It starts with John Barry.
It’s some time in late 1989 and he’s holding out what looks like a small collection of bones. They’re strange to see – in truth, I’ve never seen anything like them before, but the smoothness of the pieces is compelling. They’re tinier than any toy I’ve played with; barely millimetres across, I’m immediately sure that he’ll drop them by accident, spilling the pieces across the floor, never to be found again.
John Barry (always referred to by both names) was one of my very few friends in Primary School. A fat, arrogant sort of boy with pudding bowl hair, covered in a constant sheen of sweat, he lives a life that eleven-year-old me envies with a burning passion. His father’s rich, and travels constantly. What this means is that John Barry is constantly disobedient, but, more importantly, knows more about cool new toys than anyone else I will ever meet. In the past, John Barry’s shown me treasures from around the globe. Everything from a remote-controlled tank with a built in cap-gun for a cannon, to special Transformers you can only get in America – his house remains the only place I’ve ever seen an original Megatron figure. John Barry’s the person who told me that Action Force – the toys we both played with when our love of He-Man finally began to pale – is properly called GI Joe. I do not believe him when he says this, until time and licensing proves him correct.
Of course, by the time Action Force has become GI Joe, John Barry has shown me the handful of bird bones that will become my addiction for the next thirty years.
I ask him what these mysterious skeletal pieces are.
“It’s called a Space Marine.”
After a few weeks, I’ve learned everything I can through third and fourth hand sources. There is no internet, and no-one I know owns a copy of the rulebook. Uncovering information is like investigating the occult, all knowledge forbidden. Secret. There are space soldiers called Space Marines, I know this. They have weapons called bolt guns, which are awesome because they look like real-world guns – they have banana clips! – and, come on: bolt guns. That’s a weapon sounds like it could mess you up. There’s other stuff I’ve uncovered too, things like mowlty-melters and something to do with librarians… I don’t understand any of it, but there’s a power to it all. It’s dark, and adult and somehow dangerous. I can’t explain the pull of it, but the more I find out, the more I want to know.
By the end of my first term at the Boys’ School, I’ve finally managed to locate some actual reading material. My old friend Martin, who used to be my best friend, but who has drifted away from me in the way friends do when you both start at a new school, has loaned me the Warhammer 40,000 Compendium. The Warhammer 40,000 Rulebook Is Required To Use This Book, but I couldn’t care less. It is the most exciting book I have ever read. There are stats and numbers and charts like it’s some kind of bloody grimoire; reading it feels like reading magic.
And then I’m reading about Dreadnoughts. About how they’re gigantic robots with human pilots inside… and that once a human is inside, they can never come out. There’s an exploded technical diagram, showing me the internal workings of the Contemptor-Class “Chuck” Dreadnought.
It is the most horrifying, beautiful picture I have ever seen.
In the centre, a man curls in on himself, like a baby, holding his knees. Cabling, the rainbow-coloured kind that spilled out of the side of my old school’s BBC computer and into the LOGO turtle punctures the man’s sides like a tragic, murderous Jesus forever on the tip of Longinus’ spear.
I study that picture for hours. Hours. Sitting in my first lessons as a Secondary School Pupil, the heavy paper wonderfully solid in my hands, I shiver at the thought. What must it feel like to be entombed inside so small a compartment, your body stabbed and agonised, steel wires in your spine, as the robotic flesh of your new form shrugs off bullets and bombs, colossal hydraulic fists pulping enemy bodies like a hammer into overripe fruit. As a child weaned on the horrors of Doctor Who and late 70’s BBC children’s programmes which never quite understood that children shouldn’t be terrorised, the concept hits my imagination like a bolt of unadulterated brilliance. It’s a perfect idea: a human, made into a robotic monster, his flesh sacrificed for superior skill at murder.
