The British have a curious attitude toward wealth: they desire it for themselves but wish to deny it to others. And so, not surprisingly, there are very few methods of acquiring wealth of which they approve. Among them is gambling.
When in 1991 the government instituted a National Lottery, Britons were hooked at once. It seemed to them that buying a winning ticket was a perfectly legitimate—perhaps the only perfectly legitimate—way of acquiring a lot of money. After all, everyone who buys a ticket has an equal chance: the effort and talent usually necessary to accumulate wealth are completely redundant. A mental defective has as much chance of winning as a genius, a slothful spendthrift as an industrious saver. This is what the British now mean when they talk of equality of opportunity—though they have not yet quite descended to the level of the Nigerian author of a self-help manual who, illustrating the need for hard work as a prerequisite for success, asked rhetorically, "How can you win a lottery if you do not fill the ticket in?"
Full-page ads in the British press recently trumpeted the immense success of the National Lottery. In its short existence (the ad boasted) it had raised more money than its longer-established equivalents in Japan, France, and Spain, adding that this success was "not by chance."
No, indeed not: for the British population is universally ac-knowledged to be the worst-educated of any Western country and, as one commentator wrote, any National Lottery may be construed as a tax on stupidity. In fact, it is as much a tax on hopelessness and impatience as stupidity. The poorest and worst-educated section of the population spends the most, both relatively and absolutely, on lottery tickets. Those who feel that there's no way to escape their predicament through their own efforts are most inclined to resort to the lottery; and every week—soon to be twice a week—the selection of random numbers fans the embers of hope among innumerable people in despair.
The National Lottery is both a form of gambling and a true tax, by means of which the poor pay for the pleasures of the rich. A committee awards the profits to orchestras, art galleries, dance companies—even a theater group composed of radical feminist ex-prisoners. The largest beneficiary so far has been the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where a heavily subsidized seat can still cost $400. But like all gamblers, lottery ticket buyers think not of where their lost stakes go but of how they will dispose of their winnings.
If the British happily accepted inequalities of wealth as being in the nature of things, indeed as both a precondition and a consequence of a free society, the pernicious effect of the National Lottery upon the morals of the nation would not be so great. It would merely be a bit of fun. But most Britons equate inequalities of wealth with inequity and injustice, and explain away their own urge for sudden enrichment as a kind of poor man's revenge upon a system that allows men to accumulate an unfairly large portion of the world's goods by talent and hard work. Even so, there is more rejoicing in Britain over the bankruptcy of one self-made millionaire than over the enrichment of 99 poor men.
The social legitimacy of gambling in Britain is of relatively recent origin. When I was a child, I heard dark hints that an uncle of mine had wasted his substance upon the ponies; he had also gone, in the words of Nicholas Nickleby's Mr. Mantalini, to the demnition bow-wows and had wagered—and lost—a fortune upon them. Off-track betting offices (delicately called Turf Accountants in the early days of their legality to give them an air of professional respectability) were illegal until 1963. Indeed, my first contact with gambling as a child was in my local barber shop, which ran an illegal book. The barber would interrupt the progress of the clippers down my neck (I can feel the tingling still) to rush to the telephone, down which, sotto voce, he spoke an incomprehensible jargon—nine to four on, the going's soft, three to one each way, and so forth.
Meanwhile, I was left to contemplate the mysterious little purple-and-cream envelopes on the shelf in front of me, which my older and wiser brother later explained to me contained condoms. Thus sex and gambling came alike to symbolize for me the illicit and the forbidden. Even now, sex and gambling have a connection in my mind: many of my younger female patients, explaining the existence of an illegitimate child or two, use expressions universally current hereabouts: "I caught pregnant," or "I caught for a boy." Unavoidably, an image rises to my mind's eye of a spinning roulette wheel revolving ever more slowly, until the ball settles in a compartment that bears not a number but the word "boy" or "girl."
Few social inhibitions against gambling remain: the yellow pages now list casino and bingo halls in the same category as veterans' associations, political clubs, and voluntary societies to provide amusement for the elderly. Bookmakers, however, have a section to themselves: a considerably longer section than the one immediately next to it listing booksellers.
Apart from the National Lottery and scratch cards, which have turned every supermarket, convenience store, and gasoline station in the country into a gambling hall, there are three main types of establishments for gambling in the city, each with its own clientele, which I list in ascending order of unsociability: the bingo hall, the betting shop, and the casino.
