The Thing on the Mat (January-April 1985)

Edited by Pete Doubleday

by Stephen Agar

Issue 33 (January 1985) 

Pete Doubleday, the editor of The Thing on the Mat, was one of the true characters of postal Diplomacy – quick witted, intelligent, anarchic and willing to call a spade a shovel, he made Thing one of the best reads around. Thing was mimeo duplicated, multi-coloured, and Pete often went to a lot of trouble to include several drawings in each issue (and drawing on a stencil is no joke – it is difficult and time consuming). Issue 33 was no exception – 8 cartoons in 16 sides. Pete was at his best when just rambling on in the finest Birksian editorial tradition or just putting other editors in their place. Don’t expect to get any insights into the Hobby ten years ago – but maybe this page will give you an insight into one side of Pete Doubleday. 

January 1985 saw our Pete a might frustrated. “I’ve suddenly realised that all my ambition is totally unfocused, in that I can’t think of a single thing I want to do but I definitely want to do something or other particularly badly, in that I am extremely frustrated. Maybe I should settle down and get married; unlike the rest of Cambridge, I don’t find hollowed-out turnips sufficient unto my need.” 

Still, January is always a good time of year to review the previous 12 months happenings. So what of 1984? “It hasn’t been good; one might almost characterise it as a year of despondency. We have seen Walkerdine’s prediction of twenty folds in a year prove staggeringly accurate, we have seen NMR! lurch ever further to a reverse take-over where Bain gets lumbered with even more work than he presently has, we have seen the rigours of hypermodern technology push Greatest Hits back to being a quarterly – all this has dominated the good news section of the Hobby, it is true, but there has been much to the bad as well. Take the resuscitation of Dolchstoß, for instance: in its pages the Diplomacy Hobby appears to be splitting away from the mainstream, it being a healthy magazine of some 150 subscribers, who are typically pure Diplomacy players who see no other zine at all, with the possible exception of Mercurius Aulicus, a zine from the same stable, and currently a non-runner. We have been subject to a two-toned whinging from the fairies of the Hobby, firstly claiming that we complain too much when accused by Dolton of being stingy, heartless bastards, and secondly insisting that we should accept the ‘personal zine’ as the wave of the future.” Of course 10 years later the FRP side of the hobby has all but disappeared along with the ‘personal zines’ so Pete really had little to worry about. 

Unusually, even the Letters Column was rather dire, but as Pete explained: “There are times in every editor’s life when, for no readily apparent reason, he dries up. In Andy Blakeman’s case, this is brought on by an inflated view of his own artistic talents; for my part, and where other, real editors are concerned, the reason is normally depression combined with a feeling that you’ve said it all before. At such times the preferred curative specific is a good-sized mailbag packed with zest and fire, which can best be employed to fill gaps and generally make the editor feel secure, well-loved and commercially viable. Unfortunately, when you produce several depressed issues in a row this doesn’t happen.” 

In order to improve the efficiency o f the zine from the point of view of his game players Pete announced that henceforth he would produce Thing six-weekly, with a games only interim issue in-between. This was to cause him problems… 

Issues 34 and 35 (February 1985) 

“Up yours and welcome to another issue of The Thing on the Mat, in which editorial I intend to expose a few inconsistencies in the way I have implemented the new fast-turnaround system. Issue 35 is enclosed, for those of you who are not playing and have therefore not yet seen it, and you will immediately deduce that the first cock-up is in what John Fowles calls ‘mispagination’ and what a less pretentious person would call the numbering system. No to put it too discreetly, this is issue 34 appearing three weeks after issue 35. Sadly the reason for this mistake is not excessive intake of drugs, other than alcohol at least, and more to do with sheer incompetence. To make matters worse I have committed myself on the cover of the last issue to making the even-numbered issues chat-based and odd-numbered issues games-only. Strict I implementation of this policy would ensue in issue thirty seven appearing before issue thirty six, issue thirty nine before issue thirty eight and so on… now, stranger things have happened in the Hobby, but as I approach middle age (SA: Pete was 23) I feel that it is not the job of a responsible and long-established zine like TotM to indulge in such fripperies. Consequently I have put some thought into rectifying my error. The first solution that occurs is to overturn the entire infrastructure of number theory and declare every second integer from one onwards to be even and the rest odd – I have sent off a tentative paper on this theme to the Journal of Prime Number Theory, but I entertain little hope of such a radical thesis being accepted by the mathematical community at large…” 

But what of the rest of the hobby? Turning to Pete’s Hobby News column (“nothing more than a blatant attempt to be nice to all those editors whose bodies I crave and very unpleasant indeed to anyone who I think can take it or else is most likely to sell me his body on a sado-masochistic basis”) . Pete recommends the first issue of C’est Magnifique (which recently folded after 1xx issues) to his readers, and commends William Whyte’s NERTZ (which folded in 1993 but none of us realised until 1994) despite the fact that Williams appeared to take both Dr. Who and Graham Staplehurst seriously. Other newish zines included Coolnacran from Nicholas Whyte (which promptly folded), Hacking Times from Dylan Harris and Pigbutton from Pete Groome. On the resurfaced Bohemian Rhapsody Pete was very candid. “I am not in the mood for the sort of placatory tosh we see around the Hobby at present, along the lines of ‘Collapsed once, not entirely trustworthy, bags of enthusiasm, don’t want to knife the poor bugger before he gets a decent Christian trial.’ Personally I would rather see both Malc’s balls stuffed up his nostrils before encouraging a single member of the Hobby even to consider asking for a sample copy.” If only Pete had still been around when Andy Bate re-launched Froggy or Duncan Adams resurrected The Laughing Roundhead! 

Issue 36 (April 1985) 

With this issue Chris Spall’s Slap and Tickle merged with Thing in the hope that Chris would bring to the zine some much needed GMing ability. 

Most of this issue was taken up with a transcript of a radio interview Pete did on Radio Oxford about his attempt to be elected as MP for Oxford under the name Cerebus the Aardvark. Unfortunately for all schoolteachers John Patten actually won the seat. On the zine front Pete said what he thought about Derek Caws (editor of War & Peace): “Caws is a dangerous right-wing lunatic with a distressing lack of consistency, a mind as closed and oppressive as the colon of a constipated hamster and a moral sense derived in part from traditional, offensive Mittelstand values; in part from vicarious greed; and in part from excessive and intolerant use of dangerous Drugs, in this case Fresh Air. He should have his nose plugged with Plutonium and his lungs washed out with the greater part of Dublin Bay.” I couldn’t do justice to the three page attack on Caws (though it was interesting to see an excerpt from a Ryk Downes letter to Caws (“W&P seems to have good coverage of Diplomacy strategy. This is what I like (and need) to see in a zine”),  but we’re all entitled to change our minds over time. 

Pete Doubleday is one of those characters that invariably crop up in the conversation when the Hobby old-age pensioners have one too many Shandys at the MidCon bar. With no Thing and no NERTZ the Hobby has no resident weirdos to spout a few home truths – and even David Oya is but a pale imitation compared to a Pete at his best. Will we ever see his like again? 

Reprinted from Spring Offensive 31