Two things from England wandered across my computer screen yesterday. The first was a link to Party Bingo, a fully-licensed online bingo site in England. The second thing that wandered across my monitor was a 1972 informational video for new students attending the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology has hit the internet. That video send me careening wildly down memory lane, a memory that includes my first ever exposure to licensed betting shops. Let me backtrack a little, though.
It’s true that my year as an exchange student occurred some years after 1972 and I attended a different university. Despite those differences, the similarities between what’s shown in this old video and what I experienced are striking. That is, I was there far enough in the past to be a lot closer to 1972 in my England experiences than I am to 2012 in my experiences. For example, that room in the sixth photo down is virtually identical to the student housing room I occupied while I lived there. My university also had a very active Student Union, and I hung out a lot in the SU building, including the bar. At Cal, there was a bar, but I couldn’t hang out there, because I wasn’t yet 21. In England — no problem. Incidentally, I didn’t drink (still don’t) so I just . . . hung out.
I also have vivid memories of “Rag Week.” Students for various organizations would sell “rag mags” for a few pennies. They were small booklets filled with jokes, many insanely stupid. Somewhere in a box, deep in a closet, I still have my collection of rag mags. The only joke I remember from those hoary collections is “What color is a burp? Burple.”
The video also reminded me of professional football matches. I never actually saw a professional match, although I went to a Christmas party at the football club, which the Student Union had leased for the event. The fact is that, by the time I got to England, football fans were an ugly lot. I always knew a match was coming up because all of the local shops would board up their windows. One didn’t go to a match, one hid from it.
England was then, as it is now, so similar to and yet so different from America. We almost spoke a common language, but I still managed to get myself in trouble. My friends and I once had a lively evening telling silly jokes, until I stopped everything by telling a joke they thought was perverted nonsense. I bet you know the joke: “Why did the fireman wear red suspenders? To hold up his pants.” In England, that joke would be told as follows: “Why did the fireman wear red braces? To hold up his trousers.” What I’d manage to say was “Why did the fireman wear a red garter belt? To hold up his underpants.” Yup, two nations separated by a single language.
Those differences get me back to that online bingo site. Until I went to England, the whole notion of licensed betting shops eluded me. When I thought of anything but racetrack or Vegas betting, I had pictures of Runyon-esque characters speaking a highbrow version of lowdown English:
It never occurred to me that an entire nation could sanction betting. Wherever one went in England, there were licensed betting offices. You could bet on anything, whether it was a football match, a horse race, or the outcome of an upcoming election, local, national, or international. I never went into one of those shops, hindered as I was by a very American puritanical streak. I’ve grown up since then, and certainly become more libertarian. I know that gambling is a fearsome addiction for some, but it’s plain old fun for others. I know people who think nothing about spending $400 for an evening of food and wine, so why should I condemn someone who spends $100 on a horse race?
But just as England has changed dramatically since the video was made and since I lived there, so too has licensed betting. It’s gone online, so now you too can sign up for Party Bingo. If that’s your thing, more power to you — just be sure not to get so enmeshed in the game that you become a living model for Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress: