Every Christmas I find I am living in the past. I blame my father. He was born in 1910 — before radio, before TV, before cinema had sound, so he and his siblings made their own entertainment at Christmas. He brought up his children to do the same, which is why my unfortunate offspring have a Christmas that’s essentially a century out of date. There are three elements at its heart: board games that end in rows, parlour games that end in tears, and party pieces performed around the Christmas tree.
I owe my very existence to my father’s love of board games. As a boy, his favourite was a game of military strategy called L’Attaque, invented in France in 1908. In 1936, the American property trading game Monopoly was launched in the UK, and my father, then a young lawyer working in London, was first in the queue at -Selfridges when it went on sale. He took the game back to his digs in Gower Street and asked his landlady if she knew anyone who might like to play it with him. That’s how he met my mother, a 22-year-old law student who was also living there. Within weeks of first passing Go, the pair of them eloped. A year later my eldest sister was born. Ten years after that, I came along. In 1972, I did my parents proud by becoming the official European -Monopoly Champion and taking part in the World Monopoly Championships in New York.
I did not win the world title, unfortunately. The final (broadcast to cinemas across the US) was played on the American board (which is set in Atlantic City), using US dollars. I got confused and was not allowed to use my usual lucky playing piece, the top hat. Forced to play with the car, I came third. Of course, it did not help that I failed to buy Illinois Avenue (Atlantic City’s equivalent to Trafalgar Square and the square most often landed on) when I got the chance, and became so muddled that I acquired all the utilities instead of all the railway stations. (The stations are cash cows: not so the utilities.)
When I used to play Monopoly with my own children, arguing about who should have what playing piece meant that the squabbling started before the game began. And once the game did begin, it never seemed to end. I longed for the moment when proceedings had to be halted because one child had burst into tears on being made bankrupt or another had managed to upset the entire board in frustration or boredom. How Monopoly became the world’s second-best-selling board game (just behind Scrabble; just ahead of Cluedo) I will never know.
At least parlour games tend to be briefer in duration, though I now realise that either sex or violence were the basis of those we played when I was a boy. My father’s favourite was Postman’s Knock, in which one player, blindfolded, stands in the centre of a group and is revolved until dizzy. The blindfold player then staggers to edge of the circle and kisses the first person they encounter. I imagine you would be arrested if you suggested playing the game these days.
His other favourite was ‘Are you there, Moriarty?’, a duelling game for two players, in which each is equipped with a rolled-up newspaper as a weapon, both are blindfolded and lie on their fronts on the floor, head to head, about three feet apart. The first player calls out: ‘Are you there, Moriarty?’ The -second -player must respond by saying ‘Yes’, at which point the first player attempts to wallop him with his newspaper. The second player then attempts to hit the first player. Whoever gets walloped first is the loser and makes way for a fresh contestant. The player with the most successful hits wins the day. When I was a child, my sisters succeeded in hitting me so frequently and so hard that there were proper tears as well as bruising.
In fact, the only one of the Brandreth Christmas traditions that I am happy to see passed on to the next generation is the one that involves a performance of some kind around the Christmas tree. When my father died he left me one of his favourite books, a Victorian bestseller that had been given to him by his father: Successful Recitations, The Royal Reciter and The Imperial Reciter in one volume, edited by A.H. Miles. Alfred Henry Miles (1848-1929) was responsible for scores of books on assorted themes, ranging from poetry (The Poets and the Poetry of the Century, in ten volumes) to advice for the lovesick and lovelorn (Wooing: Stories of the Course that Never Did Run Smooth). He wrote poetry himself, usually in a rumpety-tumpety patriotic vein:
“There’s a doughty little Island in the ocean, The dainty little darling of the free; That pulses with the patriots’ emotion, And the palpitating music of the sea.
He also took the view that the ‘easiest, and therefore often the most successful, recitations are those which recite themselves; that is recitations so charged with the picturesque and the dramatic elements that they command attention and excite interest in spite of poor elocution and even bad delivery’.
My father’s elocution and delivery were both ace and he had hours’ worth of material locked in his memory, from -Dickens’s account of the death of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist to ‘The Yarn of the “Nancy Bell”’, a humorous ballad by W.S. Gilbert. Because of my father’s example, I can give you any number of quite long verses by Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and Hilaire Belloc at the drop of a paper hat. Having recently been told by neuroscientists working in the Memory Laboratory at Cambridge University that learning poetry by heart helps keep your -synapses supple and can even delay the onset of dementia, I have published an anthology of my (and my father’s) favourite party pieces, Dancing by the Light of the Moon.
What’s more, I have told my seven grandchildren (aged four to 16) that I don’t need any material presents this Christmas. I have got enough pairs of socks to see me out. Instead I have asked each of them to learn a poem by heart so that after Christmas Day lunch, they can stand in front of the Christmas tree and perform it to the rest of the family. I have been promised bits of Shakespeare, Kipling, Dr Seuss, T.S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, A.A. Milne and Benjamin Zephaniah. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Gyles Brandreth's piece appears in The Spectator's Christmas issue, out now