When I was a boy in the languorous 1970s I used to look forwards to Christmas not just for the presents, but also for the boredom that having only three TV channels can produce. I calculated that the more bored everyone was, the more chance there was that they might succumb to my outlandish, vaguely indecent suggestion: "Let's play Escape from Colditz!" "Oh, no! Not Escape From Colditz!" they would cry in horror, shrinking away when I brandished the over-large box for the game that was "based on the hit BBC TV series", with it's complicated board, fussy pieces and cards and incomprehensible gameplay. Everyone I knew hated that game. Except me. I thought it was almost as exciting as The Battle of Britain (my favourite film). "The rule-book is the size of a dictionary!" my Dad would snort. "It takes forever!" my Mum would moan. So once again my family would escape from Escape From Colditz and, crestfallen, I put the game away for another year. But now, after all this time, I've finally found someone to play Escape From Colditz with.
Not only did Harry Pearson, author of Achtung Schweinhund! love Escape From Colditz as a boy, he like me spent his childhood re-enacting the Second World War, devouring Commando comic books, wearing Clarks Commando shoes, playing with Airfix soldiers, assembling anal Airfix scale-models of the Scharnhorst and re-watching Sink the Bismarck! We were a generation raised to win the Second World War over and over again. Something both of us were apparently only too happy to do.
It's a shame that Pearson didn't live next door to me. He and I would have been best of chums. We even share the same boyish dislike of hairdressers that colonised the 1970s, secretly suspecting that "they didn't actually cut your hair at all. They just folded the untidy bits away and fixed them there with the heat gun." The only cloud on the horizon would have been who was going to play the Germans.
And then again... Maybe it's best he didn't. If Pearson had lived next door I would probably have ended up like that peculiarly disdained species of failed man known as a war gamer. You see, Pearson never stopped battling on the fields and on the beaches, "in his head on the sitting-room floor and across his bedroom ceiling" - as his book blurb puts it. Thirty years on he's still at it, collecting vast, anally accurate historical tin armies, hand-painting them all and lugging them up and down the country in search of other people who share his proclivities.
For years he has kept this "niche" side of his life secret from most of his friends. This book is his grand coming out: "It's time to stop living this double life. It is time to unleash the geek," he declares. He's not under any illusion how sharing his "specialist interests" is likely to be received and how, once he starts talking about this side of his life, he is frequently compelled "by a force stronger than me" to blurt out information that he probably shouldn't, such as the exact number of buttons on an early 19th-century Hungarian Hussar's Sunday pantaloons: "I know that even while you are nodding and saying, 'Really? Is that so? How fascinating,' many of you will be gradually edging towards the exit."
But not me. While much of the general population may regard a war gamer as only a few rungs up from a nonce, I refuse to cast aspersions. Mostly because I know they'll boomerang. Like most men, I'm really a war gamer inside, too. When we are boys, war games simulate manhood. When we are men, manhood simulates war games.
So I understand wargamers. I sympathise. I just don't want to go there - in case I don't come back. Fortunately, there's no need to live next door to Pearson and take the risk because instead we have his funny, scourgingly honest and sometimes affecting autobiographical book about his childish-mannish obsession and the childish-mannish nature of men. All in all, it's even more fun than Escape From Colditz.
Pearson is at his most hilarious when he's being bitchy about other war gamers. Lampooning the acronym-happy wargamer who likes to show off their superior knowledge a little too much he writes: '"See amongst those AFVs, there's a Panzer IV Auf HSd.kfz 161/2 Pz. Div 12 in pattern T4G75Y. But - heh-heh-heh - this is supposed to be Eastern Front, 1942 and [pause like Perry Mason about to catch a witness in a lie] T4G75y was Normandy, 1944!".' Of course, this is how all wargamers sound to non wargamers, but Pearson is painfully aware of this.
Anorak or no, Pearson is also capable of poignancy and perhaps even philosophy, admitting his own disillusion with his compulsion, perhaps with masculinity itself: "In my view, the aspect of wargaming that was most like real war was that it was never quite as thrilling as you hoped and imagined it would be". Everything looked lovely, but once the fighting started it "all dissolved into a chaotic slogging match". If you think that Pearson's sagacious observations on the way of the sword are somewhat one-sided, since he has spent his life playing at war but never actually taking part, then you should probably consider that quite a few wargamers are former or serving military chaps, including a squaddie chum of his called Tony who wrote from Iraq, "Keep sending news of your wargaming activities they are a welcome dose of sanity in all this craziness". He was killed at a checkpoint shortly afterwards.
As Major Pat Reid notes in the pamphlet that came with the Escape From Colditz board-game, "There is no greater sport than the sport of escape". So, Harry, fancy a game? Or maybe make it best of three?
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies