I have already mentioned the church choir that I sing with in a previous, apple-related post (see Eve’s Pudding), and the choir has been on my mind recently as we progress through advent. Our carol service is a week tomorrow and it is loaded with gorgeous music. However, it is a non-musical matter that I wish to draw your attention to today: namely, owls.
The choir has an owl. He is a furry stuffed toy about four inches high. His name is Katisha, but we usually refer to him simply as ‘The Owl’ in tones of dread. At the moment he is making his diabolical way through the British postal system after being accidentally left at home by our secretary, but usually he lives in the vestry cupboard with the New English Hymnal. Last year there was a spate of under-sized disembodied cardboard hands appearing in the hymnbooks like sinister bookmarks, and it was suggested that the Sunday School Fish Club had been drawing around their hands for some theologically sound purpose, and that these had accidentally made their way into the vestry. This is clearly a false trail. The Owl is left alone with the hymnbooks for many hours each week, and it is only a matter of time before tiny pornographic drawings start appearing in the margins of hymns he doesn’t approve of (e.g. ‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’). Sometimes he is good-naturedly turned around or moved to a different shelf by a passing church warden, and it is a wonder to all who have encountered him that their fingers do not blacken and whither. I will expand on how The Owl came to be among us in another post: it is a dark and disturbing tale, entirely suited to the short days of winter. For now, he remains an uneasy half-secret, understood and feared only by the choristers. Members of the congregation who don’t know any better have referred to him as our mascot, but here again I return to my familiar theme of the misappropriation of words. He is, emphatically, not a mascot.
We are a church choir. Our primary purpose is to serve the congregation and therefore, were we to have a mascot, I would like to think we could do better than a toy that is quite clearly possessed. The Owl performs none of the functions of an actual mascot and is actively removed from buildings where we are about to sing (hence living in the vestry rather than the main body of the church. The vestry is always noticeably colder than the rest of the building, which can only be another sign of his evil influence). In fact, the only useful purpose he can possibly serve is as the only playing piece in a game of Owl Chess.
Owl Chess is a variation on the already popular game of Surprise Chess, but played with one piece only (i.e. an owl). Play is conducted as follows:
- Choose your owl. Any size, weight or material is allowed provided your chosen piece looks outraged at all times.
- Assign someone to referee.
- Play begins with the referee placing the owl in a common area.
- Each player makes their move in turn whenever they think of somewhere spiffy to play the owl. There is no time limit for each move and play can extend over several decades if necessary. There are no restrictions whatever on where the owl can be played. Artificial aids such as tape, glue, paperclips and drawing pins are all legitimate provided that the owl is not damaged. The move is over when the referee has observed the owl, scored the move accordingly, announced the score to all players and recorded the score in the Owl Chess Book; the owl is then back in open play.
A move is declared void if:
- Another player witnesses the owl being claimed in preparation for making the next move. Players *must* collect the owl and play it without being observed (i.e. creeping about in the dead of night, owl in hand).
- The owl shows visible signs of damage e.g. patchy feathers, loss of wings or feet etc.;
- The referee does not actually see the owl once it has been played. You can’t get away with ‘I taped it to the weathervane on Truro Cathedral. Everyone saw it but you’ or similar;
- The owl falls (or is removed) from the place you have played him to *before* the next player has had an opportunity to retrieve it. For example, strapping the owl to the rail of the Lusitania would have been an excellent move (provided that the referee observed and scored the move before both owl and ship had been consigned to a watery grave). However, having awarded several thousand points (minus the Lost Owl penalty of 100 points), the referee would then be obliged to declare the game over as the owl would be irretrievable. Losing the owl always incurs a penalty of 100 points; the player is also required to replace the owl and apologise (in writing) to both referee and lost owl. These letters should be taped into the Owl Chess Book for future reference.
The referee assigns points on the following basis:
- How many human observers saw the owl? People score one point per person (no need to be too anal about this in a large gathering unless the scores have become unexpectedly close).
- On a scale from one to ten, how surprised were the human observers? Determine the likely average level of surprise for each observer based on facial expression, any and all exclamations, and any other means the referee deems relevant. Multiply this by the number of people and record in the Owl Chess Book.
- How many animal observers saw the owl? Only animals intelligent enough to register surprise count, and have a multiplier of two per creature (i.e. twice that of an actual person because it is difficult to get animals to look at something small and fluffy that they can’t chase, hump or eat). Animals too stupid to register surprise (e.g. gerbils, ducks) do not score at all.
- On a scale from one to ten, how surprised were the animal observers? The referee should begin by determining the number of animal observers; narrowing the field to include only animals intelligent enough to register surprise; determining the average level of surprise for each species; and finally multiplying up accordingly. All animals are regarded as equally surprise-able, with the obvious exception of i. cats, who have seen it all before; and ii. owls (see point 7). Please note that domestic pets cannot score more than five for surprise unless they spontaneously soil themselves (except guide dogs, who are trained not to do such things in public).
- How much effort was required to draw attention to the owl? It is perfectly acceptable for players to cry aloud ‘Good heavens! Is that an owl tucked into the Queen’s hat?’ or similar, but signs, loudhailers etc. are Frowned Upon and penalties may be assigned at the referee’s discretion.
- Bonus points can be awarded for originality (e.g. owl disguised as potato); time and effort (owl dressed in historically accurate Regency costume); and personal risk incurred in playing each move (owl attached to blade of helicopter).
- An outright win (or ‘Owl in One’) can be achieved by a real and actual owl observing a move and registering a surprise score of more than five. This is worth a million points and therefore constitutes the end of the game and/or time.
The game ends when you either lose the owl altogether (e.g. owl strapped to dolphin); a player reaches a pre-determined points total (usually set at one million); an Owl In One is scored; or when you get tired of it. But you never will.
 He is named after a character from The Mikado, who is urged to be quiet by the chorus during the finale to Act I, as follows: ‘We’ll hear no more/Ill-omened owl’.
 The referee should be prepared to explain his/her maths. Players may dispute the score and if necessary accost observers and ask them to comment definitively on their level of surprise.
 The only exception is if you are playing in teams, in which case members of one’s own team may act as look-outs.
 Referees may refer to the Guidance on Which Animals Are Considered Intelligent Enough To Register Surprise And How To Tell (at the back of the Owl Chess Book) if in any doubt.
 A real and actual owl observing a move which it does not find it very surprising (i.e. a surprise score of less than five) can still score highly as owls are worth a whopping one hundred points per bird. However, a skilled player will most likely scorn an insufficiently surprised owl and withdraw from the game in disgust, as he will have blown his chance at an Owl In One, the fule.