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  • Writer's pictureAlex Payne

Fantasy at the British Library: Nostalgia, school clubs and Warhammer in a glass box


Fantasy exhibition: The British Library

My love letter to the Fantasy Exhibition, a game of Warhammer in a glass box and the Warlingham Warhammer Club


I recently had the pleasure of visiting Fantasy: Realms of Imagination at the British Library.


It's a wonderfully curated and presented exhibition featuring vignettes from everything from Lord of the Rings (of course) to Skyrim, Ursula LeGuin and more. They tell the story of the changing landscapes of fantasy, its roots in the shared mythology of religion and folk tales, and it's increasing prevalence and importance amidst culture today. The layout and presentation of the exhibit as it meanders between an enchanted forest to unsettling architecture and immerses you in sound, video and some incredible manuscripts for famous works, is immensely charming.



The exhibition shop is also an excellent boutique of beautiful editions of some of the fantasy classics featured, lovely knick-knacks (nerdy candles! Dice! Cuddly unicorns!) and some eye-catching prints inspired by the exhibit.


Overall, I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in anything vaguely fantasy, from fairy tales to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 9/10.


But Alex, I hear you (maybe) furiously type! What's this got to do with a website that writes articles about Warhammer?


Two reasons, really:


A) it's my personal slice of the internet and I'll write what I want. Capiche?


but mostly...


B) one of the exhibits within the collection is a wonderful little display: a little glass box on a plinth, with a little plaque beneath, featuring a game of Warhammer Fantasy Battle.*

"A) it's my personal slice of the internet and I'll write what I want. Capiche? but mostly... B) one of the exhibits within the collection is a wonderful little display: a little glass box on a plinth, with a little plaque beneath, featuring a game of Warhammer Fantasy Battle."

A game of warhammer fantasy - british library exhibit

Seeing that little display amongst other great pillars of the fantasy genre produced in me a nostalgia that I was quite unexpected, and that has been playing on my mind ever since. And so I thought I'd take some time to reflect on that, and on my experience of growing up as a Warhammer nerd in the 90s and 00s.


Hobby embarrassment and me


As a teenager and child, I was incredibly embarrassed about my favourite hobby. It seems ridiculous looking back, but it was true. Kids are, frankly, fucking cruel and I was terrified of being the butt of the joke at school - which I was, frequently. Nobody likes being laughed at or ridiculed and I generally wasn't exactly the cooliest kid around. My street cred was certainly not helped by the fact that I was obsessed with all things fantasy, sci fi, and especially Warhammer, from a pretty young age since discovering it in a local stationery shop. I was lucky, really, that some of my best friends were also endlessly fascinated by the wars of tiny plastic people (predominately fantasy, but we dabbled in everything). But when I wasn't secure in geeking out with them, but out in the big wide world, I generally tried to keep my love for little figurines on the down-low.


So embarrassed was I to be seen with my little box of wardollies when travelling on the bus to my local GW at the weekends, or over to my friends to play games, I would always carry my plastic box - the official GW carry case, no less - with the logo facing my leg. That seems ridiculous as I type it, but it made sense to me at the time, in a vain hope that others might not notice what I was carrying. As if anyone I might have encountered in the real world gave two hoots about the dorky kid carrying a weird plastic suitcase on the local bus, of course, but still: I was self-conscious about the general perception of my beloved pass-time from my earliest interactions with the hobby right up until my teenage years.


Of course, my enthusiasm for the worlds of Warhammer often outweighed my nervousness of being "found to be a geek". I would still bring White Dwarf to school in my bag, even if I would read it flat on the desk to try and hide what it was I was reading. That proved a stroke of genius, in fact, as eventually, a few other boys in my form group noticed what I was reading and, to my surprise, expressed that they too loved Warhammer. From then on, we were inseparable, a little cohort of nerds at the back of every class, poring over White Dwarf or codexes and - generally - ignored by the more mainstream kids in the class. Strength in numbers, I guess.


One day, our little group was all gathered around the latest codex, as usual, when our history teacher - Mr Weston - noticed what we were reading. Rather than reprimanding us for reading in his class, he enthusiastically proclaimed that he too collected Warhammer (Tomb Kings and Wood Elves especially), and that we should start a group to play games together with other students after school.


The Warlingham Warhammer Club was born.

"Rather than reprimanding us for reading in his class, he enthusiastically proclaimed that he too adored Warhammer (Tomb Kings and Wood Elves especially), and that we should start a group to play games together with other students after school."

