The machines that ate my life

Forget super-casinos: worry about the brash "virtual roulette" in the high street

Three days ago, I got paid and put all my money into a machine in a Coral's betting shop around the corner from where I live. I didn't mean to. I didn't want to. But I did. It's called a "virtual roulette" machine; the gaming industry calls it a "fixed-odds betting terminal", or FOBT. Walk into any bookies in the country and you'll see several, all with the sounds and effects of a real roulette wheel, usually with a crowd around them. It took less than an hour to lose my money. I walked home, sat in front of my window and wept. Occasionally, the word "probation" crossed my mind and I found myself slamming the window sill.

That is the word that our Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, used during the second reading of the Gambling Bill in November to describe how the government views the 20,000 unregulated roulette machines that have been in betting shops up and down the country since 2001. Frankly, it was nothing more than an aside. Last month, during the third reading, she didn't even mention them. The remainder of her speech - indeed, the rest of the near-six-hour debate - concentrated mainly on the issue of deregulating casinos.

This is nothing new. Over the past several months, I have listened to politicians, journalists, editors, bishops, social workers, experts, members of the public and even a "professor of gambling" talking or writing about the consequences of relaxing the gambling regulations. Talk has centred on the so-called super-casinos and fears that this country is about to be turned into Las Vegas. The debates on the Gambling Bill have followed the same pattern.

Why is no one talking about this or showing what is happening? This government has already relaxed the gaming laws to such an extent that there are now thousands of "mini-casinos" in the country, and each one houses one or more of these roulette machines - a far more addictive and lethal game than anything you will find at a "proper" casino.

Put simply, you can now walk up any high street, in any town, on any day of the week, at ten o'clock in the morning, and be able to feed - literally feed - anything up to £500 into a machine for one spin. A few seconds later you can do it again. If you are short of ready cash, no problem, because you can use your credit card. If you find feeding £20 notes into a machine a bit laborious, just give the cashier your money and she will "top up" the machine for you, automatically. And if you find it a bit tedious having to press the start button for each game, there's an auto button, and then a repeat button. The cumulative effect is that there can be only seconds between each spin: exactly the formula for turning anyone into a potential addict. You can win or lose thousands of pounds in minutes.

Jowell calls these machines "very popular". That is an understatement. British gamblers are staking more than three times as much money on them (£290m) as they bet every week on the National Lottery (£88m).

This new betting craze, the annualised turnover of which is estimated at more than £15bn at the "big five" bookmakers, has become far and away Britain's most popular gambling product. Since the machines were introduced in 2001, betting-industry turnover has had a fourfold leap to £29.4bn. Gambling addiction has leapt, too. Only this month, GamCare, the gambling addiction charity, linked the rising number of calls to its helpline to the spread of roulette machines in betting shops.

Gambling in general has cost me dearly, but these machines especially so. A few years ago, I moved to a town that doesn't have a casino. This meant I would have to travel for miles to get to a roulette machine.

It was a good disincentive. Then the virtual roulette machines arrived and my world fell apart. I was like a heroin addict who suddenly could get a fix five hundred yards from his front doorstep.

It's what I did again this week. And it is why the debate over the Gambling Bill, again, has left me close to tears with frustration. You have got to understand that for me - and thousands like me - it's personal.

James Burton will be the subject of a 90-minute documentary special, The Confession, on BBC2 in April this year

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Condoleezza Rice

Master of artifice: Anton Chekhov pictured in Russia in 1897. Image: Corbis.
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My grandfather’s Chekhovian death in the deep blue sea

A seafaring Chekhov story dredges up some family history.

My grandad was born with a caul – a strange, papery bonnet, the remains of the amniotic sac. In those days there was a widely held superstition among sailors that if you were born “in caul” you could never drown. I never met him but I suppose that if you were, as he was, a sailor at war, it was comforting to believe that you weren’t going to drown. Having survived the Battle of Jutland, he got married. He was late arriving for his ship, the HMS Hampshire, which sailed without him, and he was thrown into the Bridewell. All but 12 of the Hampshire’s 600 hands were lost, including Lord Kitchener. Maybe Grandad thought his caul – his luck – had saved him.

He got safely through two world wars. In the end he died in peacetime. His ship – the Cydonia – was blown into an unexploded mine off the Pembrokshire coast. He was the stoker. His epic, sweaty, hellish job was to keep the fires going. He wasn’t supposed to be on duty at the time. He was covering for someone else. He didn’t drown when the engines blew. He was boiled alive.

I lived with my grandmother – his wife – when I was small, in a little flat on Stanley Road near the docks in Liverpool. Apart from the odd excursion to the city centre (two stops away), I don’t remember her ever straying beyond the little network of streets that was her parish. Yet there was a glass cupboard in the corner of the parlour that was stuffed with the fine, untouchable things that Grandad had brought back from his voyages in the South China Sea or across the Atlantic. A pale tea service so delicate it seemed to tremble like a sea creature behind the glass, a chunk of coral, a shell with Psalm 107 burned into it and a varnished porcupine fish.

That’s about all I know about my grandad.

