Saturday, December 27, 2008

Two books, two points of view.

So I hope we all had an excellent Xmas; in the run up to the arbitarilly assigned date of significance I found myself reading 'Achtung Scweinehund', by Harry Pearson. An excellent little book.

Harry like so many of us, grew up in an England not so much haunted by the Second world War, as infused with it; and the influence it has had on his later life is a large part of the subject matter of this book. He manages to warmly recollect his childhood with toy soldiers, the hopeless Action Man and the interminable Colditz boardgame; whilst Uncles told him about how many 'Japs' they'd killed in the war. At the same time he does a good job of introducing wargaming as a subject for the uninformed, and of providing a basic history of it's genesis in Europe (particualarly from around 1600 onwards) and the early manufacturers of the figures with whom he is most interested.
Also, and importantly, Harry addresses the emotional issues related to wargaming, and more generally that certain breed of men who seem to enjoy them most. Towards the end of the book he considers the issues of Nerds, and the many breeds of gamer. How some of them seem never to grow up, whilst others drift away from their hobbies as some sort of social expectation makes them believe the time or money invested is not worthwhile. For Harry himself, he is proud to admit he is a Geek, and by the end of the book has reconciled the position.
The distinctions between Pearson's book and another I read earlier in the year, could not be more distinct. Whereas 'Achtung' celebrates a hobby, 'The Elfish Gene' reads like an embarrasing condemnation of one, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight in very tight focus.

As a roleplayer in my youth, I can identify with an awful lot of the experience Mark Barrowcliffe writes about in his book, just as I could with Harry Pearson. However, whilst Mark's book is on face value much funnier, you rapidly come to realise that this is because he is deeply ashamed of his involvement with the hobby. The guy is painfully aware of how uncool he feels his hobby made him, and blames in large part the hobby for making him that way, rather than the tendency of all boys to be like that.
As a result, there is a denialist streak running through 'Elfish', as if the author is very definately saying 'what I did was wrong, and I know now that it was wrong; please forgive me and don't do what I did.' He paints the characters who were involved in gaming as almost uniformly dysfunctional in some way, and potrays his ability to talk to girls as a sign of his superiority over them, and gateway to final freedom from geekdom. Frankly this is kind of annoying, and what is worse is that Mark simply chooses to attack his target, as it would be seen as an easy one to do so with. I can't imagine a similar version being written about Football or Fishing for example.
For all of that, it is a humourous red, but unlike 'Achtung Schweinehund, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. For a nostalgic and ultimately nourishing read, use your Xmas book token on Harry Pearsons work; then lend it to friends or family who don't get why you like toy soldiers. Borrow the elfish Gene from the Library, by all means; but don't attempt to explain yourself to anyone with it!

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