Friday, 2 September 2016

Let Me Introduce You...

Somewhere towards the end of 1983 I was gaming two nights per week at the Rune Lords and SWS clubs. In addition, I was also hanging out with a group of lads who had all gravitated towards SWS from different directions but who were all of the same age and tastes.

Keith was a cheeky-looking youth of good temper, great wit and eclectic musical taste. One day he’d be listening to Jean Michel Jarre, the next Motorhead. A week later and he would be discussing in expansive terms the poetry of Maxwell Langdown when put to music by Midge Ure. He would play any type of game just so long as it was fun. To this day he still owes me a tenner, but that’s another story.

Greg was well spoken, bookish and on track for university, a good job and all that goes with it. He was a fantasy and science fiction fan. He had dark hair, parted to one side. Had he but grown a toothbrush moustache, he could have found fame in a production of ‘The Growing Pains of Adolf Hitler Age 15’. He had a fondness for all things scientific and would be the one who pointed out that the model of a futuristic star ship that you had would not be able to make it planet-side as it had no aerodynamics. Spoil sport.

Bamford was tall with long dirty-blonde hair and ‘rock cred’ by the bucket and a generally easy going ‘fuck you’ attitude. Like me he had an ECW army and had similar tastes in games and music although he tended to go a little heavier with his choice of rock. He hit it off with Greg and Keith right away. In fact he and Keith were the ‘diabolic duo’ of many a good night out, for several years, until Keith straightened himself out and settled down in the U.S.

Steve was a school friend of Bamford. He was similar to Glen in appearance with a tendency towards looking not unlike a youthful Lol Creme. But, Steve was a little too tightly wound, with a hair-trigger surliness that could rub you up the wrong way. in seconds if he was that way out 

He could be great company and although apparently outward going he lacked the relaxed attitude of his friend. He too owned an ECW army and so we already had enough figures for some really good games.

In 1982, Games Workshop thoughtfully launched its own set of rules for fighting fantasy inspired wargames, allowing those of us with large numbers of fantasy miniatures to fight ‘proper’ war games. We all had varying numbers of models, certainly enough if we pooled our resources and included suitable models from our historical collections, to have a game on a table measuring 8 x 4 feet. But we didn't get that far.

Contrary to the latter day success  of GW's hallmark product, the first edition didn’t do as well as expected and in 1983 it was sold off at £2.99 per copy in GW branches. I remember seeing it piled high in the centre of the sales area and thinking ‘ Time to hit the piggybank.’ I bought a copy to replace the one I'd palmed off to a gullible fellow gamer when we'd decided it was shit.

The thing was, we were all used to really strict historical rules, so the more freeform style of gaming presented in these rules and the rather 'rules light' approach kind of threw us. Once I'd read it for a second time though (and having only paid a fraction of the original price tag) we tried it again, and were hooked.

Today, that game is known the world over and is one of the key products in the Games Workshop inventory. Back then it was a set of three black books, somewhat amateurishly (yet still strangely alluring) sold in a box featuring a stunning piece of cover art by John Blanche who was in my opinion at the peak of his powers in the mid to late 1980s. 

His intricate and sometimes disturbing-erotic work inspired me to collect fantasy art books and Ratspike, a collection of artwork by John Blanche and Ian Miller is a seminal title for the fantasy art fan.

I still play the first version and I sometimes wonder whether the group I played with back then still have their copies. For me, it offers a form of time travel back to more innocent days when the people writing the games were same people playing them, before corporate interests dominated the scene.

As you may recall, I mentioned that SWS had effectively banned fantasy games. They will say otherwise, but believe me, there are plenty who to this day remember those days, with crystal clarity.

Now with the release of games like Warhammer and an influx of fresh- faced youth to the club, things were changing. We pointed out that we were playing war games and as it was a war games club we were living up to the tenets of the name.

Grudgingly - and I suspect with a sigh of relief at not having to babysit a bunch of over zealous teenagers - the movers and shakers of SWS agreed to our requests just so long as we played ‘proper’ games using armies and all the trimmings, but not role-playing games, for they were the work of Satan.This was later refined and softened so that we could play anything, but it had to involve miniature figures.