Unwrapping presents on Christmas, Martin’s is my favourite. It’s the smallest, but weighs as much as the largest. Shredding the wrapping paper, I look down at the very first blister pack I’ve ever seen. A Contemptor-class “Chuck” Dreadnought, the little £3.99 price sticker still on. The model is everything I could have wanted, and the excitement, the raw exhilaration is so much that every detail becomes electrifying. Turning the packet over in my hand, I admire all of it. The hard, transparent shell; the strange square of grey sponge; the glossy cardboard with the picture of the hand-drawn Space Marine on the front; the matt back, covered in tiny text. I read all of it. Warnings jump out at me: PRODUCT CONTAINS LEAD, and THIS IS NOT A TOY and that it is NOT RECOMMENDED FOR CHILDREN YOUNGER THAN 11.
At the sight of this, I’m worried, because I’m only ten; I won’t be eleven until March. And, annoyingly, I’m a good little boy. Where every other child seems delighted at the thought of mischief – or playing at being a grown-up – I just get anxious. So I do the only thing I can and take it to an expert.
Showing the model to my Dad, I fidget while he appraises it coolly. Warning me that lead is, indeed, very dangerous, he says he doesn’t think there’s going to be any problem. That I should be fine. I open the packet and they heavy pieces tumble into my hand. They’re not so small as the bone fragments that make up a Space Marine, but compared to my Action Force figures, they’re tiny.
Over the rest of Christmas holiday, I come to know what it is to struggle with lead. Not even knowing where to start, I turn to my Dad again. A mechanic and technical author, to my child’s mind, my Dad’s skills with machinery is so innate, so intuitive, it verges on the supernatural. If he can’t fix a thing, well, that means it can’t ever be fixed. But even he’s never assembled anything like this before, his only prior experience being a childhood spent in Airfix kits and Meccano.
As instructed, we try superglue, but the pieces collapse the moment the thing’s picked up. We try superglue again, and it’s exactly as unsuccessful as before. Dad recommends Evo-Stik Impact, and I spend an unpleasant few hours inadvertently making small balls of the stinking stuff; balls which look and feel exactly like the contents of my nose. While the box brags about how this two-part epoxy can stick anything to anything, all the vile stuff seems to do is reek like the inside of a tramp’s bottom and stick nothing to nothing.
Eventually, I give it up as a bad job.
I remember that I read an article on something called ‘pinning’ in the back of that book I picked up from the car boot sale. The article was from a thin, typed volume called ‘Warhammer Fantasy Battles’; on finding it had nothing to do with Space Marines, I was so disappointed I pushed it to the back of my reading pile and left it alone. But coming back to it, I find it’s got a typed piece on how to connect heavy metal parts together using something called a pin vice, which is apparently a tiny drill, then filling the gap with modelling putty.
Sadly, the only shop I know that sells anything remotely geeky is a small local place called Uncanny Comics. Amongst the ‘Aliens’, ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘2000AD’ comics and Punisher-skull T-Shirts, there’s not a single Warhammer item. When I ask, no-one there knows what a pin vice is or where I can get one. When I ask about modelling putty, they ask if I mean plasticine. Recognising a dead end, I say no, thank politely them, and leave.
Defeated, I ask my Dad if maybe we could use the soldering iron to weld the model together. I already know it’s a bad idea, but it’s nice to have confirmation as he shakes his head.
Eventually, I use superglue again, resigning myself to never touching or moving the model from my house. After hours of work, the pieces are together and they’re not falling off at random. Covered in great blobs and striations of glue, some with my fingerprints in, it doesn’t look great.
But despite this, despite everything… despite the fact the shoulders don’t quite fit, despite fact the feet are at wonky angles on the base, despite slight bend in the rear vent that I can’t quite make straight? My Dreadnought – my very first Warhammer 40,000 model – is incredible. From this point on, under the wobbly gaze of a haphazardly assembled lump of lead which threatens to fall to pieces if I so much as breathe on it, I am utterly, hopelessly lost.
I start playing the game.
Not that I’m playing properly. With maths not exactly my strong suit and no-one able to explain the arcana within the supplemental rulebooks, I’ve been playing a vague approximation a game. It’s not really 40K, and it’s based more around my expectations of how the rules work than anything else. Even when we finally get a copy of the Warhammer 40,000 rulebook, my friends and I are the first generation of schoolboys to ever play the game. Which means there’s no veterans to tell us what the rules are, what dice to roll, what figures to use. We are the entire history of the community, and not a one of us can make head-nor-tails of the specifics of the Rogue Trader rules.
