Spare me from the eighth deadly sin

The story of Conrad Black illustrates perfectly what happens when materialism spirals out of control
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The Independent Online

Two elderly men, both out of a job, are in the headlines this week, and they couldn't be more different. Conrad Black, whose desire for the good life allegedly led him to systematically strip $400m from the company he ran (95 per cent of the profits over a five-year period), and Bobby Robson, who was unceremoniously kicked out of his job as manager of Newcastle United, after a lifetime of devoted service to his beloved game of football.

Two elderly men, both out of a job, are in the headlines this week, and they couldn't be more different. Conrad Black, whose desire for the good life allegedly led him to systematically strip $400m from the company he ran (95 per cent of the profits over a five-year period), and Bobby Robson, who was unceremoniously kicked out of his job as manager of Newcastle United, after a lifetime of devoted service to his beloved game of football.

While Mr Black thought nothing of spending $43,000 on a birthday dinner for his wife at a swanky New York restaurant, Mr Robson's tastes were rather different. Mr Black used $23m to travel from one luxury home to another by private jet, and charged it to his company as a business expense, while Mr Robson preferred to live in a modest bungalow in County Durham and has never paid more than £200 for a suit.

As 18-year-old footballer Wayne Rooney is signed to Manchester United for around £27m, it's clear that Mr Robson represents an era in the game that has gone for ever. Now players earn so much money, they can surround themselves with flashy cars, designer suits and sport loads of bling. There's the apocryphal story about the time Newcastle player Kieron Dyer asked Mr Robson if the team coach could return to the dressing room where he had just played (by now 50 miles away) because he had left his large diamond ear-ring in the dressing room. Naturally, Mr Robson refused.

Yesterday, I took part in the final episode of a series that Radio 4 has been running throughout the summer about modern sin. It has really captured the imagination of listeners, with thousands sending in comments and suggestions for 21st-century sins. I was roundly denounced by the presenter Joan Bakewell for choosing materialism as my eighth sin, while the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton (who chose ignorance) could see nothing inherently sinful in the acquisition of objects which add to our general feeling of well-being. As Joan told listeners, I am someone who likes nice stuff - homes, clothes, handbags and holidays. So am I a hypocrite? Returning from the summer break is an extremely good time to take stock, and I was immediately struck by the fact that a shoe horn designed by Manolo Blahnik for Habitat was being promoted by this very paper as a "luxury everyone can afford". Not if you're on the minimum wage, washing hospital floors or serving in a canteen, I was tempted to write; I don't know many cleaning ladies or bus drivers who would be rushing to purchase a shoe horn, no matter how beautifully designed.

The story of Conrad Black illustrates perfectly what happens when materialism spirals out of control, and money is spent on things that seem quite "normal" to the addict concerned. It's "normal" to spend $2,463 on a handbag for your wife, or $28,000 on three dinners with Henry Kissinger. It's all justified as acceptable business expenses, and not luxuries. In an interview after he was sacked, Bobby Robson commented on the way he and his wife lived. "Neither Elsie or I are materialistic. It was the way I was brought up. My dad taught me the value of money and not to throw it away. My players have fame, adoration, money, women, fast cars and no mortgage ... in the real world, they'd be lucky to get £20,000 a year, never mind a week".

I am sure that Wayne Rooney will take absolutely no notice whatsoever of these words of wisdom. As for Mr Black, he still protests his innocence. The athletes that have returned from the Olympic Games, whether medal winners or not, have all taught us a valuable lesson. Not for them Maseratis, detached palaces with triple garages and a telly in every room. Kelly Holmes still lives in a semi with mum in Kent. When I made the case for ranking materialism as a modern sin, it seemed to me that so many other loathsome qualities spring from our obsession with acquisition and hoarding and our insatiable pursuit of the latest luxury - waste, environmental destruction, selfishness and lack of spiritual values.

The gap between the haves and have-nots in our society is wider than ever. We middle-class folk have redefined essentials as gadgets, second cars, extra computers and second homes, not one annual holiday but many mini-breaks. To realise our dreams, we subscribe to some of the longest working hours in Europe, with much of the day spent travelling to and from the workplace so we can live in suburban or rural comfort. Our time with our families is therefore limited. And while there is nothing inherently sinful in seeking to surround ourselves with the rewards or our labours, surely the time has come to say "enough is enough".

Not one person in government or at the helm of any major business in Britain has been prepared to set an example and live on the minimum wage or take a massive pay cut. Our own prime minister sets an appalling example of materialistic madness by opting for not one summer holiday in a palace, but several.

You cannot tour shopping centres as Mr Blair did on Tuesday, and claim that ASBOs are a successful way of dealing with youth crime, when you, yourself, set no examples. By that, I mean demonstrating that there is an alternative to a life based purely on material things. Because, for many of the have-nots, crime is the only way to climb on to the ladder of ownership. And if a humble semi-d in south London is now worth £1m, where does the cleaner or the school dinner lady start to look for a home? The moment you have rented a storage unit in which to store your unwanted belongings, you have too many of them. The moment you log onto eBay and start flogging that stuff in the garage, you are recognising that you are addicted to materialism. The minute you have to buy extra coat hangers because you have too much stuff to cram in the wardrobe, you are in the club.

Choice is always offered as a plus, a route to greater satisfaction, but as Barry Schwartz argues brilliantly in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, far from improving the quality of our lives, endless choice is time-consuming and irrelevant. Enter any supermarket and you have endless unnecessary choice, from lines tagged as basic buys to items like bacon ludicrously described as "luxury". Guess which brand is the more desirable, the more appealing, be it cookies, jam or pork sausages? For most of us, only the best will do. If you shun this way of thinking, you are seen as "alternative", on the margins.

This pursuit of materialism makes us arrogant, self-centred, greedy and uncaring. We use our spending power to buy status and self-esteem, and then donate to charitable causes to assuage our guilt. Conrad Black gave hundreds of thousands of dollars from his company's profits as a donation to a hospital with the result that a wing of the building was named after his family. Mr Black clearly thought that his lavish lifestyle sent out all the right messages to shareholders and business rivals. Now he's finding out how wrong he was. And Mr Blair, too, might take a few moments to reflect on the thoughts of Mr Robson. Why blame the young for wanting to join your club of big spenders? I may be branded a hypocrite, but at least I'm acknowledging my weakness.

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