My childhood memories are mostly about horses. Not some noble stately home with stables, but grimy side-street bookmakers shops with discarded betting slips covering the floor like confetti thrown at a doomed marriage. My father had been in the RAF during the Second World War and it had left him quiet and detached. He seemed to me to be a man that had got trapped in a period of his life that he couldn’t leave until he had somehow made sense of it, but he couldn’t and as a result the evolving modern world around him was alien and confusing. I often feel like that now, wishing the world would just stop for a while and get its breath back – or mine. It’s spins too fast, and that can’t be good for it.
After his death ten years ago I did some digging into his squadron’s history and discovered (amongst other dreadful things) that half his squadron of Stirling IV bombers was blown out of the sky on a single day during the Rhine crossing. Half a squadron wiped out in one day; no wonder he just wanted to be left alone. He never talked about the war, apart from some humorous stories of drunken escapades and women quivering in anticipation after falling madly in lust with his nice blue RAF officers uniform. Not the young boys that died, he never talked about the dead. All I got was the short stories, and he delivered them like a stand-up comedian. They were at least something of his past but now I know they were a mere diversion; bawdy boyish tales that avoided feelings long buried too deep for tears. But even these titbits of war were of great value to a schoolboy fascinated by black and white films that presented war as wonderful and glorious. I hung on every word and thought how lucky he must have been to have such an adventurous life. I wanted to be like him; now I am grateful I didn’t have to.
I have recently seen his handwriting in his squadron logbook casually reporting the loss of an aircraft and the entire crew that had been flying beside his wing on their way home. A gunner on the ground mistook them for Germans and opened fire just a few miles from Shepherd’s Grove. He wrote that it had simply been a case of friendly fire and added that he had not seen any parachutes. It was written as if by a man that didn’t want to think about what had happened any longer than he had to, and that’s probably still how he saw the world by the time I showed up. I never heard those stories when he was alive. All I got was the flipping a jeep while driving too drunk to walk, and the buxom southern belle by the swimming pool in Georgia, where he learned to fly, who smiled at him and said, “Say something honey child, we just loves to hear y’all talk.” It all sounded so naughty and oh so grown up. But he was a child for God’s sake. I have a daughter older than he was when he flew out of Shepherd’s Grove. Every time he left, not expecting to come back.
So we had little in common, even football and fishing were things I couldn’t share with him. We had a secret though – every Saturday he would load me in his car as cover and tell my mother he was off to deal with such mundane things as paying bills or buying light bulbs. In reality we were off to the bookies. A boys only day out with all the trimmings. The newspapers had pages and pages of runners, riders, form, odds, and tips to study. On Saturdays we had plenty to talk about. He wore suits to work but would dress down on Saturdays. When I squint my eyes and take a deep breath I can still see a distressed woollen jumper and I can smell pipe tobacco and extra strong mints. Mostly I obediently sat in the car, sometimes for hours, but on good days if there weren’t too many people he would let me come into the betting shop with him. This was a rare treat because I had been convinced since birth that pubs and betting shops were such wonderful places that the adults conspired to keep them entirely to themselves, and that’s why all children were barred and threatened with prosecution. I was not yet ten years old but already had two big secrets; the first one was I went to betting shops every Saturday, the second secret was that nothing happened. There were no sirens and flashing blue lights, and I didn’t get struck by lightning. I had broken the rules, and the law, and nothing had happened. I had been taught that the world was order. I started to suspect, like my father, that it wasn’t.
The return journey was typically quiet, as he’d done his money and feared my mother would find out, “Remember son, loose lips sink ships.” This was my first lesson in tradecraft and the art of keeping secrets and it served me well and may have even been the catalyst that led me to my life as a private investigator. Very few people know how to keep a secret. I learned how to keep lots of them. On the rare days he won big, the joy was immeasurable. He would show me the stack of paper money like scars he’d achieved on Saint Crispin’s Day, and on entering the house he would throw them up in the air theatrically to impress my mother. Her disapproval only added to the bond we had. I never spoke of all the losing days, but she knew. As long as she couldn’t prove it!
His gambling appeared to me an act of defiance, as if he was trying to make sense of a world that had sent him and his friends into the wild blue yonder as cannon fodder for the ack-ack guns over Europe, and sometimes at home too. Gambling has been described as ‘collecting injustices.’ If true then it would have been a familiar place for him. If going to war isn’t about collecting injustices then I don’t know what is.
The betting shop aficionado is typically a loner. Men that avoid eye contact and mutter to each other as they move around between races taking a clean betting slip from the wall dispenser, or rushing to the window hurriedly to avoid the dreaded words ‘under starters orders’ meaning time is up and they can no longer place the bet. Betting shops are also full of conspiracy theorists striving to pick a winner by spotting the fix. There’s a perceived profit in identifying a trainer up to no good with a horse. Losing was always a result of bad luck whereas winning was always the reward for having solved the enigma and spotted the fix. Everybody plays detective and has a working hypothesis before the race.