During this time, I constantly feel like I’m failing. That I’m not doing it right. The near-constant arguments about even the most basic of rules do not help this feeling.
Later, of course, I will discover we are not alone. As the internet connects me to fellow 1st edition gamers, I will learn that the Rogue Trader book is infamously poorly laid-out. That the rules were frequently wonky, overly complex, unnecessarily convoluted and frequently ill-conceived. I will learn that it seems Rogue Trader was a game where nearly everyone was forced to cobble together a vague kind of game that worked for them, just as my friends and I did.
After a few months, though, we’ve got out local game invented, and we’ve all got something approximating an army. Not that my miniatures collection is what you could call inspiring. With only £1.25 a week pocket money, and the nearest Games Workshop a £2 bus ride away – a bus ride that I’m still too young to take – the idea of going out to buy miniatures is an impossibility. Which means I have my Dreadnought, and a handful of models bought second hand from John Barry. As is his way with diversions, he’s quickly grown tired of Forty Kay, and his disinterest allows me access to miniatures I could never otherwise acquire. These second-hand models are all ugly first edition sculpts; less figures, these are more like twisted plasticine horrors from some godawful Soviet film on corn targets and the glory of Comrade Stalin. Nonetheless, they’ll do. Especially when my ‘army’ is rounded out with nothing more than a few of my old Action Force vehicles repurposed for the Emperor’s Service.
After my birthday has been, visiting me with the unimaginably vast sum of nearly twenty five pounds, I am delighted to discover we are going to visit my Grandparents in Oxford.
Because Oxford has a Games Workshop.
Knowledge of my new obsession has spread through the family by now, and I find my grandparents have set me up on what won’t be called a play-date for another decade, with a boy named Tarrick. He’s the son of my Grandad’s secretary, and has played 40K for as long as me.
When I meet him, he is a little standoffish and strange. Tarrick is barely a year older than me, though fancies himself an adult, a conjecture which I find baffling in its inaccuracy. Tarrick takes me into Oxford city centre, where we visit shops more varied and fascinating than my hometown will ever have. Music shops and comics shops and somewhere called HMV.
Of course, I only care about one particular shop.
When we arrive back at Tarrick’s house, all my birthday money is gone. My Mum’s going to be furious, because I’ve ‘wasted’ it on a box of Space Marines, as well as the ‘Terminators and Tyranids’ boxed set. In a cloud of excitement, Tarrick and I unbox my two purchases together. To this day, I can recite the boxes’ contents like a litany: two terminator librarians, six terminators, ten space marine scouts, three tyranid warriors, twelve genestealers, four genestealer hybrids and, of course, thirty six Space Marines. With the last of my money I have bought the first issue of Marvel UK’s short-running comic ‘Overkill’. Twenty five pounds gone, and I have seventy three models to my name.
I never imagined I could own so many miniatures.
The terminators are used most often, chasing orks each other round a small cardboard box over the next three months. The genestealers will eventually become a Genestealer Cult army of almost bestial ferocity, which will one day fight the Imperial Guard for control of my lounge floor. A single genestealer will make it through the withering fire of twenty seven lascannon to butcher three squads of Guards in a single assault phase, only for the game to be lost when my little sister wanders off to find herself a rusk, leaving me to play alone, and without her giggling as she rolls the dice, the game doesn’t seem quite as much fun.
The Space Marines will be my first lessons in painting. I will learn that you can highlight Salamander Green paint with Bad Moon Yellow if only you drybrush it hard enough. My models will look dreadful, but I will be inordinately proud of them. I will learn that Bolt Gun Metal looks amazing – like actual, real metal – but even better if drybrushed over black. I will experiment with black lining my models, before deciding it looks beyond dreadful and sticking to drybrushing. I will learn that no matter how hard I try, Chapter decals will never, EVER lie flat on a Space Marine shoulder pad, so I will give up using them, telling myself the old lie ‘I’ll do them later’.
I will never base a single one of my models.
