Phil Hodges concludes his series of re-enactment related features with an account of an uncomfortable experience.
I’ve interviewed a number of people for War History Online – actors, authors and historians, but I’d never been quizzed myself. So when the tables were turned on me I was excited, curious and keen to share my passion for history and my hobby. I assumed they’d want to talk about book reviews or my work at WHO or the film extra roles I‘ve done. It was all going to my head. I was picturing myself on a talk show chatting and laughing with the other guests. I could live this life. I was a re-enactor; a living history buff ready to hit the big time.
What would the first question be? Would it be predictable? “Why do you re-enact a German Soldier of WW2?” Had they done their research? Would they use the term Nazi?
Would they smile and ask in a patronising way “Do you like playing at soldiers?” Could I foresee it? NO. I couldn’t. And it left me stumped, speechless and confused.
“Why is bullying an acceptable part of your hobby. Why is bullying encouraged in re-enacting?”
How on EARTH was I to answer that? I mean for one I hadn’t realised that it was and two bullying of whom exactly? The public? Show organisers? Who was being bullied and by whom?
I didn’t expect an opener like that. It was NOT the question I had envisaged as an icebreaker. I hadn’t foreseen this on the agenda. As it turned out, it was the ONLY question on the agenda! There was only one thing for it. To keep calm and carry on like those irritating posters, mugs, mouse mats and bloody key rings tell us to do in their bright and predicable post box red way. Keep calm. Think and reply. But reply with what? There was only one possible reply that had any weight behind it. A reply with substance that was polite but also a reply to show I wasn’t a push over, an easy target. I drew in a deep breath, made eye contact and spilled my answer in a professional manner.
“I’m sorry…. Can you repeat the question?” I asked.
It was no good. I desperately needed more time to delve into my already mushed mind and think. Was there any bullying going on in re-enacting and by whom? Was it going on, say, between German and the British re-enactors? Was it between people portraying different eras or conflicts? Do real Americans find it offensive when they see British lads and lasses re-enacting the Vietnam War or the Pacific theatre of WW2? I mean there has always been snobbery in the hobby. Raised eyebrows and muttering voices behind people’s backs is part of the territory. It’s in the rules of the game as it were. But bullying? I had to ask myself over and over again. “Was bullying an issue in re-enacting”
The answer, I decided, was yes, there was and I had been guilty of it myself. There is snobbery, elitism and downright spitefulness. Was it so obvious that my hobby had such a flaw?
Apparently it was. Go on Facebook or living history forums and there they are – the FARB pages, whereby so-called immaculate and precise re-enactors hack to pieces newbies, oldies and kiddies whose basic crime is to re-enact with an extra button, a slice of post war kit or an award or medal 5mm too high of the left breast pocket. A crime punishable by having their picture online and then subsequently total and utter ridicule from anyone vain, or dare I say it stupid enough to join in. That’s bullying. It’s not stealing school dinner money bullying but it’s bullying all the same and apparently, to an outsider, not only is it obvious its also a concern.
All I could manage in response to the question was a mumbled reply but my face said it all anyway. Guilty as charged. This wasn’t an interview, this was a relentless barrage of home truths.
“How do you expect to recruit new members to groups and bring in young blood if you openly mock and laugh at their efforts?”
This was a second bombshell and another moment for me to squirm uncomfortably in my seat. I could have stopped the conversation but this wasn’t going to help. I was left to defend my hobby against something I knew deep down was true.
Once I’d regained my composure somewhat, my initial reaction was to defend these absurd accusations. Play it down, laugh, joke and generally dismiss the whole idea. My answer was that in any hobby there would always be ‘banter’. There is banter and practical jokes everywhere; at work, at home – everywhere. Whether you play football, race bikes, or you’re in a band or belong to the local camera club, wherever, there are bound to be a group of people who are going to be joking and, to some extent bullying!
Why pick on Re-enacting?
“Because there’s almost as many websites, Facebook pages or Twitter accounts ‘dedicated’ to ridiculing those whose purse strings don’t stretch as far as the next person’s or whose age or weight has crept up to haunt them or whose knowledge just simply isn’t there yet”
Now I play football on a weekly basis with friends, well I try to anyway, and if a week were to go by without either my eyesight, parentage or sexuality put into question I’d wonder what was up with everyone. But these are my mates. I’d expect nothing less from them. It’s a laugh, a joke; lads being lads and things are said in neither hate nor spite. The thing with the FARB sites is the bulk of the comments are often said without ever having met the person in question. They are judged solely on one or two photographs or they’re just, well… nit picking!
The old, the young, the new and even the experienced; none are exempt from this childish act of snobbery. But what do we, the re-enacting masses do with such people? What do I do, me, as a group organiser, one of the older so called more experienced lot? . What do I do with such people, such as the kid who is too young or the man who is too old or too fat to portray a soldier? What is my group’s take on the guy who is a sandwich short of a picnic but whose enthusiasm puts most to shame? Do I embrace them, educate them; encourage them? I like to think I do.
I’d like to think that everyone in my group would be polite and courteous and remember the day they wandered over to the pitch, nervous and somewhat clumsily and totally clueless as to what actually happens in re-enacting.
Is everyone else the same though? Are all groups the same?
No. Some, not all, but some re-enactors love nothing better than ripping them to shreds, chewing them up and then spitting out the pieces. Be they post war or otherwise! These are the Farb Hunters. The mere mention of their name, either as a group or an individual, is enough to cause the most hardened and experienced of re-enactors to flee in fear.
But what is a FARB and what does it even mean? In short terms a ‘FARB’ is a person (a re-enactor) who apparently isn’t as committed as the next guy, mostly in the wardrobe department. He or she wears a mixture of wrong uniforms for the period they portray perhaps with modern footwear, or they carry the wrong firearm and generally just look FARB.
There are a few claims of the origin of the actual term but personally for me the most likely and plausible term derives from the saying “Far be it for me to say…. but” It’s not even a new term. In fact it has its roots way back to the early 1960s in the USA when the re-enactment of the Civil War began in earnest. So, why is it used today? Well, one reason is living history or re-enacting isn’t just a hobby anymore. It’s a global multi-million pound industry. It’s all about pounds, dollars and euros…. and lots of them. In short, the guy who spends thousands on his hobby takes offence at the guy who spends the minimum. Some live, eat and breath their hobby; while others, myself included, have other avenues out of season, as it were. Football, golf, motorbikes, the gym, nagging girlfriends or wives; whatever is our escape.
Some choose to dilute the hobby or run it hand in hand with other relevant pastimes. Collecting militaria, restoring military vehicles or Airsoft for example. I think everyone in the hobby agree, however, that if you’re going to do something, do it properly or not at all.
If, for no other reason that we’re all living historians, custodians of history; a walking, talking encyclopaedia of the subject, we’re supposed to be portraying, get it right. Do your research and don’t be different for difference’s sake! This is the hobby whereby too much artistic licence creeps in at times and the one hobby that calls for military discipline and regimental uniformity seems to be turned upon its head. Don’t be afraid to be the same and not stand out in the crowd.
If you have another agenda or believe in artistic licence, then this probably isn’t the hobby for you. Whatever you choose to do, though, do it because you want to portray history in an accurate and sensible manner. To remember the men and women who fell in conflict and to keep alive the memory of such people. Be they British, German, French or American. Whatever era you display, whatever country you’re representing, do it with dignity and do it with respect. And never forget that we ALL had to start somewhere!
INGLORIOUS FARB BASTERDS by Phil Hodges