If I go

D with boys

I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what might happen. In the course of that thinking, I have come to accept more than ever before that things happen unexpectedly; even the things we expect most of all.

That being the case, there are some things I want to be recorded, as my safety net.

If I go, know that I wanted to stay. I wanted to see you again; I didn’t choose not to.

No one is invincible, however. Regardless of what my impressively narcissistic internal monologue would have you believe, I am not the central character of the universe, and the narrative will not bend to ensure that I can participate in tomorrow’s episode. Freak occurrences, shoddy components, rogue cells – I’m as susceptible as anyone.

And everybody goes, make no mistake.

I have my hopes for science; perhaps it can deliver a longer lap for me, for others who arrived with me and afterward, but that’s all it will be. If I get to run the 200, the 400, or the 800 where my ancestors only got a short, sharp sprint I’ll count myself lucky. Once we start to dream of running marathons, we’re forgetting that the longer the distance, the more the chance increases that we’ll just randomly lose a shoe or twist an ankle; it’s unfortunate, but our race will always be at the mercy of an unexpected occurrence.

With luck, I will go after we’ve been able to do a lot of things together. I hope to have passed on the values which are important to me, and to have shared a secret: it’s possible to enjoy all this despite the fact that we have to go. In defiance of it, more to the point.

But if it’s the other way, and it could well be, please don’t spend time dwelling on it. Quite possibly, I didn’t know I was going, which means I was fine as I went; or if I did, I was thinking about you, which is the best I could have hoped for under the circumstances. Don’t ever let the wondering haunt you, or the imagining twist you, however it happened.

I will not have any use for regrets when I go, but the closest thing will be this: that when you go, I will not be there to hold you. I cannot lie, that was difficult to type – but there it is.

If I go, my solace is that you continue. Run your own race, preferably a longer and more interesting one. Leave the track, go cross country, do it with skis or speedboats. I don’t know – invent your own overstretched metaphors.

Everything we ever shared persists in your memory; take the essence of it and use it to help you make new memories. Perhaps you’ll include new people with whom you share the same bond, but from a new perspective.

If I go, nothing can undo all the days I spent loving you. They are safe, locked up in our history, untouchable by any force we can imagine.

And if I go, the Love doesn’t go with me.

Like a cell in the body, I was part of it while I lasted, but I don’t own it, or define it. The next cell takes up just where I left off.

The Lens

Those who keep up with my writing will know that gaming is hugely important to me, as are the relationships I’ve formed through a lifetime of playing.

The article below is an anonymous submission from another gamer, to whom the gaming community was perhaps even more vital. If you’re part of our world – and especially if you or those you love have been affected by mental health issues – I strongly recommend giving it a read.

I’m going to talk about a few topics that I view as intertwined. I’m going to talk about how self improvement relates to playing games (specifically Magic: The Gathering). I’m going to talk about why I love the shop I play at and that shop’s community. I’m also going to talk about my personal life a bit. Just a bit. It’s important to provide context for the first two topics.

I’ve suffered from clinical depression twice in my adult life.

The first time was when I was around twenty three or so. I went to the doctors and saw a psychiatric nurse weekly for a while. The one thing that the nurse pinpointed was that I didn’t have a hobby, and I didn’t really have any friends. I’d disappeared into a relationship and had lost touch with a lot of my friends from high school as a result. I used to play Warhammer and casual Magic and such when I was teenager, but had packed away my Space Marines because I wanted to go out drinking and meet girls.

I got in contact with a friend of mine who still played games, and that’s how I started playing trading card games.

The first game I was got into competitively was a great card game that I’d gush about for longer than the length of this article. Eventually the game ran out of steam and died as lots of card games do. I’d met lots of good people that had helped get me through a rough patch in my life without them really knowing about it. When that game died they mostly moved on to Magic. I wasn’t very happy about it because Magic players had a bad reputation amongst people who don’t play Magic (I don’t know if this is still the case), but eventually I followed suit.

I had some success at Magic in local terms. I even went to the Pro Tour. I got to be decent at limited and fine at constructed. I didn’t think this at the time. I thought I was the big man on campus.

There was a problem.

This is where we get to the second instance of depression, which I started seeing a doctor about when I was around twenty eight. The exact details are sort of fuzzy. The main issues that had caused my first bout of depression had not been addressed. I was still in a job that I hated and made me miserable. I was eating way too much junk food and was extremely over-weight. I had quite low self esteem. I felt trapped by my circumstances and stuck in the town in which I lived.

I split up with partner of ten years around this time. When we very having our last heart to heart conversation she told me that she believed I’d never really came out of the first depression. I disagreed with her at the time, but with hindsight I can see she was correct.

The problem was that I had used card games, and especially Magic, as a means to make myself feel better. I would oscillate between elated when I was doing well, to crushingly low and angry when I was doing poorly. I hid from my larger problems within Magic and Magic Online in particular. I burned money chasing draft wins on MTGO. If I scrubbed out of a draft I would immediately join another. If I did poorly in that draft, I’d run it back. This often led to me being up extremely late in the night and strapped for money to do other things.

The larger problem was the person I had become. I was a very different person then than I am today.

I was a prick.

I treated people poorly. A friend of mine (who thankfully is still a friend of mine) described me as caustic. I prefer my description above.

I was not a nice person.

So there I was: Dumped. Stuck in a dead-end job that I had zero interest in. Not at all happy with my weight. Miserable to be around for a number of reasons.

Not for the first time in my life I went and got a knife. I’d thought about killing myself daily for a long time. The closest I’d came was slashing a pair of scissors across my wrist when I was younger. I didn’t cut myself deep enough to cause any lasting damage or even leave a scar.

I sat on the couch for a while and stared at this big kitchen knife, unsure what I was going to do. I’m not sure why I didn’t do it. I don’t think I had some revelation. I think I might have just got tired and decided to go to bed.

That was thankfully the last time I went that far with the idea of suicide. I still have this voice in the back of my head that crops up when I feel a bit low, and it tells me that I should kill myself. The thing about depression is that you’re never entirely over it. It’s not necessarily going to be a constant battle, but you have to be very aware of warning signs and prevent them from going any further.

I didn’t immediately pull myself together. I’m not going to pretend I did, but eventually I started to make changes.

I’m not sure if I would have able to do so if I didn’t play cards. I use it as a lens to understand the world and myself.

One of the most important lessons I was taught early doors was to admit that I had made a mistake. This is the first thing you have to take on board to start getting better. You need to own and own up to your mistakes. You need to realise that the attack you made was incorrect, that the hand you kept was poor, that you shouldn’t have countered that particular spell, etc. You need to have it within you to be humble and say that something that you’ve done it wrong.

This concept is also the base level of self improvement. You have to assess actions you’ve taken honestly and decide whether they were correct or not. In my case, the first thing I tried to correct was my behaviour. It seemed to be the least long term of my problems. I made an active effort to be nicer.

The second lesson is about developing good habits. Having good habits is great in Magic. A good habit to get into would be tapping your mana correctly every time, even if you don’t have another spell to cast or have any reason to bluff. If you leave yourself the most coloured mana options after casting a spell as a default then you’ll not have to waste mental energy on it when it really matters. You’ll just do it as a matter of course.

I got into the habit of being nice to people. I got into the habit of eating healthier. I got into the habit of going to the gym.

The next lesson is about entitlement. This was a big problem of mine. I felt entitled to win games of Magic. I’d storm off in a rage sometimes if I didn’t. Magic is great for showing you that you’re not entitled to anything. Sometimes you’re going to keep a perfectly good hand and then never draw another land. Sometimes you’re never going to draw another spell.

