Saturday, 21 January 2017

He Was The First Of Our Own... Paul Stephens: 1967 to 2016

This is a long post, so please, bear with me, indulge an old and tired man, and allow me to tell a story. Not a life story, but a part of one, indeed several which were for a while at least interconnected

Are we sitting comfortably, my young Hobbits?

Good. Then I shall begin..

In the 1980s, I would guess probably 1982 or thereabouts I was getting into gaming of all sorts in a really big way. My typical week, looked like this:

Sheffield Runelords

Sheffield University Wargames Society

Sheffield Polytechnic Roleplaying Society
Sheffield Wargames Society

Weekly meeting of ECW reenactment group

Games Workshop
Sheffield Space Centre
Hopkinsons Toys
Beatties Models
Gaming with mates from about 1PM to 9:30PM - possibly involving an all night session if the parents of said mates were feeling well disposed to half a dozen hairy little blighters dossing down in their family manse.

Add to this conventions and several after school trips to the numerous stores, and you'll see I gamed a lot. In fact I think there were Nazis at Nuremburg, who would have blanched at my fanaticism. True, I wasn't getting up to their tricks, but, if it had involved a gaming session, it's a possibility that I'd have thrown in my lot with the jackboot brigade.

I also made a lot of friends at the clubs. Some intermixed across peer groups, and some didn't, but for the most part, in that way that only teenage boys can, (doubly so where toy soldiers, imaginary worlds and dice are involved) we just 'got on'.

I guess that it would have been about 1983, when after being a member of Sheffield Runelords for a while and playing with some older gamers, (who had done a pretty damned fine job of putting up with me and my youthful exuberance - without killing me and feeding me to the pigs)   
I’d also recently got to know a group of boys of my roughly my age, who, I'd seen in Games Workshop but never spoken to. 

There was Paul Green, who was slightly older than the rest of us, and a very talented illustrator, going on to work for Games Workshop before moving into the video games industry and thence to make his mark to this day as a comic illustrator of repute. He was very mature for his age and had a way of being reasonable under any circumstances, radiating a self-assured calmness, even when I accidentally hit him in the face, demonstrating a 'Johnny Alpha' back hander, or when faced with a pretty realistic looking replica of a .44 magnum – but that as they say, is another story.

Paul Stephens was, to be frank,  too good looking for his own good and back then, in the full flush of youth, could come across as aloof and superior. He had those handsome features that any girl would fall for and had a girlfriend who was able to draw him away from spending all Saturday in town, itself something of an achievement and, indeed, I will spare you a fruity anecdote here dear reader. He was an excellent role-player often playing characters that seemed to be the opposite of the personal image he portrayed.

There was also Pete White, who was I guess back than as introverted as myself. Although we got on with each other, I think at first we both kept our defences up. But down the years and despite going our own way, we are firm friends, and moreover, we can freely speak our minds without getting into fisticuffs. Pete is quiet and thoughtful, with an insightful dash of introspection. He speaks his mind, and I find that to be an admirable quality, whereas others may find it a tad antagonistic I suppose.

The two Pauls were very close, and at the time I think their close friendship was misread by others as a aloofness. Looking back, it's evident that they were as tight as friends could be, as tight as I myself was with other mates. But, remember that through the eyes of an insecure teenage boy, anything can be read in a negative manner.

Saturdays began with us all meeting at an amusement arcade situated behind The Moorfoot shopping precinct. It had the normal selection of slot machines but we weren’t interested in those. We were there to play Krull, a video game based on a fantasy adventure film of the same name and Dragon’s Lair, which used a series of animated scenes on a laser disc with the player having to make the correct split-second choice to complete the game.

I played Dragon’s Lair a few times and could not for the life of me get a grasp of it. But Krull was a different thing altogether. Week after week I completed the game racking up high scores. It would remain my favourite until 1985 when Gauntlet and Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins took our breaths away. I vaguely recall that both Pauls were pretty sharp on that classic 'Space Harrier' - Talk about a surreal premise for a game!

