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

Clare Balding. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why I can't stand Clare Balding

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

A friend in the publishing business told me that Clare Balding’s “memoir”, My Animals and Other Family, had sold a quarter of a million copies in hardback and was rising 60,000 in paperback. It had also won the National Book Award for autobiography or biography. A normal multiplier for hardback to paperback would be about 12 so, in the next year or so, Ms Balding should shift around 750,000. That’s a million books, plus ebook sales, which must be at least a third again. Even allowing a modest RPC (readers-per-copy) figure for her parvum opus, a conservative (and this, surely, is the mot juste) estimate would be that, by this time next year, one in every 15 adults in the country will have absorbed sentences such as this: “She licked my mother’s face and then pressed her velvet head into the soft part of my mother’s neck, just below her jawline.”

No, this isn’t a description of trans-generational girl-on-girl action – which might be interesting, if better written – but Ms Balding’s imagining of the meeting between her mother and Candy, a boxer puppy that grew up to become the infant Clare’s staunchest protector. Does it matter, I hear you cry, that a cliché-ridden book about a TV sports presenter’s horsey-posh upbringing (think Downton Abbey with a commercial racing stables tacked on the side) should appeal to 7 per cent of the book-buying population?! I mean – you’re still crying – haven’t you got anything better to bother about!? True, I undoubtedly do have better things to bother about but once the Balding facts were laid before me I felt a duty – as your correspondent on the follies of mass behaviour – to interrogate them. It’s a stubbly job but someone has to do it.

I was barely aware of Balding until these sales figures came up, not being either top drawer or locker room. I had heard, vaguely, that there was this gay woman sports commentator whose performance at the Olympics was held to have somehow elevated her to the status of “national treasure” but I didn’t let it get to me – ours is a senescent society and, like all the old, it has a tendency to gloat over things it imagines are valuable but are only tat picked up from a cultural car boot sale. With Liz Windsor as the coveted bauble-in-chief, it’s inevitable that the family silver will mostly be electroplated.

Then I realised that Balding also presented a Radio 4 show I used to hear, Ramblings. The conceit of Ramblings is simple: Ms Balding – for it is she – goes for a walk with someone, either in a locale known to them or one that’s significant for them in some personal or professional way. Armchair walking – what’s not to like? Especially if, like me, you’re keen on the upright version as well. Ramblings is, as I recall, a thoroughly amiable affair: the walks are usually in areas of tolerable – if not outstanding – natural beauty and the chit-chat flows like milky-sweet tea from a Thermos flask.      

I said above that I used to hear Ramblings, because once I began listening to it – having made the mistake of downloading a podcast – I was revolted.

Those on the right are always claiming the BBC is a hotbed of leftist, subversive fifth columnists – but, really, they should stay in more. The truth is that the Home Service (as I can’t help but think of it) is dominated by programmes of the Ramblings phenotype: thoroughbred winsomeness out of Down Your Way by Saturday Live (see Madness of Crowds passim).

This is a direct function of the BBC being a state broadcaster – try as they might (and some do try extremely hard), its functionaries cannot escape the necessity of kowtowing to their pooh-bah paymasters in parliament. One form this takes is an excessive amount of mittel-Englandry of the leather-on-willow, cask-aged-bitter, spinsters-cycling-to-evensong variety. If you spend a whole day listening to the station, you begin to feel as if you’re tucked under John Major’s capacious top lip – or possibly Nigel Farage’s bottom one.

Balding is a natural for this sort of thing. She comes from that stratum of the British who seem to love their dogs and horses more than their children and certainly a great deal more than the working class. I may well be doing Ms Balding a profound disservice – I only read the first chapter of My Animals, which I got as a free sample. The rest of it may be page after page of pellucid and illuminating prose, animated by a searching and fearless intellect. Let’s live in hope, shall we?

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0