Arr, me Hearties…

Piracy has been in the news a lot recently, mainly concerning blokes in Somalia armed with AK47s running around attacking cargo ships. However, as some regular readers of this blog (if such there are) may be able to guess from the subtle hints I regularly drop in, the pirate news I have been most interested in recently concerns Assassin’s Creed, and the recent announcement of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. This is the first AAA game that I’ve ever heard of set in the ‘golden age of piracy’, and so I thought a post on this period of time might be in order. Plus, I think a 200th post deserves a cool topic.

When people think of piracy, the mental image conjured up is always of Caribbean piracy during these days; swashbuckling men in fancy hats & coats, swanning around in large ships with flintlock pistols, cannons and oversized cojones. Captain Jack Sparrow, basically. Specifically, they refer to the situation in and around the Caribbean from around 1650 to the early 1800s, peaking during the first 30 years of the 18th century. These were the days of colonial wars in this area; 200 years earlier the Spanish-sponsored Christopher Columbus had discovered the New World and Spain, which was at the time the richest and most powerful nation on earth, smelt an opportunity. Newly unified into one nation after pushing out the Moors and uniting the powerful crowns of Aragon and Castile through marriage, 16th century Spain was finally able to utilise the great wealth that centuries of war had been unable to use productively, and swept across the Atlantic (and, indeed, much of the rest of the world; theirs was the first Empire upon which ‘the sun never set’) armed to the teeth. The New World offered them vast untapped resources of gold and silver (among other things) that the local tribes, had not extracted; these tribes were also lacking in gunpowder, and were totally incapable of dealing with the Spanish onslaught that followed. Even small raiding parties were able to conquer vast swathes of land, and Spain pillaged, raped and murdered its way across the land in a fashion eerily preminiscient of the ‘rush for Africa’ that would follow a few hundred years later. America was rich, it was untapped, it was (relatively, compared to, say, India) close enough to be accessible, and Spain got there first. Seemed like a great deal at the time.

However, cut to a couple of hundred years later, and Spain was in trouble. The ‘Spanish Golden Age’ was on the wane, and Spain found itself at near-constant war, either with France or from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, whose Barbary pirates (the first time piracy enters this story) would frequently trouble Spain’s coastal possessions. In the colonies, things were just as bad; Britain and France had established their own empires in North America and fought frequently, if not with each other, with Spain for its colonies in Florida and Central America, constantly attempting land grabs in and around the Caribbean area. Spain simply did not have the ability to maintain a military presence across such a vast area, especially when a succession war started and all parties started fighting over the future of Spain as a country and an empire, making the game of ‘who’s on whose side’ even more complicated. The whole area turned into one chaotic mess of sporadic fighting, where law was impossible to enforce,towns were frequentl either destroyed or changed hands, and honest trade such as farming became an unreliable source of income when your crops kept getting burnt. However, at the same time, there were still lots of goodies being sent around all over the place for trade purposes so the various ┬ácountries involved in the conflict could make some money out of the whole mess, wherever possible. So, let’s have a sit rep; we have large amounts of very valuable goods being shipped all over the Caribbean & the high seas, frequently alone since all powers had so few ships to spare for escorts, nobody is able to reliably enforce the law and we have a lot of men unable to make a living from practicing an honest trade. Rocking up in a large ship and stealing everything has never seemed such a productive strategy, particularly when some towns turned lawless and became pirate ports.

Interestingly, all the colonial powers at one time or another made some acts of piracy legal; ‘privateers’ were sailors (such as Sir Francis Drake) employed by a country to ride around all over the place and disrupt other countries’ trade. All the other nations, of course, considered them pirates and put ‘dead or alive’ prices on their heads, but these people are pretty boring when compared to some of the genuine pirates who terrorised the Caribbean. In many ways, pirates were the first professional celebrities; reasoning that the whole ‘piracy’ business would be a lot easier if everyone would just shit themselves upon sight of them and hand over all the gold without a fight, they put a lot of effort into building up their reputations so that everyone knew who they are. This is one of the reasons why pirates are so famous today, that and the fact that they were simultaneously mental and amazingly charismatic. Consider Blackbeard, probably the most famous real-life pirate and a man who spread rumours about satanic powers and would stick flaming sticks in his beard so he smoked like a demon. Consider Captain John Phillips, whose version of the pirate code (because even criminals have honour of a sort; Phillips’ is one of just four surviving) included an article stating that any man who kept a secret from the rest of the crew was to be marooned on a desert island with nothing but a bottle of water, a pistol, gunpowder and shot. Just to let everyone know who’s boss. And what about Charles Vane, a certified arsehole even by piratical standards whose three-year career netted him the equivalent of around two and a half million US Dollars, which is made doubly impressive by the fact that he never lead a ship with more than twelve guns. For a more expanded (and rather hilarious) look at a few pirates and their stories, I refer you here.

