Bingo halls are now as threatened as the cinemas and dance halls they replaced. But for diehard fans, trying their luck in good company is what keeps them going
‘EYES Down,” it says on Izzy’s T-shirt. And Isabel Cummings, to give the grandmother from Royston her Sunday name, keeps her eyes down, right enough. She has touched the lucky leprechaun keyring dangling from her Mickey Mouse pencil case; she has laid out her blue felt-tips; she is ready – raring to go, in fact – for another day at the bingo.
We are in the Carlton bingo hall in Partick, across the road from Mansfield Park, in Glasgow’s west end. Few, though, call it the Carlton. It is known as the F&F, or sometimes just the effs, a name that goes back to its days as a dance hall and roller-rink, the F&F Palais de Dance, run by the Fyfe brothers from the mid-1920s until the 1960s, since when it has been a palais de chance, devoted to bingo.
There is little sign now, when daundering along Dumbarton Road, that this was once one of Glasgow’s great pleasure palaces. The lovely deco exterior is completely gone, demolished in a controversial development, and the bingo is now on the ground floor of an ugly apartment block. Inside the main hall, however, there is still a sense of scale and grandeur. The stage, where the bands once performed Pennies From Heaven and Mood Indigo, is still there, though it is now given over to bingo tables. It is a big room, brightly lit, painted purple and pink, hundreds of tables laid out in lines so long that they advance towards vanishing points, like Florentine streets in Renaissance paintings. Three thousand people, mostly women, play bingo here each week. Izzy is one of them.
She’d been coming for “donkey’s years”, with no luck at all, then in 2011, she won £6,400 on the national and regional games. “Aw, it was brilliant, especially right before Christmas. I’ve got a big squad of grandweans.” It was December 13, lucky thirteen. “Aye, and I’m 13 up a high flat as well.” Everyone was cheering, glad for her, even as they cursed their own luck.
Bingo has a special place in the heart of the nation, so much so that we forget, or never bother to learn, that it has its roots in 16th century Italy. Still, it appears to us now to be as cosily British as red post boxes and fish’n’chips. Even though bingo is gambling, it is regarded as essentially benign, even beneficial. Mary Portas, in her review of Britain’s high streets, called for more bingo halls (“a brilliant way to bring people together for a bit of old-fashioned community fun”) while describing bookies as a blight.
There are around 500 bingo clubs in the UK, but the industry is struggling, with halls closing at the rate of 10 a year, victims of the smoking ban and the rise of online gaming. A further 150 are thought to be at risk. The Bingo Association argues that the industry is also suffering from an inequitable tax system that sees bingo taxed at a higher rate than other forms of gambling. Hard to imagine, perhaps, and certainly unpleasant, but the British bingo hall could, one day, be as obscure as quoits and bagatelle are now.
Not just yet, though. The F&F is busy when I visit, a stream of people coming in out of the sleet, after one last fag, and queueing for their books. “Mornin’ Margaret, mornin’ Mary, mornin’ Martha,” smiles the woman at the counter. “Hiya, Harry. Y’awright?”
At 11.45am, the first game of the day begins. Stewart Tolland is the caller, dressed neatly in a blue shirt and tie, keeping his throat lubricated with Irn-Bru. He stands on stage, beneath a giant electronic screen, which flashes up numbers in a manner both gaudy and complex, as if the Stock Exchange had relocated to Blackpool. “It’s Burns night, so there’s a wee special on at the buffet,” he tells the 130 or so punters. “Haggis, neeps and tatties, and a cuppa, for £2.55.”
Stewart is 46 and has been in bingo for 27 years, working his way up to caller. He loves bingo, playing the game in his own time. Only the night before he was at the Mecca Glasgow Quay, and won £20, though he spent about £50. It’s fascinating to watch him work. His calling voice is different from his speaking voice: deeper, slower, a little seductive. He has something of the incantatory authority of a minister in his pulpit – if the minister in question spent the whole sermon reading the numbers from the hymn board and never actually delivering the sermon.
