Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that


Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Hooptedoodle #150 – The Mud of Cumbria


Since it was the Contesse’s birthday last Saturday, and also since we never did get a Summer holiday this year (with one thing and another), we took a weekend break at Wetheral, near Carlisle. I haven’t visited Wetheral for about 15 years, but remember it fondly – it is a quiet village (one gets the impression that this is where the money in Carlisle lives), with interesting walks along the valley of the River Eden and blessed with an excellent, independently owned hotel (The Crown) which has great food and even a nice indoor swimming pool (which we used – my son is a very keen swimmer).

Fancy a little holiday home in a quiet village in the North West, for the weekends?
The original plan, to be honest, had been to visit Durham, but Durham was booked solid – certainly everything within our price range – which may be connected with Freshers’ Week at the university. So it was Wetheral, with possibilities for Hadrian’s Wall visits and even the north end of the Lake District (less likely, given the time available) for a little walking. We got the Autumn Special Deal by phoning the hotel direct, which – interestingly – was about 60% of the best price we obtained for the same accommodation through the better known web-based booking sites. Hmmm.

Saturday we walked down the 99 steps from the railway station to the bank of the River Eden, and walked a few miles upstream. Very pleasant scenery – the river runs almost through a gorge at points, and past a man-made island which the monks put there centuries ago to channel salmon into a trap. There is a spectacular railway viaduct (which also carries a footpath to allow you to get to Great Corby, on the opposite bank), and below Corby Castle (which is mostly Victorian in its present state) there is a very impressive man-made cascade down to the river. It must be a remarkable sight in wet weather.



This walk also renewed my acquaintance with the Mud of Cumbria, which made a big impression on me (or possibly it was the other way round) during my 2012 walk along Hadrian’s Wall. I had not forgotten about it, of course, but time softens the memory.

In September 2012 I developed some private theories that the Romans may have had some idea of exploiting the commercial potential of this very special mud – it is composed of very fine silt; in a field it can be bottomless, even if the surface looks quite firm; an innocent looking puddle will suck your boots off and laugh at you as you fall about in the mire; on a stile or on stone steps it has the exact properties of WD40, even in your best Brasher boots (assuming you still have them, after the puddle). Our exposure to it this weekend was minimal, but even so I managed to get some on the boots as I was walking on some rock shelving at the edge of the river, and I was sliding around like a drunk goat on a frozen pond. Somehow, the mud is different in neighbouring Northumberland – I must check if it changes abruptly at the county line. More study is required, with proper samples and slump tests and all that – and much discussion in pubs. I must give this some thought – anyone fancy a mud sampling weekend based around Cumbrian pubs? We could omit the mud-sampling if it seemed appropriate.

Our trip home on Sunday got off to an early start, to allow us time to have a short walk from the Roman Army Museum near Greenhead, up onto the end of the very best section of the Hadrian’s Wall walk – we did a couple of miles along the top of Walltown Crags, just to give my wife a brief taste of the best of what the Wall offers in scenery and walking/scrambling. We’ve been together to Housesteads a few times, but that is very formalised and park-like compared with the Crags.

Foy the Younger on top of Walltown Crags
Sunday lunch at the Twice Brewed Inn was as good as usual (slow-roast pork belly and mustard mash with scallions, ginger ice cream to follow…), then the drive home along the switchback of the A68 was only slightly spoilt by the bikers. It was a nice, dry day, so the Big Boys had all been polishing their nice big bikes and were out in force. I don’t have a problem with bikers, most of them are sensible, thoughtful road users with a better than average understanding of the law and safety, but a proportion of them do seem to feel that somehow they are in some strange kind of war, flying heroic, doomed missions against enemy motorists. The thing that scares me is the possibility of coming round a bend and finding some numpty on a Kawasaki coming at me on my side of the road, well over the speed limit and too excited to think straight. Racing leathers and incontinence knickers. Jesus.

The A68 - hang on to your lunch
In my boyhood I travelled thousands of miles on the pillion of my dad’s bikes (which is why I walk like John Wayne), and I don’t wish to end my account of a super little trip on a grumpy note, but I do not find the sight of a line of bikers in my rear view mirror a comforting one – at least one of them will be forced (by peer pressure?) to squeeze past at the wrong moment, in a silly place. On Sunday there was a moment when one chap decided to overtake me without noticing that I was signalling to overtake some cyclists – a strange oversight for a brotherhood who spend their lives complaining about the lack of vision and thoughtlessness of others.