The bingo industry expanded in the sixties, and what had formerly been a game played once a year at the seaside while on holiday became the focal point of the social lives of hundreds of thousands of Britons. No town of any size is without several bingo halls, almost always converted cinemas with names like Ritzy, Rex, or Roxy. Like raspberries, which today are imported year-round from the uttermost parts of the earth so that we should never be without them, bingo is now perennial. Come rain or shine, the players may be seen arriving at the bingo hall as punctually as alcoholics arriving at the bars for opening time.
Pink and apple-green neon lights festoon the buildings on the outside, lending an air of cheap and gaudy gaiety. But the atmosphere inside, in the Art Deco auditorium, is quite different. Demographically, the crowd resembles the Russian Orthodox congregations of Khrushchev's day: preponderantly elderly women, with a high concentration of widows and walking sticks. All the men—not more than a fifth of the total—are old; a glance shows that many suffer from that former bane of the English working class, chronic bronchitis.
No wonder: the air is thick with cigarette smoke, so thick that I feel the back of my throat seizing up, as if in a gas attack. My eyes begin to sting. I haven't seen or breathed air like this since my childhood, when the London November pea-souper meant that men had to walk in front of buses to guide them on their way and it was too dark for me to go to school.
Medical correctness hasn't reached the bingo hall yet. It is with a certain pleasure—no, joy—that I watch women with the physiques and mobility of beached whales refresh themselves constantly (as they mark their cards) with large piles of cholesterol-raising fried foods and large volumes of tepid, watery English beer. Tomorrow, of course, they'll go to their doctors and tell them that, however hard they try, they just can't seem to lose weight: they only have to look at food, and the pounds go on.
I'm recognized at once as someone who doesn't belong here, both because of my comparative youth and my ignorance of what to do and how to play. An elderly man, a widower, takes me under his wing and shows me the ropes. He advises me to take only two cards at a time: a tyro like me couldn't manage more. He is happy to induct the younger generation into the bingo culture, content that bingo will live after him.
To my shame, I see around me old ladies of the type I would normally test for Alzheimer's disease were they to appear in my hospital sitting, with 8, 10, and 12 cards that they mark simultaneously and with aplomb. They even have time for humorous remarks to their neighbors. They take in up to 180 numbers at a single glance, and mark off the numbers as they are called with so little effort that they must have memorized to perfection all the cards. Could it be that the mental exercise, hour after hour and day after day, of marking the cards keeps old brains young? Could it be that the hope, repeated every day, of winning tonight's jackpot—an all-expenses-paid week for two in Tenerife or a complete set of Le Creuset saucepans—is what keeps neuronal degeneration at bay?
The young man, dressed in a golden satin tuxedo, who calls out the numbers randomly generated by the computer tries desperately to infuse the process with human interest: some numbers seem to surprise and others to amuse him. A few of the numbers are known by their nicknames: legs 11, for example. The contestants greet them with murmurs of appreciation, as if they were old friends.
Before long, someone calls "Bingo!" I and all the others have lost, but the winner's triumph seems to arouse no envy, only genuine pleasure and even congratulation: after all, it could have been any one of us, and next time it probably will be. As Lord Melbourne, the nineteenth-century British prime minister, put it when explaining the advantages of the Order of the Garter, the highest British chivalric order, which was then awarded exclusively to members of the upper aristocracy, "There's no damned merit in it." Triumph without merit: surely the dream of half of mankind and three-quarters of the British.
The first couple of rounds of bingo just about hold my interest, but the charm soon wears thin and will evaporate into tedium. As if sensing my incipient boredom after the completion of the second round, the man who calls the numbers declares that he has an important announcement to make: it is Beryl's birthday. Applause breaks out, and the man leads us all in singing "Happy Birthday" to Beryl. He asks Beryl to come forward and collect the champagne—actually, a cheap imitation—with which the ever-solicitous management is pleased to present her on this auspicious occasion. More applause.
Everyone is touched. Beryl takes a bow, as if she had achieved something. In fact, the bingo hall celebrates at least one birthday every day, sometimes as many as five or six, because to join the club (you cannot by law walk straight off the street into a bingo hall) you have to have given the management your date of birth. The computer spews out birthday invitations to members to come celebrate in the hall; since the club has over 3,000 members, it finds at least one celebrant per day. Yet each birthday, like each bottle of fake champagne, kindles not just delight but surprise, and every birthday can be applauded with gusto because there is no damned merit in it: everyone has a birthday.
