Free

This weekend I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time: got rid of all my books.

Well, not all of them. A couple of cherished volumes remain. An edition of Ulysses I was given at 16;  a few textbooks peppered with notes from b-school; rather too many graphic novel trade paperbacks, my guilty pleasure. (If you so much as think Kapow or Biff, I’ll hunt you down; “Sandman” and “100 Bullets” are high art.) But I think I’ll get rid of even those, in time.

Because I’ve completed the transition.

All those word-filled bricks everyone keeps forever – because they’ve owned them since teenhood, or make a shelf look dressed, or plan to read sometime but never get around to – are now boxed up into giveaways.

My literary life’s now entirely digital, and I couldn’t be happier.

My KindleI came late to Kindle, buying a fondlepad only in 2011. But now there’s a hundred volumes on there, including a fair few I owned already and bought again for the convenience, and it’s started me reading again because it’s just so simple. I don’t pay heed to the Booker list or Times Literary Supplement; too new (literature needs time to let the good bits bubble up) and the pop-science works are too bulky when released and out of date when they reach paperback. Business strategy books come and go, and any good review gives you their main ideas; ninety-nine out of a hundred you never need to read and even fewer are worth keeping, while investment texts tend towards thousand-page epics that put too much weight in my backpack. My Kindle is as close as I’ll ever get to an addiction, because…

I’m all about the kilograms.

Minimalists don’t own much. Storing everything I own during a year away took a single lock-up cube a metre and a half along each side. And most of that – eight 50cm cardboard boxes, about four hundred kilos – was bookware, the old fashioned ink-on-paper sort with spines that crease and dogears that take decades to delete themselves.

The photographs I own that use paper as their substrate… fit into a small worn envelope. I haven’t bought a single CD since I came back to the UK early this century; all went onto my hard disk years back. I don’t buy DVDs any more; what’s the point in the era of LoveFilm and NetFlix? (And the 400 or so I bought in more stuff-obsessed times fit into two wallets if you strip away the boxes.)

But books … they were my last holdout. About six hundred of them, masses of fiction and nonfiction amassed over thirty years.

The travel guides went first. In a summer of injury I surfed the globe in DK’s illustrated technicolour instead, and never lost the habit. But they’re gone now. Then textbooks, many on stuff that just interested me at the time: molecular biology, nuclear physics, electronics and nanotechnology and supramolecular chemistry. A step closer to the bestseller lists came the popsci: Gleick and Deutsch and Dawkins, papery chaos reduced to bits and forced into extinction. Then a torrent of penguins: Dickens to Melville and and Burroughs to Pynchon, Shakespeare to Thompson and Wolfe. (Not because I don’t want them, but because I’ve got them in a format without heft or inertia; classics in particular cost pennies in e-book format.) Gibbon was declined, and fell; no element of Euclid had solid reason to remain choate; Plato and Aristotle failed to justify their existence. Old Oxford anthologies – monster kilobricks of two thousand pages apiece, six of them – crumbled into memories flakier than a Don’s potato. MBA Required Readings got skipped; Operations textbooks were surgically removed.

With every handful heaved cartonwards, I felt a little more free.

And I hope this is the way we’re all going.

A state of mind where we can all be free. Footloose and open to opportunities, living lives free of compromise beholden to no-one.

Free of the suffocating paperstuff that weighs us down and anchors us in one place because it creates too much inertia to do anything else.

Too many educated people are in thrall to their libraries, their natural impulses to explore held in check by the gravitational pull of a hundred groaning bookshelves. I’ve seen apartments in this town where every wall is covered and doors only open as far as the stacks huddled behind them allow. Old people yellowing in synchronicity with the foxing on ancient hardbacks: best case = lost in the words they love as their lives trundle towards midnight, worst case = trapped by them and prevented from giving the world beyond a last hurrah. I’ve seen young people already circumscribed by what they own, life choices inexorably narrowed because they’ve got too much stuff to carry around.

Where are they going? To the Sahara. There’s a lot of decent reading in there, and a charity’s willing to take them off my hands. A part of the world where, sadly, too many maniacs with too few ideas are running amok. Men who follow an apocalyptic antithesis of my idea: that only one book matters, and no other knowledge should be allowed.

They burn ancient libraries that give the lie to Africa being a land of oral tradition. They shoot girls in the head for going to school. They contort ancient beliefs into laws that benefit themselves, and rule by terror and blood. These men must be stopped.

