A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that


Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Hooptedoodle #285 - Drawing the Line Somewhere - another crap post

One of the hazards of living in a rural area.


With all due apology for lack of taste, here's a minor item of local news from here in East Lothian. Apparently, council workmen painting lines along the road near Longniddry managed to paint over a patch of horse manure. Shock horror. My first reaction was that it obviously must have been the responsibility of a different department to shift the stuff, but the council have already explained.

They claim that

(1) it wusnae us - it was a contractor - so that's all right then

(2) it's no so easy to spot this stuff, they paint the lines with a special wagon, you know, and the driver is in a cab, well above the road. Anyone who thought that the painter would be on his knees in the road, working with a big brush and a ruler, go and stand in the corner.

While I was looking for a better picture, I found a much more graphic example, but this is from Kirklees, courtesy of the Huddersfield Examiner [a Mirfield Conservative Councillor described this as "careless" and "beyond belief" - anyone who regards this as evidence of some lack of imagination may also go and stand in the corner].


Since I was now on some sort of roll, I looked online to see if this is a more common problem than I had thought, and came across a show-closing photo of a road line painted over a dead raccoon, from California, at which point I decided to stop. I'll spare you the dead raccoon - I'm sure you can find it through Google if you really want to.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Hooptedoodle #284 - Napoleon (1927) - something of a breakthrough


In a recent post, I mentioned that I have had another bash at watching Abel Gance's classic Napoleon, from 1927, in its restored and enhanced new edition, with magnificent new musical score, previously unseen material and all sorts of bonus wonders. I also admitted that I had made a pretty poor fist of appreciating it thus far, had decided that a casual "bash" at watching it is obviously not the best approach, and had determined that I would set about it in a more businesslike manner.

This, after all, is FILM as high art. Thus it behoves me to approach the matter in a suitably studious and appreciative frame of mind, and there is the other matter of potentially having to write off the £28 or whatever the box set cost me if I don't shape up. Deep down, though, is the awareness that it is not cool to have to admit that one has watched one of the acknowledged classics of the cinema - of all time - and has made nothing at all of it. This is not recommended as a chat-up line at arty parties.

Abel Gance
The experience is not to be taken lightly - there are some snags. One is that the storyline does not always hang together well - the box set - all 5-and-a-half hours of the movie, plus some hours of additional material - is assembled from bits of a much longer, incomplete film series on the life of Napoleon which Gance had envisaged, and Gance himself had several attempts to re-edit what he had. Thus far, I have watched the first two of the four discs, and have got as far as the Siege of Toulon. There were plenty of points of confusion;  the second Act includes - completely out of context - the murder of Marat in his bath by the extremely foxy Charlotte Corday (played by the Mme Gance of the day, apparently); also, bewilderingly, the Extras section on the second disc includes a lengthy clip entitled the Centre of the Triptych, which covers the start of the Campaign of Italy, which is blatantly outside the scope of the story content of the remainder of this disc. Hmmm - some spinning of the head.

Let's revisit the timeline a bit here - the section of the film which now exists was published by Gance in a 5-hour "Opera" version and a 9-hour "Apollo" cut (cut??). The film in the box set (I think, though I cannot promise I fully understand this yet) was originally to be a section subtitled Bonaparte, which takes us as far as Arcola. Clarity is not helped by the frequent use of colours in printing the movie - by which I mean that it is not a colour film, but that it occasionally switches into monochrome blue (which makes the chaotic battle scenes at Toulon almost impossible to follow) or red, or whatever Gance decides is artistically appropriate. I also still have a problem with the acting - the inserted caption screens with bits of dialogue are few and far between, and some fairly routine exchanges appear to involve a level of melodrama completely out of all proportion to the subject matter. One has to remember that this was a very long time ago, and all the actors on view - including real giants such as Antonin Artaud - came from a theatrical background in which it was necessary for the dimwit on the very back row of the auditorium to realise that a cast member was rolling his eyes. Thus the acting is hammed to high heaven throughout. Remarkable bravura piece of hamming is offered by Artaud himself, as Marat in his bath, who crams more hysteria into a short scene than you would believe possible - and this is before he realises he is being murdered.