Beryl slides back into anonymity after her comet-like blaze across the firmament of the bingo hall, and the serious business of the day is resumed. I am now completely bored.
"How often do you come?" I ask my bingo mentor. "Three or four times a week," he replies. "But I'm not a fanatic, like some of them."
"Is that common?" I ask. "Yes," he replies. "It's somewhere to go for them and something to do."
Life, on this view, is 70 years of tedium sandwiched between two eternities of oblivion. I leave the bingo hall with a strange amalgam of thoughts and feelings: for the hall offers many elderly people the simulacrum, at least, of a social life, and bingo, apart from those few who become so obsessed with it that they waste their entire income upon it, is harmless. The atmosphere in the hall is warm, welcoming, reassuringly womb-like, and the players are decent folk intent on a little fun. But the repetitious mindlessness of the game seems to speak of a mental and spiritual void that, given the age of the players, has evidently been present in England for many years. We have a land not of bread and circuses but of potato chips and bingo.
The betting shop, by contrast, is as exclusively a male preserve as London clubs used to be. My hospital being in an area of high unemployment (24 percent, in fact), there are several betting shops within a few hundred yards of its main entrance. I have never seen a female customer in any of them, and most of the customers are poor and unemployed. You would hardly have to be a revolutionary Marxist to observe how the poor are fleeced—with their own eager cooperation, of course—of what little money they have by the possessors of capital, in this case the owners of the betting shops, which are affiliated with one of two large chains. The poor, as a sixteenth-century German bishop once remarked, are a gold mine—though curiously, among my patients I meet only those who claim to win on the horses, never to lose.
Inside the betting shop, whose windows onto the street are always opaque (a residuum of the old taboo against betting), knots of men gather to discuss local gossip and hot racing tips of the day. Arguments break out about the relative merits of Kevin's Slipper and Aladdin's Cave for the 3:30 at Utoxeter. They are the kind of men I know well from my medical practice: men whose chronic backaches prevent them from ever again undertaking gainful employment, but who are capable of surprising feats of physical endurance in the right circumstances, such as a pub brawl.
Attached to the walls are today's racing papers. Middle-aged men read them with a studious air, peering at them with donnish half-moon spectacles. I find it rather difficult to follow the technical language, as in this description of a horse: "Dancing Alone: Out of a winning sprinter but no sign of ability for Pip Payne at two when well beaten in maidens and a seller (well backed for the latter); off track since and first run for a new stable." The dog-racing language, terser, is almost as opaque: "Well-placed on the stagger, sees out the trip," or "Operates well enough from `red,' must respect."
Even the forms on which the bets are placed require technical knowledge of the different types of bet: the Round Robin, the Patent, the Yankee and Super Yankee, the Tricast, and the Alphabet. The betting shop is not so much a form of entertainment as what American social anthropologists would call a culture. It is a way of life: up and down the country thousands of people spend the entire day, the entire week, in the betting shop. There are never fewer than 15 people in the shops I have been into, and, since there are at least 200 such shops in the city, there must be at least 3,000 people in betting shops at any given moment in our city of just under a million, or about 1 percent of the adult male population.
Overhead televisions relay the races as they happen: a cacophony of competing commentaries, mixed with announcements over the public address system advertising new types of bets—not just on horses or dogs—with prizes of $150,000 for a stake of only $1.50. You can bet on anything, it seems: the results of individual soccer and boxing matches, the forthcoming election, the outcome of a debate in the House of Commons, the number of winners on track number 3 this evening at Small Heath Dog Racing Stadium, and even on the likelihood of the end of the world happening by the year 2000, though presumably collection in the event of being right would in this instance prove difficult.
A man in a camel coat and with a spiv's greased mustache approaches me and points to one of the television screens: a horse is winning the race by a mile. My interlocutor holds himself as a cut above the rabble in the corner who are smoking dope (the center of crack dealing in a nearby area is the local betting shop). That is why he has approached me.
"That's a good horse," he says, with an air of profound cogitation. "He won like that last time out. I'm thinking of backing him for the Classic. What do you think?"
