Most summers when we were kids our parents took my sister and me on holiday to France. I remember being struck by the way young and old would gather in village squares of an evening to talk, drink and play boules. A thought lodged in my head: why didn’t we do that, too?
Britain lacks a culture of playing these sorts of public games. In Holland, strangers play chess in coffee houses. The same happens in public squares in the great American cities, while parks in Geneva are dotted with giant chess sets. Pétanque is part of the social fabric of France and Spain, while on any evening in Greece or Turkey men sit out on pavements, hunched over games of backgammon or dominoes. Not so in Britain.
Personally, I find the case of chess most galling. My dad taught me to play, and I came to love the game. But it wasn’t something anyone played at my school, and the idea of joining a club or league – bringing to mind images of awkward men scribbling down notation on obscure openings – never sounded much fun. So instead I scrounge the odd game here and there, occasionally persuading a friend to take out the pieces. Even then, if you pull out a chess board in a British pub, the other drinkers look at you askance, as if to say: “Oh, so you play chess?”
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