My father barely knew him either – he was at sea for most of Dad’s childhood and then he was dead. So Dad didn’t talk about him much. My grandma didn’t talk about anyone much. So I hardly ever gave my grandad a second thought. One day I was at a film festival doing press for a film I’d written. In the interval between interviews, it looked rude to pick up a book, so I noodled around on my phone and found a short story by Anton Chekhov that I had not read before called “Gusev”. Technologically, sociologically, geographically and emotionally I was a solar system distant from my grandma’s flat. But one paragraph in, for the first time in my life, I saw in my imagination Grandad. Everything about the story lead me to think of him.

Gusev is an orderly heading home to Russia in the sickbay of a tramp steamer. Talkative and feverish, he annoys one of the other passengers – Pavel Ivanitch – by worrying that the ship will be broken on the back of a big fish, or that the wind will “break its chains”. As he slips in and out of consciousness, he has visions of life at home. Heartbreakingly, these visions feature a pond – a domestic, manageable version of the sea. Eventually, he dies and his body is sewn up in sailcloth and tipped overboard. It splashes into the sea and the foam makes it look as though he is wrapped in lace. He disappears beneath the waves. Then Chekhov produces his amazing ending, following Gusev’s corpse as it sinks to the sea floor, past startled pilot fish and a curious shark.

My grandad’s corpse, like Gusev’s, would have rolled around on the bottom of the ocean. There’s also the fact Gusev is returning from a war and that he is dreaming of home, that he didn’t belong out there on the sea. On top of all the parallels, though, Gusev seems like a real person and this seems like a real incident. This happens so often when you’re reading Chekhov – that feeling you’re reading about something that really happened. How does he do this?

Chekhov was out and about in the world with his eyes open. In 1890 he spent three months trekking across Siberia to get to the penal colony at Sakhalin. On the way, he wrote extraordinary, vivid letters to his sister. He came back on a steamer and there were two passengers on board who were extremely ill. The character of Gusev has the kind of oddity you feel comes from observation. He dislikes Chinese people intensely and gets into trouble for beating up four of them. When Pavel Ivanitch asks him why, he says, “Oh nothing. They came into the yard so I hit them.” When he is dead, trussed up in the sailcloth, Chekhov describes him with a vivid but undignified phrase. He looks like a carrot or a radish, broad at the top and narrow at the bottom. And, of course, he dies – what could be more “real” than that? Chekhov was a doctor. It’s a serious matter when a doctor lets a person die, even if that person is fictional.

The landscape, too, is drawn from observation. In another of the Siberian letters he describes crossing Lake Baikal and looking down into its crystal-clear waters. The first time I read it, I felt a shock of delight: this must have been the inspiration for Gusev’s watery descent.

The extraordinary thing about any Chekhov story is that when you begin to read one, you have no idea where it’s going to end up. You can easily imagine the story that Maupassant, for instance, would have made of my grandad’s life. The Macbethy irony of his believing that just because you couldn’t drown you wouldn’t die at sea and then – ha ha, cruel fate – he’s boiled instead. He should have known! But for me the most arresting thing about his life was how utterly unpredictable its consequences were. If he hadn’t jumped ship that night, been prepared to be locked up for an extra night with his wife, I wouldn’t be here writing. I wouldn’t exist. Nor would my children, my siblings, my cousins. Dozens of people are only alive because of his tipsy whim.

“Gusev” is unpredictable in the way that life is. It starts with a kind of comedy routine between the ignorant Gusev and the superior Ivanitch but ends up with that soaring, sacramental prose poem. Writers who try to imitate Chekhov sometimes mistake this unpredictability for randomness, a trudging “realism”, or worse, “honesty”. But Chekhov isn’t a journalist or a memoirist. He began as a hack, writing skits and sketches. “Oh with what trash I began,” he wrote later. He can write anywhere – for instance, on a tramp steamer; about anything – for instance, a garrulous sick passenger. These are the things that being a hack teaches you. He also has a hack’s repertoire of tricks and techniques. Chekhov’s unpredictability doesn’t come from rejecting artifice and contrivance. It comes from being an absolute master of artifice and contrivance.

If you go back through the story you will see that the unexpected ending is perfectly set up. In Gusev’s nonsense about wind and chains and giant fish, in his remembered pond, the sea is always threatening to overwhelm the story. This is also true tonally. Gusev and Ivanitch are convincing individual characters but as they bicker, they move further and further apart until each comes to stand for a different view of life. Ivanitch dismisses Gusev’s chances of ever grasping the point of life. “Foolish, pitiful man,” he says, “you don’t understand anything.” Yet Gusev reaches out for understanding:

A vague urge disturbs him. He drinks water, but that isn’t it. He stretches towards the port-hole and breathes in the hot, dank air, but that isn’t it either. He tries to think of home and frost – and it still isn’t right.

Chekhov’s great tenderness is that his story seems to be reaching out for a shape and an ending, just as Gusev tries to reach out through his fever for a meaning. They’re in this together.

Then there’s the ending. In one sense it shows us Gusev as nothing but a piece of meat, dumped over the side, sinking to the bottom. But we’re also overwhelmed by the sense of the grandeur and beauty of the food chain, of what a magnificent thing meat is. It’s impossible to read that section without being pulled up short by how ridiculous we are – like a carrot or a radish – but also how beautiful – wrapped in lace. It describes life reduced to its components but it also recalls, inevitably, Psalm 107 – the psalm that was inscribed on my grandad’s shell.

“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”

Frank Cottrell Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. He was the writer for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony This is an edited extract from “Morphologies: Short Story Writers on Short Story Writers”, published by Comma Press on 30 January (£9.99)