What are you playing at? The strange world of family games | Family

Ian Rankin, author

Cheltenham Literature FestivalCHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 14: Ian Rankin, best selling crime writer, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 14, 2018 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)
Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

It was the last week of my junior high school, so probably June 1974. After the summer I would be heading to senior school. The last week was pretty relaxed and one of our science teachers suggested we bring in board games and the like, since there was no actual teaching to be done.

We had a chess set at home – I think it was donated to us by a family member. I said I could bring that in. The teacher was very enthusiastic. “I’ll give you a game, Ian!” he said.

Only thing was, I couldn’t play. No one in my household could. But I had agreed to the game and I wasn’t about to own up to being clueless, so I went home and grabbed our copy of Pears Cyclopaedia. It contained a short chapter on the rules of chess. Brilliant. I set the board up and tried to memorise where each piece went at the start of a game. Then, reading the instructions, I started moving the pieces around. Pawns could progress one square at a time (two on the first move). The queen could go pretty much wherever she liked. The knight did something that made almost no sense to me at all. And as for castling…

The next day the chess set was produced in the science class. Everyone stood around to watch. It took the teacher about two moves to realise I didn’t know what I was doing – probably helped by my cry of “checkmate” after my opening move. But a few of my classmates did know the game and after the laughter died down they proffered advice, all of which I followed. Mate came as a blessed relief. Ditto the end of term.

Samira Ahmed, broadcaster

Writers’ Guild Of Great Britain Awards 2020 - StudioLONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 13: Samira Ahmed poses for a portrait at the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards 2020 at the Royal College Of Physicians on January 13, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

I used to watch a huge amount of dystopian science fiction: Space: 1999; The Andromeda Strain; 2001… I spent most of my free time as a child constructing my own versions of these worlds on my bedroom floor. During the school holidays one year, I built my greatest ever creation, using every game counter, figurine and stationery item I could lay my hands on. At its heart was a space station complete with a decontamination chamber: think pencil case rubbers as sofas. It was truly a sight to behold.

After what felt like endless hours of work, the night before I was set to return to school it was finally completed. I went to bed knowing the following afternoon I could play to my heart’s content. Returning home from school, I felt such a sense of excitement, only to push my door open and find the carpet was bare. Not even swept to the side, my magnum opus had been destroyed. My mother had decided, at random, to choose this day to enter my room and vacuum, which was entirely out of character. I didn’t even bother to fight or argue with her; I was simply devastated, knowing my masterpiece was gone for good.

It still haunts me to this day. I’ve never mentioned it to Mum; no doubt if I did we’d end up arguing. With my kids, I vowed to never touch any of their play things without permission.

The worst part is I never even took a picture of what I’d made in my bedroom – it only lives on in my mind.
Samira presents Front Row on Radio 4 and Newswatch on BBC1

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

London Mayor Hosts First People’s Question Time Since The Pandemic BeganLONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 23: Mayor of London Sadiq Khan delivers a speech as the London Assembly invite Londoners to attend the first People’s Question Time since the Coronavirus pandemic began on November 23, 2021 in London, England. This bi-annual event gives London residents the opportunity to question the Mayor and London Assembly Members about their plans and priorities for the city. Topics can include London’s economy, transport, air quality, the environment, housing and policing and safety. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Christmas with the Khans is the time we all play games as a family. I don’t talk about it often, but my dad was a bus driver, which meant that Christmas Day was one of the few days he was guaranteed time off. I’m one of eight children and, although it was sometimes chaotic, we enjoyed spending the day together. As we got older we tended to gather with all our kids and have a big meal before watching the Queen’s speech.

The Queen’s message was the one tradition Dad never let us skip. It was his favourite part of the day. And, though he’s no longer with us, we all still love watching it. The afternoon would be given over to board games. The big one was Monopoly, which got ridiculously competitive. If my brother Tariq was the banker, there was always cheating involved.

This year, with both me and Mum having had our vaccines, boosters and flu jabs, we’re really looking forward to gathering with the wider family for a proper celebration – it feels as though the nation deserves it after the two years we’ve had! And no doubt Tariq will try to cheat, again, when the time for Monopoly comes round.

Esther Freud, author

Esther Freud Session PortraitPARIS, FRANCE - MAY 10: English writer Esther Freud on May 10, 2012 in Paris, France. (Photo by Ulf ANDERSEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Travelling through North Africa as children, my sister and I relied on words to entertain us. We told each other stories, invented songs, collected snippets of French, Arabic and Berber, mixing them up with the lyrics of the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whose voice floated above the souks in Marrakech.

We took to chanting phrases – helufa, roofrack, majoun – as we played or walked or waited for the adults to finish whatever they were doing, and out of this accumulation we alighted on two favourite words: hideous and kinky. We liked their sound, and the rhythm that they made. First heard through a haze of hashish, we assumed they were illicit, and they soon became our code – our way of alerting each other to whatever was confusing or amusing. “Hideous,” we’d catch each other’s eye, and the other could be relied on to respond, “Kinky.”