When I was learning to drive, back in the age of steam, when avoiding running down the man in front with the red flag was part of the knack, I was taught by an ex-Army instructor named Derek. One thing he said to me has always stuck:

The things which cause more accidents than anything else are surprises. If you do something unexpected – travel at the wrong speed for the conditions, turn without signalling, whatever – you are putting complete reliance on other road users’ ability to cope with the situation; if they don’t manage to cope, whether or not you think they should have, the fault is your own for causing the situation in the first place.

Driving lessons
Not exactly earth-shaking logic, but it occurs to me that a minority of the biker fraternity specialise in – take a pride in – doing things which are surprising. Bomb-burst manoeuvres where they overtake someone on both sides at once, overtaking on a blind corner despite double white lines, travelling as fast as physically possible all the time (and in my home area, which has some fine, fast, twisty roads, we also have inconveniences such as people who live here, horses, children on bicycles, deer, etc etc) – none of these help a great deal.

Here’s a chance for someone to score an equaliser by complaining (quite rightly) about the dreadful standard of car-driving on the British roads, which should serve to fuel the war and help greatly. I’m not sure, but I think that if large groups of young men gathered together on a nice Sunday in September, equipped with the most powerful cars they could afford, and travelled in convoy, as fast as possible, up and down the A68, they would stand a very fair chance of being arrested, incontinence knickers and all.

I hope that in the next few days I should get out my wargames table after a long lay-off – if nothing else, I am keen to take some photos to catalogue my ECW collection. With luck, I should have something more relevant to blog about.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Hooptedoodle #149 – Another Brief Skirmish with Technology

Since I choose to tell you about this one, dear reader, you may safely assume that this is a (rare) tale of braggart and personal triumph from among the many episodes of frustration and bewilderment which form my normal daily experience of the Age of Technology. There will be, in short, a happy ending.

My son’s printer is a Canon MP470 – not a brilliant piece of kit, so be sure; it is, for a start, a combination printer/scanner unit, a type of device I have never liked very much. It was my mother’s, but she never used it, so we sort of borrowed it and it came to live here, and it has worked pretty well, though the lad’s taste for artwork with black backgrounds and so on gives rise to a mighty appetite for ink cartridges.


Well it stopped working today. The paper was feeding in crooked (crookedly?), and the printer was making ominous clattering noises – any attempt to print anything produced a paper jam and a mess of ink on the rollers. I strongly suspected that the new owner’s habit of overfilling the paper hopper (by a factor of maybe 200%) had finally jammed it and bent something. However, there is no point forming judgements and striking knowledgeable poses – the printer is needed for homework and stuff, so it was necessary to do something about it. I used to be pretty good at jobs like this, and in a former life the Contesse worked in a technical support role in a commercial PC environment, so she is very good indeed, though our knowledge is probably a little off-the-boil, and the old eyesight has not improved over the years.

I had a search online, and was lucky enough to find a description of exactly this same problem in a Canon user forum – some fellow claimed that almost certainly there was a foreign object in the workings (nonsense, we cried) and he had solved this on his printer by reverse feeding (manually – I hope you are taking notes here) a sheet of paper through the track, by dint of getting his finger deep into the works and slowly turning a knurled wheel with his fingernail – eventually, the reverse-fed sheet pushed out the foreign object. Now, because it is a combi printer/scanner, the machine is a bit like the inside of a clock when you open it up, nothing quite opens wide enough for a clear view, and reverse feeding a sheet of paper through all those fiddly rollers and past a tiny plastic latch which must be lifted with a penknife blade is not unlike the challenge of inserting a blade of grass into a butterfly’s anus (not that I have personal experience of this, but it seems about right).

Since this was our only possible lifeline I donned my trusty LED headlight, we found a sheet of thicker (less grass-like) paper and began the agonisingly slow reverse-feed job – nadgering the wheel click by click, swearing, dropping things, etc. After a short time, it became humblingly obvious that the proposed solution was correct – the Contesse spotted the promised foreign object in the paper track, and fished it out. It was not a hairpin or paperclip, it was in fact quite a large novelty bookmark of my son’s which Sir Isaac Newton (the rascal) had obviously dropped from the bookshelves above the printer.

I append a picture, with a USB memory stick to give an idea of the size of the offending item. We have all heard of the Ghost in the Machine – this was the Dodgy Character in the Printer.