After 1730, the age of the pirates was largely over; the Royal Navy in particular was exerting far more control over the seas and ports, and small pirate vessels were unable to sustain a living. The trade attempted to move overseas, but proved unsustainable in other colonies such as India. The law was finally organised enough to catch up with pirates, and they retreated back into history, leaving only their fearsome reputation and charisma behind. Pirates as we in the west think of them were many things; brave, violent, aggressive, borderline mental, and not the kind of people you’d want to invite to dinner. But one thing that they undoubtedly were, and always will be, is effortlessly, earth-shatteringly cool.

Pineapples (TM)

If the last few decades of consumerism have taught us anything, it is just how much faith people are able of setting store in a brand. In everything from motorbikes to washing powder, we do not simply test and judge effectiveness of competing products objectively (although, especially when considering expensive items such as cars, this is sometimes impractical); we must compare them to what we think of the brand and the label, what reputation this product has and what it is particularly good at, which we think most suits our social standing and how others will judge our use of it. And good thing too, from many companies’ perspective, otherwise the amount of business they do would be slashed. There are many companies whose success can be almost entirely put down to the effect of their branding and the impact their marketing has had on the psyche of western culture, but perhaps the most spectacular example concerns Apple.

In some ways, to typecast Apple as a brand-built company is a harsh one; their products are doubtless good ones, and they have shown a staggering gift for bringing existed ideas together into forms that, if not quite new, are always the first to be a practical, genuine market presence. It is also true that Apple products are often better than their competitors in very specific fields; in computing, for example, OS X is better at dealing with media than other operating systems, whilst Windows has traditionally been far stronger when it comes to word processing, gaming and absolutely everything else (although Windows 8 looks very likely to change all of that- I am not looking forward to it). However, it is almost universally agreed (among non-Apple whores anyway) that once the rest of the market gets hold of it Apple’s version of a product is almost never the definitive best, from a purely analytical perspective (the iPod is a possible exception, solely due to the existence of iTunes redefining the music industry before everyone else and remaining competitive to this day) and that every Apple product is ridiculously overpriced for what it is. Seriously, who genuinely thinks that top-end Macs are a good investment?

Still, Apple make high-end, high-quality products with a few things they do really, really well that are basically capable of doing everything else. They should have a small market share, perhaps among the creative or the indie, and a somewhat larger one in the MP3 player sector. They should be a status symbol for those who can afford them, a nice company with a good history but that nowadays has to face up to a lot of competitors. As it is, the Apple way of doing business has proven successful enough to make them the biggest private company in the world. Bigger than every other technology company, bigger than every hedge fund or finance company, bigger than any oil company, worth more than every single one (excluding state owned companies such as Saudi Aramco, which is estimated to be worth around 3 trillion dollars by dealing in Saudi oil exports). How has a technology company come to be worth $400 billion? How?

One undoubted feature is Apple’s uncanny knack of getting there first- the Apple II was the first real personal computer and provided the genes for Windows-powered PC’s to take the world, whilst the iPod was the first MP3 player that was genuinely enjoyable to use, the iPhone the first smartphone (after just four years, somewhere in the region of 30% of the world’s phones are now smartphones) and the iPad the first tablet computer. Being in the technology business has made this kind of innovation especially rewarding for them; every company is constantly terrified of being left behind, so whenever a new innovation comes along they will knock something together as soon as possible just to jump on the bandwagon. However, technology is a difficult business to get right, meaning that these products are usually rubbish and make the Apple version shine by comparison. This also means that if Apple comes up with the idea first, they have had a couple of years of working time to make sure they get it right, whilst everyone else’s first efforts have had only a few scance months; it takes a while for any serious competitors to develop, by which time Apple have already made a few hundred million off it and have moved on to something else; innovation matters in this business.

