Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The trendy vice

Home Front 16 September 2005

Passions were running high during the Ashes series, naturally, and no cries of anguish were louder than those which I heard whenever Channel 4, shamefacedly and with many blushing apologies, had to stop broadcasting the cricket and “go over to Doncaster”.

“Racing!” spluttered the 10-year-old, waving his bat menacingly. (It is necessary, I am told, to carry a cricket bat while watching the sport on TV. This must be where I‘ve gone wrong all these years - I‘m not using the right equipment.) “Who on EARTH,” he went on, like an enraged colonel, “cares about blinking, blasted racing?”

We all know the answer. Nobody follows racing because they enjoy watching horses running. If you like horses, you follow eventing. The only thrill in watching one horse get round a track faster than another horse rests in the winning or losing of money on the result. Without gambling, racing is not much of a sport.

Governments have always tried to control the vices of smoking, drinking and gambling. The first, for centuries regarded as an annoying but harmless indulgence, has of course fallen completely from grace, and with smoking’s meteoric tumble we have seen a increased acceptance of the two vices which were once most successfully and thoroughly condemned by religious authorities.

Thus, public drunkenness has reached the point where young people simply have no other idea of what might make an evening enjoyable, and public gambling is now becoming a messianic Government cause.

Of course everyone agrees that the government’s theory of drinking - namely, that if bars are open all day in the “continental” pattern, then Saturday night’s lager louts will suddenly turn into Parisian existential poets - is not going to work. The plan is firmly opposed by around 70% of the whole population.

Incidentally I worry that our debate on binge drinking has not fully recognised the dread and awe - not affection - in which old-fashioned drunks regarded old-fashioned bobbies.

A fellow who got sozzled in Victorian London would most likely end up in a cell, minus his watch. To avoid causing an embarrassing scene, which would alert his employer - and his missus - as to where he’d spent the night, the gentleman would usually discreetly decide against reporting the watch as missing: hence the music-hall hit, “If you want to know the time, ask a p’liceman”.

By contrast, very few of the young men and women who roar and stagger half-naked through our towns actually wake up in a cell next morning. The law exists to put them there. It simply isn’t being used.

And as for the Parisian gendarme - the first thing I was warned of by my parents when travelling to France alone was “remember French policemen are not like ours! They are surly and have absolutely no sense of humour.” Well, after decades of dealing with “continental style” drinkers, is it surprising?

So having turned drunkenness from a vice to a pleasure and then belatedly realising our mistake (and having not a clue what to do about it), we now are rapidly following precisely the same path with gambling, the fastest way to wreck a home and family yet devised.

First step: social acceptability. Poker is a fashionable game, with its sad, solitary online version making millions. Second step: the profiteers push the limits, with internet gambling sites advertised on the Tube, giving children the impression it is a normal, harmless activity like shopping.

Third step: relax the laws in response to “public demand” - the plans for super casinos are still pressing ahead, despite (or because of?) the opposition of every church and religious group.
At least some of these are still holding out.

Birmingham councillors are currently trying to soften up local Muslims with promises of “inner city regeneration” if they will only give up opposing a super-casino in the inner city (instead of out of town in the sprawling NEC complex).

One Conservative councillor, a veritable Mephistopheles of the Midlands, purred warningly: “The communities have to weigh up the benefit of major capital investment against faith issues”.
When Western civilisation utters language like this, so utterly uncomprehending of any concepts of morality, eternity or obedience to one’s God, one begins to see why idealistic young Muslims turn radical.


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