You don't have to be mad to live here....

In praise of London's loonies

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idle classes used to pay one pence, old money, to visit the Bedlam hospital so they could gawp and laugh at the zany antics of the mentally ill patients who were incarcerated there.

Thankfully we live in more enlightened times and understand that charging people to gape at the eccentricities of the psychologically impaired is morally wrong. It’s much more progressive to shut the hospitals down and force the loonies out on to the street, so we can witness their ridiculous frolics for free.

Not only is that one pence, old money, saved for us all every single day (that’s a latte and a half’s worth per annum), it also gives our lives an extra exciting frisson: we never know when one of these nutty pranksters will push us under a bus or stab us in the face with a knitting needle or shower us in a heady cocktail of their own bodily fluids and then stab us in the face with a knitting needle and push us under a bus. Everyone is a winner.

But once you get over the moral indignation and accept that there’s nothing you can do about it, you do start to realise that those insensitive Victorians had a point: the non compis mentis are pretty damned entertaining.

There’s the ginger haired man who wears shorts, whatever the weather, who wanders up and down the Thames tow-path arguing with himself: firstly saying something calm and reasonable, and then immediately yelling (at himself) “Will you just fucking shut up?!” Quietly, he will try and defend his previous position and then loudly object, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Fucking shut your fucking face, you fuck!”

There’s the aged lady who stands on the traffic island on Trinity Road in Tooting in a flimsy nightie, merrily exposing her ancient private parts to passing motorists. There’s the man in Hammersmith who scurries around with his shoulder to the wall and his eyes constantly staring at the ground, holding a sign saying, “I am under surveillance by the British Secret Service,” which you can only think is something that would be making their job a lot easier, if it were true.

Admittedly, any humour here is grim, any laughter hollow and dry-throated. Our amusement relies on us being able to ignore their individual tragedies, but that’s something, as a nation, that we’ve got pretty good at doing.

The true fascination with madness and the mad is our unspoken awareness that the line between sanity and insanity is as flimsy as a Trinity Road nightie in a hurricane. Which of us haven’t heard ourselves pontificating and wished we could shout expletives at ourselves? Which of us haven’t dreamt of running naked through the streets? Which of us doesn’t secretly believe we are having our every private moment filmed by a reality TV show, which everyone else is watching, but that doesn’t appear on our own television and that’s why people laugh at us in the street?

The mentally ill aren’t consciously challenging our pre-conceptions of the arbitrary notions of what is and isn’t acceptable, but that’s what they do. I wish that we did more to help them (whilst not really being prepared to do anything directly myself), though I’m not sure locking them away from sight is any more of a solution.

In a city where trying to engage in conversation with someone on a train that you’ve never met before is the height of lunacy, whilst having full sexual intercourse with someone you’ve only just met in a night-club is normality, it is tempting to ask, “Who are the madmen?”

In this case it’s the people trying to talk to strangers on a train, when they could just as easily be shagging them in a toilet. What are they thinking? The nutters!

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
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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