I arrived home from a nose-to-tail day at work, mind packed with matters educational, to the prospect of a hot bowl of chicken stew and crusty brown bread with my family.
To unwind, the solution is simple: listen to the children.
By the time I sat down, the conversation had got off to its customary flying start and Felix was in full swing. “Mum, you’ve got to join in: we’re playing “My Country.”
The rules of the game were simple: each of us had a country. And by one-upmanship, each of us had to outdo the last.
Maddie started. “My country,” she declared, “is a beautiful warm humid country full of rain forests.”
I rejoined: “My country,” I said, warming to my subject, “is a place where it is always sunny, a land of desert and the ruins of ancient civilisations.”
Felix’s contribution was not our dreamy ethos-building but something hard-nosed and deeply ambitious. “My country,” he said, “is a very rich country, where tourists come to have holidays and they have factories and cities.”
The second round was equally as enlightening. Maddie’s country has a special mineral underground layer encrusted with jewels. Mine is an erudite country which attracts archaeologists and academia to talk to the natives and ride camels across night sands to ruins. Felix’s country has developed an elite police force which can tell other countries what to do, along with top-secret weapons.
Things were getting fanciful. Round three, and Maddie’s country was full of specialists in espionage. I delivered what, as far as I was concerned, was a killer blow: “In my country, nobody has to work and they play all the time.”
My son did not pause. “Well my country is so rich it financed your country’s national debt, which is huge because nobody in your country ever works!” he finished with a flourish.
I called time and went to start the bath running while they ate their pudding. Mothers never lose: they just call time.
This empire building is moreish.
The nineties was our play decade, my husband Phil and I, and we played as hard as we work now to bring up a family. We were amongst the first to have an Apple Mac in our office at home, and pretty soon Phil was bringing home early strategy games to play on it.
Amongst them was the opportunity to play Cyber God.
Sid Meier, born in the fifties and cutting his teeth on flight simulations in the eighties, hit his stride in the nineties with a game called Civilisation.
Introduced in 1991, Phil spent the mid nineties using the game to start in the Stone Age, building a country and developing it to such proportions that it eventually discovered nuclear power and space travel.
It was everything Phil loved: its pace was leisurely and there were plenty of battles. It presented and modelled many of the challenges that delight historians – invasions of scantily defended borders by aggressive tribes, riches born of the discovery of mineral deposits, great leaders who rise and fall.
And a civilisation could be built from scratch and developed right up to this technological age in one day, a span of some 4,000 years.
Needless to say, it was rather too absorbing. One night we left a good friend playing it in our office as we went to bed. And as we rose to meet the next day eight hours later, there he was in the office with slightly bloodshot eyes, putting the finishing touches to His Country.
What more seductive way of playing My Country is there, than building it with words in a book?
Tolkien played My Country. His land might as well be real, now, because in the minds of millions, Middle Earth is a 3D alternative reality. Elvish exists, a whole language built solely for a relatively modern mythical land created when the shadow of war hung over its writer’s realm. People speak it.
How did Tolkien create it so vividly? It is as if he could ride and walk in his own imagination and feel the wind of Middle Earth on his face. Millions are seduced and continue to be seduced by a world that has no substance.
Begin to look and you’ll see them everywhere: men like my son and husband who love to play My Country. Lewis’s Narnia, Pratchett’s Discworld. Philip Pullman, not content with one world, created complex parallel universes.
Empire building. You’ll see it in those around you, favourite writers and the cyberworld; and if you begin to dabble, you may even find yourself seduced by the simple game entitled “My Country”.
This rather wonderful version of Tolkien’s map came from Chris Taylor here