"We’re not just a train company, we’re a customer service company that runs trains"

Virgin tries to do grass-roots protest, fails.

I quite like Virgin Trains (the bacon sandwiches, the speed, the way everyone tries not to sit in the quarter of a carriage nearest a toilet – it's the cameraderie it engenders) but they really need to get rid of their PR department. After losing their bid to run the West Coast rail franchise, the company seems to have taken on the arrogant yet flailing persona of an Apprentice contestant hauled up to the boardroom for the first time.

First we had Richard Branson's apprearance on Newsnight, his angry, millionaire face beamed directly from his island retreat (whose idea was that?), and his petulant prediction that: "I think we will be seeing the end of Virgin Trains in the UK." Now Virgin have published a list of 50 reasons why we should sign an e-petition asking the government to reconsider giving them the West Coast franchise. E-petitions are usually the province of charities or grass-roots protests and you can see it in the language Virgin tries to use. This runs uncomfortably alongside their usual corporate-speak, so we get phrases like the one in Reason 30:

60,000 people want to work for us, from over 30 different countries, and we’re always looking for the best people to do so.

(That isn't global outreach, Virgin, it's just basic corporate recruitment.)

Reason 49:

People think what we do is easy, until they try and copy it. You can teach anyone to do a job but you can’t teach somebody to care. We care.

(Though PR is demonstrably harder than it looks.)

Reason 22:

15 years ago people called it Mission Impossible, we read it as I’m possible.

(...as is reading)

...and Reason 45:

We didn’t have to be an Olympic partner to provide a gold medal winning service for athletes and customers alike.

The poor PR team are out of their depth here. Someone from Greenpeace should lend them a hand.

Richard Branson. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Getty Images
Show Hide image

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