Drowning by Numbers

Drowning by Numbers



Dawn Card-Castles

Smut's castle of fifty-two playing cards

In the game of Dawn Card-Castles, fifty-two playing cards are stacked up into a castle in a draught-free space: the player can determine the dreams of the next night if he awakens before the castle collapses. Those players who wish to dream of Romance build their castles with the seven of hearts.

The first game is a solo game played entirely in private. Smut has been persuaded to believe in the magic of the card-pack and its ability to predict and prophesy. Dawn is a magic time - it is the best time to believe in predictions and prophecies - though the desire to want to predict the dreams of the next night is curious - the unpredictability of dreams is their major attraction. Perhaps a child would not think so.


Flights of Fancy or Reverse Strip Jump

Smut making his run-up to the jumpSmut leaping from the barnPhotographs of Smut flying through the airSmut after landing

The game Flights of Fancy or Reverse Strip Jump is played from as high a jumping-point as a competitor will dare. After each successful jump, the competitor is allowed to put on an article of clothing. Thirteen jumps is normally more than enough to see a competitor fully dressed for the day.

A second solo game - but available as a spectator sport - if only for sheep and chickens. A game of "chicken", a game of "dare". A game to test courage. The stakes are high - failure means a day without clothes - a day of conspicuous nudity - a day of being forced to stay in bed.


Sheep and Tides

Sheep and Tides

Sheep are especially sensitive to the exact moment of the turn of the tide. In this game, nine tethered sheep react, pull on the stakes, jolt the chairs and rattle the tea-cups. Bets are taken on the combined sensitivity of any three line of sheep - read vertically, horizontally or diagonally. Since there are normally three tide-turns every twenty-four hours, it is normal practice to take the best of three results. Reliable clocks, calendars and time-tables are used to determine accuracy of the sheep's forecast. A referee should be appointed to determine fair play, distinguishing correct reactions from other interferences. On the account of their special relationship with sheep, shepherds are disqualified.

Apparently some sheep on the remoter islands of the Hebrides have taken to eating seaweed - no doubt excited by the salt and the iron - or maybe, due to the paucity of the other grazing, they have no choice. However the paths down to the beaches are precipitous, the terrain tricky and the tides rise and fall swiftly so that the sheep keep a wary eye on the sea and have become perhaps extrasensitive to the turn of the tide. Madgett has read his sheep literature.


The Great Death Game

The Great Death Game

A great many things are dying very violently all the time. The best days for violent deaths are Tuesdays. They are yellow-paint days. Saturdays are second best - or worst. Saturdays are red-paint days. The Great Death Game is therefore a contest between red-paint days and yellow-paint days. So far yellow-paint days are winning by thirty-one corpses to twenty-nine. Whatever the colour, a violent death is always celebrated by a firework.

Smut's all-time running game, continually in play - on the roads, in the fields. A game that will never finish.


Deadman's Catch

Deadman's CatchDeadman's Catch

If a player in the game of Deadman's Catch drops a skittle, he is obliged to suffer a succession of handicaps. First to catch using one hand, then to catch kneeling on one knee, then on two knees, then with one eye closed. If a player finally drops a catch with both eyes closed, then he is out and must take his place in the winding-sheet.

Consider that there are seven people playing the game - a game which is essentially the children's game of handicap-catch. They play it on the lawn in the late afternoon sun. A coffin containing someone they all know passes behind them on its way to a hearse parked nearby. The widow of the man in the coffin is one of the game-players. In deference to the widow's feelings, all the characters unite in pretending that the coffin is not there. The seven players play anti-clockwise in a circle throwing three skittles - two read and one black. The coffin-carriers pass, making a diagonal line outside the circle. The whole plan of the action works succinctly as a flat geometric design and composition.

