'In 1978 a really large bet was £100'

Naturally enough, The Hamburg Cell, Channel 4's high-class drama about the 9/11 hijackers, had its share of controversy. But its scriptwriter, Ronan Bennett, was used to that. It wasn't The Catastrophist, shortlisted for a Whitbread Award, which first got him into hot water. Nor was it the Irish Novel of the Year winner Havoc in Its Third Year. It was an essay at primary school in Belfast that brought the blush to his mother's cheeks. "There was not a lot of money around and I remember writing, 'I will get a new pair of shoes if my aunt Maeve wins at the dogs.'" His aunt used to take him sometimes: "I loved that atmosphere. It was very social, with chat about who was dead and who had got married."

At the age of 20, Bennett found similar craic when he began working at a north London bookies: "It used to be quite lively, with people gathered round a single board on which the odds were written. I was a 'boardmarker'. You would write on a board a list of all the runners, perhaps six or eight; in steeplechase, you could have 20 runners. On weekdays, it would be two or three meetings and on Saturdays five, perhaps dogs as well.

"The odds came in over a Tannoy and would change rapidly. You would have to be very quick, particularly if there was more than one meeting. The punters would be standing round waiting to get the best odds. If you put 10-1 and it was really 3-1, the bookie was not pleased. Then it changed; long sheets, like two-foot sections of wallpaper with the runners' names, were delivered to the shop. You would stick them up with magnets and write down the odds. Nowadays, it's done on television screens; the job is redundant.

"In 1978, a really big bet would have been £100, but most of the people in the shop would not have had that kind of money. They were guys who would come in from building sites. Most would bet, and usually lose, and bet again, but there was a man in a black coat and suit who didn't bet often and didn't join in the general banter. He would make a very careful bet and almost always won. He had a little notebook and I often wondered what his secret was and how he came by his information."

The money was not brilliant but to a student and writer-to-be, it was handy, and indeed, cash-in-handy. In addition, he can now draw on the fund of memories of people encountered there. He has never actually written about a bookmaker as such, but I'll wager that he does one day. How does 3-1 grab you?

'Zugzwang' by Ronan Bennett was published last month by Bloomsbury at £14.99