I confess that I picked up this memoir without the slightest interest in the author. That the book dealt with role-playing games and geeky youth sufficed. I wanted a trip down, if not Memory Lane, at least the dim alley behind it where my childhood resides. I wanted, in other words, to be reminded of myself. That someone else wrote the book hardly mattered.
Mark Barrowcliffe and I have plenty in common, despite him being about seven years older and British and a successful novelist. Barrowcliffe, or “Spaz” as he was known as a kid, spent his adolescence in Coventry during the politically tempestuous and otherwise dismal 1970s. I grew up in Redondo Beach, CA, during the Regan Era, never more than walking distance from a pro surfer or porn star. Despite all that, as youth the author and I were pretty similar. We were both, to borrow the British term, utter berks. Poorly-informed know-it-alls, we failed with the fairer sex and bored the coarser one. He entered the world of role-playing games through a war game club; I came to it through comic books. Neither of us were entirely pleased with human beings.
Barrowcliffe’s memoir deals equally with his obsession with fantasy and his generally unappealing reality. His account of 70s middle class British life makes an interesting match with John Lydon’s definitely lower class autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. Between the two, I get the impression that despite the pansexual grooviness of Bowie and Bolan and the aggressive excitement of the punks who came after, everyday life for the average young Brit pretty much sucked. Fantasy and/or rebellion were perfectly viable options from where I’m sitting.
The book begins with a thorough and superfluous explanation of Dungeons & Dragons (after all, who but a gamer is going to read this book?) and an exposé of the traditional and casual cruelty of his school days. “In 1976 the lost art form of belittling children was enjoying its final, florid expression” (p. 18). Later in the same page, he quotes a teacher ripping into a student: “You are ugly as you are dim, Richardson. Your life is without hope. I presume the only thing that has prevented you from committing suicide is that you couldn’t write the note.” It’s not hard to see that self-esteem may have been hard to come by in such an environment.
Much of the book is a humorous and self-deprecating glimpse into the life of a kid who thought he had a Constitution score of 17 because he walked his dog every day. He recalls his kinda-sorta homoerotic infatuation for the older boys who ran the D&D games, and the feeling of both superiority to, and envy of, just about every other boy in England. I can appreciate that lonesome dichotomy. I spent years wondering why a world I hated didn’t love me back.
He goes into some detail about the conflicts of style and ego that arose among the gamers he played with. I can identify with that as well. In my high school years I gamed with two vaguely connected but radically different groups. One liked immersive storytelling, plots, characters and creativity. They listened to Queen and Pink Floyd and Oingo Boingo. The other group liked Slayer and mainly wanted to kill shit. Here’s a summary of gaming with the latter group:
DM: You see a door.
Todd: (rolls dice) I kill it.
DM: You kill the door?
Todd: No, whatever’s behind it. I fuckin’ kill it. Look at the dice, man.
DM: It’s your grandmother.
Todd: What’s her armor class?
In several instances, Barrowcliffe assures the reader that playing D&D does not lead to an interest in the occult, after which he gives an example of how D&D led him to an interest in the occult. In every case, the interest was short-lived. As he puts it, “The overwhelming majority who are drawn to the occult either scare or bore themselves silly fairly quickly. It might be dangerous, for some, but it’s much less dangerous than horse riding or wind surfing, and no one seems to bother too much about those” (p. 170).
I was instantly reminded that with my first pay check from an after school job, I got a book by Aleister Crowley. I don’t remember which one. Let’s call it The Occult for Nerd Virgins. I also got a Siouxsie and the Banshees CD and a silver pentagram ring, which, due to my dyslexia, I could never quite be sure I wore upside down. Up, down, left, right: a dyslexic cares not for these things. My interest in things occult waned when I came to the sad conclusion that I’d never develop the psychic sight that would allow me to spy on my neighbor. Pity. She was stacked.
I enjoyed the book and I now actually do care about who Mark Barrowcliffe is. I’m sure I’ll read more of his work. I can hardly pass up a title like Infidelity for First-Time Fathers.
Aside from my general fondness for it, I take issue with one running theme in The Elfish Gene. The need for fantasy, Barrowcliffe implies throughout, is something you can outgrow. I take that to mean there is something inherently juvenile about fantasy. This is a view with which I vehemently disagree. Obsessions come and go, but the need for fantasy itself comes from the ancient impulse to create a metaphoric take on the world. Though it may provide a temporary escape from daily life, fantasy is ultimately a way of understanding reality, not avoiding it. There is nothing inherently juvenile about that, any more than maturity means an absence of metaphor. Perhaps the need to escape is something you can outgrow, but the need to engage in life from a new angle is hardly immature. It’s the whole purpose of art, isn’t it?
And I don’t buy that Barrowcliffe himself “grew out of it,” anyway. Were that the case, this book never would have been written. As I see it, he and fantasy have not permanently parted ways; he’s just playing a new character.
Race: Human. Alignment: Generally Responsible. Class: Grown-Up.