On the horizon of the landscape that stretches a mile or more away from the lawn across the marsh and sunlit water of the estuary - is a building - a tower - it creates the apex of an invisible triangle of which one side is the trajectory of the coffin carriers. The flat-plain triangle that works in the same plan as the cinema screen now can also be seen as a three-dimensional shape stretching back to the horizon - a triangle leant backwards over the landscape. Inside the triangle and the circle is a white square - the winding sheet - in which players ousted from the game are obliged to lie - making a square within a circle within a triangle.

The building on the horizon could be a church-tower, but it is in fact a water-tower - thus by implication - all the players - due to the elegant compositional device - are contained in the water-tower conspiracy which is soon to make itself felt in the narrative. The seven players are hung in a geometrical cage of the triangle, the circle and the square which is hung on the nail of the water-tower.

The game-players are three females and four men. Consider three as female and four as male numbers - consider the configuration they make on a dice - three make a diagonal and four make a square. The game is played such that the four men are losers. All the male protagonists in the film die - they meet unnatural deaths - largely due to their own inadequacies or incompetence and they lose in the game on the sunlit lawn in the order in which they will eventually succumb - Hardy, Bellamy, Smut, Madgett. The fifth male - Jake, Cissie One's husband is already dead - in the coffin on the way to the crematorium where soon all the others will follow.

When the men have lost and are lying in the sheet - the women - never dropping a catch - come closer and form a triangle - they become an inner triangle pressing closer around the square.

All this takes many clumsy and inexact word-descriptions to describe - but if we read paintings like we read books - it would not be such a hidden language for painting can effortlessly produce such elegant solutions.


Bees in the Trees

Bees in the Trees - a professional foul

The game of Bees in the Trees is a variant of musical chairs and is best played with funeral music and in the open air. The object of the game is to sit on a vacant chair when the music stops. If the chair sat on is occupied by bees, it is permissible to arrange a professional foul.

Smut's commentary is wry. It trails off and there is no way of knowing exactly what the game is all about. Perhaps Smut is inventing as he goes along.

Maybe a possible origin of the game's title could have been "Bees in Threes" and has since been corrupted by a process of Chinese Whispers. According to Sacha Vierny, up until 1917, Chinese Whispers in China were always called Japanese Whispers. Since 1917 they are referred to as Russian Whispers.


Hangman's Cricket

Hangman's CricketHangman's Cricket

The object of Hangman's Cricket is for each competitor to retain his allotted nine lives by scoring runs with the 'Cat', or bat, defending his lower leg from being struck by the ball. There is no limit to the number of players as long as each has an identity agreed by the two referees. Each identity has its own characteristic which must be obeyed.

The more important identities are the Emperor, the Widow, the Judge, the Hangman, the Ghost, the Red Queen, the Fat Lady, the Dunce, the Businessmen, the Adulterer, the Harlot, the Gravedigger, the Maiden, the Twins, the Chinaman, the Savage, the Cook, the General, the Prisoner, the Beggarman, the Thief and the Priest.

The Adulterer can only pair with the Harlot when each has an even number of lives above twelve, though the Dunce can cancel this, provided the Sailor is not batting.

The Mother-in-Law is only allowed five runs at a time after which she must defer to the Gravedigger who is allowed to add the number of lives or runs of each competitor he bowls out to his own. 

The Maiden is always obliged to be a spectator unless she is partnered by the Twins. The Businessman is never to be trusted. His score is determined by the number of runs scored by his predecessor at the wicket. He is at liberty to change the rules of the game only when he hits a catch. Although it goes against the grain, he naturally tries to get players to catch him out.

The Businessman can be saved if he submits to a Red Queen - but in doing so, he must pay a forfeit.

The full flavour of Hangman's Cricket is best appreciated after the game has been played for several hours. By then every player has a fair understanding of the many rules and knows which character he wants to play permanently.

Finally an outright loser is found and is obliged to present himself to the Hangman...who is always merciless.