Blue
Purple


Albert Dieudonné as young Bonaparte
Antonin Artaud - who takes getting murdered in the bath to a new level
The puzzle of the out-of-context Extras material encouraged me to re-think my approach. I don't usually bother with the Commentary option on a DVD, but in something approaching desperation I have tried it on this movie.

Aha! A glimmer of daylight! The commentary is added by Paul Cuff, an expert on the works of Gance, and the author of a number of books on exactly this topic. Thus my new approach is, first of all, to watch each disc with the commentary switched on, and suddenly it all makes a lot more sense. Thereafter, I am all set up to watch it again with the commentary turned off, and I can enjoy the full spectacle and Carl Davis' lovely music soundtrack without worrying about it. This is a major investment of time, but for me it's the only method which is likely to work.

This is the new, restored and heavily revised edition I'm watching
It is necessary to get very clearly fixed in my mind that this is not just a nice movie about the life of Napoleon. I need to have some understanding of:

(1) the underlying history - the Napoleonic Wars and all that - that's a given

(2) the history of the film itself, including

* Gance's intentions, and most of the screenplay was only sketched out when they started
* Gance's own adventures with successively cutting and re-editing his movie, given the drastic changes of scope it was subject to
* where the movie has been since, and the various re-issues for cinema presentation over the years
* the digital enhancement and restoration of the latest version, and the way in which it has been changed around to incorporate unpublished sections and to make the story hang together rather better

As a random example - in last night's (second disc) re-run, there is this young lady gazing adoringly at young Bonaparte - who is she? Well, the commentator explains that she is the daughter of a chap who was the general dogsbody at Napoleon's school at Brienne (on Disc One - who mysteriously manages to follow the great man throughout his subsequent career, and has duly arrived at Toulon, where he keeps an inn, in time for the siege), and that Gance had loosely planned that she would be a casual love-interest, though the scene which was to explain this has vanished. Further, the murder of Marat was to appear in a later (unpublished) reel, but was stuck into its current location to give a better fit with the historical timeline. You can see how this sort of insight might help.

So it's all good, now - the need for time planning is increased because of the double viewing, but it is a whole lot better.


I shall proceed with greater confidence. I'll start Disc 3 tonight - I'm now actually looking forward to it. If anyone has watched this new edition of the movie, I'd be very interested to hear what you thought of it. I've always had a little problem with the Great Art thing - ever since childhood, I have had a split view - one side of my brain tells me that this is a wonderful, enriching experience, and that it is a privilege to see it and marvel at the creativity and imagination which produced it, while the other side of the brain keeps interrupting with mutterings about my having no idea at all what is going on, and wondering if there are any scones left in the cupboard.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Hooptedoodle #283 - Good Will to All Men


If you haven't seen this before, it is an illustration from one of a series of Christmas-themed adverts produced by Gregg's, the UK bakery chain. Yes, quite so - probably a bit ill-considered. Daft, in fact. Gregg's reckoned it was meant as a bit of fun, apologised and promptly withdrew it - presumably they will try to recruit some grown-ups for the marketing department. That, you might think, would be an end to the matter - least said, the better.

Now I refuse, point plank, to get into any kind of argument about this. Not unpredictably, there is deep outrage in Twitterland, where the sanctimonious and the disapproving are thick upon the ground. Now people are not only outraged about it, but some are outraged because others are outraged about the wrong aspect of it. You can read about all this (if you can be bothered) in an article in the Independent, here.

