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VINE VOICEon 16 January 2009
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... Traveller... 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.
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VINE VOICEon 20 August 2009
This book is worth buying for its title alone, some of the chapter names are nearly as good, e.g. "Lord of the Ringbinders" or "Come to Mordor, It's Nicer Than Where You Live." The book itself is a funny and often sad (in every sense of the word) tale of teenage obsession in the hinterland of 1970s Coventry.

Our hero, or at least the central character in the book, is consistently shown in a terribly bad light, no social skills, irritatingly over-enthusiatic, in turns a coward and a bully, wasting his youth in pointless pursuits. Strange then , that this is an autobiographical piece, and the protagonist of Mark Barrowcliffe's book is none other than Mark Barrowcliffe himself.

Looking back at the adventures of his younger self, a kid who encouraged his friends to call him "Spaz", the author is contemptuous of the boy he was. It is tempting to see this as mechanism to prove to himself that he has grown up, he's not the puny adolescent needing the crutch of Fantasy (in this case actual fantasy in the shape of Dungeons & Dragons) to get through life.

Two passages are illuminating here, "every cell in the human body renews itself completely once every fifteen years... I'm not even the same person physically as I was then..."(p.180) Also, the very last image of the book, showing the author running from his past quite literally.

When not examining his own (often excruciatingly inappropriate, admittedly) behaviour, Barrowcliffe is admirably even handed, p.166, for example gives a concise and fair summation of the attractions of Role Playing. The two other main figures in the book, Andy Porter and Billy Crowborough, are also shown sympathetically, particularly Billy, whose enthusiastic conversion to religion is, interestingly compared to his earlier obsession with fantasy.

So, a telling piece of autobiographical self loathing, with enough going on under the surface to keep a team of psychologists busy for years...Or a description of slightly odd teenagers trying to find something to do in Coventry before the invention of the internet. You decide.
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For the record, I have never played Dungeons and Dragons. What's more, I wouldn't have the slightest idea where to even start playing.

Fortunately this didn't keep me from understanding the basics of what is going on in "The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange," which is basically all about coming of age in 1970s England with the help of then-new-and-impressive Dungeons and Dragons. Mark Barrowcliffe gives the constant impression that he was intensely annoying and possibly insane, but it's a fun little read about the passionate obsessions of youth and the appeal of ubergeekery.

In the summer of 1976, Barrowcliffe was aspiring to be cool and edgy, with a burgeoning interest in the opposite sex. Then he discovered wargaming in school.

And by attempting to weave more fantastical stuff into his wargames, he inadvertently fell in with a new school club that was playing an utterly new kind of RPG -- Dungeons and Dragons. Soon Barrowcliffe was not only a gaming fanatic for anything fantastical, but was also enamored of "Lord of the Rings," Michael Moorcock, Led Zeppelin and anything else with a faraway fantastical edge. Suddenly everything else in life went to the wayside to make room for a strange world of dungeonmasters, elves, magic-users and primal bad guys.

Unsurprisingly, that level of obsession tends to cause a bit of annoyance -- from family, friends, and members of the opposite sex (well, what do you expect when you greet a "slattern" with a cry of "What, fair maiden?"). And Barrowcliffe soon discovered the downsides of D&D as well as the upsides -- including oblivious parents, dabblings in chemical "magic" and an egomaniac dungeonmaster -- as he struggled through an adolescent's rapidly changing world. Hoo boy.

"The Elfish Gene" is fundamentally a book about "growing up strange" -- it's definitely saturated in Ye Olde Role-Playing Games from beginning to end, and Barrowcliffe's obsessions are undeniable ("I'd already begun to suspect that the D&D system might not be the EXACT recreation of real life that I'd taken it to be"). But in many ways, it's the adolescent journey of a highly imaginative adolescent who's struggling to find his place in the world, and uses D&D (and many accompanying games) as the doorway to that.

And Barrowcliffe is fearless in exposing all the dorky, dumb things he did as a teenager. It takes some real guts to show the world that you were once immature, irritating, enslaved by the concept of "cool" and tended to dress like a total dork. Fortunately he's able to strike a nice balance between self-deprecating mockery (both then and now) and rosy-hued nostalgia for the 1970s, his hometown and the feeling of being an overenthusiastic young boy ("I think the idea that women might fancy good-looking, well-adjusted men who are nice to them is too much for the average fantasy-head to bear").

But despite his adrenaline-charged forays into strange worlds full of mystical beings (and apparently a lot of ethereal maidens), the real drama here is in the real world. Barrowcliffe roams through shops, makes (and loses) friends over his beloved D&D, and has it shape every single part of his persona. Most shockingly, he gets kicked out of his first group by the chilly, egomaniacal Porter, and though he finds a haven with older gamers there's still plenty of tension and conflict. Call it a cautionary tale for people who try to misuse their dungeonmaster power.

But despite the clashes between gamers (usually because of Porter's inexplicably dislikes), Barrowcliffe crams the book with funny story after funny story. You can't make this stuff up -- chemical "fireballs" in a bathroom, RPGing with cosmetics, purple prose, teenage Nazis, and the distinct lack of breeks. And he has a knack for funny, wry prose in any situation ("I will make your flesh sing a song of ecstacy such as will echo through the caverns of your soul. Happily shalt thou spend thy sweet seed." "Right, cup of tea?").

