Saturday, 22 October 2011

The Mystery Is Solved

How To Say 'I Love You' In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet opens with a description of a card game. I had forgotten (if I ever knew) its name - and no one, not even the V&A Museum of Childhood, could enlighten me. This was discouraging, but I decided to write about the game regardless of my ignorance - after all, the whole book is about verbal loss.

There is a card game which differs from pelmanism in that every card is different and from solitaire in that there can never be a conclusion to it. As a child I was given a shabby nineteenth-century deck; down the generations the packaging had been lost and the cards were held together with a rubber band of comparable antiquity. Lacking its original case and any rulebook, to this day I have been unable to discover its name, or whether I played it as the maker intended.

The fifty cards, slim and furred with age, depicted not hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds but whimsical landscapes. One showed a magnificent medieval fortress; another, boats on a lake bordered by palm trees; and still others, sublime mountain ranges. Yet whatever the scenery, there was always a road on the horizon, along which a tiny carriage was driving.

These views were not self-contained vignettes. I could join each card to any other, because, however unpredictable the inclines and settlements at the centre, the road reached the edges at the same point on every one. Aligning these extravagant geographies, I made a cardboard continent. The passengers in the little carriage can scarcely have felt a jolt as they crossed from Alpine pass to desert dune; however far they travelled, they never had to fear dropping over a precipice or reaching a closed border, for there was always a card in my hand, ready to lay down to prevent their vehicle rolling into annihilation.

And, sure enough, there the carriage was, pictured on the next card.

To my delight, the game has now been identified. One of the guests at my reading at Florisity in New York last week had also played it as a child, and her subsequent research revealed it to be commonly known as a myriorama. This link offers an opportunity to play a reduced version of the game; both it, and the image above, are courtesy of the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture at Exeter University.

You can buy a modern reproduction of the game for only £3.25 (+p&p) from Or you could put the money towards a copy of How To Say 'I Love You' In Greenlandic.

1 comment:

Mário said...

What a fascinating game, I suppose it's from Victorian times, right?

There is some misterious "infinity" capacity, like in Borges' books, a never ending game...

In fact, the number of possible combinations with 18 cards is easy to calculate: 18! = 6402373706.... (16 figures !). "Close" to infinite. It could be almost a... language!