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


Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Hooptedoodle #114 - The End of Another Year - Tony Brooks


Well, you may find this hard to believe, but it seems that yet again I have failed to make the New Year honours list. I had sort of hoped that maybe the letter on the official headed notepaper had just been delayed in the Christmas mail, but the lists are out and – I just have to accept it – I’m not mentioned.

You’d have thought just a measly CBE or something wouldn’t have been too much trouble or expense – they don’t have to go daft – I am humble enough to accept crumbs from the royal table with good grace. In case you are wondering just why I might merit some kind of recognition from a grateful nation, I wish you wouldn’t keep bringing that up – I can only respond that I seem to be at least as deserving as many who are on the list. Not that I spent much time reading it, you understand.

There’s a lady who has been a very famous actress for a great many years – you know the one – she was in that TV series we all used to watch years ago – what was it called, again? – that other fellow that died recently was in it, too – what was his name? And then she was in lots of other things – she was always on TV, in our living rooms – she was like one of our family, and we all loved her. Anyway, they’ve made her a Grand Dame, or a Wicked Stepmother or something. So now, in addition to being wealthy and famous she is elevated to the peerage.

I think that’s wonderful. There’s also some chap that has been a big wig in the finance industry for a long time who is now Sir Big Wig – he looks like another deserving case – a knighthood is probably one of the very few things he couldn’t afford to buy. Well – now I come to think of it, perhaps he could. Maybe that’s where I’m going wrong.

I did spend enough time with the list to note that there are also a few people on there who have been rewarded for their work for charity, or their contribution to scientific advance and stuff like that, but I wasn’t very interested in them – I’d never heard of them – no-one ever mentions them at the hairdresser’s – and I rather regard them as faceless do-gooders. The papers don’t bother much with them either, which just goes to prove something or other. It would be churlish to begrudge them even their lower-profile honours – I mean, good for them – but it does add weight to my argument that there seem to be enough places available (I’m sure that’s not the right word) for them to have squeezed me in.

Not to worry. Rise above it. I shall enjoy my continuing anonymity, and the distinction of being one of the last people in the UK who are not famous.

Moving on, I have to observe that this is a strange time of year – we appear to be obsessed with looking back over the year and producing lists of things. TV is stuffed with this – The Top 50 Most Pointless List Shows of 2013, and similar. I guess we must like this kind of thing, though it has been suggested that it is just a very cheap way of re-running old clips into a botched-up show and giving Harry Hill or Jimmy Carr something to do. Switching on the TV last night, the Contesse and I were shocked to see a news announcement of the death of Mel Smith, the comedian and writer (I’m not sure if he was an MBE or anything) – our shock being heightened by the fact that he also died during the Summer, so it was yet another re-run. That’s one problem with re-runs – if you don’t watch them from the start, and don’t pay attention, it can become very confusing – you can get hold of the wrong end of all sorts of sticks, and this is a very easy time of year to get confused.

Given that every meaningless statistic in the world is now at copywriters’ fingertips, and everything that was ever filmed (including out-takes) is stored away somewhere, it must be possible to create a TV show of some sort at hardly any cost at all. A major contribution to helping with the Economic Depression, or depression of any sort – at peak viewing hours, the whole family can sit on the sofa, break out the catering sized bags of Doritos and watch yet another show which cost hardly anything to produce. Ideal – we will also get to sit through the advertising breaks (mostly ads for low-quality sofas and for Doritos, in fact, just as a lifestyle check), and if the story line or the information content is not demanding that’s OK; it matters less if Maureen misses most of it, checking her texts, or if we get distracted by a parallel discussion of some other show that we failed to understand previously – you know, the one with that bloke in – what’s his name?