You’re not entitled to anything. Everything has to be earned. If you want to achieve something you’re going to have to work for it.

This isn’t exactly great, or even original wisdom, but armed with it I was able to turn my life and myself around. I didn’t do it on my own though, so let’s talk about that.

When I was at that lowest point, I drove through to my local shop for Friday night draft. I didn’t feel like being on my own. I just sat in a corner until the draft and kept myself to myself. I could have played a draft on MTGO, but I wanted the human interaction you really can’t get across a monitor.

I made going to draft one of my habits. It was a good one to have.

I wasn’t a Facebook user back in those days, so Friday draft was one of the few ways I had to keep in touch with my friends. I talked to some of them about the problems that I was having. They offered advice or just listened. One of them decided that it was perfectly fine to wind me up about it. They didn’t do it constantly, but every now and then they’d slip in a little slagging or a joke. It wasn’t cruel or mean spirited. They were just jokes at my expense. And that was utterly refreshing. I was used to people who knew my circumstances tip-toeing around me, and having someone just take the mickey out of me was so normal and awesome. It was a big deal to me.

I love the community that has built up around my store very much. The faces change and people take breaks from showing up all the time for various reasons, but most people tend to come back and play every now and again. New people come in and get involved.

I don’t think I can really express what the community means to me.

Without hyperbole I can say that they saved my life.

Thank you for reading.

A Decision, or ‘How I decided the risk was worth the potential reward’

Those of us who live in Scotland have a decision to make.

We’ll make that decision for different reasons, having come from different starting points and with different assumptions – but decide we will, in what I expect to be startling numbers by comparison to recent democratic votes in the British Isles.

I have made my decision – and perhaps for the first time in my life, I’ve done so in a manner appropriate to the seriousness of that decision. It feels good.

If you’re turned off by referendum talk, click the back button now – because I’m about to explain why I’ve finally settled on a ‘Yes’ vote, then touch on some of my concerns for the future.

I started with ‘No’

Having now been through 9 months of actively thinking about the question of Scottish Independence, I reckon the voting population is divided into some broad blocks:

Yes No matrix

The voting matrix (according to Dave)

My start position was one of Instinctive No.

What I mean by that is pretty simple: I would have voted No on the day the referendum was announced with little or no thought about my reasons for doing so.

There were a  number of contributing factors to this basic position.

  • I took for granted that the UK as it stands is a functional democratic system.
  • I believed that change was possible within that system.
  • I felt kinship with people throughout the British Isles, seeing the division between Scotland and the rest of the UK as largely arbitrary.
  • I recognised that proposed change on this scale carried large risks which, in my gut, I didn’t think could be justified.

The Initial skirmishes

The core theme of my arguments at the start of this debate were, on reflection, about rejection of risk and division of community.

Elements of both the ‘Yes’ campaign’s plan and their apparent philosophy sat uncomfortably with me:

Yes Philosophy

These were – and are – serious reservations.

The economic questions were vexing.

  • Why would I vote for independence, when the Scottish Government appeared to be more interested in brinkmanship over currency union than ensuring that a workable option would be available?
  • How could I back the Scottish Government’s plan to slash corporation tax, when I could foresee it creating a Scotland in which powerful corporations were handed even more influence than they currently enjoyed?

Equally troubling were the attitudes apparently displayed by ‘Yes’.

  • It would appear that I all I had to do was think of a positive impact or institution associated with the union, and ‘Yes’ would instantly tell me I could keep it. This flies in the face of everything I have learned about negotiation, making the ‘Yes’ campaign sound extremely naive.
  • To argue that Scotland is home to a natural, left-leaning consensus which makes it a better independent country sat awkwardly with me; as a person of the left, I instinctively identified more with other left-leaning communities in the UK than I did with the general population in Scotland. Leaving those communities behind in favour of our ‘nation’ did not seem a positive step.

In the early days of my personal debate, the words of the ‘Yes’ camp and its supporters offered cold comfort on these issues. I was not impressed.

A surprising demographic

One of the first phenomena which really struck me, as the debate opened up, was the sheer volume of people in my social circles who identified confidently with ‘Yes’.

As an instinctive ‘No’, I had unconsciously assumed that my peers would have similar feelings about the referendum – a position which, in hindsight, seems bananas. Nonetheless, that default idea produced a jarring collision when it met reality: in fact, numerous friends and family members, people whose intelligence and politics I had great admiration for, were committed to voting for independence.

Humans are terribly self-deceiving creatures. We like to believe that we’re very rational, but a great deal of our decision making is actually driven by our emotions. Seeing people close to me, ready to support an idea I had all-but-dismissed, was the first significant signal that I might have more to consider than I initially thought.

The Chancellor came to town

One day, George Osborne stood up in Edinburgh and told everyone involved in the debate that a formal currency union between iScotland and rUK would not be considered by any of the Westminster parties.

It all seemed a fairly predictable negotiating position.

I wasn’t taken aback by this; in fact, at the time I welcomed the injection of some realism into the currency debate. It irked me that Alex Salmond seemed to be ignoring the realities of negotiation, ie. that the party with the most power will wield it to obtain the best result; he was presenting to the Scottish people the idea that their country would depart the UK in peace following some friendly discussions, which was (to my mind) clearly bollocks.

Shortly after this piece of political theatre – and amid the rising din of Scots voices which took exception to being ‘bullied’ – I had a discussion with my brother about the shape of the debate. A ‘Yes’ supporter, he passionately criticised the unwillingness of the UK government to pre-agree the terms of what an independence settlement would look like.

“They owe it to the people of Scotland to let us know what options we’re actually voting on,” he asserted.

I scoffed at this notion. I asked him why on earth Westminster politicians would do such a thing, when it was manifestly not in their interest? I reminded him that no-one had the power to compel the UK Government to do such a thing – and that ultimately, power was all that mattered in this equation.

My brother was disgusted, but I felt I had won the point.

I didn’t realise how my own words would continue to echo in my ears: this stunt was about British power, a theme which would recur uncomfortably in future discussions.

What does Britain stand for?

I had some indistinct ideas about what the UK was, coupled with an even more indistinct understanding of its imperial history, prior to the beginning of this debate. They were based on teen years partly immersed in a popular sense of Cool Britannia, on a love of institutions such as the BBC and the NHS, even on the sense of community and shared triumph which emerged from the 2012 London Olympics.

On reflection, it became obvious that I knew very little about what Britain really stood for.

These murky notions did not stand up to contact with informed conversation.

I understood that Britain had been an imperial power, that its rule in certain high-profile places (like Ireland) had been contested and had even precipitated violent struggle. But what I didn’t understand, as a child of the 1980’s, was just how large the Empire had been – and how blood-soaked had been its exploitation of the world’s peoples.

I don’t intend for this article to run to 500,000 words, so I won’t attempt to list every morally repugnant action of the Empire. What I will say is that Google exists, and there are plenty of resources out there which will help to fill you in.

With a new understanding of what the British Empire had been built upon – namely, a desire on the part of the crown and mercantile elites to vastly enrich themselves – I found some of my basic, unconscious assumptions about Britain’s validity challenged. This in turn led me to examine the workings of the contemporary UK with a more critical eye. What did Modern Britain stand for?

Since a particularly progressive post-war period, it’s clear to see the history of the UK taking a turn toward unpleasantness, beginning with the time of Margaret Thatcher. We’ve been invited to lionise those who seek to acquire vast wealth, on the basis that once they are successful, they’ll need ‘little people’ to do things for them and their wealth will ‘trickle down’ into the pockets of everyone else.

Over successive years, any ‘trickle-down’ tends to dry up as wealth consolidates.

