In early 1981 Alan, my then best mate, and I were allowed to start going by bus into Sheffield city centre on our own at weekends and during the summer months after school on the provision that were all home and at the tea table for 5:30PM sharp. School finished at 3:30PM and so we would make a manic dash of about quarter of a mile to the bus stop to catch a 3:40PM bus into the city. As may be expected, given his athletic prowess Harvey managed to leave Alan and I in the dust, often managing to grab a Mars bar, chat up a passing girl or two and still get to the stop before us.
We had to be back at the return stop for 5:00PM to be certain of getting home by the appointed time, no mean feat at rush hour I can tell you. In those days a bus ride anywhere in Sheffield cost 2p if you were under the age of sixteen.
On average we were given £1.00 per day as dinner money. We quickly worked out that if we ate as many bowls of cereal and slices of toast as was humanly possible at breakfast – my record was 18 Shredded Wheat - and conserved our energy by lounging on the playing fields or in the school library we could get by on no more than 35p per day with a diet of chips, curry sauce and mushy peas, topped off with a buttered bread roll - the infamous ‘Curry Special’. Allowing 4p for the two bus journeys we had 61p left, which equated to 2 man-sized figures with 1p left over towards our bus fares at the weekend. If we added this to our weekly spending money, or rather what was left after buying the ‘single of the week’ the previous Saturday, we could amass a veritable King’s - well OK, peasant’s - ransom to feed our figure habits each week.
Had our parents known - perhaps they did, but secretly admired our business acumen - we would have been grounded at the very least, possibly have had to resort to taking a packed lunch to school each day – a fate worse than death to a wargaming junkie -and maybe even taken out flogged in public on the Town Hall steps. One week I managed to scrape together £3.00 from dinner money alone and set off to spend it in an orgy of consumer indulgence. But alas, it was not to be.
When we reached Hopkinson’s the store was closed for the day. In our eagerness to turn gold into lead, we’d forgotten that in Sheffield in the 80s, it was half day closing in the market area. I felt cheated.
Alan and I were alone this time. Harvey was off somewhere - pitting himself against champion greyhounds I guess, or perhaps, an irate parent of one of the girls he was always mooning over. It was 4:00 and we decided to take a trip to Beatties, a large model shop on Pinstone Street in the heart of Sheffield. Using breathing techniques purportedly used by Zulu warriors to cross great distances of veldt at the run - you see? The school library did have its uses beyond calorie conservation and somewhere to look at pictures of unclothed females in biolology texts - we made it to Beatties in less than ten minutes. Weighed down as we were with bags full of exercise books and pockets awash with saved lunch money this was a good time, although Harvey would have snorted his derision and done it all again before we reached our destination.
This was the day my forays into fantasy changed direction once again, in a way that would seal my fate much in the way that finding a black sword dooms an albino prince.
Beatties was a long store with a ‘T’ shaped layout, managed by a ferocious fellow by the name of Geoff. He was probably a totally decent chap who loved his family, but he ran his store with a rod of iron and with white hair and salt and pepper beard, adding to his apparent hatred of the young, he terrified us. He had that type of bearing normally reserved for comic book villains, and what we thought was a murderous streak.
We were not the kind of kids who got our kicks out of causing grief for the staff of retail establishments, nor would we ever consider shoplifting, having been brought up with a definite sense of right and wrong and an infraction of that sensibility would of course result in instant death, should our parents even think that we’d talked about it, let alone actually pilfer. Nonetheless, in the eyes of Geoff and his staff we were teenagers and therefore based on that, the enemy and already guilty as charged.
This meant that we normally only visited Beatties with parents or grandparents, it being a given that older relatives added gravitas and a sense of respectability to a young boy, out to spend some readies on the fine wares they had to offer. However, this meant that as my interests were pretty straightforward when it came to model shops – trains and model kits - and the time allowed by my elders to indulge myself somewhat limited, I’d never so much as looked at the arm of the shop that contained radio control cars and Geoff’s tiny office. We knew that to go close to that cramped little room was to invite disaster, probably ending with a spell in the torture chamber we were all certain was down in the basement stock room.
Critically on this day, Alan and I decided to risk the wrath of Geoff and venture into the other parts of Beatties. Alan had been given an old radio control model of a dune buggy and was looking for replacement tyres, and therefore this was, we agreed the best place to make enquiries. Rounding the right hand corner of the ‘T’ that comprised the shop floor, we were met with a truly glorious selection of radio control cars. But wait dear reader… On the right hand side was a wall covered in glass-fronted cabinets that were packed top to bottom with box after box of lead figures and board games with sumptuous, breath taking fantasy artwork.
We were simply blown away by the variety of stuff on display. Until now we had only seen the grubby little bags containing the Citadel Miniatures models we had collected. Now, we were faced with a bewildering selection of themed sets of fantasy miniatures in the most amazingly illustrated boxes. These were produced by an American company called Grenadier Miniatures and, were their ‘Gold Line’ the ‘Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures’.
My head swam, choirs of angels sang out hallelujahs in my brain, and my heart pounded like a racehorse on the final furlong. The world around me melted away and I was transported to a realm where brightly clad elves fought battles with goblins and other strange monsters whilst lithe and limber women disported themselves in chain mail bikinis. My resolve stiffened by the euphoria – and probably the thoughts of chain mail clad ladies - I approached one of the staff. Some respectful questioning gained me the missing piece of the puzzle. The figures I had been collecting were playing pieces for something called a role-playing game or RPG. Crucially, I was handed a fistful of information and advertising that informed the curious reader all about them.
That evening, I literally shovelled my tea down my throat, whisked off my art and history homework and then took a long bath, devouring the arcane knowledge that promised to unlock the mysteries of role-playing games. I was, I imagined, Archimedes in his bathtub. I had reached my ‘EUREKA!’ moment and it was nothing to do with the whereabouts of the soap.
Unfortunately, my grand entrance into the mystical secrets of role-playing were somewhat curtailed a few weeks later, and it was the fearsome Geoff who was to be responsible for my downfall.
You see, following our discovery of the gaming temple at the rear of Beatties, Alan and I had started to visit the store on a regular basis after school and again at weekends, emboldened by our previous experience. We were hooked, but at almost £10.00 for the Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules, it was not something we were prepared to cough up good money for quite yet. Still, we imagined the fun we’d have when we got our parents to provide it as a Christmas gift.
In the meantime, I spent the then considerable sum of £7.95 on a box of the Grenadier ‘Gold Line’. I was in heaven when I got home, and spent the entire evening sitting in the kitchen with my decidedly grim selection of enamel paints burying them underneath layers of every colour imaginable. The powerful fumes from the solvent in the paints made me heady and I began fancying myself as celebrated artist who would specialise in selling these tiny works of art for hundreds, if not thousands of pounds.
The reality of my skill at that time was altogether different. When I close my eyes and picture some my early attempts, I cringe, and indeed sometimes break into a cold sweat, particularly on those nights when you can’t sleep and the memories of the whole of your life so far, flash through a hyper-alert brain. Today I am an accomplished painter with an international clientele, but I’m still waiting to rake in the money.
But, look at the time. I'll say farewell for now, but I'll continue next time.