There are more things wrong with this picture than you might guess at first glance. Obviously, replacing the infant Jesus with a sausage roll, for the adoration of the wise men, is a bit unorthodox, though, of course, the advert doesn't say that it's a straight swap - it's sort of implied. But never mind that, there's also the further business about Jesus being a Jew, so that not only is this horrifying to rather literal-minded Christians, but the association of pork sausages with Jewish people is also deeply offensive. Also, the wise men are almost certainly manufactured in China, which brings some further issues, but we'll swerve that one.

Also featured in the Independent article is a brief snippet about people wishing to boycott Tesco because their Christmas advert included a brief glimpse of a Muslim family. Ah yes. Christian charity in action - how lovely.

I tell  you what - I hope you have a very pleasant, peaceful Whatever-You-Prefer-to-Call-This- Festival; perhaps someone will be kind enough to come and wake me up when it's all over. I'll be in the attic. I have no problem with Christmas, it's just the bloody people.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A Couple of Follow-Ups... old figures, old scales

Today's post is a bit of a quick revisit of a couple of recent topics. If there is a common theme, then it might be the subject of "the way we were", which will hardly be a first for this blog.

Old figures, old magazines - must get a cup of Horlicks...
First off, I received a very nice email from France, courtesy of Jean-Marc, which was sparked by the discussion of 5mm Minifigs troop blocks.

J-M included a reader's letter from the December 1983 issue of Military Modelling, contributed by Roger Styles, the main man at Heroics and Ros. Apart from the fact that he was obviously very close to the subject of very small figures, it is not lost on me that this letter is pretty much contemporary with the 1984 Claymore show which featured in my earlier post. It also emphasises my point that Peter Gouldesbrough's efforts to popularise the 5mm blocks were at a time when the blocks were OOP and - according to Mr Styles - 5mm as a scale was "moribund if not defunct".

I hand over to Jean-Marc at this point...


My [J-M's] remarks : 

1) I have never seen these 5mm blocks "in the flesh", only pics. But I have, in the past , looked for  them with determination.
2) As far as I know, the moulds are now in the US. [if they are, then one hopes they have the masters, because the moulds were shot to bits before the blocks went out of production - the problems of missing heads and generally unrecognisable artillery becoming major show-stoppers - MSF]
3) The 5mm blocks were produced in 1972. Heroics and Ros company was launched in 1973. 
4) By 1983 Roger Styles (owner and sculptor of H&R) considered that 5mm blocks had ceased to exist, a comment made in a letter to Military Modelling that I reproduce here.


MILITARY MODELLING DECEMBER 1983  (Readers' Despatch)

Question of scales    

Dear Sir,

We were most interested in Charles S. Grant's article on scales for wargame figures (Nov. 1983). Although we agree with his general remarks on 15mm and 25mm scales, we would like to correct some details about 1/300 scale.

There has been a tendency to call figures in this scale ''5mm''. This has its origin in the regimental blocks of figures which were produced by Miniature Figurines some 12 or more years ago. These have not been available, we believe, for some years.

The figures produced by Heroics and Ros have a different beginning. In the USA several firms began making model tanks some 15 or so years ago in a scale known as 1/285. In the UK, soon afterwards, model vehicles began to be made in '1/300 scale', The difference in the two scales is minimal, of course, and 1/300 was chosen because it is easy to understand and work to. One foot is almost exactly 300mm (304.8 actually), so that 1/300 scale means one millimetre on the model represents one foot in reality. Except in models of very large items indeed the fractional difference between 1/300 and 1/304.8 comes within an acceptable margin of error. Models of vehicles made in 1/285 are often considerably larger than those made in 1/300, but I am not aware of the reason for this.

Whilst several firms produced WW2 tanks in this scale, Heroics and Ros began to make figures of the same period to match. If 1 mm equals 1 foot, it follows that a model of a six foot man would be 6 mm in height. This is the scale that we have always worked to.

