Miles Kington: The Highland service station games

'He picked up a paper and said to the others: "By what name was Um Um previously known?"'
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The Independent Online

Earlier this week, my wife and I drove 500 miles in 10 hours, not as part of some race or endurance test but simply returning home from a family visit to Scotland and the Blairgowrie Highland Games. (How can a chap pay a family visit to a Highland Games? I'll tell you some other time.) But as we drove gaily down the M9, the M80, the M73, the M74, and the A1 (M) and the M1 and the (yawn ) Fosseway, and the weary miles of roadway unrolled unblinkingly in front of us, we collided again with the age-old problem: how do you keep a family amused when cooped up for 10 hours or 500 miles?

It was easier when I was married the first time round, because then we had two children, Tom and Sophie, and so we could divide into teams to play one of those spotting games which usually sound dreadful when you describe them but actually turn out to be quite good fun to play.

One game is, I believe, based on pub names. If you spot a pub with a name involving something that's got legs (The Rifleman, The Fox and Badger) one side gets points, and if the pub name is a strictly non-leg concept (The Wynnstay Arms, The Hop Pole, The Old Oak) the other side gets points. But we never played that game. For one thing, we could never remember if you got a point for each leg (eight for the Fox and Badger – 22 for the Eleven Jolly Cricketers!) and, for another thing, we were on motorways much of the time, and there are no pubs on motorways.

So a game had to be invented which made use of motorway furnishings, and it was bridge-spotting we came up with. When you saw a bridge coming over the horizon, you simply shouted "Bridge!" The first to shout it got a point. If you shouted and there was no bridge, you lost a point. Simple as that. I always came last. Sophie usually won.

Her addiction to the game almost cost her a driving licence, oddly enough. When she took her first driving test, the examiner asked her the meaning of various signs, including the drawing of the motorway bridge with a line through it which means "End of Motorway Ahead".

She said, "Oh, yes – that means 'No more bridges on the motorway'"

"It means what?" said the driving examiner.

Blushingly, Sophie came to her senses and explained that she had been thinking of the game we had played as a family. She said the examiner had smiled and looked briefly charmed. She passed first time.

But the best games I ever came across for whiling away journeys were learnt in the bosom of Instant Sunshine, the cabaret group of which I was a member for about 50 years. Some, like Ghost and Superghost, are well-known, but one game they had actually invented themselves. It involved doing a quiz and trying to work out not only the answer but the question as well.

"I'll show you how it works," said my friend Barlow the first time that they played it with me, going on a train somewhere. "You get a plain easy quiz from The Mirror or War Cry or somewhere, and then you disguise the question, like this."

He picked up a paper, found the quiz and said to the other two: "By what name was Um Um previously known ?"

"Marilyn Monroe?" said one.

"No, not Norma Jean," said Barlow.

"St Petersburg," said one of them.

"Spot on," said Barlow. He turned to me. "You see, if I had just said 'By what name was Leningrad formerly known?', it would have been too easy. But if you leave a blank in the question, it's more of a challenge. See?"

I thought I saw.

"Here's another. 'In what year was the Um Um Something?'"

Some instinct made me think of the Titanic, and I blurted out, "1912".

"Very good," said Barlow. "'In what year was the Titanic sunk?' You're getting the hang."

Unfortunately, I only have one child in my second marriage, a 13-year- old son, which wouldn't allow for two-a-side teams even if he liked bridge-spotting, which he doesn't, and he's not much for quizzes either, so instead of games coming back from Blairgowrie we spent the long hours listening to his tape of Kerry Shale reading Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen, and another of Adrian Dunbar reading Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer.

Q. Oh, and what were they like?

A. They were both wonderful, especially the Colfer.