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

Credit: Getty
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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.