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Monday, 5 September 2011

The Happy Punter Of Ally Pally (Part 5)

John Mort Green (Alias The Butterfly)

One morning the Butterfly telephoned me and, in his usual bubbly manner, went over our plans for the day: " Olsen J.?" he said. "This is Mort Green initial J bidding you a bright good morning on this beautiful spring day and hoping that you will find it a happy and rewarding one. We're going racing at Ally Pally. A regular timothy of a place, a brothel. All set? We'll bet well and come home early! It's up lads and at 'em! Over and out."

We drove to Alexandra Park, nicknamed Ally Pally and also known as "the cockneys' own racecourse," huddled on a dreary edge of London. The Butterfly was wearing one of his racing uniforms: dark suit, blue-and-gray-striped shirt on a white background, a rose in his lapel and a gold watch chain leading from his buttonhole to his breast pocket, a silk foulard peeking discreetly out, a bowler on his head and an umbrella dangling from his left wrist. En route he fell to talking about his social life. "Frankly," he said, "I prefer the rich. They have more money. Take people like my friend———. He calls and says, 'Let's take my plane and fly to the races at Deauville, old boy,' and the next thing I know we're off, with two pretty girls. At first this sort of thing made me nervous. When I came here I had to change my whole life, didn't I? Because I'm mixing with the Eton man, the Harrow man, top-class people, eating caviar and sipping champagne.———is a millionaire; his grandmother left him 220,000, and his father left him more. He lies back in a 20,000 penthouse and belongs to all the clubs and goes to Claridge's or Annabel's or Grosvenor House, you know. So he takes me to the races at Deauville, and we have a wonderful day, sitting under the umbrella drinking Dom Perignon. I've won about 60 quid on the day, and he won't let me pay for anything. So I say, 'Tell me,———, who is allowed to eat in this palace?' He says, 'Any mug with 50 can have lunch here, Mort Green!" Imagine that! He says, 'Any mug with 50!"

"Well, that's how it is with the rich. They make you feel good. Of course, I had to start slowly with those people. I had to learn about clothes, for one thing. In my dress I've always been a radical; that's another way I get confidence. Now, sometimes you'll see me dressed like a banker: plain white detached collar, detached cuffs, gold cuff links, maroon tie, pearl stickpin, a foulard to match my tie, lizard-skin shoes, silk socks, black coat with velvet collar, pinstripe suit and a bowler. Makes me feel like a millionaire. I only have six or seven suits, but I'm careful in my selection. If I had a hole in the elbow of my shirt or the wrong color socks, even though nobody'd ever know, I'd know and I'd feel rotten. Everything has to be perfect. When you're dressed up, you're gonna kill 'em at the racecourse. You don't want to go out there looking like a bloody bagman. But I had to learn this slowly, the hard way. When I first got here a millionaire called me one day, and he said, 'Do come on, we're going to Paris on Sunday. Come down to Brighton for the day tomorrow and meet us. We'll be leaving the hotel at half noon for Paris, love to have you join us. But don't wear that ghastly suit!' "

Ally Pally proved to be a journey backward through time. I was prepared to see something different from that big outdoor betting parlor called Aqueduct, but not so different as it turned out to be and not so naively pleasant. As we entered, a newsboy straight from Henry Fielding collared the Butterfly and whispered: "It's Sweet Worry in the first; the word is Sweet Worry."

Inside the gate, Green said, "He gives me a horse every time and he's right once a year, and then he comes up and says, 'See, Guvnah, Oi knew Oi was roit.' I don't pay the slightest attention to him. Now if you'll excuse me I've got to go look over the heads, see who's looking cunning," and he was off.

The day had turned wet and chilly, and through the haze I discovered that spectators at Ally Pally can see only the last two furlongs of a sprint race; in a distance race they can see only the start and finish. In the old British tradition of having tracks in all shapes and sizes (which, incidentally, makes for more interesting racing and more difficult handicapping), Ally Pally is built something like a frying pan, with the finish line at the end of the handle and the grandstands removed from the pan itself. This puts the crowd at the mercy of the caller, who is not in too good a viewing position himself, at the top of a rickety tower. He makes announcements like: "Overcoat has taken the lead. I think it's Overcoat. No, it's Tom Thumb. At least as far as I can see." This makes the crowd at Ally Pally strangely quiet; if they cheer for their horses they miss the call.

Across the stretch and paralleling it is a long dismal row of houses; at the end of the track is a marshaling yard for trains; and in the far distance, when the haze lifts, one can see the shadowy gray-brown of North London: stacks and tanks and sheds, yellow lights and shoals of houses climbing the low hills. The spectators' area is an etude of anarchy, an African village. Grandstands are perched haphazardly; they are small and unkempt, unpainted, with facings ripped away to show the structure's underwear in spots. Right in the middle of everything is a long, low building that dates back to the time when such things were called Nissen huts. There is a tiny shack with a sign saying "Findley's Tobacconist," and a slightly larger one with a placard announcing: "Tote Investors, Ltd." There is a trailer parked on the grass, an awning draped in front to protect against the elements, and a big sign: "Guinness." Alongside stands a man in a bowler and pinstriped suit, thoroughly protected from the driving rain by an umbrella and a glass of stout. There are scattered booths and bars, and people are eating Scotch eggs, pork pies, egg-and-tomato sandwiches, sausage rolls, ham and cheese and biscuits. The betting area, "the ring" where the bookmakers assemble, is a cauldron. Bookies scream their prices, trying to outshout the competition. The man from Ladbroke's changes his price on a horse, and the man from Jack Bevan & Co. rushes to change his, and the man from Bill Pobjoy's is a few seconds late and gets stuck with a bet at the old price. The bookies start to shout something that sounds like a foreign tongue, "Vy da vaw da veel," but they run it all together: "Vydavawdaveel," which turns out to mean "five to four the field." which turns out to mean—well, it really doesn't matter.

Ticktack men perch precariously on skinny boxes and wave their arms to signal changes in odds to other bookie outposts in the far stands. Mickey Fingers, a beefy florid man who is one of the best of the ticktacks, waves for attention to a bookie 100 yards away. Mickey Fingers taps his head with his white-gloved hands: that means that what he is going to say will pertain to the No. 1 horse. Now he holds his hands high above his head, with the fingertips touching. That means 11 to 10. So the whole message, transmitted in about two seconds, means, "Change your price on the No. 1 horse to 11 to 10."

While all this was being explained to me by a patient little ex-bookmaker, the Butterfly came striding up, winded from his travels, and said. "I just have a second. I think it's Shylock to win. But I still have some walking around to do. It's a busy time. I can't be socializing or drinking. I can't relax. It all happens so fast. See this?" He was wearing a red leather glove with the fingertips cut out. "That's so the bookies can see me when the action gets hot. There'll be people milling around the bookies" stalls and the odds are changing fast, and everybody's trying to put a bet in and I shout a bet and shove in my red glove. 'It's a bet!' they'll say. The glove stands out. Sometimes bookies want to give away money, but you have to be fast. When I come back from holidays I don't even bet for a few days. My reflexes are too slow. It helps to have a nickname, too. They call me Butterfly because I'm here, there, everywhere. In France they call me Papillon. In Australia they called me Soup-bones because I'm skinny. Brighton says Shylock is fit and trying. I'm crashing in on Shylock to win the biscuits!"

The race was five furlongs, which meant that it would be started on the backside of the frying pan, well out of sight, and would finish in front of the stands. The Butterfly and I moved to the rail, binoculars hanging uselessly around our necks. The Butterfly was beside himself with excitement and good spirits. He turned to a total stranger and said, "Winning lots of money?"