Every Tuesday and Thursday for 17 years Ronnie and Josie have been going to the bingo. â€œIâ€™ve only had one win really,â€ says Ronnie. â€œÂ£1,500. We treated ourselves to a taxi home.â€
But bingo is not really about winning, itâ€™s about having a laugh, commiserating when your friend needed only a 53 for â€œhouseâ€. Since Iâ€™m a baffled novice, Ronnie makes sure Iâ€™m playing the right coloured game. When I canâ€™t find the callerâ€™s numbers quickly enough, Josie marks off my card.
Up on the swirly-carpeted first floor of the Elephant & Castle shopping centre â€” aka Europeâ€™s grimmest building â€” the atmosphere is convivial. Gaggles of women, plus the odd bloke, sit at plastic tables. Not just white working class, but younger African women with elaborate nails and Jamaicans who play rowdy games of dominoes between rounds.
Bingo players are from the poorest fifth of society, the most likely to live in tower blocks and shop from catalogues. This is a bargain night out: a fiver for the bingo cards plus a cheap bar, though few seem to drink. On Sunday before noon you get a free roast dinner. On certain Friday afternoons the club gives everyone a frozen chicken.
George Osborne claims to have played bingo. Did the Bullingdon Club have an ironic outing, Common People-style? As when David Cameron insisted heâ€™d eaten a pasty in some forgotten railway station, it never works out for upper-class politicians to pretend to appreciate working-class pursuits.
Grant Shappsâ€™ Tory ad proclaiming the budget was â€œto help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoyâ€ has been ridiculed for that telling, patronising â€œtheyâ€. But British pastimes have always divided along class lines. Ronnie and Josie work in the kitchens of Dulwich College, alma mater of Nigel Farage, serving the rugger-playing sons of rich parents like Gordon Ramsay, who are more likely to set foot on a polo field than in a bingo hall.
And yet the Budget only ever tinkers with working-class fun. It never announces a Â£5 surcharge on tickets to Glyndebourne or an emergency levy on vintage wine. There is VAT on crisps but not caviar. In previous years, George Osborne sounded like a man gleefully rooting out the poorâ€™s most meagre pleasure with his tax on pasties and static caravans. This year, with his 1p off a pint and his halving of bingo duty, he played the gent palming a generous tip: â€œThere you go, treat yourself.â€
Every governmentâ€™s relationship with working-class pleasures is contradictory, even tortured. Balancing tax revenue against populism; pricing people out of their vices while profiting from their weaknesses; declaring we have freedom to spend while carefully funnelling our spending.
The beer and bingo bonanza was to nudge said hardworking folk towards old-fashioned, gentler, sociable pursuits less likely to occasion self-harm. Binge drinking is cheaper at home than in a pub. And while bingo in its heyday was feared as a source of female waywardness, creating â€œbingoholicsâ€ who neglected household duties for â€“ shock! â€“ fun, it is the softest form of gambling. It seemed to me virtually impossible to splurge more than Â£20 in a night.
But it was government that drove people away from communal fun. Whatever the healthy intent, the smoking ban devastated Northern working menâ€™s clubs. It is a principal reason that 26 British pubs close every week and the number of bingo halls has halved since the 1990s (converted in south London mainly into evangelical churches). At the Elephant & Castle club, I occasionally heard distant strangulated shouts of â€œHouse!â€ from smokers playing from a blustery open-air pavilion up on the roof.
Now â€œtheyâ€ are largely staying at home drinking cheap supermarket booze and enjoying a fag while playing bingo online. Home entertainment and the internet has atomised us, turned us into a people of solitary vices.
Meanwhile gambling, which was once about a trip to the dogs or popping into a betting shop to follow a particular horse, has been allowed to leach into every crevice of public life. This week I attended the Politico book awards where a representative of sponsors Paddy Power spoke with pride about how his company encourages bets on â€œboth by-elections and papal electionsâ€. It was just a bit of fun, he said, whose purpose was to â€œstimulate political debateâ€. To him our democracy was just another chance to shake down the punter, the ballot paper a mere betting slip.
But then Paddy Power is shameless. Why not take a punt on who killed a young woman? â€œItâ€™s Oscar Timeâ€, read its ad, which was immediately banned. â€œMoney back if he walks. We will refund all losing bets on the Oscar Pistorius trial if he is found not guilty.â€
Paddy Powerâ€™s sponsorship of an event attended by many politicians showed its aspiration to cosy up to power. While Mr Osborne tried to look tough on the gambling industry by increasing duty on high-stakes betting machines because they are â€œhighly lucrativeâ€, he did nothing to address why that might be: because with their capacity for Â£100 bets and exciting â€œnear winsâ€, they foster addiction.
Ever wondered why there is a plague of Paddy Powers on one run-down high street? Itâ€™s because one shop is only permitted to house a limited number of machines â€” so Paddy Power just opens up more shops.
But then Grant Shapps or George Osborne donâ€™t live on such streets and so wonâ€™t be chucking their kidsâ€™ school shoes money into a slot. Their family fortunes couldnâ€™t be ruined in a single afternoon. That is something only â€œtheyâ€ would do.