The Serbs had the city of Mostar surrounded. Holed up in their compound, the teenage soldiers of the Croatian Defence Force – HOS for short – relieved the tedium of stalemate by smoking weed, using heroin and firing ammo into the air, or towards the distant hills hiding camouflaged Serbian snipers.
“Mostar’s streets were deserted, so we told our guide to find us some ‘boom boom’,” journalist Joe Cusack recalls. “A lot of the soldiers we’d met had had enough of mayhem and killing – they had a compassion about them – but those kids in HOS didn’t. They were like glue-sniffers with guns. The whole thing was on edge.”
Joe was witnessing the disintegration of Yugoslavia firsthand, alongside his childhood friend Graham Johnson, and their yearning for “boom boom” was about to be sated. Hearing the blood-curdling whine of an incoming Serbian shell, they hit the dirt.
Joe – then in his early twenties – remembers a cold sensation blooming in his chest, followed by a split-second vacuum as the shell hit a car and detonated maybe 40 metres away. His ears ringing from the blast, he looked over to Graham. A moment of understanding rippled between them as they burst spontaneously into nervous schoolboy giggles. They owed their survival to what they’d come to term “Factor X” – their pet name for fate, chance, serendipity.
Weeks earlier, “X” had also been the determining factor in Joe and Graham quitting their respective jobs in a care home and accountancy. Inspired by the classic counterculture novel The Dice Man, and with zero experience in journalism, they’d decided their Yugoslavian escapade on the roll of a die.
Armed with a pair of forged press cards, and telling their parents they were shipping out for a sesh in Ibiza, they embarked on a journey that would prove life-changing.
The Dice Man is 50 years old this year. Its author, George Cockroft – writing under the pseudonym Luke Rhinehart – didn’t quite make it to see in the half century, having passed away in November. But the dice philosophy described in his controversial, rite-of-passage satire still endures, inspires and – to some extent – terrorises to this day.
It tells the story – by turns blackly comic, repellent and nihilistic – of a bored Manhattan psychiatrist who surrenders daily decision-making to the roll of a die. He abandons his family. He tries to rape his neighbour’s wife. He assumes bizarre identities on pick-up adventures, and orchestrates a mass escape from a psychiatric hospital.
The book – published in 1971 – was a slow-burn success, eventually selling a reported 2 million copies in 25 countries worldwide. Honoured by Loaded magazine in 1999 as “the novel of the century”, it has left a lasting legacy of dice disciples across the globe.
“There’s something absolutely mystical about the dice,” says Joe, originally from Liverpool but now based in Manchester. “By rolling the dice, you’re tapping into something that’s already there, an undercurrent, like you’re pre-defined.”
Speaking from the other side of the world, in Perth, Australia, 42-year-old Retter tells me about his own dabbles with the devil’s bones, describing something almost identical to Joe’s mystical undercurrent.
“I used to use the dice as a way of trying to help the universe help me,” he says. “I’m an atheist – I don’t believe in God’s will and all that stuff – but I certainly feel there’s an energy in the world, and the dice helped me access some of that.”
As a self-confessed “highly functioning alcoholic”, Retter has used the dice to navigate a succession of booze-fuelled hi-jinks, and the allure of a little chaos has occasionally proved irresistible to the people in his orbit. He recalls how rolling for red wine or white in a bar one evening descended into a pub crawl with an entourage of 20. Another time, on a weekend trip to his home town, and with hours to spare before his flight back, Retter says his dice tinkering caught a woman’s eye.
“I told her, ‘I’m leaving in a few hours – do you want to come home with me, or shall I get your number?’ She said, ‘Let’s go!’ She’d bought into the randomness of it, and so we had this bizarre one-night stand. We had sex, and then I didn’t have time for a shower and just put everything in my bag and went to the airport. What I didn’t realise was that this girl had a boyfriend and it created all this turmoil – I had to avoid a whole group of people for quite some time after that.”
Retter gave up dicing a few years back. “I now have people who rely on me, and I don’t want to let them down,” he says. But the power of his two little cubes (“I didn’t do shitty dice. I had glam dice – polished metal”) has burrowed deep into his psyche.
