Fairy tales we spin to keep the wolves at bay

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The Independent Online
I WAS pottering around the kitchen on Thursday morning, beating egg whites for a tiramisu, when a woman came on the radio and started lecturing me about having fun. I waited for her to mention any of the activities I associate with that word but all she had was an idee fixe that I should give money to an extremely profitable company with odds of about 14 million to one of getting a decent amount back.

No sex, no drugs, no rock 'n' roll, just writing numbers on a piece of paper and staying in on Saturday night. This is definitely not my idea of fun. Nor is Virginia Bottomley my notion of a fairy godmother, even if she dresses up in a tutu and spangles next time she goes on air to wave Camelot's money about. In an increasingly bizarre attempt to defend last night's record National Lottery jackpot, the good fairy Virginia claimed that higher ticket sales would raise an extra pounds 5m - "enough to refurbish every church in the country".

Whether Mrs Bottomley seriously thinks this is a likely or indeed a desirable outcome is not the point, although I can imagine vicars coming under pressure to display the previous night's winning numbers alongside the list of Sunday morning hymns. But the real significance of her performance is that it confirms the status of the Lottery as the latest in a series of national fairy tales: comforting fictions we tell ourselves or, in the time-honoured tradition of panem et circenses, have rolled out for our grateful and unthinking consumption.

FOR THE Lottery isn't about fun or even, as some of its critics claim, about greed; it's a measure of hopelessness, of having so few options that it seems worthwhile to hand over quite large sums of money to take part in a contest you have very little chance of winning. In that sense, it marks a genuine return to Victorian values, to a world in which success and even survival are determined by chance.

A letter in Friday's Guardian suggested that the Lottery's critics - the Bishop of Wakefield was the target but I assume it applies to people like me as well - can afford to take a moral view because we don't "actually feel the need to win". The writer, a vicar and ex-benefit claimant, argued that the church should "address systemic poverty rather than the morality of a game which ordinary people see as a way out of their plight".

But the Lottery, for those who played it last night because they can't afford holidays or to pay their bills, isn't a way out but an illusion. And the effect of living with an illusion is that the real problem, which is poverty and the unfair distribution of wealth, is not addressed; it's a cycle of unreal expectations, dashed hopes and a brief return of lunatic optimism. The lesson is timeo Danaos et dora ferentes or (in my loose translation): take no notice of government ministers who turn up on the radio offering to show you a good time.

ANOTHER national fairy tale both the Government and new Labour subscribe to is the one about recreational drugs being completely awful, dangerous, bad for you - which leaves them scratching their heads when their advice is persistently ignored. The message, ministers and police officers admit, isn't getting across. Their answer is yet more campaigns.

It should be obvious by now that these won't succeed. It's impossible to occupy the high moral ground on cannabis and Ecstasy while alcohol and tobacco are legally available. People who enjoy recreational drugs are going to take a great deal of convincing that swallowing an Ecstasy tablet is morally worse, or more dangerous, than smoking 20 cigarettes a day.

Because Ecstasy is illegal, its manufacture and sale are unregulated. It could be argued that, in view of the huge number of people who've taken the drug in Britain in recent years, there have been surprisingly few fatalities - and it's not clear whether they're the result of the drug itself, drinking too much water in response to warnings about the risk of dehydration, or because Ecstasy prevents the body getting rid of excess liquid.

People use drugs because they like their effects. Some substances (heroin, for example) have such damaging consequences that the argument for continuing to ban them is virtually unassailable. But our present categories of "good" and "bad" drugs are as arbitrary and bewildering as - well, as Mrs Bottomley's idea of fun.

THE most damaging national fairy tale, however, is the one about the monarchy. Let us go back for a moment to 1982, the year after the royal wedding and a book by Robert Lacey called Princess. "Once upon a time," Lacey wrote, "there was quite an ordinary girl who became a princess. It is a short story, and very simple. She fell in love with a prince and he, warmed by her affection, fell in love with her. When the world found out about it, everyone rejoiced."

Not quite everyone. I went to a party in Kensington where no one watched the royal wedding on TV for reasons which ranged from boredom to full- blooded republicanism. Even if you didn't take the latter position, it was hard to believe that a marriage between people of such disparate ages and experience could succeed. Yet in the last 18 months, half the country seems to have felt a sense of personal betrayal on discovering that this was a dynastic affair rather than a love match.

Why should people feel so intimately involved with a couple they've never met? The answer is that monarchy fosters such illusions, along with the notion that the nation's identity is inextricably bound up with the fortunes of one family. In all the weeks of speculation we've just endured - will they divorce, will Charles remarry, what role can be found for Diana - the obvious solution hasn't been discussed. We may not believe in fairies but we're still inexplicably besotted with princes and princesses.

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