Pikachu at the cemetery gates
There are Pikachu in Bunhill fields. A cornucopia of Pikachu. The first time I went I caught three. I got a medal.
It’s been an unsettling year. In the aftermath of the referendum, in what may, despite all the activity, come to feel like a long summer lull between Brexit and Trump, we watch the national life unravel and we play Pokémon. There were Pokémon outside the epic NEC meeting a couple of weeks back. A State Department spokesman heckled a journalist for playing Pokémon during a briefing (he didn’t catch one apparently; the signal was too poor). I’d like to think there were Pokémon in May’s first cabinet meeting, even if no one saw them. Maybe we never Brexit; maybe article 50 is never triggered; maybe everyone is too busy playing Pokémon. I think I’m bored, but I’m still playing. Maybe this is how civilization ends.
At lunch time, the city is lit up with lures. Coming in late from the dentist one day I checked. Still lit up. Lit up after work as I make my way home. Has everyone clocked off for the summer? I wonder if we will be able to isolate the effect when the next round of GDP data comes out. I wonder if Brexit will be unfairly blamed.
Bunhill fields was a strange enough little place before this began. It’s a graveyard. An old city graveyard, full of the illustrious and famous dead. I’ve never heard of most of them. I’ve walked though it on and off for the last seven years. Almost every time I thought I should find out a little more about the inhabitants, but I never ever did. I rather liked not knowing. Then Pokémon Go came along, and interrupted my happy ignorant accord with the city landscape. Now I am bombarded with the names of things, places, monuments. I’m being outdone by an algorithm (that’s the point, I know).
There is precious little open space around here. City workers have always descended at lunch time to eat their sandwiches in between the graves and in the shade of the grand sarcophagus things. I was reading Chris Wickham on the inheritance of Rome recently — about the transformations Christianity wrought upon the landscape of the ancient world. Graveyards — this one stuck with me — moved from outside the city walls, and started to appear in the middle of the urban scene. ‘The dead remained edgy, ‘liminal’, sometimes powerful — they still are — but the visceral fear of their polluting power had gone’. I’ve often wondered whether it tells us anything that we are comfortable eating our over-priced street food in the cemetery, anything more than there is a paucity of open space in the city. The dead are still edgy, just not at lunch time.
I wouldn’t fancy my chances with sandwiches these past couple of weeks. Saner friends gleefully pointed out that this was a game for teenagers. Not so: I offer up Bunhill fields in evidence: it is city workers in city suits thronging this graveyard and laying the foundations of a public order situation. The main path through the middle is narrow, barely takes two abreast. Signs at either end prohibit cycling. Large, free standing signs, an obvious pitfall for the unobservant Pokémon hunter. Everyday I’m tempted to update the prohibition for the second half of the sixteenth year of the twenty first century. I try to be considerate. I stand to the side of the path, squeeze myself into the fence. I am in the way; we are all in the way. But there’s a Pikachu at large. An unexpected benefit: I find myself almost inside a jasmine bush, with leaves darker and shinier than the one in my garden, and a much stronger scent. We wouldn’t otherwise have met.
Another interesting phenomenon: so much for social interaction, this sub set of Pokémon Go players really don’t want to be talking to each other. So everyone plays eyes down. Which compounds the public order situation. One lunch time a woman tries to make conversation. She looks over at my phone screen. I can’t make out exactly what she’s saying (I’m listening to the manic street preachers ‘the love of Richard Nixon’, on repeat, which seems germane to other matters, but isn’t really helping the one in hand); it gets awkward; she moves on. Later I see I her perched on the end of a bench asking advice from a couple; they don’t seem happy either. Everyone here would like to have personal recourse to the sort of heart-warming anecdotes which are filling social media, in which an unlikely combination of people from different walks of life share a Pokémon moment and walk away enriched, but only after the event. Much as I would like to be able to tell that story. I’m not really willing to put in the groundwork talking to strangers in a graveyard.
In that vein, a snatch of conversation overheard: there are Pikachu, and there is something rarer. I don’t catch what. And of course, I don’t lean in to ask. I’m definitely not playing Pokémon. I’m not doing what you are doing.
The second time I caught a Porygon. Was that it? Was that an achievement?
The Pikachus are thinning out. I have set myself the arbitrary goal of evolving one. When I’ve caught enough to do that, I’ll stop. I no longer catch Pidgeys and Drowzees and Spearows. I’m definitely bored.
So why am I doing this? I won’t let my Pokémon fight, of course. They might get hurt. I didn’t like it when my Tamagotchi, the barest of digital outlines, died back in ’97 or ’98. And I certainly don’t want to hang around outside a Pokémon gym. A catch is a quick in-out operation. Battles seem like something else. Conversation seems inevitable.
I get hooked on this sort of thing easily but infrequently. Once the episode passes it seems insane. The last one was that coin catcher thing on the iPad, a few years back. I can’t even remember how it worked. Watch the coins pile up, accumulate a few objects. Repetitive and simple. Hours and hours. The first one I remember was suburban fox, in primary school, back on the old BBCs. Does anyone else remember that game? The screen was a grid; square by square you uncovered the grid; in the end there was a fox hunt. I’d give quite a lot to play that again. Most modern computer games are too complex for me. Soon virtual reality will be too, and I will lose interest.
I wonder when the lines will blur. I don’t know if I’m particularly susceptible, but if I play this for a stretch of time, on one level I start to muddle up the dogs and the pigeons with the Pidgeys and the Rattatas. Something rustles in the undergrowth and I’m confused that the screen isn’t buzzing. I wonder whether the generation which grows up with this will be better or worse able to distinguish. I wonder when the genuine moral quandaries will come in. The Holocaust Museum was just a teaser. Sometimes in an excess of sentimentality, I wish there was an option to set my Pikachu free, instead of transferring them to the professor (I suppose I’m at liberty just to look at them, take a snap or two). But what about if I was seeing a convincing animal, holding a convincing cage? What about if my Tamagotchi was flesh made virtually manifest, and it got thinner and mangier if I failed to feed it? What about when we can kill people who look like people, who stand and die in front of us, and all the other sins made virtual flesh?
William Blake is the only occupant of Bunhill Fields I feel I know at all well. His grave is a funny sort of thing; it leans a bit and it pokes up out out of the paving. It has a superior but peculiar location, in the middle of an open space which is otherwise a path. People leave him flowers in a rather miserable jam jar. Now instead of sandwich eaters, little cartoon phantoms hover above the grave. No sillier really. He probably would have written a suitably over-blown verse or two on the subject.
I decided to give in to the educational, get out and explore aspect of the game. It seemed like raising two fingers at the game: you didn’t really think anyone would fall for that, did you? Well, I have. I screen shot some pokestops. Joseph Denison tomb. John Bunyan’s Sarcophagus (I think I knew you were there. I’d forgotten. Hello again). Theophilus Lindsey tomb. Forgotten Tomb.
I struggle with Denison. I’ve misspelt him, but by the time I realise I’ve moved on. Theophilus Lindsey is easier. Died in 1808. A clergyman and theologian, according to Wikipedia. The religious debates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries passed me by, I lost patience at Nicaea. But this I understand: he died and was laid to rest in Bunhill Fields in 1808. Of all the unimaginable futures, two hundred years later his grand tomb is a Pokestop, and in consequence I have finally looked him up.