He didn’t even look old enough to pay the congestion charge. I have now retired to nurse my injuries in some Surrey gastropub, while the younger generation continue their happy mimesis of war.
As I wait for my lunch, I am thinking about the role of paintball in the UK economy, and the relative importance of services and manufacturing. Look at the dosh we are all pushing out this afternoon in this heaving Surrey gastropub: vast Sunday roasts washed down with knockout Chilean Cabernets. I swear: it is almost 3pm and some of them are still having their prosecco aperitifs. Where is it all coming from?
There in the car park are the sort of vehicles you would expect to see in this neck of the woods: big, burly 4x4s, their haunches and flanks gleaming in sinuous waves of metal. They come from Japan, they come from Germany, they come from France, they come from Korea. Just about the only place they don’t seem to come from is the UK.
If you were a pessimist, and you were worried about our manufacturing base, and the recent defeat of Bombardier at the hands of Siemens, you might be disposed to see a terrible lesson here: other countries have paintshops; we have paintball. Other countries still make things; we pay to run around in the woods. You might think that paintball was just another low-skills service-based industry that does nothing for this country’s competitiveness or exports. And you know what, I reckon you would be almost completely wrong.
Yes, of course we need to boost hi-tech manufacturing, which is one of the reasons I am pleased that all the new aircon tube trains will be made by Bombardier, and the new hop-on, hop-off bus for London will be made in Ballymena. But don’t sneer at paintball, because the difference between making a car and supplying a sylvan paint- based war game is not as big as you might think.
The paintball company I have just used is called Delta Force, and it not only employs 1,000 people already, with 24 sites across the UK. It is now expanding into New Zealand and Australia. It is one of the biggest paintball firms in Europe, and according to Alex and Russell, two paintball marshals, it has just had its best year ever in the UK market. The company is hiring staff in Crawley, Edinburgh, Broxbourne and Leicester. It is looking for a supervisor to run the camp in Auckland. And these are not mickey mouse jobs: they require leadership, charisma, and the ability to marshal 300 people and teach them the safe use of a CO2 gun.
Given the savage indiscipline I have just seen, I imagine that if you can run a paintball camp, you can run just about anything. The guns and full airsoft gear are made in England by a firm based in Aldershot, so that every boost to paintballing has a knock-on benefit for old-fashioned manufacturing; and I can easily imagine that there will soon be paintball apps – enabling you to tell where your enemies are on your handheld – so that there is scope for a fusion between paintballing and the digital economy.
And if paintball is simply servicing a fantasy, then so are the great big shiny cars outside the gastropub. These butch 4x4s aren’t any more useful, really, than my clapped-out 16-year-old Toyota: they just allow their owners to have a certain conception of themselves, just as paintballing allows you to dream of being Rambo. The value is in the fantasy.
Paintballing, finally, is good for business. It builds esprit de corps. It helps you let off steam. It gives many thousands of young people the rush of adrenalin that is so often missing from their childhoods, and it teaches the rest of us a vital lesson: that there will come an evening or a morning or a noonday, when you least deserve or expect it, when someone will shoot you in the back.