Kratos is a very angry man. Well, an angry deity. A Spartan who ends up killing his own family due to the trickery or Ares, and who then kills Ares and takes over as God of War. But then after slaying his way across Mount Olympus, he renounces his angry, vengeful existence and relocates to Midgard, transitioning from Greek mythology to Norse mythology, gets married, and hides from his past in a cabin in the woods. Until his wife passes away, that is, and he and his 11-year-old son set off on a quest to scatter her ashes from the top of the highest mountain in the realm, and horror ensues.
During the past few weeks, I've become very familiar with Kratos' saturnine countenance. In my down time, I assume his role and lose myself in the beautiful graphics of his dangerous world, battling monsters and embarking on side quests in pursuit of the final goal. When harm threatens his son, he becomes infused with Spartan Rage; he lets out a mighty roar and, for a time, is endowed with super strength, his fists aflame as he pounds his adversaries into oblivion.
I can relate. There is much to feel angry about in the world right now and I, too, feel supercharged when enraged and have been living on anger and adrenaline for a very long time now, which is why, lately, I've had to set my gaming aside. Although I consciously understand that what's happening in the fantasy world onscreen is not real, my lizard brain can't tell the difference between being under threat in the real world, and 'danger' in the form of pixellated foes, and my blood pressure rises as if I genuinely am in mortal danger. Coupled with the tide of constantly unpleasant news on Twitter, it seems that over the past month I've worked myself into a state of perpetual, unhappy alert and my anxiety levels are at an all-time high.
I have a difficult relationship with social media. Facebook has been part of my life since 2007 - for the entirety of my travel writing career - and I've come to rely on it for keeping in touch with friends, especially during long months spent on the road, and during the solitude of lockdown life. But over the years it's changed from the sociable platform where friends shared photos and good news, and has morphed into a monstrous tool that's been actively used to undermine democracies worldwide and push the interests of some of the vilest regimes on earth. Facebook currently reaches more people and wields more influence than the Catholic Church did at the height of its powers, and Mark Zuckerberg and his associates have barely paid lip service to stemming the flow of hate speech and disinformation that graces Facebook's pages, from the instigation of violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar, to the micro-targeting of British voters during the Brexit referendum (to push the Leave vote) and the spread of 'fake news' against Democrats during the 2016 elections that brought Trump to power. Only now that advertisers are boycotting Facebook that Zuck and friends are thinking of doing something about it. For him, the bottom line has always been profit; he knowingly and willingly conflates free speech and the deliberate spread of disinformation.
Twitter is better, in that respect. Moderators generally take action against spreaders of hate and disinformation, albeit with one notable exception: Trump. Trump has regularly broken their terms of service without any repercussions, until very recently, when Twitter finally started labelling his tweets that promote conspiracy theories or incite violence. Jack Dorsey would do the whole world a favour if he suspends Trump indefinitely for breaking Twitter's own rules.
I've only started to use Twitter regularly over the past four years. Originally I vented my spleen about Brexit, but in time I came to engage with some really interesting people: other travel writers, politicians that I admire, law experts, historians, investigative journalists. I began interacting with strangers in a more positive way, sending support and encouragement to courageous MPs who broke ranks with their parties; discovered barrister Jolyon Maugham and the GoodLaw Project that takes on corruption in British politics, among other things, that I'm now proud to support; and was put in touch with Tom de Grunwald, the architect of the Swap My Vote initiative that attempts to address the de facto disenfranchisement of countless voters under Britain's stagnant and unfair FPTP system. Depending on who you follow, Twitter can be wonderful exchange of ideas (in pithy 280-character form or longer threads), or a torrent of hateful online sewage. For all you Trekkies out there, to me, spending time on Twitter is not unlike being part of a Borg cube, a hive mind. Except that the Borg are automatons who absorb the knowledge of all the species they assimilate in a methodical and passionless manner, whereas I react in emotional as well as intellectual ways to being bombarded by thousands of voices, and occasionally need time out.
Various despicable regimes are using the pandemic as a cover for pushing through their anti-democractic agendas. The other day I woke up at 4am and couldn't get back to sleep, ruminating about the demise of Hong Kong as an independent city due to the increasingly aggressive Xi Jinping and his draconian national security law aimed at the destruction of Hong Kong's democracy. One of my friends - a mild-mannered yoga instructor - marched in last year's protest marches and got teargassed several times. All for nought, it seems, because as of today, all books on democracy have been pulled from Hong Kong's libraries (so that Hong Kongers born in the 21st century don't get any ideas) and there is little opposition from the outside world towards an increasingly belligerent China, in spite of the Uighur concentration camps, in spite of Tibet's cultural genocide, in spite of the forcible sterilisation of Uighur women. Aggressors bullying the vulnerable is something that I've felt very strongly about most of my life, and so am surfing a wave of helpless rage.
