Unleash the Geek

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By Mark Simpson (Independent on Sunday, 21/01/07)

When I was a boy in the lan­guor­ous 1970s I looked for­ward to Christmas not just for the prez­zies but the bore­dom that only cold tur­key and just three TV chan­nels could pro­duce. I cal­cu­lated that the more bored every­one was the more chance there was that they might suc­cumb to my out­land­ish, vaguely inde­cent entreaty: ‘Let’s play Escape from Colditz!’

‘Oh, no! Not Escape From Colditz!!’ every­one would cry, shrink­ing away in hor­ror as I bran­dished the unfeas­ibly large box for the game ‘based on the hit BBC TV series’, with it’s crazily com­plic­ated board, myriad fussy pieces and cards and incom­pre­hens­ible game­play. ‘It’s so silly!’ my sis­ter would huff. ‘The rule-book is the size of dic­tion­ary!’ Dad would snort. ‘It takes forever!’ Mum would moan.

These all soun­ded like recom­mend­a­tions to me. But no dice. Escape from Colditz would go back in the cup­board for another year. For you, Tommy, ze Christmas is over. Everyone hated that game. Except me. I thought it was almost as excit­ing as The Battle of Britain (my favour­ite film). But now, after all these years, I think I’ve finally found someone to play Escape From Colditz with.

Not only did Harry Pearson, author of Achtung Schweinehund! A Boy’s Own Story of Imaginary Combat also love this tra­gic game as a boy, he like me spent his child­hood re-enacting the Second World War, devour­ing Commando comic books, wear­ing Clarks Commando shoes, play­ing with plaggy Airfix sol­diers, assem­bling Airfix scale-models of Spitfires and re-watching Sink the Bismarck!. We were a gen­er­a­tion raised to win the Second World War over and over again. Something most of us were only too happy to do.

It’s a shame that Pearson didn’t live next door to me. Pearson and I would have been best of chums. We even share the same boy­ish dis­like of uni­sex hairdress­ers that col­on­ized the 1970s, secretly sus­pect­ing that ‘they didn’t actu­ally cut your hair at all. They just fol­ded the untidy bits away and fixed them there with the heat gun.’ The only cloud on the hori­zon would have been: Who was going to play the Germans?

And then again…. Maybe it’s best he didn’t. You can have too much in com­mon with someone for both your own good – which seems to me to be the essen­tial the prob­lem of male friend­ship. If Pearson had lived next door I would prob­ably have ended up that pecu­li­arly dis­dained spe­cies of failed man known a war­gamer. Instead of just a fondly indulged homo­sexual. You see, Pearson never stopped bat­tling on the fields and on the beaches, ‘in his head on the sitting-room floor and across his bed­room ceil­ing’ as his book blurb puts it. Thirty years on he’s still at it, col­lect­ing vast, anally-accurate his­tor­ical tin armies, hand-painting them all and lug­ging them up and down the coun­try in search of other people who share his proclivities.

For years he has kept this ‘niche’ side of his life secret from most of his friends, for fear they wouldn’t under­stand. This book is his grand com­ing out: ‘It’s time to stop liv­ing this double life. It is time to unleash the geek,’ he declares. He’s not under any illu­sion how shar­ing his ‘spe­cial­ist interests’ is likely to be received and how, once he starts talk­ing about this side of his life, he is fre­quently com­pelled ‘by a force stronger than me’ to blurt out inform­a­tion that he prob­ably shouldn’t, such as the exact num­ber of but­tons on an early 19th Century Hungarian Hussar’s Sunday pan­ta­loons. ‘I know that even while you are nod­ding and say­ing, “Really? Is that so? How fas­cin­at­ing,” many of you will be gradu­ally edging towards the exit.’

But not me. While much of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion may regard a war­gamer as only a few rungs up from a nonce, I refuse to cast asper­sions. Because I know they’ll boom­er­ang. Like most men, not so deep down, I’m really a war­gamer inside myself. When we are boys, war­games sim­u­late man­hood. When we are men, man­hood sim­u­lates wargames.

So I under­stand war­gamers. I sym­path­ise. I just don’t want to go there – in case I don’t come back. Fortunately, there’s no need to live next door to Pearson and take the risk because instead we have his funny, scour­gingly hon­est and some­times affect­ing auto­bi­o­graph­ical book about his childish-mannish obses­sion and the childish-mannish nature of men. All in all, it’s even more fun than Escape From Colditz.

Anorak or no, Pearson is also cap­able of poignancy and per­haps even philo­sophy, admit­ting his own dis­il­lu­sion with his com­pul­sion, per­haps with mas­culin­ity itself: ‘In my view, the aspect of war­gam­ing that was most like real war was that it was never quite as thrill­ing as you hoped and ima­gined it would be’. Everything looked lovely, but once the fight­ing star­ted it ‘all dis­solved into a chaotic slog­ging match.’

If you think that Pearson’s saga­cious obser­va­tions the way of the sword are some­what deval­ued by the fact he has spent his life play­ing at war but never actu­ally tak­ing part, then you should prob­ably con­sider that quite a few war­gamers are former or serving mil­it­ary chaps, includ­ing a squad­die chum of his called Tony who wrote from Iraq, ‘Keep send­ing news of your war­gam­ing activ­it­ies they are a wel­come dose of san­ity in all this crazi­ness.’ He was killed by a bomb at a check­point shortly afterwards.

As the fam­ous Colditz escapee Major Pat Reid notes in the pamph­let that came with the Colditz board-game, ‘There is no greater sport than the sport of escape.’

So, Harry, fancy a game? I’ll even play the Germans.

Make it best of three?

Copyright Mark Simpson 2007

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1 thought on “Unleash the Geek

  1. Have you still got ‘Escape from Colditz’? My brother had it and my parents have kept it. It sounds like we got to play the game more than you had the chance to. I don’t remember us arguing about who was going to be the Germans. That would be like arguing over who would be black and who would be white when playing checkers. The Germans were black and the Dutch were orange. I always wanted to be the Dutch if I wasn’t the Germans.

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