Howard Jacobson: Imagine the scene when Sol Kerzner comes face to face with a typical Beswick urchin

Gangs of four-year-olds roamed the precinct demanding protection money
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The Independent Online

So the supercasino is going to regenerate Manchester. Funny word to use, regeneration, for what will happen when people start shooting their own and other punters' brains out in the car park. "Regeneration", suggesting spiritual rebirth, revival, restoration to a better state. You place your bets, you win, you lose, you bet again, and - miracle of miracles! - you are reborn on to a higher plane. The Catholic Church must be wondering why it wasn't constructing casinos to regenerate the unregenerate centuries ago.

Regeneration is not the only funny word kicking about. "Vulgar" is the other, as in the "vulgar South African tycoon" chosen to run Britain's first supercasino. Precisely what it is that makes Sol Kerzner more vulgar in the eyes of the editors of our national newspapers than other South African tycoons, or anyone else with the money to fund a supercasino in Beswick come to that, is hard to fathom.

Supercasino owners are not, as a rule, distinguished for their decorum or restraint. Yes, he's super-rich; yes, he's reputed to drop the F-word with more alacrity than a girl band; yes, he likes blondes taller than himself (though it must be said that a blonde doesn't have to be very tall to manage that) - but in what regard does this make him different from any of the editors of our national newspapers? Or is it just the name? Is it simply by virtue of his being Solomon Kerzner that he is vulgar? Is "vulgar" code for the old Shylock thing?

In the end, Beswick will decide. Forgive me if I wax lyrical about Beswick. I know the area well. My mother ran a fancy goods shop on Beswick precinct for donkey's years. It never made any money. There was no money in Beswick to be made. Opposite the precinct was a once famous market, Grey Mare Lane, which also made no money. The market blamed the precinct. The precinct blamed the market.

But it didn't need a skilled economist to explain why neither made money. Beswick had no population. It was forever being moved out, as part of a regeneration scheme, then moved back in again, only to be moved out again immediately as part of another regeneration scheme. No sooner were new flats built than they were boarded up. Concrete cancer. Then they put up houses which were also boarded up. No one wanted to live there. They preferred the flats. In the end, whatever was built in Beswick was built already boarded up. Saved on labour costs. And you have to save where you can when you're regenerating.

Of the people who remained or somehow managed to find their way into the area, few had jobs. Children were what you had in Beswick, not jobs. Scary children at that. Gangs of four-year-olds roamed the precinct demanding protection money. If you chucked them under the chin they told you to fuck off and nicked your wallet. How Solomon Kerzner is going to cope with all the swearing when he visits Beswick is anybody's guess. I advise him not to engage the toddlers in an all-out fuck-off war. They're bigger than he is and likely to beat him black and blue. If there's one thing they won't tolerate in Beswick it's vulgarity.

For all that, I liked visiting my mother's shop when I was in Manchester, not least because she would load me up with stuff she assumed I couldn't get in London: picture hooks, rubber sink plugs, 13-amp fuses, decorative wire fountains whose filaments changed colour when the phone rang, chalk shepherd and shepherdess statuettes (popular in Beswick where no sheep had safely grazed for 200 years), notebooks from Romania which perforated the minute you went near them with a pen, Romanian rubbish sacks ditto, plastic pegs for closing freezer bags, freezer bags, singing kettles, musical key rings, Romanian hot water bottles (don't ask), and, if there was still room in my car, tin pictures of the Virgin Mary with a luminous heart that throbbed vermilion in the dark - though these were later withdrawn from sale on the grounds that they were carcinogenic and might have caused the concrete cancer.

The other reason to go to Beswick Precinct was Sivori's chip shop, which served the best fish and chips outside Blackpool - where the supercasino should be - and the best steak and kidney puddings anywhere. If they don't get the catering concession at the casino, there is even less justice in the world than we think there is.

My mother's shop has gone from Beswick precinct. For all I know Beswick precinct has gone too. They kept regenerating the car-parking facilities until there were none, then they regenerated the whole of east Manchester, for a velodrome, for an aquatic centre, for the Commonwealth Games, in roughly that order.

Which asks the question, why is a supercasino needed to regenerate it again? How much rebirth can one district take? Or is that to pre-empt the next regeneration of Beswick as a historic site of spiritual revival? You come as a pilgrim to where so much regeneration has been witnessed, you light a candle, you place your bet, you lose your savings, you try to blow your brains out, you fail, you look into the night sky and see the Virgin's pumping vermilion heart ...

It should have gone to Blackpool, no ifs or buts. Blackpool is the nation's most liminal of liminal spaces. All those piers, where you are neither on land nor off it, neither home nor abroad. The tower which is built on English soil but makes you think of France. Such places are consecrated to licence. Ask any anthropologist. Society needs a little bad behaviour, a periodic holiday from seemliness and labour, and liminal or transitional space is where we take it.

A supercasino belongs to this category of licensed folly. Thus, had we built it in Blackpool, would we have solved the moral issue in a single throw. True, gambling is bad for society. True, it is bound to make our overcrowded prisons more overcrowded still. True, gambling is, as Freud noted, in its endless struggles to kick the habit, and the opportunities it affords for self-punishment, "a repetition of the compulsion to masturbate". But, people must be allowed their filthy habits. If their compulsion is to stand in lines and pull one-handed in expectation of an emission, then let them do it in Blackpool, where the rest of us don't have to see or be tempted into the neurosis ourselves. And let us call it what it is - a little death, not a rebirth.

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