Now here is a shocking thing. I was recently drinking in the student's bar of a leading university while all around me were dismaying symptoms of early 21st-century malaise. Several students were clearly victims of alcohol abuse. There were three or four obvious cases of obesity and yet, behind the bar, the worst kind of junk food was being openly sold. Since my last visit, the university had installed a row of fruit-machines into which hollow-eyed young people were pouring their student grants.
Gambling, in fact, was everywhere. A huge screen in the centre of the bar showed what appeared to be a share index on which the current value of stocks was listed. Except these were not shares but drinks available from the bar. Their prices went up or down, depending on demand; a Gordon's gin and tonic, down at a relatively bearish £2.80, seemed worth a punt. Could there have been a more shaming symbol of our gambling, alcohol-fuelled culture? Here the student shareholders at the bar were cynically being tempted to invest in their own addiction.
There were so many terrible, dysfunctional and generally inappropriate things going on, that there was material here for at least five newspaper columns, thrumming with disapproval. As Prince Charles used to put it so eloquently, it really was appalling.
But while I was going through the usual columnist's warm-up exercises - pummelling the punch-bag in the corner, snarling at a mirror, sitting on a drawing-pin - a worrying thought occurred. Who cares? When it comes to public discussions of consumerism and the effects on private behaviour of capitalism at its most ravenous, a paradoxical new process seems to have established itself. The more talk there is of social problems, and the more liberally guilt is spread around, the less action is taken.
Anxiety has become as natural in daily life as breathing. We eat and drink too much, spend our money in all the wrong ways, and feel bad about it all; then we start all over again. The hot air and the hand-wringing of public debates serve one purpose: they shift the emphasis from government action and corporate responsibility to pointless consumer paranoia.
We are all supposed to be fretting about the boom in gambling - or as it is now known, in a cunning ad-man's tweak of the language, "gaming". Clearly, a combination of new technology and the moral decay caused by the National Lottery has made the business of relieving punters of their cash one of the easiest ways to make quick money. Tessa Jowell warns of the dangers of gambling, and promises help for "the vulnerable" but, even as she does so, she is accepting tenders for vast casinos, while ITV and Channel 4 shake down late-night viewers with premium-phone quizzes designed to keep luckless saps hanging on expensively for as long as possible.
Make concerned noises while cashing in: it is the modern way.
Britain is now officially the lard-arse of Europe, waddling behind America like a fat kid behind its elephantine parent. Accompanying our poor showing in this week's Food Standards Agency is the astonishing claim that bad diet kills 80,000 Britons every year, 15 times the number killed in car crashes. Food anxiety is in the daily newspapers, on TV and it may even have reached a few kitchens, at the least in the south of England, but little happens beyond the fretting and the warnings. Genuine concern would translate itself into action, controlling the ruthless promotion of unhealthy food by supermarkets, or looking at advertisements directed at children. It would do, rather than blame.
There has been a galloping increase in the number of alcohol-related arrests by the police over recent months - indeed these incidents have more than doubled since Christmas 2004. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport have seen the figures as a positive sign that police are "nipping the problem in the bud", and as the boozing season approaches, we can no doubt expect stern advertising campaigns, firm but fair police initiatives, and the usual furrow-browed expressions of concern from the Prime Minister. The truth is, of course, is that intemperate drinking is caused less by a decline in restraint from the public than the legislation which allowed pubs to remain open and supermarkets to sell alcohol around the clock.
In all these areas of guilt and anxiety, words go in one direction, and action in the other. A general spreading of unease replaces policy,covering up the fact that, while those in power thunder against self-indulgent and harmful consumerism, much of what they do takes advantage of it. Those boozing, bulging, gambling students were right. Worry without action merely spoils a good time.Reuse content