Wasted Talent

If I am following the destiny of the poet Andrew Marvell so well, chances are that I will eventually have to develop a taste for the grapevine.

He kept bottles of wine at his lodgeing, and many times he would drink liberally by himselfe to refresh his spirits and exalt his muse.

Though [Marvell] loved wine he would never drink hard in company, and was won’t to say that he would not play the goodfellow in any man’s company in whose hands he would not trust his life.

But this development probably took place near the end of Marvell’s life when he had more powerful enemies in London than trusty friends. We are not surprised then to see one of those enemies call him, after his death, a drunken buffoon, ‘temulentus scurra’.

Pierre Leguois, Andrew Marvell: Poet, Puritan, Patriot (1968), 98.

It is not surprising that a man obsessed with privacy who was eventually elected as an MP at least had an understanding of public impressions. In the context of the slanderous and wide-reaching seventeenth-century print culture, this trail of evidence suggests that Marvell’s vice was, by and large, a private one.

Wasted Talent

I had a late Friday night out recently for the first time in a long while. A good night at Reflex 80s in London included a mild and good-humoured attempt to get me drunk for the first time, which failed. Although I seldom drink alcohol, I can tolerate it – perhaps it’s a determination to stay in control.

On my way home, at approximately 1am, the typical antics of Friday Night start manifesting themselves. A rowdy group appeared at the bus-stop. One particularly wasted guy started punching the bus shelter before sitting down and wailing. The rest of the group piled onto a bus, then begrudingly disembarked again as their wailing friend had not moved. Cue noise, arguments, and more obscenities.

Also waiting were a group of four French folk in their early 20s, mocking English drinking culture in their foreign tongue. Perhaps, as per Family Guy’s ‘Wasted Talent’ (2000), a Smirnoff Ice or two had finally attuned my foreign language capabilities, and it propelled me into the longest (and most enjoyable) French conversation I’ve ever had. Most amusing was the group’s sudden concern that because I had spoken to them in French, everything they had said was understood by everyone. Hardly!


It was all good-humoured, but it’s clear how unruly this country is. Self-discipline has long gone out of the window, and its one thing I still value.

Alcohol is continually at the centre of this crisis. Over 20% of male deaths up to the age of 44 are alcohol related, and 15% for women. The NHS is spending £2.7 billion per year due to alcohol. Take into account costs to society, employers, et al, as the National Social Marketing Centre has done, and we’re looking at over £55 billion.

It turns out that you can put a price on how out of control we are. [Sources: House of Commons; Times Online, Eureka Zone]

The main problem, as I see it, is a culture so free that it is tough to regain control. Children are becoming more aggressive in schools. Popular politics has demanded liberty to drink. Our economy is at the mercy of bankers who seem untroubled by the demands on taxpayers.

The civil liberties we have are astonishing, and yet it procures a selfishness that disregards the effect upon others. We might end up with fewer people wanting to work for the ambulance service in the future because they are threatened and attacked by the people they turn up for free to help. We might end up with fewer teachers because kids can no longer be disciplined.

How safe will it be to walk the streets when this spoilt generation fill the workforce?

Alcohol Costs Us Billions per Year
Alcohol Costs Us Billions per Year


We lack the capabilities to control ourselves. Take alcohol, where the evidence is clear. Any attempts to cut these liberties – from a unit tax to limited drinking hours – will be seen as “punishing the sensible majority to spite the careless minority”. It’s probably the other way around. £2.7 billion should not be spent dealing with drunkenness.

Other countries take preventative measures. In Switzerland, the obligatory private health insurance would rocket – little better incentive not to go overboard. Brits are being internationally blacklisted because of the damage we’ve caused [Dublin (1998), Amsterdam (2002), Barcelona (2009), Riga (2009)]. Our ways are threatening to become a serious diplomatic issue.

The common answer for this kind of issue is always education, but we are probably well beyond that. I know well-educated people who lose control on a regular basis. This hedonism concerns self-discipline, which is not just taught but engrained. Most of us work very hard, but demand and expect what we want in return.

We are far behind the cultural models of Switzerland and Holland, where excellent frameworks for adult development include sensible state control that doesn’t piss about with civil liberties.


Recycling is another issue around discipline – a small amount of effort that many of us refuse to meet.

For several years now, often to considerable ridicule, I have carried plastic bags whenever I expect to shop. My relatively small consumption could easily amass 125-150 bags per year. Imagine the duplification, and the scale is terrifying. Plastic bags all end up somewhere.

I was very disturbed today to read the mass of arguments against Boris Johnson’s declaration to reduce the number of plastic bags by 2012. Any such changes might require a modicum of thought or effort to reuse plastic bags; God forbid that we might have to subject people to that.

Why do many trains do not have paper recycling facilities when most of the refuse is newspaper?

Plastic Bags
Plastic Bags: No Problem for Some (Alas)

While the Mayor divides opinion, I don’t dislike his attempts to force some measure of self-discipline back into Londoners’ lives. From promoting cycling, to banning alcohol on the tube, to recycling, it’s a brave move to correct what has been allowed to stray out of control.

If measures have proven success, why don’t we implement them here? The Republic of Ireland cut consumption of bags by 90% through charging 15 cents for them. We complain about anything that makes us orderly. But hitting us in the pocket is one of the few ways to make us take note.

Measure for Measure

As a nation, we don’t focus enough on the broader picture beyond our own lives. There has been plenty said recently about Cadbury’s ‘British values’, but those values have started treading water. Now it’s jumped ship, those values might sink. And what were they worth anyway?

For all this, I’m glad to post in a place where masses will not come and abuse me for my observations.

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