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
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…