Of all the free and purchasable newspapers that are available to litter your journey home, Rupert Murdoch’s theLondonpaper is arguably the best of the bunch. Its subject matter is diverse, its tailoring is bent towards a brief attention span and it offers a ‘community’ feel that consciously includes, not excludes, the reader.
One particular section of the paper invites Londoners to share their feelings on matters that are important to them – everyday people, writing about everyday things, every day. This is where one would find ‘The Columnist’ in which a different Londoner writes a short feature on any topic of their choosing.
Beneath this feature the reader is given details on how to vote for, or against, the writer. If they decide the columnist has engaged their attention long enough to see them through the Liverpool-Street-to-Dollis-Hill stretch, they vote ‘More’ and the writer is given the opportunity to formulate another column.
If, however, the reader was easily distracted by a cut-price car insurance poster on the tube, it is fair to say they would probably cast a ‘Bore’ vote for the writer. This would involve the columnist then being taken out back of theLondonpaper HQ, thumped across the head with a blunt object (perhaps James Blunt himself) and then relieved of all their body hair in order to make fashionable toupees for the Western-loving Asian market.
Curious to find out what ‘matters’ most to real Londoners, I executed a very in-depth and highly sophisticated method of research to uncover the topics chosen by the daily columnists. Looking at what was written over the last 4 weeks, I can therefore conclusively say that the people of London are a very, very serious lot.
Fact: October’s subject matters were all air-tight serious. Fact: the majority of these columns were given a definitive ‘More’ vote of approval by their London peers. Fact: in rough chronological order, this is what the people of London wrote about – drugs, theft, immigration, terrorism, religion, transport, Madonna, bad-mannered British women, diet fads, computer games, fat people, mixed race couples, charity donations, invading migrant workers, Oyster card data, cycling laws, pollution, the paparazzi and, once again just for good measure, Madonna. As you can clearly see, serious stuff.
Obviously, there is no denying we live in sobering times, but unsettled by the thought that Londoners might not be enjoying their capital any more, I became nostalgic about what first drew me here. Back then, the ‘pros’ far outclassed the ‘cons’, and even then none of the above would’ve featured.
So what has happened to the mirth? Has the turning of the weather and the changing of our clocks made us more stern? Perhaps, as Londoners, we have an indisputable knack for highlighting the negative in our lives? Are we so caught up in our fear of being hit by a fat, gay, black, car-jacking, muslim terrorist on drugs as he cycles through a red light (without the appropriate headgear) that we forget the reasons we heart© London? Perhaps if Madonna would adopt him, all would be resolved?
Where do we find the joy? How do we propagate the fun? Where’s loving London for what it really is – The World’s Greatest City©?
Recently, I unearthed the answer.
It was so obvious it was almost too difficult to spot. A place that harnessed all that is good and great about London. A place that regularly brings joy to over 3 million people across the UK. A place where everyone’s a winner – Bingo.
Myself and a group of my closest friends apprehensively shuffled down to Gala Bingo one Sunday evening, discussing its stereotype as a geriatric-only sport as we went. After being initiated through the grilling membership application process (with tough questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where do you live?”), we were in. In return for ?15 a small Brazilian rainforests-worth of paper was handed to us. These were our game cards for the next 2 hours.
We made our way into a gargantuan hall that looked like a place of worship. It seemed quite apt that the well-dressed gentleman ‘preaching’ numbers from the pulpit would later inspire certain members of the congregation to erupt with jubilation and exultation.
The hall was filled with a few hundred smokers from every walk of life – young and old, black and white, minted and skinted, Muslim and Christian – here before us was the ultimate melting pot of happy faces and almost immediately, it made me proud to be a Londoner. Sure, they have Bingo halls in every small town and coastal city across the nation, but none so wholly assorted and welcoming as this one.
As we riffled, with puzzled faces, through our collection of games, a kind Irish lady took pity on our novice souls and pointed us in the right direction. Firstly, the whole process was like premiership football match – a game of two halves split by a toilet/booze break in the middle. The two books we were given each had 6 pages, each divided into six sections. A separate, singular game card was also in the bundle but it wasn’t until later in the evening that we realised its significance.
Moments after our quick tutorial, the caller began issuing numbers at a rate far quicker than any Sotherby’s or cattle market auctioneer. Initially, it was too difficult to keep up, and the adrenalin rush soon got the better of our excited party as a cry of “Bingo!” rang out from our table. The caller immediately asked a spotter to validate the claim by reading aloud the 8-digit number adjacent to the claim box. Of course, the claim was a dud and the piercing glare of several hundred people changed our faces to a darker shade of red.
The velocity of Bingo is not for the faint-hearted and slightly dazed by our false claim, my thoughts turned the embarrassment I would endure if my mobile went off in my pocket. I was so preoccupied with disabling it at the next available moment, I actually missed a clear ?40 winning opportunity, a second too late to claim it as someone else in the auditorium called out instead.
One false and one missed and we weren’t even into the third game yet. Then, it happened again, another bogus claim from our table. Eventually, we made it to the break having had two missed and two fake calls. This was best worst time we’d ever had.
During the interval many of the hardcore players slotted ?1-coin after ?1-coin into a machine positioned at their tables. This was an ultra-fast game that involved numbers AND colours and required a constant pile of spare change. We felt it best just to observe. The remarkable hand-eye coordination and scanning techniques were amazing. It was like watching Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. As I looked around I realised that many of the players were also drinking. Yet the alcohol didn’t seem to impede their reflexes. They were like robots.
Later, whilst researching this Bingo phenomenon, I discovered that, despite the displayed high levels of concentration, over two-thirds of Bingo players actually attend purely for social reasons, not financial (I also found it interesting that the average speed of a British bingo caller is 23 numbers per minute, that there are 700 operating Bingo clubs in Great Britain and that the industry, as a whole, employs over 20,000 people).
In the second half we began to get to grips with the game, furthering our enjoyment exponentially. At one point the intriguing game card (separate from the others) was brought out and numbers were announced by a third, and somewhat distant-sounding, caller. This was the ‘Link’ game and it wasn’t until we heard the words, “We might have winners in Hull and Liverpool but first we’re going up to Scunthorpe to check on a claim” that we realised we were playing NATIONALLY. And live! Several thousand people all playing simultaneously for a top prize of ?20,000!! Does it get any better?
Overall, looking back, it’s a wonder how the kind Irish lady didn’t hate our guts really because by the time the final game had finished we were ?40 the richer (with another ?80 we’d missed). She, on the other hand, hadn’t won a penny. Yet she still smiled.
The addictiveness of the game, the rush of the numbers, the fug of expectancy hanging in the air – all combined for a successful evening and one that I would actively encourage all Londoners to try (just be sure ignore the “If you have a problem with gambling” campaign posters in the toilets). If it’s good enough for celebrity Bingo-ers like Damon Hill, Elle MacPherson and Mariah Carey, it’s good enough for you. And if those names aren’t enough, how about this for a statistic – more people go to bingo than go to all the football matches in the English AND Scottish leagues.
Here are a few tips to help you survive your Bingo experience:
– Ladies, you need to be slightly overweight and wear large hooped earrings (the larger the earrings the better you play)
– Men, you must sport tattoos or layers of tweed (much like the ladies, the more tweed a man wears, the more expert his Bingo)
– Every number between 1 and 99 is represented once, AND ONCE ONLY, somewhere on your card
– The caller is quick but the table displays are quicker
– ‘Dabber’ is to black belt as felt pen is to arse-kicking
– Contain your excitement, it’s not the done thing
– Smoking is mandatory
– Always turn off your mobile