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Friday, 25 March 2011

Nestling Up To The Jack

Victoria Park Bowling Club, 1284 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow G14 9EU

People used to scoff at bowling clubs and their elderly clientele. But whether it’s a growing awareness of the latest ‘ism, ageism, or the widespread constraints on entertainment spending, things may be changing down on the green.

I watched bowls on TV when a youngster. Even then, my grandfather would be telling us that it was becoming a young man’s sport. My brother and I would nod dutifully, while watching David Bryant - the master bowler with a hint of devil in him- puff on his pipe, looking anything but youthful. But it didn’t put us off taking out the carpet bowls later in the evening to bash the hell out of the skirting boards.

I knew my grandparents spent at least half of their evenings out at the bowling club, that and the Yarrow Shipbuilders social club. Even I enjoyed, if that’s the word, a night at the former club, a kid’s night when each child did a ‘turn’ to get a prize. Excruciating for a non-exhibitionist like myself, but I got through it. I forget my party piece, but do recall a fat boy’s rendition of a Sydney Devine classic.

On TV I was also exposed to the Crown Green version of the sport, mostly practised in the NW of England. Huge Blackpool crowds thronged round the lawn, people going in and out of the clubhouses. Even in my young days the scene was exciting, not for the sport, but for the speculation at what was going on in the hostelries, what mysterious concoctions were the spectators ordering, what was the buzz going in inside, away from the cameras.

But these distant memories were far from the front of my mind, walking head down in the rain to Victoria Park Bowling Club on a windy, wet, recent winter evening. It was a close neighbour’s birthday surprise party so The Muse and I were happy to enjoy the celebration and I was also keen to investigate whether clubs such as these are proving to be an alternative nightlife for the wider population in the recession.

High hedges shield the clubhouse and its green from the noise and fumes of Dumbarton Road at the border between Scotstoun and Whiteinch. In the spring and summer it becomes a natural haven from the dirt outside but in the middle of a harsh winter when everything is dank and dripping and the lawns are sodden, covered in muddy leaves and out of use, there is nowhere to linger but in the clubhouse, despite the mini-marquee that sits just outside, a leftover, no doubt, from an earlier celebration.

The clubhouse is a low, roughcast building. Not particularly inviting but functional, just like buildings housing social and sports clubs across the country. Looks like it was a fifties/sixties build. Inside is similar, designed to do a job, hosting a variety of functions from christenings to diamond anniversaries, race nights to children’s ice cream and jelly parties, if those things still take place.

So you have the practical half laminate, half carpet flooring and the DJ inlet. Our DJ for the night wasn’t too brilliant, but he did manufacture himself the chance to go through his gamut of local rivalry jokes, e.g. How can you tell when a Yoker girl has an orgasm? She drops her chips. Ok, so he didn’t actually use that one, but I like it. The jokes he did tell got laughs from the Scotstoun and Knightswood clientele and vice versa. His music mix was fine, keeping the generations happy.

The bar area is functional too. Depending on requirements and numbers, the full counter can be utilised or just the hatch at the side, allowing the room to be partitioned for different functions or meetings.

The prices are, of course, cheap but not perhaps as good as I’d expected, just about on a par with a reasonable pub like The Grove in Finnieston. Neat spirits are the best value, mixers and pints less so. They give you the ice bucket and water jug to add as you see fit, a difference from most public houses.

With all these fittings in place and a good crowd, the evening’s celebrations went well. Strangers could have walked in and joined the party and no one would have been the wiser. But none would arrive. So both the venue and the potential customers lose out, on an income stream and another option for drinking respectively.

At the back of ten o’clock the average age of the party told – it was a 70th after all – and the urns of tea began to appear. My cue for an exit. Initially, just for a cigar, but the absence of anyone outside willing to discuss my theories on clubs and pubs, and the proximity of Granny Gibbs, made me leave the club’s grounds and cross the main road.

I’ve reviewed Granny’s before, and despite its limitations, I have a soft spot for the place, even though its large interior is antithetical to encouraging a decent atmosphere. On this Saturday night there was a buzz inside, but perhaps this was more to do with the stomach-full of whisky chasers swirling within me. There were a couple of groups sat at tables, which could be described as middle-aged girls’ nights out. All were enjoying the sounds from the singer, Neil Diamond his speciality. A pity there weren’t more people in to enjoy his renditions.

Taking my time over this drink I pondered. Maybe I should invite those in here over to the bowling club, so at least one place was full. But the folk in here would have looked at me just as funny as those in the club had I marched in with my new friends behind me.

At the end of the evening, shivering in the adjacent bus stop waiting for a taxi or the alleged last bus (No. 9), I thought quickly (before other issues crowded out logic) about sports clubs. They aren’t yet stepping in to take the market lost by pubs. Maybe they don’t want to. Or maybe it just isn’t there, it’s sitting at home.

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