FEATURE: Last Chance For Ping Pong Glory @ Cumberland Arms | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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It will be a sad day for North East table tennis lovers as Ping Pong, which is held at the Cumberland Arms in Byker, will be closing its doors for the last time on Saturday 17th January.

For those in the know, the first rule of Ping Pong is “don’t tell your friends about ping pong” due to its popularity as more often than not the small space upstairs in the Cumberland Arms is bursting at the seams. For those not in the know, maybe the first rule of Ping Pong has held fast. So now seems like the best time to shout from the rooftops about our beloved Ping Pong Club.

Ping Pong involves a group of people, en masse, each with a bat in hand who start by standing awkwardly around a table (think musical chairs but with table tennis) before the game begins! Each person plays a shot before moving around to the other side of the table and over the course of the game the group gradually grows smaller and smaller as players miss and drop out.

But here’s the thing – there are no rules. “This means that whoever enters that space has to ask someone what is going on”, says Toby Lowe, the brains behind the club. “It makes people engage and talk to one another, and the whole thing becomes an experiment to see what rules people will create and enforce with one another. So Ping Pong is actually somewhere between a participatory art project and a social experiment.”

Sometimes people try to play with beer in their hands but this is part of the fun. Sometimes the ball mysteriously disappears and everyone searches for ten minutes to find the rogue. Sometimes people play cruel shots (there’s always a pantomime villain) and the crowd groans, while sometimes people send the ball flying off at mad angles, causing the crowd to roar with laughter. It is a stage and anything can happen. Eventually only two people are left to fight it out in the finale.

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“Everyone chats with everyone else, cos you’re all doing something daft together, squished round a table. And the music is brilliant, so everyone dances”

Toby explains where he came up with the idea of Ping Pong at the Cumberland. “Back in 2005, I went on a trip to Berlin, and came across the Dr. Pong bar where they play round the table every night, with DJs playing great tunes. I thought this was the greatest night out ever – it was a brilliant combination of a daft thing that people could just join in with, and also had an interesting philosophy behind it. Dr. Pong even has a manifesto page on their website – amazing!”

Toby talks further about Dr. Pong and what they were trying to do on an artistic, social and experimental level. “They were trying to create an experimental space for people to interact, provide a game that people can join in with, regardless of ability, but don’t write the rules down anywhere.”

Toby is also a key organiser in an international Ping Pong Festival called Pongress. He talks fondly of the first ever event. “Taking Ping Pong back to Berlin for the first Pongress… I thought if I had been inspired to start a ping pong night in Newcastle following a trip to Berlin, that there must be other nights around the world which had been similarly inspired. Over 20 folks from Newcastle went to Berlin, along with people from Washington DC, Paris, Manchester and London. We had an amazing week of art, music, dancing and ping pong.”

Ping Pong Club has also had some great themed nights over the years. “The UV night worked brilliantly – everyone looked amazing, and really got into the party spirit,” he remembers of his favourite themed event. “The zombie ping pong during Pongress 2 in Newcastle was fantastic. We had zombies being dissected live, with balls bursting out of their chests.”

As a night out, it is unique in the North East. Toby reflects on the appeal of Ping Pong Club and the fact that the night has picked up a lot of regulars over the years. “It’s a way for strangers to interact, so it creates a really friendly environment,” he says. “Everyone chats with everyone else, cos you’re all doing something daft together, squished round a table. And the music is brilliant, so everyone dances. That, and people give their competitive streak free-reign so you uncover your mates’ hidden ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality. Unleash the dark side!”

It is such a success that Ping Pong Club is responsible for “at least two marriages, three long term relationships, and one baby!” Wow!

Even though Ping Pong Club is ending, Toby is clear about the fact that he hopes it will continue. “I hope someone takes it on and injects some new energy and ideas. It’s too good an idea to stop completely.”

Toby has a few last words on the era of Ping Pong. “I hope it gets to live another life. I’ll miss it,” he admits.

So here’s to Ping Pong. I know I will certainly be on the lookout for its reincarnation in a pub somewhere in the wilds of the North East.

Interested? Last Chance for Ping Pong Glory, 17th January 2015 at the Cumberland Arms (but don’t tell your friends).

Thank you to our writer Rose Greenfield for providing some of her own personal photographs of the Ping Pong Club. You can see them all in the gallery below:

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