So when Mr Grant says ''5mm figures are very approximately 1/350 scale (although they are sometimes referred to as 1/300'' he is, we are sorry to say, confusing the issue more than somewhat. Our 6mm figures are very accurately 1/300 scale, as are our vehicles and equipments of all periods. The scale of 5mm is moribund if not defunct, and there is no-one working commercially in 1/350 scale to our knowledge. The wargaming hobby has been plagued by the scale problem since the early days. Terms such as''15mm''or ''25mm''are said to mean the height of a man from head to foot without equipment. Some men are indeed smaller than others, so variation in figure size is permissable, though this does not excuse the seven, eight and nine foot men that are often made in 15mm and 25mm scale. If figure makers adopted an accurate scale, as we have in 1/300, customers would know where they stand and each company's figures would presumably match, size for size all others.

Mr Grant brings up the point of painting 1/300 figures. He says ''painting is quick, there being little detail''. In fact our figures compare favourably for detail with larger scales, and have if anything, more detail than many 15mm figures. But painting is quick, not because the models cannot be made as colourful and striking as in other scales, but because there is less area of bare metal to cover. A whole unit of 1/300 figures may have less metal to be covered than one 25mm figure, and so takes less time to paint. Many of our customers paint them exquisitely, though, and take much trouble over them. As far as wargaming with the figures is concerned, there are no problems either for ''beginners'' or for old-timers. Conventional rules can be used by simply quartering all ground scales. The figures can even be based on single figure bases for Micro-Skirmish games. But the small scale allows enormous advantages on full-size tables. Unit sizes can be increased to give more realism, and units can be manoeuvred without falling off the edge of the table so often. I should point out that 1/300 scale is the choice of many wargamers, and they have been in existence as long as 25mm, and much longer than 15mm, and are still expanding into new periods.

R. B. Styles, Heroics, & Ros Figures.


Apart from the fact that his letter is an unashamed plug for his figures (and quite rightly so), Mr Styles is in some danger of getting us all back into the eternal "how tall is a man?" and "height or soles-to-eyes?" debates, which in turn will get us back into the traditions of the German flats industry and all points south. J-M mentions in passing that Styles is wrong about the existence of 1/350 as a viable scale, since Helmet Products made 1/350 aircraft from about 1975 - some visible here.

The important point (if there is one) is that the letter gives a manufacturer's view of scales from the same period as the Claymore show I referred to.

Since I am nothing if not persistent (or, alternatively, since I am a relentless bore when I feel the urge), I have come up with the original article by Charles S Grant, from the November 1983 issue. It seemed that it must have said something fairly controversial, judging from Mr Styles' response. So here it is - in fact it is pretty bland (with all due respect) - it also reminds me, now I come to think of it, why I stopped reading Military Modelling a couple of years before this - too many interests covered too thinly, too much vanilla, too much courtesy offered to the advertisers.



Still on the topic of very small men, I received an email from the Jolly Broom Man (who is also in France, as it happens), with some pictures of his 6mm Baccus ECW troops. I like them - they have a determined, jaunty look which is very pleasing - don't mess with these boys!



JBM was inspired by my guest picture of Steve Cooney's Hinton Hunt ECW cuirassiers to make the point that headswaps in 6mm scale are a daunting idea - though I'm sure someone has done it. In fact, if anyone has ever done it, I would suspect it might have been my good friend Lee, which gives me an excuse to show some old photos of his 6mm Baccus ECW troops, which have subsequently moved on to a new owner (and I, for one, miss them!).




To enlarge the view to 20mm, I was encouraged by Stryker to give a progress shot of the batch of vintage Der Kriegsspieler Napoleonic French infantry I am currently restoring. I am rarely embarrassed about publishing photos of my armies, but I produce these with some trepidation, since they are really just a recruitment exercise, and not really the sort of thing I would choose to expose to the risk of supportive criticism and the tender mercies of Dr Raul, Marc the Plastic Accountant and assorted other worthies and reluctant friends of mine at a certain American-based miniature modelling forum whose name I am not fit to mention. Perhaps I shall be spared this time.