But the real reason for Apple’s success can be put down to the aura the company have built around themselves and their products. From their earliest infancy Apple fans have been self-dubbed as the independent, the free thinkers, the creative, those who love to be different and stand out from the crowd of grey, calculating Windows-users (which sounds disturbingly like a conspiracy theory or a dystopian vision of the future when it is articulated like that). Whilst Windows has its problems, Apple has decided on what is important and has made something perfect in this regard (their view, not mine), and being willing to pay for it is just part of the induction into the wonderful world of being an Apple customer (still their view). It’s a compelling world view, and one that thousands of people have subscribed to, simply because it is so comforting; it sells us the idea that we are special, individual, and not just one of the millions of customers responsible for Apple’s phenomenal size and success as a company. But the secret to the success of this vision is not just the view itself; it is the method and the longevity of its delivery. This is an image that has been present in their advertising campaign from its earliest infancy, and is now so ingrained that it doesn’t have to be articulated any more; it’s just present in the subtle hints, the colour scheme, the way the Apple store is structured and the very existence of Apple-dedicated shops generally. Apple have delivered the masterclass in successful branding; and that’s all the conclusion you’re going to get for today.

I’ve been expecting you…

As everybody has been incredibly keen to point out surrounding the release of Skyfall, the James Bond film franchise is currently celebrating its 50th birthday. Yes really- some absolute genius of an executive at Eon managed to get the rights to a film series that has lasted longer than the Cold War (which in and of itself presented a problem when Bond couldn’t simply beat up Commies all of a sudden and they had to start inventing new bad guys). But Bond is, of course, far older than that, and his story is an interesting one.

Ian Fleming had served as an intelligence officer during the Second World War, being involved with such charismatic spies as Dusko Popov (who ran an information exchange in Lisbon and traded signals on a roulette table), before returning to England during the 1950s. He later made a famous quote, based on an event that occurred in 1952:

‘Looking out of my window as the rain lashed down during one of those grey austerity-ridden days in post-war Britain, I made two of the biggest decisions of my life; one, never to spend winter in England again; two, to write the spy story to end all spy stories’.

He began writing the first Bond novel (Casino Royale) in February of that year, retiring to his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica to write it (Bond spent the majority of his time in certainly the earlier novels in the Caribbean, and Goldeneye would of course later become the name for Pierce Brosnan’s first Bond film). He chose the name from American ornithologist (and world-renowned expert on Caribbean birds) James Bond, saying that he originally wanted his character to be a normal person to whom extraordinary things happened, and whilst this brief got distorted somewhat through his various revisions this drab name, combined with Bond’s businesslike, unremarkable exterior, formed a contrast with his steely edge and amazing skill set to form the basis of the infamous MI6 operative (Fleming also admitted to incorporating large swathes of himself into the character).

The books were an immediate hit, demonstrating a sharp breakout from the norms of the time, and the film industry was quick to make its move towards them. As early as 1954 a TV version of Casino Royale starring the Americanized ‘Jimmy Bond’ had hit the screen, but Fleming thought he could go better and started a project to make a film adaptation in 1959, with himself acting as screenwriter. However, the project bombed and it wasn’t until 1961 that Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli (along with partner Harry Saltzmann) bought the film rights to the series. This project too was plagued by difficulties; despite Sean Connery being said to ‘walk like a panther’ when he came to audition for the part, Broccoli’s first choice for the Bond role was Cary Grant, and when he said he didn’t want to be part of a series he turned to James Mason. Mason made similar bones and so at last, with some misgivings, they turned to Connery. Said Fleming, ‘he’s not exactly what I had in mind’.

He had even worse things to say when Connery’s first film, Dr. No, was released; ‘Dreadful. Simply dreadful’ his words upon seeing the preview screening. He wasn’t the only one either; the film received only mixed reviews, and even a rebuke from the Vatican (never noted for their tolerance towards bikinis). However, Dr. No did include a few of the features that would later come to define Bond; his gun, for instance. For the first 5 Bond novels, Fleming had him using Berreta 418, but munitions expert Geoffrey Boothroyd subsequently wrote to Fleming criticizing the choice. Describing the weapon ‘a lady’s gun’ (a phrase Fleming himself would later use to describe it), he recommended the Walther PPK as an alternative. Fleming loved the suggestion, incorporating an adapted version of the exchanged into his next book (which was, coincidentally, Dr. No) and giving the name of Bond’s armourer as Major Boothroyd by way of thanks. Boothroyd’s role as a quartermaster eventually lead to his more famous nickname; Q.

