We never seemed to get time to talk," said my Aunt Meg. "In one way or another every evening we were playing a game of some kind."
She was explaining why her marriage to my Uncle Alec broke up. He was, in fact, a witty, if not brilliant, talker when he chose, and he would have been horrified at any suggestion that his life was devoted to game-playing. Yet, as Aunt Meg complained, there did seem to be an awful lot of it.
Forty years ago it was poker, a pastime considered rather dashing and modern in Edinburgh at that time. He developed a devilish knack of filling inside straights. There were intervals of anything that became a national craze—mah-jongg, Diabolo, Monopoly or whatever—and then contract bridge came along and there was a good deal of that, and Uncle Alec soon became a keen and respected player, with a disarmingly hesitant tone of voice when doubling six no trump while holding a couple of aces. Cribbage and piquet and backgammon—it did not take him long to master such games for two. Aunt Meg, if she wanted to keep her man at home at night, had to learn them also, and learn to lose. For this must be made clear about the man: sports and games were to him no casual matter. He spent a lifetime of tinkering with accepted codes of play, and he invented some games of his own.
More years ago than I care to think about he collected and gave to his son—my cousin Roger—several hundred empty shotgun cartridges, goods as valuable to us as cowrie shells. Although they turned out to be unsatisfactory as playthings—you could not fit them inside each other since they were all of the same gauge—Uncle Alec noticed that we had just acquired the art of using an elastic band to catapult hard wedges of paper, and he suggested that the cartridge cases would make splendid soldiers. We built two forts of books at the opposite ends of the room, and soon you could not go in there without the risk of a severe sting on the cheek from ricocheting ammunition. But Roger had bagged the better half of the books, and he disposed his men in a monstrously unsporting fashion, so that only a tenth of an inch was showing to the enemy.
October 9, 1966
The affair ended in a fight, which brought my uncle to the scene.
"It's not fair," I complained. "I can't see his soldiers."
"Ah, yes," he replied, surveying the situation through his bifocals. "Quite. Now what we want are some simple rules. Let me see. Rule 1. At least half of each soldier shall be visible to the enemy."
"What about the generals?" I asked. A wildfowling friend had provided two huge 8-gauge empties. "Generals stay in the background, and they ought to be more difficult to hit, not easier."
"Yes, that's reasonable enough," Uncle Alec said. "Rule 2. Officers above field rank may be three-quarters hidden."
In this way it was not long before the game was formalized, and all the better for that. Shots were to be taken in turn, but if you scored a kill you were given an extra shot. Men were not to be supported by books or other objects wedged behind them. The maximum number, size and weight of books in the fort were prescribed. Uncle Alec acted as umpire for a few minutes, his keen gray eyes carefully scrutinizing the legality of every shot, but soon he could not bear to stand by and watch our terrible marksmanship. "Let me try," he said, as he retrieved a missile from the floor. Immediately my field marshal toppled to the table. Soon we were playing against him, with Roger and me taking two shots to his one, but we hadn't a chance. As usual, he was quickly the most proficient person in the room.
Cards in a hat was another instance of his extreme skill. I don't think he actually invented this game, for it is mentioned in an early Wodehouse, but he certainly developed it from a casual time-waster into a serious branch of athletics, and many is the time I have seen him demonstrate the art at a children's party and get more than 35 out of 52 into a standard topper at 10 feet. Once I passed by the window of his study and saw him sitting there, with his craggy eyebrows knitted in fierce concentration, intently practicing alone.
It all put considerable strain on my aunt, and the marriage foundered. Uncle Alec married a second time and installed his bride, Eva, in a large country house north of Edinburgh at which there was great scope for game-playing. It was Eva who immediately designed and oversaw the construction of a golf course around the house: no mere question of clock golf, but an 18-hole pitch-and-putt affair with a standard scratch score of 54, its own handicaps, an annual medal competition and some unusual local rules about the gravel driveways, the impenetrable rhododendrons at the back of almost every green, what happened at the short 16th if your ball lodged in the roof of the game larder, and children ("A player whose ball is moved by a child shall be entitled to replace it without penalty.... The penalty to be suffered by the child shall be at the discretion of the player").
