Yes, I know. Came as a bit of a surprise to me too. But last week I met a young woman of undeniable chic, style, youth and vigour, a woman unusually well connected, socially in demand and apparently sound in the marbles department, who was completely obsessed with the game. As she explained why, I realised that I'd been a victim of prejudice for far too long.
Contrary to my memories of sixth-form breaktime, bridge is apparently not a hopelessly anal card game driven by mental sums, guesswork and smugness, wholly lacking the flair and risk of the poker table, and played by propellor- headed losers who have to learn weird Masonic-style "conventions" with villainous names like Acol and Blackwood and Fishbein. No, said my friend, it is a thrilling affair, a titanic struggle between cool gunslinger types, all logic and ravishing finesse. "Watching a really good player clearing the table," she breathed, "leading to dummy and back again, piling up tricks, sweeping through the opposition - it's just pure sex. I wouldn't even consider having a relationship with anyone who wasn't a grandmaster..."
Something in the lift of my eyebrow may have told her I was sceptical, so she dragged me to the bridge club in Earls Court that she frequents four times a week. In a room with a bar and (perversely) a fruit-machine enthusiast, 80 bridgies sat at 20 tables playing the same hands, the fall of cards decided in advance by computer. A cursory glance for potential Sharifs and McQueens revealed that the average bridge player has 1) a facial tic, 2) a missing limb and 3) the conversational range of a squid. No no, said my companion, that's how it's done. "You talk in conventions or not at all. It's the height of bad manners to say 'Hello' or 'How are you?' to other players." Instead, on being introduced, you're supposed to say, casually, "Weak No Trump?", to which a typical response is "American Standard?" If the answer to both is yes, your relationship bounds forward and is consummated all evening on a nearby table.
Well, well. Spellbound, I listened to tales of abomination and savagery, of trumped aces and hopeless contracts miraculously won, of passion and venom and the suspicion of cheating. Especially the latter. So great is the fear, in current bridge circles, that partners are communicating the state of their cards by pre-arranged verbal signals, that the bidding is done silently by holding up cards inscribed "Two Hearts" and so forth. "And of course," said my friend, "there's the Significant Pause." Which is? "If someone pauses too long before bidding, it's possible that it's a signal. So then you summon the tournament director and complain." So that's why Harold Pinter, a modern bridge enthusiast sans pareil, never goes to tournaments...
These are strange times in Britain's prisons. It seems that they have succumbed to a massive religious revival, brought about, perhaps, by Michael Howard's efforts to make life tough for "crimminils".
Now that they are no longer at liberty to send the screws down to M&S for their salmon en croute and roasted Italian vegetables in filo pastry, the assembled muggers, burglars and safe-crackers (not to mention the odd pensioner banged up for feeding pigeons) have decided that their best chance of a better life in future is to get down on their knees and pray for salvation.
At Exeter jail they have apparently had 200 conversions in a year, following the chaplain's return from a "Teach Yourself Evangelism" weekend. At Lewes the figure is 319 in 14 months. One prisoner has written to the Crown Prosecution Service to thank its officials for sending him down and enabling him to come face to face with the Lord. Another inmate even told the chaplain that the Holy Spirit is better than crack. Of course, this being a British jail, he doesn't actually have to make that choice.
With the unfortunate Diane Modahl case back in the news, this may not be the best time to alert hopeful British athletes to another useful biochemical development.
It seems that an Italian expert, Professor Carmelo Bosco of the Italian sports federation Fidac, has discovered that liberal quantities of bicarbonate of soda can do wonders for runners. In tests he has found that a 200 metre runner's time can improve by up to four-tenths of a second by the ingestion of domestic baking powder.
Professor Bosco's scheme is to turn the powder into handy white pills, but purists suspect that will constitute a breach of the rules. There seems to be nothing, however, to stop runners loading up on industrial quantities of fairy cakes before an important race.
Nothing, that is, bar the miracle food's one significant side-effect: uncontrollable flatulence. According to one British expert, Jill Horgan of the Sports Nutrition Foundation, "It's so revolting that the effect can be quite nauseous."
This should not, however, rule the experiment out altogether. Indeed, there can rarely have been a better incentive to make an athlete get out in front - and stay there.
I've heard of storms in teacups but this is ridiculous. In the wake of a recent announcement, a number of public bodies have gone into Outrage Mode. The Sea Safety Group of the UK, headed by David Harris MP, pronounces itself "very concerned". The Merchant Navy Officers' Union is aghast that it was not "warned" in advance. The National Union of Rail and Maritime Transport Workers shakes its head sadly and says, "We ought to have been consulted." What can it be, this drastic move? Has the North Sea been stocked with crocodiles? Has the Channel been fitted with a wave machine? Has the lifeboat service been decommissioned?
No. The BBC has decided to move their 12.30am shipping forecast back by 15 minutes to accommodate a programme called Late Book, which goes out after midnight. That's the whole deal. They're not abandoning the litany of "Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Gale Force Nine, Showers, Good", whatever that Whitmanesque rigmarole may mean, just shifting it. But it isn't good enough for the sailing fraternity, who worry that it will confuse tyro mariners whose safety depends on it; and it certainly isn't good enough for the members of Radio 4 Watch, a listeners' pressure group, whose Rachel Mawhood said, "The BBC has totally lost sight of the concept of public-service broadcasting. Surely the shipping forecast is more important than stimulating reading?"
What a quintessentially British observation - "stimulating" indeed, as if books might be some dodgy form of amphetamines; and the assumption that listening to incantated gibberish is "more important" for the weary soul to rest on than the consolations of literature. What can be done? A reading of William Golding's poop-and-mainbrace sea trilogy To the Ends of the Earth would seem the best compromise