Most of us have probably heard that
Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
The Feast of Stephen, it turns out, is the first day after Christmas—also known to the British as Boxing day, which I mentioned last Christmas—and it was indeed snowy here last week on the Feast of Stephen, though by then the big storms had blown over.
There’s usually little chance of snow here at Christmas, but please allow me to draw your attention to the crucial word there: chance. Anything can happen. And any situation involving an element of chance is something you can gamble on. And in Britain, bookies—perfectly legally, which would raise eyebrows in most of the US—will give you odds on pretty much whatever you want to bet on.
Most towns have bookies, whose premises are usually called betting shops—as if you are going to go in and purchase a bet—although the official name seems to be “licensed betting office”. Off-track betting on horse races is a staple, though you can bet on any sport you can name, including sports played in the US that aren’t even played here. But that’s not the half of it.
One closely watched contest is for the Christmas Number 1, that is, the number one pop song on the charts the week before Christmas. This year it was Matt Cardle’s When We Collide, such a sure thing that some bookies went ahead and paid out on bets before the winner was officially announced. Cardle had competition, though, from a collection of artists who came together to record John Cage’s piece 4’33” (a title that looks even more strange with quotation marks around it, so I’ve had to switch to italics for titles today), which famously consists of that specific length of time, during which the musicians do not play or sing. At all. Forty-six years after Paul Simon wrote The Sound of Silence, his title has—inevitably, given the British press’ love of puns—been revived as a description of Cage’s experimental piece for a silent orchestra, this time played (or not) by a bunch of silent pop and rock stars, one of whom phoned in his performance, literally, via Blackberry. Any profits from the silent recording will go to charity, so given the way British people seem to be willing to do anything if it’s for charity, I’m surprised that Cage’s silent song didn’t win.
One bookie started taking bets on the Christmas Number 1 last July, though that’s pretty unusual. And the betting-on-anything isn’t confined to Yule-time activities. As of Christmas 2010, British bookies were offering odds on whether J. K. Rowling will write another Harry Potter book in 2011, who will win the 2012 election for Mayor of London, who will be the next politician to voluntarily leave or be fired from a Cabinet position in the government, and whether Colin Firth will win the Best Actor Oscar for The King’s Speech.
Celebrities’ lives come in for a lot of attention at betting shops. One of the benefits, to my mind, of leaving one country for another, is that you don’t have to keep up with the celebrities of either: except for those who are household names worldwide (like the afore-mentioned Firth), nobody in the country you move to will know the celebrities from your old country, and nobody in the new country expects you to know who the local celebrities are, unless you’re on a trivia team for quiz night at the pub. (I avoid these; not only do I know little about British celebrities and very little about recent pop song charts, it is inevitable that sports will rear its sweaty head, and I know even less about British sports than I do about American sports, which is saying something).
So not only were bookies taking bets before Christmas on whether Matt Cardle would have the Christmas Number 1, they were taking bets on whether Cardle’s autobiography would sell more than 100,000 copies. Bookies were also giving odds then on whether Russel Brand and Katie Perry would split up before New Year’s, what Lady GaGa will wear to the Grammies, when Victoria Beckham will next announce that she’s expecting, and whether Cheryl and Ashley Cole will re-unite before Christmas 2011.
Bookies must be salivating over the profits they can make from the upcoming Royal Wedding; they’re already taking bets on who will design the dress, who will catch the bouquet, where the couple will honeymoon, and—wait for it—what colour hat the Queen will wear. Blue is the current favourite, with odds of 4.5:1, while gray and black are the long shots at 26:1. Pink, purple, light blue and dark blue are popular (though how the bookies will distinguish between blue, light blue, and dark blue, when there’s money hanging on the issue, sounds like a nightmare to me). Apricot and turquoise appear further down the list. Jumping the gun a bit, people are already betting on whether Prince William and Kate Middleton will have a baby before Mike Tindall and Zara Phillips do. (Tindall and Phillips, the Queen’s eldest granddaughter, announced their engagement shortly after the other two.)
Luckily for the bookies, a white Christmas is defined for gambling purposes as one in which at least one flake of snow falls in the 24 hours preceding Dec 25; snow on the ground doesn’t count, no matter how deep or crisp or even, and while in some places, people were still snowed in, very little snow actually fell on Christmas day. One report claimed that over 27,000 bets had been made on a white Christmas and the bookies didn’t have to pay out much, except to those who bet on snowfalls in Glasgow and Nottingham.
On the other hand, if you want to bet on which British football star will be arrested for misbehaviour first in 2011, whether the sitcom Gavin and Stacey will go into a fourth season, or who’ll be the next actor to play 007 after Daniel Craig, Britain is the place to be. I don’t know whether it’s legal to bet with with British bookie if you’re in the US, but I doubt it. But just in case you decide to have a flutter, as they say here, you might like to know that they’re giving odds of 100:1 against either a serving President of the United States or British Prime Minister announcing that the existence of extraterrestrial life has been confirmed. Good luck!