Festival Leprosy

Vile diseases and avaricious banks - AL Kennedy finds that Edinburgh's festival season isn't all lol

One of the many interesting chance elements which always enters into the Edinburgh Festival mix, is disease. Not to be too graphic, you spend your semi-waking days watching, or working in various warm, moist venues full of strangers who breathe, cough, giggle, guffaw, sigh, yawn and generally spread the usually very private and intimate contents of their lungs all over the shop, you utilise extremely well-used conveniences (with much less-used hand washing facilities) and handle microphones that have probably not been boiled in bleach since they were bought in the late 1970’s – you are eventually going to get Festival Flu, Festival Tummy, Festival Leprosy, or something else genuinely unpleasant. The fact that many venues smell like oldmantrousers, or deadnun is also unnerving. And a good deal of unhygienic hugging, patting and touching takes place. This year I’ve been enjoying a range of aches, snuffles, rasping strangulations and eye throbbings – as has pretty much everyone else I’ve been meeting from a distance with gloves and mask in place.

Given that I occupy a slightly peculiar cross-media position I have been bouncing between club comedy gigs, my show, the Westport Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival and deargodknowswhat else in a nether world of high-fat and previously-fingered free food and what I can only really describe as chatting. This can seem simply pleasant, if not puerile at one level, but it’s a joy to spend a month being reminded that British people and people in general are brighter, faster, more civilised and more pleasant to be around than any of our media or politicians might suggest. There are, of course, insistently insane and peculiar exceptions (and I have no idea what bowel of hell my audience came from on the 13th) but it is truly exhilarating to get down to telling stories and being told stories with no monkeying about, or muffling/critical/literary/buzz killing interventions.

This year there have already been some genuinely grand moments – the invention of lime tea as a refreshing alternative to lemon, seeing the Tiger Lillies do their twisted and wonderful stuff, the lady who took her socks off in my gig, the chap who was “good at being submissive” and the splendid couple who came all the way from Orkney to say hello. This year I have been proud to go on after a stripper – not necessarily a good thing, then again everyone is going to be pleased if I promise not to take off my clothes, so it all balances out – and have been given a lollipop and a balloon by two different kind gentlemen – not exactly the brand affection one might hope for in the heady world of notreallyshowbiz, but it has to be said that I do love a balloon.

Meanwhile, a pal of mine has managed to run up a £30 overdraft in the midst of the festival chaos. His bank is attempting to charge him £120 for the money he didn’t arrange for them to advance him in the first place… he should have gone to a loan shark, or just sold one of his legs for sandwich meat. We set aside a little time each day to meditate on the fact that greedy and utterly mindless banks have been entirely happy to bring our economy to the brink of meltdown by shifting fake money faster and faster round the globe and taking on impossible risks for the joy of short term blood-letting and with no thought for the implications of the word impossible – and no one in government is going to do anything other than bail them out. With our money. Until it’s too late. This does not improve our combined symptoms.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war