On my way to the British Museum to do some research for my novel, I think of pinball, and despair. Once thought of, the temptation cannot be resisted. I turn off and head for a pub a block to the south of New Oxford Street. It has a pinball machine which I have been playing a lot in the last few weeks. This particular model is called ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. Its slogan is ‘Love never dies.’ All these machines have storylines, most often based on the imagery of science fiction or of games of chance. A pinball machine’s story is graphically spread across both the playfield and the backglass, while the game’s bumpers, rollovers, gates and so on are customised to fit in with the theme. In ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, the silver ball hurtles along dark, stone-flagged corridors and up cobwebbed ramps, bounces off battlements and disappears from time to time into catacombs. An odd feature is an additional ball which is occasionally released, seemingly at random, and which wobbles somnambulistically across the playfield from left to right before disappearing again. The effect is eerie and puts me off my game, so that the ball I am playing with often slips away between the two lower flippers and is lost. The backglass features Transylvanian beauties. An electronic voice issues what are probably challenges laced with menace, but, being slightly deaf, I cannot hear them.

I wonder if it helps that I have read the book? In fact, despite my familiarity with Bram Stoker’s masterpiece and my ability to decode the book’s multi-layered subtexts about, among other things, colonialism, sadomasochistic sex, miscegenation and vaccination, I am not doing very well at this particular game and have won no replays. Do the designers seriously expect me to fantasise as I play? Am I supposed to allow myself to be guided by its images, so that I cast myself in the role of Doctor Van Helsing and imagine the ball to be a silver bullet that I am trying to aim at the buffers and drop targets which double as legions of vampires? As my score mounts, the lights flash more fiercely and a hideous carillon of electronic bells begins to sound.

Actually I am not so fond of all this excitement. I should like something quieter and what I fantasise about is something which does not yet exist – the ‘Barbara Pym Crampton Hodnett’ pinball game. In the story painted by this machine’s graphics (watercolour, of course), the layout will be formal and the ball will roll gently up garden paths and then, having reached the top of its arc and flirted gently with the buffers, it will turn back down sunlit country lanes, pausing perhaps to bounce off a church hall or a village shop. At the top of the playfield, the player will be presented with the representation of a village fête, in which high scores can only be attained by targeting the pots of jam and bric-a-brac of the bring-and-buy-sale. The backglass, with a scorechart tricked out to look like the score-board of a rural cricket club, will feature some not especially seductive village librarians and curates’ wives posing over a recumbent university lecturer. One would expect to get rather low, even understated scores on this machine.

I tell myself that pinball is a young man’s game. When I was a postgraduate student at London University, I used to get up at 11, walk over to the School of Oriental and African Studies and, if no one had done so already, switch on the pinball machine in the corner of the junior common room and clock up the maximum possible number of replays before buying myself some breakfast. After breakfast, I would return to the game to clock up some more replays. It was an antiquated Gottlieb machine, assembled sometime in the Sixties, and hence without the doubtful improvements of the electronic age. It had a storyline based on card-play. As the ball hit the drop targets or was flung out from one balltrap to the next, it made clunking and thocking sounds which were intensely satisfying. I wish I could remember the name of the machine. I was doing a PhD in 13th-century Egyptian history. For some reason the game particularly appealed to Buddhists and most of my fellow enthusiasts were Sinologists. As we played, I learnt a fair bit about the poetry of Chinese hermits, geomancy and the history of pyrotechnics. I never completed my PhD.

The next day I am in Calais on a day trip. The French are much keener on le flipper than we are, and the country is a paradise for connoisseurs of clapped-out machines. In a bar I find an ageing version of The Twilight Zone, with graphics based on an early Sixties American television series of fantasy and horror stories. I never saw the programmes, but I believe some quite good writers, like Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, contributed. Despite my lack of familiarity with the stories, I do quite well with this machine. Old machines with their slowed-down responses are generally easier to win on – unless, that is, one or two of the flippers have seized up.

