I know several betting shop managers for the big bookmakers and they all say that middle management in their firms is obsessive about creating a friendly rapport between the cashiers and the mugs, sorry, punters.
So it amused me yesterday to find myself in a betting shop, owned by one of the big three and managed by a man who pushes rudeness, incivility and contempt for customers to the limit.
I was familiar with shop, but if I am in that area of south-west London I usually use a nearby shop, owned by the same company but much smaller, where the manager is friendly and obliging. The friendly manager said to me a few months back: “Dunno what he’s doing round there, but all his custom comes round here now.”
I knew what he was doing, that was why I’d stopped going in there.
Yesterday, caught in the rain, I decided to go in the other shop. It was huge and empty, bar two Albanians playing the roulette machine. Dog racing and the early prices at Yarmouth and Lingfield were up on the screens. The notorious manager sat behind the glass at the far end, feet up on the counter, watching daytime TV. Behind him in the back room I could just see his young female assistant sitting at a table eating something with a spoon. The view almost – almost, I say – had the epic banality and numinous profundity of an Edward Hopper painting. The smell of her lunch had wafted through the shop: a gross admixture of oxtail soup and pot noodle.
I’ve made a little study of the manager before and it struck me that he is the epitome of a certain type that infests betting shops and racecourses. He’s about 50, thin, with the face and eyes of a man who has been smoking, bullshitting, crust-swiping and shit-stirring since he was a small child, in other words a sort of hairless monkey (as opposed to naked ape). His hair is cut like a teenager’s, and is dyed the colour of brown Kiwi boot polish.
There’s nothing he doesn’t know about racing and about ‘having it off’ on the horses. This is, presumably, why he is managing a betting shop for a poor salary at the age of 50. He has total contempt for his customers, excepting the coterie of degenerate gamblers, violent small-time builders and football-obsessed morons that constitute his social circle.
What he really admires isn’t winners – he pays out with a furrowed brow and his attitude suggests that your winnings are coming out of his pocket (I dare say his employers operate some arcane bonus system). I won a 200 quid in there one Sunday afternoon on a mad 16/1 shot and he looked furious. No, it’s big losers he admires. Men like him and his friends reduce absolutely everything in life to a sort of virility test. Betting is no exception. He therefore admires the sort of men who walk in, pissed, after a week’s toil on a building site, and, after staring at the screens for three minutes and breathing heavily through their mouths, stick fifty pounds on a dog or a horse, lose it, swear uncontrollably, and then do it all over again and again until they stagger off home to the wife with a score to last them until next payday, muttering about how ‘that dog had shit in its eyes’.
He admires the sort of jack the lad who lumps two hundred quid on an evens favourite to win. Conservative betting is what he despises. I have come to be a largely conservative bettor, on the grounds of personal experience, current financial woe, and by having American writer and horse racing fanatic Damon Runyon’s famous aphorism never too far from my mind: ‘All horse-players die broke’.
I wrote out a 2.50 double and took it to the counter. Slowly, he took his legs off the counter and dragged his eyes round to meet mine. I pushed the slip under; he picked it up. The manager studied it briefly. He regarded it in the way he would if he discovered he had inadvertently got some faecal material smeared on the palm of his hand.
“Can I have the prices on those, please?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said disagreeably, and knuckled down to the intense hard labour of looking up two prices and writing them on a betting slip. “Not much of a pick-up if they win,” he observed.
“Fifty quid’s fifty quid.”
“Put a cockle on, then you’ve got a proper bet,” he advised with a sort of avuncular contempt. I replied quick as a flash and in an unpleasant tone: “Why would I want to give ten quid to you on a stupid bet like this?”
He seemed to realise that it was time to let the customer be right. He pushed the processed slip back under the glass and said nothing. I looked at him. He grunted by way of thanks.
I walked away, and said, ‘stroll on,’ in the manner of Michael Caine in Get Carter. I looked at the screens for a bit while whistling ‘Hey, Big Spender’, then left the premises.
Both horses in the double came fifth.