Perhaps by throwing a few hundred kilograms of books into the endless desert, a boy who’d otherwise pick up an AK and a headful of hate will pick up a book instead. And step onto another path.

Perhaps today, I’m stopping one bullet from being fired in ten years’ time. And that can only be a good thing.

Felicity J Lord: a tale of a tragically incompetent lettings agency

Working outside London much of the last year, I rented my house in the capital through supposedly reputable, but in reality appallingly inept, lettings agency Felicity J Lord. This ditty documents my (frustrating) experiences over the past year.

In my opinion, it’s been not merely the worst estate agency, but in fact the worst company of any description I’ve ever dealt with: F J Lord seems bumbling and clueless to a level barely imaginable in today’s competitive environment. (Including, at the actual time of writing, failing to return any of four calls inviting them to ponder on whether they should, on the final day of a tenancy, perhaps be performing certain acts related to their business.)

Anger and frustration have long since been replaced by a sense of resigned shaking-head acceptance. So to reflect the cloud-cuckoo approach to business practiced by this most Alice-in-Wonderland of property companies, I’ve put my complaint in verse. (To be read in the meter of that Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Modern Major General’s Song from Pirates of Penzance.)

Felicity J Lord: A Modern Major General Lettings Catastrophe

 

It started with a contract, and the little bit of paperwork

For Residential Shorthold, simple job for any lettings clerk

But even as the doc was signed the future trouble reared its head -

Mistake in rent (I noticed) proved the contract hadn’t been re-read.

 

In truth the indicators of a possible catastrophe

From people too incompetent to double-check a Spelling Bee

Had been there from first viewings as the designated agency

Drove up and waited shyly to inform him they’d forgot the key.

 

Then as the Tenants signed their names the problems start to pile up,

We say we’ll take a 5% upfront and then take twice as much,

Calls left hanging and our anxious landlords kept on tenterhooks

It takes six weeks from fault report to get us in to take a look!

 

Our left hand never has a clue what righty might be doing now,

The smallest task resulting in a constant escalating row

We keep our landlords so frustrated many let the errors pass -

Perhaps that’s why we say hands-on: we need both hands to find our ass.

 

As if to prove our Agency is unfailingly blooper-prone,

Each month we write in error to the owner of the letted home.

No wonder that our landlords think from F J Lord they should take flight -

We’re so inept it takes twelve months to get a direct debit right!

 

Yet through it all we have the cheek to charge the highest fees in town

To us a landlord candidate is little better than a clown

And when they ask to justify what they see as extortionate

We smile and say effectiveness is not a part of our remit.

 

The grossest errors and mistakes; throughout it all we take our fee,

As if we were a shining Modern General Lettings Agency

But competence remains a word that we do not epitomise,

We understand some customers just give up and emit loud sighs.

 

Since Britain’s in a triple-dip you’d think that all its companies

For customers would kiss the air and fall gratefully to their knees

But F J Lord exists on oddly non-converging business vector -

Servicing its customers more badly than the Public Sector.

 

And so today the disgruntled composer of this witty verse

Phoned F J Lord in tears of joy with words that needed no rehearse

The tenancy is ending and there’s no more painful work to do

F J Lord of course seemed shocked, as if it didn’t have a clue!

 

So that’s the story (with perhaps a pinch of gentle poem license)

Of F J Lord, whose tasks are hardly on a par with rocket science

Handing viewings, signing forms, and thenceforth just collecting rents

An easy job description, done with laughable incompetence!

2012: moments to remember

2012 wasn’t a bumper year for the UK – hitting the third trough of a triple-dipper, socialism and its henchman the Public Sector on the rise  (again), and business and consumer confidence beating their foreheads against the wall sobbing.  But it was an OK year for me.

(Of course, my definition of “ok” is any day I don’t get pushed under a Tube by a maniac or clusterfucked by hordes of slavering zombies. Deep down, I’m a happy person.)

The year went too quickly, of course: something hits the fast-forward button on your life once you pass 25 . I didn’t jump, didn’t do a tri, didn’t go to Krav, yet it seems mere minutes since I did all three regularly. Getting back into them (and a few new sports) is a goal for 2013.

