Achtung Schweinehund! By Harry Pearson

A chirpy one-man parade of a lifelong quest for a general's knowledge
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The Independent Culture

Men, and it is usually men, who play with model soldiers must sometimes wish they were trainspotters instead. Comparisons to geeks, dorks or nerds are nothing compared with the envious scorn directed at adults who spend hours painting models before setting them up for imaginary battles. Long hardened to every insult, the collector and war-gamer Harry Pearson, also a sports journalist, pre-empts negative responses by getting in first with every joke and put-down ever heard on the topic in this "boy's own story of imaginary combat". He has written a witty and engaging book.

Starting with his 1960s childhood, Pearson describes a time when pressure for social change coexisted with a backward-looking obsession with the Second World War in comics, magazines, film and television. Caught up in this bellicose slipstream, he turned from comic-strip warriors to plastic and then lead ones. Painting their uniforms in the exotic colours that armies commonly used up to the First World War had its own aesthetic rewards.

He also built up a magpie collection of historical titbits, sprinkled throughout these pages. Did you know that bougainvillea is named after one of Napoleon's commanders? And that Prussian cadets were expected to spend two hours every morning first dressing their hair and then buttoning up their boots? Or that British "tanks" are so called because the originals travelled to the front disguised as water-carriers?

Descriptions of the table battles of famous addicts (Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells) and digressions on the fate of celebrated 19th-century battle dioramas also make good reading. But the best part of this chirpy book is the author's affectionate but withering description of the oddballs he has fought with, and collected from, over the years.

There is also the point that commanders in the past, and the entire Chinese army today, believe that war games can teach future generals about the real thing. Sadly, the record here is not impressive. Lord Chelmsford, the acknowledged master of kriegspiel (the German game that enjoyed a particular vogue in Queen Victoria's army), chose to be away on a reconnaissance trip when the Zulu army slaughtered his central column at Isandlwana. As a contemporary put it, these Zulu warriors, "knowing nothing of this sophisticated table game, did not play by the rules".

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