Low life

Jeremy Clarke: Escaping from Colditz with Professor Brian Cox

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

By New Year’s Day I’d had enough of festivities. Instead of getting out of bed, I turned over, put my face to the wall and refused all offers of food, drink and conversation. I kept this up throughout the day and into the evening, when I had to get up to go to the toilet. Asked for an explanation of such childish behaviour, I blamed the wind — a cold, violent Mistral that had been blowing since Christmas Eve.

The cypresses were still twirling and bowing the next day. Though not yet restored enough to dance the Gay Gordons, I felt a bit more sociable, and in the evening we went out. A neighbour, Professor Brian Cox, had invited us over to his house to play the board game Escape From Colditz. He and his family have developed a passion for the game and they thought I might be a potential convert. When we arrived, the board, depicting a bird’s-eye view of Colditz castle and environs, was unfolded on the dining-room table. Drinks were issued. Then we gathered around it and Professor Cox explained the rules of the game.

He once explained Einstein’s theory of relativity to me in 20 minutes over a risotto and I almost — I say almost— grasped it. I might not have been on the same page as him come the end, but I was on the right bus to the library. The rules of Escape From Colditz, however, are much more complex than Einstein’s theory of relativity and probably disprove it. Even physicist, astronomer and cosmologist Professor Brian Cox confessed that he hadn’t quite yet got his head around them. But he patiently outlined them to me as far as the limits of his current research and understanding allowed. Basically, there are three escape teams of ten prisoners (coloured wooden counters) and someone has to be the Nazis (black counters). This is always Mrs Cox because she likes to be the Nazis. Whether she likes to be the Nazis in spite of her staunchly progressive outlook in real life or because of it I didn’t ask. Either way, she threw herself into the role of a cold-hearted camp Kommandant, even as she passed the nibbles around.

The movements of both prisoners and guards are determined by the roll of two dice. If you throw a double you throw again. Before making a dash for it, prisoners must assemble a collection of items, such as rope, keys, wire cutters and false papers, hidden at various locations within the castle walls, and concoct a plan. In the outwitting of the guards, prisoner escape committees can co-operate. Also, players are encouraged to practise duplicity of every conceivable sort when dealing publicly or privately with the player who has chosen to be the Nazis. This last overriding rule of the game struck me as amazingly anarchic and perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Christian civilisation. As I mentally grappled with it, the needle on the dial showing my post-Christmas brain storage capacity leant hard over into the red, and perhaps there was a faint smell of burning, because the Cox family kindly said that, well, perhaps it would be best if we started playing the game. All being well, I would pick things up as we went along.

So away we went. During the first round of dice throws, the disciplined Nazi guards fanned out to cover the escape routes; Professor Cox’s senior British officer headed for the shower block; and mine followed him in. Pressed by Professor Cox for an explanation of my apparently futile and slavish move, I said that my man was celebrity-mad and wanted to serve him as his vassal.

The next time the dice were passed to me, I threw a whopping 27 with three consecutive doubles. His advances spurned, my Senior British Officer ran pell-mell through the fortress and flung himself at an outside wall, which he scaled with the aid of two ropes. In the full glare of a searchlight he then dashed across the moat, snipped his way through the perimeter fence with a pair of stolen wire cutters and made a successful dash for the undergrowth. He was home and dry and languidly filing off a hangnail before anyone else, either prisoner or guard, had moved a muscle.

The Coxes fell silent. Mrs Cox lifted a satirical Teutonic eyebrow. The timing and speed of my chap’s escape was unprecedented in the history of the board game of Escape From Colditz, apparently, whether those games were played here on planet Earth or in a parallel universe, of which there could be an infinite number. If the rules hadn’t stipulated TWO escapers to claim victory, the game would have been over right there and then.

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