Begone, financial vampires

AL Kennedy is on the move. Pondering the romantic potential of Stockholm Syndrome, she takes time ou

It was bound to happen – the final twangy bit holding my mental compartments together (or, indeed, apart) was eventually bound to go ping and leave me. I think that happened in Blackpool. Not sure. I have, since we last spoke, been flinging myself into the joys of a writer’s autumn: festivals, festivals and then some touring and more festivals. So Wigtown was followed by Blackpool, by London, by Stockholm, by Cheltenham and by I no longer even care where I am now: wherever it is has food and a bed - I therefore like it. And most evenings I will be up on my hooves doing comedy, or reading, or inconversationing, or perhaps all three. Of course, there is other work to do during the moderately endless hours of travelling. These hours being extended vastly by my plane phobia. For example, I went to Stockholm by train. Or rather, eleven trains and two ferries – my, how I laughed, cried, hallucinated, collected spare change in multiple currencies and drank too much coffee – well, who needs to sleep ? There are things to do.

The things would currently involve rewriting a book of short stories to prevent its shades of misery from being so utterly repetitive that it causes people to die simply from holding it while still in the bookshop. (At this point my publisher would want me to insert some kind of disclaimer to point out that it’s actually a lovely volume full of kittens and sunshine, but you’re hardly going to swallow that, are you? It’s by me.) So my hands are covered in red ink and my loathing for every word is increasing exponentially. I also, for at least two very pressing reasons, have a film I need to hit with a hammer until it works – plus, autumn is the time when writers have to release damp-eyed, gangle-legged young projects into the maze of razor blades and paperwork which is the BBC offers round… off they go, often to fall into the first water hazard, sometimes to trot blithely on towards the next levels of risk, torment and origami. I am sustaining myself with a new CD of music from the Tower Ballroom’s Mighty Wurlitzer – genuinely, the first unremittingly jaunty sound you’ll hear as the demons haul you under to your just deserts

Still, I do quite like the travel – Wigtown had lobsters and cake, Blackpool was Blackpooly and allowed me to learn from various palmists that I am married, divorced, due to have twins and going out with a man who has one bad knee and the letter t, l, a, d, m, n, or c in his name. So that was reassuring. And Stockholm was a treat – always wanted to go there in case they had any Syndrome left. Given my busy schedule and cosmetic disadvantages Stockholm Syndrome represents one of the few ways I would realistically get a gentleman (with or without working knees) to commit himself fully to being fond of me. Four or five weeks in my fundungeon and I feel almost anyone would be able to convert their fear, pain and outrage into sincere and lasting affection.

No. Actually, after more than a month of hostage maintenance – the first aid, the dry cleaning, dealing with the whining and the blood – I don’t know if I wouldn’t be terminally jaded about the whole business. So that’s another option gone.

One benefit of my journeying has been that it keeps me from brooding about the sixteen grand I’ve apparently given to a wunch of bankers for shagging my economy by balancing it on funny money and a house price bubble. I would just mention that their plodding brand of duplicitous charlatanism was exactly what we were told would bring new life to the NHS, our schools, our public transport… Can we just stop pretending we believe that shit now? If we want to know about health care could we, for example, just ask doctors and nurses, maybe focus on keeping people alive in the most convenient and pleasant ways possible? Maybe we could chuck money at the systems which will help us survive when everything topples into the pit we have dug for ourselves and are currently still dancing round pretending that consumer debt and singing lalalalala will sort everything out? And, dear God, could no one else tell me that controlling the actions and bonuses of these weasels would drive them to other countries and that this would be a bad thing. That’s like suggesting the prosecution of burglars should be suspended in case it causes them to use their housebreaking skills on Johnny Foreigner. If our financial vampires want to go and knacker someone else’s banks – let them try. I’d even conjure up a poem to commemorate their departure – I’m busy, but I’d make the time for 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