It began for me in the William Hill betting shop in Gold Street Tiverton.
There it was, across the street from the Labour Club that would sell a 17-year-old a pint of Trophy for 50p and next door to The White Horse Inn. The White Horse was a dodgy old pub at the time, not because it was proudly marked as being the place where a Royalist was hung by the Roundheads during the Civil war, but it’s where all the Tivvy hardcases hung out and was a bit punchy.
I only dared go in there underage a couple of times and with a hardcase to protect me, but across the road was safer and where I mostly hung out.
It was over at the Labour Club that I first became aware that another illicit pleasure for 17-year-olds, betting, was possible. All you had to do was have the courage to step into the smoke through the fluttering green and blue plastic streamers where the door should have been over at William Hill. Once inside it was unlikely that you’d be asked for ID when you placed your 10p each-way Yankee, which cost £1.21, tax paid. Always pay tax on I was told, you save on winnings. Punters have always been an optimistic lot, Roy Lynn told me he invented paying tax at Jack’s shop down in Dartmouth, I’m not sure, but he’d have been clever enough and had an accurate opinion of punters.
As I’ve written many times, I ended up spending a lot of time in that shop, paying on certainly didn’t save me, winnings were few and far between but not for the lack of trying. I would try until my money ran out. How many people used to watch the TV program ‘Big Deal’? I was an avid fan, the William Hill shop was top class compared to Gil’s from the TV show, what it lacked in similar shoddy décor it made up for in characters. I’m sure most of them are dead now, so I doubt they’ll mind that I resurrect them and their various idiosyncrasies.
There was a chap that would bet on the dogs, bearing in mind it was still just commentary in these days. He’d back his dog then write down a 1, 2, 3 and so on, the position of his dog as it was mentioned during the race. He’d do so on a wad of slips and scatter the lot in the air in rage if his dog was beaten, with an extra flourish if it was beaten in a photo. There was this other guy, fat, bald and a bit smelly. He’d walk around with a load of slips in his hand but never appearing to have a bet. He’d sidle up pretending to read the paper as you were writing out your slip. Woe betides if you decided to open your shoulders and go all in and a long odds on shot in the hope of getting out on the day.
He’d be watching you, you just knew that the miserable bugger was praying that your much too big a bet would get beaten. I do remember the misery of such plunges being chinned more times than they probably should have. There he’d be, gloating, ‘You should know better than backing odds on shots Elvis’. Yes, they used to call me Elvis. It used to rock n roll off the tongue of proto trolls in the William Hill Gold Street Tiverton on a regular basis.
There was this other bloke, he’d be the one always standing just that little bit too close to you as you sweat on your unseen selection in a seemingly desperate head bobbing finish. You know the score, the commentary would be ‘Yours, not yours, yours, not yours, yours, yours, yours, not yours, it’s a photo, not yours has won’. At this point, it was socially acceptable to hurl your ticket propelled by an expletive to the other side of the shop. Then, just to compound your misery, the bloke still standing much too close would get a little bit closer and ask which one you were on.
There was a worse, most unspeakable inhabitant of the betting shop, you never saw but urged because of numerous occasions. Those occasions were the times you were doing a deep dive into the form, OK, reading ‘Man on the Spot’ when you absentmindedly started to nibble your little green and blue pen, were horrified to find it had been chewed and got a mouth full of someone else’s fag flavoured saliva. No? Maybe that was unique to our shop. It was our shop though. It was a thriving community of often wastrels but a community nonetheless.
You knew who to avoid before they asked the inevitable ‘Can you lend us a fiver’ question if they saw you draw. You also knew whose shoulder to look over should they come into the shop and those mates who’d be up for a trip to the actual races in a couple of weeks. They’d be the same mates that entered the 10 to follow comps and used to scrawl the names of their favourite horses as graffiti on the Sporting Life and the ones you’ll still see at the bigger Cheltenham meetings 40 years later and the ones that sometimes have a leg in a horse. Racing fans cultivated in the William Hill betting shop Gold Street, Tiverton.
I don’t live in the town now, but am there often enough. I drove past where the William Hill shop used to be, today. The White Horse is still there, they have bands on these days and is one of the few pubs that still survive in the town and is very safe to go in. The William Hill Shop is gone though, it’s now an establishment called ‘Vape Express’ which displays weird looking pipes in the window. The den of iniquity and hopes and dreams of the punters that used to congregate there long since vanished.
Mind you, I’d bet good money that in there somewhere covered by new paint and with a shelf full of bongs, there’ll still be a scrawl proclaiming that ‘Provideo Rules OK’.
Do you remember where it all began for you? Send an email to email@example.com or a tweet to @StarSports_Bet with a tale of your first betting shop – and whether it’s still standing! – and you could feature in a follow-up blog!
Views of authors do not necessarily represent views of Star Sports Bookmakers.
Simon Nott is author of: Skint Mob! Tales from the Betting Ring
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