I am working on generating 5 line battalions from these old DK figures. These are heavily converted, old figures (certainly 12 or 13 years older than the magazine I have just been discussing), and the paint needs a bit of attention, to correct yellowed whites, faded reds and the general ravages of time and the spares boxes. I have still to source a full complement of command figures. I have retouched half of the fusiliers (who are now mounted on their bases, just to keep things tidy and organised), the other half of the fusiliers are in the official Next in Queue box, and the flankers are waiting for the next shift after that.

These photos may give an idea what is involved. Some of the chaps who have been finished are in the picture at the top of this posting. Some thoughts:

(1) Retouching is always - repeat always - more work than I think it's going to be, partly because I change my ideas on what I'm going to do once I see the effect of the new painted bits

(2) A half-batch of 30-odd fusiliers seems a lot when you're painting them, but they don't look like very many when you stick them on the bases!

The second half of the fusiliers are ready, in the Next in Queue box - scheduled
to start on Monday evening

The flankers and various command odd-bods are in one of the big store
boxes, along with the finished chaps, who don't cover much of the base area yet!

***** Late Edit *****

I received a rather apologetic email from Steve C, who supplied the big shipment of DKs, lamenting that he might have given me a huge amount of work to do to get them into shape; somewhat shamefaced, I've been re-reading my post, to check I hadn't accidentally been rude about them!

It is kind of Steve to get back in touch with me, but I have to emphasise (to him and everyone else) that I bought them knowing exactly what they were, am very pleased with them, and really wouldn't have started on the job if I hadn't thought they were worth the effort. I'm sorry that I sometimes express myself imprecisely - enthusiasm rather than malice! - and I shall attempt to be more careful in future. Thanks again Steve - no worries, mate!

********************


Friday, 10 November 2017

Guest Spot - London Lobsters

Steve Cooney was kind enough to send me photos of some more of his ECW troops last week.


He writes:

Thought you might like to take a look at a couple of photos of an ECW unit I just refinished.

It's Sir Arthur Hesilrige’s Cuirassier Regiment, the Heavy Cavalry of Sir William Waller’s Parliamentarian Army 1643. Figures are Hinton Hunt with a couple of recasts to make up the numbers; Officers and Cornet are Hinton Hunt conversions and the trumpeter is a Les Higgins conversion.


Steve is very skilled with his conversion work - a true master of the soldering iron. He has recently supplied me with a shed-load of French Napoleonic infantry; these are mostly old Der Kriegsspieler castings, which he has modified to lengthen the legs a little, to make them more directly compatible with Hinton Hunt. I'm working my way through these, retouching as necessary to freshen the colours and rejuvenate them a bit. Retouching is always a challenge - knowing when to stop is important, and I have the further benchmark of trying to make sure that the figures end up somewhere close to the quality of Steve's original paintwork!

Since there will be a delay before my proposed Bavarian project can start in earnest (I'm waiting for a shipment of figures, and have a lot more to order up), this job will serve to keep my eye in. Because I'm using many colours simultaneously, I've set up a proper (well, improvised) wet palette, which is a big help, saving time and cutting down the waste of paint.

These French troops will need a few weeks' work, and I also have to collect some suitable command figures for them, but once completed they will contribute most of another division for my Salamanca forces.

Thanks again, Steve.




Monday, 6 November 2017

The Heugh Heinkel

Modern photo looking east from the crash site - Bass Rock and the houses at
Rhodes Holdings in the right distance - Tesco is behind you and to your left!
At present, my wife and I are watching the 1970s Thames TV series The World at War on DVD - most evenings we fire up the log stove and convene at 8:30 or so to watch the next episode. I last watched it a few years ago, but she has previously only seen odd instalments on the History Channel and similar. It is a remarkable achievement of TV; it's also almost perfectly timed - it's modern enough to give a pretty impartial view of the history of WW2, without the tub-thumping patriotism which often distorts such things, yet it was soon enough after the event to feature interviews with an astounding array of prominent individuals.

