Whatever happened to legs eleven?

No more Biros or two little ducks, and the computer does everything for you. All the fun's been squeezed out of bingo; Reviewing The Situation
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The Independent Culture
BINGO. MARVELLOUS 60-year-old women who shriek when someone says "knob". Like Martha the tea lady who, as I sat blushing with unconfidence on my first day at work, arrived with a trolleyful of cakes. "Hello love, you're new," she said. "What would you like? A bit of this or a bit of the other? I bet you wouldn't mind a bit of the other, hewaaagh ha ha ha ha ha hewaaaaagh waaaagh."

This was going to be brilliant, I thought; a night surrounded by wonderfully raucous Marthas, but this time I would be prepared for all the vulgarity. For surely bingo must be a social event.

Which is why my visit to the Crystal Palace bingo hall was hugely disappointing. Firstly, bingo's reality is thoroughly anti-social. Only two people sit at a table, and there is barely a moment that is not consumed by total concentration on those cards and numbers. So, if you asked someone how they were, the best answer you could expect would be "the specialist says it's gallstones, oh sod, was that four or 14?".

There are strict rules of etiquette. For example, after each game, everyone except the winner has to tut in unison, and mutter something like "48 and 63, they just wouldn't come up", as if there's been a terrible injustice which should be investigated by World in Action. And you cannot help thinking that if armed guards stormed the building and announced that there had been a coup and the whole place was under arrest, everyone would tut and say "innit marvellous?".

But there' is also camaraderie in the brief seconds between games, which includes being tremendously helpful to someone who, like myself, appears lost. "You need that brown card for this game, dear," Alice pointed out, sensing that I was new to the game. Despite having several cards of her own to check, she took great care to make sure that I didn't miss a number. She was one of many women who were there on their own, including one who managed to play and knit at the same time.

And with great irreverence in this splendid converted cinema, with its majestic theatrical curtains and young clean-shaven men in bow ties who read the numbers under an enormous sign saying "Thank you for not smoking", everybody smoked.

But above all, the experience of bingo is the sheer relentless monotony of hearing a bloke read out hundreds and hundreds of numbers. Imagine someone telling you that their job was to sit at a table with a card while someone called out numbers, and if any of these numbers matched a number on their card they had to cross it off. If a company in Sri Lanka made people do that, there would be stickers all over the Underground saying "Boycott Bingo Barbarians NOW".

This accounts for the excitement when you are the first in the room to complete a line. It's not the pounds 4.65 that gets you buzzing, it's shouting out "Yes" that gives you something different to do. It's the relief you'd feel during an eight-hour shift of checking meat pies on an assembly line, if one went past with a broken bottle sticking out of the top.

And what about these poor characters who have to shout these numbers out? They don't even have the excitement of illustrating them with a clickety- click or two little ducks any more because, the caller told me, "if we do that the punters don't think we're taking it seriously enough".

Why can't they preserve their sanity with a little variation, by doing one game an evening in a German accent? Or reading out the purple card in Roman numerals? "L and V - Caesar arrives - Fifty-five". Because there must be cases of them cracking up, and just going "Oh eight and two, eighty- SODDING-two".

Incredibly, the bingo authorities have managed to de-skill the process by programming the computer so that it knows when you've got a line, whether it was crossed off or not. Like handloom weavers in the Industrial Revolution, women who've spent years perfecting the art of handling several cards and countless counters at high speeds have seen their craft superseded by a soulless piece of technology. Now you can get a full house and not even be in the room.

And the pen has been replaced by the dabber, a thick felt pen which you simply "dab" on to the number as it is called out. At least, a Biro allowed individuality. Some people crossed off their numbers, others drew circles around them - you could even do a triangle if you were a complete anarchist. But the dabber puts that unpleasant free-thinking where it belongs and leaves everyone with a uniform dab.

So who does it appeal to? On the night I went, it was mostly women aged over 60, but they weren't shriekers. Almost everyone who was there praised the bingo hall as one of the only places which would welcome older women out on their own, and most went at least three times a week. And they're loyal. "We don't go to New Cross," one woman told me, "It's too big, there's no intimacy."

Bingo is somewhere to go, and is clearly not primarily about gambling. For that you could simply do the National Lottery, and devise strange formulations to convince yourself that you are cleverer than the rest of the competitors - "Number 14 hasn't come out since April, so it's bound to come out this week." Which assumes that the little balls have a) a memory, b) a sense of fair play.

There can be no such delusions in bingo. Nothing is down to you, not even the choice of numbers. But crucially, no amount of lottery tickets get you out of the house, into an atmosphere in which no one could feel intimidated. At bingo, no one need feel a failure for being on their own, and although you know the name of almost everyone there, there's no need to talk to any of them. A night at the bingo is a night in complete safety, not watching Panorama on your own or listening to a grumbling old man. And just for you, someone has taken the trouble to wear a bow tie.

So I found myself wishing the caller would use his authority, and announce "Before the game on the yellow card, I'd just like to say, You're all better than you realise. Between you, you've kept hospitals clean and run teashops and raised kids and delivered kids and you've got so much to contribute to society and you deserve the sort of leisure time where you could have a BLOODY GOOD SHRIEK. Three and nine, 39.

"Over here," called out Alice, sounding slightly embarrassed to have won, and she was rewarded with twenty-eight quid. "Now I can afford to come back tomorrow," she said.