This is a very curious book. It's essentially an autobiography. Strangely, it tells us next to nothing about the author's family, early childhood etc and even less about his adult life. It's an autobiography of Mark Barrowcliffe's adolescence, growing up in Coventry in the 1970s. I've got to admire the author's pluck: just remembering adolescence is difficult and squirm-inducing; writing about it must have been an ordeal in mortification.
Strangely, though, the book isn't just autobiographical: it's also an unflinching psychological examination of fantasy roleplaying and the teenage culture that grew up around these games in the '70s and '80s. In particular, it explores the impact Dungeons & Dragons
had on the author's social and emotional development (a pretty disastrous one, if he's to be believed)... and by implication, a study into nerd-ishness in general.
Fortunately, it's often very funny. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but that sort of cringing comedy-of-humilation funny that we Brits enjoy. It helps, I guess, if you've had some experience with D&D in your youth, but Barrowcliffe is a lucid writer and makes light work of all the exposition so even outsiders should get the gist (even if they don't quite get the point...).
As an autobiography, then, this is pretty powerful stuff. Barrowcliffe does not spare the lashes in his depiction of '70s Midlands as a dump - riven by class divides, steeped in casual racism and kneejerk fascism, empty and limiting and soulless and bleak. The author is aware of this cultural context and it's intriguing to see this alternative social history (in brief, what happened to Seventies lads who _didn't_ embrace punk) being painted so meticulously. Growing up in this environment did a lot to provoke emotional thuggery, screaming inferiority complexes and narcissistic fantasies and Mark Barrowcliffe is as quick to diagnose them in himself as he is relentless in depicting them in the stunted teenagers he grew up around. At times, the honesty is quite distressing... Although the author doesn't draw explicit conclusions, you can't help feeling grateful that modern children have digital TV and the internet to broaden their lives just a little - and it paints a pretty grim picture of what 11+ testing and selective schooling does to bright but immature young boys who miss out on going to grammar schools.
Of course, among all the gloom there are very touching details for people like me who remember what homes, fashions, attitudes, schools and music were like in the Seventies. I think readers of a different generation will find the book a treat if for no other reason than its vivid portrait of 'Seventies Boyhood' and some of the distinctive life choices that generation had to make.
In fact, the focus on the imaginative world of swords & sorcery is a pretty effective way in to the inner life of an adolescent. The approach reminded me of another autobiographical study of young manhood, C S Lewis' Surprised by Joy
, which also focuses on the imagination as the key to understanding our formative experiences.
Which gets me on to Dungeons & Dragons at last. Or rather, fantasy roleplaying in general, because Barrowcliffe touchingly references lots of long lost names... Empire of the Petal Throne
... Gamma World
... we will not forget you... And frankly the author is very very good here at getting under the skin of this strange hobby and probing its impulses and reflexes. Yes, the strangely amateurish art and images, the slightly sado-masochistic imagery and aesthetic, the catechisms of lists, terms, rules and powers to be poured over and learned and shared and invoked. He pretty much nails it. The sense of having entered into a secret world, of initiation. Yes, that's what it was like.
Except, no, it wasn't quite like that. My experience of growing up with dragons and dungeons, for example, simply wasn't as claustrophobic and conflicted. My gaming group quite liked each other and they all had other interests outside of fantasy. I don't think anybody got particularly retarded and I've certainly stayed involved with the hobby, on and off, through the years. But then I grew up in middle class Edinburgh...
That's the only problem with Barrowcliffe's book, which is perhaps too keen to blame fantasy for the author's shortcomings and disappointments; indeed, you get the impression that writing the book has been some sort of exorcism for Mark Barrowcliffe, that some sort of catharsis was reached. He certainly concludes that roleplaying games played a big part in making him into a jerk for much of his life. However, readers might suspect that Mark was doomed to spend a good chunk of his youth and young manhood as a jerk regardless of what hobby he took up; indeed, the smug and vitriolic tone, when not directed at making you laugh, leaves you with an impression that an amount of jerkishness may be an indelible part of the author's personality.
So, a funny book, a nostalgia trip for roleplaying fanatics of a certain age and a very thought-provoking study of adolescence in that grim decade, the 1970s. But the author's rancour perhaps obscures what, for most people who played it, D&D was Really All About.