STEVE CANAVAN: Game for a laugh until my kipper gets split by a knife

We had a games night at my mum’s over the Christmas period. About 20 members of the Canavan family congregated, though before any games could begin we had to eat.

I use the words ‘had to’ because not eating isn’t an option when visiting my mother. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing but anyone who sets foot on her property must have something to eat. It’s a personal affront to her if you don’t.

For instance, I can say with some certainty that if she returned home to find a burglar ransacking her jewellery box, she’d make him a ham sandwich before alerting the police.

The minimum offer to a visitor is biscuits. Sometimes she’ll offer something more substantial – cheese and crackers, a slice of carrot cake, a small portion of yesterday’s leftover coq au vin – but you have to consume something.

A friend of mine still fondly recalls the time he drove away from our house with my mother chasing his vehicle down the street brandishing two pieces of salmon because she was concerned he’d not yet had his tea and had a long drive ahead of him.

But back to the games evening, for which my mother cooked approximately 14 casseroles and 25 desserts – we were still eating the leftovers six days on – and then, with indigestion and stomach cramps in abundance, we were allowed to start the entertainment.

I wasn’t really looking forward to the night to be honest. I find family occasions a bit trying. I mean, it’s difficult to make conversation with a second cousin from Doncaster you last saw at Aunt Eileen’s funeral in the summer of 2005.

But it turned out to be quite an enjoyable get-together, the highlight of which came when we played a game called Saints and Sinners. My mother remembers it as a child in the '50s but quite how far back it goes, or who came up with it, is a mystery.

I tried Googling but the only results were a bingo hall in Cleckheaton and a link to a slightly dodgy lingerie site. I clicked on the link as a matter of research, or that’s what I told Mrs Canavan when she unexpectedly returned home from the shops and found me staring at a buxom blonde-haired woman dressed in a rather revealing lacy number.

Everyone playing sits in a big circle and four people are chosen as the saints – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – while the rest get a number, so in the case of our gathering we had one to 14.

Matthew is the top man and starts each round by shouting his name followed by one of his fellow saints, or a number. Whoever he chooses has to respond. So a round might go – Matthew-Mark, Mark-7, 7-Luke, Luke-12, 12-3 – and so on.

Anyone who hesitates or stutters or generally makes a pig’s ear of it is relegated to the bottom and everybody shuffles up a place. The aim is to become Matthew and it is completely ridiculous, yet strangely enjoyable – especially if you’ve consumed upwards of seven pints of strong bitter.

After we’d finished playing, some of the older members gathered told us about other games they used to play as kids. One was Split the Kipper, a pastime for children involving – and you are reading this correctly – knives.

Players stood facing each other a metre or so apart and the person holding the knife hurls the weapon towards his opponent’s feet. The knife had to stick into the ground blade first and be within 30cm of the foot. Players took it in turns, widening their stance, until one of them fell over, gave up or ended up in the back of an ambulance with blood cascading from their ankle.

Alternatively you could split the kipper, which meant aiming the knife between your opponent’s feet. A successful throw meant you could close your legs back to the starting position. Bonkers.

Another game mentioned was Stuck in the Toilet, which was essentially a kind of weird pre-war tig. After being tagged, a player had to adopt a toilet position by crouching down with knees fully bent and one arm held straight out to the side to represent the flush handle. Other players could release the player by approaching and pressing down on the 'lever' and ‘flushing the toilet’. Any player who ‘went to the toilet’ three times had to be the tagger. Even more bonkers.

All this shows that when older folk get misty-eyed and say about how ‘things aren’t as good as they were in my day’, we now know they are lying.