Locked up with writers

No duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums -

Once again I am hunched in the only office I may ever know – a train - my own lovely home being a distant memory filled with housework and DVD’s I haven’t watched for ages. On this occasion I’m in a Birmingham-bound diesel office which has managed to sneak out of Edinburgh Waverly without being – thus far – stymied by all of the apocalyptic and mysterious things that happen to the rail network on Sundays. Yes, dear reader, I am mad enough to attempt Sunday travel.

Sitting opposite me in a kind of smiley coma is Gill Dennis the splendid creature responsible for writing, among other things, the screenplay for “Walk The Line”. We have just tutored a screen writing course and, having talked and thought almost continuously for five days we now find it challenging to organise complex tasks like blinking. Occasionally we cry. I may even be crying now.

Tutoring residential courses represents a delicious kind of community-based Russian roulette for writers. There you will be, trapped in a remote location with a number of complete strangers in order to Teach Something About Something, perhaps with another writer who may or may not turn out to be going through a drug-induced internal soap opera, or a sex-induced external soap opera, or a typing-induced grand opera.

Expecting typists to respond warmly to group experiences always seems odd to me. We are not naturally hugging, sharing, orderly folk. We have the power to transform The Walton Family Eats Dinner into The Manson Family Gets Even. Before arriving at one of these things – on a train – I am always assailed by similar questions. Will there be more than one nutter? Will inappropriate sexual behaviour in thin-walled bedrooms cause conflict/envy/bootleg recordings? Will we end up building a rudimentary altar and sacrificing the weakest participant? And, most importantly, will all the writing be shit?

Happily – miraculously – this course involved 100 per cent charming and co-operative people who could also write like the stars I hope they become. All sixteen of them - no duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums. Plus, Mr. Dennis is one of nature’s gentlemen and a joy to be around. Much fun was had, much work was done – and I got to enjoy being slightly teary on the final evening as work was presented and everyone found out how good everyone else was.

If only there was a British film industry it would all have had a point. If only there was a Scottish film industry and the powers that be weren’t more interested in rebranding themselves than making watchable, unique films that would entertain, enlighten and delight. If only they were interested in the arts at all – we could be another Ireland. But we’re not.

Lately, I’ve also managed to lie in a couple of pals’ spare bedroom and finish the first draft of a short story. (I will commence serious rewriting once I have finished this.) As said pals were away for the weekend and left me in charge of their children – no, that’s not arrestable, I am in fact a competent warder/baby sitter – I had the incalculably wonderful experience of introducing two ankle-biters who don’t have a telly at home to the full glory that can be squashed into three box sets of Dr Who.

They are excellent young people – partly because their parents love them and they have not been accosted by television and partly because they have gone to a school that treats them like human beings and has equipment and proper teachers and lots of running about and mild risk – they just didn’t have the doctor.

And now they do. Ah, the flinching, the giggling, the looking away, the being surprised when tricky situations are not resolved by murder, the gentle exploration of a world that loves adventure and intelligence and curiosity and human potential. A television show that respects the viewer. They have only a vague idea of how rare that is. But they now do know how good the doctor is. I growed up with him around and they can, too. He’s where the BBC keeps what’s left of it’s soul.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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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