As for Tarrick, I’ll only ever see him once again, a few years after our day shopping together. Not knowing what we have in common any more, I’ll awkwardly bring up the subject of 40K. He’ll laugh at me, then brag about all the sex he’s having with girls now. Later, I will learn that he’s gotten a girl pregnant, and that it’s been quite the scandal.
Part of me will feel vindicated. Part of me remains jealous.
Loneliness is a constant companion.
By my second year at the Boys’ School, I will have a bits box of almost heroic proportions. Finally abandoning Space Marines for the plentiful lascannon of the Imperial Guard, I’ve steeped myself in the game to the point that when second edition is announced, I nearly lose my mind.
Sat by the fireplace, as Meatloaf warbles throatily about what he won’t do for love, I read the announcement over and over again. It’s in an issue of ‘White Dwarf’ with a particularly horrible picture of a Space Wolf Terminator on the front, and it is amazing. New Space Marines are promised… and the models are amazing. No longer the small, dinky beakies of the RTB01 set, the plastic models of the 2nd edition starter set are instead the glorious Mk VII Marines of my dreams, and the level of detail is insane. Bolters, where you can see every shell in the magazine; missile launchers, just like the ones from the metal Devastators boxed set; a sergeant with an actual chainsword…. Christ, even the models’ hands. The fingers aren’t vaguely modelled gloved hands, but fully articulated armoured gauntlets – every finger joint is modelled. Every single one.
Looking back, from a modern vantage point, the kits are almost absurdly basic. Monopose marines, monopose orks… and awkward monoposes too. Everyone’s holding their weapons either right in front of their chest, or out to the side like some kind of bizarre Norse longship seen in profile. Seen from twenty five years on, they are obvious as the precursors of the ‘two-dimensional’ style of models that will become absolutely ubiquitous for nearly a decade. But at the time?
At the time, it is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.
What’s crazy is that the more I read about the rules, the more exciting it gets. Gothic card scenery in the box. Three (three!) books, with one on rules, one on background, and one on weapons. Dice for explosives and dice for fully automatic weapons. Datacards for vehicles, with every vehicle getting its own unique damage tables. Cards for a hundred unique pieces of equipment. The Black Codex, with new army lists for every faction in the game. Proper card templates, not something photocopied and glued to a packet of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.
When I unbox the game on Christmas Day, my delight is as boundless as it was when I opened my copy of Epic Space Marine the year before. A few years later, I’m unboxing Adeptus Titanicus and the thrill is the same. Twenty years from now, I’ll be unwrapping Forge World’s Horus Heresy books and spending the entire day luxuriating in fictional nonsense. Christmas time becomes a synonym for a day spent, lost, in The Imperium of Man.
The nearest Games Workshop to me is still that unaffordable £2 bus ride away. Desperate to play games, but with that option closed, I do the only thing I can and begin a Games Club at school. I am too young and naïve to know what a terrible idea this will be.
The teachers don’t understand the concept, barely understand me, and certainly don’t understand what we’re playing, so we’re largely left to our own devices. As a result, Games Club is, for the most part, horrible. Every lunchtime is spent with friends who are, in practical terms, not. This is my first experience with the worst side of the gaming community.
My amateurish, beginner’s paint jobs are judged and found wanting; I am mocked for ever having dared pick up a brush. My conversions are laughed out of the room. Any miniatures I bring are ridiculed for being cheap plastic, which – as everyone knows (apparently) – are not as detailed or as impressive as the metals ones my friends own. When I play Imperial Guard, my army is laughed at for being so weak. When I play Space Marines, my army is laughed at for being unoriginal, because everyone else plays Marines. When I bring in the latest White Dwarf to read, I’m told I’ve wasted my money, because it isn’t as good as it used to be. And Warhammer 40,000 isn’t as good as it used to be. And Games Workshop will be going bust any day now, charging the insane prices they do.
Twenty years later, I will be astonished to discover that the conversations of my youth are still happening.
Despite this, I go every day, play 40K every day. Well, it’s that or loneliness, so I might as well go. We play half-hours snatches of games that never really go anywhere, but which are better than nothing. After a few years spent in the hate-pit that is the Games Club I have founded, my perceptions of human interactions have become so warped that I assume friendship comes from mutual loathing. I become convinced that human beings are garbage, and start to hate the world.
