Games played in childhood will always take us back to a heavenly past, says Margaret Drabble, who owes a favourite one to an evening with Princess Margaretby Margaret Drabble / June 22, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Diabolo, a juggling game played with sticks and a spinning top, is a potent symbol of nostalgia in the work of Proust
The best games were those we played with my aunt when we stayed with her during the Easter holidays. She taught us how to play, but she didn’t seem to be teaching. She didn’t go in for clever word games that put too much strain on invention and the imagination. She liked board games with simple rules like Snakes and Ladders and Monopoly (we had our own version called Millionaire), and uncomplicated games with moving pieces like Halma and Chinese checkers and dominoes, in which the pieces themselves became familiar, friendly, almost animated. She liked playing cards, and laid out Patience daily for decades on the kitchen table. We played rather boring childish games such as Beggar My Neighbour and Snap with that regular well-worn canvas pack, but there were also specially designed picture sets with their own rules. These were very important to me. My favourite was an improbable game called Belisha, designed, as I later realised, to teach the rules of road safety. It displayed road signs and illustrations of the beauty spots of Britain on a car journey from Oban to London, and I loved it. I have the pack still. It simultaneously represented safety and adventure, the world indoors and the open road, and I remember being entirely content as we sat round the little table in the front room of an evening collecting Traffic Lights, Major Road Ahead and Halt signs. It was a pointless but totally absorbing and companionable activity.
I think that one of the reasons why these parlour games made us so happy was the way in which my aunt joined in, engaged us on equal terms and gave us her full attention. Children are used to being ignored or told to shut up, and a game gave licence for talk and noise and competition and camaraderie. My aunt even had a card game which involved shouting. It was called Pit, and it was modelled on the procedures of the US Corn Exchange. We didn’t know what the Corn Exchange was, but we learned about bears and bulls, traded loudly in barley and cotton and flax, and yelled Corner when we’d collected a sequence. There was another game called Contraband, which involved lying to an appointed customs officer about what you held in your hand—silk stockings, perfume, cigarettes. This was a fine way to learn about the adult world, and to learn to keep a poker face at the same time.
Outdoor games did not appeal to my aunt, and I did not like them much either, as I was very bad at them. Every summer we went for a month to the north Yorkshire coast, where we swam and caught fish in rock pools, activities which I greatly enjoyed. But we also played French cricket on the sands, which I hated. I was a very bad loser, and was always bursting into tears, yelling tragically that life was unfair, and throwing my bat away. I was much the same at school, where I would pretend to fall over during the egg and spoon race, or groan that I was feeling sick. There was something called Rounders which seemed completely stupid to me, as the stick was obviously too small for the ball. “Watch the ball!” the games mistress would cry, but I didn’t know what she was shouting about. What ball? It whizzed by far too fast to watch. I was later diagnosed as astigmatic, which may have explained some but probably not all of my ineptitude.
As a teenager, at boarding school on rainy afternoons when we were not playing hockey (a horrible and brutal sport, not a game at all) or hiding in the boiler room, we played Mah Jong. We had a craze for this poetic oriental game and could not get enough of it. It was introduced to us by a Chinese girl in our class who owned a most beautiful set of bamboo and ivory tiles, and we sat around for hours, building our little walls and feeling ourselves transported to another world. I have since tried to relearn this game and teach it to others, but without success: it belonged to that season in our young lives, and the joy of it never returned. The magic could not be recovered.
It is in the nature of games to arrive as a craze, to break out like a rash, and then fade and vanish as though they had never been. The classic games—draughts, chess, bridge, crosswords—go on forever, but other pastimes disappear almost overnight, leaving their manufacturers desperately searching for the next hit. The Frisbee has survived, but what happened to the Hula Hoop? Or to the diabolo? Diabolo, once considered dangerously addictive, is a juggling game played with two sticks and a spinning top, and it is inextricably linked for me with Proust’s À l’Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs. In the Scott Moncrieff translation there is an exquisite illustration by the ill-fated Philippe Jullian of the little band of girls sitting round a picnic hamper, with two ghostly beauties playing diabolo in the background. Proust’s descriptions of his holidays in the Grand Hotel at Cabourg on the Normandy coast are of the very essence of nostalgia, and the diabolo one of their more potent symbols. The games we played come back to us in later years, with all the power of a lost domain.
In adult life, I spent a few summers in Italy with friends and family playing Lexicon and Black Maria round the swimming pool, and playing word games through the long evenings until dawn. There was one game with which we were for a season or two obsessed, a literary version of the parlour game Consequences. Players take turns to write down a response to a set of scenarios without knowing what has already been written, resulting in a bizarre story. We knew it as Princess Margaret’s Consequences, as it was she who wrote down the rules for me after we played one night at a friend’s house. The princess thought the game was frightfully funny, and so it was. I kept her instructions on how to play it for years, but I think I’ve lost them.
I play fewer games now I am old. I still do jigsaws and I play Solitaire on my lap top while waiting for the muse or an exciting email. Jigsaws aren’t really a game, by most game definitions, but Solitaire is most certainly a game, possessing as it does the characteristics of rules, a goal, pointlessness and time-wasting. And it continues to provoke in me almost daily queries about what games are, and why we need them.
While I was writing my memoir, subtitled a Personal History with Jigsaws, I read the book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits about the theory of games. It turned out not to have much to do with jigsaws, but a lot to do with cheating or not cheating at solitaire. The pedagogical function of games has been recognised since the days of John Locke, but Suits explores other meanings, and attempts a philosophical definition of the game—an endeavour which defeated Wittgenstein, who feebly concluded that games are by nature indefinable. Suits proposes that a game, essentially, consists of selecting inefficient over efficient means to achieve a defined goal, by following certain agreed rules. This description works fine for chess and Monopoly, and even for games that one plays against oneself, such as choosing the long route home and walking quickly enough to get back before sunset. Russian roulette also seems to qualify. But it leads him to eliminate Ring a Ring o’ Roses, which he declares to be “a kind of dance to vocal accompaniment,” “more like Swan Lake than a game,” and he is also perplexed by the status of Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers, because the rules are so flexible. He concedes that we can add our own obstacles and constraints and variants to a given formula, as I do when I play
Solitaire, where I reject one of the options my electronic version offers me. My aunt did not know about it. She would have considered it cheating to do that thing with the king and the ace. And so do I.
In utopia, Suits argues, or in heaven, or in that eternal summer of boredom that awaits us when we have eliminated the need for productive labour or any instrumental activity, where there is no evil, no wrongdoing, no need for performance of good deeds, and no art, we will be able to survive and make meaning of our lives only by playing games. Game playing makes it possible to retain enough effort in utopia to make life worth living. The prospect is at once appealing and terrible. But, as I uneasily contemplate the rise and rise of videogames, it is not at all implausible. Videogames hadn’t become a big thing when Suits wrote his book, and I know nothing about them. But maybe they are the frightening utopian future, and Mah Jong on a rainy afternoon the heavenly past.
PS I discovered the rules of Princess Margaret’s Consequences, as below, but it’s hard to make them look interesting, although it was a very good game with the right participants.
Princess Margaret’s Consequences
Someone wrote a book called something
Extract from book
It was reviewed by someone
In the Something
Extract from criticism
Correction: This article originally referred to the “Scott Fitzgerald translation” of Proust. This has been amended to “Scott Moncrieff translation.”