Thursday 24 May 2012

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange - Mark Barrowcliffe

Coventry, 1976. For a brief, blazing summer, twelve-year-old Mark Barrowcliffe had the chance to be normal. 
He blew it. 
- From the cover blurb of The Elfish Gene.

In his sometimes comic, sometimes painful and often lovably geeky memoir, Mark Barrowcliffe writes of a youth misspent around the Dungeons and Dragons table. Misspent, you wonder? OK, it's a hobby, and not one generally considered cool, but it's just a bit of fun. People do it. So what if it's not "cool?" Still, Barrowcliffe chronicles the way that this game took over his life, stirred up his imagination and led to him living more in the world of make-believe than reality.

I felt rather sorry for the teenaged Mark, awkward and obsessive, someone who, like all teenagers, was keen to find his niche in the world, who, if he must be a misfit, would be a misfit with all his might and main, but who wasted so much time and energy trying to impress people who clearly despised him. It made me feel rather sad to read of how much he idolised Porter, the dungeonmaster of his D&D group, who never pretended to have any time or respect for Mark. Come on, kid, I wanted to yell through the pages and across the years, you can do better than that! Worst of all was when he would side with Porter in a sad attempt to win a smidgen of approval - or, at least, not have Porter kill off Mark's D&D character! - against his true friend, Billy.

The Elfish Gene was full of outrageous stories of boyish experiments gone horribly wrong and Mark's attempt to try to weasel his way out of ridiculous situations. I could sympathise with his all-encompassing obsessions. Friends and family would confirm that I usually have something that's always in my mind, and at one time it was The Lord of the Rings - which, of course, had a huge influence on the world of Dungeons and Dragons (and subsequently on Mark Barrowcliffe, with several chapter titles being lifted from the novel.)  Barrowcliffe claims to have read Lord of the Rings seventeen times, and yet he claims that there are no females in the whole novel except ethereal elf-maidens and cuddly hobbit-wives.

Excuse me?!

Ethereal elf-maidens, cuddly hobbit-wives and Eowyn, the asskicking shieldmaiden of Rohan, if you please!

(Calm down, Edwards!)

Similarly, although I have never D&Ded (though I came close a couple of times,) I took exception to Barrowcliffe's claim that girls just didn't - although I can appreciate the lack of appeal to females in the groups he described in his memoir. Because, quite frankly, Barrowcliffe presents his teenage self as rather a brat: irritating, obnoxious, pretentious and too much intent on idolising other obnoxious brats, although amusing to read about, from a safe distance. It was actually quite embarrassing to read in times, and although Mark's love for the game was clear, I felt that there was a sneering undertone in the narration. I felt that this was a bit dorky to be associated with and am a little embarrassed even writing a review of a book about Dungeons and Dragons - and I am geeky and proud! I think the adult Barrowcliffe's ridicule rubbed off on me from the pages, and it's upsetting that someone should feel this way about something that they used to devote so much love to.

Barrowcliffe is honest and unflinching in sharing a slightly embarrassing past which nonetheless made him who he is today - and yet, I suspect he doth protest too much when he tries to persuade the reader that he's left this life behind him.

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