“Over time, you don’t need the dice anymore, you get comfortable making random decisions,” he explains, recalling relocating to Hong Kong on a whim to take up an out-of-the-blue job offer. “It frees you of the shackles of obligation. The people around you are saying, ‘Oh, we need to do this report before we make a decision. We need this case study.’ The diceman philosophy rolls in and you just go, ‘Fuck it,’ and decide.”
At the same time, he talks of being in thrall to the dice – and their influence – to the point where he would prickle with apprehension at the mere suggestion of a board game: dice in the hand demand to be rolled. Dice demand the roll is obeyed – the cardinal rule of the dedicated dicer.
“There were times I didn’t do what the roll told me to,” Retter tells me, “and I always felt that for the next however many rolls, I’d get the most difficult options. I remember sitting and talking to my dice, and saying, ‘I’m really sorry – but can you just give me an easy choice now? I apologise.’
"When you were asking about this interview, I knew that if I didn’t do it, and if I ever went back to dice living, it was going to crush me. I had to do this interview – it wasn’t even a negotiation, because I just knew that the dice would fuck me up otherwise.”
Art director Araz, 44, from Gothenburg, relocated to London in the 1990s – arriving with just a tenner in his pocket – on the roll of a die. He stayed for 12 years, became a dad, did a PhD. Another lapsed dicer, he’s giving the habit a break after rolling for it in 2013. He’d been dicing since his late teens and says it had become an addiction.
“I had a brief correspondence with George Cockcroft, and he warned me it’s a very slippery slope,” Araz explains. “As with most addictions, if you say you’re going to quit cold turkey, it doesn’t work out well. But if you say, ‘I’m going to take a break – an extended break for I don’t know how long,’ it works out better. So one of the options I gave myself was taking a break from the dice if I rolled a five – and I hit it.
“In the early days, dicing wasn’t profound as such for me, but in later days it became more profound – it became about actually embracing change in life. Looking at my desk now, I’ve got seven different dice here. It colours you for life and becomes part of you, but... I’m still taking a break.”
Araz used his dicing to turbo-charge a hedonistic streak that once saw a west London lock-in snowball – or dice roll – into jumping on the next plane to Berlin for a night out at Berghain. In typically reckless fashion, Araz flouted the club’s strict “no photos” policy.
“The bouncers stopped me and, technically, I’m now banned for life,” he laughs. “But there are no regrets. Dicing was a downward spiral for me – but a good one.
“I remember, another time, breaking into Harrow cemetery for a drum session. I was climbing back over the wall with a huge crucifix in one hand and a bongo drum in the other, and the people on a passing bus just looked at me. It made me realise people actually don’t care what you do as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”
Araz describes how hitting the dice often brings about a moment of clarity, as true desires are revealed in a longing for a particular outcome.
That experience is borne out by research, says Eva Krockow, a psychologist specialising in judgment and decision-making. She recoiled from Cockcroft’s book and the psychopathic possibility its narrator surrenders to, but she says dice and other randomisers, like coin flips, can be used strategically to reduce cognitive load and streamline decision-making.
“Too much choice is a problem in modern society,” she says. “We think it’s desirable to have as much choice as possible, but actually we can’t handle it, and ultimately it can be quite unsatisfying. You can randomise smaller decisions because they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.”
The echoes of such tiny, seemingly inconsequential decisions relinquished to chance might take months, years or a lifetime to ripple back to us. They might be so subtle we barely notice them, the passage of time masking their origins and creating a disconnect.
Joe and Graham, of course, randomised a Very Big Decision – to leave Liverpool to cover a war in a foreign country – with obvious impact. Nearly 30 years on, they’re both successful investigative journalists, documentary producers and writers, with multiple best-selling books between them.
“I was not the same person when I came back from Bosnia,” says Joe, 53. “If I hadn’t gone, I honestly think I’d be in a council house, with a load of kids, on a sink estate in Liverpool.
“The laws that govern chance are festooned with chicanery. The universe throws you these curve balls and you’ve got to suck them in. I was the loser with dark rings under my eyes who never had the money for his bus fare. Getting from where I was then to where I am now is all down to the throw of a die.”