Bookmakers are the icons of the modern age

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The Independent Online

When two thinkers as disparate in background and attitude as Ismael Merchant, the film producer, and Paul Merson, the gifted Aston Villa playmaker, find themselves in agreement, something rather unusual seems to be happening.

When two thinkers as disparate in background and attitude as Ismael Merchant, the film producer, and Paul Merson, the gifted Aston Villa playmaker, find themselves in agreement, something rather unusual seems to be happening.

Ismael and Paul, it appears, are worried about the moral state of our country. Explaining his preference for films set in a more ordered and decorous past - the Edwardian England of The Golden Bowl, for example - Merchant has complained that the English today are emotionally bland and culturally impoverished. "What made a person civilised in the past is reading, writing and the art of conversation," he has pronounced. Now we are dominated by greed, self-gratification and, worst of all, the working class. "Who is England being inherited by? The lower class, not by the upper class. The ruling class is the lower class - who talk about making money in the City and football."

Much of this can be dismissed as the self-conscious style of snobbery normally associated with VS Naipaul: the idea that there is some kind of connection between a privileged background and civilised values has never been that convincing and, in an age when the toffs have been represented by the likes of Alan Clark and Jonathan Aitken, may seem downright perverse.

Yet, when it comes to greed and self-gratification, Merchant may be on to something. A footballer like Paul Merson may not exactly have inherited England, but he is probably a more influential moral presence than most political or religious leaders.

Not only has he got quick feet and a great footballing brain but, more significantly, he is a fully paid-up member of the new aristocracy, the caring celebrities whose views are taken seriously because they have suffered in their personal lives and shared their pain. They have, as the tabloids say, been to hell and back.

Merson delivers occasional sermons to the Sunday newspapers, and this week has been explaining why our footballers so often play as if they have been up all night, drinking and losing large amounts of money. The reason is that that is precisely what they have been doing.

Poker's a favourite and the money is significant: £50,000 can be lost on a single hand. So general is the obsession with gambling that the few team members who have no interest in these activities have complained of loneliness and isolation when abroad.

Maybe the desire to make the largest amount of money with the least amount of effort has always been part of sport, but instant gratification seems to be the mood of the age. Dodginess is all around. Acts of minor dishonesty - short-changing customers, passing on fake £1 coins, fiddling expenses, faking insurance claims - are part of daily life.

A few years ago, the fashion was to blame Thatcher and the greed-is-good attitude which, according to cliché, her politics represented, but the truth is that we are incomparably more money-obsessed now then we were 15 years ago. Gambling addiction is actively and successfully encouraged by the unholy alliance of government and business that promotes the national lottery. When there is discussion about the Chancellor's Budget plans, the arguments revolve largely around personal gain. Once we had the grace to be embarrassed by self-interest; now the what's-in-it-for-me culture is the unashamed focus of national life.

There seems no obvious reason for this feverish new taste for acquisition unless it is the result of a generalised anxiety about holes being burnt in the sky, oceans rising, asteroids hurtling towards us. What is undeniable is that Ismael Merchant's nostalgic ideals of civilisation, reading, writing and the art of conversation have little place in a country in which the bookmaker stands supreme.

terblacker@aol.com

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