Sociologists have identified the typical leisure activities of the unemployed as ‘going for the occasional drink, playing bingo and placing a bet at the bookies.’ It’s wet Tuesday morning in early October, so the bookies it is.
This is not my usual turf you understand. I’ve only ever placed a bet once. On the Grand National. Like everyone. This is not because I have any deep set moral objection to gambling, and, though I wouldn’t want to trivialise the debilitating effect gambling has on some people, I’m fortunate not to have an addictive personality and reason that I’m unlikely to descend into depravity or develop a fetish for tiny pens.
I head for the high street of a well-heeled South London neighbourhood where, even here, there is a choice of at least three bookmakers. I choose the biggest and brightest, and the one that sounds like a person, reasoning for no particular reason that they’ll be less likely to laugh at me. Today, it turns out, their only customers are me and two blokes in caps, one sitting at a desk watching screens with lists of horses, the other being similarly studious in front of sheets of statistics about form and running. Why aren’t these people working in the City? They must be as well equipped as any of the chancers who do. Or perhaps, until last year, they did, which is why there here, with me, on a wet Tuesday morning in early October…
Somehow the whole place reeks of cigarettes, which must be impossible as no one’s been allowed to have a fag in there since July 2007. A psychological trick of the environment? Or a mental association with the fumes of desperation and cheap pvc? There are refreshments on offer – fizzy drinks, bottled water and Grab Bags of Walkers – and I make a mental note to suggest to the management that investing in an espresso machine and a few croissants might be a moneyspinner with the local demographic since there is plenty of room in here to park a buggy.
A man in a glass booth looks uncomfortable as I slap my freshly ATM’d tenner on the counter and ask: ‘Are you taking bets on the Booker?’
‘The Booker Prize. It’s tonight!’
He taps his computer keyboard and tries not to call me love. ‘The only specials we’ve got on at the moment are Strictly and X-Factor. Otherwise it’s footie, dogs or horses.’
‘Try under Man Booker – Man as in, er, man…’
He shakes his head. It’s a slow morning and he’s a patient chap so he offers to ring hq. ‘Who are you betting on?’
‘Sarah Waters, that’s W-A-T-E-R-S… no ‘L’, but I’d like to know the odds first,’ I bluff, hoping my A level maths will equip me for whatever complex odds and spread betting options he throws at me. Which is unlikely as A-level Maths was all about Poisson distributions and drawing coloured balls from bags (something which I can say I’ve never actually done in the two decades since. Or before).
I attempt to blend in as he wedges a phone in the folds of his neck for a number of minutes. This gives me time to mentally spend the wad I’m going to win when 6-1 Walters romps home ahead of Mantel (the favourite from the outset at 11-10), Byatt (8-1) and Coetzee (6-1 for a hat trick). Not that I ever could win. I don’t. In 15 years of the National Lottery, I’ve won £10 four times. (It is reckoned that, on average, a million people win something every draw, so with a UK population of 61 million, with two draws a week and even if everyone did the Lottery, I’m sure my turn should come round more often, possibly almost twice a year?) And the only time I’ve ever won a raffle prize it was a sack of dog food. And I don’t even have a dog. No, a bet on Sarah Waters, for no real reason other than that I loved the book, would serve no purpose other than to effectively remove her from the running.
‘A-huh, a-huh, thanks. Click. I’m afraid…’
My attempt to acquire a gambling habit has fallen at the first fence! ‘As there is another round of judging this afternoon, betting has been closed today on this one.’
‘Of course,’ I fluster as if I should have realised that all along, and thank him profusely for his help.
Sarah owes me one – at least now, without my bet, she’s still in with a chance. Meanwhile I have the consolation of being lucky enough to have read such a superbly crafted novel.