But as for the things that stood out for me in 2012:

  1. e1499e106I fought zombies in an abandoned shopping mall.Thank you, ZED Events, for making it the most atmospheric experience of the year.
  2. IMG_2156I went Mac, after two decades in the PC paradigm. Two things stood out: how painless it was – the only things I had to learn were Illustrator and a few keyboard shortcuts – and how much smoother life is now.A solid-state hard drive, that beautiful Retina screen, and simpler backups all made it a decision that’s added 20% to my productivity.
  3. snapcityIt was a year of spread bet trading. Bringing together my knowledge of business fundamentals, technical analysis, and cognitive biases started to work and I’m now consistently profitable at around 1% a month, albeit from a small pot: that’s => the averaged returns from even the best hedge funds.How? Because I’m doing it on small scales, trading derivatives I know well. I now believe any garage investor can beat any top City manager in percentage terms, if you don’t have outsiders to satisfy.
  4. IMG_2558I had another great odyssey across the southwest USA, driving the “Grand Circle” out from Vegas. And realised that for all my years travelling Asia and Europe, the Mojave and its hinterlands are my favourite part of the world.Perhaps I’ll go there for ever… someday.
  5. My KindleIt was my Year of the Kindle. I can’t remember when I last picked up a paperback, but it wasn’t in 2012. I’m gradually putting my entire library onto that little grey slate, including some big textbooks and anthologies (tip: read them on Retina instead) and don’t expect to ever buy anything between hard covers again.Three large bookshelves of old-world print, soon to disappear from my already uncluttered life.
  6. IMG_3152I learned to climb. And found it as satisfying as skydiving: the way when you’re hanging off a wall leaning towards you, grasping odd-shaped protuberances and distributing your weight for least energy, you have to live entirely in the moment.No matter how bad your week, an hour on something vertical wipes it away. 2013 will be a year of bouldering.
  7. gJQAFbeOEX_galleryAnd of course, the London Olympics happened all around me. I didn’t expect it to matter, but it did. The way strangers smiled; the dreamy playfulness of each day in those two brief weeks in summer; the satisfaction of being a citizen of the host nation and knowing that, yes, we got it right.

In science there were some big discoveries too. With the Higgs Boson, another building block in our understanding of physics clicked into place. At the other end of the scale, the number of extrasolar planets we know about is heading towards 1,000 – with 7 now confirmed as being in their stars’ Goldilocks zones. These planets have ground to stand on, perhaps atmospheres to breathe, liquid water on their surfaces. Perhaps there’s life on them. Perhaps there’s life on all of them. One day, we’ll know.

But the moment that mattered most in 2012?

Rewind to the Olympics. As Mo Farah won the 5,000m, I made to turn down an overloud TV. Clicking the remote did nothing to quell the ecstatic cheering, And then, I realised it wasn’t the TV.

It was a city on its feet outside my window, joy in its heart and fire in its blood, the whole of London cheering as one.

Happy 2013!

In praise of White Van Man

220px-White_vans_OxfordHe gets a lot of stick for his black-and-white politics. His attitude to the taxman is somewhat less than servile. And the way he drives earns a lot of ire. But I’m a big fan of White Van Man.

White Van Man is the working-class (stress working) male who spends much of his day in and around his vehicle. He’s the builder with your new front door in the back, the handyman hooking up your plumbing, the removals guy lugging your mattress across town for a quick fifty. He’s usually white, left school in his teens, and gets a bit lost on the finer points of Keynesian economics, yet he’s more cheerful (and more resourceful) than a senior manager at any FTSE-100 member. And that’s why I like him.

White Van Man is that freak of nature in today’s society: someone who doesn’t demand anything more than the most basic of safety nets from the government. He’s not a parasite, not even a socialist (although he may vote Labour.) He works hard, often for himself; his days start at dawn and his kids are often asleep by the time he gets home. But he doesn’t complain.

White Van Man pays his taxes. (Although perhaps a smaller percentage than the tax code strictly specifies.) But his needs aren’t high; he doesn’t march on Whitehall when his pay hasn’t risen in a year like Britain’s ultra-mollycoddled Public Sector drones. He wants a hospital for his parents, a school for his kids, maybe a house where the rent leaves a fiver left over for chips, and… that’s about it.

He doesn’t expect anything he hasn’t paid for – and he often pays more tax, more consistently than any other group. His earnings of £25-50k deliver around £5k a year to the Treasury and much more to the broader economy. Think about it: a self-employed builder putting up a conservatory a week increases the nation’s housing stock by a million pounds a year. A gift that keeps on giving for decades on our overcrowded island, even if you abhor those forests of uPVC wrapping Britain’s suburban brickwork.

And he keeps on doing it, in all weathers, in conditions most salaried workers would consider appalling.

