Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

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Britain does not feel like a nation of gamblers. Staid, suspicious of the new, slow to change, we rarely think of ourselves as a devil-may-care people. But we are. We are the second largest gambling nation in the world. Jackpot (Tuesday-Thursday BBC2) has been casting a cold eye over the whole gambling scene, from those who make a handsome living out of the business to those whose lives are all but destroyed by it.

Billions and billions are gambled away every year on horses, roulette, fruit machines and the football pools, even before the Lottery bonanza is thrown into the equation. Ninety per cent of people gamble at some time in the year - and that's without considering the daily gambling on the stock market at the posher extreme.

Billions are gambled away on horses, roulette, fruit machines and the pools, even before the Lottery is included.

So it's hardly surprising that Gamblers Anonymous holds 200 meetings a week around the country for those who become addicts.
Without doubt, the saddest of them all are the fruit-machine addicts. Down my south London high street there are a couple of horrible emporiums with tacky china prizes in the window that no one ever wins or would want to win. Through the darkened doorway you can glimpse the desperate lives of a few people, young and old, as they sit shovelling coins into machines with no expression on their faces. It's all over so quickly. No studying the odds, picking the winner; laying the bet and waiting for the result. In a flash the winking, bleeping monster has swallowed the money and is beeping for more. It only takes one look to see those vacant, destroyed lives.

The puzzle is how these places got planning permission in ordinary shopping streets, where they become a way of life to some addicts. There are now more than 250,000 gaming machines in Britain. An incredible £78 billion is thrust down their greedy gullets every year. To make matters worse, 23 per cent of them are now in pubs. How did we ever let this happen?

Stephen, who features in one of this week's programmes, is a fruit-machine addict who has wasted thousands. He has stolen to get money. The camera sneaks up on him gambling secretly in a pub, but he is so mesmerised and transfixed, stuffing the coins in one after another, that he doesn't even notice. He tries to explain that each machine is like a person with its own quirks. Sometimes, he says, he sees other people playing a machine that is dying to give up its jackpot. At this point you know he has lost it altogether.

Stephen went to Gamblers Anonymous but drifted away. The real mystery is his far too long-suffering fiancee Natalie. A lively, delightful staff nurse, what is she doing with this deadbeat, who has stolen money from her bank account? We watch her hiding cash and credit cards inside the hems of curtains and under corners of carpets. He says he'll get a job, save money, marry her and take her on a honeymoon. Guess where to? Las Vegas. Get out now, Natalie!

Then there is Tony Rome, crooner and gambler, who cannot leave the Rainbow casino in Birmingham. He has a nice wife who stands beside him night after night through thick and mostly pretty thin: his friend, another singer/gambler at the Rainbow, has lost his wife and children because of his addiction. Tony Rome can still sing with a great big fruity voice, but the money he earns spins away at the tables. Why is he addicted? He says he thinks if he'd become the really big star he meant to be, then he wouldn't have had to seek consolation at roulette night after night.

Considering the row about the morality of the Lottery, it's surprising that we have accepted all this other gambling mania with scarcely a murmur. It seems to me the worst of all worlds to have allowed all those fruit machines to take in billions of pounds. We should either have restricted them to a few casinos and holiday outlets or else insisted that the state run them, so at least there were some national benefits. I remember one radical economist suggesting, only half-jokingly, that we might be able virtually to abolish income tax if we put a fruit machine on every street comer.

The Lottery has been a great state benefit. Just look at the wonderful buildings, community enterprises and new arts venues springing up all over the country, an arts and community renaissance in many places where often there was nothing before. One of the most dramatic is the mighty new art gallery in Walsall, an unexpected spot, which has changed the image of that grim Birmingham suburb beyond recognition to the world outside, and more importantly given a new self-image and cause for pride to its own citizens, breathing new life into a derelict canal basin.

All that was built on the gambling habits of the nation but, given Britain's gigantic determination to gamble, it seems entirely sensible to let the state benefit from its people's vices.

My comment : I suspect some of the people wasting billions on gambling are the same hypocrites that say we are wasting billions on scientific research,which ultimately pays off dividends. Their innumeracy leads them to be quite selfish, and self-serving.The sciences pay off dividends for everyone."Who wants to be a millionaire?" and the Lottery pays off only for those for whom material wealth is considered the height of importance and a status symbol.All quite sad considering one can become addicted and lose one's whole life,and even those that win wealth beyond the dreams of avarice,confess in some cases that it's made them no happier,and in some cases actually miserable.

I confess to being appalled by Polly's idea that the state should benefit from an addiction,but it's no worse than taxing alcohol or smoking.What I find offensive is that this is a tax on the stupid,and to make matters worse,the money goes to the arts.We're taking money mostly off working class people who polls suggest can't or won't add up (they are pro imperial measure for Pete's sake),much less calculate odds.These are the same people,don't forget ,who worry about cancer risks from cell phones,because innumerate paper editors can't find anything worth printing. The arts is exactly the area that fosters the kind of anti-science propaganda of which Brian Appleyard is so enamoured,and for the most part the ill-educated public who can't do sums, are also highly unlikely to educated or interested in the arts. Go into any of these new emporiums and see how many of the people who bought lottery tickets are looking at Turner or Constable paintings or even Damien Hurst or the latest Turner Prize winner.[See if you can get funding for a rock or pop concert]. They are not there.Plebeians have been duped to pay for the delectations of the "educated" classes.Fools!

What those people stand to benefit from is the sciences that creates their MRI scanners and their (none cancer causing) cell-phones and their wide screen TV and medical drugs, that's where the money SHOULD be going.Look at the disdain over the Millennium Dome,so much so that they're having to run a publicity campaign with effectively the slogan "The Dome-not as bad as you think it is",the premise being that it's all word of mouth,and no one actually has seen what they're bad mouthing. Maybe so.

But the arts have been disproportionately funded,"high art" received disproportionate sums compared with the numbers actually interested in it.Have you checked out what the money from the Lottery is spent on and whose in charge of its allocation? You might be surprised at who is holding the purse strings-the same people you despise in public life,for getting back-handers and doing shady deals.If the allocation was done by local communities I'm quite sure the arts would be the last place it would go.Get the priorities right. Hospitals and schools are decaying and we're buying pretty pictures with lottery money!
I'm not against art,except when it pokes it's nose into things it doesn't understand or preaches in that Brian Sewell "I know best" kind of way [I hold a certain begrudging respect for Brian,he sees right through the Emperor's New Clothes, and if he sees crap he calls it crap,but Rodin and Moore are not to everyone's tastes and art is about personal taste]. Art should receive funding,it's part of our culture,but it should be prioritised behind needs,and behind investment in our social superstructure.I'm with Steve Hawking,I've never bought a lottery ticket,and never will,we pay taxes to fund the things we wish to invest in,and if we wish to support it,we should be willing to pay for it.It's odd how people are willing to pay £1 or more per week to the Lottery,but if a government hikes taxes there's outrage.Imbeciles! Services cost money! If you want services,pay for them,don't give your money to private companies to fund the corporate director's new BMW! Pay for the scanner that the child needs in the hospital! With your taxes YOU decide where it goes.With the lottery,the gleeful greedy hand-rubbers decide where it goes,and where do they put it - the arts. YES! Just where it's needed.When will this country wake up? -LB





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Email:Radio Times  19 - 25 August 2000 File Info: Created Updated 10/7/2001 Page Address: http://www.fortunecity.com/emachines/e11/86/toynbee7.html