Terence Blacker: Wayne and Boris, 21st-century bad boys

The bets and bangs of Boris Johnson and Wayne Rooney are hardly the most serious sins
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The Independent Online

Sick, sick, sick: the recent behaviour of two of our best-known bad boys has invited a veritable orgy of advice and condemnation from media shrinks and moralists. Wayne Rooney, the Shrek-faced footballer, is said to have run up gambling debts of £700,000 over the past few months. The Conservative shadow minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has been caught tiptoeing from the flat of a young female journalist who works for the Times Higher Educational Supplement.

Public attitudes towards these two men have been rather more interesting than anything that they are alleged to have done. They are both, we have been told, suffering from addiction. Rooney is in danger of being sucked downwards into a whirlpool of betting shop-dependency that has done for the careers of many promising footballers, most famously that of the great Stan Bowles of Queens Park Rangers.

Johnson's difficulty in keeping himself zipped up, which apparently should be described as "compulsive sexual activity", has had the sexological experts in a froth of public concern. Having affairs was "about not relating to someone properly", announced a Jungian analyst in the Sunday papers. "It feeds a constant desire to repeat the exercise in the futile hope of finding fulfilment. It can lead to severe depression. In order to treat Boris, we would need probably years of therapy. It is a serious disorder pointing to deeper problems."

A few people - a few hundred thousand people, probably - might have shifted uneasily as they read those words over breakfast, and wondered whether the fact that in their own lives they might have enjoyed the occasional higher educational supplement away from home pointed the way to depression and years of therapy.

Rooney's news, and the terrible addiction it indicated, will have been similarly alarming for the many people whose gambling debts may not be £700,000 but have made a commensurate hole - that is, significant but not devastating - in their bank balance.

Until now, these innocent, everyday adulterers and punters might have thought that their particular weakness was little more than a minor tangle in life's rich pattern. Now they know they are sick. They need help, and fast, according to addiction experts.

It may seem absurd to link the Merseyside footballer and the Old Etonian minister as exemplars of contemporary addiction but, as a double act, they sum up early 21st-century Britain rather well. There is a similar balance within them between natural talent and moral fragility. Both are blessed with the belief that the qualities which have brought them success can now and then also provide a few unofficial treats.

They both have a knack for getting away with bad behaviour. Both have a hint of the contradictory in them: Wayne communicates almost exclusively with his feet, yet has a £5m publishing deal; Boris is articulate and clever, yet adopts the persona of an old-fashioned duffer. Neither quite conforms to stereotype, Wayne looking more like a brickie than a modern footballer, Boris truffling around more like something out of a Muppet version of a PG Wodehouse story than a famous seducer.

But their addiction, insofar as it exists, is ours. The shock-horror headlines which have greeted the stories of Wayne Rooney's betting debts have appeared in a country so hooked on soft gambling that twice a week millions are exhorted by government and business to shell out for lottery tickets and scratch-cards in the belief that their lives will be transformed by an unearned cash windfall. Anyone who wants to see what gambling addiction looks like need go no further than their local shop or supermarket and study the faces, full of present hope and anticipated defeat, that are queuing for their regular Lotto-fix. Far from being concerned that millions are being lured into the fantasyland which gamblers inhabit, the Government is cheerfully inviting vast casino conglomerates to set up shop in Britain.

As for sex addiction, it throbs behind the screen of every TV and cinema. It lurks in every computer. It struts the tabloids and sidles shiftily through the broadsheets. Porn-inspired imagery and values reach into childhood. Whereas once the dwindling of desire with age was taken for granted (or even welcomed, in the case of Malcolm Muggeridge, who described dealing with his libido as like being chained to a lunatic), now the media is full of boastfully priapic pensioners and nympho nans.

The role of politicians in a sex-obsessed society is tricky. They are meant both to represent a certain civic stolidity and yet must not seem less vigorous than those who vote for them. The result is the profoundly embarrassing spectacle of the Prime Minister's wife enumerating the times he is able to have sex in one night.

Under these circumstances, a nicely-judged degree of sex-addiction can be an electoral asset. While some things remain unacceptable on the grounds that they are creepy or naff (married man with rent-boys, Lambtonian three-in-a-bed situations with prostitutes), controlled marital misbehaviour suggests energy and a spirit of adventure. Boris Johnson is lucky in that he is relatively young and his bumbling air of shambolic innocence has a great erotic pull. Somehow adultery with Boris seems less like sex than a jolly rag in the dorm with an intimately enhanced teddy-bear.

In one sense, the sex experts quoted in the press are right: infidelity is rarely a question of mere randiness. As any adulterer will know, the price of cheating is that the reality of life becomes fragmented. Because every word you say must pass through an internal censoring process, ensuring that alibis stack up and lies are consistent with one another, the double- or triple-life of an adulterer is one of round-the-clock deception. In the end, maintaining this delicate network of fraud and fakery eats into the soul and no one, not even a politician, can live with that degree of untruth for any length of time without paying a price in terms of personal happiness.

But the bets and bangs of Boris and Wayne, as reported over the past few days, are hardly the most serious of sins, and both of them have the talent and strength to move beyond them. It is society's wider addiction, represented by a culture which reveres sex and money, yet loves to gloat over the misfortunes of public figures who are in trouble as a result of them, that is very much more serious. It takes the form of prurient pleasure and holier-than-thou moralising in the media. As with the Jungian's verdict on infidelity, it involves forever repeating the experience in the hope of finding fulfilment. It is a serious disorder pointing to deeper problems.

Terblacker@aol.com

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