Tooting's popular affront

I joined a new club the other day, and can now count myself as Member Number 60349 of Gala Bingo in Tooting
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Not quite as exclusive as the Garrick, I grant you, and it offers fewer opportunities for metropolitan media networking - but at least it admits women. Indeed, on Wednesday afternoon, it looked rather as if it only admits women, since the scattered regulars in for the tea-time session or a swift top-up of pecuniary hazard at the slot machines were almost all female.

Not quite as exclusive as the Garrick, I grant you, and it offers fewer opportunities for metropolitan media networking - but at least it admits women. Indeed, on Wednesday afternoon, it looked rather as if it only admits women, since the scattered regulars in for the tea-time session or a swift top-up of pecuniary hazard at the slot machines were almost all female.

This first impression turns out to be misleading, as it happens, but then a failure to grasp floor-level detail is perhaps forgivable for someone entering this building for the first time. Last week, what used to be the Tooting Granada was finally promoted to Grade One Listed status, a recognition that its startlingly distracting interior is worthy to be set in architectural aspic - and this, rather than a desire to punt the housekeeping money, led me to sign on the dotted line.

If purity of architectural bloodline were a requirement for listing, then Tooting Granada would almost certainly still be legitimate prey for the wrecker's ball. There is scarcely a style that Theodore Komisarjevsky, the exiled White Russian Sidney Bernstein hired to bring exotic glamour to this particular stretch of south London, hasn't drawn on. Where Mies van der Rohe's dictum was "Less is more," Komisarjevsky's seems to have been "More is nowhere near enough."

From the outside, it's true, the building is relatively unassuming, an exercise in what you might call Lavatory Corinthian - that familiar Thirties style in which grand columns and Attic entablatures are expressed through the medium of glazed white tile. But inside, Komisarjevsky has really let himself go. The foyer is impressive enough - an assembly of gothic arch mirrors, fake leaded windows and pilasters with gilded medieval ornamentation.

But it is when you pass through the swing doors into the auditorium that you experience the full blast of the designer's ambition. Under a ceiling of Renaissance coffering, Komisarjevsky has assembled a bizarre anthology of architectural quotation - cathedral porches, medieval murals, rood screen ornamentation, heraldic decoration and fake stained glass.

"Some would say it's over the top," says Eric Howell, the current manager, "but I think it's magnificent." The staff cherished the building anyway, he explains as he shows me round, but its recent elevation to architecture's Royal Enclosure has pleased them even so.

It is conventional to deplore the conversion of these vast palaces of pleasure into bingo halls, bingo being rather below the salt in terms of popular culture. But, while it's difficult not to feel a pang for the Granada's former glories, it's worth remembering that without bingo there might have been nothing left to list. In 1975, when cinemas this big were feeling the effects of dwindling audience figures, there were far worse fates - from outright demolition to that death of many cuts, conversion into a multiplex. And if it's sad that the only screen in the place is a matrix-display that confirms the current number or advertises the next game, there is at least an audience for Komisarjevsky's fantasies.

Bingo provided one of the few commercially feasible ways in which these huge buildings could remain places of public resort, ones in which, what's more, a kind of showbusiness lives on. Every hall, Mr Howell explains, has its "artiste callers", who add a tiny top-spin to the otherwise unadorned recitation of numbers. Graham Prior, artiste caller at Tooting, ruefully points out that the leeway for artistry is narrow - detour too far from the business in hand and the regulars will quickly make their displeasure known - but there's still a kind of stardom in standing at the centre of Komisarjevsky's wildly extravagant proscenium.

Surprisingly bingo delivers another virtue too. I had thought the club membership, which includes a 24-hour delay between signing up and playing, was a legal fiction required by the gaming laws (for some reason bingo halls are more closely fenced in by legislation than betting shops). But inside the hall it's clear that this really is a club, as subject to custom and observance as any Pall Mall gentleman's retreat.

In his new book, England: An Elegy, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton writes approvingly of such associations as a bedrock of English character. "England was a society of corporate persons," he argues, "objects of loyalty and duty which held people together while keeping them just sufficiently apart. English eccentricity flourished by virtue of the club, which protected the habits of its members, and reassured them that their oddness would go unremarked."

I don't suppose he would feel that a bingo hall quite made the grade as far as "duty" goes, but in all other respects it perfectly matches his description. If I had feared that I might be conspicuous in this setting, then I had reckoned without the benevolent indifference that characterises the atmosphere - as good a definition of tolerance as any.

There is a kind of conservatism at work here too. The patrons, according to Mr Howell, can show themselves as dedicated to the principles of unaltered tradition as English Heritage itself - adopting particular seats as their own and forming friendships with their near neighbours. Sadie Randall, for example, who can remember her daughter coming to Saturday morning matinees here when it was still a cinema, is almost as much of a fixture as the caller's podium - acknowledged with a clubbable briskness by almost everyone who passes "her" seat. It is, as the signature tune has it, a place where everybody knows your name.

And this society is less narrow than casual prejudice might imagine. I was tutored in the mysteries of the Curtain Raiser Flyer, my first ever bingo game, by Clinton - a well-spoken gentleman who turned out to have flown Spitfires and Hurricanes during the war, and who had taken up bingo after the death of his wife. Clinton was reluctant to give his second name, I think out of a sense that bingo was not quite the done thing for a man of his background - but this seemed to be a deference to the niceties of relatives, not his own.

Just like Sadie, he clearly relishes the bantering, open society that is available here. I wasn't converted by my experience of bingo the game, which turned out to be a queasy emulsion of tedium and adrenalin, but bingo the experience was another matter. It's not hard to understand why people keep coming back to the Tooting Granada - and it's not really about gambling or the interior, thrilling as those might be in their different ways. It's about the soothing enclosure of the club.

Roger Scruton's treatise on Englishness, incidentally, can be commended to anyone who likes to be surprised by a book. What I mean by that is the sense that you can't predict what's going to happen from one page to the next - a conventional virtue for airport thrillers, but less familiar in philosophical meditations.

In some respects, it's true, England: An Elegy isn't surprising at all. There are rather unnerving passages of numinous patriotism, full of talk of "enchantment" and the "instinctive knowledge" of the English people. There are sublime flights of reactionary grumpiness. But then you bang into arguments which cogently illuminate the muddle of our current thinking about country.

And quite often these shine down from what you might think of as the enemy line (depending, naturally, on your politics). In the week that the Runnymede Trust raised questions about the word "British", Scruton comes to its defence, not because he threatens to horsewhip anyone who interferes with it, but because he is suspicious of its inclusiveness himself.

"Only one group of Her Majesty's subjects saw itself as British," he argues, "namely, those immigrants from the former Empire who seized on the idea of British nationality as a means of having no real nationality at all, certainly no nationality that would conflict with ethnic or religious loyalties, forged far away and years before." Case closed in favour of British, I would have thought.

The book is often funny too - most often because Scruton intends it to be (there are witty and self-deprecating accounts of his youth) but sometimes unintentionally. Several passages had me giggling like a loon, most notably Scruton's heartfelt hymn to the virtues of pounds, shillings and pence, which I happened to read in bed late at night and which set off a mattress-trembling seizure of suppressed laughter that actually shook my wife awake.

Since I was immediately required to explain myself, it's unfortunate that the effect works through accumulation and is not easily conveyed by short quotations. But it was something about his passion for the rationally indefensible. A long argument about the human qualities of a currency based on division rather than accumulation climaxes with an encomium to the guinea, which, he explains with the air of a man laying down an unbeatable card, was "worth twenty-one shillings, and therefore divisible by both three and seven". No wonder the country's gone to the dogs.