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The Independent Culture
THROUGH the doors of Kensington Town Hall they pour in their Hawkwind T-shirts and non-reversed baseball caps. Over the course of one day, more than 2,000 wargamers from up and down the land have pushed themselves past stalls, book stacks and tables laden with tiny soldiers, miniature trees, dinky houses and horses. The crush is intense, the temperature is rising and someone's just been carried out in a dead faint; a female, naturally - although there are precious few of them around. Wargaming is an almost entirely male preserve.

Mention wargaming to most people, and they think of men running through the woods firing at each other with paint-guns, or dressing up as Roundheads and bashing each other with staves. The hobby of painting tiny toy solders and replaying the battle of Austerlitz is the cerebral elder brother to these pursuits. Young boys have rolled marbles at wooden soldiers since time immemorial; wargaming proper began when a pioneer decided to draft some rules. Lists and rules are the wargamer's Holy Writ, tucked into the toolbox where he stacks his figures. Fat booklets in migraine type, updated according to the latest historical research, they detail exactly what the tabletop general can get away with. This doesn't include dropping nuclear bombs on medieval Tibetans: wargaming is divided up into periods such as Ancients, Biblical, Renaissance and Napoleonic. Within these time zones, however, armies who never met each other historically can fight it out. Games are played on table-tops covered with green cloth; units advance in inches (the snapping of metallic retractable tape-measures is a noisy feature); hits are determined by the roll of dice. Thousands of wargamers play in spare rooms and at clubs, but growing numbers enter the competitions, where they attempt to wrest a victory in three hours - a gnat's span in war-gamer terms when games and campaigns can run into days or even weeks. And this is one sport where British players unquestionably rule the world.

The South London Warlords have been running Salute, the hobby's premier showcase exhibition, for the past 24 years; more often than not in Kensington, where the genial obsessives shown here were snapped. Unlike similar shows, Salute is not predicated on a competition, and is consequently more relaxed, without the usual unbelievable din of a room of men shouting at each other, waving their arms, screaming "Umpire!" and duelling with their tape-measures. Instead, fantasy gamers rub along amicably with aficionados of the Seven Years' War; hoplites and cataphracts share the stands with trolls, dragons and large-breasted female warriors. The figures are bought in their plain, metallic state and painted up with painstaking care. (It's rather poignant to think of all these blokes with fine brushes and Humbrols giving their pirates meticulous stripy trousers or dotting each last button of an 18th- century coat - on a figure just 15mm high.) There's a painting competition in the main hall, featuring rather camp little maquettes of bivouacking squaddies, lurid fantasy armies and squadrons of matching camouflaged tanks. Admirers with the characteristic wargamer's squint are bending double over the entries in myopic glee.

Participation games up and down the hall invite curious onlookers to have a go at picking their way through a sniper-haunted Second World War cityscape, joining Sharpe's Rifles, or shooting down UFOs. Demonstration games, in contrast, are for you to marvel at rather than join in: some clubs have spent the last year building their meticulously detailed sets. The Lance and Longbow Society fielded the magnificent Orleans 1429, complete with chateau; in one of the upper rooms is an Egyptian extravaganza with sphinxes and sand. "We've got three groups of people to satisfy," grins Warlords chairperson Mel Reed. "The traders, the clubs and the punters." She surveys the scene from the stage fondly. "You get all sorts in wargaming," she says, with more enthusiasm than verity. I don't know: I've never seen so much facial hair and belly blubber in a suite of rooms before; but, hell, they're happy. !