Devon January 28, 2000 On Thursday nights in the winter, the Sunset
Cricket Club transforms into a disparate and sometimes desparate group
that only half tongue-in-cheek calls itself The Dangerous Sports
Club. Each week it is the turn of one of the members to devise
a suitable activity, entertaining, enlightening, edifying, dangerous,
or otherwise, which always ends, inevitably, in a pub. We have done
judo (there was only one broken bone, an ankle if I recall correctly);
taken on the inmates in an indoor sports session at Exeter Prison (one
severe sprain, minor knocks and bruises); gone on night cycle rides
through hazardous Devon lanes (one member lost though eventually found);
scrambled down a muddy pothole near Ashburton; sampled kick boxing with
youngsters from the Deaf School (what chance do you have against a 12
year old girl kicking shit out of you who cant even hear your
cries of genuine pain?); made utter fools of ourselves doing a step
aerobics class; been humilated when we took on the Exeter University
womans netball team; played with Meccano (very challenging); had
an evening with Ian Herbert (totally inscrutable); made mince pies and
a web site; played table tennis; done needlepoint and Indian cooking;
and many other such challenging and sometimes highly dangerous but always
exhilarating and intoxicating exercises.
dares wins might well have been a motto penned for us. Or perhaps
who drinks feels no pain. But still, nothing could have
prepared us for last nights event, possibly the most dangerous
and challenging ever devised, the brainchild of Steve Waters, the youngest
and most daring member of our select band of batty brothers: Bingo!
of us, it has to be said, had ever stepped foot inside the Exeter Mecca
Bingo Hall, located in the former Gaumont cinema off North Street. Believe
me, it is another world. After a pint or two of Dutch courage (aka Bass
and I assure you we needed it) at the White Hart, about fifteen of us
made our way there. Steve signed us all in (apparently you have to be
a member to go to Bingo due to some arcane licensing laws relating to
gambling, and so now Steve is a fully paid up -- well, actually there
is no charge, they ought to pay you, in fact, to join -- life member
of the Exeter Mecca Bingo Club, god help him).
we steps up, pays our quid, and then are faced with the first of the
evenings difficult, dangerous and challenging choices: How many
strips of tickets to buy? One strip, explained the manager,
a helpful chap, rather serious, been in Bingo all his working life,
who was quite bemused by our utter lack of bingo nous, one strip
would be terribly boring. Six strips, on the other hand, he suggested,
might present a challenge that would be too overwhelming for us bingo
tyros, and clearly he did not want us to be put off by this first experience
(regulars are our lifeblood, one was almost certain, had
been drummed into him if not tattooed on his backside in Bingo Management
Training School). Three strips, he advised, three
strips is probably about right for you lot. So three strips it
was, that will be £3.90, thank you very much.
But it didnt stop there: there was the 6-page Silver Book, the
4-page Gold Book, the 2-page Platinum, the Americano, the National,
and finally, the Emerald Book: my god, how on earth would we ever figure
it all out?
much can you actually win on this? someone asked.
National has a nightly prize of £100,000, said the manager.
hundred grand?! Youre kidding. He went on to explain that
this is done through a live link with all the Mecca bingo halls in the
country, a mind-boggling 700 or so of them, with the game played simultaneously
through the power and glory of electronic telecommunications. Truly
suitably armed with our tickets, introduced to Eric, the dinner jacketed
caller/mc for the evening who, the manager assured, would look
after us, we were ready to make our entrance into the Hall. An
unbelievable scene awaited us: the vast hollow shell of the once-grand
Gaumont, complete with stage, curtains, and an ornate plaster rose on
the high vaulted ceiling, was filled with individual formica booths
and little tables on every level, in every nook and cranny, and across
the whole floor. The walls inside were painted bright pink and purple.
At one end there was a small bar that was doing hardly any business,
also a food bar, similarly unoccupied.
there was no time to drink or eat. The people -- and they numbered in
the hundreds, not simply blue rinse grannies, but middle aged men and
women, young couples, groups out for an evening (like us, I suppose!)