On this general theme of recorded statistics and old pictures, one of my Christmas presents was a book called Poetry in Motion, the autobiography of one Charles Antony Standish Brooks, better known as Tony, who was a great hero of mine when I was a small boy. He was, of course, a remarkably successful racing driver back in the bad old days when motor racing was mostly a ghastly pastime for young men who found the end of WW2 had made things too boring. I loved the sport, even if it was too frequently a public cremation ritual, and still have a great interest in the earlier years of Formula One – I have a hefty collection of books and old films.


Brooks was a bit different. He was exceptionally gifted, but even back in the 1950s it was obvious that he was not one of the usual hellraisers and wild men of the sport. He was noted as quiet, a bit studious and retiring, and, as far as I know, does not appear in any photos drinking beer with Mike Hawthorn. He was a qualified dentist, a devout Catholic (I now learn), and avoided the wilder excesses. When he got married he retired at once from all forms of motor racing, opened a motor dealership which became very successful and raised a large family. Now 81, he is still going strong.

To put some dimensions on his career, he raced at the top level for only a few years – he was in F1 from 1955 until his retiral at the end of 1961, and he won Grands Prix for Vanwall and Ferrari. If he had had a slightly more pushy personality, and been prepared to take some extra risks, he would certainly have been a deserving World Champion for Ferrari in 1959. But he didn’t. That is why he is ultimately less famous than Sir Stirling Moss (that knighthood thing again), for example, though of course Moss never won a Championship either.

So - always a rather shadowy figure, and one who disappeared without trace after retiral, though I have met him a couple of times at Aintree and Goodwood in recent years. That is “have met” in the sense of “got him to sign my copy of some book or other” – he was always in notably better shape at these events than his contemporaries, Moss and Salvadori – remarkably sprightly, almost boyish for a man in his 70s.

Proper racing car - Brooks in a Ferrari, winning the 1959 French GP
Before I got the new book I was surprised by a couple of the customer reviews – there were complaints that it appeared to be mostly a collection of detailed accounts of very similar races – many of them minor club events – which quickly became boring. I dismissed these with a shake of the head – this is a racing driver’s autobiography, which kind of sets the context, you would think, and the man is from a different age – there are no tales of wild parties – this is not Eddie Irvine.

Well, I’ve been reading it. You know what? It is rather boring. The book is written, without any ghostwriters, by an 81 year old man, of deeply honest and slightly curmudgeonly nature, a man who apologises for including contemporary press quotes which show him in a favourable light. It is constructed mostly from his own very detailed records of his racing career, so the reader is going to get more detail on weather conditions, lap times and mechanical problems during testing than they may be comfortable with.

Me, I love it, but I can see how some chapters might be seen by the less nerdy as a collation of The 12 Most Boring Sports Car Races of 1953. Super photos throughout, and I can satisfy the Inner Nerd by identifying as many other cars and drivers of the day as possible. Pass the Doritos, Maureen, I’m going to be busy for a while.

I wish you all - whoever and wherever you are - a very happy and peaceful New Year.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

ECW – The Battle of Netherfield (1644)

Good grief - Col Trevor's boys, who won the battle almost on their own
This was a bit of a spur of the moment – Nick and I set up the battlefield to have a quick playtest of the amended C&C_ECW rules (faster movement for foot units, if remote from the enemy) and to try a more open field than usual, better for cavalry.

Nick was the Royalist commander, and made his customary gung-ho start, with units of his “galloper” horse charging off on both flanks, with no attempt at either support or co-ordination. I smiled to myself and prepared to fight off these foolhardy diversions, thinking ahead to my inevitable push to victory in the centre.

It never happened. Nick’s right flank cavalry pinned my left flank in the corner of the table, and his left flank attack, notably Col Marcus Trevor’s Horse, with some support from Tyldesley’s regiment, somehow routed two of my veteran foot units in rapid succession, and then set about my militia foot, whom I had kept carefully out of harm’s way, but who now simply melted away. And so it continued - the rules for rolling cavalry melees worked to stunning effect. Normally they result in the cavalry overreaching themselves, but this time they just annihilated my right and centre. Admittedly there was an element of luck in the dice rolls, but I have not been so thoroughly trounced in a wargame for many a year – I lost 8-0 on Victory Counters in about 80 minutes total playing time. I have no idea what my Parliamentarian losses were – must have been thousands, and I lost a general – but I do know that the Royalists lost a grand total of 2 cavalry bases – which is approx. 200 killed and wounded. It was, in short, a whitewash, but such a glorious one that it was a privilege to be on the receiving end.


