Magic number: a bar owner celebrates his big win near Barcelona, 2010
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The day I (almost) won the lottery in Spain

William Cook was on his way to buy a ticket for “El Gordo” in a small town in Tenerife but changed his mind at the last minute. It’s a decision he’s lived to regret. 

I've got a good idea,” I told my wife, as we lay in our hotel bed in Tenerife on a holiday we couldn’t possibly afford. “Why don’t we do the Spanish lottery?”

“But you said you don’t agree with lotteries,” she said.

“I know,” I said. “I didn’t. I still don’t. But now I’m willing to try anything. What I agree with or disagree with doesn’t matter any more.”

We were watching Spanish breakfast TV and the lottery was everywhere. Tomorrow’s draw was el gordo, “the big one” – one ticket, one prize, worth €3m. It was the perfect amount of money, just about enough to make all of our financial problems disappear.

We were in a small town called Garachico, a windswept place on the rocky north coast, a long way from the big beach resorts in the south. Only a few thousand people live here but there was a lottery shop on the same street as us, barely a hundred yards away. After breakfast I slipped out to buy a paper and a winning ticket.

I walked past the shop several times. It was the only place you could buy the tickets – a little hole-in-the-wall office, reminiscent of a bureau de change. Unlike the paraphernalia of the British National Lottery, the window display wasn’t garish; it was dull and bureaucratic. I’d never played the lottery before but here it felt quite different, as if it was the normal thing to do.

I still can’t work out why I didn’t go inside and buy that ticket. Maybe it was my useless Spanish that stopped me. Maybe it was my middle-class angst. When I was a child, it was always drummed into me that gambling was wrong, even sinful. Betting shops were like sex shops. Their windows were boarded up for good reason. What went on inside was shameful, something unfit for public view. When John Major launched the National Lottery, I looked on with pious condescension. It was a tax on stupidity and, like most know-alls, I heartily approved of it – for other people. Let them waste their hard-earned money. I didn’t need luck to make my pile.

Now, in my mid-forties, I didn’t feel quite so optimistic. I’d been scratching a living as a journalist for 20 years and the rates were the same as when I started. I made enough to get by but I’d never get rich doing it and I knew it. I’d come to understand the mindset of those poor saps who queue up for their Lottery tickets every Saturday. It had taken me 20 years to learn what they’d always known: that for most people, people like me, with no particular talent or application, the only chance of becoming rich is to get a lucky break.

The news broke early the next morning. The whole hotel was agog with it, buzzing with raw adrenalin. The winning ticket had been bought right here, in little Garachico. I went out with my seven-year-old daughter to see what was going on. The narrow street was thick with people. The lottery shop was hemmed in by Spanish journalists, interviewing anyone they could find – or, if all else failed, each other.

The shop was shut but the winning ticket was posted up behind plate glass, like a sacred relic in the window. People surrounded it as if they hoped some of its magic would rub off on them. The alley was littered with confetti. My daughter scooped up two dirty handfuls and threw them over me like a bridesmaid at a wedding. A camera crew pounced on us, beaming the surreal scene to Madrid and Barcelona. We must have made a pretty pair, both of us covered in confetti, my daughter giggling with pleasure while I wore the shit-eating grin of a sore loser.

The winners were already holed up in La Quinta Roja, a grand old hotel on the main square. I joined a throng of sheepish hangers-on, hoping to find a way inside, to no avail. This was a private party.

Over dinner at our favourite tapas bar, I tried to look on the bright side. Even if I’d bought a ticket here, I told Eduardo, the proprietor, I never would have guessed the winning number. I should have kept my mouth shut. The news was far worse than I’d assumed. Unlike the British lottery, in which punters pick any numbers they want, the Spanish lottery (at least this one) was all about the actual tickets. Each shop gets an allocation of them, each with a unique, preprinted number. You wouldn’t need to guess the winning number. All you needed to do was buy the ticket.

“Never mind,” I said, seeking reassurance. “They probably sold the winning ticket months ago.”

“No,” said Eduardo, with a rueful grin. “The winner bought his ticket yesterday.”

The last few days of the holiday didn’t feel quite the same. What had begun as a mild folly now seemed like an insane splurge. I agonised over every euro, double-checking every receipt, counting and recounting every handful of loose change.

All I could think about was how much €3m would have changed me. No more haggling or scrimping, no more hustling, unless we wanted to. We’d finally have the same lifestyle as the folk I’d known at university who’d had the guile to get their head down and stick at a sensible career. At 45, I knew I was too old to make it happen any other way.

Back in Britain, queuing up to buy a paper, I had to wait while the man in front of me fussed over his National Lottery numbers. No, I wasn’t tempted. I’d had my chance. Yet something else had shifted. Previously I would have dismissed him as deluded. Now I found myself waiting for him with far more patience than before. His chances of becoming a millionaire may be small but mine are surely even smaller. His pound had bought him a precious sense of hope, a sensation I know I’ll never share.

As I handed over a pound for my boring newspaper, I found a few pieces of confetti in my pocket and wondered, for the millionth time, what I would have done with €3m. 

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.