Eventually, I will grow up, pull my head out of my backside, and see this as the self-absorbed teenage angst that it is. I will make real friends, and learn how mistaken I was. When I become a teacher, I will learn that the problem wasn’t Games Club, but that teenagers are just dicks.
I will never stop wondering why people talk about teenage years being the best of their life, and judge anyone who makes such a claim as being soft in the head.
One Saturday in my third year at the Boys’ School, I will go into town to buy the latest issue of ‘Overkill’. It’s not a great comic, but I like it. On the way, I will randomly run into and be attacked by another boy from school. He will punch me in the head, break my glasses, scar my face. After this, because neither I nor anyone in my life knows what the letters PTSD stand for, I will become a hikikomori.
Between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, I will never willingly leave my bedroom for any reason except school. With everything outside now a place too terrifying to go, Warhammer 40K becomes my entire world.
I spend my evenings sat at a desk whose surface is gouged and ruined by my craft knife. Never having heard of a cutting mat, in the centre of the desk is a seven-inch crater torn into the chipboard, the edges of it liberally spattered with paint. While my nine-inch portable black-and-white television plays out CITV, Children’s BBC, Neighbours, and Knightmare, I will dutifully create armies of absurd size.
My mother becomes concerned. She thinks I should be out meeting people, wonders why I don’t want to make friends. I can think of nothing more appalling than either prospect. She blames my hobbies for keeping me inside. One evening, after an argument with my brother turns particularly nasty, she confiscates my collection of fantasy and science-fiction books, because they’re what’s turning me nasty. I am spending too long in fictional worlds, she says, and not enough time in the real one.
She’s partly right, but removing a problem isn’t the same thing as solving it. I sit in my room and watch telly and paint models and wait until my books are returned.
Eventually, though, familiarity will have bred contempt. By the time I’m sixteen, I’m sick of Games Workshop. Of their money grabbing bullshit. Of the horrible red paint jobs on everything. Of goofy, cartoonish sculpts. Of the rules. Of having to spend time with other gamers. Warhammer 40K has become the prison I must escape.
Desperate to change my life, I begin to hang out with my brother and his friends. I’ve avoided this before, because he’s younger than me, but it turns out to be a good idea. He’s a lot cooler than me, has a lot more friends and they – astonishingly – all like each other.
Our interests don’t really overlap. I’m into science fiction and they… well, they’re into all sorts of things: jumping through hedges, wandering out into fields to look at cows, going to petrol stations late at night, and, most of all, underage drinking. I’m too rule-abiding to consider drinking before I’m old enough, but I come along with them when they’re pissed.
Despite this, I’m having a good time. My brother’s friends are fun, and kind, and they invite me along to stuff even though there’s Clearly Something Wrong With Me. Wanting to offer fun activities of my own and be part of things, I make occasional references to Games Workshop games, but these are always met with a polite but firm refusal. My brother will usually give me a disapproving look, but never stays angry for long, because while I might be a dickhead, I’m his dickhead, and shit that means something.
One day, his friend Adam lends me a rulebook. It’s for a new game, called ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’ and it’s as much of a thunderbolt as that dreadnought picture was.
My life changes. I don’t become a Goth or anything; I’m far too rule-abiding for that, and the idea of wearing make-up horrifies me on the genetic level. But in the face of V:tM, 40K just doesn’t cut it any more. Masquerade is everything that 40K isn’t. It’s real. It’s personal. Best of all, it’s resolutely NOT competitive, and after a lifetime of competition, I’m more than ready for something that isn’t.
Losing myself in tabletop roleplay, I drop Games Workshop completely. I don’t even think about it. My armies are sold off to Year Seven pupils for pennies. When I pass a Games Workshop, I feel nothing beyond a mild sense of embarrassment that I was ever into anything so lame. When, at a meeting of the Hallam University roleplaying society, someone pulls out a box of plastic Warhammer Beastmen, my heart swells with pity for him. Doesn’t he know?
How can he not know?