As usual, Nick did the photography.

Oh yes - the changes to the infantry movement rules seemed to work nicely, though the course of the battle was such that I almost forgot to notice such details.

Royalist light artillery - all the artillery was worse than useless

Artistic view of Lord Molyneux's horses' backsides

Downtown Netherfield, before the trouble started

General view - Royalists advancing from the right - in the centre of the picture
 you see Trevor's horse, on a very serious mission

…and, a bit later on, looking back the other way

The Parliamentarian left flank horse, pinned in a corner


Lord Byron's Foot recapture the village of Netherfield

Trevor's Horse, after a brief repulse, continue the rampage

This typifies the whole day - I presented my worthy opponent with a Hazzard a
Chaunce card, which should normally result in his troops all being struck
down with colic or worse, but on this occasion it merely resulted in Tyldesley's
Horse (as it turned out) becoming even more dangerous than before. On
the grounds that I can never be so unlucky again, I take all this in good spirit
(mumble, mumble…)

Just to make sure that the size of the victory did not go unnoticed, our
photographer wishes to emphasise that this is how many Victory Counters he got...
…and this is how many I got

Late Edit: Overnight I received a friendly email from Daniel, a regular correspondent, who points out in a jocular way that such a catastrophic defeat – especially at the hands of an 11-year-old opponent – suggests gross ineptitude in at least one of two areas: my generalship and my rule-writing. How, he asks, can I regard such a disaster as any kind of privilege? Where is my fighting spirit, my self-esteem?

I've been thinking about this.

I am happy to accept that he is probably correct, and go along with the humour of the situation, but I have played wargames for many years now – I’ve seen most things there are to see, within the scope of the periods and the types of games in which I have been involved. Though I have known underdeveloped rules to produce some silly results, only once before, in all those years, have I seen the chance element in a properly tested game take complete control of a cavalry attack and produce such an event. People can live their entire lives and never see a straight flush, an avalanche, a perfect storm, an alignment of the little planets of probability in such a way that normal logic and rational expectation are suspended.

We can – we probably will – play the same game again today, and it won’t play out the same way. It couldn’t possibly. Yesterday’s result was certainly a freak, but then all results of a game involving chance are freaks in their own way – this was notable only for its extreme degree. If the cavalry sweep the table in the replay then the rules are definitely crazy, but they won’t. The perfect storm of dice and cards comes along rarely enough to be memorable, and to be strangely thrilling, when it does, for the sad little, faintly autistic people like me who devote some of their precious time to watching for such things.

History is full of unexplained, almost miraculous events which decided battles. Maybe this story is a gentle argument in favour of keeping the chance element in rules fairly high. I can make excuses as much as I like, but historians will never know for sure what brought about the disintegration of my army at Netherfield(!), in the same way that they still argue about what exactly turned the real battles of Montgomery and Adwalton Moor, among numerous others, in the same war.


Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas Lock-in?


Stormy here last night. This morning we find that a tree has blown down, and the only road to the outside world is now blocked. Since we don't expect too many people to be available for work on the farm this morning, I guess that's it for Christmas visitors for a day or so.

Fortunately, there is no sign of any stout chap in a red suit trapped underneath it. Oh well - we have turkey and plenty of logs for the stove - as long as the brandy lasts out. Merry Christmas!