In reality, of course, Capital has tended to appreciate at a rate higher than that of wage inflation – put simply, the rich have gotten on with the job of getting richer, while the vast majority of the population have lagged further and further behind in their earnings.

Thomas Piketty has more and better to say on this subject than I do, but my point is basic: a modern nation practically designed to facilitate greater concentration of wealth simply can’t be acting in the interests of most of its citizens.

I don’t like the fact that this is an ever-present philosophy in today’s UK – but I can vote to change it, right?

The incumbent or the System?

One of the oft-repeated jousts of this campaign has been around which choice the people of Scotland are actually making.

The SNP have presented it as a chance to ‘get rid of the Tories forever’; the Better Together campaign has pointed out that we have elections to dispense with governments we don’t want – and that constitutional change is a larger thing which they don’t believe is warranted.

I make no bones about the fact that I don’t like the current incumbents in Westminster; however, I instinctively agreed that elections were the appropriate mechanism by which to change the way we are governed. That’s until one of my discussions reminded me of the last referendum we were invited to take part in.

Voting mechanism

Hey, remember AV?

It maybe hard to believe, but as recently as 3 years ago, we had a chance to change the way voting was conducted in the UK. Sadly, the campaign to promote that change was tepid and ineffective – while the campaign to prevent it was well-funded and aggressive. In the end, the AV referendum changed nothing and perhaps even entrenched traditional voting structures.

AV wasn’t a perfect option – I’d prefer full proportional representation, personally – but it did represent progress in the right direction. The existing UK system, first-past-the-post (FPTP), works to ensure that only established parties with critical mass can win large numbers of seats and take power.

Let’s briefly recap FPTP by studying the fictional country of Postland, which has three constituencies and uses the FPTP system to elect its governments:


Click on this image to enlarge it.

This year, the Red Party have swept to power with a one-seat majority over the Blue Party. The Amber Party are unrepresented in parliament, having failed to come first in any of the constituencies.

Wait a minute, though – it seems that when we look at ballots in  Postland as a whole, both the Blue Party and the Amber Party received 6 votes. That means that simply by virtue of the way the boundaries are drawn, grouping more of the Blue Party’s supporters into Southton, they are handed a voice in the affairs of the nation while the Amber Party’s supporters are shut out completely.

Now, don’t get me wrong: with a three-constituency map, that guarantees nothing but invincible majorities or completely hung parliaments, Postland has a whole range of problems. Nonetheless, it elegantly illustrates how a FPTP system can close the door on parties which don’t have sufficient geographic concentration – or, if we’re being cynical, haven’t held power recently enough to gerrymander constituencies in their favour.

When parties can’t win seat totals reflective of their actual electoral share, it makes it harder for them to be taken seriously by undecided voters, which in turn limits their ability to attract or retain votes. This compounds the situation which over-rewards parties with a critical mass of traditional supporters.

What does that mean in the UK?

Well, the BBC have already put together an excellent resource on the political battleground they expect for the 2015 General Election. Have a look here.

There’s a lot of information to absorb on the site I’ve linked, but one key statistic is prominently highlighted:

Constituencies changing hands

Sourced from the BBC’s excellent Election 2015 resource, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25949029

This tells me something, loudly and clearly:

  • In 2010, only 2 in every 11 constituencies actually mattered.
  • …and within those constituencies, only the narrow percentage of swing voters actually mattered.

I don’t live in a ‘marginal’ constituency so, in Westminster elections, this means I effectively don’t have a vote.

In the past, I’ve thought about the implications of this set-up, become frustrated and moved on to think about something else. However, in the context of a vote on constitutional matters, it takes on a renewed importance: for the first time, I actually have a meaningful lever by which I can force things to change.

Converging Party lines

Let’s put that thorny issue to one side for the moment. If we imagine that our votes do make a material difference to the outcome of General Elections, can we use those votes to elect a party which will challenge the dominant, neo-liberal, free-market ideology?

Well no, not really.

Traditionally, voters with my personal sympathies would look to the Labour party for a viable alternative; today, I find a party which has accepted the ‘Austerity’ narrative completely, choosing to tout slower cuts as their significant point of difference.

Labour’s response to the privatisation of Royal Mail is to criticise the price at which the current government chose to float the business, rather than to ask: “How can turning over a crucial public service to an outside organisation, which will prioritise extracting a profit margin, possibly lead to a better experience for the people of the UK?”

Perhaps most damning of all, Labour’s Ed Miliband gave an interview to Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News earlier this year, in which he appeared to express sympathy for UKIP-esque ‘worries’ over immigration. To my mind, it was a lurch in response to a surge in support for UKIP – and the opposite of what I want to see a party of the left saying to the public. If you play up to the idea that, ‘…they come here, taking our jobs…’ you do not speak for me.

I have no faith in the Labour party to deliver a reversal of the political tide in the UK – and that’s a big issue indeed.

The illusion of ‘Status Quo’

Taken as a whole, these factors add up to an almighty problem (in my opinion) with the current constitutional settlement in the UK… but there’s more.

You see, it isn’t the case that the current situation is a static one. We can’t defer action until successive elections have passed, expecting problems to stand still until we can build a consensus to change them – the UK is moving all the time down the road of whatever dominant political consensus holds sway.

I’m not happy with our direction of travel, and standing still is not an option.

Re-examining my basic assumptions

Early in this article, I outlined some key ideas about the UK which underpinned my instinctive position:

  • I took for granted that the UK as it stands is a functional democratic system.
  • I believed that change was possible within that system.
  • I felt kinship with people throughout the British Isles, seeing the division between Scotland and the rest of the UK as largely arbitrary.
  • I recognised that proposed change on this scale carried large risks which, in my gut, I didn’t think could be justified.

By July of 2014, the first two of these assumptions had been demolished by reading, contemplation and debate – and with them, all certainty about my voting intentions.

My third assumption, about how I identify on social and political lines rather than on a national basis, was going nowhere (and still hasn’t). I just don’t have a nationalist sentiment worth speaking of.

That left me with one particularly big issue to address: risk.

Striking a realistic balance between risk and reward is difficult – particularly if one’s nature is to be risk-averse.

My key concerns

I am a naturally risk-averse person, but I do at least understand that humans take risks every day – and that there is no way to truly ‘play it safe’ in life.

I decided to write down my most important concerns about Scottish Independence, then attempt to weigh the risks and rewards associated with them in the most sensible way I could.

The Economy

I felt that the position of the SNP, arguing that currency union was the only sensible way forward and that the rUK would quickly reverse its position in the event of a Yes vote, was idiotic. The main parties were united in their opposition: the opinion of the rUK would only harden if Scotland decided upon independence.

During the debate, when this confidence problem with voters became apparent, the SNP tried to move the goalposts by claiming that ‘no-one could stop us using the pound’ – a reference to so-called Sterlingisation, wherein Scotland would use the Pound as Panama does the US Dollar – as if that was somehow a position comparable to what they had been arguing for.

I’m not an Economist, but I can confidently say it’s not. Adopting a foreign state’s currency as our own would put Scotland in a radically different position than that of true monetary union, with reduced powers of borrowing and a necessarily careful approach to managing debt and risk. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it sure as hell isn’t the same as what Salmond et al had been advertising. To say otherwise was disingenuous and inspired zero confidence.

Not having a plan to issue our own currency in the event of currency union being unobtainable was a stupid mistake. I haven’t changed my mind about that.

With that out of the way, however, my exploration of Scotland’s economic prospects left me more optimistic about our fortunes than I had initially been.

