Why there are no real winners

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The Independent Culture
THERE COMES a moment in your life when, in spite of every effort, you eventually become Kingsley Amis. For years, you have been bumbling onwards, amiably opinionated, generally rubbing along with colleagues and intimates, however unsatisfactory they may be.

Then one day, something happens. It might be an unsolicited telephone call from a window salesman, or the proliferation of identical blondes on game shows, or a stranger addressing you by your Christian name, or Richard Whiteley, or a TV commercial for tampons. Suddenly, without warning, there you are, on the steps of your own private Garrick Club, red-faced, eyes bulging, a vein throbbing dangerously in the side of your head, consumed by a mighty, all-embracing Amisian rage against the modern world and the new ways that every day it finds to irritate you.

I've managed to hold off this moment for some time. I can't get enough of blondes on game shows; telephone salesmen who use my Christian name make me feel loved; there's something attractively saucy and subversive about being let into girly secrets about the super-absorbency. Yet, twice a week, I become Kingsley Amis, and there's nothing I can do about it.

It's the look of the people as they queue at the newsagent or a post office on Wednesday or Saturday: slack-jawed with anticipation, caught between hope and despair, they wait for their stupid scratchcard or lottery tickets like cows in a milking parlour. I want to shake them, scream at them, implore them to get a life in which they are not spending time, energy and hope on a process that is both morally dubious and which dooms them to weekly disappointment.

Surely, when historians look back on these years, they will identify the national lottery as a perfect emblem of the spiritual poverty of the late twentieth century. Almost miraculously, it combines the tawdriest aspects of our recent past: the something-for-nothing welfarism of the Seventies, the greed of the Eighties, the cringing obsession with selfhood and lifestyle of the Nineties. A brief shuddering glance at the lottery draw, shown every week on TV, reveals its origins. Lotteries have always gone down well in the world's poorer countries where despair, religious fantasy and cheap glamour feed off one another. The Saturday-night extravaganza put on by the BBC is so strikingly similar in its glitter, noise and vulgarity to the parody of a Third-World TV show on The Fast Show that one expects Caroline Aherne to come tripping on in nine-inch heels and squeak "Scorchio!".

Puritanical? The weekly flutter is no more than a bit of fun? Oh please. Consider how often in everyday life you hear the phrase "if I won the lottery". In the it-could-be-you culture, the numbers game has had a profound psychological influence on millions, all ideas of responsibility for one's own future being replaced by an easy, knuckle-brained faith in the roll of a few numbered balls. After all, why bother to improve your life if, on any Wednesday or Saturday, it can be transformed, materially and, money being the new cure-all, spiritually?

No surprise, then, that it is those who can afford it least who spend most on the lottery every week. Tricked by an unholy alliance of business, media interests and politicians, into believing that the miracle of Camelot will provide them with an escape from their lives, seduced into a mindset of greed, fantasy and laziness, a large proportion of the population has been drugged into a more subservient fatalism than any religion has ever managed.

For many, it has indeed become a sort of religion. In the schools that I occasionally visit to discuss my books, nothing shocks or disappoints the children as much as my scepticism in this area. Never mind Jesus, or Santa or the Tooth Fairy: the one article of faith they are brought up to believe in is the promised land confected by Camelot. No wonder that, when any spare cash in the family budget goes towards the lottery, it is such indulgences as the buying of a paperback that are the first casualty.

The very middle class sophisticates who would deplore the expenditure of dole money at a betting shop indulge this more mindless form of gambling. Political leaders, who once might have been expected to question its moral wisdom, divert their eyes and count the cash going. Those who would squawk at the higher rate of taxes excuse their indulgence on the grounds that a tiny part of their money may go to a good cause.

It is pointless and mindless, passive and onanistic, the pastime of a nation so seduced by cheap miracles that even its national football team employs a faith-healer. I am sure Sir Kingsley would have agreed.