and green jerseys mingled freely, exchanging banter and sharing cigarettes as they moved from one pub to the next. Lloyd the doorman was standing at the side entrance, directing punters to the main door on the corner. Behind him, we could see that the place was stuffed to the gunwales.
‘We’ll never get served,’ Laurie said, but we caught Lloyd’s eye just the same. He stepped aside to let a couple of people out, and sneaked us in under his watchful eye. We were regulars, after all. At the bar, all hands were quite literally to the pumps. People were queuing four-deep to get served, and every available space was occupied. Even so, as soon as Mary the landlady spotted us, she started pulling our drinks. We knew the exact prices and we didn’t have to mess about with change. We actually managed to down two pints each in the time available – not bad going for such a busy afternoon!
When Dillons was open, and the old stadium was still standing (i.e. before 1999), we could get a vague idea of the run of play by standing in the car park and listening to the roar of the crowd as it echoed across the city centre. It wasn’t the same once the Millennium Stadium opened; the structure somehow contains the sound. Instead, we used to have the BBC Sport website on the computer in the shop. It refreshes automatically, so that we were able to keep each other and the customers up to speed with the latest results.
After 1999, other things seemed to change as well. Rugby internationals became huge occasions, and Cardiff really capitalised on the phenomenon. Families flooded into the city, and street vendors would make a killing from flags, giant plastic leeks, hooters, and other daft souvenirs. Kids would queue up at makeshift stalls all along Queen Street and St Mary Street to have dragons painted on their cheeks. The TV cameras would scan the crowd before zooming in on a group of attractive young women wearing weird foam headgear in the shape of huge daffodils. (Imagine having a ticket for the match and finding them sitting in front of you…) Meanwhile, BBC sports presenter John Inverdale would make a beeline for the Vulcan, standing on its own amidst a ‘redevelopment area’ opposite the Art College, and chat with fans over a pint and a packet of crisps before kick-off.
The Vulcan. Another part of old Cardiff that's destined for the history books.
The Vulcan is another part of old Cardiff that’s destined for the history books. It’s being relocated to the Museum of Welsh Life. As long as the dray still calls there, we’ll be happy.
Pubs, restaurants, hotels, taxi firms and the rail companies must make a small fortune over those couple of weekends in the spring when the capital really comes to life. (Our shop would be like a graveyard during the match itself. The only people about were the diehard non-fans or the Rugby Wives, whose husbands were either in the stadium or in one of the pubs.) Our takings used to reflect that – a quick ‘poll’ of the tills in the cash office would reveal a dramatic peak towards lunchtime, followed by a precipitous fall about half an hour before kick-off.)
Walking around the centre is an exciting adventure in itself. The carnival atmosphere is infectious, and even if you aren’t a lover of the game you find yourself smiling at strangers and greeting the visiting supporters with a loud ‘Bore da!‘ Unlike football games, there’s always relatively little trouble in town, and remarkably few arrests. (The few incidents which do occur usually involve Welsh and English fans – some things never change.) Instead of fighting, people just get pissed, in some cases get laid, and (in extremis) get lost.
I was travelling home one evening and got chatting to some extremely tired and emotional Irish guys, who were staying at the Heritage Park in Trehafod. They’d managed to board the Aberdare train, and only noticed their mistake when they passed Pontypridd. I knew the conductor to say ‘hello’ to, so I called him over and we explained what had happened. He advised them to jump off at Abercynon, wait for the next train back to Pontypridd, and then catch the next Treherbert train. But the Guinness was in and the sense was out. As we pulled into Abercynon, one of them spotted the Junction Hotel an easy stagger from the station.
He cried, ‘There’s a pub!’, grabbed his stuff, and leapt onto the platform. The whole gang followed him in the general direction of the Junction. I’ve no idea when (or even if) they arrived back at Trehafod that night, but they were having a whale of a time. I know loads of boys who’ve done the Scotland or Ireland trips. If you don’t have an unexpected adventure and make new friends, the whole thing’s a pointless exercise.
Another time, I was walking through St Tydfil’s Square in Merthyr Tydfil on the Tuesday afternoon after the Wales v Scotland game. Dad was seriously ill in hospital, and I was making my way there for a meeting with his doctor. I’d stopped off to buy a paper, and was surprised by the skirl of the bagpipes echoing from the shop fronts. A lone piper, in full Highland dress, was standing outside W.H. Smith with his stuff on the ground in front of him, playing a lament. I don’t know whether he’d blown his money home on beer and whisky and was busking his fare home, or whether he was just waiting for his mates to rejoin him. It was a sad moment in what was to become a very bleak day for my whole family.
But here we are, back in 2013, and I’ve just relocated to the pub. Even if the Circumlocution Office had managed to get its collective finger out of its collective arse and put my money into the bank as promised, I won’t be spending very long in here today. For one thing, on the orders of South Wales Police, beer glasses are contraband items on match days. In order to reduce the incidence of pub-related violence, drinks have to be served in plastic mugs instead. There are two kinds of these monstrous creations. One is the sort of thing you get in beer tents at village fêtes and pop festivals, so flimsy that when you pick it up about a third of the drink spills over the top. The other is more solid, made of polycarbonate, which flattens your lager in no time.
[A digression: During one of the Autumn Tests, I was in the Prince of Wales and asked Emma the barbint if I could have a solid plastic, instead of the other type. She told me that all the polycarbonates were in the glass washer, and they were still warm.