I need beer.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Hooptedoodle #148 - Let's All Scream & Run Round in Circles


So here we are, on the threshhold of a potential watershed in history, and – you know what? – I’m bored rigid.

On Thursday, as you may be aware, we will all be trotting along to polling stations here to vote YES or NO in the Referendum to decide whether Scotland is to leave the United Kingdom. At the very least, you would expect this to be a time which is tense with excitement, when we are all giddy with the possibilities and the sense of being in on a moment of real history. Certainly a lot of people are making a great deal of noise about it, but mostly I find myself wondering if there are any grown-ups at home.

I refuse to contribute to the mighty pile of nonsense which is already out there on the subject. My private feelings on the matter are not unknown, but that is not the issue. The machinery of democracy has, yet again, collapsed into the ritual of reciprocal abuse, face pulling and hysteria which makes a sick joke of the whole concept. Broadly speaking, those who intend to vote YES are driven by received cultural and (supposedly) patriotic motives, and by an understandable dislike of the Westminster government and all it has come to stand for (does Mr Cameron actually understand that every time he opens his mouth there is another swing to YES?); those who are in the NO camp are mostly driven by fear of the overwhelming number of unknowns – whatever their feelings about the ultimate logic or desirability of independence.

I am depressed by the difficulty of trying to find some facts – everyone has an axe to grind. Everyone is campaigning, especially the bastard press, and everything is a lie. Anyone who produces an opposing view – to either side – is being negative, or is using bullying tactics. If I walk around my house with a notepad, and scribble down a list of all the services we rely on, all the things we need, and try to attach some helpful notes for myself about how it would work in an independent Scotland, the notes would almost all say “don’t know”, and it isn’t because I haven’t tried to find out. In the long term, who will deliver the mail? who will pay the pensions? what currency will we use? who says so? what authority do they have to say this? how will education, health all be financed? The Telegraph is not a paper I have any time for at all, but recently they sketched out, in some detail, how the budgetary control of an independent Scotland might stack up, and it does not make for entertaining reading – they mention the likelihood of the highest personal taxes in Europe, plus crippling rates of Corporation Tax and VAT which would drive away businesses and employers; of course, this is all the sort of thing we would expect the Telegraph to say, and the correct response is to sit down with the aforementioned notepad and sketch out a counter-argument for each point – I have to say I am struggling to do this. I don’t have the wisdom or the knowledge to do much of it anyway, but more importantly I have no reliable facts on which  to base a rival case. As it happens, we might dispute whether the Telegraph does, either – we all just don’t know.

We do not know. I repeat. Swerving the eye-watering issue of currency (how can you swerve that?), what happens to the Scottish finance industry, which is a key element in the case for economic viability? There are strong rumours about their all moving their head offices out of Scotland (and, as I understand it, RBS’s customer base is about 90% English, so this is not a simple matter – and let’s not mention who currently owns that bank), so there is much shrieking about that, too. There is also a visible trend of customers already taking their savings elsewhere, just in case. In a sensible world, all these banks – and all other businesses with a significant presence in Scotland - would have issued a definitive statement of intent to their customers months ago, saying what the possible future might look like. Of course, they have not, so all we have is the shrieking. We do not know.

People are saying to us, “Go on – jump out of the window – it will be great – we will think of something fantastic to catch you before you hit the ground, though of course we don’t know exactly how it will work or what it will be.”

Hmmm. Obviously, since democracy is what we love and embrace (apparently), we will all have to live with the consequences of Thursday’s vote, and the two sides will have to get over their current name-calling and get on with making things work. At the moment, that doesn’t look like a great prospect.

I realise there may be a whiff of undesirable negativity in what I have written here, for which I can offer nothing but my humble apologies. We are in a situation where it is estimated that, with 3 days left until polling day, something like 17% of the registered electorate still don’t know which way they will vote – and this is not them being coy or secretive about it, this is an estimate of the number who state that they intend to vote but that they still have not finally made up their mind. How could they? In all truth, none of us knows enough to make a rational decision.

