My grandfather used to breathe through a narrow, puckered mouth when he was concentrating. When he was driving in town, or when he was peeling and slicing an apple for his dog, he made a soft, high-pitched sound that wasn’t quite a whistle. This was a throwback to his days in the stable, a means to avoid breathing in hair when he was grooming horses. His first job was delivering ice for an ice merchant, driving a horse and cart around the east end of London.
Technological disruption came early to my grandfather’s profession. The invention of the refrigerator did to ice merchants what digital photography would later do to Kodak. So he became an actuary and ended his career as a director of a large insurance company.
In his retirement he acted as mentor to me.
His big themes were mental arithmetic and the importance of manners. Thanks to him I knew my times tables at a ridiculously early age. And he drilled into me the importance of a firm handshake, making eye contact when holding a conversation, and standing up when someone enters or leaves a room. That might sound terribly old fashioned, but manners still make all the difference. It is sad that good manners are more conspicuous than they should be these days. But it means that standing up when someone joins a meeting is impressive, especially when no one else does it.
My grandfather adored horse racing. It combined his love of the animals with his actuarial respect for the mathematical agility of racecourse bookmakers. But he stopped gambling after he met Mr William Hill at Aintree. After some introductory small talk my grandfather asked Mr Hill for his tip for The Grand National. The bookmaker was aghast. “I don’t bet,” he said with barely concealed incredulity. The message was clear. The only way to win on the horses is by making a book, not by making bets. My grandfather used this anecdote to school me on the business model of bookmaking and the foolhardiness of gambling. The house always wins.
Other than the occasional office sweepstake and lottery tickets, I have never gambled. I have never set foot inside a bookie. I have friends who would vehemently disagree with this opinion, but even a “harmless” flutter feels like an exercise in futility to me.