Speed dating

It occurred to me my personal equivalent of speed dating is, in fact, the hotel fire scare. In many

I am writing this on a train – to be precise, the train that I had to buy a ticket for when it turned out that the train I had a ticket for didn’t exist as a result of obscure and perhaps satanic influences – or simply because it’s a British train and therefore one small, but highly effective, part of a multi-layered plan to make travelling by public transport impossible.

So I spent two hours of this afternoon huddled in a hot corner of Kings Cross, eking out a soda water and lime and waiting to climb aboard what these days constitutes my office. No one phones me on trains, no one faxes me, no one can email me (because the advertised wi fi doesn’t work) I can drink cups of appalling and vaguely stimulating milky tea (my intolerance to both caffeine and dairy making this a heart-racing and phlegmy thrill) I cannot distract myself with household chores, or minor acts of self-harm (except for the tea) and I can actually get some work done.

The only story I’ve ever had accepted by the New Yorker was written on a train, the short story I am currently writing is being written on a train, this is being written on a train – dear God, I had exactly one day to deal with my washing, ironing and post after returning from the Fringe and then I was off again – on a train - and now I’m heading back – on a train. Before being off some more. I may never find out what’s in my own freezer again. If I had enough time, I might find it alarming that spending a month surrounded by showpersons, comics and diseases while performing at least once a day constituted a restful burst of sanity and a chance to bond and chat with people I hadn’t made up earlier out of my head.

The lunacy of my current existence was recently brought home to me when I considered speed dating. Not as a thing I would have to be drugged, handcuffed and forced to take part in at gunpoint – just as a concept.

My innate shyness, alarming sense of humour, twitches and ridiculously high boredom threshold effectively prevent me from dating, even at a moderate pace, and should I suffer a personality-transforming head injury that makes me want to sit at a table opposite a succession of sad-eyed Brians and Dereks, my being semi-permanently on a train would prove a grave obstacle to nervous glances and whatever “small talk” might turn out to be.

It occurred to me the other night that my personal equivalent is, in fact, the hotel fire scare. In many ways, piling into a damp car park at 3am with a load of strangers is an ideal way to meet new chums. There you are, united by adversity, with plenty of amusing grumbles to share and ample opportunity to check out the night attire of potential mates – will you nod enticingly to the flannel pyjamas and anorak, or the bare feet, jeans and pullover, or go for the mysteriously rakish overcoat and ankle boot combination?

Being more that a little paranoid, I’m comforted by knowing how someone will react in a crisis. And, being a night owl, I do tend to shine in the small hours - especially if I’m the only woman present who doesn’t look as if she’s been regurgitated by a killer whale – even more especially if I happen to be in a sharp suit and my lucky shoes. Not that my state of enviable readiness would in any way suggest that I might have left some smouldering leaves in a vestibule for some reason and forgotten to smother them with sand.

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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