Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Column, March 4, 2008

ONE of the less well-advertised perks of being a reporter is the press freebie.
Not something we shout about too much when we’re getting on our high horse about MPs fiddling their expenses, but on any given day you’ll find a fair few hacks in most airport departure loungse, off on a jolly to some tropical paradise at someone else’s expense.
These things are usually dished out on the basis of how decent a job you’re doing and the likelihood of you heading off to pastures new if the boss doesn’t keep you vaguely happy.
My first such trip was to the Isle of Man, in November, in a gale. Make what you will of how well my career was doing at that stage and how worried they were at the prospect of my departure.
Any road up, some years later I was dispatched to Arizona, so by then I’d managed to keep my nose particularly clean.
We were on a tour of towns of the Old West and pitched up in a swanky resort hotel in the town of Prescott. Now, one of the oddities of America, the land that gave us Vegas in all its neon glory, is that in many states gambling is actually illegal.
However, the Native American reservations get to make their own rules in that respect and if they want a casino on reservation land then so be it.
At this point you may be wondering what the blimminy flip this has to do with Wales, but bear with me, I’m getting there, but in all too roundabout a way.
So, in Prescott we were the guests of the Havasupai Indians, on whose land the hotel had been built. We were invited to take a look at the casinos it boasted and were given the choice of the upstairs, upmarket casino, or the downstairs, more, ahem, down to earth model.
Being hacks we chose the budget version and what an eye opener it was. If I ever had ambitions of becoming a high-stakes, high-roller they died the moment I set foot there.
The very polite, but also very firm and very burly security at the door told us we would not be taking any photographs there. And you could understand why as soon as you took a look at the clientele.
This may have been owned by a native american tribe, but they certainly were not its target market for punters. No, the people sitting at its vast ranks of slot machines were exclusively elderly, white Americans.
It was the Indians’ revenge. They might have been killed, driven from their homes and shepherded into reservations that are dwarfed by the ranges they used to roam, but now they’re extracting a payment from the descendants of those who did it to them.
The superannuated gamblers were assisted in their endeavours by a steady stream of waitresses who would get them drinks and giant cups of change – anything to keep them pumping the machines with their cash.
And this is where we finally get round to North Wales. You see, up until then the only experience I’d really had of gambling of this nature had been the arcades of the coastal resorts. And you have to say that tacky as they may be, when it comes to fleecing customers they are rank amateurs compared to the slot palaces of the USA.
And now the arcades of our coastal resorts claim they’re in trouble. The latest gambling laws mean they’ve had to reduce the minimum stake in their high-paying machines, from £2 to £1. And by high-paying we’re talking £500 – hardly the life-changing sums that people play the Vegas slots for.
Part of me would not mourn the disappearance from our seafronts of the cheap and not very cheerful arcades. But that’s just my own snobbery and that shouldn’t determine how people spend their time at the seaside.
No-one lost their home solely playing the seaside slot machines. But plenty have done just that in Vegas.
If the seaside arcades go to the wall it isn’t as if there isn’t something replacing them. This government’s inexplicable love of the gambling industry has ensured that casinos and online gambling are flourishing and taking money off people like they have never done before.
Spare me the blather about them being regulated and having to pay out a certain amount. The classic tactic of the card sharp, divert attention to one hand so they don’t see the devilry the other is doing.
So if it’s a choice between Vegas and the delights of Rhyl, give me Rhyl anyday, but don’t expect Labour to be standing at the next slot machine.

A CALAMITOUS piece of diary planning means that when Ireland are being put to the sword by the unstoppable, rampaging juggernaut that is the Wales rugby team, I will not be watching live.
House guests, non-rugby fans, will have arrived and they’ll need entertaining.
Of course, I could suggest that they might like an explanation of the intricacies of rucking and mauling, forward passes and just what in tarnation is going on at the lineout. It’s one of those suggestions that is greeted by a frosty glance from Mrs B and she carries on talking as if I’d never spoken.
So, do I secrete a radio about my person and try to explain away my delighted little dances as mere high spirits.
Or do I tape it and then try to avoid all media that might reveal in advance the result?
One things is certain, if we do the Irish then with France playing the sort of headless, attack-at-all-costs rugby we used to be guilty of, then the Grand Slam is our for the taking.
Then, and only then, might the BBC accept that the story, just for once, is not about England.

ONE quick question, or rather two.
How much did it cost to establish a news black-out of Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan? Wouldn’t that money have been better spent better-equippping the soldiers who are already out there.
The MoD, a ministry famed for getting things totally and utterly wrong, has once again shown itself to be run by dullards of the first water.
They have treated Harry as if his demise would be a psychological blow to the nation so dire that we would never recover and would have to wave the white flag to the beastly Taliban.
Utter nonsense, I’m sure he would be the first to say that his death would be no worse than the death of any other soldier serving there.
And as for the argument that he will draw fire and put comrades at risk – well, only if he goes into battle carrying a big notice that says: “Here’s Harry”
He should have been sent along with his regiment, no special measures, and spend the money and effort on the news blackout properly equipping him and his fellow soldiers for the job they’re doing.

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