Indeed in the mid 1980s the national and even local press ran stories of how games like Dungeons and Dragons were drawing the country’s innocent youth into the worship of Satan and other diabolic practices. Films such as Mazes & Monsters starring Tom Hanks and based loosely on a book by Rona Jaffe - It’s a good book if you can find it - fuelled the mini hysteria. All over the country, parents must have taken entire collections of games and lovingly created characters and disposed of them.

My own parents briefly considered that their son could be in danger of demonic influences. I can confirm that I was, but the demon in question was Lloyd Powys who, in my eyes could do no wrong. If I could have chosen a big brother, it would have been Lloyd. He was, a year later to give me a piece of advice that would stick with me for the next thirty years, but you’ll have to wait a whole longer to find out what it was.

This was the beginning of arguably the best years of my gaming life in terms of the people I met, the games that I played and the sense of liberty that we all enjoyed. We were at an age where with careful management of parental concerns we could travel all over the country to go to war games shows, far flung shops and all night gaming sessions. Sometimes we could even have a beer if we were in the right place at the right time. The steadying effects of older gamers, in some cases people with their own young families, eased the concerns of even the most protective parent, and curbed the worst of our youthful enthusiasm.

We were in a state of overdrive, collecting, painting and playing games. Every week we fought epic battles on ever-larger tables. It would not be uncommon for the growing number of youthful members to take over a complete section of the room.

To our band of heroes came Roger, the epitome of rock-obsessed youth, circa ’83. I had met Roger after answering an advert for some item or another in Games Workshop. He was ( and remains) a great painter, and had an amazing collection of historical figures. He’d indulge in role-playing games but was not as drawn to fantasy battles as the rest of us. He did play guitar though which gave him added cachet.

We hit it off pretty much at once and Roger became a permanent fixture at weekends and during school holidays along with Keith, as we spent hours playing games and hanging out in general.

My mother, as is her way, would fuss around us, supplying a steady stream of food. When the lads stayed over she would herd us one by one into the bathroom, refusing to feed anyone who did not reappear shining and fresh faced. Keith would often require a pint of fresh orange juice in addition to the application of hot water to even function but oddly, his lethargy never got in the way of a 3-course cooked breakfast. How my mum kept up with our calorie intake, I will never know.

Roger and I began taking trips on the bus over to Doncaster where Terry Wise, one of the hobby’s ‘Old Guard’ ran the renowned 'Athena Books' and on Saturdays opened a tiny upstairs room to sell new and used games and miniatures. It was a goldmine of obscure items and we guarded its location jealously.

Terry was another of that rare and diminishing breed of 'Gentleman Wargamer' who saw the need to engage with the Young Turks. He would allow us credit against figures that we no longer wanted or used, and on reflection he must have taken stuff that were of little or no interest to himself. But, the important thing was that Terry understood that if we were encouraged to try different things, we'd be more likely to remain in the hobby. 

In later years, Terry would send out a photocopied list of the second hand stuff he had amassed and, towards the end of his life, his own collection. He was a gentle and inspiring soul, who is to this day, missed by many.

As a brief aside, I remember Terry putting on a participation game at Triples (the local wargames show run by Sheffield Wargames Society) which involved mounting models onto beer bottle caps, to produce a hybrid Subbuteo / wargame. Sheer genius!

We all talked games, we all played games we lived for games. Girls were discussed, and as you have read I was aware that there was something vaguely interesting about them in a kind of nice, tingly, hands in pockets way, but I don’t think that we had the time to spend on such trivialities. It was bad enough that we had to spend 35 hours each week in school without remuneration. 

In our imaginary lives we led armies and defeated evil necromancers but the adults in our world seemed to think that we needed an education. We played along. After all you never know when the bottom might fall out of the dragon slaying business.

However, things were set to go slightly awry as 1983 closed. Girls would be involved and, - as with many teenage dramas - it began with school Christmas festivities... 

Excerpt taken from 'Real Life's A Bu**ger - A Tale Of Sex, Dragons & Rock 'N' Roll'

ISBN: 9781471643873 

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