I play the lottery for a similar reason to why I find histories of everyday life so wonder-filled.
(It’s a bit of a weird connection, but let’s see if I can make it work.)
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone call the lottery a tax on the stupid. Sure, the odds are impossibly long. So long, in fact, that I think it is beyond human comprehension to really ‘get’ how unlikely it is to win.
Does this make the people who play it stupid?
I’m not so sure.
I think this kind of statement is often a kind of thinly-veiled class prejudice, not unlike the jokes you might hear about ‘chavs’. You know, the jokes that sensible people would never make about people who receive benefits, but that are totally OK if they identify social groups by clothing styles, haircuts, and lifestyle habits.
And yes, I know that the lottery makes many winners unhappy. I’m not about to add to the growing list of pieces on how hard life is for the modern-day millionaire, but I get that suddenly waking up with financial responsibilities and a new set of social expectations is actually a pretty stupendous challenge. It is well-known that lots of lottery winners suffer from abuse problems, lose important relationships, and generally feel miserable.
I don’t really want to win the lottery.
I just want to play it.
(I know, I know, you can all queue up to take my £2 and give me a ticket. I’m the easiest mark in the world. But I’m kind of serious.)
What I love about the lottery is the way that, largely through the work of imagination, it brings something huge, momentous, and meaningful into everyday life. This is particularly obvious in the weird and wonderful stories of lotteries gone wrong, like the recent case in the UK of a woman who says she washed her ticket in her jeans.
Suddenly, a small town shop is the centre of frenzied media speculation. Desperately, a woman rifles through her trouser pockets, looking for an almost insignificant piece of paper. How faint are the numbers? On this question rests £33 million.
I like that to and fro between the whopping and the piddling, the banal and the mind-boggling. It’s the kind of dynamic I think is gold dust when I’m reading great history about everyday life.
It’s Samuel Pepys shitting in the fireplace in a room he’s staying in because the water closet has yet to be invented. It’s Domenico Scandella, the humble, heretical miller at the centre of Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms reading the Koran.
Or more recently, in my own research, it’s French villagers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries shouting ‘witch’ at their enemies as an insult, wearing crosses and medallions hidden under their clothing to ward off evil influences, and finally killing one another with guns, knives, or flames.
It’s that contrast that gets me: the violent, shocking, and dramatic things that happen in ordinary people’s pockets.