Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Squeak, Piggy, Squeak

Parlour Games for Modern Families
Some cultures are better than others at playing. Here in Berlin, where I am staying this week, people seem pretty good at it. The footpaths are covered in snow and ice, and you can't get to the corner without sliding around. Perhaps this constant loss of dignity encourages play; perhaps it's another aspect of the personality trait which makes Berlin a party city; perhaps it's just the anarchy of Kreuzberg, our temporary suburb, coming out.

Whatever it is, it's infectious. Yesterday we went sledding at the local park. Around us, children and adults careened down the hill on sleds, toboggans, bits of cardboard and squares of linoleum. On the other side of the field, a large handmade sign stood reading 'It starts at 2.30'. There, people were setting up sound equipment, and strains of electronica drifted across. A mixed crowd of punks, students, kids and parents slowly gathered into two straggly lines, chatting, dancing and laughing. And at 2.30 sharp, the inter-suburb snowball fight - Kreuzberg v Neukoelln - began. By the time we left, well over a hundred people were throwing snow across the divide, and dozens of snowballs were flying through the air. It was hilarious.

I find it hard to imagine anything so anarchic in Australia, where public events are usually organised by local councils and sponsored by corporations, and we are cast into the role of spectator or consumer rather than participant. It's like we need someone's permission to have fun, to play in public spaces. Is this a remnant of the convict era, I wonder, or just a deep Protestantism which forbids anyone from enjoying themselves too much?

I am beginning to suspect that many adults don't even play in the privacy of their own homes. One of our daughters had a birthday party recently. The other children were absolutely flabbergasted (and delighted) when I played sardines with them. It's as if they had never seen a parent hiding under a bed before (and it was a good hiding spot, too - I pulled the blanket over from the unmade bed so that it formed a curtain and no-one found me for ages!).

I've always enjoyed a good game, whether it's a snowball fight, a spot of hide and seek, or something more sedate. So I was thrilled this Christmas when we were given a charming book, Parlour Games for Modern Families. It features games old and new; the sort of games that filled many a rainy day on my holidays (hangman, gin rummy, beetle, categories, dictionary, charades, yahtzee, eat poop you cat) and many others. Interspersed with the games are discussions on subjects such as forfeits, the history of a game, or how to shuffle cards.

The games all require very little or no equipment; at most, blank paper and pencils, a pack of cards, or a few die. Most take no time to set up, and can be played in less than half an hour. The authors provide clear instructions, and also a good estimate of earliest age someone might be able to participate in each game.

Parlour games may not offer the thrill of a mass snowfight set to dance music. But they do reveal character, and invite a cheerful sort of derring-do and spontaneous behaviour that is most cathartic. And they are incredibly versatile. They can fill in a rainy afternoon or a long train ride; they can provide struture to an evening with friends; they can be played by children or adults separately or together.

I have many very happy memories, and family stories, which arose out of parlour games. My sister and I recall charades from twenty years ago that caused us to roll around on the floor holding our sides with laughter, which recounting even now still makes us smile. Thanks to this book, I'm slowly introducing my own children to such old favourites, and learning new ones. We've already had some very funny moments. Even reading out the rules of Squeak, Piggy, Squeak to various friends made me laugh until I cried.

> Myfanwy Jones and Spiri Tsintziras Parlour Games for Modern Families (Melbourne: Scribe, 2009).


  1. Dear Alison,

    I am one of the authors of Parlour Games for Modern Families. Thank you so much for your lovely comments on our book. Your response to the book captures everything we set out to do. And in Berlin no less!

    The snow fight sounds grand.

    It's been well over 40 degrees here in Melbourne in the last couple of days so nothing that evenly vaguely resembles snow can be found.

    Best wishes and keep playing, Spiri.

  2. Hi Spiri, Well, I'm a Melbournian in Berlin only temporarily. The book has been a lifesaver while travelling; we played Crambo on our broken-down ICE train yesterday, which kept my 3 1/2 year old and 6 year old amused for half an hour at least! plus the eavesdropping Germans... It's a winner! They both also love the oddly hilarious Pig. Thanks for the book. Alison.

  3. Alison, glad the book can help with the odd half hour of fun! We have had many an hour of fun and (in)sanity with it!

    Today it is 15 degrees and raining in Melbourne - bet you don't miss the erratic weather!

    Cheers, Spiri.