The Warlingham Warhammer Club


We got together some boards and rudimentary terrain, and booked out a room in the music block to hold our little gaming club on fortnightly Wednesdays. The other teacher who shared Weston's office didn't think too highly of our nerdy pursuits, and would often mock our little gatherings around his desk to organise the next fortnight's upcoming games. Being laughed at by an adult for the silliness of our hobby wasn't especially nice, but Weston never seemed to care and that was a huge inspiration for me. If a cool and well-respected adult could shrug off the jokes, then maybe I could, too.


For the remainder of my school life, the Warlingham Warhammer Club was a fixture of my social colander. Every other Wednesday I would gather with the other miniature-enthusiasts to play games (mostly fantasy, on beautiful, forever-flaking 4x4 grass-flock mats) or to just hang out and watch others play. Each year we even ran a little tournament, with the final game bringing together some absolutely nail-biting moments. I recall the whole group - perhaps a dozen or so of us - huddling round the final game one year, in which my friend Rich managed to secure an incredible, inexplainable, final turn draw with the hotly-tipped Mr Moore and his dwarf slayers to deny him a sure-fire title.


I remember also with crystal-clear clarity being thanked by Mr Weston one year, towards the end of my school tenure, for helping to run and set-up the club each week at the end of one school year, and in helping newer or younger players with their first games. That meant a huge amount to me as a gawky teenager. It meant what I was interested in, and my place in the little community that i had found which was the absolute highlight of my otherwise quite miserable school-life, was appreciated and acknowledged. It meant the world to me.


I like so many others fell out of the hobby in my university days. I regularly joke that it was because I discovered drinking, nightclubs and (mostly very unsuccessfully) women; but that isn't quite true. I also felt alienated by the Warhammer scene I found at university, which was a far cry from the one I had left behind with my friends at school.


That is a story, however, for another time.

"That meant a huge amount to me as a gawky teenager. It meant what I was interested in, and my place in the little community that i had found which was the absolute highlight of my otherwise quite miserable school-life, was appreciated and acknowledged. It meant the world to me."

The hobby in 2024


Now, of course, things are different. Returning to the hobby as so many did during the pandemic, I discovered that everything had changed not just in terms of the story of the game, its rules and its focus, but in its perception in wider culture.


Sure, there are still stereotypes about Warhammer fans, many of them not especially nice, but there is also so much more awareness and acceptance of everything about the hobby in wider culture. Where D&D has led, Warhammer has followed with some seriously large fan followings on YouTube, Instagram and other social media influence and a far greater awareness and acceptance of the hobby in the general cultural zeitgeist. That would all have been unthinkable to me as a child, and I'm sure that will only increase with the influx of interest in the worlds of Warhammer as the advent of the Amazon Prime series(es) grows closer.


It's still weird to hear my mum talking about Warhammer and Henry Cavil as she'd seen him on the Graham Norton Show, or being discussed on BBC radio. Surreal, even. It's a completely different world out there from when I was just a kid, pretending his case of lovingly (if terribly) painted models were some sort of suitcase on the top deck of a rickety old bus, for fear of being a joke.


Long may that continue.


In conclusion


Perhaps in the end, this isn't really much of a review. I, of course, wholeheartedly recommend Fantasy at the British Library. If you do (or don't) have any interest in the myriad worlds of fantasy, you'll love it. It's magical.


For me, growing up as a super awkward, uncool, ugly kid, who was so deathly ashamed of all of the things that I loved the most, I I never would have imagined I'd see Warhammer displayed lovingly in a major exhibition and it be so obviously, perfectly normal.


I don't know if I have a salient point upon which to conclude, other than to say that I really do hope things are different nowadays. For my part, I certainly feel they are, but if, for whatever reason, they aren't for you, then I'll say this:


Don't just don't hide your favourite things. Revel in them. Life is so much better when you're not pretending to be "normal", and its certainly too short to play a character other than your real, authentic self.


Take it from someone who figured that out the long way round.

"Life is so much better when you're not pretending to be "normal", and its certainly too short to play a character other than your real, authentic self. Take it from someone who figured that out the long way round."

Fantasy is in its last few weeks, running until the 26th of February. Go visit. You won't be disappointed.

 

Until next time,


Alex


*(hur hur hur the Old World in a museum where it belongs etc etc).





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