"The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange" is an off-kilter, ubergeeky memoir of adolescence in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, and Mark Barrowcliffe knows how to keep it fun and interesting.
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VINE VOICEon 6 May 2009
Mark Barrowcliffe, with affection and humour, details the world of a little understood interest group - the teenage Role Playing Game enthusiast.

Though a little younger and not quite as obsessive as Barrowcliffe in his youth, I found his memoir to contain many semblances to my own life, not least the flight from reality that that obsession brings. A few scenes reminded me, cringingly, of moments in my own life.

The pseudonymous portraits of his friends and enemies bore strong likenesses to the people I met rolling funny shaped dice and they have all the strange reality that fiction rarely captures.

The humour is deployed well and is not (despite what one over-defensive reviewer contends) at all spiteful or vengeful but good-natured and forgiving. A couple of times I caught a fit of the giggles, which returned a day or two later when offered a smokey bacon crisp.

If you are or have ever been a geek, then this will help you to reflect on what makes us, us.
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on 19 October 2009
Mark Barrowcliffe is a former stand up and current writer of comedic fiction; this is what I gleaned from the inlay in his books and tbh this was perfectly enough for me. However, not for Barrowcliffe as `The Elfish Gene' is a book about his teenage years and his obsession with the RPG game `Dungeon and Dragons'. For the most part the book is a sweet, but slightly self indulgent, look at growing up as a dweeb. I myself was no social butterfly and enjoyed the camaraderie in the book. The book is about growing up, but also heavily D&D, to the point where I do not fully understand who the book is aimed at. For people not into the past time there is far too much description of game playing and they will get bored. For fans of D&D they will find an unpleasant book that has a nasty feel.

The problem with the book does not really come about until towards the end when Barrowcliffe mentions his later years - university until becoming a writer. In about 50 pages he manages to undermine the entire book. The moments of selfishness and stupidity that plague his life as a teen are seemingly due to hormones; you think. Turns out that Barrowcliffe is just a unpleasant man who spent university bullying others then leading a life that he dismisses as dull (I'm sure all his former colleagues who look fondly on these years are very happy). He claims to be a better person now, but then rips into others with a venom that left me uncomfortable. As a stand up I must assume his act was to be mean to other people and not self deprecating. Barrowcliffe was a teenager who lived in a fantasy world and had an inflated sense of his own importance; now he is an author who lives in reality, but is still inflated.
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on 10 January 2014
Technically this is a well-written book. Sometimes funny, and the characterization is superb. Sadly, it characterizes a monstrously unlikable character, who refuses to learn anything from adversity, doesn't grow and consistently blames external factors -a game- for his problems.

It is written in an memoir format, and is the story of a hideously unsocialized boy who discovers Dungenos and Dragons. The boy comes across as a terribly repellent person, and the adult, looking back at this socially misplaced childhood appears a dissassociative personality. All the things that went wrong in his life is the fault of Dungeons and Dragons, not the fact that he was a social misfit. And his life, he believes, would have been much better if he had never picked up the dice. However, the book provides ample evidence that he was badly dysfunctional socially long before he discovered Dungeons and Dragons.

He supposes life would have been much better if he had found a different, more "normal" interest, but the book subtly illustrates that his the subject of his interest was not the problem, but the intensity of it. Looking at it with a readers eye, it seems unlikly that the main character would have been any less obsessive over a different interest. He'd simply have ended up in a subculture less tolerant of social misfits.

In writing this "memoir" the character believes he would have been much happier if the game had not conditioned him to expect more out of life and sparked his imagination. This is written by the adult character, a successful writer looking back on his life. He imagines that without the game dragging him down, he would have gotten better friends, a more "normal" social life, and a career not burdened by his own expectations. He never explains how the socially inept boy he was would have done so much better in the Coventry of the 70s. His reasons for believing that a "normal" adolescnese in 70s UK would be better than what he had is unclear.

To the reader it shines through that the game gave the character everything that led to success in his life. The imagination, the vocabulary, the ambition, everything that made him a popular writer. While he bitterly blames it for all his personal failiures, his life history is basically a best-case scenario for the boy we come to know through the book.

Unlike the other reviewrs, I don't think it is intended to be an honest autobiography, but a character-portrait presented as an memoir. I went to the authors website and he seems to be doing D&D contentedly. Entirely unlike the bitter alter-ego of the book, who rejects it utterly. The problem is that by using his own name, and probably quite a bit of his own history, the author becomes too strongly identified with the utterly unlikable character.

Basically, he is too subtle in showing that the character is someone who was salvaged by dungeons & dragons. The writing is taken at face value and its not a pretty face.
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on 10 July 2009
This book was fine and dandy until Barrowcliffe's 'Mr Wrong' came out. If, as this book (and especially the jacket) seems to tell us, D&D somehow stunted Barrowcliffe's social skills, or ability to relate to others, it didn't last long, as he ended up bedding 40 women by the time he was 40! They didn't seem to mind his 'elfish gene'. Kind of makes me wish I had tried a bit of D&D now.... if those were the results. So methinks he doth protest too much.