The other gratifying aspect of my day in France is that I find two copies of my book, Les Mystères d’Alger, in what seems to be the town’s only bookshop. The novel is a thriller set in Algiers in 1960 and one of its chief claims to distinction is the exciting pinball scene. My hero Philippe Roussel, a renegade intelligence officer on the run in Algiers, pauses for a game in a smoky bar, hoping that his absorption in it will protect him from conversational overtures. He begins to think about the machine he is looking down on:

  It is an American machine, the jaunty ‘Swing Time’ model. ‘IT’S MORE FUN TO COMPETE!’ A crew-cut little urchin sticks his head out from behind one of the buffers and a balloon issues out of his mouth ‘HOW YA DOIN’?’ and on the other side of the field of play another’s balloon reads: ‘TOO BAD! TRY AGAIN!’ The whole thing is styled for the Sixties – the decade into which, against all the odds, I have survived two weeks. The styling of this awful machine is surely the harbinger of the next ten years – slick, smart, materialistic, well-behaved – a dream of life for the no-hopers in this bar. The first game was just to get the feel of the machine and see how the roll-overs worked.

Sadly for novel-reading pinball enthusiasts of a philosophical disposition, Roussel is not left alone with his meditative game and an armed confrontation with a képi bleu swiftly follows. But, my novel apart, they write on this matter better in France, Georges Perec being perhaps the most recent of the great literary pinball players. The protagonist of Perec’s A Man Asleep speaks for me: ‘You hug the machines for nights on end, feverishly, angrily. You cling, grunting, to the machines, accompanying the erratic rebounds of the steel ball with exaggerated thrusts of your hips. You wage relentless warfare on the springs, the lights, the figures, the channels.’

Having misspent my youth with this game, I should be really good at it. Sadly, I am not. It hurts me to recognise myself as not only an idler, but even as an idler who is not very good at idling. If I am honest (am I ever honest?) I should admit that one of my troubles is that I do not think about my game. I do not even bother to read the detailed information about the scoring system printed at the bottom of the playfield. I prefer to bash madly away, relying on the strength of my thumbs on the flippers to keep the ball as far as possible from the exit gates. My technique with the Times crossword is somewhat similar. I do not like actually to think about the clues: I prefer to solve them by intuition. If I have laboriously to decode a clue and logically work out the answer, I regard myself as having in a sense failed. So I have been trying to use the crossword to train up my intuition, but all that is by the way.

Instead of all these games, I should be working on my new book. Now that Exquisite Corpse, a novel about the British surrealists, is finished, I am working on another novel, a stirring and fantastic historical romance set during the Wars of the Roses. It occurs to me that if only I could find the ‘Black Knight’, then some at least of my problems would be solved. I could brood on the themes of my novel while playing pinball. In my mind’s eye I can still see the Black Knight making his destrier caracole on the backglass, and I recall vividly the heraldry on the sides of the machine’s casing (Or, a rampant lion gules). ‘Black Knight’, a Williams machine, was one of the classic games of the Eighties. It had a playfield on two levels, connected by ramps and a mystery score activated by a bonus lane. The Black Knight’s voice used to issue out from somewhere behind the backglass, challenging you to further combat. The ‘Black Knight’ is a collector’s piece now, but if I could find one of these marvels and afford to buy it, then I think that the machine’s vivid images of chivalry and the tiltyard might help keep my mind focused on my own literary fantasies, so that, while I played, I would be beholding in my mind’s eye the jousting grounds at Smithfield, with their barriers, pavilions and pennants.

I should like to recreate all this in words with the same sort of minute and glittering particularity that is characteristic of a painting by Van Eyk. In the opening chapter of his classic, The Waning of the Middle Ages, Jan Huizinga remarked that ‘to the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us.’ In returning in my novel to the world when it was so much younger, I should in a sense be returning to my own youth and my youthful passion for knights in armour and the arcane lores of heraldry, falconry and astrology, all decked in the bright colours of a child’s imagination.