Between sessions I get talking to Mary Little and Betty Bennie, 83 and 70 years old respectively, sitting with big Diet Cokes and wearing their reading glasses – bingo glasses, really – in readiness for the game ahead. Partick natives now relocated to Knightswood, they used to visit this place in their teens when it was the Palais de Dance, and remember the great glitterball that hung from the ceiling. “Now we come every day,” says Betty. “We’re widows and we’re sisters. We come in for the morning session, we have our lunch, and stay for the afternoon session. It saves us electricity and we have our meal here, so we’re no’ cooking at night. We don’t smoke and we don’t drink. This is our enjoyment. And if we win it’s a bonus.”
This is what you hear all the time at the bingo. A great many of the women who come here seem to be widows. Their children are grown and flown and have children of their own. The bingo, therefore, is an antidote to loneliness. Folk are quite open about this. One very nice old lady called Margaret explains that following the loss of her parents and sister she has had problems with depression. “It’s the bingo that keeps me going,” she says. “This keeps me sane.” Margaret grew up and still lives in Anderston and feels the same sense of loss and bewilderment about the demolition of the old tenements as she does for the disappearance of bingo caller slang – legs eleven, two fat ladies, and so on. “Everything’s all changing,” she sighs. She hopes to live long enough to see Rangers return to the SPL.
Do not take from this, by the way, that the bingo is depressing. Far from it. It’s a laugh. There are some right characters. Carol, a formidable woman with pure white hair and a very impure laugh, is unsure at first when asked if I can sit down at her table and ask a few questions. “Do I get paid? Aw, that’s pish.” She’s been coming to this hall for 39 years and earlier this week had her first big win, £400. She has a little superhero figure on the table, a lucky charm courtesy of a grandson, and between games puffs on one of those electronic cigarettes that are supposed to help you quit smoking. Like many bingo players, she has her habits and quirks, using a different coloured felt tip to cross of the numbers on each new book – green, black, purple, blue and red.
In the brief moments between one game ending and the start of the next, she enjoys a quick debrief with a woman sitting at the next table.
“I was just waiting on 66,” says this neighbour.
“Och, that’s a shame,” says Carol. “But you don’t need the money. You’re lucky in love, Martha.”
Up the stairs, at a table overlooking the hall, sits Auld Harry, Henry Calderhead, who is 93 years old and has thus reached an age beyond the bingo books, which only go up to 90. Harry is a toatie, slender man with a brace of hearing aids and a fisherman’s cap, dressed nattily in shirt, tie and braces. He is Partick Thistle daft, but next to the football, his great passion is bingo, which he first played in a hall in Maryhill Road, covering up the numbers with nuts or sweeties. These days Harry plays with an electronic board and thanks bingo for keeping his mind sharp and active. He is a grandee here, the father of the house, and enjoys the position of respect he occupies. He is here every day, except for when the Jags are playing at home, when he takes himself to Firhill; since he turned 90, he has stopped travelling to away games, and thus gets every second Saturday at the bingo.
It is interesting to watch the faces of bingo players while the numbers are being called. You never saw such intensity and focus. Gary McDonald, the manager here, used to work at the bingo beneath the Red Road flats. He remembers one time some neds started a fire in the underground car park; smoke was coming into the bingo hall and he wanted to evacuate, but the players said no chance, not while they could still see their numbers. That’s what the bingo means. That’s the steeliness you see in everyone’s eyes. Then, when someone gets a line or a full-house, their hand shoots up, clutching their book, an expression of triumph on their face as they shout “Here!” or “Right!” In that moment, the years fall away, the cares, and you see them as they were once, in the days of dancing and drinks and roller-rinks.
“Ach, weel,” says Carol, tearing her used books in two. “Another day, another dollar.” She’s been unlucky this time, but there will be a new game in just a moment, and so it goes on. Eyes down, as they say, and keep your spirits up.