Much has been made of the Financial Times’ analysis that iScotland could ‘…expect to start with healthier state finances than the rest of the UK,’ but with good reason. Ratings agencies have delivered similar endorsements. There is serious economic strength and potential in this country – but it’s not all about money.

Unpleasant division

The Scotsman, in a brilliant editorial on 20 August, gave voice to one of my gravest concerns:

The Scotsman nailed it: this debate has inevitably awakened an emotional reaction amongst those in the rUK. Whatever happens, we must be prepared to deal with that.

The paper highlighted how the prospect of a Scottish departure from the union – and the rhetoric which accompanied it on both sides, with pro-independence campaigners frequently painting Scotland as ‘subsidising the UK’ and unionists suggesting the opposite – was generating ill-feeling and resentment amongst those south of the border.

This seemed an eminently sensible observation, yet one which the ‘Yes’ campaign tended to blithely ignore. Wrapped up in that bullish assertion about the rUK ‘coming around’ to currency union were a host of other assumptions about how nicely everyone would behave whilst facilitating a Scottish exit from Britain. It’s claptrap. They won’t.

If you need to take a cue from anywhere about how alienating the Scottish debate might be for our close neighbours, look no further than the way we have alienated each other over the course of the referendum campaign. Social media is awash with public flame wars, or worse, tribal groups in which campaigners of like mind can speak to each other in endless echo-chamber environments, hearing only ideas they agree with and reinforcing their zealotry.

Let me tell you: as an undecided voter, nothing is more off-putting than zealotry.

Ultimately, it was pragmatism that reconciled me to this risk. As the Scotsman so clearly points out, this rise in ill-feeling is ‘in the mail’ – if they (and I) are right, it’s coming now, no matter the result. There is no point in fretting, only in planning the best way to repair relations.

On a related note, I am not minded to worry about exercise of British Power against an independent Scotland. Since that strange day when I ‘won’ an argument with my brother by pointing out that anti-democratic brute force was the first (and logical) resort of the UK, I have been waking up in stages to the fact that I hate living in a country where such a thing is true. I would prefer to treat with a smaller government, less well-equipped to steamroll the wishes of its citizens.

Taking the chances you have vs. Wishing for better ones

Football is a beloved passion in this part of the world, both North and South of the border, so it’s fitting that a football analogy should slot so neatly into my referendum thinking.

In analysis of the beautiful game, much is made of a player or team’s ability to ‘take their chances’. The most effective footballing units are those which capitalise on the opportunities that materialise; some of those chances will be slim, difficult to convert, while others will feature open goals.

Here’s the thing: as a person who wants constitutional change in his country, a change of mindset in his leaders, can I really afford to overlook the chance which this referendum offers?

It may be emotionally comforting to bemoan the fact that our chances aren’t easy to take – but it’s ultimately fruitless.

It’s not a perfect chance. The SNP are in power, a party I don’t like, with suspicious pro-corporate leanings of their own; there are uncertainties about how the economic picture will play out, too. We might consider this an opportunity at the Goalkeeper’s near post, on the volley – one which requires a hard sprint to ‘get on the end of’ and difficult technique to finish, as it drops out of the air.

However, if we decide not even to attempt the sprint, are we guaranteed another chance? Dare we hope for an open goal to materialise in the closing minutes, so we can have things just as we want without much effort?

Anyone who follows football will know the answer to this question. There are no more guarantees in the independence game than on the pitch, but if we don’t trust ourselves to get a shot on target, to overcome the problems then we are already caught in the grip of a losing mentality.

In any case, even if the open goal does show up, it’s still possible to balloon a shot over the bar – just ask the Lib Dems, who went into their coalition negotiations confident of securing the Alternative Vote.

The last hurdle

It was only in the last 12 days or so that I finally made my peace with the final, gigantic obstacle positioned between me and a ‘Yes’ vote: my disdain for the online behaviour displayed by a huge, visible constituency of ‘Yes’ campaigners.

I accept that this will not be a popular segment of my commentary, but so be it. Over the 10 months in which I’ve been fully engaged with this issue, I’ve seen a number of behaviours which utterly turned me off from voting ‘Yes’:

  • Shouting down of reasonable doubts, questions and arguments for a ‘No’ vote (including ‘pile-on’ takedowns where more and more posters join in to pillory an individual).
  • Personalised attacks, shameless ad hominen, straight-up name-calling.
  • Sneering dismissal of individuals’ right to hold a contrary opinion.

I’ve heard a host of denials about this phenomena, but they don’t cut it. Unless my experience is a statistical fluke, the online ‘Yes’ community is awash with attack politics – and that modus operandi has surely chased away a host of potential voters.

I’m thankful that I’ve found at least one oasis of sanity online, in which I could discuss issues reasonably (if passionately) with people from both sides of the debate; others may not have been so lucky.

It took a long, honest conversation with myself to realise that I was ready on almost every front to vote for independence… but I was holding back,  not ready to be associated publicly with the bluster, pomposity and ‘monstering’ which I had seen perpetrated by supporters of the ‘Yes’ camp.

Once I realised the truth, it was time to bite down and push through it. There may have been a handful of scenarios in human history where failing to do what was right because of perceived social stigma was helpful, but I really can’t call one to mind.

Of course, it was helpful that the Better Together campaign chose my long, dark tea-time of the soul as the moment to release their ‘Patronising BT Lady’ advert.

The booming voice

Several weeks prior to my first viewing of the advert, I was engaged in conversation with a pro-independence friend of mine about the phenomena I describe above.

The discussion had many twists and turns, but we reached a pivotal point when I was describing the volume of nasty ‘Yes’ commentary which I observed online, with very little visible counterbalance.

“Perhaps they feel the need to shout and make waves because what they are struggling against is so ever-present and oppressive,” he suggested to me. “You aren’t hearing it, perhaps because it’s been all around you for so long, but trust me: when you really listen, the voice of the Establishment booms.”

I heard and noted his words at the time, but they didn’t become real to me until I watched The woman who made up her mind.

The most wretched political advert ever devised.

The film is a little under 3 minutes, but the producers have crammed a lot in. There is lazy sexism; there is an implication that the people (and specifically women) of Scotland are so disengaged with politics that they are ignorant even of the First Minister’s name; there is a smug, dismissive invitation to ‘forget thinking about the referendum’ and just ‘vote the right way’.

I watched, and heard it for the first time: that smooth, patronising, booming voice. I could hear the Establishment talking… and it was talking down to me, to everyone around me. It was telling me not to be so silly, to get back into my box.

I felt disbelief, then fury – then amusement. This was perhaps the most ill-judged political advert of all time and, in my case, it had spectacularly backfired.

I was going to vote ‘Yes’.

Living together on 19 September

In the context of this referendum, there are two certainties:

  1. A large number of people in Scotland will not get the result they wanted.
  2. We will all still have to live together the morning afterward.

I have the profound sense that regardless of the vote’s outcome, the biggest and most important job for the people of Scotland will be conciliation.

While this campaign may have seemed interminably long, it’s nothing compared to the length of time that Scotland will live with the outcome of the vote. We can’t, we mustn’t, allow some of the embittered tribalism which has surfaced in the debate to poison whatever our future has in store for us.

Things I won’t be doing

I’m not going to do anything to encourage that tribalism.

  • I will not be adding a ‘Yes’ button to my Facebook profile picture, or my Twitter avatar.
  • I will not be chiming in on the pages of all my friends and acquaintances to tell them how they should be voting.
  • I will not be dismissing those who have different voting intentions than I do as ‘stupid’, nor will I allow others to do so unchallenged.
  • I will not consciously contribute to ‘echo-chamber’ online politics, which slowly conditions participants to become carelessly strident and insensitive to other points of view.
  • I will not pretend, in debate, that everything will be easy if Scotland votes to be independent – because to do so is patently daft.

Things I will be doing

  • I will encourage others, if and when the conversation comes up, to make sure they vote.
  • I will suggest taking the time to read and think about the decision – and to genuinely consider that other points of view might have more value than our instinctive positions. None of us are too busy to have a think.
  • I will answer honestly if I am asked about my voting intentions, and about my belief that although establishing a new country will be tough, it will be worthwhile.
  • I will, in the event of a ‘No’ vote, not sulk or lash out vengefully at my fellow Scots; instead, I’ll keep trying, through my words and actions, to make our community the best home it can be for all of us.

The round-up

I’m a communicator by trade; this post has broken all my own rules about keeping things short and to-the-point. I’m fine with that in this case – once in a while, it’s OK to go into detail about important things.

As a nod to my basic sensibilities, however, I’ve produced a cheat-sheet for this article, which you can see below.

My voting logic, in a nutshell.

My voting logic, in a nutshell.

I don’t have a fail-safe plan for creating the society I want – but truthfully, no-one does. My initial mistake was assuming that the current system offered a good opportunity to create that society, without considering the alternatives.

So there we have it

How you’ll vote in this election is your business, and I’m not going to try and browbeat you into agreeing with me.

What I will ask you is this:

  • Take some time.
  • Challenge your own assumptions, whatever they may be.
  • Reach a decision for reasons you understand, and can stand behind.
  • Be ready, win or lose, to make peace with your neighbours and build the best life you can, starting on 19 September.

That’s as much as any of us can do.


The Wish List: 8 MTG cards I long to see reprinted

There is a scene at the end of The Return of the King – I’m thinking of the Hollywood interpretation here, so forgive me, purists – wherein, having saved the known world from the menace of Sauron, several of the major characters take to an Elvish ship to begin a voyage to the Undying Lands.

The characters whom they are leaving behind, choked with emotion, wave them off from the jetty; and we understand, misty-eyed ourselves, that those ships can never return. This is not a voyage, but a metaphor for death. Our valiant friends are gone, destined to live on only in our sunlit memories.

I don’t want to diminish the emotional punch of this image, but… it’s pretty much how I feel about rotations in Magic.

I have been… and always shall be… your friend

When (like me) a player tends to adopt pet cards, it can be gut-wrenching to wave them goodbye.

Even when a card is nominally legal in eternal formats, its power level can be such that no realistic chance of successful migration exists. I like to play unusual decks, but not to the extent that I will register something completely unable to compete: I have learned to accept that the hits of standard past will not always find a good home in Modern (and Extended before it).

The last hope that I’ll be able to relive the glory days with some of my old cardboard companions lies down the narrowest of paths: the route to reprinting in a standard-legal set. In  some cases, the likelihood is smaller than in others – but on the off-chance that Wizards of the Coast decides they are prepared to indulge my personal nostalgia, I’m going to lay out my top-8 candidate list below, shut my eyes and cross my fingers.

As Susie (of Calvin and Hobbes) once famously said, as long as I’m dreaming, I might as well have a pony.

#8 – Blazing Specter

This card is a source of constant frustration for me, because it’s eminently reprintable. Each time we’ve visited Ravnica, I have watched the Rakdos spoilers on tenterhooks… but each time, I’m left forlorn.

An additional reason exists for my frustration. If I wanted to, I could play this card in precisely the same environment in which I discovered it: Kitchen Table magic. But, thanks to my awareness of the format system, I can never again happily compete in environments without reasonable shared boundaries.

We had some good times, though. The Ol’ Blazer here was a great mid-game top-deck in every black/red pile I built for years, coinciding with a rich period of deploying resource-denial which Chrome Mox and Stone Rain had lured me into. I can still hear the frustrated grunts of my opponents as their sandbagged, bomb-creatures unexpectedly hit the bin time after time.

Unlike many of the cards from that era in my card-slinging career, I feel that Blazing Specter remains a respectable play in potential Standard landscapes of the future. It’s not overpowered, but it’s solid enough to find a home with anyone who likes their card advantage quick, dirty and unexpected.

#7 – Vindicate

A victim of the contemporary policy which forbids land destruction cards being printed at 3 mana, Vindicate is the iconic utility card.

I’ve used it frequently in cube to eliminate pesky monsters, stop degenerate Academy Ruins loops and un-pacify my game-dominating win conditions. It feels great.

Some may point me toward Maelstrom Pulse, but to those people I say: sometimes it’s good to murder the opponent’s real estate. Land death may be considered un-fun by many, but losing to Urzatron, Karn – or a great big meaty man-land –  is pretty un-fun too.

Is it too much to ask, that one of the great swiss-army-knives in the game’s history be given another roll of the dice?

#6 – Everflowing Chalice

The perfect mana-rock, Everflowing Chalice holds a special place in my heart due to its interaction with Proliferate, a mechanic slated to return by Wizards at some unspecified future date.

With a counter-bearing chalice in play, repeatable proliferate effects quickly spiral into an abundance of colourless mana, which in turn allows the resolution of large, colourless planeswalkers* and ridiculous X-spells.

Of course, the chalice doesn’t need such shenanigans to be good. At 2 mana, it is the picture of efficient acceleration. At 4 mana, it catapults the board position forward and provides something useful to do when conventional 4-drops are posted missing.

The problem, of course, is that this card cannot return without the general reappearance of Multikicker. I don’t know how likely Wizards is to resurrect the mechanic, but I think the chances are slim that it will ever share the standard environment with Proliferate again, thereby limiting the potential fun to be had.

Still, this is one of the more realistic cards on my list. Here’s hoping…

* Yes, in the last entry I condemned Karn as un-fun. Yes, I’m now touting him as a great thing to do with a lot of mana. Yes, I’m a hypocrite. Move along.

#5 – Wildfire

If the last card on my list ever makes it back, I expect it will end up hanging around on street corners with its dangerous older friend, Wildfire.

When it’s good, Wildfire is literally the most powerful thing you can imagine doing in a Standard Format. Ramping to 6 has been fashionable in recent years, when Titans bestrode the landscape, so we know that it’s a readily achievable threshold – but Wildfire is an even better payoff, if you ask me.

If I throw down an Inferno Titan against an aggressive deck, it’s a favourite to dominate their strategy… unless they have a removal spell, or a couple of burn spells, in which case, I may find myself staring down my likely demise at the hands of several small men.

The great thing about Wildfire is that Doom Blade can’t undo all my good work. In fact, short of a counterspell, I’m going to absolutely ruin the board position of my opponent whilst simultaneously removing their ability to cast spells in a meaningful manner. While they scrabble around to find lands, I’ll typically be recovering at pace with the help of artifact mana, or racing ahead thanks to a Planeswalker I already had in play before the apocalypse arrived.

I’ve tried to make Wildfire work in Modern, with mixed results. My instinct is that, at 6 mana, it’s a natural apex predator for standard; but like Tyrannosaurus Rex, it will inevitably die out in more evolved formats.

Still, the dream of blowing up the world is one I’m not quite ready to let go of yet.

#4 – Rude Awakening

To explain why I love this card so much, I need to tell a story.

Back in Mirrodin/Kamigawa standard, I was getting back into the game and playing in tournaments regularly for the first time. Affinity was the boogeyman and I hated it, like many others.

At one particular FNM I found myself back-to-the-wall, at low life, facing down a tapped, post-combat Ravager wearing a Cranial Plating, accompanied by about three tapped artifact lands. I had stalled my way through the game, blocking earlier creatures with Sakura-Tribe Elder, oxidising threats, witnessing back Elders and Oxidises… but here I was, close to death. I had a mess of lands and one card in my hand.

