I was looking for the betting shop. I had the tips from the professional gambler, via Nana. Tribal Myth in the 3.45 at Doncaster and Fallen Idol in the 4.20. This was the word amongst those in the know and my key to a foreign world.
My last key
I suspected that they were inferior pieces of information, divinations from lesser gods, for the prophecies of the great algorithm only have potency when they are kept from the masses. And yet as I walked to the betting shop I felt a little excitement thinking of how much to bet. Perhaps it was the prospect of a new experience, another dark corner for me to investigate.
Perhaps the thought of how much £2, £5, £10 would produce. I still had the odds of 4-1 that the gambler used as an example in my head as a starting point. £30? £40? £100? I did not want to win and be left wishing I had bet more so I decided on £10 and got it out of the cash machine.
I carried on walking towards, Kings Cross. Where was this betting shop that Nana said was here? It was gone four o’clock already and Fallen Idol was my last key.
Eventually Ladbrokes emerged from around the corner and I entered.
I had seen betting shops from outside before; through the widow, through the door and from inside it did not reveal any great surprises. It was functional with a flat wooden floor and large industrial mat. An electronic betting machine, three occupied fruit machines that took notes not loose change.
One man waited by the fruit machines (and everyone there was a man) and another ten stood or milled around. Two black, two Asian, the rest white. All at least 40 years old apart from perhaps two men at the fruit machines. From their dress the men stood in front of the serious versions of the machines I’d avoided in pubs seemed the most normal. A man in a suit came in. Waiting for a train?
I was most struck by the resemblance to Argos - the little pens (red instead of blue), the waiting faces staring at the screens, my feeling of class tourism, a capital interface without products, the feeling of being permanently understaffed, permanently unfinished.
The glossy face of capitalism hadn’t managed to cover the experience, like so many places of the poor, the touch of real people couldn’t be magicked away. Scraps of paper littered the floor - lingering evidence of a day’s losses. Untidy chairs around futile tables. Unlike a shop, the customers brought their own lies strong enough not to need the decor to lie to them.
Ten pounds on Fallen Idol
I stood near the glass-screened counter. The two members of staff were already serving but one called me over as someone seemed to be finishing. His tag said Richard and he had a short mousey quiff curled round to disguise a thinning crown.
‘Ten pounds on Fallen Idol on the 4.20 at Doncaster’
‘Do you know the race?’
He didn’t hear me and for a moment I assumed he would have known anyway
‘The 4.20 at Donacaster’
I remembered the gambler talking about betting on every horse to win and lose. It seemed odd, counter-intuitive, to bet on something to fail.
‘Yes to win’
‘Do you know the odds?’
‘Get a good tip?’ he said smiling
‘Something like that’, I said smiling too and took the slip.
He could see I was a tourist. He would have spotted me the moment I entered. The way I looked, the way I asked, not knowing the right language, the subtle code. He probably knew I was going to lose.
I felt out of place, in another outlet of the world of traditional men that was not for me. It reminded me of walking into a traditional pub full of regulars for them to turn with disdain.
I slipped invisibly into position in front of the 20 screens showing races to come and those just gone and just one of the one in hand. The room felt grey and ashy even though cigarettes had long been banned. I looked around at coffee cups, bins that people had made no effort to aim their dead slips towards, signs that spoke of ‘Zone play’, a notice board for ‘greyhounds’, and a notice board for ‘horses’.
The man waiting by the slot machines said “I never win on these” and I imagined it was a pocket of rational awareness, not shared in other areas of his gambling.
The customer least homogonised, least able to blend into the middle stratas of the city, moved around more than the others, lean, tall, shaved head and with too-short combat trousers, tatty trainers and an oversized black coat.
‘Ups and downs but I’m not losing. That’s the main thing’ he said
‘I never understood these’ commenting on the machine skipping on to another thought, moving round the room. Another one with dose of compartmentalised realism.
‘Is the 4.20 from Donacaster still waiting?’ someone said
‘Yeah that’s my last bet’ I think it was him that replied. Then a little later, he seemed a bit more excited:
‘Didn’t expect that. £14 on a £3 bet at Knebworth. I’m off. I’ve had enough’
And he was off.
A black man dressed humbly in smart trousers and shirt entered and said to someone who had been standing to my right
‘I though you’d gone home’
This was a hangout for men, like a pub, and open almost as late, where fleeting acquaintances were forged by shared losses and hopes and plans and systems. Knitted together with the lean conversations of men that carry so much.
And they’re off
And all the time a running commentary from the television on what is coming up next, on forms, on times, on horses, on races….
‘And they’re off. No more bets’
‘….And that’s wealthy….’
A coded phrase
‘….Fallen Idol is only one behind….’
It seems like all the horses are mentioned, the name offering a glimpse of hope, a tease.
‘…in Pink and White….Fallen Idol still only one behind…and that’s still wealthy…Fallen Idol only 2 lengths to make up……’
And in maybe a minute it’s over.
The standing customers offer scarce clues to how they feel. One in front of me tosses his paper on the floor. One on my right tears his into four pieces while another complains ‘he didn’t pull a muscle’ trying to wrestle back some control with his empty analysis.
But the rest of the people barely moved, appearing to drift though passing time, through races, through money… Were they rationalising? Planning their next hope? Worrying about their loss? Had they even bet on this race?
A man behind me walks towards a slot machine with what must be about £200 in £20 notes.