This week, Putin was essentially entrenched as dictator for life amidst massive vote rigging as the country voted for the changes in Russia's Constitution. A friend posted a video on Twitter of a Russian journalist getting his hand broken by the police at a polling station simply for doing his job, in full view of a bunch of voters. Turn up the volume and you can hear the audible crack of bone snapping amidst the screaming. In Russia, this is pretty routine police behaviour; they routinely torture people unlucky enough to get arrested. I lived through the hopeful 80s in the Soviet Union, when positive change was in the air, and came of age in the 90s, when the world was also seemingly changing for the better. The thought that until Putin dies, every single Russian born in the 21st century will have lived their entire lives under a monster who's looted the country and turned it into his own brutal private fiefdom, to the detriment of the fledgeling democracy that he extinguished, depresses and enrages me.
Nary a peep out of the far left about the recent happenings in either China or Russia, since they routinely excuse despots because they don't come under the 'Western imperialism' umbrella heading. Meanwhile, in the States, Trump is doing his best to dismantle the democratic institutions on which their democracy depends, with the active help of Bill Barr, scrapping judicial oversight, scrapping environmental protections, kowtowing to foreign despots and undermining democracy worldwide. Not for the last time, I'm angry at all blinkered, selfish American 'progressives' (more so than at actual Trump supporters, since progressives are supposed to be 'the good guys') who couldn't bring themselves to vote for Clinton in 2016, thereby helping Trump win, precipitating the current horrors, and shouldering some of the responsibility for everything from the climate crisis to the demise of democracy in Hong Kong and no-deal Brexit, neither of which would be happening if Clinton were president instead of Trump. They forget that what happens in the United States is not limited to the country's borders: it impacts the rest of the world. A weakened, corrupt, isolating America under Trump has given Xi, Putin and others room to flex their muscles. For all its flaws, I'd much rather live in a world where the United States is the dominant superpower rather than China or Russia.
Once again, the centre of my chest feels tight, as if someone is sitting on it. It's time to play Heart Attack or Panic Attack. Until last week, I was unaware that heart attack symptoms for men and women differ. The following are symptoms that women may experience if having a heart attack:
Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
Panic attacks, as I've experienced them, can also be a cornucopia of unpleasant physical symptoms, from the pressure in one's chest and shortness of breath to tingling and numbness in lips, fingers and toes, cold sweat, hot flashes, nausea and dizziness. Fun.
The pressure in my chest passes. Looks like I'll live to see another day, or week. Or until I go on Twitter again and get enraged by the Johnson government and the wrecking ball they are taking to British democracy, British lives during the pandemic, and Britain's future as a progressive, liberal, eco-friendly country.
In recent weeks, we've seen the disenfranchisement of shielding MPs (and their constituents), thanks to Jacob Rees-Mogg's crackpot idea to get our MPs back into the HoC and prevent MPs from voting safely and remotely. There's been the fiddling of contagion numbers; the lack of progress of talks with the EU because the British government can no longer be trusted to keep its word or act in the best interests of the country's citizens. The the blatant corruption, with Robert Jenrick breaking the ministerial code of conduct to award massive building contracts to a Tory donor, and Matt Hancock and Liz Truss giving multi-million £ PPE contracts to companies with zero experience of producing PPE (currently under investigation by the GoodLaw Project). The contempt for the general public shown by Dominic Cummings, who broke the government's lockdown rules and was then completely unapologetic and got to keep his job. The wearying tide of empty sloganeering in place of sound policies.
In battle, Kratos the God of War is not subtle. He rushes at his enemies, many of them considerably larger than him, swinging either his Blades of Chaos or his Leviathan Axe...
...until either they are dead, or he is.
When I play Kratos, he's always on the offensive, hacking and slashing, and rarely blocking or dodging. Until fairly recently, I saw similarities between my combat style and the pugilistic style of the Johnson government. But I'm wrong. Johnson and his ministers spend most of their time covering up for their various failures, blatant corruption and bloodyminded rule-breaking. They circled the wagons when Dominic Cummings broke the lockdown rules that he helped to put in place, not just excusing him but insisting that he did the right thing by breaking the rules, trust in government be damned. They fudge medical data to make it seem as if the number of infected people has dropped when that's not the case. They've lied about PPE procurement efforts. They lie constantly and they dodge scrutiny and questions that they don't like. They lie when the truth will do. So the actual focus of the Johnson government is constant defence (alongside attacks on Parliamentary sovereignty, the civil service, etc). Perhaps my Kratos could learn a thing or two from them, because he keeps getting clobbered.