Forced to depart Ascot earlier than usual to fulfil a cruise lecture booking on the fjords, I hadn’t reckoned with June in Norway. It turned out to require anoraks and sweaters rather than shorts and suntan oil, although Mrs Oakley and I were better prepared than one lady passenger: having travelled without a scarf, she confessed that it was indeed her deftly folded nightie she had wrapped around her neck for warmth. At least a bit of book-signing went without a hitch, better than the time a young lady asked me to write ‘To Bubbles with love and kisses’ and then, when asked to pay for the signed volume, demurred, saying that she thought the books came free with the talk. One purchaser this time, though, did focus my mind on the question of the moment by asking me to explain how racing is financed — an increasingly sore point.
Back in the 1960s, we could have had a Tote monopoly like that which not only richly finances a lushly produced sport in Hong Kong but pays most of the territory’s social-security bill as well, and which in France ensures that owners achieve a much better return on the resources they inject into the sport. Instead the Conservative government, with Rab Butler as home secretary, legalised betting shops while fulfilling Butler’s stipulation that ‘someone leaving a betting shop should feel like they are leaving a brothel’. With the legislation insisting that there should be ‘no television, radio, music, dancing or refreshments on the premises’, betting shops were miserable places until a relaxation in the law in 1986. Nevertheless, more than 10,000 applications to open one were rapidly filed. Although taking bets had previously been illegal, preference was given to those who could prove that they had been doing so for more than a year, and local licensing committees were generous: one permit was granted to a man with previous convictions for theft, assaulting the police and eight counts of welshing, not to mention selling nylon stockings without clothing coupons.