Mark Steel: There just aren’t enough betting shops on Britain’s high streets. Let’s start converting cathedrals and A&E departments

Blokes huddled round a screen ooze fun fun fun like a Brazilian carnival

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One of many ways to illustrate the magical workings of the free market is to glance up a high street, where the shops that thrive are those that provide the greatest need for the human race. That’s why in most town centres there are now several thousand betting shops.

We take this essential service for granted, but imagine the chaos if there was only three or four in a whole high street. It might be 3.29pm when you realised you hadn’t placed a bet for the 3.30pm, so you’d have to rush past a chemist and a florist to get to the nearest William Hill’s. But luckily they’ve both shut down and become a Paddy Power and Corals so now you can relax.

Hopefully the trend will continue, and shops selling frivolities like bread and underpants will become betting shops. Accident and Emergency units will be converted into betting shops, with the heart monitors used to show dog racing from Wimbledon. Cathedrals will be more useful once the racing form is Sellotaped over the stained-glass windows. Then we can do the same with crematoriums, airports, schools and high-security prisons until there’s enough betting shops to satisfy the demands of a modern economy.

Because gambling is the most basic human necessity. It’s been proved that early civilisations, when they first mastered the technique of basic agriculture in crude earth pots, immediately gambled all their crude earth pots on who would be the next scorer in the game between Norwich and Southampton. There’s now enough concern over the epidemic of gambling that the Government has decided to act firmly, and it has asked the gambling industry to regulate itself with a “voluntary code of conduct”. You can see why this is the best option, as it’s a method that’s worked faultlessly with the press and the banks.

One of the things that people with gambling problems are worried about is the spread of machines known as Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. They’re put in betting shops to offer games such as roulette at £1 a go, an ingenious innovation for industrialising the fleecing of an addict.

In a Radio 4 report this week, one gambler described how the machines take coupons, which saves the time it used to take putting the coin in the slot, so they can bankrupt you a bit quicker.

Next they’ll invent a version with two arms and two pedals so you can play four games at once, one with each limb, and they’ll offer training from a professional organist so you can bankrupt yourself in a quarter of the time.

Then they’ll hire retired sergeant-majors to stand by each gambler yelling “Faster, faster. You’ve still got enough for your kid’s birthday present. I want to see it lost, now MOVE.”

The gambling companies insist that they don’t want anyone to get in difficulties. They offer betting as just a bit of fun. That must be why, when you peek inside a betting shop, the first word to spring to mind is fun. The three blokes huddled round a screen screwing up a betting slip and coughing “byeagh bloody nag” all ooze fun fun fun like a Brazilian carnival.

It’s like a 1950s musical in any one of the many, many local bookies, the men performing a conga as they sing: “Let’s dance and let’s gyrate, ’Cos my missus got irate, As I lost the house to fate, When that greyhound came in late, So I haven’t seen my kids since August 1998. Too-ra-loo-ra-loo.”

It’s a wonder anyone bothers with Alton Towers when there’s so much boundless jollity and fun in the glittering world of a betting shop. Search the beaches of Ipanema and you won’t find anyone who looks more like the embodiment of fun than the woman with a shopping trolley watching a fruit machine as it devours her pension with the empty stare of a kidnap victim after two years in a basement in Kabul.

Over the past 10 years, the number of TV adverts promoting gambling has gone from one in 300 to one in 20. The people making these adverts can’t possibly have meant this to lead to a rise in the number of people gambling. They were meant as serious pieces of drama, hoping for reviews that went: “When Ray Winstone growls ‘It’s all about the in-play’, we weep, we laugh, and we yearn for the spinning head inside us all to arrive at the shocking conclusion that it’s 3/1 against Luis Suarez being next scorer.”

These companies would be amazed to hear that some of their customers have a problem. “Please please don’t give us any more money,” they’d plead, as this is the motto of the free market the world over. Crack dealers are probably similarly honourable, claiming: “Our product is meant to provide simple harmless fun, and we hope our crack dens create an environment that is relaxed and enjoyable.

“We certainly wouldn’t encourage anyone to smoke more than required for a pleasant hallucination involving buttercups. If a minority of users are having difficulties, we feel it’s best that we regulate ourselves, rather than be subject to harmful government interference.

“Incidentally, we now offer super double-crystallised crack that makes you think you’re Neptune, god of the sea, within a second of the first puff, and new creamy cherry-flavoured crack icicles in the shape of a Harry Potter character of your choice. Fun fun fun.”

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