Monday, 23 December 2013

Merry Christmas


I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, and a happy and peaceful 2014 - all the very best to you, your families and friends. Have a good one!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Hooptedoodle #113 – Donkey Awards – Seasonal Stationery


Originally, I was going to single out Marks & Spencer for special mention, but a little further research proves that they are no worse than any other supplier of cards, wrapping paper and other festive tat, so that would probably have been unfair.

The item in the illustration is a gift tag from M&S – specifically intended to allow you to write the name of the recipient and a suitable message on your lovely, gift-wrapped present. The bad news, of course, is that the tag is glossy, and there is no writing medium which I have yet discovered which will work with it. Ballpoint, roller-ball, gel sticks, felt tips and my beloved Sharpie pens refuse to dry properly, and will remain smudgable for ever. Even old-fashioned fountain pen ink will not dry – I have tried – it is like writing on a plastic bag. The ink forms globules which cannot be blotted or blown dry. Even swearing doesn’t help. I can see that, in the midst of all this huge, international, seasonal festival of waste, it might be a nice idea to introduce a little re-use – I’m sure that a damp sponge will enable the recipient to clean up their tag and send it to someone else – the flaw in this is that, once again, the new name will not dry.

Something wrong here. The design seems to have concentrated on appearance and market appeal – this is what our customers will buy. The actual functional bit of the spec seems to have been dropped at some point. Our research indicates that customers are not interested in writing on the bloody thing.

There is more. There seems to be a great fashion for coloured envelopes – we have sent out a lot of cards which have envelopes in a fetching, deep cherry red. Very nice, and they set off the overpriced stamps nicely (don’t get me started on that…), but it requires a very heavy black marker pen to address them in such a way that the poor old mailman will be able to make out where they are going. Something not quite right there, either.

It could be worse. A couple of Christmases ago we had to use some envelopes which combined the worst of both these features – they were glossy, and they were silver. Giving up on finding any kind of pen which would make a readable mark on them, I resorted to sticking on white labels, and addressing those. It’s a trade-off – I accepted the reduction in aesthetic beauty in the interests of getting the greeting cards to the intended friends and relatives. I may have no class, but I do worry about stuff not working.


And then there was the big planning calendar we had on the kitchen wall two years ago. Glossy paper. You couldn’t write on it with any ease, except with marker pens, and they soaked through to the other side of the paper. Bong!

The concept of inappropriate stationery is certainly not new. Almost thirty years ago I was involved for a while in designing and commissioning insurance mailshots in what – in those days – was rather contemptuously described as “Readers’ Digest style”. Laser printers of industrial size were still rare and very expensive, and normally ran in big specialist sites which were booked through third parties. Around this time I remember using the print shops of Grattan’s (in Bradford), and United Biscuits (in Binns Road, Liverpool, next door to the old Meccano factory), but the designers and project managers for the big print runs were a specialist marketing company based in the Cotswolds. John, their project manager, and I had quite a few days together, hanging around the print shops while the jobs ran, and he told me a number of excellent tales of the lucrative and sometimes chaotic world of marketing which he inhabited.


My favourite concerned the Sunday Times Magazine. At the time, the STM was something of an iconic publication for the new, upwardly-mobile classes of Thatcher’s children. Quite a number of the high profile ads in the magazine were handled on behalf of clients by this Cotswold firm. One week, one of their most successful regular STM advertisers requested a last-minute change to their advert. It was a rush job, but it was a special request from the chairman of the company, and he was prepared to pay whatever it cost to get his hot new idea onto people’s doormats the following Sunday.

It seems that he had seen an advert in an in-flight magazine while he had been flying home from the USA, and it was printed in inverse configuration – i.e. white text on a black background. He loved it. He was smitten. He wanted one. He wanted his advert to be changed to this format – and he wanted it immediately. To blazes with the expense – the chairman had spoken.

The design bureau ran it up, and it did, in fact, look stunning. With a lot of overtime and sweat the Sunday Times ad was changed, and they ran with the beautiful new advert.