Hangman's Cricket is a set-piece game played by a large community - a fine opportunity for Madgett and Smut to elaborate the children's game of French cricket into something rich and strange. According to Sacha Vierny, the French don't call it French cricket but Turkish Bowls or la Boule Turque, on account of the Turks being known to wear baggy trousers. The English call it French Cricket in disparagement that someone should use his own legs as a wicket for the object of the game is to hit the batsman's legs below the knees - the batsman being permitted to protect his legs with a bat and strike the ball in any direction - hitting it hard enough such that he can run to a new batting position as far as possible from where the ball is picked up. As in orthodox cricket, a player can be out with a catch, but unlike orthodox cricket, each man plays for himself. Any number of people can play. If these are the ground rules then Madgett and Smut together have all but hidden them in a complex system of regulations and imperatives whereby every player has his, or her, own characteristic game-play, running-order and scoring-tally.

The game has something of the Tarot-Pack and something of the Commedia dell'Arte and its derivative, Punch and Judy; and something of a mediaeval social hierarchy as in Brueghel's "Ship of Fools" or "Chaucer's Tales". All society is represented with its archetypes - the kings and fools, the professional men and the drudges, the criminals and the police, the cardinals and the apostates, the virtuous and the unvirtuous.

There is a chant in the English nursery for counting the fruit stones around the edge of the dessert-plate:

"Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy, richman, poorman, beggarman, thief..."

The runs of each player are governed by luck and by a player's own ability but, most importantly, are also circumscribed by the condition, favour and handicap of his place in society. In the end, when the runs of each player are added up, the outright loser - not the outright winner - is the player of interest. He, or she, has to present himself, or herself, to the hangman - the loose alias for Death.

"...at the very last light of twilight, stripped and hung from the gibbet beside the tideline, the loser's body is pecked by the gulls until the dismembered corpse falls into the sea and is eaten by the fishes." (From Smut's notes - a presage of his interest in the ignominious death by hanging).


Tug of War

Tug of WarTug of War

The game of Tug of War is played with as many people as there is room for along the rope. The sides need to be evenly matched with weight and strength to make it an interesting contest. At an agreed signal, each team tries to pull the other over an agreed mark or space previously decided on.

Seven a side is an ideal number for players for tug of war... for seven is the number of the days of the week, the colours of the rainbow, the seven seas, the primary planets, the seven dwarfs, the deadly sins, the ages of man and the wonders of the world.

The teams on either end of Tug of War rope are so evenly matched that the removal of a nine-stone weakling called Smut is enough to make a decisive victory for the opposite side. Thus Smut is the crucial factor in a game of his father's devising. By absorbing himself so unthinkingly to respond to the policeman's call - he betrays his father into the hands of the Colpitts women. Expecting the worst, he is doubly guilty and in strict accordance with his game-playing observance - he must pay the price and visit the hangman. He can only hang once but he is guilty of two heinous crimes - persuading the Skipping Girl to skip further out in the road so that ultimately she gets knocked down and letting go of the rope to bring about his father's downfall - two examples of selfishness.


The Hare and Hounds

The Hare (and Hounds)

A game now unacceptable in its original form for it involves scattering the landscape with paper. A "hare" - an accomplished runner - sets out to lay a trail of paper-streamers for a pack of runners to follow. The aim is to catch the hare before he reaches "home". This game was a regular school-comic favourite in the 1930s and 1940s where it almost became a narrative genre all of its own - variations on the story were for the most part based on cheating, secondary and false trails, short cuts, bribery, moving the "home" or base, exorbitant betting on rigged runners, assaults and falsified results.

In Drowning by Numbers, after conducting a race throughout the entire film, the hare and hounds meet together for the denouement at the "home" or base located at Madgett's jetty. They arrive to be prime witnesses to the aftermath of the Tug of War.


The Endgame

Smut prepares for The EndgameThe Endgame

The object of this game is to dare to fall with a noose around your neck from a place sufficiently off the ground such that a fall will hang you. 

The object of the game is to punish those who have caused great unhappiness by their selfish actions. This is the best game of all because the winner is also the loser and the judge's decision is always final.



Drowning by Numbers

Number Locations

Fear of Drowning


100 Stars