My reality is somewhat different, for I spend the afternoons in the frowsty obscurity of public bars. I wonder who all these other people are here who have no work to go to, but I do not talk to them. I have become what Anthony Powell would call an ‘afternoon man’. I do not see any ‘afternoon women’ and, in general, playing pinball is not a very good way of picking up beautiful girls. The only beautiful women I see are airbrush-painted on the backglass of the machines. Pinball women have long legs and bizarrely pointed breasts. The curviness of their bodies is accentuated by glossy white highlights. Pinball machines are heirs to the medieval automata – ingeniously contrived mechanical trees of gold with singing birds, little orchestras of marionettes which beat out the hours, clepsydras disguised as mahouts on elephants and such like – which used to entertain the Roman emperors in Constantinople and the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. This imperial ancestry notwithstanding, the design of the modern machines is unmistakably tacky. It partakes both of the gaudy sleaze of fairground graphics and of the lubricious iconography of the low-grade nightclub or garage calendar.

I drink and I sweat heavily as I play. The sweat trickles in rivulets down my face, making my nose slippery, and my glasses begin to slide as drops of sweat plash on the glass covering of the playfield. My shirt is soaked and I will have to give up all thought of entering the British Museum in this state. I know that I will only be able to walk away from this machine when my hands have become too numb to operate the flippers properly. Time, talent and money – I can stand here the whole afternoon and watch them all dribble away. Can and will. I ought to be concentrating on the game, but I am thinking about how hard I will have to write tomorrow simply to make enough money to replace the sum I have squandered today on this wretched machine. I play by myself – or should it be with myself? This dribbling away makes me think of Freud and the remarks he made in his essay ‘Dostoevsky and Parricide’, about ‘the passionate activities of the hands’ and the relationship of the vice of gambling to that of masturbation. Pinball is supposed to be fun, but when do I laugh? I talk alternately to myself and to the machine, cursing both me and it. At least Dostoevsky gambled for money. I only play for another replay. I am desperate to shrink my concerns to this tiny world under the glass. I have this fantasy that if only I can win on this machine, triumph in this microcosm of gaudily painted rollovers, kickout holes and ramps, then that victory will be an omen, foreshadowing success in the macrocosm – the world outside this saloon bar.

I tell myself I am playing for my very soul. Dostoevsky’s novella The Gambler is very good on the feverishly superstitious calculations which fester in the brains of people like me. He is good, too, on ‘the moral meanness of gambling and its foulness’. Another imaginary machine comes to mind – the ‘Dostoevsky’s The Gambler’ model. The setting is the casino of the spa-town of Roulettenberg. Foxy-faced croupiers will use their rakes to draw in the takings, while seedy gentlemen in evening dress sit at tables covered in green baize and put pistols to their heads. Haughty harlots in furs, admiring epileptics, parricides and remittance men stand in the shadowy margins and look on. There are also some rakish cavalry officers, who would be more at home in a pinball machine based on Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’. At the centre of the playfield is a revolving roulette wheel which traps the silver ball, before sending it spinning off in a new direction. Orthodox monks and holy fools cast down curses on the gamblers from the heights of the backglass. The ball which hits the topmost target sets a bell tolling and the stakes are life and death.

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Vol. 16 No. 15 · 4 August 1994

I’m sure that Robert Irwin would be interested to know that things have moved on, yet stayed strangely the same at the School of Oriental and African Studies (LRB, 7 July). During my recently completed anthropology degree I used to breeze in at around 11 to play ‘World Cup ’90’ in the Junior Common Room. The meditative qualities of video-game football were, I found, a perfect accompaniment to my degree: Lévi-Strauss puts in a hard tackle on Evans-Pritchard and dribbles up to the half-way line. A long ball to Michel Foucault results in an exquisite one-two with Roland Barthes before Jean Baudrillard is caught out by the reality principle trap (offside). I still haven’t heard whether I’ve passed.

Tristram Biggs
London SE10

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