“Can you play through this?” my insufferably smug opponent asked me, flashing two copies of shrapnel blast.

“Yes,” I told him, untapping, drawing a blank and resolving the Rude Awakening (with entwine) which had been my solitary card. A mixed, 11-strong band of Islands and Forests danced across the table to claim his life total.

As I reached for the poisonous stack of artifact hatred that was my sideboard, smiling sweetly, I watched my opponent’s face. Burned into his features was the legend: BUT YOU DID NOTHING ALL GAME AND SOMEHOW I AM DEAD AAAAARRRGGGHH.

Please, Wizards. I speak for all durdlers everywhere when I say please, please give me back that feeling again.

#3 – Eternal Witness

Oh, my.

I have walked the dark path more than once in my life. I have used this young lady to return a recently resolved Plow Under to my hand, as my opponent rolled their eyes and dropped their hand face down onto the table.

I have held her in my hand, hidden from view, as nervous young men agonised over how to divide my Gifts Ungiven piles.

I have stayed in touch throughout games in which I should rightfully have been steam-rolled, as she helped me to recycle Remand over and over again, until I could draw the action I needed.

I want to do these things and more – and I want to do them in standard again. Come on, Wizards – is my gal-pal here really so overpowered?

#2 – Cruel Ultimatum

There is always a greater power.

It’s pretty appropriate, on the basis of this classic flavour text, that Cruel only makes #2 on my list… even here, there is one card which has a greater pull on my heart-strings.

That card will wait, however. For now, let’s reminisce about all the things which made this card wonderful.

  • Value – I’ve heard this card estimated at a nine-for-one, on the basis that the life swing is equivalent to a consume spirit or similar. Sometimes it’s less, for instance when no creature is available in the caster’s graveyard, or the opponent has less than three cards; sometimes, against a red deck for instance, those five life points are priceless.
  • Power – The power to flip a game completely on its head; to turn a war of attrition into a one-sided thermonuclear combat, or to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
  • Iconic status – Just look at that casting cost. What card could be worth seven mana, all coloured, in such a demanding arrangement? THIS ONE. THIS ONE CAN.

Cruel can’t win from every position, but supported with the right friends it can create a mountain for opposing players to climb.

  • It can’t win through a board full of creatures – but if you damnation away the opponent’s team, it will handily dispose of their follow up threat.
  • It can’t stop an opponent from Cruel-ing you straight back if they had more than 4 cards in hand – but if you run pinpoint discard, you can guard against such situations.
  • It can’t hold the early game to stop you from dying before you hit 7 mana – but that’s why you should design your deck around keeping parity (or better) and drawing the game out until it becomes the ultimate stall-breaker.

Sadly, I fear we are never likely to see Cruel grace a standard table again. It is, by its very nature, part of a very unique cycle – and I question the willingness of Wizards either to reprint that whole cycle or to give us Cruel as a standalone. Perhaps I will simply have to make it work in Modern… wish me luck.

#1 – Etched Oracle

Oh, Etchy.  Will we ever again shuffle up together, my faithful companion?

There are so many things right with the Oracle.

  • He has a respectably-sized body, provided one can meet his multi-coloured conditions; I am already predisposed to playing decks with four or more colours, so that sounds just fine to me.
  • In addition, he has a magnificent upside once in play: a colourless Ancestral Recall, which I like to think is represented by the beautiful poly-chromatic orb he clutches in his filigree fingers.
  • Finally, he has the most gorgeous artwork I have ever seen on a Magic card. Gaun Yersel’, Matt Cavotta.

But there are also things which count against the Oracle, from a reprinting perspective.

  • He is only viable in an environment with plentiful colour fixing… and despite visiting such places several times, Wizards have historically chosen to overlook him.
  • He carries the Sunburst mechanic, which is thematically linked to Fifth Dawn, the specific set in which he was first printed. To create a world where Sunburst felt appropriate would take slightly more bending-over-backward than I expect Wizards to indulge in.

All of this is more painful, because I feel that he missed out (if you’ll pardon the pun) on his time in the sun.

When the Oracle first arrived, standard was a mess. Affinity reigned supreme and all organised play twitched helplessly in its iron grip; in such an environment, if a card wasn’t Oxidise at one end of the cost spectrum or Molder Slug at the other, it probably wasn’t getting played in any decks lining up against the artifact menace.

Eventually, bannings fixed standard slightly. For a brief period, I was able to play actual games with the paragon of good, fair creatures – and lo, he was glorious.

In the days of ‘damage-on-the-stack’, Etchy was the absolute stones. He was a house against attacking weenie creatures, a solid man to trade with larger animals… and if played correctly, he always came with an ancestral absolutely free.

  • Block your X/4 guy
  • Damage on the stack?
  • Pay 1, sac the Oracle, draw 3 cards
  • Damage resolves, your guy dies
  • Set off the party poppers, rig up a piñata, etc

If getting a 4-for-1 with my creature felt amazing, the 5-for-1s were even better. Sometimes, my fire-slinging opponents would swing their weenie team into my Oracle… I would block a small man… and they would hurl in a burn spell to finish him off. Naturally, I would cash him in, untap and go bananas – not difficult when the other guy is hurling good resources after bad, while I’m drawing into sweet spells and Eternal Witnesses by the boatload.

Ah, Etchy. Our time was so short, but so sweet. I struggle to fully express my feelings on this matter, but Whitney can pick up the slack.

It’s not all about me

That was my list, but different opinions provide life with a lot of its wondrous variety.

If you ran Wizards for a day, what would you throw back onto the printing presses?

To be the Best: a by-the-numbers system for writing your ‘Best Man’s speech’

Wedding snap

He’s finally done it.

Your Brother/Cousin/Best mate/other has taken the plunge and proposed to the man or woman he loves. You’re one of the first people to find out, as he excitedly explains to you that he’s getting hitched and he wants you to be his Best Man.

Caught up in the moment, you exuberantly agree. Some moments later, you start to think about what it actually means: organising a Stag Night, which will be a logistical pain but probably quite rewarding… and giving the keynote speech to the assembled guests.

You may be the sort of person who relishes this opportunity, who has a thousand ideas for a memorable address and who is unfazed by stepping into the spotlight. Congratulations! This article is not for you.

However, if you’re perhaps:

  • A little bit intimidated by the idea of speaking to all those people
  • Unsure of what’s expected of you
  • Feeling lost because you have no idea where to start

…then fear not, you’ve come to the right place.

Don’t panic

There is a simple, 5 step process which will take you from a standing start to a memorable speech, regardless of your Groom, your audience, or your experience in public speaking.

This post will walk you through the formula, which is distilled from the combined wisdom of all the smart, funny people I’ve had the privilege to talk to about the subject over the years. Their golden nuggets of advice have helped me write a bunch of speeches with friends and colleagues – now they can help you do the same.

For simplicity, I’m going to refer to the happy couple throughout as the ‘Bride and Groom’ – but this guide will work for any shape of relationship, provided the participants have asked you to play the role of a Best Man.

Step 1:  Know your mission; know your audience

As Best Man, you have to take the Groom on a journey.

When you stand up, the Groom has just finished making his own speech. Traditionally, it will have been heartfelt and emotional, containing a tribute to his  Bride which will have reminded everyone just why they turned up to share in the happy day. He will be on the mountaintop.

You have to take him from that mountaintop, all the way to the abyss.

You can lean him out as far as you like over that bottomless pit of humiliation, until in the mid-point of your speech you are holding him suspended only by his metaphorical hair… provided that, by the end, you can set him back on the mountaintop.

