Gambling on a future.
Have you ever wondered how on earth you’ve ended up doing what your doing for a living; how the path from that first careers evening to here went so askew. I have, I went back into education only to find myself working in a turf accountants to pay for it. Nice work you may think, a little bit of a flutter never hurt anyone? Well think again.
Figures provided by UCAS show that applications for university places are up by 1.8% on the previous year, from 335,312 to 341,419; the debate about funding this year on year rise in the university population rages at the highest level. It is widely accepted that most undergraduates will have to work either part time or full time at some point during their education as the cost of a degree spirals ever upwards. But where they work seems to be an issue overlooked by everyone, apart from the National Union of Students, other smaller student support networks, and some very canny corporations.
These companies have for years been `restructuring`, cutting their work force to the bare bones to keep productivity up, employing staff on ever-shorter contracts, with fewer and fewer rights. This is precisely why these companies are interested in undergraduates. As a student’s loyalty is to his or her education, and not to the company, he/she can be employed on a weekly, and sometimes daily, contract. Why worry about staff loyalty and the costs it incurs when you have such a bottomless pit of willing undergraduates ready to do anything just to keep their debt down.
This is how I found myself working for Coral the bookmakers as a turf accountant, a glorified cashier really, but we all have our pride. There I was, encased in shockproof glass, trying in vain to explain to an irate punter that his bet wasn’t valid. No he couldn’t have a refund and if he wanted to take the matter of his one-pound bet any further I finished at 5:45 and would be glad to meet him outside!
I had unwittingly put myself on the front line of Britain’s unreported war and found myself witness to the struggle between big business, and the disaffected poor.
Leaving university late one evening in May last year I had noticed a poster advertising `good rates of pay and flexible hours`. As the poster didn’t mention shelf stacking, or security work, I thought it was worth a try. A quick phone call and hey, presto I had an interview.
I was to meet an area manager of Coral the bookmakers in central London the very next week. My telephone charm appeared to have worked a treat. I didn’t prepare for the interview, as my knowledge of a bookmaker was limited to George Cole’s character Flash Harry in the St Trinians movies, brewing moonshine and selling hooky watches on the side. I was woefully unprepared.
I arrived early, suitably dressed in my best funeral come interview suit; as I entered the shop I was confronted by a large bank of T.V. screens showing dumb animals running in circles. Another bank of screens displayed columns of names and numbers. My ignorance was intoxicating; I felt like I had stumbled upon a lost civilization with an exotic sounding language, a foreign land where animals with preposterous names were cheered on like great footballers, boxers, or politicians. The inhabitants of this land used a language full of boldness and verve requesting trixies, tricasts, and super Yankees. I wanted a super Yankee!
My interviewer John, a jovial East End cockney with a forty a day habit, oversaw my induction math’s test. `Can you count to ten, if John has three apples, which are the cheapest fags on the high street` etc, and hey, presto I was in. I was the newest member of this strange society. He then asked me where I lived. “Hackney”, I replied. His response was enthusiastic, “excellent” he purred, whilst driving his cigarette butt into the ashtray. “We have the perfect shop for you!”
Two months later I was a fully-fledged member of `Team Coral` about to start my normal shift. I walked into the shop in Hackney through the crowd of usual suspects. I noticed nothing unusual. The smell of skunkweed was heavy on the air indicating a quiet day ahead, usually with less violence and more confusion amongst the punters as they searched for lost betting slips, or argued over the maths.
It wasn’t until I was ensconced within my protective bulletproof bubble, also described as a `work space`, that I noticed a patch of exposed floorboards at the back of the shop. “What happened there?” I enquired, expecting the common reply of `the roof leaked`, or `somebody spilled something`. As most of the punters were in the shop twenty-four seven, everything you could imagine: food, drink, drugs, was consumed off the small grubby tables (so generously provided by Coral ). The remnants would then be unceremoniously dumped on the floor , creating a disgusting mess and a smell to match. The reply I received to my question stopped me in my tracks. “Somebody was stabbed yesterday afternoon”, Manny my manager replied without looking up. ” The police took the carpet away for analysis”. How long before they discovered it wasn’t Axeminster, I found myself wondering before the shock kicked in and I realised my fears about where I was working were more than justified.
