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