The "hero's" journey

The “hero’s” journey

In practical terms, this means that you’ll fulfill the expectations of the audience by telling stories which may provoke laughter and have the Groom squirming in his seat, but you won’t share anything that could do permanent damage to his relationship with the Bride or her family. You will skate close to the thin ice, but you’ll never allow yourself to go crashing through it.

To help you judge how far is going to be far enough, it’s a good plan to chat to the Groom about the Bride and her family. Get a sense of who they are and how they talk to each other. If they’re a little mischievous and enjoy a risque joke, maybe you can get away with some off-colour gags; if they’re more reserved, perhaps it’s not a good idea to divulge exactly what happened on that infamous holiday to Ayia Napa.

Getting back to the mountaintop requires a switching of gears.

Once you’ve embarrassed the poor guy enough, it will be time to start reminding the guests that the Bride has not, in fact, been sold a pup. You’ll talk about his admirable qualities, the reasons why he’s been a good friend – and extrapolate those into reasons he’ll be a good husband. Don’t be bashful: he must have something going for him and, even if you never allude to it again, now is the time to spell it out for the world.

Finally, it’s traditional for you to say something(s) nice about the Bride. Good options include complimenting her appearance, considering she’s likely to have invested a lot in looking good for the day; explaining the positive impact she has had on the Groom since they got together; and reassuring her that many years of happiness lie ahead.

Oh,and for total clarity: never, ever insult the Bride. A brave Best Man who enjoys a great relationship with the lady (say, that of a brother and sister), might gently tease her, but only with affection and only if he has nerves of steel. One remark has the potential to sour your whole contribution to the day: I counsel you not to risk it.

That’s the basic framework. If you keep it in mind, it will greatly simplify the writing of your speech and boost your chances of hitting all the right notes.

Step 2: Get his mates in on the act

If you sit down with a blank page in front of you and expect yourself to cook up funny anecdotes, that’s more likely to produce high blood pressure than great results.

Humour is best harvested from its natural habitat: good-natured banter between friends.

Invite the Groom’s best friends to join you for an evening and help build the speech. Even if you don’t know the people involved tremendously well, it’s likely that they’ll be flattered when you ask them to participate in the Best Man process – everyone likes to play a part in the big day. In my experience, a table in a quiet pub or the living room of your house with a few beers are ideal settings, but your judgement about what will relax the group is best.

Once you get everyone together, you need to start collecting their stories. Before you begin, make sure you have the essential piece of equipment: a smartphone which can record voice notes. Trying to scribble down material, amid laughter and fast-paced chat, is a thankless task and you’ll inevitably lose key details; just as importantly, actually capturing the tone of a person’s voice or a memorable turn of phrase can be really valuable when you are planning your own delivery.

Seriously, don’t leave home without it.

You also don’t want the conversation to meander so much that it’s difficult to draw out specific information when you come to review your notes. To get around this, create a list of general discussion topics you want to cover; these will likely be a bit different for every Groom, but I include my most recent list for reference:

  • Earliest memories of the Groom
  • Strangest things the Groom has done
  • Funniest situations you’ve been in with the Groom
  • The Bride and Groom: how they met each other, how you met her, how they are together

If you keep the atmosphere one of reminiscence and fun, you should have no problem getting enough ideas to build a great speech. Make sure to share your own stories on the topic as you go – this is a great time to record them, as input from others will doubtless bring back things you would otherwise have forgotten.

Step 3: Identify your themes

Once you have a wealth of shared memories to browse through, it’s time to review them and pick up any underlying themes which can tie a speech together.

With the right links, your speech will be turbocharged

While it’s certainly an option to simply tell the 5 best stories about the Groom, this approach is much less satisfying than one which links entertaining anecdotes together to highlight aspects of his character. Done well, a themed speech will have those closest to the Groom nodding their heads in recognition – and on occasion, teaching them something they didn’t know!

As you look for themes, it’s worth bearing some key questions in mind:

  • What does this tell me about the Groom?
    • What common behaviours or attitudes of his does it highlight?
  • How many other stories support this interpretation?
  • Can I use the common thread to say something positive about the Groom?
    • Specifically, if I use it to take him to the abyss, will I later be able to flip it around and get him back toward the mountaintop?

If a theme ticks all of these boxes, quickly double-check – is it actually interesting enough to feature?

For example, if the Groom is obsessively clean and tidy, it might be easy to mock him for it and later to point out that it’s not all bad, but that subject matter can be very flat if not well-delivered. Don’t invest your energy in a theme if it’s not likely to be good fun.

Step 4: Plan a Gambit

How are you going to give your speech a shot in the arm that helps it stand out in the memories of the guests? Simple: you’re going to run a Gambit.

In the context of the Best Man’s Speech, a Gambit is an unusual maneuver which introduces an extra element to the speech, enhancing the experience for the audience. It can take the form of a simple prop, or a musical interlude, or a series of film clips, or really any theatrical flourish which you will be comfortable delivering.

Of all the steps, this one is the most open to interpretation.

If you have uncovered a strong enough theme in Step 3, you might extend it into a Gambit. If, for instance, the Groom is a Teacher, you might:

  • Wear a mortarboard hat
  • Arrange to have a small blackboard set up on an easel before you speak
  • Deliver the speech as a lesson on ‘how not to behave if you want to meet a decent woman’, taking him to the abyss with details of his dodgy histroy
  • Conduct a recap section near the end in which you counterbalance the rum stories with positive observations, setting the Groom back on the mountaintop

By combining a couple of simple, relevant props and fitting the style of your delivery to the theme, you’ve created a little bit of theatre which chimes with a major element of the Groom’s life: the perfect Gambit.

This is too much theatre. Any less is fine.

Of course, there will be situations in which you can’t uncover a theme which naturally inspires your Gambit. In these cases, a good alternative is to impose a strong, generic theme and fit your anecdotes into it. A good example I’ve seen executed is the ‘Photoshop special’:

  • Arrange to have projection equipment set up before you speak
  • Accompany your speech with a slideshow, filled with images relevant to the stories you are telling
  • Have the images Photoshopped, so that the Groom’s face is superimposed onto a range of unlikely characters and dubious situations

Although this is remarkably simple as a concept, it can be truly hilarious if you invest the time in finding the choicest images. Other strong generic ideas include creating an audience participation speech using a Pub Quiz or Game Show format, delivering your speech as a poem, or singing a song. Your comfort with each of these will vary based on where your personal talents lie.

One final option is to pull a stunt, in order to get a reaction from the audience. This is difficult to do well, because you must be conscious of not overstepping the mark, but I do know of a famously teetotal individual who faked swigging from a bottle of whisky to calm his nerves… and created a significant frisson of humour and excitement, which was only heightened when other diners at the top table tried to relieve him of the bottle and were rebuffed.

My recommendation is only to try this approach if you have an idea which you feel very good about – and which you are sure won’t cause offense.

Before we move on, a word about logistics: if you’re planning something which involves props, needs equipment to be set up, or has any special requirements, try to visit the venue ahead of time. Introduce yourself, talk to the people who will be running the reception and give them a general idea of your plans; they’ll be able to steer you on what can and can’t be accommodated.

Armed with superior knowledge about the theatre of operations, you’ll be able to tweak your strategy, or even discard entirely segments which turn out to be impractical. Make  a list of the things you’ll need the venue team to do for you, share it with them, then check in again on the day before the wedding so you’re certain that they have things in hand. Even the best of Best Men can end up in a bad spot if his props go missing, or his wireless microphone runs out of battery.

