Raising the steaks: Lamb chops rather than cash are luring hungry bingo players to a church hall in Exeter. Roberta Mock cases the joint

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The Independent Culture
It was a tough decision. Denying the get-rich-quick fantasies of Exeter's Top Rank Club and skimming past the obvious allure of St Boniface Church Hall's 'Turkey & Cash Bingo', I finally opted for the 'XMAS MEAT BINGO' at St James Church Hall. I wanted no frills bingo and this one sounded promisingly seasonal and jolly.

I was greeted at the door by Sue and Judith, the bingo organisers. They helpfully suggested that, as a novice, I should begin with two cards for each game. This cost pounds 1.90 for all 16 rounds and included five purple draw tickets.

There were 19 prizes on offer: three chickens, six packs of two pork chops, four packs of two lamb chops, a half leg of lamb, two shoulder porks, two gammon joints, and a fillet of pork. They were displayed on a low table near the entrance, each tidily wrapped in plastic and bearing a little sticker which read 'WH Hicks Butcher' in orange ink. There were 34 of us in the hall. My chances of going home that evening with a slab of meat were looking good.

I sat in the middle of a long trestle table across from Betty, Pat, and Pat's daughter June. Each had three cards for each round, bulldog clipped to personalised boards.

Betty and Pat have been playing bingo since retiring about sixteen years ago. They spend pounds 5 a week, mainly at the Top Rank Club. 'I can't afford to go more than once a week. Some people do,' said Betty. 'Oh yes,' said Pat. 'You can get a good meal down there. Coffee, tea, fish and chips.' Betty shared a pounds 1,000 prize there many years ago. They attempted to explain the intricacies of the various national bingo network games which have names like Snowball, Americana, and Middle- of-the-Road.

I was confused. 'Don't worry, dear,' said Pat. 'This one is different.' 'Small and friendly,' said Betty. 'If I can do it, so can you.'

Judith the organiser mounted the stage and rang a little bell. 'If you can't hear dears, move up to the front. Off we go.' All eyes lowered, focusing through bifocals on the coloured cards before them. 'Both the ones. Eleven.'

It was five numbers into Judith's sing-song numerical recitation before I could circle a number on my card. We were attempting to accumulate all the numbers on one line of the card. I began to assume a trance-like state. 'Yeah,' called a woman at the next table.

Yeah? I thought you were supposed to yell 'Bingo]' when you won. Isn't that why the game is called 'Bingo'? Good thing I didn't win the first round. I would have made a fool of myself.

We now embarked on the journey towards a 'full house', accumulating all the numbers on a card. When the next 'Yes' rang out, almost orgasmically as opposed to the previous one of studied nonchalance, I had three numbers left to go. 'That's about average,' explained Betty.

'This card didn't take off at all until after the first line,' someone mumbled. 'She's very good at calling. Very clear,' said Pat. 'She works at Sainsbury's,' said Betty. 'She reminds me of Gordon who lives next to Beverly,' said June. The bell rang and silence descended. 'Off we go then,' enthused Judith launching into the next round.

On the third card, Betty finally emitted a 'Yes]' I had been watching with bated breath as she waited six numbers for a six. Unfortunately, someone else finished at the same time. They cut cards and Betty lost. She got a pack of biscuits and the other woman, who had already won a chicken and some pork chops, received the half leg of lamb. 'I'm not very good at cards,' Betty said cheerfully. I thought it was grossly unfair.

At the tea break (25 pence a cup) I asked the organisers the obvious question: Why meat? 'You don't need a gaming licence for meat,' explained Judith, 'You do with cash, and then the children can't come. Not that there are many here.'

'Besides,' said Sue, 'little old ladies like to come out and win their joints.' Young ones do, too. I went home empty-handed.

Meat bingo, St James Church Hall, Mount Pleasant Rd, Exeter, first Tue every month. Across the country (see local press)

(Photograph omitted)