Gambling in Britain is as serious a problem as alcoholism, says one MP.
Yeah, and fixed odds machines in betting shops are like crack cocaine, says another.
And as Cameron “voices concern” over online betting, hardnut actor Ray Winstone pop ups during every big football game urging you to ‘ave a go.
Yep, he may croak on in those diamond-geezer tones, anyfink goes, from the number of yellow cards to ‘oo gets sent off first.
How much simpler in the Cardiff of all our yesterdays before betting shops, when you slipped a tanner or two into the mitt of the bookie’s runner – one on every street corner – on Derby Day. Apart from the greyhound-racing, “the Dogs”, that was it.
Before that we had cock-fighting in Cardiff with huge amounts bet and so popular at its peak they let prisoners out of the local nick for the birdie equivalent of Ali-Frazier battles.
The celebrated Welsh historian William Rees wrote that Howell Morgan, a Methodist preacher from Pentyrch, was such an expert that the King of Denmark, no less, consulted him on the more arcane aspects of the sport.
But back now to a time when the most popular form of gambling in Cardiff was…pitch and toss. You’d get pavement dice games confined mostly to the Docks and old Tiger Bay but no district was without its pitch and toss school. In fact, years ago in Grangetown they’d tell you it was the inspiration for what’s regularly voted the nation’s favourite poem.
In 1909 Rudyard Kipling, while in Grangetown visiting his cousin Bert, a pastry cook with Bruton’s the baker (he’d go on start his own business) was taken across to Seven Oaks Park (The Tan) to see the town’s biggest and best pitch and toss school.
Bob Downey, redoubtable “King of Tiger Bay”, cleaned up mightily then issued his famous challenge: “Right,” he said, piling his winnings at his feet, “anyone got the bottle to go for it? One toss for the lot.”
“Magnificent,” said Rudolf to Cousin Bert. “If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss…”
“Yeah,” said Bert. “But wot if you lose?”
“Why,” said Rudyard, “If you lose you simply start again at your beginnings, and never breath a word about your loss.” He paused. His eyes took on a faraway look, “Bert, I think there’s a poem there somewhere. If I could find a great opening line. Ah, if…”
Well he did, didn’t he and years later when they asked Downey if he liked Kipling he said, “Well, I dunno, I never kippled.”
So there you go, the story of Kipling’s secret visit to Grangetown. Dickens might have been there too, cocking an eye at the locals – after all, in a Christmas Carol he labelled some dubious characters as “gents good for anything from pitch and toss to manslaughter”.
There’s culture, innit.
The game is simplicity itself. Just two old pennies and a stick, the “noddy”.
Bloke who pitches his penny nearest the noddy (hence “pitch”) is first to toss his pennies (hence toss). If they land two heads – “two ones” – he wins. Two tails, he loses. Head and a tail, “two odds,” do it again.
There’d be side bets, of course and a re-creation of a pitch and toss school should be included in our Cardiff Museum with traditional old Cardiff characters and their traditional old Cardiff cries.
“Eadatanner more…eadatanner more.” “Copperup…copperup.” Plus: “Getyer dap offa my joey.” (Translation: “I’ll wager another sixpence I’ll get two heads. Oh, I say, here comes a representative of the law. Please remove your plimsoll from my threepenny bit.”)
Once those cries echoed in every corner of Cardiff – in Cyncoed, of course, they used half crowns instead of pennies – but where can you find a pitch and toss school today?
They were everywhere, a “larboard” looking out for the law and if the law did appear the entire assembly vanished. Plod was sacrosanct.
Friday nights, pay nights, saw huge schools on waste ground behind foundries and factories and clerks would stay late to provide the losers with subs from next week’s wages “as long as you go home”.
A famous school on summer Sunday nights in the shadow of Leckwith Bridge made a fortune for the owner of a little cafe there. And was there something a little stronger than coffee on offer in those days before Sunday opening?
All gone now, but lot more fun than online betting, Ray.