Monday, April 9, 2012

Some say they lived off gambling and runnin’ numbers too

On the corner of Copperfield Rd and Doddinton Avenue the bookies was open for business.  Gambling on the Sabbath had been allowed for some years, but this was Easter Sunday and it was 4.45 in the afternoon what on earth was anyone betting on.  I stopped walking and went inside.

My father had been a gambler, nothing serious and in no way an addiction.  He prided himself on his ability to ‘reckon’ the odds, calculate how much his winnings would be, assuming his horse went in.  His Saturday afternoons were spent in front of the Telly watching Lester Piggott or Scobie Breasly, he had a definite predilection for favourites, but would sometimes throw in an outsider which might increase the take.   He would often lay complicated bets involving up to twenty horses, doubles, trebles, roll ups, Yankees and accumulators. I knew all the terminology and had some rudimentary understanding that the winnings from one horse would go on the next one, and that if five or six went in the winnings could be big.

Yet week after week dad was sweating on the last horse in the last race to ‘win’ his stake money back.  My role was to get on the Palm Beach bike he had bought me for my 13th birthday and collect any winnings.  My idea of fun at that stage of life, and to have a sense of being with dad in his passion, was to lie on the carpet in front of the telly, but with my head to the ceiling and facing away from the telly and throw my head back and watch the horses racing upside down.  If you have never done this try it. It was the nearest my 1960’s ever came to LSD.  It gave me insight into the idea that you only need a slight shift in the paradigm to get a totally different take on the world.  As a concept it has seen me through a few difficult and boring situations.

My brother was a more serious gambler and in his late teens, he is five years older than me, he became an habitué of the dogs, horses small casinos that Birmingham had to offer. Big ‘on course’ bookies would call him ‘the kid’ as he often laid a ‘pony’ on one (£25), this at a time when the average weekly wage was £20, and that included Saturday morning overtime.

As I opened the door of the bookies no sense of deja vue hit me. Gone were the scraps of paper, the one meagre copy of the Racing Post and a floor littered with nub ends.  This was formica heaven, with easy chairs, big screen TV’s and even loos. 
The 4.55 at Musselborough was about to start. I hastily scanned the runners and riders. A horse named Se Beag intrigued me. In 1955 we had moved into our brand new 4-bedroom council house just a half a mile from the bookies, the whole family had to share a room with only one other person at last. Six kids, and I was the youngest, two boys and four girls meant single sex rooms except for Mom and Dad of course, although the way my brother monopolised the old spring double bed we had started out with, stretched the whole concept of sharing.

Two middle sisters Pauline and Joanne were teenagers and very lively. As we all lay in bed at night they had catch phrases, which were repeated for effect, bananas were said to be very ‘scaaaaarce’ in a country bumpkin accent. This amused them no end, they also invented a concept called the ‘seebag’. This word described the time just before sleep when their imaginations would roam free. I was only five years old at the time and I understood it to be a bag that contained your dreams, and by thinking of something or someone you could ,as it were, ‘seed’ your dreams.

Se Beag’s jockey was in pink and grey, not colours I particularly associated with racing, but my designer’s eye thought it a good combination. The ribbon of type under his name said he might figure in the race at some stage, perhaps the start,the cynic in me thought. In front of me an old man sat counting some coins and occasionally consulting his paper with a large magnifying glass.  Perhaps he could offer me advice as to the nag’s chances.  I caught his eye
“Any chance of a place for Se Beag”
He sniffed and harrumphed gently “ ‘bout has much charnce has me winnin di holympics’ his laugh turned into a cackle which ended in a k k k k sound. I thanked him and decided to bow to his obvious expertise.

Se Beag didn’t figure in the start of the race at all, although I did glimpse him at the turn. Maybe I should have had a couple of quid each way. But by the finish he was way down the field.

I slipped one of those absurd little pens they supply, into my pocket as a souvenir, and went out into the cold.

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