Choice is a NO result, with a return to the same old bloody Westminster hypocrisy and with some increases in the amount of devolution (which, if he is even slightly sane, must be the result Salmond is praying for), or a YES, with a local explosion of euphoria and precious little direction or hard fact to build a working future on – not in the time available, certainly. To me, it’s a bit of  a NO-brainer.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Siege Thoughts (1) – The Folks Who Live on the Hill



The Civilians

My first period of enthusiasm for tabletop sieges was about five years ago now; this was before I started this blog, but the first serious playtesting was recorded splendidly by Clive in his Vintage Wargames blog. My early rules had a lot of holes in them, and the game was fun but definitely creaky in some areas – I’ve done a little work on it since then, but otherwise I have been distracted by other things (excuse 1), and for a while I have been waiting to see what Piquet would produce in their mooted Vauban’s Wars rules, for which we are all still waiting, sadly (excuse 2).

During my solo Peninsular War campaign (blogged here in 2012-13) I deliberately chose not to use tabletop sieges, since they do not fit well with the timescales and turn cycle of the map movement game. I did consider the possibility of having a siege set up on a tabletop if it was required, and working it alongside the map stuff (such things should be possible in a solo game, you would think), but then I realized that I would be in deep trouble if there were two sieges simultaneously. Thus I spent some time developing algorithm-based siege simulators, and I have to say that the two sieges that took place during the campaign worked very nicely as mathematical models, but I was still a little sad that the lovely fortress toys and my siege train did not get used on the table.

I am very keen to get back to sieges sometime soon, so I’ve been doing some further thinking and scribbling. I already had some rough notes about what I termed barometers, which were missing from the early rules, and which I have always known I should have to come back to. During a siege, my logic goes, the normal siege turn will represent 24 hours’ activity, but if anything more tactical occurs – such as a sally, or a storm, or the arrival of a relieving force – then the game temporarily switches to 15 or 30-minute turns, during which a more standard type of wargame is conducted until events calm down again to the more measured step of the siege operations. Over and above all this, I envisaged  a weekly check on the progress of a number of things, and this is where I would maintain the barometers to show the current state of the garrison and the civilians (if any) in the fortress, the level of enthusiasm of the besiegers, and the supply of provisions and ammunition (in a simplified form). It would also be necessary to monitor damage to the town as the result of bombardment and fires, and check for sickness and epidemics (on both sides). The movement of the barometers would be linked one to another in many cases, and there should be a little contributory dice-rolling to simulate good and bad breaks.

This, potentially, could get very complicated, but thus far the barometers don’t exist in any useable form, so in odd moments I am doing some head scratching and trying to write down a few basic ideas. Some of this is from first principles (or what passes for commonsense around here), and some is borrowed from my various sources, which include the works of Chris Duffy, Tony Bath, Charles S Grant, Henry Hyde and a number of other worthies, plus the Festung Krieg rules from the Koenig Krieg 18th Century rules and other bits and pieces.

My first attempt at a barometer is that for the civilian population who have the misfortune to inhabit a besieged town. My starting point was to identify five broad “states” of the civilians, thus:

(1) Completely supportive of the garrison; will collaborate fully in matters of supply and will require no policing effort; if necessary, will be prepared to form irregular units and/or help man the defences. The population of Saragossa during the sieges there might be an example of a State 1 civilian group.

(2) Passively supportive of the garrison; will contribute food and labour, but will not fight; a small amount of policing required; will probably hand over spies.

(3) Pretty apathetic; may require active policing and control; will not fight, but may well be demoralized or sullen.

(4) Hostile to garrison; may obstruct military effort, or disrupt supply arrangements. Extensive policing required, and there will be inhabitants who provide information to the besiegers, and who may take up arms to assist an assault from outside.

(5) Violently hostile; the population is held in check only by extensive diversion of troops and effort; there will be a tendency to insurrection, and armed resistance against the garrison. They will certainly assist the besieging force if chance is offered.

Clearly, the citizens may move from one state to another – up or down the barometer – as the situation develops. A military governor who deprives the townspeople of food in order to feed his own men, for example, may find that he has to divert much of his strength to suppress a violent backlash if the citizens slide into State 5.

OK – there’s a lot to do here, and the way this all links with the progress of the siege and with the other barometers still needs thinking out, but this is my first skeleton. I was interested in the fact that States 1 and 5 imply that the population may generate irregular “units”, which become involved in conflict on either side. I started thinking about how many such soldiers might be produced from a civilian group.

Bearing in mind that my priority here is to get something working for Spain in about 1810-13, I reasoned that, if half the population were male, and there were large numbers of children, many of whom would not survive to adulthood, then about one-third of the males might be aged 16 to 50, and capable of carrying arms. I am aware that many of the men would already have been called up to join the army, or have otherwise disappeared to avoid being called up, and many might have been killed in the war. Let us assume this takes the one-third down a bit. A convenient figure might be that 1000 population can yield 4 fighting figures (at 33 men/figure). Thus it will also be necessary to track civilian losses in the siege.