Sadly, the advert – as always – featured a clip-off corner coupon to allow the excited readers to request a quotation and a full catalogue. Since it is almost impossible to fill in a clip-off coupon which is printed in white-on-black, this full page, back cover advert on the Sunday Times became the very first advert of any sort in that magazine for many years to achieve a completely zero response.

No-one had thought of that. John reckoned, with hindsight, that there were so many high-powered specialists involved that they managed to overlook a problem which maybe the office cleaners might have spotted…

They may all be employed nowadays in the Christmas card industry. Let's hope so.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Christmas Prize Competition 2013


As you see, young Bonaparte is not looking very festive, despite his fancy party hat. What do you think the message in the cracker said? Send it to me as a comment to this post (which I won’t publish), or email it to the address in my Blogger profile. The sender of the entry which I find most amusing will win a couple of Napoleonic DVDs – one is Ridley Scott’s noted “The Duellists”, featuring Harvey Keitel and David Carradine, the other is the more recent “Lines of Wellington”*, starring John Malkovich. These are both Region 2 – please note – so if you are outside Europe please check that they will play on your equipment.

Please get entries to me by 3rd January – I’ll publish results shortly after that date. If you wish to have a shot but are not interested in the prize, please say so and I’ll pick a separate List B winner – for glory only.

The splendid artwork for this year’s competition was very kindly contributed by a good friend of mine, the award winning cartoonist and caricaturist PaK, whose work appears in Private Eye, Reader's Digest, The Oldie and elsewhere. PaK’s website is very entertaining and you can link to it here – he is always delighted to get commissions for caricatures and custom greeting cards.


* Late Edit: the only version of "Lines of Wellington" which is currently available is not (as advertised by Amazon) in English. I got my copies from Germany and from Austria. The language choices are a little confusing - it is a Portuguese production, and it's very nicely done, if you can handle Malkovich as Wellington; the Portuguese speak Portuguese, the French speak French and the English speak English, and the narration is in Portuguese. Subtitles are available in a choice of Dutch or French - if you don't understand Dutch but have some French, switch on the French subtitles and you'll be fine. It's an enjoyable film, and the dialogue is not complex. Authentic uniforms on the 1st Cacadores...



Monday, 16 December 2013

Lead Rot - a Seasonal Revisit

Corroded solder tip, before cleaning up
Yesterday, the gales having calmed down a bit, my son and I got to work to put up the lights on our outside Christmas tree. We have a set procedure for getting this done - it's a fiddly job which involves falling off ladders and other festive traditions.

This year, we got off to a bad start. One of the two strings of lights wasn't working. Now I realise that this is also part of the true Christmas tradition, but we have had no problems of this sort for many years, so our procedure doesn't cover this too well. After messing around swapping individual bulbs - with no benefit - we eventually decided to make a proper job of it, removed all the bulbs and took them indoors, checking each one with a test meter. In fact they were all working, but the solder around the tips of some was showing some deterioration - a pale grey, crystalline deposit which made it tricky to make a decent contact with the test meter.

So I gave them a quick going over with a file - it took less than 15 minutes to clean up 40 bulbs - we screwed them firmly back into their sockets, checked the fuse and the complete circuit with the meter, connected them up, and voila! - Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.

Nick was impressed that our botched repair had worked - though probably less surprised than I was. We got on with the job we had set out to do, and got everything up and working.

So - what is this stuff? The Christmas lights spend Christmas hanging on a tree, obviously, in all sorts of weather conditions, none of which are oppressively warm. The rest of the year they live in a plastic tub in the garage, which can get very cold, though it is protected from direct frost and snow. The crystalline salt, whatever it is, will rub off, but it doesn't conduct very well, and - the main point here - I would not like my toy soldiers to turn into grey dust.

