I was rummaging around in the loft a couple of days ago, picking my way among last year's Christmas decorations and some kind of construction with pulleys that bore the hallmark of a long neglected science project when I stumbled across the characteristic blue box of Trivial Pursuit. Bearing in mind that I had last played this game before I was married, I was amazed that it had been retained through various bedsitter, flat and house moves. I was even more amazed that it appeared to be intact -- the individual carousels and their slices of cake as we used to think of them were still present. I think we bought it around 1986. Certainly it was more than a quarter of a century ago.
And, if good sense had prevailed, that should have been that. Rather like Howard Carter's expedition to the Valley of the Kings, I should have kept my discovery to myself, reburied it under the newspapers of that year and let it lie. Instead, I thought it would be interesting for the children to see this piece of board game history and brought it down from the loft for their inspection. This simple act, like Carter's excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamen, somehow unleashed The Curse of the Board Game.
I should probably explain.
We, that is the Stamford family, do not have a great record with board games. Whereas for many other -- and I shall call them normal -- families, a game of cards, Ludo, Buckaroo or Monopoly provides an opportunity for some family bonding and genteel banter, none of this applies in the Stamford household. Where normal families play together like the Waltons, we are closer to the Borgias. Even my mother, normally the most gentle of all souls, became a she-devil when thwarted at her favourite boardgames. I learned very early on that the price of beating her at Scrabble generally resulted in a withdrawal of all catering services in the household for the rest of the day. It was not unknown for my mother to upend the board or simply sweep the letters onto the floor when facing a heavy defeat. She was, by any standards, a sore loser.
This ferocious competitive streak is clearly carried down the female line. My sister Venetia was much the same with card games. Blessed with glacially cool judgement and a penchant for the theatrical, she was a fearsome opponent and played canasta with the kind of ferocity one might associate with the linebacker corps of the New York Giants. "Relentless" is not normally the kind of adjective associated with parlour card games but somehow strangely appropriate in my sister's case -- watching her put my aunt Kath out of her misery was like witnessing Arctic trawlermen clubbing baby harp seals.
All Stamfords are competitive, I'm sorry to say. But here, as in so many areas of endeavour, the female of the species is more deadly than the male. In my experience, there is nothing more likely to disrupt the fragile spirit of Christmas goodwill than a family board game. Monopoly brings out the worst in every member of my family. Each has their own inflexible opinion of how the game should be played, the best strategy, the value of custodial sentences when the board is a minefield of hotels, and the constant intransigence over making deals. In our house however there is only one certainty -- Alice wins. Consistently. Somehow she has a knack of quietly accumulating the kind of war chest that would shame a Third World dictator. Inevitably, we don't play monopoly much these days.
It was only a few minutes after I had put the Trivial Pursuit board on the dining table before the family investigated. Rather like hyenas circling a fresh kill, they examined the board, questions and 'cheeses'. I suggested a game. Once we had weathered the usual blood feud over choice of colours, which in itself should have been a clear warning sign, we tentatively got underway. Gradually the rules came back to me, as did many of the questions and answers.
It soon became clear that I had something of an unfair advantage. Although history doesn't change -- that's why it's history -- questions on entertainment tend to be ephemeral. Not surprisingly, none of the children knew who had a cat named Bobby in Coronation Street (Minnie Caldwell), the year in which Diana Dors died (1984), nor which 1957 film starred Elvis Presley (Jailhouse Rock). Some of the geography questions, especially those pertaining to African countries also no longer apply. The same goes for science and nature. Pluto is no longer the outermost planet. Nor indeed a planet at all. And it is a fairly pitiful indictment of 1980s culture that "how many pieces of Kentucky fried chicken are in a bucket?" should be considered a legitimate question in the sports and leisure section. Still, the other sections were at least impervious to time's arrow. The war that ended with the signing of the 1856 Treaty of Paris is, readers will be reassured to read, still the Crimean War. Similarly, it is Shrove Tuesday that falls 39 days before Good Friday. No change there.
Of course all boardgames lend themselves to teasing and banter. Especially in our house. But it takes a special sort of game to fuel sledging on a scale worthy of the Australian slip cordon, the kind of mental disintegration advocated by Steve Waugh and his teammates. And goodness knows there was plenty of material to work with. I honestly don't know what they teach them in schools these days. There seems to be no general knowledge. If it's not part of the national curriculum, nobody pays attention to it.
So to set the record straight for those of my brood who got the answers wrong, the manufacturer of the Eclat sports car was Lotus. Lotus is a type of flower not a large swarming insect. That's a locust, Alice. Secondly, the lobster still only has ten legs. Yes Alex, the board game is 20 years old but no, evolution does not operate that quickly. The force that bears the motto "Per Ardua Ad Astra" is not gravity, Catherine. The Royal Air Force was the answer they were looking for.
While we're on the subject, Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler, not one of the three tenors. Sydney's famous surfing beach is Bondi (not Bondage) and the US state famous for orange juice is Florida, not Alaska. Same number of syllables but no other connection.
Eventually, despite diversions, we had a winner. And I was shocked to see that even Catherine, the least competitive of my brood, was not above sending her boyfriend a video clip of her winning the game, accompanied by what I can only describe as a victory dance not dissimilar to the Haka.
The Trivial Pursuit is back in the loft. I'm guessing it will be another 20 years...