I propose to work with a standard unit of rations (yet to be named), which will feed 1000 civilians or 1 infantry battalion (of about 700 men) or 1 cavalry unit (of about 350 men) for a week. There are some tables in Tony Bath’s book giving guidelines for the effect on sickness and morale (and thus desertion) of living on reduced rations for various periods, which look useful without being too onerous, so I propose to check that all out.

These siege thoughts will, I hope, constitute an occasional series as ideas come together; much of this is very rough at this stage, and it will take some time and much testing to get it into shape, but it’s the sort of thing I enjoy fiddling with!

Friday, 5 September 2014

Hooptedoodle #147 - Not the Same at All

This doesn't help much
I recently had a pleasant exchange of emails with a very nice fellow from New Mexico, during which he asked me if I could help clear up an argument he had been having with some friends, who were convinced that the unpleasantness between the noble houses of York and Lancaster was, or was somehow part of, the English Civil War.

Anyone calling on my historical expertise is in trouble anyway, but I pointed out that the conflict which later became known as the Wars of the Roses was some two centuries earlier than the ECW, and – though some of the family alignments may still have had an effect all those years later – the scripts were separate and different.

I have noticed a certain element of confusion in this area before – notably in the dark folds of TMP. I have also been accused before of attempting to take a poke at Americans, but nothing could be further from the truth – I have a good number of American friends, and I have a great deal of respect for their country. I do feel, though, that in some respects their collective understanding of the world outside the USA is sometimes patchy, which still surprises me a little, since just about all of them are descended from peoples who came from other parts of the globe.

In 1987 I made the first of a number of visits to California to play with an Edinburgh-based group at the Sacramento Jazz Festival (which, at that time at least, was a very big deal indeed). During the first break of our first set, a bearded gentleman of about 60 came up and said, in a booming voice,

“So you guys are Irish? – so am I – I wonder if we are related?”

We shook his hand and explained that no, in fact we were Scottish.

“Same thing,” boomed the bearded one, “read your history, pal! Don’t they teach history any more? – have the English put a stop to that?”

We protested, gently, that, though the countries had certain tribal connections, they were in fact separated by both culture and geography. We also suggested that confusing the two was not unlike mistaking California and Mexico. This didn’t go down well at all.

“Different thing altogether! – obviously you guys never went to school!” and he stomped off back to the beer tent. Once again we had made our faultless contribution to international friendship. I've met a number of fellows like this since - the history gets a bit smudged; I had a good-going discussion in a bar in Auburn once with a guy who claimed to be an Irish republican, but whose view of the history was diverse enough to include odd incidents such as the Glencoe Massacre if it was too good an excuse for a fight to ignore.

It’s taken me a few years, but I have eventually come to understand that none of the actions at Brandywine, Plattsburgh, Little Big Horn or the Alamo are considered part of the ACW, but then it would be hard for me to escape the truth – American history is all-pervasive, it dominates the Internet – look up English Civil War or Spanish Civil War on Google or on the Amazon site, and see how the ACW swamps the lists produced.

I am aware that the USA is a relatively young nation, and has worked hard on it’s identity – belonging has been important, conforming to a national ideal essential. Americans are encouraged to cherish their immigrant heritage, but also to put it in the background. That is all admirable. When I used to visit, which I did regularly until 1998, I was intrigued by the world as presented by the TV networks. In Sacramento, for example, local news might be a report on the Christian Mothers’ fund-raising musical show in Rio Linda, national news was what was going on in the California state capitol, world news was events in the rest of the USA. Only the occasional glimmer of anything in the outside world sneaked through, and then only if there were Americans involved, or if it had political implications for the USA. I was in Los Angeles when the US Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner, which made it on to the TV news, but otherwise I had to phone home to see what was happening.

Not that the English Civil War is solid ground for forming comparisons - we could get into all sorts of debates about more-politically-correct titles - The Wars of the Three Kingdoms (which seems to discriminate rather against the heavily committed Welsh) and so on. Personally I get bored with this topic pretty quickly, but I have a (sort of) friend who gets almost violent if someone refers to the English Civil War (singular), but there again he is capable of starting a fight in an empty room. Whatever - if I say "ECW", and then duck quickly, you have a good idea what I'm talking about, and the Plantagenets do not figure at all.