Back in England we continued to use this talismanic phrase, although for a time it was demoted in favour of the re-written lyrics from Jesus Christ Superstar: “I don’t know how to love him” changed to “I don’t know how to hate her!” We’d wail, ending in a scrum of laughter as we fell upon each other. But we soon reverted to our trusted favourites to express the ongoing chaos and hilarity of our lives, and it wasn’t until I published my first book and, unable to find a title, gave it the name of our own private game, that the words stopped being ours.

Craig Charles, DJ

BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2017LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 17: Craig Charles attends the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2017 Awards at the Echo Arena on December 17, 2017 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)
Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage

I grew up on Liverpool’s Claremont Road, where there were back-to-back terrace houses with tiny alleyways between them. My brother Dean and I played football in them when I was 10 or 11. They were so slim, you could touch the houses on each side with your hands. We’d drive our neighbours nuts with our kickabout. All they could hear as they watched Coronation Street was the ball thumping against their walls.

I feel sorry for them now, of course. We were terrors, but there was this one bloke who was a real spoilsport. He’d be vicious. He stabbed our ball once, bursting it. We’d smashed his window – he wasn’t happy.

One time he’d finally had enough and chased us, so we started running. My brother got run over, a car coming round the corner knocking him into the air. Luckily, he didn’t break anything, being a bouncy 13-year-old. Still, he was roughed up. And we couldn’t tell Dad he’d been hit, because he’d have had no sympathy and battered us both for being nuisances to the neighbours, and furious with us playing in the first place. So we pretended nothing had happened, despite his injuries. And, when the wounds had healed, we just carried on as before.

Reginald D Hunter, comedian

Latitude Festival, Day 4, Henham Park, Suffolk, UK - 25 Jul 2021Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (12223438bz) Reginald D Hunter on the Comedy Stage Latitude Festival, Day 4, Henham Park, Suffolk, UK - 25 Jul 2021
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

As a kid, I was obsessed with being the fastest at everything. There was a competitiveness to my entire outlook. If I was eating dinner, I’d desperately try to finish first, not that my dining companions were remotely bothered. I was always determined to be the first to make it to church, school or the store. In short, I had a real “I won” complex, even when I was the only person playing the game. I blame growing up on 70s TV; everything was always a race against time. My favourite game was Reg v Toilet, it was simple to play. If I was ever in a new bathroom I’d not used before, I’d compete against the toilet in a time trial. Before starting to pee, I’d press the flush button down – this was kick off. Then I’d try my hardest to urinate and finish before the toilet bowl refilled. I learned pretty quickly that some toilets are faster than others. And honestly? I still play it now.

Jess Phillips, MP

Politicians Attend The BBC Andrew Marr Show In LondonLabour Party MP Jess Phillips arrives at the BBC Broadcasting House in central London to appear on The Andrew Marr Show on 05 January, 2020 in London, England. Jess Phillips declared her candidacy in the race for Labour Party leadership which is due to begin next week. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Photograph: Getty Images

It’s probably a Birmingham thing, but as kids we played this game called Tracking, also known as Aki 123. I’m not sure about the spelling. It’s like hide and seek, but we had a base, say a tree in the park. The idea was to get back there, before anyone searching for you could find you. If you were caught, you became a seeker, too. We’d play for hours and hours, me, my brothers, and all the kids from our street. The game would stretch for two square miles. We’d run behind the houses through what we called gulleyways, alleys that ran behind the gardens. We’d hide in people’s bushes, often hopping between gardens and jumping over fences, interrupting blokes doing their gardening or family barbecues. And this was the 1970s, when there were loads of derelict houses, before Tony Blair came along and they were bought up. We’d break in all the time before being chased out. They made for perfect hiding places.

I was the youngest of four kids; my parents had long given up keeping track of me. They treated us like cats – banging a pan when it was time to come back.

The caretaker at my kids’ school was also in the job back then, 35 long years ago. He still constantly likes to remind my husband that he knew me when I was hiding on the school roof.

Russell Howard, comedian

Sky Up Next 2020 - Red Carpet ArrivalsLONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 12: Russell Howard attends the Sky Up Next 2020 at Tate Modern on February 12, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)
Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

I’m not sure which sport our kitchen-floor creation resembled most. It was a mishmash of everything, really, with a sprinkling of sibling-on-sibling violence. It was like table tennis, but on the floor. There were two dog bowls at each end of the room – they were the goals. It was a two-player game and you took turns to knock a pingpong ball through the other person’s bowls to score a point. Whoever was defending would sit in their goal. There was a bonus point up for grabs if you hit the ball hard enough to leave a mark on the other person’s skin, with a whopping five points for what we called – to give its proper technical term – a “significant bollock shot”, known as an SBS to us seasoned players. An SBS was rare – few and far between – and they only really counted if your opponent let out a genuine yelp of pain on impact. Most of the time, therefore, the goal was ignored and we just tried as hard as we could to whack the ball at each other. Mum was locked into Emmerdale, like a child glued to Peppa Pig. However loud the screams, she never noticed.
Russell Howard’s standup special and documentary Lubricant is now on Netflix

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