A Day at the Races by Maria Taylor

old bookiesBefore going to see my football team of choice-by-birth, Coventry City play at home on a Saturday with my dad, we would stop off at the bookies for him to put on his daily bet. I was about nine and he would sit me in the corner of the smoke-filled shop against a backdrop of walls covered in the vital statistics of the day. We would wait for the first race before heading off up the match (this was years before televised races).

At the off, chatter would be replaced with commentary, and the men’s heads would move 45 degrees North to look at the speaker in the corner. The men would listen with their eyes, as though they had a better chance of winning by using more than one of the senses. As the race progressed, they started encouraging their horses or berating the jockey. Towards the end, the smoke almost gave way to their shouting, until the horses crossed finishing line. Then silence and muttering would be accompanied by the odd screwed up bet thrown at the poor innocent speaker.

Maria_Taylor_15Maria Taylor’s poem, A Day at the Races evokes this male dominated scene from the point of view of a woman who works behind the counter of the bookies. “For over twenty years it’s been a cinch/smiling without any come-on or affection./Her punters see more of her than their wives”. She is trained in the art of customer service; in dealing with the punters (now to be called ‘clients’) her tack is one of bitterness tinged with a sad inevitability of the outcome. “Her name is May, spelt in gold around her neck/she takes money from an old man…/’Today’s your lucky day’, she fibs,/someday she’ll drag his sheep-skinned corpse out.” Maria then neatly weaves in the clash of classes endemic in the racing game as the screen “cuts to ladies, daft complex hats, Lancome smiles,/cut to well-fed gent lifting a ribboned trophy.” (more…)

Raymond Antrobus Conversation with a Man in Wetherspoon’s

raymond antrobus picIn 1988, one of Thatcher’s dying policies to keep the working classes ‘happy’ was all day drinking. At the time we loved it. For me personally, working in the bookies, it meant not having the 3.30 pm spill out of drunks rushing the counter with bets. Needless to say my boss wasn’t happy with the loss of losers. One thing that became a fixture when the novelty wore off, was The Monday Club, the counterintuitive antidote to a weekend binge – drink all day on the Monday. Good times, good times.

Anyhow, the first line of today’s featured poem by Raymond Antrobus, really hit home (Wetherspoon’s on a Monday morning is like a retirement home). For many this goes beyond the simile. This poem is a wonderful divide between Ray setting the scene, (no-one takes off their jacket/they won’t admit how comfortable they are) and the verbatim story of the man’s life (Home is complicated now because I know too many places that it might be and not all of them exist). And there is the mix of nice humour (it’s hard to be honest in the same country you do your taxes) and the sad (it’s hard to love someone when you know them too well). But this is a poem about place and identity; of where you come from, where you live, where you would like to live, and therefore the importance of place in identifying who you are. (more…)