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Going to the dogs: down to the wire at Wimbledon

Wimbledon Stadium is the last of the 33 dog-racing tracks in London. Now that the owners want to sell, the institution that is the English Greyhound Derby may be about to  leave the capital for good.

The three brothers Monkey, Major and Monty oversee the Sunday goings-on at Norah McEllistrim’s kennels

The three brothers Monkey, Major and Monty oversee the Sunday goings-on at Norah McEllistrim’s kennels

Imagine London without the bright yellow ping of Centre Court tennis; red buses and their forever-Christmas glow; Richmond’s stags – or stag-nights of Soho. Our grotty, dignified, delirious, loveable capital city owes so much to its well-used furniture. Yet this weekend, one such institution may be about to go for good: the English Greyhound Derby.

Norah McEllistrim certainly fears as much. She took over the Burhill Kennels from her dad 40 years ago and has raced dogs at Wimbledon all her life. This dog-eared amphitheatre is the last of 33 that once spread across London. It’s battered and bruised but still home to one of the city’s most buzzy nights out. Yet its owners want to sell. The proposal for an updated greyhound track will have to fight off those from property developers and football clubs if it is to secure the future of “the dogs” in London.

To Norah it is clear that the “greed of the bookies and the builders” is to blame for the sorry state of her sport. As house prices continue to soar, developers eye up the land on which this stadium sits. New flats and a new stadium for Wimbledon AFC could squeeze the last dog-racing track out of the capital. Meanwhile, a decline in the popularity of the dogs – and the rise of a betting industry that prefers to make money from gambling machines than from animals – squeezes prize money and sucks back what many perceive as an unfair share of the profits.

And some might think such an end is only appropriate to a sport where money-lust is such a big part of its identity. Back in the 1940s, when over 60,000 attended the Derby Final, the dog track was one of the few places where the working class could make a legal bet. You could say “the dogs” are the story of our city – a place where everyone chases their own automated, fluffy pink lures and the lucre they promise. But greed is not the whole of London’s story – and it’s not the whole story of greyhound racing either.

Norah McEllistrim explains a racing technique

Sunday mornings at Laura’s kennels in leafy, suburban Hersham are a hive of activity – the comings and goings all overseen by “Monkey”, “Major” and “Monty”, three retired greyhound brothers who Norah refuses to ever split up. “Glenvale Rosie » is straining at the lead of her owner Bob Boswell; his wife Paula is dishing out treats of boiled meat and last night’s left-over pasta; young Gemma is busy trimming toenails; Norah is updating other owners on the ups and downs of this week’s races; and old-timer Mary is handing around cups of steaming tea. Julie, an instructor at LA fitness, is one of the kennel’s newest owners and is making sure I capture her glamorous, golden greyhound from the very best angle. She was introduced to the sport by her partner, who now clearly has a rival for her affections.

There’s a post-war spirit around these 1920s-built kennels; a coming together and a knuckling down of people with a shared passion. It’s a sense of community that animals, and sports, seem especially capable of inspiring. And it’s also something that can feel increasingly hard to come-by in our cramped yet cut-off city, where wifi is often the only thing that gets between the walls.

Bob, who works in social housing and chairs the Wimbledon Greyhound Owners Association, explains that “most owners don’t get into it for the money”- and this seems a reasonable analysis in a sport where less and less stand a chance of making any. A recent report by Deloitte found that, far from making profits, owners and trainers effectively subsidise the industry to the tune of £20m a year.

After the initial outlay (which can be anything between £300-£2,000 for an average grade level racer) there’s still the monthly kennel bills of around £220 per dog. Though some of this can be made back through appearance fees and winnings, owners’ returns are falling and trainers are having to eek out ever more narrow existences. Norah senses that her young apprentice Gemma has missed “the best days” and that they won’t come again.

Rosie takes Bob Boswell for a walk at Norah McEllistrim’s kennels

Yet Norah’s fears go far beyond nostalgia for a more flush era. The failure of the bookmakers to return to the industry a fair proportion of their annual £237m gross win makes her bitterly angry. And not on her own account, but on that of the dogs – who need all the support they can get.

The cases of cruelty, culling and abandonment of the animals after their short-lived careers are well documented, but in recent years sport lovers like Norah have helped spur sweeping reforms. Programmes such as Wimbledon Greyhound Welfare now find “forever homes” for many retired dogs while providing sanctuary, sponsorship and regular spoiling for those that are unsuited to life as pets. Alongside this, conscientious trainers, like Norah, refuse ever to put a healthy dog down. While many of the owners at Norah’s kennels plan to, or have already taken their retired dogs home as pets, she makes a point of keeping and finding homes for all those who don’t.

Undoubtedly there’s still work to be done before all British greyhounds are treated with such compassion. But care costs money and even though the bookmakers voluntarily contribute substantially more to the sport than they did a decade ago, many believe the amount still falls short. In horseracing, bookmakers pay a compulsory levy on bets (a form of state aid, which, since joining the EU, would now be illegal to extend to greyhounds), but which many horse owners also consider stingy. In greyhound racing, the levy is voluntary – and, as betting on greyhound racing falls, it becomes ever less valuable. There is hope that a “racing right”, proposed in this year’s Budget, might give horse-racing a greater chance of striking a commercially fair deal. Yet while Lord Lipsey, ex-chairman of the British Greyhound Racing Board, sees “no logical reason” why this proposal shouldn’t also be extended to the greyhounds, he’s still doubtful whether this will get around EU law.

Julie and Swift Debbie strike a pose with Norah at her kennels

Norah at her kennels with some of the dogs

Sadly, money is still the sport’s bottom line. The Wimbledon track won’t be folding for lack of owners’ passion. But the trouble is that for all their love, greyhound racing is struggling to arrest its long-term decline. If it is to survive, it needs to rediscover its mass appeal. In the centre of the world’s most popular city, Wimbledon’s dog track could lay claim to many more than the thousand-odd spectators it attracts on an average night. But, as Lord Lipsey puts it, people still associate it with “the slightly seedy and old fashioned air of men in cloth caps – and don’t know the modern version with cheap meals, drinks and great action every 15 minutes.” As football has done so well, greyhound racing has to sell itself to London’s middle classes.

At the Wimbledon dog track, an easy-going inclusive glow still radiates off the polished pine tables and the sky blue paint, encompassing the flat-capped bookies, the kids munching hot-dogs and the buzz of twenty-somethings on an alternative lads night out. It was once known as “the poor man’s horse-racing” and, although now re-fitted and re-styled (on the inside at least) with plasma screens and diner-style restaurant booths, it is still a place where anyone can makes themselves at home with a pint and a punt. In its own low-key way it effortlessly embodies the retro spirit that Shoreditch’s hip cafes charge so much to re-create. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be a goldmine in its own right. Your visit this weekend could be just the William Hill [pill] this special part of London needs.

All photographs by India Bourke

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.