Thursday 17 October 2019

Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: The betting shop... a land of mystique and misery


Illustration by Ben Hickey
Illustration by Ben Hickey
Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle

For years I wanted to be the man who stood outside the bookies. You know the one - he always had a rolled-up copy of the Mirror, and a cigarette glued to his bottom lip. The best part of his job, I thought, was the way he'd lift the Mirror and wave it at the driver whenever a bus was passing.

I must have been 13, started in secondary school, before I realised it wasn't actually a job. There was a Christian Brother holding my ear. I'd just got a Maths question wrong, even though I wasn't fully aware I'd been asked a question. He was pulling me up out of the desk, and he said, "Tell us now, Mister Savage, what career is it that you want to pursue when you slink out of school?" And I realised I didn't have a name for my dream job - the man outside the bookies. So, I roared - I yelped: "A Christian Brother, Brother!"

The sound of silence.

Hello, darkness my old friend.

My classmates waited for my disembowelment. And so did I. But the Brother just let go of my ear, dropped me, and rolled back up to his beloved blackboard. I was a bit of a hero for the rest of the day and the lads called me Brother Savage for years afterwards.

But anyway.

There was always something magical about the bookies; it was a forbidden world. My father brought me and the brothers in once, into a cloud of smoke so thick I couldn't decide if there was a back wall or if the place went on forever. There were men sitting on stools and leaning against the walls. They were all looking at a speaker in a high corner and some of them were shouting at it. There was a gravelly man's voice coming from the speaker, reciting the names of horses; it was like a prayer he was in a hurry to finish. Then he stopped, and the shouting stopped, replaced by a long collective groan and all the men we could see threw these bits of paper - dockets they were called, our father told us - onto the floor.

We had to wade through the dockets as our Da went up to a man who was standing under the speaker.

- What are you? he asked him.

- A sap, the man answered.

He went on to the next man. - What are you?

- I'm a sap as well.

He went around all the men - there were no women - and asked the same question. - What are you?

- A dope.

- An eejit.

- A thick.

- A gom.

- An out and out gobs***e.

- See that, lads? he said when he'd concluded the survey. - Only saps and eejits ever come into this place and throw away their money.

Then he brought us back out and told us to wait for a minute, and he went back in.

He was warning us against the dangers of gambling, of course. And the warning worked - and it didn't. After that day, I never wanted to be the man who lived in the bookies; my ambition was to be the man hanging around outside. I'd go in, place the occasional bet, and leave. I've done it ever since I started earning money, and I've never gone mad. I've never won big and I've never lost a lot. I can measure the most I ever won: the price of a week in a caravan in Courtown.

So, I've always enjoyed the occasional punt, more often than not on a Saturday - the hike to the bookies, the pint next door, the useless docket flung at the barman.

Anyway, I was thinking of it, the world of the bookies, when I was looking at the ads on Sky Sports, the ones they always have on at half-time.

The ads have always got on my wick, since I was a kid. I could never understand why they'd interrupt The Man From UNCLE or Alias Smith And Jones with stupid ads for the Irish Permanent or Maguire & Paterson's Friendly Matches. These days, the occasional ad is amusing and the cars ones are just baffling. Some of them are over before I realise I've been watching an ad for a bloody car. But I suppose I'm like most people my age: the ads are an opportunity to stick on the kettle or get up to the jacks.

But the Betfair ad, the one with the young lad in the grey gear - where gut instinct meets smarts - that one just gives me the creeps. Remember: it's supposed to be about betting. But the world it depicts, it's like a cult, a secret organisation, only for the brightest and the best. Throwing your money at the bookies is glamorous and wise.

I know what my father would have said about that.

- It is in its hole, Charlie.

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