In those days video games went hand in glove with the pen and paper games that we played. We never thought that this new gaming genre would all but destroy role-playing games within 10 years

Next port of call, sometimes (if we were running late) after a revitalising bag of chips and maybe a cheeky dash of gravy at ‘The Friary’, washed down with a carbonated beverage of choice, would be Games Workshop, where we would take in the numerous releases for that week, maybe with a purchase or two. We’d stand and chat with the staff until one of the management team pointed out that it was, contrary to what we may believe a retail establishment and not a social club for limpets. 

Daz (Now Professor Darren Ashmore)  may join us along with ‘Lizard’ who was another school friend of Darren's.

 His real name was Martin Lightowler but when he ran, it reminded the casual observer of one of those geckos that run on their hind legs, and so was renamed 'Lizard'.

Lizard was another rock fan and played several instruments. He had and indeed has, a crazy sense of humour and Daz suffered many an impromptu ad-libbing session as either Lizard or I got an insane idea and ran with it. One particularly memorable afternoon whilst sitting around in D.J’s bedroom admiring his taste in ‘artistic magazines’ somebody started a conversation about how a battle between God and Satan would sound in the style of Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’.

Somewhere is a 60-minute cassette tape containing what turned into an ad-libbing session that was genuinely hilarious. If you can imagine God being played by Robert Duvall, you’ll get the idea of the whole zany skit.

From Games Workshop, we’d wend our way – possibly via another fish and chip emporium to the ‘Sheffield Space Centre’ our local comic shop on the fringes of the city centre.  With Pete in tow, buying a bag of chips could be an adventure in its own right.

You see, Pete had an uncanny ability to attract attention when he was in possession of half a kilo of deep fried potato products. In one instance he was adding condiments to his steaming bundle of carbohydrates when he chanced to spy a deep fried wasp in with the expected starchy delights. He raised the point somewhat vocally with the proprietor who took umbrage with this teenage food critic, resulting in the entire band – some without their orders – being asked to leave his establishment. While we starved, Pete pocketed the wasp for posterity and proceeded to eat the chips anyway.

On another occasion, whilst we all peacefully noses-down in our al fresco lunches, Pete was approached by a somewhat rough looking skin-headed youth, quite clearly out of his mind on some form of inhaled solvent. This in itself should have set every alarm bell ringing, but Pete stood there and faced the fellow in his customarily laconic way.    Conversation was joined, with the oxblood booted weapon of destruction opening the discussion, ‘Give us a chip then…’

‘I’ve only got scraps.’ This said with a mouthful of steaming hot potatoes.

‘You want a scrap?’ the shaven-headed hooligan politely enquired. At this point we intervened, gave the fractious youth the remains of one of our bags, and is a scene reminiscent of an Ealing Studios farce, Pete was dragged away protesting.

Sheffield Space Centre a tiny dark temple to comics and science fiction memorabilia. This was where we would make a postprandial pilgrimage most weekends. Space Centre is today, still a thriving business but has moved to larger and infinitely brighter premises at the opposite end of the city. If comics and memorabilia are your thing and you are ever in Sheffield, you are obliged under pain of something unpleasant to pay it a visit.

From there, the posse would split, sometimes I’d go with the Pauls and Pete and spend an afternoon watching videos at the home of Paul ‘B’ which was close to Space Centre but more often than not I’d go with D.J and Lizard and do some serious gaming grabbing a few other lads along the way. It seemed at times as if the streets of 80s Sheffield was paved with gamers, such was the impact of the hobby on the youth of the day.

And so it went on... 

Then in late 1986 I met my first long term girlfriend and we moved in, together sometime thereafter. Anyway, it was a doomed relationship. Over time, we argued and fought and it was a never ending circle of woe. Frankly it was bloody amazing that we didn't kill each other.

