Outside in Castle Street, in this busy shopping district in south-west London, two taxi drivers are having a heated argument. Things are quieter behind the glass frontage of number 3. In fact, no-one is saying anything, apart from the detached voice solemnly intoning the results of the 1.15 from Walthamstow.
The rest of the people in the shop are silently contemplating just how much they’ve contributed this afternoon to the William Hill benevolent fund. Saturday afternoons are the best time of the week for a bookie, with plenty of weekend sports fixtures. The Kingston-upon-Thames branch of William Hill is much the same in this respect as any other betting shop in Britain.
On this particular Saturday afternoon about twenty men — they’re always men — are quietly engaging in a popular leisure activity: placing bets on horses, dogs and humans. Despite the shops on the high street and the abundance of horse racing on television, betting shops are frequented by the few, those who have been introduced to the sacred art of gambling.
Gambling occupies a strange position in Britain’s social fabric: the Royal Family have long been associated with horse racing, but at the same time the high street bookmakers were regarded as de trop, bringing in the money but were not to be spoken of in polite company. The late Observer racing correspondent Graham Rock remarked: “The 1961 Betting and Gaming Act required that licensed betting offices did not encourage loitering. Participants were expected to enter, place a bet, and leave with the alacrity and discretion of a cabinet minister visiting a bordello.”
This shop, like most modern bookies’, is light and airy, and surprisingly spacious. The placards in the windows draw potential punters in, promising enormous payouts if you can guess exact-match scores or predict the names of the goalscorers. The first thing that hits you on entering is the smell — bookies and pubs are the only places on the High Street left in which customers may smoke. Almost all of the punters are making full use of this privilege, in an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the trackside enclosures at Aintree or Romford.
It was only in May 1995 that betting shops were allowed to display odds in their windows, and have clear glass panes to allow the public to see in. They were even allowed to remove the tassled curtains in the doorway, further reducing their resemblance to sex shops. The stigma of being seen at the bookies remained, though, and attendances are still dropping, even despite the government’s grudging removal of the betting tax that took 10 per cent of the stake or winnings. Even removing the ban on bookies advertising in newspapers and directories has failed to stem the flow of customers towards online bookmakers and easier ways to lose money such as lotteries and bingo.
Other than from the television mounted at the front of the shop, the only sound comes, occasionally, from the kiosk at the back where the bets are actually placed. Even then, it’s a muted muffle, respectful of the other punters, lined up like schoolchildren at the rows of small desks that take up more than half of the shop floor. Once in a while, after a race or a match, one of them will sigh and tear up one of the small sheets of coloured paper in front of him. Stay there long enough — an afternoon is plenty — and you’ll see them all perform this ritual. The other ritual, the jumping-up, hands-in-the-air one, is rare.
Bright it may be, but the majority of the light comes from the buzzing striplights above. This is because almost all of the wallspace that could have been used for — let’s say — a window is covered instead with large brightly coloured sheets of paper, each of which details the runners and riders at a particular meeting, or the fixture list for a football division. Helpful punters will get up from time to time, mark one of the lists with the winner and sit down again, eyes down for the next soliloquy from Sandown or Southampton.
Then, at 27 minutes past 1 pm, we are informed by the talking head that we’re linking up with hundreds of other betting offices around the country to play the Mega Draw. This is what the bookmaking world came up with post-National Lottery. Denied the opportunity to actually sell lottery tickets, the bookies first toyed with touting for the Irish Lotto, and then set up their own linked draw. The noise in the shop increases as people ignore the screens and chat about their winnings and losses.
Even the tawdry C-list razzmatazz of the national lottery show is absent from this affair. The draw is introduced quickly and made even more quickly, with the numbers on the screen in a matter of seconds. It’s as if they know they’re only distracting their punters from the real games, and the Mega Draw soon skulks off shamefacedly, to be replaced by the 1.30 from Haydock, the commentators having shifted their attention from canine to equine during the break.
At that, the serious players return to their seats, patiently awaiting the starter’s orders. It is suddenly quiet again, but for that voice again: “First, number three, Baker’s Dozen…”
I wrote this piece in 2003 as a “colour” assignment at journalism school, and found it in some files the other day and decided to repost it. I’ve done some light editing on it.