He gamely tries to convince me that it’s still good. I raise my eyebrows and nod. Just like any addict, he’s trying to sell me the needle so he doesn’t feel worthless. They want you to fail so they’re not alone.
I nod and smile, and look at the models and nod and smile and then that’s about it for nearly a decade. There’s the occasional twinge. One day, I pass by a charity shop and see a copy of 2nd edition Space Hulk for £20. Momentarily, I think of buying it, but then walk on and get my groceries. Another day, a friend from roleplay gives me a box of old plastic Imperial Guard. I say I’ll paint them up for old times’ sake, but then they’ll go in a plastic box, where they lie until I break up with my second girlfriend. As I clear my things from her house, I bin them without a second thought. No point taking rubbish with me.
At the tail end of my twenties, there’s nothing left to buy.
I’m not really a hikikomori any more, but I’ve never become the kind of man who goes out a lot. As a result, I’ve got money; more money than my teenaged self would ever have believed. Sure, it’s not actually much – mostly, it’s spent on saving for a house (a task that will take fifteen years). That said, some of it’s disposable, and I treat myself to fun stuff. But White Wolf have mostly wound down the World of Darkness, so what’s left’s been going on computer games. First on a PS1, then on a Dreamcast, then on the PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360…
But now? Now there’s no games left that I want. A ‘Doom’ gamer in a world coloured first in ‘Halo’, then ‘Call of Duty’, the world has moved away from what I like, and modern gamers would rather kill poor brown people than demons. So it is that, as my fun funds burn a hole in my pocket, I walk past the York Games Workshop.
I’ve not been into one in years. Not since their staff started talking to me. Unwilling – unable – to answer the ‘What army do you collect?’ question, I’ve assiduously avoided them. But there, in the window is a squad of Space Marines, and…
…and I sort of stop, and look at them.
They’re bigger than I remember. Prettier too, the sculpts more defined, the details more impressive. And look, there’s one with a Mk VI helmet! Oh my God, a beakie, a proper beakie! Just like they used to look, only better. Wow.
Walking home, I find myself thinking it might be fun to buy a box. Just a box. And assemble them. Just for old times’ sake. Because I’m nearly thirty now, and it’s sometimes fun to look back at where you’ve come from.
So I do. Just a tactical squad. And I’m not going to game with it or anything, just going to assemble and paint it, and maybe put it away in case any of my gamer friends want it for Xmas or something.
But the glue does it. The moment the smell of that polystyrene cement hits, I’m a boy again, child again. That stench, so powerfully awful, but powerful too, tied into all the old delights. I smile as the arms go on, smile as the first model – of course a MkVI beakie – comes together, is completed.
By the time the squad’s completed, I’m hooked.
The next week I go back and buy that Techmarine box. I was always in love with the Adeptus Mechanicus, and he’s got four Servitors too… plus that servo-harness! What a model! Better than anything we had back in my day.
Then I get…
But you know how this goes.
Before long, there’s a small mountain of unpainted plastic and metal in my study. I’ve a Space Marine army I didn’t expect and I’m already picking out the next thing. I’m converting again, only this time with the money and tools to do it properly. I buy a pin vice and a cutting mat. Devouring articles online, I begin to develop painting skills beyond the cack-handed fumblings of my youth. I start to sculpt, first with the Milliput I used to use, then with the Green Stuff GW favours, until I realise that each has different uses.
My girlfriend shakes her head and smiles to see me so happy.
When we finally take her father to court for raping her, I am a witness on the stand. My legs fail me, my voice dies in my throat. I’m not the man I want to be. Not brave, like I wanted to be. I tell the court what he told me: that he did it, that he’s guilty. Cross-examined, his defence holds up pictures I did of a Terminator Captain, back when I was a boy. I’d posted them on social media, shared them with friends, for laughs and for approval.
She asks: what’s wrong with you? What kind of man draws this sort of thing? This many skulls?
Turning to the jury, she makes the implicit, explicit: how can we trust a man who draws anything this violent?
Walking from the court into the bilious sunlight, my girlfriend and I walk around Manchester. I’m too ravaged to go back to our hotel, so we go where I feel safest.
The game shop smells like they always do. The dice are a satisfying weight in my hands. I am me, and I don’t need to cry any more. I buy models, convinced that I will one day get round to painting them, but they end their days in a ratty cardboard box, unpainted, destined not even for eBay, but for the car boot sale.
Even though he’s guilty, her father is let free. Justice done, life darkens. My girlfriend knew it was coming; her counsellor explained as much and so she’s ready for it. Like life forces every woman to, she’s redefined the terms of victory; justice was always impossible, but confronting him was not. She contents herself with that.
I try to, but I can’t. I want the world to work to be the way it should be, but it’s not. Here’s the proof that it favours the liar, the chancer, and the unjust.
I cope poorly.
My work suffers. I enter a deep depression and I’m young again, boy again. Just like in those days, I crawl into fantasies, climb back into old comforts.
From the outside, it must look strange. The worse I feel, the better my painting becomes. But it’s not strange. When I’m painting, I don’t have to think about how unjust the world is. When I’m making models, everything is about the art, the creativity, and creativity is the highest, the purest of all joys. I do some of my best hobby work in the worst times. Adrift, 40K is my life raft.
Eventually, after much work, much effort, much therapy and counselling, my depression passes.
By now, my youth is a memory, my twenties past, and my thirties approaching their end. Warhammer 40,000 has passed through three editions. From devouring the 5th edition rulebook with a song in my heart, I’ve gone from buying the 6th edition rulebook out of a sense of duty to avoiding the 7th edition one entirely. It’s not that I don’t want to play the game. It’s just that there’s no-one to play with, most of my interactions with other players are online, and anyway, I always preferred the modelling.
Inevitably, my girlfriend becomes my then-girlfriend. It’s not a surprise. She’s been distant; I’ve gone from being the support that kept her up to the bars of her prison. I’ve been distant; as she’s drawn away, I’ve drawn inside, choosing art over her.
So she hates my models, hates that they kept me from her. It’s not a surprise to me. Like my mother, it’s easier to hate the symptom than the disease. Even so, even knowing this, when she’s finally gone, I don’t paint anything for six months.
Instead, I spend time elsewhere, inside the life of someone else. I travel a lot, visit people, making vague acquaintances into true friends. I roleplay for the first time in years.
When I come back to the modelling table, things are different and the same all at once. 40K’s always been my safe space… or so I told myself. Thought of it as the place I come when I’m scared, or in pain.
But it isn’t. It’s my passion. It’s where my art lives. Where I’m happiest.
Eighth edition has just been announced. Already, the community is tearing up as though the sky is falling. Imperial Guard are weak. Space Marines, too boring, everyone plays them. White Dwarf isn’t as good as it used to be. Warhammer 40,000 isn’t as good as it used to be. Games Workshop will be going bust any day now, charging the insane prices they do.
Twenty years later, and the conversations of my youth are still happening.
But I’m more excited about this new edition than I have been for any other. Because it’s a new start. Can you imagine that? An entirely new start.
Back when John Barry first passed me that handful of bird bones, I’d no idea what he was really passing me. Because 40K isn’t something that “I’m into”. I can’t even say ‘it’s a huge part of my life‘, because it’s so much more than that. It’s been the bad times, it’s been the best days of my life. It’s cut me off from the world, turned me into a misanthrope, a hermit. It’s kept me going when there was literally nothing else there: my safe space, my happy place.
It’s the thing by which everything else I love is judged. It colours everything.
As a younger man, I’d have felt the need to apologise for that. But in eleven months, I’m forty. I’ve lived half my life in the Imperium’s shadow, and I can’t see ever leaving it. Even if I suddenly stopped, its reach into my thinking and reactions would be unavoidable. In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war; in the strange tones of our current times, we live in a golden age of gaming. The models are better, the rules are tighter, everything’s just so much MORE than it was thirty years ago.
As of this writing, I own fifty Dreadnought models.
That’s all for this month; if you enjoyed it, why not head off to Amazon and buy a copy of my book?. It’s the best book about lesbians fighting cyborgs and ghosts you’ll ever read.