I replied, ‘Personally, I’d much rather mine was hard, warm and wet than dry and floppy.’ For some reason she told me had a filthy mind. Who? Me? It’s not the mouth it comes out of, is it?]
No, the real reason why I avoid the pubs on match days isn’t the plastic mugs, or the daffodil-wearing bints out on the lash, or the steroid boys. It’s the Rugby Pundit. He’s a guy who played in school, or possibly joined one of the second-class clubs in the Valleys until age and/or injury forced him onto the sidelines. If you walk into any pub in the land, there’ll be at least one chap who will entertain you/ educate you/ amuse you/ bore you shitless (delete as applicable) with his encyclopaedic knowledge of sport. In England, for example, you’ll probably find a guy who could write the definitive history of Crewe Alexandra FC. In the Valleys of South Wales, the equivalent pub know-it-all is an expert on rugby.
What the Rugby Pundit doesn’t know about the favoured pastime of the ‘muddied oafs’ isn’t worth knowing. Whether it concerns the shortcomings of the current Ospreys back row, the future prospects of a first-time cap pulled from the Under-19s Squad, or the poor selection made by Warren Gatland ahead of the Second Test, the Rugby Pundit’s opinion is nothing short of 24-carat gold. It needs to be, because he broadcasts it – not only to his friends, but to anyone else who happens to be within earshot. Sometimes he will gather a crowd of like-minded souls to his impromptu seminar, each of whom will vie to outdo the others with his knowledge of the minutiae of the game. The Rugby Pundit has more opinions than Bill Beaumont, he’s more fiercely nationalistic than Phil Bennett, and he’s more excitable than the late Bill McLaren. Immediately the team is announced, he’s analysed the coach’s selection and picked holes in the starting fifteen.
‘So-and-so should be there instead of such-and-such,’ he announces to the world in general. ‘Whatshisname should be on the bench until half-time, because he’s not match fit,’ he states sagely, to nods of total agreement from his drinking cronies. ‘We’ll put three points on them if we’re really lucky,’ he declares, confident that his prediction comes direct from the Supreme Being itself.
Of course, the Rugby Pundit never puts his money where his mouth is. He’ll only ever put a quid in the sweepstake for first try-scorer, because he’s got the same chance as anyone else of scooping the pool. Ask him how much he’s made by translating his oracular predictions into hard currency at the bookie’s, and he’ll tell you that gambling is a mug’s game.
At half-time, the television commentators offer their opinion of the game thus far. They are people who’ve represented their countries at international level, and who are arguably better-placed to pronounce judgement on the events of the previous forty-or-so minutes. But no, the Rugby Pundit knows better. He’s already analysing the game in forensic detail for all to hear, breaking off only for a fresh pint, a smoke, a piss, and possibly some free food, before the restart.
When it’s all over, the real post mortem can get under way. ‘If whoever hadn’t missed that kick,’ the Rugby Pundit tells all concerned (and the unconcerned alike), ‘we’d have won easily.’
I remember all that crap going on after the Sunday night quizzes, when I used to play for the Cross Inn and the Blossoms back in the day. Regardless of whether we’d had a storming victory or a severe arse-kicking, the team captain would insist on going through every question and comparing our answers with the ones on the card.
[A digression: When we first started a team in the Whitcombe, we naturally had to play in the Second Division of the Cynon Valley Quiz League. We had a strong side on paper: me, Gaz, Julia, Deno, Liz Williams, and (every so often) Dad, and we were also something of an unknown quantity. Our notional strength translated into results, and the end of our first season we were promoted to the First Division – not bad going for a bunch of newcomers. Now we were up against the big hitters like the Rock and Cwmaman Club, and the pressure was on. The day before we were due to play Cwm Club, I bumped into their captain Alan Swanson – yet another Cwmaman noisy bugger – in town.
‘You’ve got us tomorrow,’ he said with an evil glint in his eye. ‘We’re unbeaten so far.’
‘So are we,’ I reminded him. ‘You won’t beat us, either, Swanny.’
‘You won’t take us down,’ he assured me, and we went our separate ways, laughing at each other.
In the event, thanks to our last-minute sprint for the line, our scores were tied. We stood up for the traditional exchange of handshakes, but Swanny gave me a big bearhug instead.
‘I told you you wouldn’t beat us, mate!’ I told him, to gales of laughter all round.]
Anyway, while I was team captain, I dispensed with the ritual post-quiz autopsy. Maybe my long-standing interest in Quantum Mechanics had something to do with it, but there seemed to be no fucking point in it. In the Universe Right Here, Right Now, the result stood in stone. If we’d listened to Julia’s inspired hunch about pop music in the second round, or if Gaz had chosen to stay awake during the individual questions (see The Power of Suggestion), we might have gained an extra point – but we didn’t! Those results took place in the Universes Next Door, where we couldn’t influence them one iota.
So, while the Rugby Pundit witters aimlessly on about what might have happened if Leigh Halfpenny had managed to get a bit more length out of his kick, I remain sitting quite comfortably in the Here and Now. In the meantime, the sun is out and town is fairly busy, with no sign of the post-match idiots (previously cuntpany excepted, of course.) They’ll hit the pubs by about four o’clock this afternoon after hitting the beer all day, and then start hitting each other and/or innocent bystanders a couple of hours later. They’re the ones who give the game a bad reputation in the Valleys. After all, in spite of the oft-quoted (and seemingly unattributable) saying, around these parts Rugby is a game watched by hooligans.