It is also, of course, very heavy going at times - both from an emotional point of view and through trying to grasp the sheer immensity of the tragedy. Last night was the Italian campaign, but we've also recently survived the Siege of Leningrad, so it's all excellently informative (as popular history, of course) but there are very few laughs along the way.

This is the Heugh crash - the view in the background is almost identical to the
photo at the top of this post
In one of the earlier instalments, there was some newsreel footage of what was described as the first German plane shot down on British soil, and for us this is local stuff, so we sat up straight and paid special attention. Now I'm not absolutely sure, but I think the film perpetuates a mistake which is commonly made on this subject. The first such "kill" was a bomber shot down near Humbie, south of Edinburgh, on the slopes of Soutra Hill, in (I think) October 1939. Later, about 3 miles from where I'm sitting, in February 1940, a Heinkel 111 crash-landed at The Heugh farm, outside North Berwick, on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. I'm not sure why or how, but at some point the pictures for these two events became transposed, so that it is very common to read of the Humbie incident, with attached pictures of the North Berwick one, in which the downed plane ended in a very marked nose-down situation, right on the skyline.

I must emphasise that I'm not certain without re-running the movie, but I think the mention of the first plane shot down (which was the Humbie one) in the World at War episode was accompanied by footage of the North Berwick one (that's "our" local German plane), which is a common error. Not to worry - my general ignorance of this entire subject is extensive, as may well be displayed by what follows.

And here we are looking west from the crash site, across the farm fields towards
North Berwick Law - our very own local extinct volcano...
From late 1939 onwards, German bombers were making sporadic attacks on this part of Eastern Scotland - these were mostly solitary planes having a go at Rosyth Dockyard or shipping in the Forth, but there were also bombing raids made on some surprisingly small villages - East Linton, for example - simply because they had bridges on the main London railway line. As I understand it, these planes came from Stavanger, in Norway, and since there were active fighter bases at Drem and East Fortune (and further south at Drone Hill, though that may have mostly been a radar station later in the war), any isolated raider could expect a hot reception.

There are many tales of WW2 bombs in odd locations from the "phoney war" period - the Luftwaffe managed to hit the boiler house of the walled garden here on our own farm, for example - right in the middle of nowhere. Many such bombs fell in open countryside, presumably ditched by planes aborting missions or being pursued; my first wife's father had been an air-raid warden in the village of Greenlaw during the war, and one night a single bomb fell on a house where there were soldiers billeted - the old boy was convinced for the rest of his days that this must have been deliberately targeted. Basically, in the early war years, things up here were fairly quiet, though there was a lot of understandable concern about the possibility of an invasion on the beaches in these parts. An invasion from Norway would almost certainly have been beyond the capabilities of the German forces at the time, but you can still occasionally see the remains of the anti-glider posts on our beach at low tide, and there are surviving observation posts and pill boxes on a neighbouring farm. I guess they didn't really know what to expect, though it is also evident that the farm where I live scored a personal triumph by managing to get an excellent system of concrete roads built by HM Govt to support the observation posts - they are still in good shape today - the horses slip on them in the wet, but they are still serviceable - one runs outside my front gate.

The defences caused a lot more trouble than the enemy at this time. The town council of North Berwick complained because British mines were getting washed up on the beach - I'm not sure what they wanted to be done about them, apart from prompt disposal. There is a splendid reply on file from the military authorities, who pointed out that their primary concern was prevention of invasion or enemy action in coastal waters, and offered the reassurance that mines which came adrift from their anchors were usually automatically disarmed as a consequence. Well, there was a war on.

Back to the story of our Heinkel. On 9th February 1940 a Heinkel 111 H-1 of 5/KG 26 (from Stavanger?) was attempting a sneak attack on Rosyth when it was intercepted over Fife by the Spitfire of Flt.Lt Douglas Farquhar of 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, based at Drem. With the port engine badly damaged and his gunner seriously wounded, the pilot of the Heinkel lowered his undercarriage as a sign of surrender and crash landed on rising ground on a farm south-east of North Berwick - the farm of The Heugh [pronunciation guide will follow].