All right, you metallurgists and chemists - should we worry about this sort of thing, or will I be all right if I just don't hang my soldiers on trees or keep them in the garage?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Hooptedoodle #112 – Donkey Awards - The Halifax



“I can’t afford to live, but I guess I’d better try,
‘Cause the undertakers got a union, and it costs too much to die”

Jimmy Witherspoon, Tougher than Tough


This morning’s blood-pressure workout was with the Halifax. I made the ridiculous mistake of ringing them up to sort out a problem. The girl I spoke to was polite and correct, but completely paralysed by rules and security checks. Eventually, I regret to say, I hung up the phone while she was speaking, but not before I had spent some pounds on the premium-number call.

The problem, you see, is that my father received a letter from Halifax this week to advise him that my mother has set up Online Banking, and will thus be able to see the details of joint accounts he has with her, but to reassure him that she will not be able to see any accounts which are solely his. If he wishes to discuss any aspect of this, there is a number he can call, and they even offer him the option of a repeat letter in Braille, or in large print (pardon?).

Unfortunately, my father is unable to act on this letter since he died in 2008, a fact which is well known to Halifax since they were involved in all the probate processes, and transferred all joint accounts into my mother’s name at that time. My mother was a little upset by the letter – mostly on a point of principle, I think – but, since she is a bit frail and very deaf, and since I have registered Power of Attorney for her financial dealings with the Lloyds Group (which includes Bank of Scotland and Halifax), she asked me to deal with it.

Not so fast. Apparently Lloyds Group no longer have any record of my Power of Attorney – at least not one that the young lady I spoke to could find. Still, she did her very best to help me. She took me through some long-winded security procedure related to my own accounts at Halifax, which proved that I am who I said I was (which is a relief), but she was still unable to gain authority to change any of my mum’s accounts without speaking to my mum (who, as mentioned, is deaf and was also not present).

You see, said the girl, we will have marked the records of any customer who has passed away, and you should not have received this letter. Yes, I said, I understood that, though whether they have failed to code the record correctly, or have subsequently lost the code, or whether the analyst who designed this particular letter failed to make reference to the code is a matter of very faint academic interest, and is not our problem. The fact that they somehow have lost the details of my Power of Attorney is also  puzzling, but mostly just irritating, since they cannot help me as a result. Perhaps, despite all these problems, the girl could make a note of the account number, check that the customer is, in fact, officially dead, and ask someone not to send out any more letters which are potentially upsetting, apart from being further proof – if proof be needed – of a level of incompetence which is already regarded as proverbial by customers and the public at large.

Is this account still active, asks the girl? Well, no – it is certainly empty, and if it still exists it will have been transferred to my mother in 2008. Ah, says the girl, empty is not the same as closed. Again, I say, we are straying into areas which are the internal problem of the Halifax, and I am neither answerable for, nor interested in, the state of their admin systems – and at this point I hung up.

I accept, of course, that I am probably the donkey
Outcome? Well, I reckon my father may well receive further letters in future, which we shall just shred respectfully. Why do we bother?

Why are we still stuck with having these buffoons sit on our money when they provide us with no service or added value of any sort, other than giving us hassle and irritation on a regular basis? We are stuck, my friends, because there is nowhere else we could take the money which is any better. Though Lloyds Group are (literally) unrewarding people to deal with, they are better than some of the alternatives. Eventually, you just have to laugh and shrug it off – I am laughing and shrugging as I type (which is not easy).

If Halifax cannot manage to understand that one of their customers has died, and if they are constrained by their internal rules such that they cannot arrange to fix this, then I could report it to the Data Protection commissioners but – to be honest – really can’t be bothered. That would only be heaping up yet more irritation. If they were fined – and Lloyds Group are not short of the odd fine at present – which lot of interested parties would have to meet the cost? The customers, perhaps?…

Let it lie – move on. As yet, this is nothing – the service levels and the mistakes we suffer at the hands of automated institutions will continue to degrade at an accelerating rate in the coming years – you may (to use an opportune phrase) bank on it. I have been there. I have seen the beginning of the nightmare.