Sunday, 3 August 2014


About a mile from my childhood home there was a cluster of shops around a crossroads that served the local council estate. To this middle class boy, they looked strange and mysterious, inevitably tempting.

Side by side stood the transport cafe and the bookies. The concepts they represented were not strange to me. I had eaten in restaurants and both my father and my grandmother liked to place a bet on the horses every now and then. They lifted their phones and called their bookmakers. It was all very efficient, but somehow rather cold and distant.

My first job was milkman's boy, jumping on and off the float to pick up the empties. Jim showed me how to make sixpences dance around his fingers, blatantly lying to me that it made the housewives laugh. I knew well he was doing it to shortchange them but I didn’t care because I was 10 years old, unable to discern such adult rights from wrong.

After we finished the round, Jim took me to the transport cafe. I loved it, made a complete fool of myself and actually enjoyed all the men laughing at me when they heard my clipped accent. In there I felt no pressure; no expectation and more, enjoyed an acceptance of some kind, powerful enough to change my life in later years.

After drinking several mugs of steaming strong sweet tea and snarfing down a fried egg sandwich (two slices of toasted white slathered in butter and ketchup, dripping yolk and dropping white as you ate it) Jim would lean back in his chair and belch incredibly loudly.

His burp sounded like mix of someone being sick and an opera singer tuning up, which all seemed to me a bit behaviourally extravagant, seeing as how we were in public. To my bourgeois mannered amazement nobody twitched an eyebrow.

“Right, Charles me boy! On your toes son! Just got to pop next door and then I’ll return you safe to your mum.”

Fantastic! We were going to visit the bookies next door. The not-very-swishy strips of filthy dirty plastic hanging over the bookmaker’s doorway acted as a portal to another universe.

Being in the bookies was like watching tele, which was black and white in those days. There was little daring to declare itself beyond monochrome in the scene before me.

Men in flat caps talked to others in boiler suits, rollies permanently stuck to bottom lips, staying lit, being drawn on every now and then.

There was a long queue of men trying to put money on a race that had already started and a very short queue of men (rarely more than two) who were trying to pick up their winnings from the last race so they could put a bet on this other race, the one that the other men wanted to bet on, even though it had already started.

It used to make me giggle. These grown men doing the same silly thing every day. They knew that the bloke behind the counter would tell them they couldn’t place their bets on a race that had started and everyone knew well that everyone else knew that was the case and every day everybody ignored it.

So ferociously eager was the mens’ desire to bet after the race started, I used to wonder if there wasn’t some kind of magic involved. There was no question of cheating. The bookies at Brockhurst Corner wasn’t a launching pad of cutting edge technology back in 1970. 

It was a smoke-filled litter-ridden mixture of hope and loss, testosterone driven dreams and nightmares, where lives might be riven between success and failure, by luck and a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

Thankfully, it was also a place where men went to have a laugh and behave like children. So as soon as the wire rose or the stall doors opened, just as the field galloped into the first furlong, all of them would race over to the betting window, waving their wads, shouting the name of their horse, screaming the particular odds they wanted, as if their’s was the only voice in the room; in the entire world.

Every day the bloke behind the counter would wave them away, shout back some blue abuse and then, just to wind the crowd up into a blind frenzy, he’d take a couple of bets from those closest to the window, agreeing preferential odds which fuelled loud guttural grunts of “Fix!” and “ He’s on a bung, the dirty little bugger!”

Despite the pure farcical and wonderful comedy involved in this maelstrom of a floor show, the real fascination of the old bookies for me was the bloke who worked the chalkboard.

With the radio going in the background and messages coming from the back room, he’d write out the runners and riders by hand on the blackboard, and then work out the odds right in front of you, doing the maths in his head, rubbing out the 3/1 and going Berlington Bertie 100/30 on No. 6 in the 1:45 at Haydock, move on, rub out, rewrite, keep calm while wiping the hair down on the back of his head.

Using what seemed to me like a planet’s worth of mathematical ability, he did all this while also having a bit of a laugh and a chat with the lads, rolling his Old Holborn into liquorice papers while taking a swig of Tizer from the bottle.

Gambling these days is unrecognisable from those. The way having a flutter stands today, you're more likely to sell your bet to someone else than bet on a horse’s nose.

Online betting has become just like my Dad’s phone call to his bookies: efficient but cold and distant. Part of the thrill of having a flutter on the gee-gees was being in the bookies, shouting and cheering with the crowd. There was a thrill of excitement to share, even when you lost.

©Charlie Adley

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