Yet White Van Man doesn’t ask for much. He likes to watch the football, enjoy a beer, do his job with a minimum of hassle. And all he needs to do it is to be left alone. He wants the freedom to make the odd off-colour joke; to hold views offensive to some groups without being prosecuted for them; for the traffic cop to show a bit of understanding if it was an empty motorway in good weather.

He wants a bit of give and take, a bit of common sense to apply, without having to worry about a twenty-point Code of Conduct or densely worded contract. These opinionated, chain-smoking, sarcastic men are the backbone of Britain, if you treat them well.

I always let White Van Man out at busy junctions; after all, I’m on my way to a comfortable office, he’s got to make a one-hour delivery slot or his family goes hungry. I’ll add extra for a job well done and make sure they’ve got all the tea and biscuits they need. I won’t load extra tasks into the brief or be late for him, because all he wants out of life is to get home by 7 to watch Arsenal.

And beyond that, the resourcefulness of White Van Man means makes him a valuable friend. He’ll know someone who’s selling a fridge, or can tile your outside wall, or can get rid of that overhanging tree your neighbours complain about. (Or the neighbours themselves, depending on which part of town he’s from.)

That’s why I always try to make life a bit easier for White Van Man…. and why you should, too.

The secret of business: they’re not clients, they’re friends

If there’s one phrase I hate, it’s “personal friend”.

Why? Because people who use it are drawing a distinction between the friends you have in life and the friends you have at work – let’s call it Facebook Versus LinkedIn. After a decade earning a living the most honest way there is – charging other people for what I do, no employment contract, no pack drill – I’m not sure there should be a difference.

The reason: business is personal. Same with “business ethics” or “professional courtesy”; ethics and courtesy shouldn’t be trammelled by whether the other party signs remittance advices. People are people, irrespective of whether they’re in a suit or floral boardshorts.

When I emerged from a career break a couple of years back – putting on the black suit again after a year of corporate finance and business strategy –  acquiring and retaining customers suddenly became really, really simple. You just make friends with them.

It might sound unprofessional. In fact, it’s the height of professionalism.

Because if you treat every client as a close friend, you’re more likely to deliver what they need from the relationship … and be honest when you can’t. (I’m not superhuman; I have deadline crunches and resource issues, same as you.) Treating clients as friends may be a philosophy, rather than a business strategy – but it’s a pretty good business strategy, too.

It means working on a client because you want to, not because it earns money. (If your first thought of a client involves getting paid rather than looking forward to seeing them, you’re not there yet.) With new clients I’ll often invest months of ideas and execution before there’s a monthly retainer on the table. But once that’s nailed I tend to keep that client for years; I’m still working with people I first met during my decade as an expat, years ago. Why? Because they see me as a friend, too.

It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the money. I love money, and want as much of it as possible. But the best way to grow your client base is to make sure people think well of you; there’s an economy around friendship as tangible as real markets, and being in demand is the natural outcome of being an honest dealer.

If a friend drops £10, you pick it up and give it back.

If a friend buys a round, you buy one back.

And if a friend asks how much you fronted for the taxi last night, you don’t double the fare because there’s a profit in doing so.

Treating clients as friends means you never play games with your client’s budget; you’re psychologically incapable of it, because friends don’t do that. And every business decision becomes simple, too. You take or reject a new client based on whether you like them, nothing more.

It goes against every b-school text and financial projection ever written. But it works.

In ten years and around 600 projects, I’ve had precisely seven go bad. On each occasion, it was someone I had a bad feeling about in the first moments of knowing them – this person’s not a friend. You don’t like them. Get out of there – and ignored it. You can’t fit it in a Boston Matrix or plot it on a Gaussian, but it’s the easiest thing in the world to do: trust your instincts.

Of course, there’s a glitch if you want to grow: this approach doesn’t scale. (Forget mass customisation and CRM; those are facsimiles, not the real deal.) There’s a limit to how many friends you can really call close, perhaps only 20 or so. But in creative industries like mine – any sector that relies on that essential fraction of human talent that can’t be mechanised – those 20 can deliver an income that buys a top-1% lifestyle anywhere in the Western world.

(Over 100,000 people in the UK are responsible for a budgetary spend over £100,000 a year. That’s £10bn of friendship-derived spend, of which you need an amazing 0.001 or 0.002%.)

Peter Drucker once said the whole of business is nothing more than the acquisition and retention of a customer. And that’s easy easy. Really easy.

Just make friends with them.

London 2012: So, how was it for you?

