Rats live on no evil staR

Edited by Pete Swanson

by Stephen Agar

There is no answer to the question what constitutes the perfect Diplomacy zine: although far from perfect, for me, Rats live on no evil staR has something. It wasn’t one of the “greats”, it didn’t win the Zine Poll, it wasn’t that reliable, and it didn’t even make 20 issues – it was just small and perfectly formed. 

Rats first saw the light of day on 16th April 1976. Its editor, Peter Swanson, launched the zine in his year off after doing a 7th term entrance exam for Cambridge, so he just escaped being a schoolboy editor. However, despite his tender years, Peter was already a seasoned Diplomacy freak; not only was he a skilled Diplomacy player but he had already edited a subzine called Flashpoint in Graham Jeffrey’s Der Krieg from October 1973 – April 1975, as well as being editor of the IDA/UK1 discussion zine Queen Victoria’s Funeral and publisher of a novice package called The Tangled Web We Weave (on behalf of IDA/UK). In retrospect this was not a good time to start a Diplomacy zine as Peter intended to have a three month tour of the USA in the summer of 1976, followed by Jesus College, Cambridge in the Autumn. Peter wasn’t your average Brit: he was born in the US, moved to England when he was five, spent the next seven years alternating between the US and England every year, finally settling down in Wimbledon when he was 12. 

The first issue was a 6 page affair, but it got off to a good start with an article from Paul Willey on Diplomacy humour and a nice piece on how Peter came to choose the name for the zine. It was followed up the following month with another short issue, including the first of many strategy articles by Harry Drews (reprinted from the Canadian zine, Paroxysm), plus a couple of pieces on rating systems and the success of Russia in postal games. No games yet, no lettercol, but plenty to read. Issue 3, dated 24th June 1976, was the last before Peter’s trip to the US and followed a similar format, including QVF No.15 as an integral part. Skipping over the hobby politics of the day (Richard Walkerdine resigns as IDA/UK supremo, Edi Birsan resigns as President of the IDA, etc. etc.), there were interesting articles on “Formulating a Strategy” by Doug Ronson, and one on why Peter preferred anarchy to standbyes. This has to be read in the context that in 1976 Mick Bullock was probably the only other GM using a 2 NMRs = anarchy rule (as Albion had folded), yet by 1980 standbyes were practically unknown (only Springboard still uses them today).  

True to his word, Peter produced Rats No.4 at the end of September 1976, just before he went up to Cambridge. Still waiting to start the zine’s first game of Diplomacy, but the list was almost full. No doubt much of Peter’s time was spent in the college bar (24p for a pint of real ale), but nevertheless Rats started to take off, with a gamestart in issue 5 and an international gamestart in issue 6. Until issue 6 there wasn’t really a letter column  to speak of, but once it got going it was quite energetic, mainly in response to Peter’s GLORIA column (Gloria’s Old, Spicy, Saucy & Interesting Prattle), which set out to be controversial. Just to prove that nothing ever changes, here’s a quote from Paul Segal: “I think you may be carping on a bit about the “Good Old Days”. No doubt they were good – but going on about them as if anyone who came into the hobby after 1974 should be handled with extreme caution won’t help!” And more from Keith Black: “You know, I’m often surprised at the amount of hostility exhibited by certain members of the hobby. I can only assume that a lot of this is deliberate overstatement intended to provoke discussion.” By issue 7 Rats enjoyed a six-page letter column and was running three games (one of the players being Peter Berlin who still receives SpOff). 

The zine was now in its prime. Issue 8 was the largest yet (18 pages) – I particularly like the letter from “Phillip S. Brown”, who would obviously have not been a fan of SNOT or The Freaky Fungus: “DolchstoƟ is half taken up by stupid pictures of scaly men with shields and incomprehensible writing on the cover (I have since been told that his is from ‘The Lord of the Rings’, to which I reply, so what?) and editorials which are nothing to do with games, but simply reporting drinking sessions in Leeds and talking about future drinking sessions in France some 8 months hence. Now I like a game of darts and a drink as much as the next man, but if I want either I can walk 200 yards to my local. I don’t need to drive 100 miles to Leeds to do it, and I certainly don’t consider it worth writing about!” Rats had already achieved in a few issues the largest letter column of any of its contemporary UK zines. 

Peter never really changed his original formula, but one thing that started to creep in was the odd anonymous columnist (Rats boasted Smectonymuus, Midas and Marat – only the latter of whom I am still in contact with), a hobby tradition now long since vanished. Started off by Lucifer in DolchstoƟ, and copied by others such as Ford Popular and Fetlock, the basic idea was to write pompous and outrageous things under the safety of a pseudonym in order to entertain and generate debate. Personally, I never found them that funny. 

I suppose one of the reasons I have a soft spot for Rats is that I have a very similar philosophy to Peter when it comes to this hobby. As Peter said in reply to a letter from Eric Willis (editor-in-chief of Leviathan, with whom Peter was having a bit of a feud) in issue No.10 (March 1977): “…subscribers are paying, not for the zine, as is commonly imagined, but for the editor. The editor is the zine; he gives it its character, its style, its personality. Running a successful fanzine in the postal Dippy world does not rely on good GMing or fast turnaround. It relies on how entertaining its editor is, and especially on how well he can transmit what he wants to say to his readers.” I assume that an editor such as Mark Wightman would also concur with this sentiment, which perhaps explains the difficulty Mark has with a zine like GAME. However, in issue 15 Peter changes his mind a little, when he expressed agreement with Andy Evans’s editorial in Trojan Horse No.25 where he said “Personally, all I really think it takes to make a good zine is an interested editor. Note that I didn’t say interesting editor… what is absolutely vital is that the editor is interested in what he writes.” 

Rats No.13 was a special first anniversary issue, a 28 page A5 litho booklet, packed full of articles – indeed, so taken was Peter with litho that he even considered putting out the games regularly on mimeo, and running a litho chat zine. However, it proved to be a one-off, presumably because the economics of litho production required a very high circulation. By the time of issue 14 Peter had completed his first year at Cambridge, got a third in his first year Tripos reading Mathematics, so switched to Law. However, Peter’s student lifestyle and constant trips abroad during the vacations were starting to stir up some unrest – Mick Bullock complaining in 1901 aat No.85 that while Rats was one of his favourite zines to read, it was his least favourite to play in because of long erratic deadlines (he quoted 51/2, 61/2, 4, 6, 7 week deadline gaps – at a time when a surprising number of zines were efficient 3 or 4-weekly). And to compound matters, Peter found himself in a major feud with Paul Simpkins, which meant that issue 16 had rather a lot of “hobby politics” in it as Peter tried to defend himself. 

The end was already in sight. Returning to Cambridge in the Autumn to start a new subject, Peter had to work hard. Issue 17 (November 1977) was thin and produced under a lot of work pressure. Issue 18 (January 1978) was the last, Peter finally succumbing to the inevitable. It is hard producing a zine at university – there are just too many other more interesting things to do. It was a tidy fold, all games going to the recent established Howay the Lads. 

Reprinted from Spring Offensive 63