Stay at home, get drunk and make love

If executives can pay themselves millions, is it really so terrible to remain at home nursing a hangover?
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The Independent Online

Not so long ago, two young neighbours of mine attempted to show some youthful enterprise and ended up being vilified in the national press. They had been approached by a fork-lift driver who had come across some pages from the forthcoming Harry Potter novel at the printer where he worked and had spirited them away.

For some odd reason, the man had thought a couple of teenagers were the best people to take the scam further. The boys, from Harleston in Norfolk, had rung The Sun newspaper to suggest a deal; the newspaper, that pillar of moral probity and rectitude, reported them to the police.

The lawyer representing one of the boys made rather an interesting and effective plea on his client's behalf, given the nature of the stolen goods. "The boys set out to have an adventure," he said, suggesting that, in a kinder world, the stunt might have been a plotline from an updated Enid Blyton story.

All around them, in their newspapers and on their TVs, they encountered a lying, kissing-and-telling, exploitative, money-grabbing culture; they were simply playing their part. "We are dealing with dubious dealing" was the way the lawyer put it.

He was right, of course. It is a confusing business, modern morality, as the Harleston boys will no doubt discover when they emerge into the outside world and get a job after taking their GCSEs this summer.

For the week's most interesting survey has revealed that dubious dealing is part of everyday life in the workplace. According to one third of employees working for 430 organisations included in the survey, there is nothing morally wrong in taking a day off on full sick pay if one happens to feel like it. Many of those questioned admitted to bunking off work if they awoke with a hangover.

Rather touchingly, a third of the women claimed to have called in sick in order to enjoy some daytime sex. Younger employees tended to get a member of the family - mothers, usually - to ring the office on their behalf.

Official reaction has been predictable. The CBI, shocked by rising absenteeism, has put the yearly cost to business at £11.6bn. The TUC has admitted that we are becoming a "sickie nation", but has argued that the reason why 40 million working days are lost every year is that the British are stressed and are working ridiculously long hours.

It seems at least possible that other factors are in play. One is that, as the Harleston boys with their Harry Potter adventure sensed, standards of right and wrong have become relative, subjective - more a matter of how one feels personally than a reflection of social mores. Employees taking a day off are part of a bigger picture. If a gormless cricketer can become a millionaire by loafing about on a celebrity reality show, if greedy middle-aged men running loss-making companies can pay themselves millions, if someone who tried to cheat and defraud a game-show can have a Hollywood film based on his story, is it really so terrible to stay at home nursing a hangover or making love?

We are turning in on ourselves, creating and nurturing our own, small support systems rather than accepting a social role as a drone-like part of a business or a community. The country which once had a Prime Minister who pronounced that there was no such thing as society now leads the trend away from the communal to the private, but the Thatcherite analysis was wrong in one significant respect.

Freed from social obligations, the British are not, as it turns out, that interested in working hard and amassing a fortune; on the whole, they would prefer to get their mums to phone the boss and to stay in bed all day.

It is because community has come to be seen as something which takes rather than gives, that the majority of Britons are suspicious of grand European projects and contemptuous of the continent's naff little sideshows like the Eurovision Song Contest.

Whereas once we took a bashful, self-mocking pride in the success of Cliff, Lulu or Bucks Fizz, it is now the resolute failure of a tone-deaf couple from Liverpool to defeat even the worst efforts of some tinpot East European country that captures the British imagination.

The week's second most interesting survey has revealed that, as a nation, we now not only trust each other less than ever before - 29 per cent believe that other people "could generally be trusted" compared to 44 per cent in the early 1980s - but also that we are warier about others than almost any other western country.

It seems that belonging, being part of larger group at work or in society, has never seemed more futile and more likely to end in disappointment.

It is not stress or exhaustion that keeps so many at home, particularly on a Monday morning, but a preference for our own private little network over the untrustworthy, dubious dealing of the world at large. On balance, we would rather stay at home, get drunk and make love.

terblacker@aol.com

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