It takes a particular type of person to wallow in one’s misspent youth, to trot it out, warts and all, for all the world to see. Having escaped the embarrassments of adolescence, most people to some degree disavow their younger selves. This is usually accomplished through mere omission. Life goes on, we meet new people, and we conveniently forget to tell them about those horrid moments that define our adolescence. We recreate ourselves, we leave our pasts behind. Not so with Mark Barrowcliffe, author of The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange (Soho Press, 2008). Barrowcliffe’s memoir goes into excruciating–and comic–detail regarding his fantasy life as a Coventry lad growing up in the ’70s and ’80s.
Barrowcliffe was 11 years old when he discovered Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) one afternoon at his school’s wargaming club. (For those who don’t know, wargaming involves the recreation of historical battles using miniatures and lots and lots of rules.) D&D immediately changed his life. By his own admission, Barrowcliffe spent the next five years gaming, reading about gaming, talking about gaming, reading fantasy novels, or listening to music at least tangentially inspired by fantasy. He pursued this not as a hobby, but as an obsession, an addiction that twisted his perception of himself and his place in the world. If that seems like a harsh assessment, know that it is his own. His enthusiasm only begins to wane when, at the age of 16, and dressed in a cloak, a gang of soccer hooligans toss him into a fountain, to the amusement of other people in the area. Just as finding D&D was a transformative moment for Barrowcliffe, so too was that moment of public humiliation, an embarrassment that taught him to more circumspect in his enthusiasms.
Some reviewers have criticized Barrowcliffe for looking down on players of roleplaying games, and it’s true that he takes his shots at them. Some of this is sensitivity to Barrowcliffe’s sense of humor, which is sardonic and tends to the cruel, although, it should be noted, that he is himself the target of many of his barbs. I believe the English would refer to this as “taking the piss” out of his subjects of mockery. In other words, his jokes are pointed; they reveal an essential reality about their victims, most often himself. There is personal psychology at work here, too. It’s been said that people hate most in others that which they hate most in themselves. Given that Barrowcliffe fled D&D (quite literally after an attempt to play as an adult), it’s not unsafe to assume that he is projecting onto others his feelings about himself.
And Barrowcliffe is certainly conflicted. He borrows the title of his book from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which posits that altruism is an evolutionary adaptation by which individuals with similar DNA are more likely to help each other, thus preserving their DNA. In other words, selfishness is “good” for individuals. Perhaps Barrowcliffe intended his title to be merely a play on words, but it is better fitting than just that. Barrowcliffe’s wholesale absorption in his fantasy world is indicative of a level of selfishness beyond that of the average teenager. He relates with remarkable clarity, it must be said, that he was, to use his language, a “twat,” taking sides against his best friend in an argument merely in order to curry favor with another boy who despised him. He doesn’t see his friend again for 25 years.
Despite all the scorn Barrowcliffe heaps on the game, and himself, and his fellow gamers, though, it’s clear that he is nostalgic for his childhood. He considers playing the game as an adult, even tries, only to run back to “reality.” And even though most of his childhood friends sound like horrible human beings, it must be said that they were teenage males–a particular breed with a specific sense of humor. There are individuals, too, who stand out in a good way, for instance, the painfully shy Dave, whose only character is “a man in a cloak.” Oh, could he be a ranger? “No, just a man in a cloak.” Special attention is given to Billy, Barrowcliffe’s best friend for two years of his life. Barrowcliffe paints him as a figure larger than life, releasing a fountain of rakish wit when he wasn’t smoking or eating (which was often).
Barrowcliffe has a fine sense of humor, and if a reader wonders, “why would anyone publish a book about someone’s obsession with D&D,” it’s for the comedy. Barrowcliffe’s is a sense of humor that demonstrates genuine insight, whether it’s into England during the ’70s, the plight of “nerds,” or universal truths about teenage boys. There is a particularly funny chapter in which Billy and Barrowcliffe, bored, and at wit’s end, decide to create incendiary devices from balloons and lighter fluid. Just when you think the story can’t get any better–it does, with a joke about “wanking.” That the story includes a two paragraph interlude in which Barrowcliffe muses on the differences between genders when it comes to risk only indicates his insight and timing. I admit that I laughed, not something I do often when reading.
In The Elfish Gene, Barrowcliffe lovingly recreates the England of his youth, giving attention both to the setting, Coventry and Birmingham, but also to the “characters” who populated his life. Barrowcliffe is a gifted storyteller with an intuitive sense of character, dialog, and pacing. Dyed-in-the wool gamers may complain about Barrowcliffe’s superficial treatment of D&D, but, as a nongamer, I found it sufficient, and, it should be noted, the book is less about D&D than it is his need for an outlet for his adolescent fantasies. A well-told, amusing, and surprisingly affecting memoir hampered only by the author’s occasionally condescending attitude. Recommended.