Adventures in the Garden

Italeri 1/32 scale Austrian infantry, with the Mk I lawn spike

I play with toy soldiers. I’ve done so since I was 12 – it was model aircraft kits before then – and on the verge of 48 I still see no reason to stop. I recently picked up a copy of Sharp Practice, a set of Napoleonic skirmish wargames rules from the Two Fat Lardies, with a view to playing some more maneagable, fun games as a break from the serious stuff.

I usually play with 15mm figures, which are not really suitable for skirmish games, so I started to look around at other options. One was to use 28mm metal figures for the tabletop; another, to use Playmobil figures, as favoured by the likes of evilcheesescientist and the Garden Wargaming site. But then an announcement from plastics kit and figure maker Italeri caught my eye: new 1/32 scale (54mm) Austrian and French infantry for the Revolutionary and early Napoleonic wars. These are not too expensive, at potentially less than 80p for a figure, with cavalry no more than twice the price depending on the supplier. And they’re ideal for use in the garden, once equipped with a lawn spike, allowing me to make use of the half an acre in front of the house that otherwise only gets mown.

I’ve painted up some already as trial figures, with the first attempt at a lawn spike illustrated above. The flat-headed galvanized nail is too short for the length of my grass , and won’t be able to cope with the longer grass I’ll be leaving as changes of terrain, sculpted by the lawnmower. So I have to get some two-inch nails.

The figures are given a basic paint job and then both varnished and shaded using Army Painter Quick Shade. Army Painter is in effect a coloured varnish that pools in crevices of a figure, automatically shading it. It is not a craftsman’s tool. To work well it needs figures on which the sculpting detail is exaggerated: on smooth or small figures, it tends to give an even mucky brown coloration. It largely works on the Italeri 1/32nd figures, though not perfectly (close-up view below). However, because these troops are intended for the garden, I don’t intend doing much touching up to get them to look pristine.

What I have to do now is finish painting up the box of 16 Austrians, and then move onto the French infantry. I have already ordered French cavalry and artillery, and some later period Austrians, and am keenly awaiting the release of the French supply wagon set, which will form the basis of many scenarios. 

1/32 Italeri Austrian infantry, close-up view


Eyes Right…

Way back in 1999, I started my business, Fighting 15s, as a wargames figures painting service, painting to commission. It did quite well and actually earned me a reasonable amount of money that supplemented my income as a freelance sub-editor, largely working on trade magazines. About four years ago, however, my eyes went, for want of a better word, poot!, and my working world fell about me in tatters. First, I couldn’t see computer screens well enough to edit, and I largely blamed it on the fact that the freelance almost always gets the ropiest computer monitor. And then I stopped being able to focus and to concentrate on the toy soldiers I enjoyed painting.

Fate had been cruel enough to strip me of reliable use of the one sense that allowed me to work and that permitted me to enjoy my work. I carried on, though. My sub-editing got worse and worse because I stopped being able to see spelling mistakes or even notice missing words; my figure painting just stopped. I was lucky in that a non-reading production job cropped up with the late Games International magazine, and that a financial group of magazines clearly still thought that I was better than other freelance sub-editors. But the rest of my editing work dried up.

I spent two years going for tests at the children’s section of the eye department at St Mary’s Hospital in Newport – the bit that tends to look after children with lazy eyes. It didn’t help me get better, but told me what I knew: that my eyesight was variable and unpredictable in how much it changed from test to test. Eventually I was told my sight had stabilized enough to warrant a prescription for new glasses with stronger prisms: prisms in essence kick your line of sight inwards or outwards so that both eyes focus on the same spot.

The new glasses were great for general use, but I still couldn’t concentrate at reading distances. And that meant no reading, no editing and worse no painting.

About two months ago, I started changing the way I work. Rather than work till everything is done, I set myself a financial target. If I pack orders equal in value to that target, which is based on my annual average for a day, I stop work and go and do something in the house or garden. After a few weeks I decided I felt like painting toy soldiers again, and resolved to paint for an hour or so if I felt like it in the evening. I actually managed to complete some units and finish a commission that I had stopped two years earlier. In short, I stopped working myself all hours of the day and began to relax more.

Last week I felt so great I tried using my old, weaker glasses. They appear to be sufficient, and the newer glasses seem too strong all of a sudden. For the Isle of Wight Festival I even managed to wear only non-prescription sunglasses for the event, with none of the headaches I usually suffer. This week, optically I feel great, and almost hopeful that everything has returned to normal.

I’m not going to push it. Painting when I feel like it is very much the order of the day. I doubt if I can ever again manage to paint for longer than two hours. But it’s absolutely great to be able to do something that I love again.

The Green Side of the Isle of Wight Festival

Much was made this year of the greener aspects of the IW Festival, though this largely seemed to consist of advice that it was possible to hire a bike and cycle from the ferry to the site. With this in mind it would have been handy to identify on the festival map where bikes could be safely left for the duration.

I can’t comment on the camp site, but there was the usual bike rack tucked away at the festival’s Medina High School entrance. I was there early each day so never had a problem finding a free space, but late arrivals would have been pushed. And that always leads to the fear that someone is going to double up on the spaces and chain your bike to their own. In short, the festival needs more bike racks, more clearly identified, and more clearly promoted.