The flame’s gone out. The confetti’s on the ground. The last leathery throat has rasped its signature anthem. Perhaps the closing ceremony had some odd musical choices – the house only started rocking when the dinosaurs came out, proving today’s youngsters can’t hold a torch to Who and Floyd even when they’re covering. (Even Eric Idle got the house rocking.) And the less said about those mascots, the better.

But in the light of the morning after, with the London Olympics still fresh in the reddened eyes and twitching footfall of ten million Londoners, everyone’s asking: how was it for you?

Here’s my list (doubtless one of thousands): 9 great things about London 2012.

1. The city resplendent.

For everyday Londoners like me, it’s been a surprisingly pleasant two weeks. The Tube’s been busy at times and hilariously crowd-free at others, but life for most people went on without hassle, with the added frisson of genuinely feeling part of it all. At the opening ceremony it was fun to open the window every time the volume rose on TV and hear the real thing happening a klick or two downriver.

I didn’t go to a single event, but if you were out and about in town this last fortnight, you were in the games. Strangers struck up conversation; eye contact signified warmth not aggression; everybody smiled. London was a great place to be.

2. The opening ceremony.

Let’s face it, it was a work of genius. Perfect choreography, proper narrative, and an ability to laugh at itself in a way the Chinese or Americans could never match.

On a limited budget in a time of crisis, the curtain-raiser sent the watching billions a message: this is Britain.

3. The rainbow of faces.

The Games proved that opportunity exists in Britain for everyone, whatever’s written in your genes… if you push yourself to achieve something. (Not force others to pander to your proclivities.) On “Super Saturday” the three most noteworthy golds went to a Somali Muslim immigrant, a mixed-race woman, and – shock horror – a ginger. And I’ll bet it’ll just get better as the Paralympians come out to play.

The Games delivered a slap in the pursed kisser to every ethnofascist and religionista with a chip on his shoulder, showing them that if you feel downtrodden or oppressed, it’s entirely your problem. London emerged as the most diverse and tolerant city on earth.

4. The deafening silence from the public sector.

Days before the Games, the headlines were ablaze with predictable threats from the unions: Tube drivers, airport officials, I think even Bob “the Dinosaur” Crow made an appearance, desperately trying to hold Britain to ransom yet again. Yet the coddled millions of Britain’s bloated state sector stayed strangely quiet.

Perhaps the cotton-cossetted hordes have got it into their heads that if people dislike them, perhaps it’s because they’re just not that good. That maybe they should start delivering better services, instead of whining about their lot. And admit that maybe, just maybe, it was more fun being part of the party than trying to stop it.

5. The confirmation that competition works best.

Everyone points the finger at G4S’s staff undershoot as a failure of capitalism. In fact, G4S was the perfect example of why capitalism works. The company’s facing tens of millions in fee cuts, far more in years to come as its biggest customers write it off as a toxic brand. G4S will shrink, adapt if it can, and come back stronger, having learned the lessons.

How different to public sector provision, where a failing department usually gets more resource poured into it. The reason the London bid succeeded in the first place was because LOCOG acted like a good capitalist: ditching its first boss and bringing in Seb Coe. The Games celebrated the  marketplace.

6. The architecture.

The Pretzel, the Pool, the Park: the way a swampy disenfranchised sector of London’s gained a skyline is awesome. These buildings give focus and direction to an area that badly needed it: just a bit more shoving, ensuring the social capital gets properly used in the decades to come, will make the legacy real.

And Seb Coe – just appointed as Legacy director – is a terrific choice for the job. Unlike the sad birdcage of Beijing, the Olympic landscape is set to leave a real legacy.

7. The way marketing took a back seat.

Being a marketer myself doesn’t make me any keener to see stadium and arcade an infinite loop of logos, and how McDonalds and Coca-Cola can sponsor sports with a straight face mystifies me. So it was great to see just how far below the horizon the brands were: they were certainly present, but weren’t in-your face, helped by the BBC being principal broadcaster in the UK.

Of course, this wasn’t true globally (Twitter #nbcfail for how not to do it) but in their home city, the 2012 Olympics were about games, not brands. And rightly so.

8. The realisation that Britain’s actually brilliant.

It’s been less than 12 hours since The Who turned off the amps, but something’s… different around here. The UK ignored a gurgling recession, a mountain of debt inherited from Blair and Brown, the cries of a media desperate to sniff out disaster.

