Tuesday 28 July 2020


From 2013, an old blog that harks back to a week I spent as a Bingo caller, a job which taught me more about life than anything I've done since.

Bingo-Master's Break-Out!

Here's Mark E. Smith and his Mancunian combo The Fall performing the scrupulously punctuated Bingo-Master's Break-Out, their debut single dating from August 1978. Play the song as loud as you can and sing along while reading the blog to enjoy the full multi-media experience.

As it happens I worked for a week as a Bingo caller (as the regular caller was off work) and the experience left its mark - wasting time in numbers and rhymes has become a lifestyle choice. I've long pondered over the extraordinary cultural richness of the bingo caller's repertoire. It is (as you'll see below) an elaborate accumulation of the time-honoured, the superstitious, the ribald and the surreal.

1 Kelly's Eye: a reference to 19th century Australian brigand Ned Kelly's monocular iron helmet.

2 One little duck: from the resemblance of the number 2 to a duck; see also '22'.

3 Cup of tea or You and me.

4 Shut that door! Catch phrase of Larry Grayson, camp presenter of the 1970s telly game show The Generation Game. Reportedly came from his attempt to say the French phrase "je t'adore".

5 Man alive!

6 Tom Mix: after the star of silent era Westerns. Less evocatively "half a dozen".

7 Lucky for some.

8 Garden gate. Sometimes Heaven's Gate.

9 Doctor's Orders: Number 9 was a laxative pill dispensed by army doctors in the Great War.

10 (Boris's) Den: The name refers to whoever currently resides at Number 10 Downing Street. In my bingo caller days it was 'Ted's Den', can you believe?

11 Legs Eleven: A reference to the shape of the number resembling a pair of legs. Players traditionally give a wolf whistle in response.

12 One dozen.

13 Unlucky for some.

14 The Lawnmower (The original lawnmower had a 14 inch blade.)

15 Here (as elsewhere below) the number is simply spelt out thus: "One and five - fifteen' or rather "fifteen-ah", that appended 'schwa' adopted by Mark E Smith for the rest-ah of his career-ah.

16 Sweet 16, never been kissed. From a1930s hit song by The Blue Mountaineers.

17 - 20  See 15 (above) but twenty may be called as "Two-oh - blind twenty", the zero resembling a milky cataract, if you see what I mean. Likewise 30, 40, 50 et seq.

21 Key of the Door: the traditional age of majority, on reaching which a house key would be entrusted.

22 Two little ducks The numeral resembles the profile of two ducks.  The traditional player esponse is often, "quack, quack, quack".

23 The Lord is My Shepherd: The first words of Psalm 23 in the Old Testament.

24 Knock at the door. (Players would rap the table) More prosaically 'two dozen'

25  Two and five - twenty-five (see 15).

26 Two and six, half a crown (two shilling and six pence) in the pre-decimalised currency, equivalent today to 12.5p.

27 Duck and a crutch. The number 2 looks like a duck (see '2') and the number 7 looks like a crutch.

28 Two and eight, or "in a state".

29  See 15

30 Burlington Bertie. Reference to a music hall song of the same name composed in 1900. Burlington Bertie is also bookmakers' slang for odds of 100 to 30.

Or (and this is terrific)

Dirty Gertie. Common rhyme derived from the given name Gertrude, used as a nickname for the statue La Délivrance, a 16-foot statue in bronze of a naked woman holding a sword aloft, the work of French sculptor Émile Oscar Guillaume (1867-1942).  It is located at the southern edge of Finchley at Henly's Corner, at the bottom of Regents Park Road. The statue has a number of local names including "Dirty Gertie", "The Wicked Woman", and (most popular - to the exclusion of its real name) "The Naked Lady". The statue was created as a celebration of the First Battle of the Marne when the German army was stopped from capturing Paris in August 1914. The usage was reinforced by Dirty Gertie from Bizerte, a bawdy song sung by Allied soldiers in North Africa during the Second World War.

31 See 15.

32 Buckle My Shoe.

33 All the threes.

34 See 15.

35 Jump and Jive (from the 1940s dance step).

36 Three dozen, or three-and-six.

37 - 43  See 15. Why none of these numbers merits any more distinctive call is a cultural mystery. Forty sometimes 'Life begins' or 'blind forty', but that's it.

44 Droopy drawers, a near-rhyme that refers to sagging trousers.

45 - 51  See 15. Fifty may be called as "Five-oh - blind fifty".

52 Danny La Rue. A reference to drag entertainer Danny La Rue (1927-2009). Also used for all other numbers apart from 12 ending in '2' (see '72' below). Alternatively 'Chicken vindaloo' reportedly introduced by a Butlins Holiday Camp caller in 2003.)

53 Here comes Herbie - 53 is the racing number of Herbie the sentient Volkswagen Beetle in the 1969 Disney film. Players usually reply "beep beep!".

54 House with a bamboo door.

55 All the fives.

56 Shotts Bus, refers to the former number of the bus from Glasgow to Shotts. There's a whole world in that 'former'.

57 Heinz Beanz. Refers to "Heinz 57", the "57 Varieties" slogan of the H. J. Heinz Company.

58  See 15.

59 The Brighton Line - refers to the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (which became part of the Southern Railway during the Grouping of 1923, which created four large companies from many smaller ones, such as the LBSCR).

60-61  See 15, although 60 may be called as "Six-oh - blind sixty".

62 Tickety-boo.

63-64  See 15

65 Stop work - a reference to the age of mandatory retirement for men, in the days when such a thing was possible.

66 Clickety click.

67-68 See 15

69 Anyway up. The number appears the same upside-down. "Meal for Two" is the lubricious alternative is a reference to the sexual position soixante neuf.

70 Sometimes "Seven-oh, blind seventy", or see 15

71 Bang on the drum.

72 Danny La Rue (again).

73 - 75  See 15.

76 Trombones "Seventy-six Trombones" a song from the 1962 Hollywood musical The Music Man.

Or (and this is my favourite of the lot) "Was she worth it?" This refers to the pre-decimal price of a marriage licence in Britain, 7/6d. The players traditionally shout back "Every Penny"

77 Two little crutches.

78 - 79 nada

80 Gandhi's Breakfast (i.e. "ate nothing").

81 - 83  See 15.

84 Seven dozen.

85 Staying alive (pre-dating the Bee Gees' popular hit record from 1977).

86 Between the sticks (orig. obsc., as they say in the OED).

87 Torquay in Devon - a baffling reference to this resort on the English Riviera.

88 Two Fat Ladies, obviously.

89 Nearly there (or Almost there).

90 Top of the shop,

So there you have it - one of those permeable linguistic systems that is both conventionally stable but subject to continuous revision. Now listen to Bingo-Master's Break-Out again. Catchy.

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