If you mention "Old Kent Road" or "Mayfair" to someone who was born and brought up in Britain, the spontaneously associative response will be "Monopoly." This may be a surprise to the offspring of other cultures. The classic board game was, of course, a fruit of Depression-era America, and American children were presented, from its inception, with a distinctly American range of locations on which to build their houses and hotels and to demand extortionate (or pathetic) rents from all the other peripatetic players.
Monopoly is a great game - if you have six or seven hours to spare. My friends and I used to play it deep into the small hours, particularly when there were only two of us, because it is possible for a perfect equipollence to be achieved where the likelihood of either party actually winning grows ever more remote. I don't think we cared, really; and as the night moved inevitably toward dawn, it either became a matter of who could stay awake longer or turned into a kind of shared campaign against the game itself.
The question was: Would it ever be possible for the game to be won by either of us? Would it end? Was ours the longest stalemate in the history of Monopoly? Or had we in fact discovered the law of perpetually repetitive motion ... round and round the board, getting and spending, collecting £200 as we passed "Go," winning second prizes in beauty contests, going directly to jail.
I don't know why this is, but in recent years Monopoly has not been a significant part of my wife's and my home life. Nor have any number of games with "two or more players" that we, or the world in general, used to play. Have we become horribly adult? Have computer games - you at your screen, I at mine - taken over completely? We keep being told that families eat together less and less often. Do families play together less often as well? Is it a fact?
Over the past month or so, however, things have changed at our place. Because of temporary circumstances, two nephews and one niece (who until now have visited our house only on New Year's Eve for a few hours) have been here at least once every other week for whole afternoons or evenings. This is a slightly alarming pleasure in a house not very accustomed to much juvenile influx. But these three (and their dad) arrive to our welcome and make themselves seamlessly and exuberantly at home.
The second time they came, I put a small box on the table where we were all going to tuck into various salty, crispy, and crunchy foodstuffs. On the box's lid was the word "Contraband." It is an old game in which a customs officer is up against a bunch of renegades trying to return home from abroad without declaring diamond necklaces, watches, bottles of perfume, and so forth, that should (if declared) entail payable duty. Even the Ruritanian Crown Jewels are on one of the cards. You either honestly divulge what you have in your hand, or you try to get away with it, with fines incurred or avoided accordingly.
Like many a good game, the whole delicious point is to cheat and lie as blatantly as possible. When I was 9 or 10, my school chums and I played this silly game endlessly. Great career training.
What interested me was how quickly these three 2004 children became adepts. The competition was fierce, the lying skilled and preposterous. Only the youngest would tell a whopper, and then ripple with an endless giggle like a stone scudding across water. But he soon turned out to be the best fibber of all. There was something of camaraderie about the whole experience that had, I felt, a value that might be only too easy to underestimate.
Since then we have had evenings of Cluedo, Taxi (a London map game with complicated rules that took almost longer to read and absorb than the game took to play), and, most recently, "Sorry." So far we haven't played Monopoly.
"Sorry" is a board game that comes from the mid-1930s. Indeed, looking at the two boxes of it that have been gathering dust on our shelves since they were inherited from my mother, I suspect our editions of the game may be vintage originals. The colored pieces are painted wood, not plastic, and painted in nice old-fashioned dull colors. The cards belong to a different era from ours. The design of the board has a discretion and graphic balance about it that has been replaced in modern versions with a brashly eye-catching and unnecessarily excitable design.
The game itself is quite exciting. Its rules are simple, and they work so well in practice that winning and losing are unpredictable until the last second. "Sorry" was new to all but me, so I pretended with a show of supreme confidence that my long experience of the game meant that I would inevitably win. This was absolute piffle, and when the others started to realize it was, their whoops of unrestrained hilarity and vengeful joy every time I was thwarted in my progress from "Start" to "Home" were like a major spillage of glass marbles. Such glee! "This game brings out the worst in you!" I protested.
You have to move your four pieces from "Start" to "Home." But depending on which card you or your opponents turn up, you are never safe ... until you are absolutely and conclusively home. You may believe you are on a winning streak. And then some dreadful niece or nephew leaps upon you and whips you unceremoniously back to the start again. Tables are turned endlessly. When the oldest of the three appeared to be losing badly and said she'd given up, I told her that she still had as good a chance of winning as the rest of us. And she nearly did win.
I have to say, though, that - quite rightly, given my seniority and general air of dignity - just at the point that everything looked hopeless for me, I had three cards in succession that took me in a trice from start to home - and there I was, the right man, the WINNER!
"Don't worry," I said, "you'll get the hang of it someday!" Or triumphant, gloating, completely unjustifiable words along those lines.
How easy it is to return to childhood. I haven't enjoyed myself so much in quite a while. Just as the 1930s motto on the cover of our rules for "Sorry" quaintly puts it: "Play It and Be Glad."