Seriously though, while it's an interesting attempt to portray nerdy youth from a British perspective (most nerd culture is distinctly American) it ultimately fails. Why? Well, throughout the book Barrowcliffe rightly highlights the arrogance, bitterness, one-upmanship and pettiness of a male subculture and hobby. He learns, he grows, he gets beyond it. Then comes the coda. He's trying roleplaying again as a grown-up to see if he remembers what his teenage self got from it. Does he look back wistfully with a wry smile and offer the warmth of matey camradery, advice or sympathy to his fellow roleplayers? Nope: he realises he is superior to all the other middle-aged men there and declares (in a smug way) that he is going home to be with his wife and child, (I have wife! and kids! I have people who care about me! unlike those saddos!) and write some more books (proper publishers and everything!). But not before telling them this. So he still can't resist getting one over on the other role-players, proving he is king, even at this stage of his life.

He's mean, and mocking about role-players in general. Before anyone also accuses me of being 'over defensive' I certainly have no axe to grind when it comes to gaming, as I never enjoyed or understood role-playing.

So, rather than have compassion for the middle-aged nerd, he effectively goes: 'I'm better than you! Yah boo! I win! I win!' thus failing to learn any life lessons at all, and chucking any sense of development or evolution of the story, into a small dustbin. How I loathe him. However I will now use my cleric's staff to call down a healing prayer that turns him into a nicer person. Or something.

A much better autobiography of life as a nerd, which not only has genuine literary merit (it won the Pulitzer) but also genuine compassion for the nerdy male, is Junot Diaz's 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' which I heartily recommend over this tripe. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 October 2008
As a 30-something male who spent a good deal of my teen years playing wargames and role-playing games, I'm squarely within the target audience for this "growing up geeky" memoir by English novelist Barrowcliffe. However, much as I desperately wanted to revel in the trials and tribulations of his '70s Coventry youth, I just wasn't ever able to connect with them. It's kind of obvious to say, but when a memoir doesn't work for me, it's because I'm not really enjoying the company of the author.

My problem lay in the combination of his obsession with D&D and his total social ineptitude. Don't get me wrong, I'm fully aware of the obsessions of youth and had my own ones, however that never really turned me into the complete idiot that is Barrowcliffe at ages 12-15. (To be fair, he repeatedly admits with hindsight that he was an exceedingly annoying and foolish kid -- but that doesn't make his antics any less cringeworthy.) Maybe the problem is that he only had one obsession, whereas all my gamer friends have multiple obsessions, ranging from sports to music to cars to politics to art, etc. By this standard we were more "well-rounded" than Barrowcliffe and his cohort, even though we were still generally social outcasts. The difference was that we generally didn't worry too much about it, and made plenty of good friends through other interests. So my experience with gaming kind of contradicts one of the book's main themes, which is that "normal" kids don't play RPGs and engage in imaginative play.

It's also somewhat illuminating to me that he basically ditches D&D after reinventing himself as a heavy metal fan, and immerses himself in a different social space. None of the gamers I know ever really stopped gaming by choice. For us, there was never any problem gaming on Friday night, going to a punk show with a girl on Saturday, and playing football on Sunday. It wasn't until we reached our 30s and had more career and family commitments that we had to let go of RPGs, simply because it was impossible to schedule regular 8-hour gaming sessions.

And for all his elaborations on how D&D dominated his life, Barrowcliffe rarely succeeds at explaining what makes it so compelling. Quite the opposite, his descriptions of gaming sessions sound utterly awful. Then again, I didn't start playing until I was in my late teens, and the overall tenor was a whole lot more mature than the chaotic, backstabbing sessions described in this book. Some of the gaming stuff he describes is amusing, but mostly it's just kind of sad. In the end, I guess the book is perfectly fine as a memoir, I just had a very hard time relating it to my own D&D experiences. Certainly there are some funny anecdotes, interesting stuff about the early days of RPGing, some quite good stuff about coming of age in England in the '70s, as well as a rather heartbreaking story of friendship lost. But mainly, the book just made me wish that one of my old gang of gamers could find the time to DM a cool mid-level campaign for us.
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on 7 September 2007
I picked this up on spec a while ago and when I finally started to read it I just couldn't put it down (cliche but true).

Like the author I discovered D&D when I was about 11 and played it and other RPGs until my late teens. I think everyone who ever played at that age must have had a Porter or a Billy in their group and so much of what Mark Barrowcliffe describes could have been experiences I had. My granny also had to endure a lengthy description of finer aspects of D&D...

Both laugh-out-loud funny and poignantly sad I can definitely recommend this for anyone who grew up with dwarves, haflings, elves and orcs.
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on 29 April 2007
I knew some of these people although a bit later. I cetainly remember "Billy" who I lived with for almost 3 years.

The book is authentic, funny and accurate. It is life as the teenage boys lived it at the time. As a rare girl who played D&D I well recall the interminable male arguments over the rules and "Billy" being the most brilliant and creative DM ever.

This is a very funny book. Buy it.
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