As posted earlier, I initially cycled from Freshwater where I live to friends at Wootton, some 15 miles. On festival days I cycled in along the old railway line that picks up from the Havenstreet steam railway, joins the footpath/cycle route at the crematorium, and then conflicts with pedestrians all along Racecourse to the festival site. It takes just under 15 minutes – walking last year late at night took the best part of an hour, so cycling makes sense.

None of the marshals had the faintest idea where the bike racks were, and there was even one sign pointing in the wrong direction. It wouldn’t have taken much to pass on this information in their pre-event briefing.

On site, paper cup recycling was very much in evidence, with the sensible 10p refund per cup returned to points by the bars. Not everyone, of course, could be bothered, and plenty of enterprising young children made minor fortunes over the weekend by scavenging the ground and bins. I thought there was definitely a cup shortage on the ground this year, so the initiative in part worked, and probably accounted for the bottle-only barrage during The Kooks’ set on Sunday. It’s at time like that you simply hope for the best that the resulting shower of liquid is only beer or water…

Purple bins were marked for plastic bottles; red for mixed recyclables: both were used indiscriminately. The best initiative would be to match the cup-collection plan by having a similar one for bottles.

I approved of the wooden cutlery in evidence at food stalls, and of Smooth Criminals’ plastic-free paper cups that were 100 per cent compostable. If the festival used the same compostable cups for beer and cider, rather than what appear to be the usual non-recyclable composite paper and plastic cups, then the cups wouldn’t have to go off to be burned.

The waste is largely off to the Island’s new waste-to-energy plant. This is laughably called recycling by the local authority, when what it actually means is that it minimises the impact of the materials on landfill. The waste-to-energy plant merely gets a second and final use out of materials that could otherwise be properly recycled by turning them into other items – such as turning PET bottles into fibre for weaving, for instance. Burning waste without first re-using it is not really recycling.

Finally, there was BT’s wind turbine for charging phones in its chill zone. If the blades turned all weekend, I’d be surprised. It was poorly sited on a low mast right next to trees on the river bank, whereas turbines actually need a clear site with as few objects as possible that create air turbulence. Solar energy using photovoltaic panels is a far better bet on the Island during the hours of light. I have both a turbine and PV panels at home, and I know which produces more usable energy in a built-up environment. A bank of solar panels would have been far more impressive.

Solo needs to take much of the above on board to make the festival truly green. However, the biggest battle will always be getting people who can’t be bothered to stick the right waste in the right bins. People who, filled with alcohol, can’t tell left from right and up from down…

Sunday summary, IW Festival 2008

It’s Tuesday, and I am recovered enough to finish entries about the festival with a short summary of Sunday. A “Happy Father’s Day” text from Jimjams woke me to get to the festival in time for Proximity Effect – another of the Island’s young bands – on the main stage, and breakfast at the Smooth Criminals smoothie bar. The Smooth Criminals is a regular stopping point of a festival morning. A vegan Jungle Juice got me going, and another customer commented that it sounded healthy. After the alcohol unit count of the day before, it had to be.

I caught the last of Sondura (another avalanche of sound type metal band) in the Big Top, stayed for Hogg, and then back to the main arena for Newton Faulkner. Faulkner provided a breath of air for the day, with immense talent coupled with humour and wit, thus entertaining on several levels. I’d have never bought his album before this point, but now it seems a must buy for the collection.

Back to the Big Top for the end of Gweido, and the whole Arcadian Kicks set (see earlier entry), and then it was main arena time for the rest of the day with Starsailor, James, The Kooks and finally The Police. The Kooks were the only one of four to disappoint, if only because after two well-known numbers it was just another lot of indie band noise that probably meant something to the fans. Jimjams loved them.

I hadn’t seen James for years, last showing interest in them around 1990. But they were polished and tuneful, and I recognised some of the set.

The Police were the only headlining act of the weekend to live up to their billing. Competent, polished music that covered all the well known songs and a few I never knew existed. I have never been a fan of the group, but the set closed the weekend wonderfully, and with five numbers in two encores they went down well. It was even possible to get close and revel in the atmosphere of the occasion. Jimjams didn’t hang around for them, however, and snuck off to Feeder in the Big Top.

About my only disappointment with the event as a whole was that it continues to be dominated by old, wrinkly performers. Was there really no one better than the Sex Pistols – a group that dismayed old and young alike – for the Saturday? Better to have the Sugababes, who packed out the Big Top and well beyond on the Saturday, yet on appearing on stage seemed surprised, saying that they didn’t know how many people would turn up. For goodness sake girls, you’re a top-selling girl group!

Sunday also proved to be day of the jerkwad, with one fat drunk objecting to how I looked. I have to wear gloves at these events because the grass aggravates my eczema (I go stuffed full of antihistamines too and have to avoid food with dairy products). OK, it makes me seem freakily Michael Jackson like, but most people assume I just have cold hands. Drunks, of course, have no subtlety. And there was the pettiness of some man defending his patch of festival soil, saying I had to go round and actually putting his arms out to stop me going straight through to my friends who were just in front of him. As I said, day of the jerkwad.

