Dominoes: contact sport for pensioners

On Location
  • @mrmarksteel
THERE CAN be no doubting the contribution West Indians have made to British life, but at the Pineapple Club in Penge, a centre for retired West Indians, you learn their most stunning lesson to white society - how to be cool at 70.

It starts with headwear. Old Jamaicans wear splendid Rasta hats, where white 70-year-olds wear cloth caps, especially while driving Mini Metros slowly on empty roads. Even if white pensioners tried the Caribbean hats, they couldn't carry it off. They'd don the wide leather cap, designed for accommodating cascades of dreadlocks and conveying tribal sexuality, and say: "I won't put it on until I'm outside or I won't feel the benefit.'

Throughout the day the tape blasts out reggae. It's the softer variety, Johnny Nash and Dandy Livingstone - but can you imagine the uproar if someone stuck that on in a pensioners' centre full of white people playing whist? The chorus of "turn that racket down" would be deafening, until someone leaped to the rescue with Andy Williams, or "James Last plays your favourite cereal advert jingles".

In the morning they even do exercises to reggae, which you can't imagine being appreciated by many white pensioners, unless there was a version that went "Lively up yourself - I didn't want to do it, I didn't want to do it". And old West Indian women can sit at a table doing nothing, surveying the room with authority and looking cool, with no apparent need to tell you either that time flies or that the cake's moist.

In short, you can't imagine a Jamaican pensioner saying: "I and I is 73, you know?"

The club is open two days a week, providing a chicken-and-rice dinner for pounds 1.80. Recently it has organised trips to Ireland, France and Scarborough. And information is conveyed to all members through leaflets, the noticeboard and Edna. Mid-afternoon, Edna makes a reticent tap on the microphone, meekly beginning her announcements. But as she gets into her stride, reeling off dates, times and meeting points regarding flu jabs, jumble sales and Christmas hampers, she gets ever more confident. By the end, she's dominating the hall, and anyone daring to talk at the same time receives the controlled glare you imagine a Cuban minister gets for snoring during a Castro speech.

The Pineapple Club serves two other vital purposes. The first is dominoes. To anyone who hasn't witnessed it, the physical enthusiasm of Caribbean dominoes must seem implausible, like a pitch invasion at a chess match. But West Indians have two methods of laying a domino: flicking it in disgust, or raising it high over their head and smashing it on to the table like those karate blokes who snap planks of wood. The better the domino, the heavier the wallop. So the already laid dominoes jump off the table, and by half-way through the game they're in a random heap which no outsider can make sense of. This is why white people don't play dominoes like this. They'd spoil it by going: "Before the next domino, let's straighten these out and hoover up the mess while we're at it."

The tables are covered in ripped-up cardboard boxes in recognition of this method, to prevent the daily bill from the Community Centre being fifty quid for the room, plus twenty grand for demolished furniture. Also, without the cardboard, there'd be so many wrist injuries that each team would need to operate a squad system to get through the day. Teams operate as pairs, and the skill is in working out whether your partner or your opponents are holding the crucial dominoes.

But most importantly, to those playing, dominoes is funny. Clyde, for example, laughed after almost every domino. And not just a cynical, suburban, hard-done-by "tut hyugh", but a gravelly, Barry White roar like the noise a car makes when you try to change gear without pressing the clutch. How inspiring that a domino can be that funny. What if someone had laid a different domino; would that be less funny? Would he think: "Now, four- three would have been funny, but six-three does nothing for me?"

The most important function of the club, though, is community. For two days a week, the hundred or so visitors eat, exercise, gossip and play dominoes in social surroundings. The benefits are so obvious that social services regularly refer people from their own books.

The Pineapple Club is warmly inviting to white people, as most members have had more positive than negative experiences of their white neighbours. But that doesn't mean the club is beyond racism. For theirs was the generation urged to leave their Caribbean homes and come to places like Penge, to alleviate Britain's labour shortage, with the promise of comfort and security as an incentive. Once full employment passed, successive governments lost interest in them and, as the generation ended their working lives, they found themselves enthusiastic, creative, active, cool and poor. Some of them have felt the direct hand of racism; abuse and discrimination, but they all know the more common type; their colour making them more likely to be in low-paid jobs and the worst housing.

Bromley Council grants the club a little over four thousand pounds per year, less than the cost of hiring the council-owned community hall for two days per week. So, as well as the organisational burden, Cynthia and the others hold jumble sales, despatch countless letters in hope of sponsorship, and worry about whether the project will be able to continue at all.

Only the cooks and drivers are paid - pounds 15 per day. The task of assembling a hundred people twice a week, organising trips, receiving and conveying information, getting everyone home, cleaning and feeding the disabled and placing cardboard on tables, falls to the exhaustive voluntary efforts of people like Cynthia, one of the founders.

Governments and local councils, far from being undermined by scroungers, scrounge from those like Cynthia, who works for no money. "It would be nice if I could claim back the pounds 10 a week I spend on petrol," she says. Although she's more concerned that: "We can't take any more disabled people, as there's not enough of us qualified."

Housing associations made vast fortunes when Bromley sold off its housing stock, and banks make millions from interest on council borrowing. So it was fitting that a club member called Rose spent the day seeking signatures for her petition to write off Third World debt. Her toughest challenge was at the domino tables, where they were engrossed in their game. Eventually they all signed, but Clyde added: "You must let them people know that I am one of them that wants my debts cleared." Then he roared a raucous, gear-crunching laugh.

Honduras - Penge - the same issue. The protest against councillors and bankers should be led by Clyde. Show him a double-six, and the noise would make them wet their pants.