Not that any of this saved the film, or indeed ‘From Russia With Love’, which succeeded it. Reviews did improve for this one if only for its better quality of execution, but many still rallied against the very concept of the Bond movie and it hardly kickstarted the franchise. What it did do, however, was prompt the release of the film that did; Goldfinger.

This was the film that cemented Bond’s reputation, and laid the tropes on the table for all subsequent films to follow. Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) became the definitive Bond girl, Sean Connery the definitive Bond (a reputation possibly enhanced by the contrast between his portrayal of Bond and the aggressive, chauvinistic ‘semi-rapist’ portrayed in the books), and his beautiful, silver Aston Martin DB5 the Bond car- one such car sold in the US some years ago for over 2 million dollars. According to many, Goldfinger remains the best Bond film ever (although personally I’m quite fond of Live and Let Die, The World is Not Enough and Casino Royale), although rather sadly Ian Fleming died before he could see it.

Since then, the franchise has had to cope with a whole host of ups & downs. After ‘You Only Live Twice’ (in which the character of supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is first revealed), Connery announced that it would be his last Bond film, but his replacement George Lazenby appeared just once (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which his performance received mixed reception) before claiming that he didn’t feel the character of a gun-em-down chauvinist such as Bond could survive the ‘peace & love’ sentiment of the late 60s (Lazenby was also, on an unrelated note, the youngest man ever to play Bond, at just 30). After Connery was tempted back for one more film (Diamonds Are Forever) by an exorbitant salary, the gauntlet was thrown to Roger Moore, who simultaneously holds the record for oldest Bond ever (57 by the end) and most number of films (7, over a 12-year period). Moore’s more laid back, light-hearted and some might say graceless approach to the role won him some plaudits by its contrast to Connery’s performance, but despite increasingly negative audience feedback over time this style became ever more necessary as the series came under scrutiny. The feminist lobby (among others) had been gaining voice, and whilst they had once been pleased at the ‘freedom’ demonstrated by the likes of Playgirls and other burlesque performers (seriously, that was the attitude they took in the 50s) by now they saw them as the by-products of a chauvinist society. This quickly meant Bond’s all action, highly sexual and male-dominated atmosphere came under fire, forcing the character to retreat into steadily tamer plots. It was also rapidly running out of ideas (the same director had been working on the project for several films by now), retreating into petty jokes (ie the name ‘Holly Goodhead’) and generally mediocre filmmaking. The series limped on with Moore until A View To A Kill, and for two more with Timothy Dalton after that, but it then took an 6 year break whilst another Dalton production fell through. Some felt that the franchise was on its last legs, that a well-liked and iconic character would soon have to wink out of existence, but then came Pierce Brosnan.

Whatever you do or don’t think of Brosnan’s performances (I happen to like them, others think he’s fairly rubbish), there can be no denying that Goldeneye was the first Bond film to really catapult the franchise into the modern era of filmmaking. With fresh camera techniques to make it at least look new, a new lead actor and a long break to give everyone time to forget about the character, there was a sense of this being something of a new beginning for Bond. And it was; seven films later and with Daniel Craig now at the helm, the series is in rude health and is such a prominent, well-loved and symbolic character that Craig adopted his 007 role when pretending to skydive into the stadium alongside the Queen during the London 2012 opening ceremony (which I’m sure you all agree was possibly the best bit of the entire games). There is something about Bond that fundamentally appeals to us; all the cool, clever gadgets, the cars we could only ever dream of, the supermodels who line his bed (well, maybe a few people would prefer to turn a blind eye to some of that), and the whole smooth, suave nature that defines his character makes him such a fixed trope that he seems impossible for our collective psyche to forget. We can forgive the bad film making, the formula of the character, the lack of the artistry that puts other films in line for Oscars, simply because… he’s Bond. He’s fun, and he’s awesome.

Oh, and on a related note, go and see Skyfall. It’s absolutely brilliant.