Local legend has it that the farmer, Mr Wright, apprehended the crew! After the authorities had things safely under control, there was a stream of sightseers. Sadly, the gunner died of his wounds in the hospital at Drem.

Wings removed, the Henkel is towed along Dirleton Avenue in North Berwick, on
its way to Turnhouse
King George VI visited Drem airfield 3 weeks later, for a ceremony in which Farquhar
 was awarded the DFC - I think the figure on the far left is Dowding
Since it was in very good condition, the plane was recovered - the outer wings were removed and it was towed by road through North Berwick to Edinburgh, where it was put back into an airworthy state in the workshops at Turnhouse, and it was added to a flight of captured aircraft which the RAF maintained to study German technology. I believe this is a photo of the restored aircraft repainted in British colours.


Subsequently it was destroyed in an accident, so the machine never had a lot of good fortune associated with it. 

Here are a couple of clips - firstly of the plane being towed through Musselburgh, on its way to Turnhouse, and then one of a little of the history of Drem airfield, though I suspect the combat footage is mostly library stuff.



The crash took place on a hillside, between the village cemetery and the new houses at Rhodes Holdings, just uphill (south) of the present-day Tesco supermarket. From what I can make out from current workings, it looks as though there is a new housing estate marked out for development in the near future, so the site will probably disappear - not that there's anything to see now!

Most of the pictures and links here are from the most excellent Coastrider blog, which is well worth a visit by cycling enthusiasts. If you share any of this stuff, please do mention where it came from.


[Pronunciation - for non-Scots, the word Heugh is not so easy - phonetically, it sounds like HYOOCH, just a single syllable, where the OO is quite short and the CH is like the ending of the Scottish word loch - the softest, aspirate, dry sound like the end of the German mich, but if you're getting even close to sch then it's not dry enough! - come on - further back on the roof of your mouth - here, have another beer...] 



Thursday, 2 November 2017

Going... going... gone; Peter Gouldesbrough and the 5mm Blocks

Recently, someone made a jocular reference to the old Minifigs 5mm troop blocks, which, for me, come under the general heading of Did This Really Happen?

I'll come back to the 5mm blocks in a minute or two, but for me the strongest recollection is that they remind me of Peter Gouldesbrough, one of the better known of the earlier Scottish wargamers - who for a while was a great enthusiast for these blocks - and of a brief period when I spent some time with him, so let's start with Peter.

The General from the Braid Hills

Peter was retired when I met him. We were introduced by a mutual wargaming friend, who had mentioned to Peter that I had been working on some pioneering solo wargame projects involving microcomputer programs. Peter had just been given one of those newfangled Sinclair Spectrum thingummies as a present, so that must mean 1982 at the earliest. Since my first wargaming sabbatical started in 1985 (major dose of Real Life for some years thereafter), this dates things pretty accurately.


Peter was friendly with a number of the leading post-war lights of the hobby - Peter Young and Charles Grant for a start - and he is quoted in a couple of Featherstone's earlier books. He was a complete gentleman, always - I never saw him without a suit and tie, as far as I can remember.

When I met him he had recently disposed of his 20mm figure collection, and had converted to the Minifigs 5mm block system. He had redrafted his own wargames rules to suit this new scale, and this is where he wanted my help with some programming, so he could use his new Spectrum to do the record-keeping and the calculations. I was invited to participate in some of his new Napoleonic "microgames" at his house - his home and his games were every bit as dignified as I had expected. 

We made some good progress with the automation of his rules, though I learned the hard way that he could be a dreadful bully, albeit a gentlemanly one! I found a number of arithmetical errors in his rules, but when I drew them to his attention I had a hard job getting him to admit they were wrong, never mind getting agreement to correct them!