In early 1988, the girl in question 'Rita' took it upon herself to bed a few of my friends, mostly my newer less established friends as I'd lost touch with many of my gaming buddies following a ban from GW (I'll not dig that up here). and had become a Goth.

Anyway, one thing led to another and she ended up having a one night Stand with Paul Stephens. I found out, and Paul and I had a bit of a 'scene' in a local night club.

Anyway, that kind of soured our relationship thenceforth and although we kind of buried the hatchet,  I feel that we never put enough heavy stones over the hole.

Back in 2011 we finally met up again and faced up to the past. I forgave, but couldn't really let go. Ok, I'll be frank... There were 10 mates in total involved in 'flings' but I just put up with it. Paul was however an old friend, and I guess in my testosterone fuelled indignation I saw his actions as so much worse than everyone else's because he was 'one of us', somebody that for all the usual quirks of the teenager (and we all had them, trust me on that) was loved (we wouldn't have called it that back then of course) and from whom honour and loyalty was expected, demanded.

And of course, it took two to tango, but the man betrayed, sees only the other man when he is in a rage.

For the next few years, I would cultivate an objectionable ‘f**k you all’ attitude, and as a result it must have adversely affected my old friendships. I was as the saying goes ‘one twisted little bunny’. I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder… I had a 2kg bag of unwashed Maris Piper potatoes with a side serving of bitterness and humiliation.

Anyway, Rita went her own way later that year and towards the end of that sorry episode in my early years, I met my now-wife, from whom, I have barely ever been parted in 29 years. 

Paul Stephens passed away in December 2016. I was mooching around the house on a Sunday morning, busy doing nothing, when Lisa ( a former GW staffer from our shared youth) contacted me on Social media, to tell me Paul had passed away. 

I thought she was winding me up, and so I thereby sent a somewhat anxious and terse message to Paul Green (you may recall from past blog posts that we'd all failed to get back together in 2011/12) who despite my previous 'bad mouthing' in December of 2102 (because, yes - I can be a real asshole - Let the records show that fact) graciously responded to confirm the news.

I was devastated to a degree I could not have predicted. I mean, I was numb. I cried, I raged, on and off that day. I listened to the early albums of Marillion, for whom we all shared a love, but I just could not shake off the surreality of the news. It was absurd... Stephens dead? Bollocks... He was one of us, a bright young immortal, a fellow egomaniacal, gamer. We'd all wake up and it would be just another day.

But no, it was true.

On Friday 20th January 2017, Paul's funeral was held. I had to go. Pete too, and in fact as I don't drive, Pete showed that honour and friendship we all once shared and travelled across the city without complaint to get me to the service.

Paul Green was the closest to our late friend than any of us. Let the record also show that fact. I can only imagine how he felt. He was a pallbearer and delivered a beautiful and moving tribute to our friend. 90% of those present would have not understood the nuances, but 10% of us did and I think collectively took some solace.

(I think this is the first time all of us were in the same place, wearing formal attire. I think Paul S would have found this funny)

More of us perhaps should have been there, but life is not like that, is it - Ideal I mean?

Paul G had repeatedly told me that our late comrade had repeatedly made is regret known to him. I don't think I realised, or appreciated the strength of that regret. And let the record show that your correspondent regrets being so blase about it. 

I can't tell my friend that now. Yes, he was a friend, but I was not truly able to let go of the past until it was too late. Ah, the asshole gene runs deep in this one... 

Listening to others yesterday, I think I understood Paul Stephens in a way I had not previously done. I guess a few of us realised a few things about each other yesterday as we gathered to pay our genuine and heartfelt respects. I also realised for the first time that Rita had actually been pursuing a kind of personal class war. She came from a totally different background of poverty... real 80s poverty, and saw 'my kind' as being undeserving of her perceived wealth.  When I look back with a clear eye and head, I see that she targeted those for her escapades, who were in certain ways those types she instinctively despised. It's a pity it took 30 years for that penny to drop.

