Uncover London: A Tale of Two Bookies

Set back from Railton Road – a much-gentrified strip of south London – Herne Hill’s Bet Fred shop occupies a rundown building, where a window on the first floor has a large hole smashed in it. A broken window is a suggestive thing.. It’s a warning, a clue – a message even. It’s a feature that social scientists Kelling and Wilson claim in their article Broken Windows “is a signal that no one cares”, a sign that will lead to more vandalism, to the breakdown of “mutual regard and the obligations of civility”, a signifier that makes a neighbourhood “vulnerable to criminal invasion.” It would suggest that this betting shop’s customers will be despicable, deplorable, and downright delinquent.

Indeed, visitors to this bookies’ might jump to this conclusion when they step inside and are confronted by the thick plastic screens that separate employees from punters – a clear indication that threats, violence and robbery are to be expected here. But let’s not go all in on what seem like dead certs just yet. No, let’s sit back, read the form guide, and see what other meanings are made and nodded to by the customers, their actions, and the objects that surround them.

Battered crutches propped in a corner, raggedy, fingerless gloves worn inside, two chipped pairs of glasses perched one over the other (one normal, the other bifocal) – these articles suggest that this Bet Fred’s clients are infirm, with only the means to conjure low-cost, homemade solutions to their health issues. A random mix of furniture, dirty lino, stained ceiling panels bursting with wires – all  elements that reveal this as a place not thought worthy of investment by its owner. Compared with the healthy, well-fed faces to be found in the trendy interiors of the new boho bars down the street, these features also tell us that the people here, and the community they represent, have not shared in the rapid regeneration of the area.

But apart from one Irishman venting spleen at a horse for finishing last, there is a marked absence of anti-social behaviour. Indeed, this bookies’ easy-going multicultural crowd of customers and employees makes it a place where the neighbourhood’s youth – black, white and Asian – catch up on gossip as they check odds and celebrate an unexpected victory over Chelsea together, while old Afro-Caribbean men teasingly shout “Rastafari” at any dreadlocked man who wanders in. If chipped glasses refer to health inequality, and collapsing ceiling panels signify a location undeserving of repairs, then the range of ethnicities and creeds found on this turf hints to a Herne Hill whose identity is refreshingly mixed. This is especially true when compared with the influx of mostly white, mostly middle-class faces now found in the queue at the local coffee shop.

On the other side of London, William Hill’s Mayfair branch tells a different story. Surrounded by embassies whose huge flags flap ostentatiously in the wind, this bookies is in a faux-Edwardian townhouse of buffed red bricks. There are no broken windows here – only discrete panes of frosted glass. Inside, no bullet-proof screens separate staff from patrons. Instead, a well-groomed man in his 50s stands behind a counter of fake wood panelling. He wears a blazer and greets everyone as they enter, often coming out on the shop floor to shake hands. Pinned to his breast is a nametag. He’s called “Len”.

Len’s blazer and handshake; the clean mock marble flooring that stretches to the back of the shop; matching fleather chairs arranged in an arc in front of TVs showing horse racing – these items hint at an owner who thinks this location, unlike Herne Hill’s Bet Fred branch, needs maintaining to a reasonable standard. At first glance even the punters, how they present themselves and their possessions are different to those discovered on Railton Road. Hair slicked-back with wet-look gel, half empty bottles of mineral water, a dress shirt with matching collar and cuffs – these features indicate clients with time and money to take care of their bodies, adorning themselves with markers of status such as designer clothes and pricey pomade. It’s a far cry from the broken crutches and grubby lino of betting shops found in London’s less salubrious neighbourhoods. But as with the bookies in Herne Hill, looks can be deceiving. Let’s take a minute to probe beneath the superficial sheen of this William Hill’s interior, and see what floats to the surface.

Notice, for instance, how the décor described above is “faux”, “fake”, “mock” and “fleather”. These aren’t genuinely expensive materials, just low-rent imitations. Take a longer look at those customers and some are pot-bellied, crater-skinned and clad in a mishmash of generic sportswear, unbranded trainers and cheap, stained sweaters. Hang around long enough and one of the dress-shirted punters will rant and rave at a losing horse with a tide of venom and aggression well beyond that of the effing and blinding of anyone in Herne Hill. What’s worse is the total lack of camaraderie and banter. There is no collective spirit here, no group celebrations of victory, no teasing remarks directed at the other regulars.

Opening a betting shop in well-heeled Mayfair, then, far from the broken windows of South London, and decorating it with ersatz sparkle, won’t guarantee a better customer, or better behaviour. Instead, it’s as if the cheap, fingerless gloves and busted ceiling panels of Railton Road provoke the “mutual regard” mentioned by Kelling and Wilson, drawing people together in relationships that display sympathy for others that have washed up on the same shore of life. Meanwhile, the supposedly high-end materials of Mayfair’s William Hill have the opposite effect. They negate Kelling and Wilson’s “obligations of civility”, encouraging customers to turn inward, away from social interaction, as if there is no such thing as society after all.

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