There’s a sense of YES! We can do stuff like this. We’re not second-rate Americans, or death-spiralling Europeans. Britain can do pretty much anything.. and better still, it can take anything. The UK has rediscovered its backbone.

9. You.

Even if you weren’t there, you were “there”. The shared sense of excitement was for real, and if you felt it, you made the games, as much as Mo or Jess. The best thing of all about London 2012 was … you. Yes, you with the surprised look on your face. You pulled it off!

Thank you, Seb Coe and LOCOG. Thank you, athletes, for entertaining us and demonstrating the unconquerability of the human spirit. Thank you, volunteers, for every smile and wave on a thousand street corners. Thank you, performers and creatives, for bookending the whole thing with two great acts of artistic direction. Thank you, stadium crowds who cheered and stomped – whoever and wherever you did it, they heard you.

London forever!

Battling the zombie apocalypse in…. Reading

The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience! A derelict shopping centre in Reading, filled with actors playing the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse… the infection is taking hold, and this mall is one of the few places that may contain the cure. Armed with Airsoft pump-guns, played mostly without light, and with missions that include actual CCTV feeds in a control room and tinny Tannoy music conjuring up visions of B-movies, it all feels very real: a first-person shooter in real life

It starts the moment you step inside a back entrance to the mall. Filling in half-humorous medical declarations, the lights die and the banging starts outside… then it’s haul ass to the safe zone to be equipped with vests and weapons. The initial missions are led by the “cops”: leading you through the parts of a shopping centre you don’t normally see, back corridors and storage areas that connect the retail stores. These areas are the most fascinating (well, second most) part of the experience: the warren of tiny rooms, eerily empty now, all dark and most with conveniently hazardous tables and shelves to hide behind… or be ambushed from. (One of my three “deaths” took place in a derelict toilet.)

Zed Events: The Mall 10th & 11th August &emdash; There’s a fair bit of running: the organisers try to create a sense of chaos. Like Romero’s 70s zombie flicks, the terror of the experience is in its crushing normality: a child’s ball pit, a helter-skelter, the detritus of a thousand Saturdays. With a twist: several areas are outfitted as makeshift medicentres and refuges, and there’s a variety of human body parts scattered around for emphasis.

The later missions are the blind leading the blind: no cops, no guides, just two big teams of 8-10 players retrieving objects from various locations around the mall. Of course, it doesn’t take long (with team members checking into rooms and peering down corridors) for the teams to be split. And when you end up alone (which is often) in the lower levels inanimate objects like a greeter’s station take on genuine menace. What’s beyond? Your flashlight doesn’t reveal much, except your location to the denizens of darkness.

Then, of course, there’s the zombies themselves.

They’re a mixed bunch, as they’d be in real life: biting is a great societal equaliser. There’s a doctor, a riot cop, some students, a businessman, a few women (whom I felt really bad shooting.) Several are clad in body armour and take 30+ pings to take down; the only way is to work in groups, setting up impromptu execution squads to pepper the kevlar-wrapped undead from several directions.

My first death happened in the light: two attackers boxing me into a corner, without the fire rate to hold them off. (I made it theatrical; the zombies are game.) It’s a large building and there are plenty of times you just don’t see any friendly faces for long minutes; the dread of being in a dim corridor and hearing zombie growls coming from nearby doorways produces genuine cold sweat. My second death happened here: a single zombie advancing towards me, me fresh out of ammo, and nobody around to hear my final gurgle.

It’s a great experience: you work up a sweat, have fun doing it, and get a surge of fear/thrill/panic that lasts halfway into the afternoon. But more than that, it’s set me thinking about the philosophy of zombies, why we find these unthinking creatures so much scarier than (say) a random killer in a hockey mask. It’s the way they’re not humans, but used to be. That even the worst of them retain some vestige of humanity; that even the best of them just become mindless killers post-bite.

I have a standing joke that I’ll only live in a zombie-proof house; no windows on the ground floor, lots of locks, preferably a gate and escape route. (The reason is that a zombie-proof house is proof against more everyday risks, too, like burglary or breach; it’s a simple strategy that pays big dividends.) In the end, that’s why zombies are scarier than vampires or werewolves: they’re human but inhuman, combining a savagery that’s all animal with a passion for blood that’s never sated. And that’s why things like The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience matter. It’s not all games, you know.

And perhaps the funniest moment: when one of my trainers made a squeak on the floorpaint. Bear in mind she’s an actor surrounded by mutant zombies … the heavily-armed police deputy gasped with a, “f*&k me, was that a rat?”