In the basement of the house was a billiard room, adapted from what had been the servants' hall, and the equipment gave Uncle Alec endless scope for invention. Finding that the correct striking of the bail with a cue was not easy, he worked out a way of playing a form of cricket, using two balls as the wicket ("the space between them to be 2.0625 inches or exactly the diameter of one ball") and he even made a sort of gauge, a piece of wood with two holes in it, for checking on this. He had 10 fielders, which were other balls set around the table, and one (human) bowler, who trundled a slow ball from the other end, always with the object of striking the wicket and defeating the batsman, who wielded a cue in the small space between the wickets. The whole thing was immensely complicated.
Once, in more recent times, when Uncle Alec was driving me to the Edinburgh airport at the end of a visit, he asked me: "D'you know this one?"
"You take the registration letters of the car in front of you, and you have to make the shortest word you can containing all three letters in that order, but not necessarily consecutively. Eva thought it out last week."
"Oh, I see. Not necessarily consecutively. I'll tell you what, Uncle Alec, I'm rather sleepy. Why don't you play by yourself?"
"No—it's quite easy. Look—there's a KHV. What can you make of that?"
"Not allowed proper names. Doesn't count. What about spoKesHaVe?" Uncle Alec said.
"Very good—although isn't KHediVe shorter?"
I got him over XUX, though; he couldn't think of anything to beat my "eXecUtriX."
Soured by defeat, he switched his versatile brain elsewhere. "I've often thought, you know, that one could do something with car numbers. Ah, yes, I've got it. How about a round of golf?"
"Golf?" I muttered weakly. "Golf next?"
"Yes, you see it's going to be rather a good game. You take the first car and I take the second. And the last figure of the number is the strokes you took for that hole. So here's yours: 625. You're down in 5. Mine's—can't read it properly, why can't people clean their number plates, might get it off the back, oh, yes, 4008." He turned his head for a backward view and brought the swerving car back again to the legal side of the road. "That puts you 1 up on the second tee. Want to play for half a crown a hole?"
We played four rounds, 72 holes, and it would have been cheaper to take a taxi.
Uncle Alec has the same spirit of enterprise and adventure in his game-playing that led some anonymous Etonians, carelessly tossing a ball around in the buttresses outside chapel, to devise Eton fives, or the Duke of Beaufort's house-guests on a rainy day to stick some feathers into a champagne cork and bat it around the room with tennis rackets.
Shortly before his death I rang Eva and asked if I could visit for the weekend. "Yes," she said excitedly. "Do come. Alec's just going to invent musical Scrabble." I hadn't the heart to withdraw my proposal, and by the time I got there he had bought some music manuscript paper, and Eva had cut out a hundred cardboard squares and had calculated an appropriate proportion of the different notes to be used. "You see," Uncle Alex explained, "you transpose every tune into the key of C, and instead of putting down a word, you put down the first notes of an accepted tune. Now this C sharp—there's only one in the set—is going to be as hard to get rid of as the Q. And there are three F sharps...."
"Uncle Alec, what is an accepted tune?"
"Anything in the hymnbook or in Barlow and Morgenstern's Dictionary of Musical Themes."
We tried it, once. After two hours the game was less than half finished, and several new rules had come into force, one in particular that said, "No player other than he whose turn it is may hum." But the effort proved too much, and we relaxed with a drink, until he got out his well-worn set of poker dice. Anyone who has not played liar's dice with my Uncle Alec can have no idea of the depths of falseness and deceit to which a Scottish gentleman and lawyer can sink. I was soon 10 shillings in the red, but to my surprise I saw that he owed more than a pound to his wife. Suddenly, while shaking the cup in the improbable hope of throwing five to beat my three queens, he stopped in midair. "I've got it! The perfect idea for a game. Look, why shouldn't one have liar's Scrabble?" he said.
"Why not, indeed?" I answered faintly. "We seem to have had everything else."
"Now"—he cleared the table and brought out three Scrabble racks and the letters—"we don't even need the board. And I take seven letters at random...."
It was, as I might have known, immensely complicated. Eva won easily. We finished at 3 in the morning.
It was the last time I saw my uncle, for he died of a stroke three weeks later while practicing chip shots with a mashie niblick into an armchair in the sitting room. But one thing is certain. Uncle Alec won't give up. At this very moment he is likely to be pondering on the precise arrangement of some angel's harp strings and will shortly evolve an entertaining game based on these—probably with an element of gambling involved.
And I know who'll win.