Insight talks to award-winning author Jamie Reid, a lifelong punter and racing enthusiast, ahead of his visit to the Rock as part of the Gibraltar Literature Week. He is also a journalist having written for the Guardian and before that the Independent On Sunday, and for ten years he was a regular columnist for the Financial Times magazine How to Spend It, where he wrote the Smart Money column as well as feature articles which he continues to write to this day.
Born in 1954 in Kent, Jamie Reid’s passion for horse racing and gambling was instilled in him by his grandmother. “She was a gambler and owned shares in some racehorses in the 1920s and 30s and she used to take me racing when I was growing up,” he says. “I loved the atmosphere of racecourses like Brighton, Lingfield and the Epsom Downs (home of the Derby), and the raffish combination of the toffs and the spivs, and because they were some of the few places in England where you could encounter that in that era there was always a sense of illicit pleasure about it.”
After school, Jamie went to read English Literature at University College Oxford and then went on to Stanford University in California. “I decided that I didn’t want an academic life,” he tells me. “I was always passionate about the theatre and I had done a lot of student writing and acting when I was at university, going on to do some acting professionally as well as writing for The Stage.”
It was whilst he was working as a resident writer at The Young Vic Theatre in the late seventies that Jamie met some independent publishers from Scotland who were fascinated by the whole world of horse racing and gambling. “They were looking to try and do a novel about horse racing and gambling that wasn’t just a straight Dick Francis take on it, and I wrote a book called Easy Money that came out in 1985 which turned out to be the beginning of my writing career and that led to me getting employed as a journalist writing about racing, and I have been doing that on and off ever since,” he explains.
Agreeing that he is drawn to the darker side of life, both his novels and non-fiction books cover the seedier side of racing. “I have always loved stories about people who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad and there were a lot of characters like that in the racing and gambling world that captivated me,” he comments. “There was always a feeling that some of the scams, cons and attempts to pull off betting coups at the expense of bookmakers was something that you instinctively wanted to cheer on rather than disapprove of.”
Around 2011 Jamie was fascinated about the true stories of racing chicanery and corruption that seemed far more interesting than anything you could make up. “I was lucky enough to strike up a partnership with a very splendid publisher called James de Wesselow – the driving force behind Racing Post Books – and I put to him this story called Doped which was the account of one of the biggest doping scandals in British racing history in 1962 featuring bookie Bill Roper, a married man with a Swiss mistress, who needed extra funds to juggle two lives. “The story threw a light not just on the racing of that period but on the whole social scene in Britain when the sport of racing was still governed by the Jockey Club who were predominantly elderly white gentlemen with little knowledge of the underworld or betting,” Jamie explains. “For many years Bill Roper and his accomplices ran rings round the Jockey Club and it was only when they tried to dope a horse belonging to the Queen Mother that the enquiries became much more serious and the Jockey Club realised that they needed the assistance of Scotland Yard to catch the murderous London gangsters.”
Apart from assiduous research, Jamie says that he was lucky enough to meet elderly gentlemen who had been alive at the time who remembered the protagonists. “They rather liked being mentioned in a book and loved sharing their tales, giving me their first-hand accounts, and fortunately the non-fiction book, which read more like a novel, went down very well and won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 2013.”
One of these gentlemen was a professional gambler back in the day who had worked for a bookmaker. “When I went to see him in his London flat he wasn’t living in the most glamorous circumstances by any means, but he had dressed up very smartly in his tailor made suit and tie and looked very dapper,” Jamie states.
Another helpful source of information was the bookmaker Victor Chandler, someone else who is known for his sartorial style, who Jamie got to know when he was working as a journalist in the 1990s. “Victor was great fun and very good company and he put me in touch with people who had known not only his father, who was also called Victor Chandler, but also his legendary grandfather Bill Chandler who died in 1946 who was a big-time player in the 30s and quite a rogue.”
The idea for Put Your Life On It, the authorised biography of Victor Chandler, was mooted around the end of the Nineties when Jamie went to interview VC (as everybody called him) at the RAC Club in London after the announcement that he was moving his business to Gibraltar. “He regaled me with stories about his family history and at the end of our meeting I asked him if he had ever thought of doing a book about this,” Jamie says. VC responded that he really should do it sooner rather than later because otherwise some of the old characters who had known his father and grandfather wouldn’t be alive any more. “It took us another twenty years or so to actually accomplish this and the book, chronicling the social history of a betting business family for over 100 years, was finally published in 2021.”
For those of us who don’t know the term ‘put your life on it’, Jamie explains that it’s a race track expression. “In the great days before the internet when race courses, particularly at the weekend, had big crowds of spectators, most of them gamblers, and there was a lot of animation, noise and activity, where bookies would have Tic-tac men relaying the odds, people would sometimes run up to each other at the last minute and say “so-and-so’s backing this horse” indicating that they had been given the nod from the trainer and ‘you can put your life on it’!
Victor Chandler is known as the most recognised face in bookmaking. Jamie says that if you had been a racing lover and enthusiast in the last twenty or thirty years, although he may not have been equally recognisable to the public at large, you would immediately know who Victor was if you saw his face. For many people, Victor Chandler is indelibly linked to the BetVictor TV commercials which Jamie thinks were some of the worst and unfunniest TV commercials ever seen. “I don’t think that VC would disagree with that,” Jamie laughs.
The fact that Put Your Life On It is an authorised biography meant that Jamie was able to talk to members of VC’s family and to people who worked for him. “At the end of this book we leave the possibility that there will be a sequel where we might go into aspects of his story which we haven’t told which are more personal,” he remarks.
“Victor is just a fund of very amusing anecdotes about his misspent youth, which I identified with, because he got chucked out of school at one point and I nearly got thrown out of my school for being caught in a betting shop in school uniform, and we both had that shared sense of the fact that a day at the races thirty years ago was somehow breaking the rules in a very enjoyable way – and that permeated all his conversations about his life.”
Jamie Reid’s fascination with the shadier side of life can be witnessed in his book, yet another true story, entitled Monsieur X: The incredible story of the most audacious gambler in history, which features the story of a handsome, charming and well-educated French professional gambler from an aristocratic family called Patrice des Moutis who took on the French state in the 60s and 70s. “He kept winning so much money they changed the rules to try and outwit him but ended up driving him into the arms of the French Mafia.” Jamie has constant hopes that the book might be turned into a film.
“My latest book is called Bandit Country and will be published next June,” he states. It is about the boom in one armed bandit gambling slot machines in the early 60s and about two Londoners who went up to the north east of England where they made a fortune selling slot machines to the Working Men’s Clubs. “These machines had actually come from the Mafia in America who had a surplus and who were very happy to supply people in the UK, and these guys made so much money out of it – a lot of it very dodgy but there was no law against it at the time – that they were able to open nightclubs in Newcastle, briefly known as the Las Vegas of the north.”
“Then it all went terribly wrong when one of their collectors was found shot dead in his Jaguar on a winter’s morning in a small Durham mining village in 1967 – and that became known as the one arm- bandit murder and the story is all about that and the effect that had on their empire,” Jamie explains.
For more fascinating stories you can see Jamie Reid on Saturday 12th November at 10 am at the John Mackintosh Hall Theatre. Tickets are available from www.buytickets.gi