I was eleven years old when my aunt and uncle took me to Portsmouth to see some of the ships that had returned from the Falklands War. We’d stayed at another relatives Bed and Breakfast, and whilst there I’d wandered down the street one day and come across a shop selling metal model soldiers. Afterwards I went back to my uncle and talked enthusiastically of my great find. Being a provider of many fantastic birthday presents relating to military history over the years, he allowed my further indulgence with a five pound note. From what I remember I came away with a handful of Ottoman Turks – some on horseback along with a rather nifty looking standard bearer.
I’d loved my old plastic Airfix soldiers that filled my toybox at home. I’d spent many hours with a friend down the street digging bunkers and redoubts into my grandmother’s flower bed, and then pelting them with a fusilade of pebbles from our driveway. Likewise, when the winter months came along, arranging their massed ranks across the living room floor and imagining them storming the stony fortress of the fireplace surround.
These metal soldiers were however ‘the real deal’. Once I’d watched the film Young Winston when I’d had an afternoon off from school. Somewhere within it, was the scene of Churchill and his father looking down over a home made battlefield arrayed with such models. I was impressed with the seriousness they showed, and subsequent depictions from magazines and TV made me aware that there were rules on cannon fire, movement and morale that brought an element of realism to the affair. Up until that point the only realism my own plastic soldiers had experienced was the introduction of a Dinky Chieftain tank that allowed me to fire matchsticks at my HO/OO scale Highland Regiment.
My parents, always wary of what I was "spending all my money on next", greeted this foray with renewed scepticism. My step-mother mentioned the fact that they "didn’t do anything" – which was a direct comparison to my previous obsession with Star Wars toys. In her eyes at least the battery powered Imperial Troop Transporter barked out commands as it skitted its way across the kitchen lino. I tried desperately to explain that these metal (seemingly inert) little chaps actually stimulated more imagination. And anyway I still couldn’t accept that the final Star Wars film of that time (Return of the Jedi, 1983) had portrayed the battle hardened Stormtroopers being defeated by a population of cute looking teddy bears.
The local toyshop in my hometown of Melton Mowbray was called ‘Arbon and Watts’, and although packed out at the front with Fisher Price, it had a small cabinet of Citadel Miniatures. Despite being in the fantasy range, these held a similar appeal in the fact there was a newly released Wargame rulebook to go with it (Warhammer Fantasy Battles, First Edition – long before Games Workshop became a global conglomerate!). This started several years of collecting and wargaming in this genre, spurred on by quite a few school friends with enough bedroom space to lay several battle boards and requisite scenery. These games were usually huge events, lasting many days over the summer holidays. The principle seemed to be: "get everything you have on the board, then fight to the death". I seem to remember my Ottoman Turks even made a re-appearance. Probably wondering what the hell they were doing taking on an Orc War Wyvern.
As time went on there were a number of other distractions (primarily girls and punk rock) that led me to either sell what armies I’d collected or put them in the parents attic. Nevertheless, I’d still occasionally retreat to my room for a couple of days after buying the odd miniature. Happily sealing myself off from the world.
Present day and I’ve experienced an upsurge in enthusiasm. I’m partly blaming Harry Pearson’s excellent book ‘Achtung Scweinhund! – A Boy’s Own Story of Imaginary Combat’. Also, the appearance of a nice new shop nearby called ‘Wargames Inc’ (Loughborough) which has introduced me to Victrix and Flames of War figures, as well as allowing me to meet many other enthusiasts.