There Is a Cowgirl in the Bingo Hall!
The endearing, enduring appeal of democracy by balls
Bingo is church for working class atheists. It’s a calendared event that squashes brilliant people onto cushioned furniture, leaving them listening to a voice from beyond: ethereal, distant, familiar - in the hope it will bring them luck and then money.
If not then they walk home on penny loafers, penniless, and come again next week. Or on Wednesday. Or tomorrow – whenever Susan says she needs to talk about her kids, whenever staying in seems like a waste of time - so you go outside to go inside to sit on a strangers chair and waste your money instead. You might not kneel but you would if it guaranteed that the next number dabbed in ink was that elusive 17.
The flashing screen is the hymn sheet. Indolently mouth the digits. Try to contain enjoyment. Smile a poker face at your auntie.
I first went to ‘the bingo’ when I was 18 which was representative of an adorable level of rule adherence. It felt like quiet revelation entering the vast space, with heads staring at digits, acoustics announcing disconnected numbers and identical pens performing the same movement of gentle bounce. The party of people I was with were familiar with tables of customers but the intense isolation that the game demands (“Shush!” is the most popular phrase in a bingo hall) meant that nods and winks became a coded conversation and the shuffle to your seat a headhanging exercise in hushed wonder - they know something you don’t. It’s a greedy mile that walk to your seat.
However, entering ‘the bingo’ proper need not be your first experience of the game which is a perpetual presence in school as an easy alternative to actual education and in its most kitschy manifestation as night time entertainment on package holidays.
Sunburnt Dads in linen collect the biggest pen from a spare table and hush spouse and offend offspring in-between glugs of aureate beer, convinced a win will save the holiday, convinced it will make everyone forget the broken waterslides. What becomes abundantly clear when you participate in bingo is that it’s a game that requires skill as much as luck. Slow dabbers need not apply. Soft fabric Fathers are right to take it seriously.
You’ve got to be quick to grasp the pace at which numbers fly from mouth-to-microphone-to-mothers and moaners. And whilst this might seem like an inconsequential act of passive listening tantamount to a nursery’s register, the weird rush you feel when somebody else who has been passively listening wins £1000 and whoops and grins and swears and cries condemns you to an enjoyable evening of absolute focus. To claim that a few sessions of weeknight bingo crystallised my mind-set and allowed me to consider the world as, like bingo, a series of codes and signals that the luckiest inherit and the sharpest claim and prosper from is perhaps a stretch but there is a definiteness in this democracy by balls that provides every participant with a chance and it is a solid, stable, tangible system that dishes out that chance.
It’s serious fun.
And if one image encapsulates that notion of bingo as serious fun it’s of a cleaner performing her duties with a broom between her work-assigned-slacks during a visit early 2013. Past discarded felt-tip pens, empty glasses and the occasional misplaced cardigan, in between tables, balanced because of Tory pamphlets, past two pence pieces and five pence pieces, and never five pound notes, and never love notes but sometimes sick notes, she bounced on her black pumps, enjoying her mischief, if only for the silliness of it, if only for what it wasn’t. And during her cowgirl’s journey, with her broom as a stallion, numbers offered her a symphony. Ennio Morricone went monotone and numerical. 7, 24, 39 etc. It was that juxtaposition of grand idiocy and a set of mathematical absolutes that made me appreciate bingo as more than a mundane anachronism. It’s serious fun.