A bad bet for a good night out

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I NEVER intended to become some pub-bound Luddite, railing against anything that smacked of progress. I do not harbour brown-tinted dreams of real ale, sawdust floors, and shove ha'penny. I am all for change. If you can't have a state of permanent revolution in a pub, where can you have it?

So I was distraught last week to learn of another development in the local that would force me to come over all reactionary again. For, not 10 days ago, the first National Lottery machine was installed in a British pub. Licencees had been in high dudgeon for some time about their exclusion from the lottery, and many had turned to competing schemes. But now Camelot has come grovelling back to the publicans. And a six-month trial is planned in 70 establishments.

The Old George claims to be Newcastle's oldest pub. Charles I stayed there, there are 17th-century roof beams, the original fire-place and now, since the Lottery man paid a visit, there is a big grey lump of plastic that eats bits of paper with numbers on. By Saturday last week there was a steady stream of punters feeding their numbers into the belly of the beast. And at eight o'clock the pub was full of mugs waiting for Anthea Turner to deliver the news of their sudden wealth.

It is easy to see why pubs wanted to get involved. Carol Milne, the Old George's manageress, told me that Saturday night custom was suffering at the hands of the lottery show. "But if we can get them in here," she said, "and give them food and drink while they watch, then everyone is happy." Five per cent of the takings come to her, and while that does not compare with the percentage offered by a fruit machine, it is money for old ... well, nothing.

Gambling has always been an integral part of pub life. We bet on drinking races, we bet on arm-wrestling, sometimes we bet on dominoes. I do not advocate a return to cribbage and cock-fighting, but as one brought up in the age of the fruit machine I am, personally, racked with anxiety for the glories of the "nudgepot", the "skill chance", and the communality of a gathering round the winking lights. For they will surely be threatened by the solipsistic fervour that follows in the wake of the blue-fingered interloper.

Furthermore, I always thought the world divided into people who went out on a Saturday night, and people who stayed in. Apparently not. So, if 20 million people are going to rethink their lotto-lifestyle, something dangerous is going to happen. It is hard enough getting a drink in a city- centre pub on a Saturday evening as it is. If you see a queue stretching out of your local into the street, as it frequently does in newsagent lottery outlets, then what are you going to do?

Me, I'll buy a six-pack and a packet of pork scratchings, and go home to see what's on the box.