I have just killed a good friend of mine. It was immensely satisfying. I got him after a long and very irritating conversation we’d had about man-made global warming (my friend, James Heneage, is a believer, whereas I, as you know, am not) but that wasn’t my main motive. Rather, I did it because those were my orders. I had to kill James, in a red Land Rover, with a bar of soap.
If it sounds a bit like a game of Cluedo, that’s more or less what it was. Human Cluedo. Perhaps you’ve played it too, sometime over the summer. You need a fairly large house party of people who are going to be in the same place for several days, and at the beginning of their stay everyone has to write down their name, a murder weapon and a murder location. These are all then put into three hats and divided among the guests (who swap, obviously, if they end up picking their own name). Over the next few days, you have to bump off your victim before you are killed yourself. Once you’ve killed someone you inherit their murder mission.
But how to kill Heneage? Clearly he deserved to die (God how annoying it is when, over the course of 40 minutes, you have treated a man to a beautifully modulated, exquisitely argued, amply supported thesis as to why anthropogenic global warming is bunk, only to have him reply ‘I’ve never heard such piffle in all my life’), but he had to do so in a very specific way. It’s not easy to get a man out of a hot bath, into a red Land Rover that isn’t his, and then to pick up the bar of soap which will kill him the second he touches it. It requires a great deal of devious planning.
The reason it requires deviousness is, as you can imagine, for the duration of a game of Human Cluedo everyone becomes deeply suspicious of everyone else. Your hostess might announce: ‘Can everyone please take their wellies into the bothy so the porch doesn’t look a mess for our dinner guests.’ Or an eight-year-old boy might come up to you sweetly with a stuffed toy and say: ‘Please can you help me mend my fwog.’ And suddenly, you find yourself dead — and cursing your gullibility.
To complicate matters further, the more sophisticated players start operating double or treble bluffs. Girl, for example, did something of such Machiavellian sophistication for an eight-year-old that I am afeared she may not be my progeny after all but the spawn of Satan. Her task was to kill 13-year-old Xan with an apple by the gates to an outbuilding called the Steading. Quite impossible I should have said, but she managed it.
What she did, with the terrifyingly evil cunning of the female species, was to insinuate herself into the company of Xan and his best friend Freddie just as they were walking through the Steading gate. ‘Would you like to bite this apple Freddie?’ she asked, innocently. ‘What? Do you think I’m stupid? No way! You’re trying to kill me!’ said Freddie. ‘Ha! I’ll have it!’ said Xan, in exultant mockery of this little girl’s pathetic effort. One bite and he was dead. God, when some idiot takes me quietly aside a few years hence and asks for the minx’s hand I shan’t half give him a stern talking-to: ‘Do you have any idea what you’re taking on?’
Heneage’s death needed careful preparation. For example, whenever we go out on large group expeditions and an extra driver is needed for one of the ‘Landies’, I always volunteer because driving Land Rovers over rough terrain is the best. Clearly then, it would be deeply suspicious of me suddenly say to Heneage: ‘Hey, why don’t you drive the Red Landie today, for a change?’ I’d give away my ploy immediately, and once your ploy has been rumbled by your victim, that’s it, you’re stuffed because from thenceforth their guard will always be up.
This is what I like about this game: it brings out in you degrees of animal cunning, psychological trickery and ruthlessness you never knew you possessed. First I had my wife call the house on her mobile (you’re allowed accomplices, that’s part of the fun), pretending to be our host Tania (who had gone off to Balmoral for an evening’s compulsory reeling). Tania, radiantly beautiful, witty, charming and thoroughly delightful though she is, also has something of the Obergruppenführer about her. Never would you dream of dis-obeying her direct orders.
My invented story went like this: the estate office needed the red Landie to be serviced first thing the next day. So would Heneage mind dropping it off, while I accompanied him in my car and gave him a lift back? ‘Bad news, James!’ I called up to Heneage while he was in his bath and therefore all warm and vulnerable. ‘We’ve been given an urgent mission by the boss.’
As you’d expect, James jumped to it. I handed him the keys of the Red Landie while I strode purposefully towards my car. ‘This isn’t some kind of trick is it?’ he said. ‘I feel as if I’m about to be killed.’ Funny — I’ve noticed quite often during Human Cluedo that victims say this just as they’re about to die, but their suspicions are never quite enough to save them. In this case my mistake had been to say to my kids: ‘Hey, why don’t you go off with James for a ride?’ (I needed witnesses to make sure that he really had picked up the large bar of soap I’d left sitting on the driver’s seat.)
I started my engine. James started his. Boy came rushing exultantly from the Red Landie passenger seat. ‘Dad, Dad, he did it! He’s dead.’
Next victim should have been easier. John Clanwilliam in the dining room with a poker. Problem was the spry nearly-90-year-old seemed to have a sixth sense for skulduggery. After two unsuccessful attempts (one in which I pretended to challenge him to a sword fight, the second in which I deputed Boy to say: ‘John, can I show you a magic trick with this poker?) I devised an elaborate stunt in which a visiting grandee, the magnificent Flora Saltoun, would act as my hitwoman.
‘So what exactly does happen at the opening of the House of Lords?’ I would innocently ask. And Flora would casually pick up the poker, saying ‘I’ll show you. First we need someone to hold the Mace. Ah, you’ll do John…’. All was going swimmingly until our host dragged them at the key moment to the dining table, and it proved impossible to re-engineer the situation. I got him in the end after he’d had a few whiskies and was just wandering off to bed. ‘Here John, let me take your glass for you,’ I said, luring him down the corridor with his nightcap. Awaiting in the dining room was his daughter — our hostess — with a cock-and-bull story about how the wretched children had left the poker on the floor and would you mind picking it up, Daddy? Hah! The Earl was dead!
Earlier, when I mentioned to my wife about my tedious climate-change argument with Heneage, she said: ‘But you love that sort of thing!’ ‘What?’ I replied. ‘Are you serious?’ I think it’s perhaps the biggest misconception people have about me, that I hold the opinions I do because I’m an ostentatiously contrarian exhibitionist who likes nothing better than a humdinger of a row. Not so. My ideology is born of passion and conviction, but rather than have to defend it all the time, I’d much rather everyone just agreed with me and let me get on with what I most enjoy in life — not arguing, but playing games.