Reviewlet: Achtung Schweinehund!, By Harry Pearson

You can’t judge by looking at its cover, Bo Diddly assures us in a bid to convince that, despite looking like a farmer, he is, in fact, a lover. The cover of Achtung Schweinehund! features a British and German armoured car straight from the pages of a Commando comic, the back has that distinctive dagger, and blurb about a childhood spent re-enacting the Second World War. For the first part, that’s just what it is, reminiscences close enough to my own to provoke frequent laughter and a warm wave of nostalgia, but his childhood was around ten years earlier so also interesting in a sort of “compare and contrast” way. Arsenals of toy weaponry ranging from cowboy six-shooters to sparking laser blasters, Battle Picture Weekly and Commando comics, Action Men, legions of plastic 1:32 scale Airfix soldiers…

The second part, though, suggests that Diddly chap might’ve been on to something. As the author leaves childhood, the focus moves to more serious wargaming. Where he stuck with historical warfare, my divisions of plastic soldiers were joined by Star Wars figures and Orcs, I started on fighting fantasy books and roleplaying, then computers got involved. This presents something of irreconcilable difference, I sense. Pearson says:

The whole fantasy thing turns my stomach. To my mind, three men are responsible more than any others for the creation of this abhorrent perversion of the hobby: J. R. R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth, Robert E. Howard, creator of Hyboria (which was a kind of Middle Earth with breasts), and E. Gary Gygax, the mild-mannered Canadian inventor of Dungeons and Dragons. ‘All three of them should be put up against a wall and shot,’ I said to TK one day when I was feeling particularly aggrieved at World of Warcraft’s continued encroachment into our territory. He raised an eyebrow. ‘I think you’re getting a bit carried away there, mate’ he said. ‘Are you sure?’ I said. ‘Oh yes.’ TK said. ‘I mean, two of them are already dead. It would be a waste of bullets.’

Ironically, Gygax died while I was reading Achtung! Schweinehund, though I don’t think Pearson was in the area with a rifle. I’ve long said that some of the most heated flamewars on message boards are between people who fundamentally agree with each other, but get into vicious point-by-point rebuttals over exactly how they agree, so after bristling with incandescent rage over such heresy and writing a stiff letter to The Times Points of View White Dwarf magazine involving the line “why oh why oh why oh why oh why etc. (ps: I totally expected the pig, don’t you go trying to put one over on me, no piggy-wiggy)”, I figured hey, that’s the rich and diverse world of specialist interests (or, if you prefer, geekdom) for you. Fantasy vs Historical is another blood-feud over barely-perceptible-to-outsider differences to file alongside Metal vs Plastic, Collectors vs Wargamers, Marvel vs DC, PvE vs PvP, Hard Science vs Space Opera, Normal People vs LARPers (I kid, I kid, don’t hit me with foam-covered axes).

I don’t think it was just being put off by that quote, but I wasn’t so keen on the second part of the book. It meanders around somewhat, and where Pearson doesn’t care for fantasy, I don’t have a great interest in pre-mechanised 20mm miniatures. The bits and pieces about the history of wargaming, Napoleonic dioramas and such are fairly dry, and I’d mostly picked up elsewhere. The descriptions of fellow enthusiasts and characters, the embarrassment of such a terminally uncool hobby and hiding it from “normal” people, ring true enough, but though there’s a few funny moments on the whole I found it tended more towards the depressing than the heart-warmingly eccentric, particularly the gamer, alone in a squalid house stuffed to the point of structural failure with metal figures. It drifts off rather after the promising start; overall, not bad, but not brilliant.