Fair enough, but give us a break, guys – Wars of Roses; English Civil War; different. I guess you might just about glue the ECW onto the end of the Thirty Years War, but that would require a lot of explanation and a lot of beer, and life is too short, really. Just carry on – thanks.

Monday, 1 September 2014

1809 Spaniards – Daft Project #215b

JM Bueno plate of the light horse grenadiers - an odd concept,
but an interesting potential addition to the light cavalry
It’s strange what one finds in the spares box – I guess it’s because there are not so many collectors of figures in the scales, periods, nations and makes that I am looking for, and – ultimately – it’s a small world.

I’ve recently taken delivery of the second of my Spanish line Cazadores a Caballo units for the 1809 army. The Spanish army only had two such units, the Cazadores de Olivencia (red facings) and the Voluntarios de España (sky blue facings), so there’s no scope for adding any more.

The troopers in the more recently-arrived of these units consist of a Hinton Hunt conversion which is obviously specially done for the purpose, and very distinctive – braided chasseur-type jacket, and shako with side plume. All very good, but you may imagine my astonishment when I checked in my spares box, and found that I have 7 unpainted examples of exactly this same converted figure. In some strange way, I have received examples of this unique figure – which is definitely a subject of very limited and specialised interest – from two completely independent sources. Even more strangely, it has taken me until now to realise this. Of course, I could now say, “Gosh, that’s a bit of a surprise!”, or – being me – I might think, “Hmmm – if I added 3 command figures to these 7 figures, I could produce a complete new light cavalry unit for my 1809 Spaniards”. I have a bunch of (I think) Alberken hussar-type horses which would fit them admirably, so I’m off to a flying start if I wish to go that way.

All I need, then, is a suitable historical unit to base them on, and I have found one. The Granaderos a Caballo de Fernando VII were – contrary to what you might expect – a unit of light horse, uniformed in the style of the line Cazadores. They were raised in 1809 by the Conde de Fernan-Nuñez, who became their colonel. In 1811 they were renamed the Husares de Fernando VII, pelisses were added, and a Bueno plate I have of them from that later date looks very attractive, and far smarter, I’m sure, than the reality must have been. It is their earlier form and garb which interests me, though.

I also found these self-same Granaderos a Caballo among the illustrations of the Histoire et Collections volume on the Battle of Ocaña – these are taken from plates by Peter Bunde. The uniform is pretty much the same as the chap in the picture at the top of this post, except that Bunde has the troopers with epaulettes, which I think is unlikely. My intention would be to have the troopers as the plate at the top, but wearing side-plumed, cazador-style shakos, with white cording, and have the officers in colpacks, with silver epaulettes. In fact, an alternative might be to have the officers in full hussar style, in recognition of the hussar-style pretensions of the regiment. Whatever, we are talking of further conversions here.

I approached Peter at BB Wargames, and he sees no problem – just send the figures along – so it seems this might well go ahead. The last thing I need is someone to encourage me, normally, but this is OK. You will hear more of this, I have no doubt.

To give a bit of historical background, here’s an extract from Col JJ Sañudos’ wonderful database of the Spanish army in the Guerra de la Independencia, giving some details of the service of the unit.





Thursday, 28 August 2014

Hooptedoodle #146 – Archie


Wow, Archie. I hadn’t really thought about Archie for some years – I think I may actually have avoided thinking about him – but recently he cropped up in conversation with my wife, and not long ago I threw out some old papers, in which I found an invitation to Archie’s retirement dinner, which was certainly not yesterday.

Archie and I both worked for the same (very large) employer for many years, though we never met and knew nothing of each other for almost all of that time. He spent his time in the sales organization, managing branch offices in different parts of the UK, and my world was of mathematics and computers, at boring old Head Office. Since we were roughly the same age, we eventually met up – collected together like fluff in a corner – when we had both become senior enough and old enough to become something of an embarrassment.

I can’t claim to be an expert on working careers, since I only ever had one, but there are some characteristics which seem far clearer to me now than they were at the time. If you are successful (and Archie and I were both pretty successful, I suppose, by any commonsense standards) then the ingredients will be a rough mixture of hard work, talent, luck, personal contacts and what we might call “politics”. Strangely, we tend not to notice much except the talent and the hard work on the way up, but when the momentum starts to run out we become painfully aware of the rest, especially the politics. It is pathetically easy to blame our ultimate humbling on conspiracies, or bad breaks, but the reality is that we must have benefited from exactly those same elements when we were doing well, but we chose not to see it. Eventually, old senior managers become too expensive, too risk-averse and too much of an obstruction to the promotion of the next lot of hot-shots, and they have to go. Nobody explains this at the time.

Anyway, Archie and I came together, late on, on the steering committee of some no-hope project that nobody cared about, and we got on very well. We used to meet up for lunch, to discuss important stuff like football and music, share uproarious tales of our memories of our working lives and the stupidity of the useless and pointless jobs we had now been pushed into (to make room for the hot-shots), and generally to enjoy each other’s company, though I fear that much of the chat was heavily negative.

Archie had been through a very traumatic divorce (he explained, quite cheerfully, that his wife eventually couldn’t stand him any more) and had moved back to the town of his birth – a small place not far from Glasgow – a town where the railings of the public park were painted red, white and blue and the Council had never, ever employed a Catholic, as far as anyone knew. As the lunches continued, I became rather less comfortable in Archie’s company; there was something about him – he burned too brightly – he was always too jovial, or too intense, or too angry, or too something-or-other. He also had a disquieting habit of supporting the points he made in conversation by trotting out biblical quotations, complete with chapter and verse numbers. In what I hope was a good-natured way, I asked him not to do this, since these quotes only served any purpose if:

1. The listener knew the passage, and thus could identify it as genuine.

2. The listener accepted the intended interpretation of these words in this particular translation.

3. The listener was otherwise convinced that these words carried some form of authority because of their inclusion in the Bible.

In all three of which departments this particular listener was a bad target.

We agreed that Archie would calm this down – the tacit understanding, I think, being one of joint acceptance of my inadequacy. On one occasion, when there were four of us for lunch, two being business contacts whom we did not know at all, Archie very kindly took it upon himself to say grace before we ate, which seemed a bit presumptuous in the circumstances, and we subsequently agreed that he would not repeat this, either.

And then, bit by bit, over a few months of lunches, we got to the horror story. Archie seemed to have a need to tell it to someone, but it came out slowly, in hints and fragments, until one day it became the subject for discussion for today. It had all happened years before.

Archie’s father was a devout member of some pretty extreme Protestant faction, and he brought his kids up as he thought best. Archie’s sister was a rather nervous, quiet girl, and she went away to teachers’ training college in Glasgow, where she became involved with a man who was a Catholic. There was a lot of trouble at home – a lot of tears and screaming, and eventually things reached the point where the father and daughter became irreconcilable, she was banished from the family, and she went away to live with her new partner. Her father even took legal steps to remove her from his will – this was a situation from which there could be no return.

Sadly, the girl’s relationship did not go well, for whatever reason; she suffered serious depression and was hospitalized for mental illness for a while, and she made contact with her father, to ask if she could come back to live with him. I am not sure where Archie stood on all this, but the father refused to answer her letters – he had no daughter – in God’s name he had no daughter. Some months later she committed suicide.

Now, of course, I have no idea how these things stack up – was she unstable enough to have committed suicide anyway, was her extreme upbringing part of the cause – who knows? It is tempting to assemble what I remember of what Archie chose to tell me into a novella of any style you choose – you choose Bronte and I’ll choose the Woman’s Realm. It’s also none of my business, anyway, but it was certainly Archie’s. I asked him – since it seemed appropriate – how he felt about it all now.

Archie had a habit of avoiding eye contact when he made his biblical quotes, and he stared into space very carefully now. He told me that his father and he had been devastated, of course, but eventually they were glad that God had sent them this trial as a test of their faith, and that they had come through it together. They were stronger in Jesus as a result, he said. The tragedy to Archie’s sister appeared to be incidental, and there was certainly no suggestion of guilt, or even regret.

I am sorry to say that I had a lot of trouble with Archie’s story – I was profoundly spooked by it. We met less often, and shortly after that he retired and our paths rarely, if ever, crossed. For a while he sent me emails (as part of a large circular distribution) drawing my attention to ranting letters he had had published in the Glasgow Herald – usually about the mismanagement of his former employer by the new hot-shots – and then later he sent out some pretty appalling racist and anti-Islamic materials, and I got him classified as SPAM, and I haven’t heard from him since.

Archie.

That’s it.