The bad weather held off, with just a few spots of rain on the last night.  And allergic reactions aside, it was a great three days. Can’t wait for next year.

Sundays stats: Cigarettes: 0; units of alcohol: 8 plus more unknown whiskies. Food eaten: vegan Jungle Juice (Smooth Criminals), lamb tagine (Dunsbury Lamb, again – so good I had to eat it twice), felafels. Jerkwad count: 2 (1 more than last year). Bands liked: Proximity Effect, Newton Faulkner, Arcadian Kicks, James, The Police. Disliked: The Kooks. Wish I could have seen: Scouting for Girls.

The Arcadian Kicks:

Proximity Effect:


The Australian Pink Floyd Show, IW Festival 14 June

As an ageing if not old fart, I do of course enjoy Pink Floyd. I have a raft of their albums, still in glorious 12-inch vinyl, which I therefore play on an increasing vintage Thorens turntable. I known their work fairly well up to about 1977, but dislike of The Wall means my interest falls off from there. In fact I prefer the experimental 1960s work not too post-Barrett. So a tribute band that has been known to do all of a later album in one show, and whose backdrop advertised a condensed Wall tour was kind of worrying. But I have never seen Pink Floyd live, so The Australian Pink Floyd Show was and is the closest I am going to get.

The band closed the Saturday night in the Big Top, a venue I spent a lot of time at, and with a start-time during the act of arena headliners The Sex Pistols again meant a decision. But it was an easy one because The Sex Pistols were the worst headliners of the weekend: a short range of dated music performed by self-indulgent wrinkly old men. And so it was off to a tent to hear music that, if it were performed by the real artists, would also be performed by self-indulgent wrinkly old men.

I’ll say this: The Australian Pink Floyd Show is good and captures the essence of the experience, lights, sounds and all. But it suffers because Pink Floyd’s music is also essentially self-absorbed, and standing listening to a number that goes on for 10 to 15 minutes is just a bit much. I stood it for about an hour and left with the conclusion that Pink Floyd is best enjoyed lying down, clinging to a floor while the universe’s stars and planets circle gently overhead. That state is best and most comfortably achieved at home with a record.

Arcadian Kicks, IW Festival, 15 June

Arcadian Kicks won the toss-up on the Sunday with Scouting For Girls, who were performing on the main stage at the same time. It’s about the only time during the festival that I’ve wanted to be in two places at once, and I decided to give the unknowns in the Big Top a try.

Festival acts can broadly be categorised into wrinkly old men (Iggy Pop, The Sex Pistols, the Police), bands that produce an avalance of sound (the heavy metal merchants), and interchangeable indie bands that produce indie-band noise that is sometimes recognisable (The Enemy, The Kooks and so on). Arcadian Kicks, thank goodness, is in none of the three, and produces distinctive songs that are identifiably different. Although all five members are only 18, the female lead vocalist has a striking voice and is quite something to listen to. A clear voice and recognisable tunes? Not the trend, but welcome.

Band associates handed out CDs, badges and flyers during the performance, and in short did more than most to promote band awareness. The only band I have so far revisited on Myspace.

You can hear Arcadian Kicks for yourself at

Island Food At The Festival

Dunsbury Lamb trailer

Among the suppliers of food at the IW Festival are a number if local producers: some in the tent that comes as part of the deal between the council and festival organiser Solo, and one enterprising individual – Dunsbury Lamb. And what a difference there is between the two.

The council’s tent of doom contains a IW Tourism stand and stalls from a handful of local producers: Arreton’s Tomato Stall, Rosemary Vineyard, The Garlic Farm, and Calbourne Classics ice cream to name a few. All are excellent local produceds, but the showcase of the tent is dire. The tent is located off-pitch for the second time, off the main thoroughfare that links Strawberry Fields with the main arena, and therefore the footfall past it is lower that that past this year’s artistic sand sculptures on the main route of the connecting triangle.

The tent is uninviting, and this year the floor was treacherous underfoot, with three-inch strips of hazard tape placed every yard or so to hint that the floor was uneven. The tent acts so as to hide its producers rather than bringing them outside where they can be more easily seen, and the whole affair looks little better than food stalls at a church fete. Every time I walked past, which was frequent as I took that route by preference to get to the Big Top, there were very few people in the tent and business must have been slow.

Compare that with Dunsbury Lamb, whose catering trailer really took its product to festival goers by competing on equal terms with other food vendors. I ate there twice, choosing the excellent lamb tagine (a meaty lamb stew with peppers) – a menu option that sold out each day of the festival. It really was a most excellent dish, coming in a bread bowl that could be eaten afterwards, leaving only a paper serviette and a wooden fork as rubbish.

Of course, it takes quite an investment to escalate a stand from a table with a banner to a full-blown trailer purpose built for outside events. As a trader with a table and a banner myself, I appreciate that a more professional set-up is out of the question financially. However, it’s not the real problem: the problem lies with having the IW produce stands in a dark tent that hides more than it reveals. If the council seeks to promote the Island, it really needs to put on a welcoming front.

IW Council Tent of Doom