5mm blocks - picture borrowed from the Wargame Hermit's excellent blog. One reason
why these were short-lived, I think, was the poor quality of the casting - the moulds
were breaking up very soon after they were launched. Also, it is only now that I realise
that these blocks were introduced circa 1972, and withdrawn in 1976, so they were
already long-OOP when I was introduced to Peter's game!
The games themselves were visually interesting, though for my taste Peter had re-engineered his wargames in the "wrong" direction; a move to 5mm gave the opportunity to stage colossal battles in a compact space - this is what I would have done - but he had gone the other way. For example, he had French battalions consisting of 12 blocks of 3-deep infantry. His rules had very detailed instructions on the deployment of these half-company sections, so that changing from column to line, or sending out skirmishers (and the skirmishers were cast on tiny strips, which were exchanged for the close-order blocks as required) was a very precise, not to say painstaking, operation - as I recall, his game used 30-second bounds, to make sure we did it all properly. I also remember a couple of hilarious incidents when we lost some of the tiny troops on his battlefield. His wargames room was upstairs, on an attic level, and was rather dimly lit; add to this the fact that his table was a very dark green, like a table-tennis table, with Plasticine hills to match, and it was little surprise that the soldiers used to disappear from view. On a couple of occasions the French "lost" a regiment of light infantry on the hills, simply because we failed to spot them in the gloom. The skirmisher strips would gradually disappear, too - occasionally a couple would turn up behind the clock on the mantelpiece, one was found on the floor (fortunately before it was stood upon), one was spotted hanging from the sleeve of my sweater (wouldn't have happened with a suit), and on one occasion we found one embedded in a hill when we were clearing up.

Peter's thoughts on 5mm - despite what he says here, his interest in
manoeuvre resulted in his sticking with the 30-second moves!
When it was tested and reliably stable, I was roped into helping with a demonstration of the 5mm-block+Spectrum game at a wargames show one weekend in Edinburgh's Adam House, at the foot of Chambers Street, in the old University territory. This was a very long day - I was involved in the transport and setting-up, which wasn't helped by our being stuck in a quiet backwater of the basement, and thereafter I was the computer operator, gaming assistant and general gopher, helping out with numerous runs through a suitable set-piece battle. I recall that Peter had hand-painted a poster for his game, with the legend, "GOING... going... GONE", with appropriate pictures of British Napoleonic infantry gradually shrinking into invisibility.

I regret it was not a terrific day. The weather was dreadful, the show was poorly supported (at least our bit of it was) and we had maybe a dozen casual visitors during the course of the entire day. Peter, understandably, was rather miffed after all his hard work, and became somewhat grumpy. At one point an acquaintance of mine came over and chatted with me for a couple of minutes. Peter was furious - I was not there to chat to my friends, etc. I fear that, though we didn't actually fall out, the day ended on a low note.

Ancient, appropriately grey photo of Adam House
I was unwell for a while with glandular fever, but a few months later my wife and I were invited to a party at Peter's home - a very pleasant evening, and everything was very friendly, but after that I lost touch with him. Eventually, as these things tend to go, it was so long since I had spoken with him that it became awkward to make the effort to phone him up. Thus, I am ashamed to say, I never met with him again. Mind you, it might well be that he was extremely relieved to be rid of me!  

Peter told me a number of very entertaining tales of his experiences in WW2 - since I am not a family friend I am reluctant to recount any of these at the moment.



I don't really know what became of Peter - this post is prompted really by my wondering whether anyone would care to contribute any tales of the Minifigs 5mm blocks, and in case anyone can provide any more information about Peter himself. I am very much indebted to Clive, the Old Metal Detector, for providing me with some clippings about him from Wargamers' Newsletter. Also, if anyone remembers the Edinburgh wargame shows at Adam House (must have been 1984 or 85, I reckon), please shout. I guess there was some more serious stuff going on upstairs!