-- were there for the serious business not of having a good night out,
a drink and a laugh, but of winning money. There were lines of fruit
machines along the walls. And everywhere, on the tables, on countertops,
flashing electric bingo cards to while away the minutes when the live
game is not on. The system, for these variations of the one-arm bandit,
is this: you put your pound into a slot and it activates the table.
Meanwhile, before proceedings start and whenever there is a lull or
a pause, a fellow stands in the middle of the room, chanting out numbers,
not with the drama of Eric during the nights big live events,
but more mechanically so that the chance becomes simply a background
noise that you soon get used to while, eyes down, the hardened bingo
addicts shuffle chips over called numbers, trying to get a line, playing
for a fiver, a tenner, nothing too big. When they get it, no calling
out: just push the red button under the table and an assistant comes
over to verify the win, paid out in coins so that you can immediately
stick another quid in the table and start all over again.
can imagine for us first-timers what a strange and unreal world this
presented. A couple of babes in the level below us were eating from
tupperware containers, pouring themselves coffee from a flask. They
told us that they come every week, at least once, bring their own tea
won anything? we asked.
yes, loads of times.
quid, one of them said proudly.
ninety pounds, not bad, that would do quite nicely, thank you very much,
we all thought.
it was time to begin. Big Eric, standing on the stage behind a podium
with a microphone in hand announced that the evenings sets were
about to start. First game, Americano. Well, none of us were doing that
quite simply because we couldnt understand what it was and the
tickets were extra. Just as well, it gave us a little more time to acclimatise
and to get a feel of how it is done.
the N number thirty, sang out Eric. One and oh, under the
I. We didnt have a clue what was going on, but not to worry,
wed catch on eventually, we hoped.
this finished, the real business began. The evening started with the
6-page Silver Book. Each strip has three lines, and first you play for
one line, then for two lines, and finally for the full house, each number
on the whole strip called out.
its own number three, number three, boomed Eric, rather musically
and rhythmically, all the fours, forty four...five and nine, fifty
Erics mellifluous tones could not disguise the fact that it was
trench warfare down where we were: not a word was spoken in that whole
vast hall, as, eyes down, some four or five hundred lost souls listened
intently, crossed off or didnt cross off numbers, until finally
someone stated, rarely shouted, no, never bingo, not even
house, but simply, yes or got it
or here. An assistant would then hustle over, check the
card, read out some mysterous code, and, once verified, the game would
then proceed to two lines, full house, or whatever.
was truly amazing how quickly some people managed to get bingo, and
indeed, in looking at ones own numbers which seemed rarely to
be called, one was immediately made aware of the sheer improbability
of ever winning this, let alone the National Lottery.
eleven, number eleven...all alone number one...one and eight number
eighteen...seven and oh, blind seventy...
Fast and furious arent the words for it: the pace was unrelenting.
We went through the green sheet, the red sheet, the orange sheet, the
blue sheet, the yellow sheet. Finally, though, it had to happen (well,
there were fifteen of us each with three strips so we had to be in with
a chance somewhere along the line), the moment we were all waiting for,
the moment we were all, at the same time, secretly dreading. A cry went
up, stopping Eric in mid-flow, drawing the attention of all five hundred
in the room to our corner of the hall. Of course it was Bernie, the
luckiest guy of us all, the captain of the cricket team, our spiritual
leader, old Lucky Wilson, bound to be him, wasnt it?
attractive female assistant in uniform hustled her way over to us, mike
in hand. Now hindsight is a beautiful thing, isnt it; in retrospect
I suppose you would have to say that the appeal had been neither full
blooded nor full throated. More of a squeak than a shout, actually (afterwards
Harris said that it was as if someone had grabbed old Bern by the balls
and given just a little twist, nothing too hard, just enough to make
him squeak). If this had been a cricket match, you might have called
it a strangled appeal and on the strength (or lack of it)
alone, felt compelled to give the benefit of the doubt to the batsman.