Step 5: Prepare to deliver

Now for the hard part…

Except it’s not hard. Here are the reasons why:

  1. You know your mission, to take the Groom on a rollercoaster ride out over the Abyss but land him safely back on the Mountaintop.
  2. You’ve considered your audience and included points you think will tickle them, while deleting anything which you think will offend.
  3. You’ve done your research, involving his friends and gathering a wealth of stories from which to select your material.
  4. You’ve planned a resonant theme, which will bring your speech to life.
  5. You’ve created a memorable Gambit– and you’ve made sure that the necessary background arrangements are in place to help it go smoothly.

With that level of detailed planning, you’re in better shape than most people when they stand up to speak.

Although it’s hard to be believe, you’ll be even more prepared than Boy-scout-falconry-man.

But you’ll have one more weapon in your arsenal: practice.

In the week leading up to the event, try to grab a small audience of sympathetic people to whom you can deliver the speech in full. Any of the Groom’s friends who were helpful at the research stage, your own close friends or your partner are ideal candidates.

Don’t just do it once, run it again and again. Stop at the end of each section and ask your audience for feedback:

  • Which stories are the strongest?
  • Which parts of your delivery are working best? What are the strong turns of phrase – and do they have any suggestions about how else you change anything that isn’t quite working?

Once you’ve got through the full speech and you’re becoming fluent at delivery, ask them:

  • Does the speech flow?
  • Would they change the order of the segments?
  • Is there anything else they would like to suggest that might improve the speech?

You’ll learn a lot about the strengths of the speech by delivering it and hearing the opinions of your audience. You’ll also have a few days to change things up if your practice session reveals a problem.

This is also the point at which to decide on whether you will be using notes. All speeches are better without notes, but few people will expect you not to use them, so you have a lot of flexibility.

If you do decide to use notes, I recommend a series of small cue-cards with written prompts, which you can hold in your hand; these will keep you on the right path but ensure that your exact phrasing is spontaneous. There’s nothing worse than watching someone read from a sheet of paper without ever looking up.

If, after all your preparation, you’re still nervous… consider this:

  • Everyone listening wants you to succeed. You’re part of the celebration that they’ve all bought into and they want to keep the good vibe going. They would laugh even if your opening was a bit shaky, so the fact that you’re actually bringing a brilliantly-rehearsed powerhouse means that you are home free.
  • Everyone will appreciate the work you’ve put in. It’s apparent, even to the most casual observer, that there is a difference between a Best Man who stands up without a plan to ramble drunkenly for 5 minutes and what you are about to do, which is the culmination of several weeks’ planning. The guests will be impressed; the Groom will think you’re an absolute champion for working so hard to enhance his day.

You’re ready

When you have followed this system through, you will find yourself in the top 1% of most prepared public speakers. Everyone is willing you to succeed, you have planned to succeed… so you will.

You’re going to be brilliant: believe it. Let your inner rock star come out to play. Oh, and enjoy the drinks people are going to be buying you after ‘that awesome performance…’

It won’t look like this when you ace your speech. But it will bloody well feel like it.

10 reasons why Bane is a great role model for my son


Polite notice: if you haven’t seen the Dark Knight Rises, not only will this article probably spoil elements of the film for you, it just won’t make any sense. You have been warned.

My partner and I had a slight disagreement about the Dark Knight Rises.

It was the kind of disagreement which sees one of us sitting, rapt, in front of the cinema screen while the other leaves in disgust after 2 hours, with nary a good word to say about the film.

However, the one thing we both agreed on was that Bane, god bless his cotton socks, made a real impact on-screen.

After several weeks of intermittent Bane references and at least one wedding celebration dominated by Bane impressions and an Usher highly reminiscent of the great man, I arrived at a singular realisation: Bane is a fabulous role model for a growing boy.

Here, as succinctly as possible, I’m going to lay out the reasons I think my own beloved son can learn important lessons from “Gotham’s Reckoning”:

1. He promotes physical fitness

Let’s start with the obvious: Bane is a monster. He appears to be about 9 feet tall whenever he’s depicted on screen, but the real impact the man makes is with his incredible physique.

I’d like David not to emulate me in terms of his physical condition – god knows I could use 6 months on a treadmill – but instead take a lead from the B-Dogg. I want him to realise that if he keeps himself in shape, it will be easier to realise many of his ambitions; say, completing a charity triathlon, or “breaking the Bat”.

2. He knows how to handle himself

This is really a two-sided point.

On one hand, Bane illustrates the importance of and advantages conferred by a familiarity with Martial Arts. This is a good thing for David to learn – maybe it’ll encourage a lifelong interest in Judo, or something. That would be nice.

On the other hand, Bane reminds us that the correct course of action when facing a potential confrontation with an 18 stone psychopath is to run like fuck. That’s pretty important, too.

3. He’s focussed on his goals

No one can really accuse “Big B” of pissing around. He isn’t ever depicted sitting on the couch, ignoring calls from Talia, squeezing in ‘just one more game’ of Minesweeper.

When he wants something, like the attention of a full crowd and national TV audience currently watching an American Football game, well… He bloody well goes out and gets it.

4. He inspires loyalty

In some moments of quiet reflection, I like to think that some of the people I work with would gladly plummet to their deaths in the wrecked fuselage of a plane simply because I asked them to.

That said, I’m not convinced.

I think David probably has more to learn from Bane on this front.

5. He recognises the importance of discipline

It will be much easier for me to sell David on the concept of ‘tough love’ if he is already intimately familiar with the phrase, “Your punishment must be more… Severe.”

Granted, I’ll be talking in terms of a week’s grounding rather than existential torture in a geographically indistinct, underground prison. But the point still stands.

6. He shows that losing your hair isn’t the end of the world

I’m not sure whether David is terribly likely to succumb to early male pattern baldness, but if he does, I don’t want it to shake his confidence.

Bane doesn’t have any hair, but by god that didn’t stop him from executing a daring and complex stock market fraud, then dragging an entire city to the brink of self destruction.

I’ve even heard one young lady describe Bane as ‘sexy’ and although that’s a stretch, it still comfortingly reinforces the ‘bald is beautiful’ lobby.

7. He doesn’t stand on ceremony

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s needless formality. Events with stifling dress codes, the insistence of some people that they are addressed by a particular title, etc.

Seriously, what a pain. Luckily, Bane feels the same way, “…Mr Wayne.”

8. He has great spatial awareness

The ability to clearly visualise one’s own surroundings, those depicted on a map or even a complex set of blueprints is invaluable in any number of pastimes and careers.

With a quality like this, David could excel at everything from orienteering on a school trip to the establishment of a career in town planning, or architecture. It would also stand him in great stead if he ever wanted to construct a subterranean stronghold directly beneath the armoury of his mortal enemy.

9. He believes in thorough planning

When Bane wanted to raze Gotham to the ground, he didn’t just rock up and start asking around the bars for people interested in a spot of casual anarchy.

Instead, he took his time, kidnapped the only nuclear scientist in the world capable of transforming a wholesome, clean energy source into a Neutron weapon, faked deaths, established an army of desperate men and extremists in the tunnels beneath the city, targeted his greatest enemy for an elaborate financial, emotional and physical destruction… etc, etc.

It’s good to think ahead.

10. He reminds us of the importance of good diction

In life, it’s hard to get anywhere if 50% of the people who hear you speak don’t have a scooby what you’re actually saying.

David will have to pass the ‘Bane test’ in our house as he grows up – just one hint of his speech descending into a garbled hybrid of aristocratic pronunciation and a distorted mobile phone call will result in him being packed off to an elocution specialist.

I’m certain that my partner will agree completely with me on this point, if not on some of the others.