The carpet would remain missing for a further three months, as Coral didn’t deem it a necessary repair or expense. The police never bothered to inform us whether the boy who was stabbed lived or died.
I had only worked in the shop for a short time and already violence had become a normal part of my working day. Verbal threats were common and flying furniture was not unusual. At the start of each shift we would wager on who would be the first member of staff to be threatened that day. As there were only three of us, and I was cursed with a dry sense of humour, (something I used to think of as a blessing) it was invariably me.
Time after time I would pour petrol on the proverbial fire with my witty reposts. One (of many) irate customer who disagreed with my choice of change when he requested I split a ten pound note, proceeded to shout, “Remember you just serve a f*****g purpose!” again and again. I gestured for him to come closer and asked him calmly, “What purpose do you serve?” He proceeded to attempt to break the glass of the booth with a chair.
As I worked for Coral, I was held responsible for every loss incurred upon those premises, and every piece of bad luck suffered. Strangely, all good fortune was down to the customers gambling genius. I was accused of stuffing money in my socks at the end of the day; two punters swore blind they had seen it. I was accused of prejudicing individuals, and of generally screwing everyone over. These petty allegations were always preceded by a request to take a good look at someone and tell them if they looked dishonest. To which I would invariably reply, “Yes!” Cue more flying furniture.
The most common ground for discontent was what bookmakers call `back prices`. This is where a punter will request a price that has since changed up on the board in favour of the bookies. The conversation would go something like this:
Punter: “Give me 12 to 1 on number 6”.
Bookie. “Sorry mate it’s 5 to 1 now”.
Punter: “Just give me 12 to 1 you robbing f*****g c**t!”
Bookie: “Sorry mate it’s 5 to 1”.
Punter: “I will burn your f*****g house down if you don’t give me 12 to 1!”
Bookie: “The race is off; I can’t take your bet now”.
Punter: “You f*****g c**k sucker I’ll f***”………..etc.
All of this was suffered for the minimum wage.
Before working at Coral, when I thought of horse racing I thought of the bloke off Channel Four racing, waving his hands around like a demented marionette, or the beautiful women with their outlandish hats on Ascot weekend. I didn’t think of the gambling addicts on the bottom rung of the ladder, people gambling their disability allowance, social security, or paycheck away, in a desperate bid for solvency.
Occasionally I would meet some genuine characters. There was a man who had won big on the pools in the 70s, spent all the money on women and high living, and when the money ran out, had gone back to his wife. He still dressed like the money was rolling in, designer suit and trilby, the cut of the suit was the give away: double breasted with a tucked waste, bought at the height of his success, Huggy Bear would have been proud.
Another man, a real East End geezer and career criminal whose every attempt at blanket betting ended with him and his associates losing thousands of pounds. He would stand in the middle of the shop, bellowing down his mobile phone, describing in graphic detail what he was going to do to the poor unfortunate that had given him the `inside information`.
The funniest of all however, was the Irish jockey, so small he couldn’t see over the counter, who, although the company knew him, swore he wasn’t anything to do with horseracing. He just liked having the odd flutter, usually £500, once in a while, usually on a Friday, only on horses trained by a specific trainer, always to come second!
But for the most part, I met desperate men and women, whose self esteem and self worth had been lost, or hidden in an edition of the racing post. A cautionary word to anybody considering a flutter: on average a bookkeepers will make a 16% return on its investment every week. That’s higher than any high street bank could dream of.
Now I can only wish that somebody had warned me what I was going to have to endure for my minimum wage. How many students are out there propping up the economy doing jobs nobody else wants to do, enduring the sort of abuse I encountered, nobody seems to know. But with the cost of education spiralling upwards and companies willing to exploit that fact, it can only get bigger!