Walking for 15 minutes through Harold Hill’s monotonous rows of housing, my feet hardly touched the ground.
Daffodils in brightest yellow bloom surrounded the bus stop on the A12. A swathe swaying hardily in the spring breeze, the flowers evinced the magic that I felt on that weekday in late February 1985.
Removing the Ladbrokes tie, for the last time, I checked again to make sure that my pocket held no shop keys. That absence of clanging metal made me clench tightly inside. I was gorgeously, blissfully unemployed, of my own free will. It is not often in life that we get to do something that lights up multiple pleasure centres with anticipation, and keeps them lit. My awareness of that felicity doubled the delight. Flowers rarely caught my eye.
I could take no more of the shop manager’s job. With our wedding only little more than 5 weeks away, I had asked Maureen if she trusted me enough to try my hand at turning my betting system into a way to earn regular money. We had taken out a mortgage on the flat in Chelmsford some six months previous, but the answer was still yes. She said yes. Allowed to follow my heart. No wonder I wanted to marry her.
I had a month’s wages in my pocket, to cover the bills through March. I was ecstatic. And free, travelling home now from Romford’s environs for the last time. I wanted to share my joy with all of the strained faces on the bus, who would likely be doing the same thing tomorrow.
What more love could any man want? Maybe Maureen thought it better for me to get the notion out of my system once and for all, as I had increasingly talked of life as a professional punter. You would have to ask her. But I know she also saw my dedication to the idea, to the discipline required, and respected it. She had seen me study for countless hours, betting small, and keeping our money safe for the two years we had lived together. She took a chance on me.
A wider truth is that our marriage has consistently granted each other the freedom to opt out of conventional job situations. This was one epitome, an epiphany.
Four of those five weeks were among the happiest of my life. Doing exactly what I wanted, with a near-religious devotion, the results went as I had hoped and envisaged.
This afternoon I rummaged around in the shed and dug out the red exercise book that captured my punting exploits. It doesn’t look much, I know, but the contents were my heartfelt equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls. My very own Nag Hammadi library.
The first bet I had was on Friday 1st March. St William won a Newbury handicap chase. You might be able to decipher the scrawl below to see my note that I took a price of 7/2. I don’t have a record of the bet amounts. Maybe £15 win. Great start, simply by sticking with VDW’s criteria of form, class and times on the clock. What a feeling.
The second bet, on the next day, was Half Free. It came third. No good. I waited a week until 9 March, when Floyd looked nailed on for a Sandown handicap hurdle. The little note in red records that 2/1 was available in the morning.
Two out of three. So far, so very good. Now the big test was looming. The Cheltenham National Hunt festival, described in Blog 157. Up early on Tuesday 12th March, one day after my birthday, I ran home from the newsagents in my haste to get indoors and translate the Sporting Life form lines into numbers. Precious, delicious numbers, holding the keys to all kingdoms.
Just the one bet stood out: Rose Ravine in the Stayers Hurdle. I took 5/1 on the phone with William Hill. In she went, hanging on after a stewards’ enquiry. I had told Sue’s husband Martin, who also backed the filly. Shared delight on the telephone. On the Wednesday, Badsworth Boy won for me at 11/8. Another selection, Green Bramble, fell. Not much change on the day.
Thursday was the big day, Gold Cup day. There was money in the pot, but more would be needed to maintain this foray into enchantment. Forgive N’ Forget ticked all of the boxes at 7/1. I think I backed it with about £30 each way. Again, Martin came on board, enjoying the crack and mightly amused, I think, at my fanaticism to this cause.
Not only did Forgive N Forget win, cruising imperiously up the Cheltenham hill to young Kevin’s roars and shouts. West Tip won the next race at 6/1. Another VDW selection. As was Floyd, at 5/2, in the last race of the day. Both backed by smaller stakes that would not blow the Gold Cup earnings. My recollection is coming out of the week about £450-£500 ahead, considerably more money than Ladbrokes paid me in one month. Some was tucked away for wedding expenses, more set aside for paying the April bills, and the rest set aside to carry on this unbelievably fulfilling way to go about one’s days.
It wasn’t luck. Although there was obviously an element of very good fortune at work in catching a hefty number of selections, within a short period of three days, that all fell neatly into VDW’s category of a compelling bet. I believe that there was art and some instinct in interpreting the science. I compiled my own conclusions to the meeting, below.
The bets were then few and far between for a fortnight, treading water until the end-March Grand National meeting at Aintree. Then disaster, as a series of selections all lost or fell over, and suddenly I was faced with the grim reality of a nearly-exhausted betting bank, no other future income, and our wedding just one week away.
There was much learning in this, but more important considerations were pressing. I immediately promised Maureen to look for a job, and found one soon after the nuptials.
It would not be exaggerating to say that I mourned the loss of that 4-5 week spell for many, many years afterwards. Coming at it now, from the retrospect of 34 years, I see it as a mini-triumph. A festival of happiness.
We all have to do the things we love, for at least some period of our lives. Otherwise what is the point?