And so it proved to be in this case.
card, the uniformed assistant announced through her microphone,
to the palpable relief of the entire hall, and to the unspeakable and
infinite mirth of us all.
to us, this was the ultimate bingo faux pas, the single incident that
each and every one of us feared we might do, instant public humiliation
within that vast arena, and no where at all to hide.
matter that Eric immediately started chanting out the numbers again,
that in fact, no one cared in the least, but were intent merely to concentrate
once more on their own coloured strips of numbers. To us, it was hilarious,
all the more so because it was Wilson. Tears literally streamed down
our faces and we were simply unable to carry on marking our own cards
for quite awhile. Who knows, perhaps we would have won the jackpot otherwise?
so the night went on: we got through the 6 page silver, the four page
gold, the two page platinum. There was the National, linked to all the
Mecca bingo houses in the land, with wins for folks in Dover, and Cardiff,
Some two hours had passed by, wed hardly spoken a word, not even
had time for a drink, in fact, realised that all this time we had been
sitting on the edges of our seats tense and intent, inanely ticking
off numbers, hoping in vain for a win. It was certainly an experience,
but surely about time to get back to the pub...
last game: the Emerald Card. Forty quid to the winner of the one-line,
sixty to the little old chap below us who scooped the two-line. Not
bad, not bad. Now it was only the full house left, and then we could
kept calling out the numbers: all alone, number four...
four and oh, blind forty... six and two, sixty two.
Hey, wait a minute, I suddently realised that I only needed two more
numbers to win this baby... three and four, thirty four...
my god, just seventeen left, cmon Eric, one and...five,
fifteen... my god, that was close, the adrenalin is pumping through
me, I can see the veins on my arms popping, feel its going to
happen, can really feel it. Then: one and seven...
I shout, standing up. Dead silence, this is the biggest house pot, after
all, and my mates are totally embarrassed, thinking that Ive probably
screwed it up again, like poor old Bern. It seems to take ages for the
assistant to come over, mike in hand. She checks the strip. Andy has
started laughing again. John looks interested (after all, wed
agreed on our table to split the proceeds of any wins). Finally, she
says, This looks alright to me. Have you got your membership card
or guest ticket?
what? I start scrabbling through my pockets like a madman, producing
a post office receipt, a shopping list (eggs, semi-skimmed milk, yoghurt,
and bok choi), a bit of kleenex (used), a calling card or two, lots
of bits of paper. But no receipt. Robin tries to pass me his, but the
assistant quickly puts an end to that scam, stating that this is entirely
unacceptable, it must be my guest ticket and mine alone. The seconds
are ticking away, I can sense Eric anxious to start up his chant again,
everyone else willing me to fail so that they can be in with a chance,
all eyes in the hall -- hundreds and hundreds, I tell you -- on me.
I pull out the last bit of scruffy paper from my coat pocket: its
the ticket! The win is verified, to the palpable disgust of the bingo
regulars, and a thick envelope containing £209.78 in cash is handed
over to me.
evening in the Bingo Hall is over, that was the last card, but no one
is getting up except for our lot. It seems that the rest are all staying
for the next Late Session, during which, we can only guess, the same
thing happens all over again. We exit with a communal swagger and a
wave to Eric, the lads virtually carrying me out, and so we make our
way down South Street back to the White Hart.
on me, of course: Ten pints of bass, five of Old Wallop, please,
care for one yourself? How about you, no problem, its on the bingo.
Same again? Same again. Cheers. To your very good health. All the very
best. Same again? Cheers, same again...
dont play the Lottery, which is probably just as well, but I am
immediately aware that should I ever be in the fortunate (or perhaps
unfortunate) position of winning it, I would certainly not be one of
those who would say, wont change me a bit, uh uh, not me,
not giving up the day job. Heck, Id blow the lot, itd
all be gone in days or weeks or months, Im sure. The exhilaration
of giving away money that doesnt actually feel as if it belongs
to you is too heady and intoxicating. And who can resist that?
blow a good half the wad at the pub quite easily, probably would have
blown it all if they hadnt called drinking time on us. Its
time to divvy up. Johns already left. Rob says, put mine
in your Ride for Life cancer charity pot. Andys happy with
this too. So am I, a tenner for the kids, the rest in the pot.
the hell. Easy come, easy go.
Its entirely unreal.
Copyright © Marc Millon