Thursday, August 16, 2007

What I'm Reading: Achtung Schweinhund

What I'm Reading: Harry Pearson, Achtung Schweinhund! A Boy's Own Story of Imaginary Combat (London: Little, Brown, 2007).

If you grew up in a family with a grandfather, father, or uncle who served in World War Two or Korea, then you are probably well on your way to appreciating this book. The World War Two bit is important because the cultural and historical background is important. It means you, like Pearson, likely heard war stories, and, if you grew up in Europe like my friend Pete, you saw war debris and old garden air raid shelters in your neighbourhood. Even if you grew up in North America, like me, you likely watched Rat Patrol, Combat, Hogan's Heroes, etc on TV, you likely read comics like Sgt. Rock and Haunted Tank, and you likely remember the smell of plastic glue melting polystyrene as you struggled with Airfix models. That is, if you were a boy, as this book is unabashedly about the masculine world. I don't recall girls of my generation reading Sgt. Rock or playing Avalon Hill's Blitzkrieg, which probably explains why my friends' wives don't do much more than lovingly (if we're lucky) tolerate their husband's wargaming obsessions. I suppose I could say more about this aspect if I had a degree in gender studies, but I think the dichotomy is pretty obvious.

If you didn't grow up in the 1950s or 60s, then the world Pearson describes is likely foreign to you. My fifteen year old daughter's cultural map does not include any of the TV shows mentioned above - she told me recently that she had never even heard of Hogan's Heroes. My thirteen year old son knows a Schmeisser machine pistol from a bazooka, which makes me proud, but he's learned that invaluable information from playing games like Medal of Valour on computer gaming consoles. He's more likely to want to play with Space Marines and Space Orks then he is to want to play with WW2 "army men" and as Pearson (and I) did at that age, shout things like "take that, Hun" or "for you ze var is over, Englander". For my son and daughter's generation, history seems to be a generic place called "the past" where the historical eras depicted in Orlando Bloom films (antiquity, the Crusades, pirate times) are all jumbled up and happened more or less at the same time.

So all of that to say that the likely readers of Harry Pearson are likely to be people like me - male, middle aged or getting there, and obsessed with war because we grew up under its shadow, and unlike our parents' generation, who had their fill of it, we still want to play it. The word "play" is one of Pearson's themes, for he is understandably self-conscious about being a middle aged man with a wife and a family and a mortgage who spends valuable hours of his remaining years of life painting and playing with miniature soldiers or "little men" as my own wife calls them. Reviewers readily jump on this theme; Britain's Guardian called the book a tribute to "the fine art of time wasting".

Pearson tells a hilarious story of being cornered on a commuter train by a corpulent "extrovert geek" who recognizes a kindred spirit when he spots the copy of Wargames Illustrated magazine that Pearson is reading. "I should have said, 'This is for my son. He's just turned eleven so I'm hoping he'll soon drop this foolish toy soldier lark in favour of solvent abuse and masturbation'. But these thngs never come to you until after the event, do they?" (p. 234). As the fellow bellows at him from several seats away, Pearson describes how "Whatever was left of my self-esteem shrivelled to the size of a walnut and attempted to throw itself out of the window" (p. 234).

I've recognized the same challenge to my self-esteem on many occasions. At the last wargames convention I visited, the hotel was thronged with men, mostly from age 30-50+, many quite overweight, many calling their parent's basement home, and many apparently quite unfamiliar with the rudiments of personal hygeine judging from the pungent aroma hanging over the hall. To see so many chaps in appalling T Shirts (eg, "Hitler's European Tour, 1939 - 1945: Poland, Holland, Denmark, France, etc" - hilarious!), debating the merits of which rules system best captures morale tests for cavalry charges, and fondling ziplocked bags of lead figures, leads to the inescapable question, "am I one of these?" But look beyond the unwashed bodies to the fruits of their imagination and passion - tables with scenery that often would rival the best of a model railroad group, figures painted with loving attention to detail, and a shared interest in the past, and you see something quite extraordinary. You see boys (and the occasional girl) who were given a bag of crudely molded army men as children, and who immediately longed for the day when as adults they could do so much more - build armies with the money they would earn as adults, make life-sized buildings instead of using lego or wooden blocks, and meet in like-minded fraternities free of the bullying and fashion-ruled mindlessness that reigned in their school corridors. Here they are now, mostly jovial and good natured, often quite self-mocking, mostly loving if slightly eccentric parents and spouses, and here is a world that they have created, a world of tongue-in-cheek heroism, creativity, and wonder. As Pearson concludes, "Every man needs a place to go, Montaigne had said, and for better or worse, this was mine".

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