"I . . . er. . . ." I'm not sure what to say: he's being friendly and wants to start a long and learned conversation about White Admiral's chances in the Classic, but it won't take him long to discover that I know nothing about it, that I am a complete stranger, a foreigner, in his country. "Personally, I bet at random," I reply and wish him good luck-probably considered the height of ill taste in these circles. A winning ticket in the lottery is good luck; a win on the horses is the result of long study of the form and superior perspicacity. The study of the form is the betting man's philology, philosophy, science, and literary criticism all rolled into one. Such a betting man invests immense effort and long periods of time in cogitating permutations of variables—the going, the handicaps, past performance, the jockeys, the position at the start, and so forth—as alchemists devoted themselves with useless pedantry to the transmutation of base metal into gold. And how many betting widows do I meet in the hospital, who hardly see their husbands while the betting shops are open!
The third type of gambling establishment in our city is the casino. There are two within walking distance of my house, and I am now a member of the more salubrious of them. Sometimes, when I go for a walk, I pass the prostitutes who solicit nightly on my street corner, and I continue past the casino, a renovated Victorian building with a decor of bordello pink with a minor Turkish pasha's chandeliers. In the parking lot, at all times of the day and night, Jaguars and BMWs congregate, and their owners always seem to have one last conversation on the mobile phone before going in to the roulette tables. They are businessmen with money to throw away: to lose a few thousand in front of their peers and retain their sangfroid brings them prestige. They must be doing well if losing a sum like that within a few minutes hardly affects them.
They are not the only customers. Smaller fry abound also, dressed usually with a shabby gentility, who come to stake their barely disposable income on the tables. No one is excluded: the casino is a democratic institution.
There are five casinos in our city, and the law says you must have been a member for 48 hours before you enter one of them. I show my passport and am told the following rules of membership: 1) No T-shirts; 2) No trainers (i.e., sneakers).
I promise to comply, and two days later I receive my membership card and a letter from something called the Membership Committee, which sounds like an invention by G. K. Chesterton: "The Membership Committee is pleased to inform you that you have been elected to life membership of the . . . Club." I can't help feeling flattered: though, as I discover later, more than 3 percent of the population of our city, or 30,000 people, are likewise life members of this one casino alone. As the manager of another casino put it to me, however, the real question is, how many of the members are active? This is precisely the question churches ask: baptisms and funerals are all very well, but what happens in between?
Casinos haven't changed very much down the ages. Everything to be observed in the casino of which I am a life member is to be found in a novella by Dostoyevsky written in 1866. Casino gambling is a solitary vice, asocial and atomistic: I watch a man despairingly fling $60 to the croupier, who picks it up and inserts it into the bowels of the table with lizard quickness, returning him some chips. Within two minutes he has won-and lost-$1,600. Like Grandmama in Dostoyevsky's The Gambler, he has won twice in succession on a single number; and like the onlookers when the protagonist of The Gambler wins an immense sum, I want desperately to urge the man to go, to leave while he is winning. But no; in another minute he has lost everything. And, as Dostoyevsky remarks, no other human activity provides so many and such strong emotions in so short a space of time: fevered hope, despair, elation, joy, misery, excitement, disappointment. This is crack cocaine without the chemicals.
Widows with large solitaire diamond rings walk round the tables with their little notepads, supplied by the casino, recording numbers and trying to work out a system. There is no system, of course, and never has been, not since the women in The Gambler walked round the tables with their little notepads, supplied by the casino, trying to work out a system. . . .
The best customers of casinos have changed: they used to be Jews, then Greeks, then Chinese, and now increasingly they are Indian. But the roulette table dissolves all racial and social barriers: the Muslim and the Hindu, the businessman and the unskilled worker, are rendered brothers and equals by the spin of the wheel. If the lion and the lamb could play roulette, they'd lie down together in perfect peace.
I watch a man in his fifties, obviously not rich and dressed shabbily, buy chips for $40. He loses them all in a few minutes. He takes $20 from his pocket and loses it even quicker. He searches his pockets and comes up with $10. When he has lost that, he is penniless. Despair and disgust—with himself, with the world—are written on his face: but he'll be back, probably tomorrow, or whenever his pension arrives.
I went to a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous, held in a dismal and cold community center. There are five such groups in the city, the same number as casinos. Most of the gamblers there had been in trouble with the law: they had diverted funds from the companies for which they worked; they had lied, cheated, stolen, and defrauded even their own relatives and loved ones to fund their habits. There was practically no depth to which they had not sunk, that they might recover their losses with one last coup.
"As an organization, Gamblers Anonymous has no position on gambling," said one of them, a man "addicted" to slot machines. He had played them up to eight hours a day before coming—or being forced by the threat of prosecution for embezzlement—to his senses. "Millions of people gamble without coming to harm."
"But should gambling be officially encouraged or discouraged?"