Friday 17th February was the 3rd anniversary of the death of one of our dearest friends, the renowned wargamer and long time Newark Irregular, John Dowman. John passing away just before the start of lockdown meant we were unable to attend his funeral, to mourn and to celebrate his life and it was because of this that his wife Michelle arranged for a memorial service last Friday. Along with Rob Rowell, his old partner in crime from the Guild, the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers and the Wargamer’s Forum, I had the honour of delivering a short eulogy for John. Given this was for his friends and family, most of whom had little idea of wargames, it was perhaps a little light on detail and I have expanded it somewhat since Friday and present it here now as a tribute to our much loved and much missed friend.
When talking with Laurence Baldwin this morning, we realised that neither of us could remember when we first met John. He was there, with his brother Dave, from the earliest days of the Irregulars when we used to meet upstairs at the Grove Pub in Newark, chatting, playing games and trying to convert us all to the dark side of tanks and guns and of course to ‘God’s own scale’ of 20mm. He was one of the most approachable people I ever met and even though, over the years, like us all he had his ups and downs, he would always make time for others. Whether they were his oldest friends or someone he just met around a table at the local show he was always happy to see them and made sure they knew it.
John had auspicious beginnings in wargames. At school in Lincoln his gaming group included Rick Priestly and Richard Halliwell, both of whom would of course go on to make their names with Games Workshop. Another of his old school friends remembered evenings spent watching the three of them devising wargames rules and kit-bashing Airfix models. As Rob remembered, John was a fearsome rules tinkerer, always with the aim of making rules both more playable and more realistic for the period. Something I am sure you will agree takes knowledge, skill and no small amount of the dark arts.
He was an obsessive model maker all his life. Again, Rob noted that he would regularly aim to build at least 100 kits a year. More than most of us build in our lifetime. After a career change in his early 50s he started working as a dive support technician in the North Sea and he would take a pile of models with him off on the boat and that would be him set for a month or two.
He was so long a fixture of the club, of the wider hobby, that it just seemed like we had known him all our lives. He was the voice of reason during arguments and disagreements and worked hard to make sure that everyone was included, no matter how frustrated he might have got with us all at times. And rest assured we could get VERY frustrating if we put our minds to it. Of course if things got too fractious he could always retreat to the ubiquitous Shed, to build and paint models and to game with a select few who became known as the Shedheads. As the years passed, members moved away or found other pursuits, and the Irregulars drifted into obscurity, John was still there, a constant light drawing people to him. He had long made friends and influenced people far beyond just Newark and his local club. Under the name of Mausman he was, for many years, a massive presence in the Guild and the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers and made friends all over Britain and Europe – indeed all around the world. We started in wargaming at a time when the internet didn’t even exist but John embraced this way of making new friends and bringing people together like no one I know. He was one of the founders of the Wargamer’s Forum and it is a sign of the great affection in which he was held that, the year after his death, the members arranged a memorial model build in his honour with nearly 30 members putting in many hours of work to create models in his memory. As much as the models themselves and the work they represented, what was so telling were all the comments from people about how much John had influenced them and how welcoming he had been to them when they got into the hobby. The most common word used to describe him, after he passed away, in that rather retrained manner of people not used to showing their emotions, was ‘Gent’. I think that summed him up perfectly.
Of course, although our initial friendship started over a wargames table, it developed far beyond that. A few of us; myself, Duncan Macfarlane and John Laing, had long had a habit of meeting up when we could for drinks at one of the pubs in Newark. And whilst the pubs changed, the ritual was always the same. Over a pint of beer or, in John’s case, more usually a glass of wine or a brandy, we would talk, putting the world to rights, chatting about the latest hobby gossip but, mostly, discussing history and of course particularly military history. In the company of Duncan and John Laing, for whom military history and wargaming was pretty much a career rather than just a hobby, John shone with his depth of knowledge. His work in the North Sea meant that he couldn’t always be around for these meetings and we were the worse for it. I was in the same situation as we shared an industry but I kind of doubt my absence was missed as much as John’s. As in all things, the world, whether online or in person, was an immeasurably better place when John was in it.
Always playing the game for its own sake rather than to win, getting as much enjoyment out of a well played close defeat as from an overwhelming victory, content as much to just sit and chat as to actually roll any dice, John was a lesson to us all – it is the journey that matters, not the destination. I am immensely grateful that I was able to share a small part of that journey with John.
I will close with a comment from the Wargamer’s Forum which I think sums up John
“I remember John as everlasting positive, encouraging and passionate. He was always welcoming, kind, polite, and supporting to others and one of those who by these fine qualities made our small community yet so great. John was also inspirational as a modeler, relentlessly working and completing new subjects and as such one could not help but being impressed by how productive he was. Still, he was equally inspirational in how marvellously skilled he was with his air brush and paint brush. John was an artist. I will miss him very much.”