Editor-At-Large : Hell's bells! Have you ever been to Las Vegas?

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The Independent Online

If you want to know what £100m spent lobbying and cajoling opinion formers buys you, look no further than last Friday's Times. While the Daily Mail continues its frantic crusade to stop new legislation which will permit "super" casinos with jackpots up to £2m, the Thunderer responded with a double-page spread extolling the fabulousness of casino design!

If you want to know what £100m spent lobbying and cajoling opinion formers buys you, look no further than last Friday's Times. While the Daily Mail continues its frantic crusade to stop new legislation which will permit "super" casinos with jackpots up to £2m, the Thunderer responded with a double-page spread extolling the fabulousness of casino design! Reading through the appalling twaddle penned by their architecture correspondent Tom Dyckhoff, you'd think that a trip to Las Vegas was such a life-affirming experience it ought to be prescribed on the National Health. By turning our backs on these fun palaces, he says, we are denying ourselves the best of modern architecture. The reason town centres are dying, according to a new report, is that we seek out fun in our cars - be it the movies, theme parks or shopping. We need to look at Las Vegas and learn from it - create what John Prescott calls the "wow" factor which appeals to the proletariat, not just the middle classes who flock to iconic new buildings for the arts in places like Bilbao and Salford.

Tessa Jowell will be spending all this weekend desperately grovelling to Labour MPs in order to ensure that her Gambling Bill gets through the House of Commons on Monday. As Ms Jowell lets it be known that she's prepared to be "flexible" in order to prevent her Bill being stopped in the House of Lords, The Times thinks that we are middle-class nimbys if we voice dissent. Look, if adults over the age of 21 want to chuck their money in the direction of slot machines, poker tables and scratch cards, I'm not going to stop them. But don't tell me that Las Vegas gaming palaces are enjoyable places to hang out. The design of a casino is carefully predicated to stop you leaving, to keep you trapped within its walls, and to relieve you of everything in your wallet within a couple of hours.

Last March I spent 48 hours in Las Vegas - enough time to take 12 Nurofen Plus. Music assaults your senses in every public space. The journey from the check-in desk to the lifts takes 20 minutes and winds through every fruit machine going. Room service is the worst in the world, designed to force you to abandon the wait and leave your room in search of basic nourishment. I was told my breakfast order would take 90 minutes! Getting outside your hostelry requires the use of a GPS gadget, and the ability to wind through three shopping malls without exits and not make one impulse buy. You'll be pulled along by a crowd of zombies sucking drinks from huge containers, their backsides the size of a sofa for four. When you finally escape this modern version of Dante's inferno on to the sidewalk and then enter the next casino, you'll wade through another 10 acres of garishly patterned carpet (you are now popping painkillers as a reflex action) past tigers in glass cages, giant replica musical boxes, huge fake palm trees and dozens of caged parrots. There are no seats other than in bars. The cacophony of sound is indescribable ... it makes Saturday morning shopping in Asda or Tesco seem a haven of Zen-like calm and tranquillity.

Don't buy the crap that Las Vegas is a stimulating theme park. To be honest, a building can look like a show boat, a pyramid or a replica of the Eiffel Tower on the outside - close up it's like a bad bit of scenery and inside they all look exactly the same. They suck the life out of you, hammer your senses until you lose all reasoning and submit. Amount of glamour - zero. Fat, poor people in cheap clothes - that's the reality. Ms Jowell's Gambling Bill will add precisely nothing to the cultural life of Britain. We are rich in history, and live in a society where ordinary people enjoy visiting museums and art galleries. Most of middle America is a cultural desert - I once had the misfortune to spend two weeks in Oklahoma City, where locals regard the Cowboy Hall of Fame as their equivalent of the Tate Gallery. In that context, the flimsy fakery of Las Vegas might have some appeal, but to most people in Britain, it is ultimately tacky and pathetic. Why would we want to gawp at a few Impressionists in the gallery of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas when we can pop into the National Gallery and see a Leonardo or a Titian without passing a glassy-eyed blob jerking the handle of a machine? We can hop on Eurostar and see the real Eiffel Tower, or a budget flight to Venice to be impressed by the Grand Canal - in Europe you can see brilliant architecture which spans centuries for virtually nought.

The only justification for the Gambling Bill is that it will bring huge sums into the Exchequer, which the Government should promise to use to boost our pitiful pensions. But don't expect half a dozen super-casinos on the outskirts of Birmingham, Norwich or Manchester to be anything other than garish dives for addicts to succumb in. The Times quoted one operator as saying: "We strive to create an environment that is fun, upscale ... sensual and international." Pull the other leg.

Tarantino opera

There are two more performances left this week of the outrageous version of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the ENO, and I beg you to ignore the horrible reviews of Calixto Bieito's production when first aired back in 2001. Then the audience booed, dozens of people walked out, and critics called it sleazy and tawdry. Now, with a better cast and excellent conducting by David Parry, this Tarantino-inspired epic is an unforgettable entertainment. Leporello, played as a beer-swilling thug by Iain Paterson, is magnificent, and Mark Stone's Don Giovanni is the seducer to end them all. Sadly, the show is not sold out, which just goes to show you what unfortunate power critics have. This is exactly the kind of event that the ENO needs to bring in a new audience - people who come with no prejudices or ideas about the "right" way of doing things. Bieito gives us a violent, mesmeric version of Don Giovanni, every bit as enthralling as a rock concert. Congratulations.

¿ During my recent stint as a primary school teacher I had the unfortunate experience of carrying out school dinner duty, spooning out a meal that offered pizza, chips, rice, mashed potato and pasta, which the head teacher claimed was "balanced". Nutritionists commissioned by the Soil Association have tested school meals and found they contain high levels of fat, sugar and salt - in fact, children eating them would exceed their recommended intake by between 20 and 40 per cent. For poorer children, school meals provide their only hot food of the day, and certainly the most nutritious.

Despite government pledges to improve school catering, the Department for Education has still not set a date when the nutritional standards of school meals will be revised, which seems pretty scandalous. There is no point in moaning about fat young couch potatoes, when you bypass the opportunity to create healthier eating patterns at an impressionable age. Stephen Twigg can stand up in Parliament and waffle about daily fruit allowances, but his department has not banned soft-drink machines in schools or allocated sufficient funds to create decent menus. How can you feed a child properly for 36p a day? No wonder I dished out chips and pizza.

Please let's not have have another Loyd Grossman-style tsar appointed to oversee a catering revolution. The answers are simple. Local suppliers need to work with schools to source local produce. And given that our major supermarkets make billions of pounds profit, it would be good to see them offer something back to future customers by donating food to schools in their area.

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