Whatever the reason, winning was always a mighty victory and brought joy far beyond the actual amount of money involved. It was as if the stack of five and ten pound notes were the proof that he had worked it all out, that he had somehow briefly made sense of the chaos and been rewarded. The war had left him an atheist but I swear those occasional big wins came with a fleeting belief that there was a God and God had at last proved it to him by patting him on the head and saying, “Good boy Louis.” At least until the next big loss and the devastation and isolation that came with it. It was all very intoxicating to a small boy.
After my parents got divorced I saw my father even less and started going to the bookmakers alone on Saturdays, perhaps expecting him to be there. At the age of sixteen I was rebellious and desperately in search of my own big adventure. London felt small and awkward and the wanderlust was just beginning to take a firm grip. The world was going to be my stage so it was hardly surprising I ended up working in a theatre. I had money in my pocket, was able to bluff being over eighteen to get into pubs and got drunk with celebrities at work. My future was already written.
I soon took on the character of the drinker and gambler. I would slip out of the pub into the bookies in the hope of picking a winner to pay for a few more rounds of drinks. The ladies love a big spender and I certainly loved the ladies. Mostly the final result was not more drinks and the adoration of teenage girls but instead the long walk home in the cold because like my father, I’d done my money. Unfortunately I didn’t have a car so when I inevitably did my money it meant I’d done my bus fare too.
As time passed I started to sound like the old men I’d witnessed in my childhood; jumping from one mad hypothesis to another. If only I could work out where the conspiracy was then I could see the future and know which horse was supposed to win the race. This was an expensive endeavour and chaos reigned supreme as it dashed my theories on the scotch on the rocks and made off with my hard-earned money. This acorn had certainly not fallen very far from the tree.
One Saturday in 1977 I was browsing through the racing pages looking for a horse. I was doing well at the theatre and had progressed from tearing tickets to doing just about everything. I even convinced them to let me decorate the stalls bar. I was making more cash than I had ever imagined which meant, of course, that the size of my bets had also gone up, and that meant so had my weekly losses. That’s when I spotted Shangamuzo running in the Doncaster Cup. Shangamuzo was a class horse, real class. He had excellent form but had recently run some atrocious races and hadn’t been entered in anything for two and a half months.
When I saw the price in the paper my jaw dropped, he was 33/1. That was ridiculous as it put him as a rank outsider, I knew the horse and I knew it had form. I smelt something in the air and it wasn’t horseshit. If he was unfit and had not been able to race for months then why were they running him in the Doncaster Cup? Typically when a horse comes back from illness they run him in some smaller races to feel him out. More importantly what was Pat Eddery doing on him? Pat Eddery was the champion jockey season after season and could have any ride he wanted. I couldn’t see Eddery riding Shangamuzo if he was a complete duffer. I gradually talked myself into the theory that the reason the horse had run badly and why he had been withdrawn from racing for two and a half months was nothing to do with his abilities but instead a clever plan to get better odds and make a killing. I decided that the trainer was up to no good and planning to make a large bet on his own horse. Anyway at 33/1 all I needed to bet on him was the belief that he was in with a chance. I had no doubt he was in with a chance because I had decided his recent form was irrelevant.
So I went to the bookies opposite the theatre and with trembling fingers I wrote out, what was to me, a very large bet. I didn’t bet for a place, I put it all on to win. The lady at the ticket window had become very maternal over the previous months and made me cups of tea when nobody was looking. She tried to talk me out of the bet. “No self-respecting pundit would put so much on a total outsider,” she told me, “at least back it to place too.” I was having none of it. She sighed knowingly and printed confirmation on the betting slip.
Hours later I crossed the road back to the bookies to listen to the live commentary. My stomach wasn’t full of butterflies; they were eels. Shangamuzo took the lead half a mile from home and won the Doncaster Cup by four lengths. The falcon heard the falconer, the centre had held, and there was no anarchy loosed upon the world. Briefly there was undoubtedly a God and he had patted me on the head and said, “Good boy, here’s your reward.” I wasn’t going to be walking home tonight, or any night soon.
The unshaven, unwashed old men that spent all their days in the bookies saw me jumping around yelling like a lunatic and quickly worked out what had happened. They started muttering to each other that only a young boy with no knowledge of the turf could ever make such a stupid bet and get so undeservedly rewarded. I didn’t care what they thought; in my mind either I was a genius or the chosen one. And I didn’t care which. I had never had so much money in my life and I liked the feeling.
Not long after that day I was on Earl’s Court train station and fate confronted me with a sign outside a bucket shop saying ‘Cheapest Air Tickets in London.’ That day I bought a one-way ticket, London to Bangkok on Bangladesh Airlines, for one hundred and twenty six pounds. The rest, as they say, is history.
So next time I am asked what brought me to Bangkok at sixteen years old don’t be surprised if I say it was a horse called Shangamuzo.