Let me share with you a few lyrics from Marillion, which, have been on my mind of late, and which I think will be well understood by those of us, who shared good times and bad for over 3 decades to differing degrees and often with conflicting hearts and minds:

'Oh I remember Toronto when Mylo went down 
And we sat and cried on the phone I never felt so alone He was the first of our own Some of us go down in a blaze of obscurity Some of us go down in a haze of publicity The price of infamy, the edge of insanity' 

'Blind Curve, 3rd movement - Misplaced Childhood album.

'The final performance, the main man lies in state'

'Tux On'

'And it was morning
And I found myself mourning, For a childhood that I thought had disappeared
I looked out the window 
And I saw a magpie in the rainbow, the rain had gone 
I'm not alone, I turned to the mirrorI saw you, the child, that once loved
The child before they broke his heart
Our heart, the heart that I believed was lost

Hey you, surprised? 
More than surprised
To find the answers to the questions
Were always in your own eyes...'

'...So it's me I see, I can do anything.
I'm still the child'Cos the only thing misplaced was directionAnd I found directionThere is no childhood's endI am your childhood friend, lead me on.'

'Childhoods end' - Misplaced Childhood album

I'll leave you with a couple of little anecdotes from around 1983/84, which show the playful spirit of us all in those days, and which I hope will allow me to pay my own tribute to a fallen comrade.

We often used to spend Saturday afternoons in the wonderfully welcoming living room of Paul Green's parents, watching some truly brilliant and often awesomely terrible videos (remember those? No? Well you should!)

One weekend we were watching assorted horror movies, and I am admittedly not god with that genre, in the slightest.

Earlier that day as we settled in for the marathon session,  the two Pauls had told the story of how a previous owner of the house had been found hanging at the top of the stairs like a grizzly marionette. I was suitably ‘creeped out’ and a couple of hours later as I sat in terrified awe watching I think a film called ‘The Entity’, Paul ‘B’ threw a cushion across the room outside of my peripheral vision onto my lap.

The effect was spectacular. Already refusing to go upstairs and across the landing to the bathroom and being the nervous type anyway, I shot vertically into the air with a scream which could match the most talented castrato, before grabbing the cushion and sitting in an almost catatonic state for the next hour.

Paul's parent's place was a creepy house at times though. When Paul’s parents went on holiday, we spent a week painting, gaming, making the odd trip to Games Workshop to see if Golden Heroes, the latest RPG set in the world of comic book super heroes or Twilight 2000, a game of a realistic post-apocalyptic future had been released. We ate when we felt a collective hunger and slept when the mood took us in the living room that was one of the most comfortable places I have ever slept. I was still wary of the landing and the lads did a sterling job of maintaining my state of nervous caution.

On another  night we had been watching T.V and had all drifted off into the arms of Morpheus. Sometime in the night I awoke on my knees with my upper body on the sofa and head under a cushion. Paul G was on the floor, Pete sprawled in a chair and Paul S - ever the poseur, even when sleeping – was laid upside down in another chair, his legs vertically up the wall – the male model in repose.

In my fuzzy headed state I was aware of a bilious green glow in the room, an eerie musical chord and a deep ‘Muwhahamuwhahamuwhahaaaaaaar!’ from close by. I was not the only person who heard it and four teenage lads were suddenly sitting bolt upright, cushions flying as the struggled to assume various poses from ‘karate’ to ‘scared rabbit’.


Thankfully, it wasn't a demonic servant from the outer planes of Hell, but the first playing on local radio of the theme to the forthcoming Ghostbusters film by Ray Parker Jr. Paul ‘A’ had at some time in the night, turned off the T.V set and switched on his Dad’s ‘radiogram’ which, had a green backlight on the tuner, hence the sickly glow in the room. 

Every time I hear that song, I still crack into a smile as I remember that night almost 28 years ago. And that is exactly how it should be.

Paul Stephens - September 1967 to December 2016 

Rest in peace Paul, and get the drinks ready at the bar, because all too soon, we'll all be there with you.

Sheffield Triples - May 2012

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