Do I not like that . . . Through the glass darkly: Stan Hey says that the plan to install windows in betting shops is an intrusion of privacy

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The Independent Online
IN A move destined to be hailed as 'glass-nost', the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, last week gave the go-ahead for betting shops to install clear windows for the first time in their 33-year-old history. The move is supposed to help the betting industry reach out to a wider custom, thereby off-

setting the expected loss of turnover when the National Lottery starts up. But if I am a typical

betting-shop punter - and my bank balance and nervous twitch in the bathroom mirror says that I am - then I can tell them that this move is likely to lose them more customers than they gain.

Don't get me wrong. I am not an Andy Capp apologist, worried that this last bastion of a working man's leisure is to be exposed to a legion of vengeful Florries with their rolling pins at the ready. I am a Blair not a Prescott when it comes to social reform. And in general, the improvements in betting shops over the past decade are welcome - the SIS television service means you can actually see which particular four-legged drain your money's going down; the furnishings are now much more conducive to the serious study of form, though a few Gregorian chants would not be out of place; the information screens make you feel more like a fully clued-up stock- market investor rather than a blindfolded pin-sticker; and there are even no-smoking areas in some shops, though they do seem on the underpopulated side.

(Passive betting, when some nutter mumbles a name in your ear, instantly fogging your mind, is a much greater danger than passive smoking.)

I'm less sure about the rubber plants and the provision of coffee and sandwiches. Eating and betting, rather like sex on a monocycle, is to be tried only once in order to prove that it doesn't work. But this latest move is a step too far in the gentrification stakes, since it is based on simplistically inverting the thinking of 30-odd years ago, which was itself just as wrongheaded and patronising.

When betting shops were first legalised in 1961, such was the concern about the potential damage to the nation's morals that they were obliged to show a 'dead window' to the outside world, discreetly screening-off from those of a delicate disposition the supposed sordid goings-on inside. Of course that was the time when they should have thrown open the whole caboodle after too many years when betting was deemed to be the private pursuit of the landed gentry. But they simply didn't trust the working classes to control their urges.

My memories of that time of change are coloured by my father's activities in nudging the authorities towards liberalisation. I now know what he must have been up to one night when I was left in our car outside a Liverpool pub, only to see all hands bail out when a customs squad raided the place. Similarly, I can remember him and my Uncle Dick on holiday in the Isle of Man passing money to a pair of hands through a window in an alley. When a policeman appeared, I was dumped over a fence and urged to 'leg it'.

Such furtive excitement made betting almost as desirable a rite of passage as a first kiss, or the first half of under-age bitter. What magic lurked behind those windows, and those Casbah-style doors with their billowing plastic strips? For me, betting has always remained a private thrill, which has drawn to it those who appreciated its nuances and protocols.

I don't buy the argument that masses of people have been put off by the image of betting shops. If they suddenly dropped the dress code and the prices at Glyndebourne, would thousands of lost opera fans suddenly come out of the closet? Would more people go to church if the steps of St Paul's were converted to escalators?

Taking the mystery and privacy out of high-street betting, rendering it as meaningful as a visit to a Comet store, will certainly kill it for me. I will shy away from the fish-tank and find a phone-box up a windswept alley . . .