Mark Barrowcliffe’s The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange is a fascinating memoir of being obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons in 1970s Britain. It does a good job both of capturing the time and place and also of dissecting various forms of cringeworthy D&D geekery. I first got into role-playing games a few years after Barrowcliffe (around 1980, at the age of 13), and my own experience was considerably more benign than his; but even so, many of his anecdotes had me squirming with queasy recognition, and he’s especially good on the strange combination of defensive arrogance and false machismo that many hardcore geeks display.
But for me, where Barrowcliffe strikes the most powerful chord is when he describes his painful yearning for a better, more magical world than the dreary, grey mundane reality that surrounds him. One of my favourite parts comes early in the book, when Barrowcliffe describes having to go on a seaside holiday in Wales with an old friend’s family (when he’d much rather be back at home playing D&D with his new gamer friends). One day, walking past a bustop, Mark and his old friend Dill are rudely proposititioned by two bored girls who abruptly demand a snog. Later that evening, Mark is in bed:
I lay in bed trying to think of lying with a dryad in a boat of reeds, floating down a river of leaves and stroking her tits. Another fantasy kept butting in, though, a dream of a beefy Liverpudlian girl with blotchy legs and the smell of bubblegum on her breath and me with my hands up her sweater.
This seedy intrusion is too awful to contemplate.
In future I’d have to practise harder at having the right fantasies. In all things, I thought, I should strive towards the perfect ideals of the fantasy world where there was no bubble gum, definitely no blotchy legs…. I didn’t want real girls, I didn’t want real anything. I hadn’t since I’d started D&D, and I wouldn’t again, for years.
On the final day of the holiday, Mark is desperate to get back to home and the D&D world. But his friend’s mother can’t understand his impatience: “Don’t you want one last look at the sea?” she asks…
Of course I didn’t want to look at the sea. I wanted to gaze upon the sparkling oceans of the Grey Havens or see dragon smoke rising above a stricken galleon off the Isle of Pendor. All that would be visible from Llandudno seafront was the pier and the crazy golf course, things, it seemed, that had been put in place to spite my fantasy.
I noted this passage down, because it describes pretty well how I felt at the same age. Immersed as I was in dreams of Middle Earth, even apparently “scenic” landscapes in the real world seemed horribly disappointing. Where was the grandeur? The majesty? The enchantment? That sweet, painful yearning seems close to what C. S. Lewis called Sehnsucht, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how it lies behind much of my own relationship to fantasy, fiction and art, with their promise to “re-enchant the world.”
Barrowcliffe’s writing style isn’t entirely my bag; he seems to have honed his skills working as a stand-up comedian and writing satirical novels, and sometimes he comes across like the class clown, trying a little too hard to make us laugh at his own expense. I’m also put off when a memoir tries to read like a novel, complete with long passages of (re-imagined) dialogue. But after a while, even these quirks ceased to grate on me; it all seemed part and parcel of the book’s tone of defensively self-mocking embarrassment. It’s as though Barrowcliffe is still trying to impress us with his superior smarts and wit, even as he excruciatingly dissects those very impulses in his geeky teenage self. “I’m better than that now,” he seems to be saying – in precisely the voice he once used to put down some worthless ignoramus at the gaming table.
Anyway – it’s well worth a read if, like me, you’re an old gaming nerd. Especially if you follow it with American Nerd: the Story of My People, by Benjamin Nugent, another painfully personal, very insightful exploration of the geek as type, as community, and as a presence in the broader history and culture.