Leaving Las Vegas

Every so often, often in the letters pages of national newspapers, the question of national service rears its head. I don’t want to open up that bag of snakes here except to say that, each time, I ask myself what the purpose of any compulsory activity ought to be. National service, whatever form that service takes, is expensive and has aims whose success can’t easily be measured. It also seems designed to encourage a particular attitude. Better, perhaps, might be something that discourages or warns, using shock-aversion tactics. 

I once visited someone in a high-security prison. It was one of the most horrible experiences of my life. I’ve often thought that if, at 18, everyone had to spend 48 hours in one then crime rates would halve. You could add other places to your list and, when your turn at ruling the country comes round, put them into action. For example, we’re often told how bad air travel is for the environment. Two days hanging around Heathrow Airport would, at an impressionable age, put many people off this mode of transport for life.

Of course, many feel that the real problems in the world are the economic and political systems which we all have to endure. It’s obviously impractical to organise for every 18-year-old in Britain to spend two days at one of those interminable Chinese Communist Party conferences, in a Trappist monastery or on the streets of Mogadishu. In any case, would this really put them off communism, Roman Catholicism or anarchy? Are these even desirable goals? 

Capitalism, the system under which we live, is – to adjust Churchill’s remark about democracy – perhaps the worst system of all, apart from all the others. Like any system it’s led to some spectacular excesses and it’s perhaps against those that we need to warn our young people. It is therefore my pledge that, if ever I become Prime Minister, I shall make it a legal obligation for every person to spend at least 48 hours in Las Vegas (with 24 hours in Los Angeles as a recommended extra) before their 25th birthday. This will show how far capitalism – with particular reference to conspicuous consumption and the hopeless pursuit of easy money – can go if left to its own devices.

Penny and I went there about 20 years ago on the last leg of a US east-west road trip. The most remarkable thing about the journey was that we got from Greenwich Village to Knoxville TN in one day – about 750 miles – something I don’t think even Kerouac on speed could have managed. The fifth day saw us driving across the desert towards the gaudy neon-lit 24/7 shrine to the American dream. Most of what I knew about Vegas was based on a few movies and Hunter S Thomson’s alarming Fear and Loathing. In some ways, the reality was even odder.


• The rest of this story is now available in a paperback book (as are 25 others) – Unaccustomed as I Am (RRP £9.95).

It is stocked by the Hungerford Bookshop and you can place your order here.

Copies are also available at the White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough, the Mad Hatter Bookshop in Wantage and through an increasing number of other retailers.

You can order it from any bookshop: they will need to know that the ISBN is 978-1-8382580-0-9 and that it can be ordered from Gardners or Central Books.


Brian Quinn

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3 Responses

  1. Good one, Brian – and how true. I just spent six weeks in USA and can tell you that the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’ never ended. If anything it’s crazier & crasser than ever.

    1. Hi Jenny
      Vegas seems to be one of the places that keeps turning up the dial. It was about 12 out of 10 when we were there…

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