Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 8th April 2019

SEVERAL years ago there was a bold and flamboyant bookmaker called John Banks whose on-course exploits were legendary among big-time punters. Banks, in a television interview, described his job as “a licence to print money”.

He operated at the major meetings, taking some huge bets. Sometimes he lost, but mostly he finished with a handsome profit. Those were the days when backers could get their money on at competitive odds and the racecourse betting ring was a place of genuine buzz.

John Banks, who died in 2003, drove a yellow Rolls Royce and flew a plane liveried in his racing colours. He owned dozens of betting shops north of the Border — “money factories” as he called them.

Nowadays bookies are online. The main betting takes place on exchanges where punters bet against each other and the host takes a percentage of the money that’s wagered. Betting shops will be closing in their hundreds now the Government has acted to reduce the stake money for those ghastly fixed odds betting machines and many of the old-time bookies have packed the game in.

They are all on computers now. The odds from one end of the line to the other are very similar. The “edge” for the punter who still goes to watch live racing is disappearing.

If I had a few thousand quid spare — which sadly I haven’t — I wouldn’t become a bookie these days. No, I’d buy myself a car park. Car parks are the new “licence to print money”. That’s why my local council has just squeezed some extra parking places into one of its main Lake District honey pot car parks. Given the fees it charges the tourists, it will recover the cost in a few days this summer.

I suspect a large percentage of car owners have accrued at least one parking fine during their driving life. I got one when my ticket fell on the floor of the car so I sent it to the local authority appeals office, but without success. I had a valid ticket, but it was not properly displayed, they replied.

Irritation over parking fines on council car parks is nothing compared to dealing with private companies. One MP has called for a clampdown on private operators who, he says, threaten motorists with unreasonable demands for payment.

One parking firm has been accused of sending out penalty notices to motorists who merely drove in and out because there were no spaces available. A local councillor in the town of Crawley, Sussex, ran a test by driving into a car park, waiting 10 minutes then driving out. Sure enough the £100 fine arrived in the post.

Quite rightly, parkers who don’t pay and block up much-needed space have no excuse when they received a fine notice. However, there are times when enforcement — a car parked inches over a white line in an empty car park, for instance — seems heavy-handed.

But what really angers motorists is that, in an age where official bodies hide shamelessly behind data protection laws, the same does not apply to parking operators and the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). Last year one firm obtained more than 130,000 driver details from the DVLA and this year a record seven million requests for details are expected to be processed.

Fines from the local council are legal penalties. Those issued by private operators are invoices for an alleged breach of contract. Either way, you know exactly what the late Mr Banks would have said about it.

IRINI’S GOT TASTE

CAN anyone explain the mystery of TV foodie programmes, of which there is quite a plethora nowadays? Cheap-to-make telly, I suppose.

The mystery? How come viewers can neither smell nor taste the end product of the chefs’ creations yet still we drool over them. Some programmes actually ask us to vote. Vote on what? A dish we can neither sample nor sniff.

For all that, I’m a huge Masterchef fan. Particularly the version where 65 amateur cooks set out on the optimistic path towards the final. And what a breath of fresh air this year’s final was, with victory going to 61-year-old Irini Tzortzoglou, a retired banker from Cartmel.

I think it’s fantastic that a senior contestant, with no plans to open her own posh restaurant, won this year. Any one of the three female finalists would have been a deserved winner. Irini impressed some of the big cheeses of the food world with her flavours and presentation, but she said: “I don’t think at my time of life I want to run a restaurant. I want to spend time with my mum and go round Greece and do some research.”

You can bet that, for all her protestations of the simple life, somewhere along the line there will be a book featuring Irini’s Greek-inspired cuisine, plus a TV tour of her native Crete. Meanwhile, let’s cheer Irini and the blow for the more mature competitor she struck at the end of Masterchef’s 15th series.

EGGING ON THE HATRED

BREXIT has split families, caused friends to fall out and opened the door to extremes from both left and right of politics. The language of debate has become ever-more intemperate in Parliament and at the next general election voters may well be faced with a choice between two hardline parties.

But much as we express frustration with the politicians, my fear is that the internet is feeding threats of violence and we are in real danger of becoming the nasty nation.

A woman who called a radio phone-in this week felt the 28-day jail sentence imposed on a man who egged Jeremy Corbyn was too severe. Well, thank goodness it was only an egg. It was assault and in my view jail was the right decision.

We appear to have learned nothing since the shocking fatal attack on Labour MP Jo Cox in her Yorkshire constituency in 2016. Now MPs fear being seen in public in the light of death threats and abuse in the streets. Deputy Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle advised members to travel by taxi and be accompanied by colleagues in the present hostile climate. MP Anna Soubry was so scared by death threats she was unable to go home for the weekend and Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle said he was grappled by a man shouting “traitors”.

Theresa May was accused of whipping up anger and putting MPs at risk by blaming them for a delayed Brexit, but for goodness sake, what kind of society have we descended to when it’s used as a justification for violent threats?

I see us becoming a more divided, more angry and intolerant, potentially more violent country. I’ve never been more despairing of the people who we elected to lead us. They are keener on feuding and jockeying for position than serving the nation’s best interests.

And all this need never have happened, but for David Cameron’s attempts to silence the troublesome minority of Eurosceptics in his party by holding the referendum that’s turned us into a nation of frustration, hatred and fear. That’s the ultimate irony.

IT’S HUNTER’S FAULT

SO we can blame it on Hunter then. Yes, that Hunter Davies, until recently a part-year resident of the Lake District.

At the recent launch of yet another new book, this one about being old and happy, 83-year-old Hunter confessed that he was “responsible” for that arch-Brexiteer and general thorn in Theresa May’s side, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Hunter said he prompted William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times from 1967 to 1981, to notice Jacob’s mother, Gillian Morris, who was his secretary at the time. And the rest, as they say, is rooted in Brexit history, or maybe notoriety.

Jacob’s late father once wrote a book called Blood on the Streets. As the Brexit debate gets ever angrier and more polarised, how strangely prophetic that title sounds.

RAMBLING ON ABOUT BREXIT

TALKING about the strangely prophetic, I’m obliged to Ron Kenyon, from Penrith, and his letter in last week’s Sunday Times, for providing the closest I’m likely to get to a Brexit smile.

Retired accountant Ron, a busy man about Penrith and the great outdoors, reported that the monthly walk of the Eden Valley Mountaineering Club was depleted as some members went on the People’s Vote march in London. After due consideration, those remaining chose a fitting target for the day: the northern Lake District summit of Great Cockup.

Normally you can spend a day on the fell near Skiddaw, made famous by Denis Norden’s It’ll Be Alright on the Night TV programme, with only sheep to talk to. One is tempted to suggest the Eden ramblers got more sense out of them than they would out of some of our politicians.