Famous Former Pupils

  Sir Alexander Fleming

  Lord Boyd Orr

William McIlvanney - Dreaming Las Vegas

This piece is from William McIlvanney's book, "Surviving the Shipwreck". It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.


Dreaming Las Vegas

THE CHICKEN WAS PERHAPS A PORTENT. IN ANCIENT ROME the soothsayers used to cut open birds to read the omens in the entrails. They would have had trouble with this one, especially if all they had had to work with were a plastic knife and fork. This chicken had an effective security system. You could go all round about it but you couldn't break in. I looked along the row I was sitting in. Our puzzled concentration suggested a group of examinees undergoing a bizarre intelligence test: how to open a chicken. Nobody was getting a pass mark. Or perhaps it was one of those clever, double-edged tests where what you think is failing is really passing. Perhaps the measure of your intelligence was your inability to get into the chicken. After all, if it was that difficult to cut, who wanted to eat it? I turned to my son, Liam, who was in the window seat.

`They've given me the window-display by mistake,' I said. `This chicken's made of plastic.'

Would the town we were flying towards prove any more authentic?

`This your first trip to Vegas?' the man on my other side said. It was. He was a Vancouverite and a Las Vegas devotee. He started to outline some of the pleasures we had ahead. He was one of a group of six friends on the chartered flight from Vancouver. His wife, a woman of nervous but determined self - assurance, sat across the aisle from him. I liked the man but his enthusiasm for the town was making him sound like a tour-operator and I didn't want my sense of the place to be predetermined. I kept changing the subject during the flight, with Liam's help, until the procedures for descent began to happen.

`Look at them lights,' the man said. `That's Las Vegas.' They were impressive, all right a great meadow of luminosity in the darkness with regular avenues of lights running through it. Of course, all cities you come into from the air and in the dark are made of lights. But somehow Las Vegas seems more essentially constructed out of brightness than any other place I know, an image so dazzling that it's difficult to see what substance is behind it. The taxi from the airport took us through what appeared to me one of the great architectural curiosities of our time a city built of neon. Caesar's Palace. The Sands Hotel. The Golden Nugget. Those are places? They look more like advertisements.

The first shock of the strange I experience in Las Vegas is its suddenness. I do not mean the suddenness of its impact. I mean the sense that it has only just happened, grew here tonight like some weird desert mushroom. Most cities you come into for the first time feel complicated. They make difficult, tortuous statements you realise you may never understand. You wonder what their past was. Las Vegas doesn't bother with the complexity of a statement. It's just a word: money. It has no past. Yesterday? What's that? There 's only now.

Our hotel confirms that sense of the moment with no discernible antecedents, as hotels tend to. It is long corridors where pale strangers pass one another in the dead light. Our double room has a stale, antiseptic smell. Nobody in particular has left and nobody in particular takes their place.

In Las Vegas they like places to have themes, as if they were fancy-dress parties, which in a way they are. Where you have no history, borrow some. Our hotel is the Imperial Palace mandarin motifs and lattice woodwork. You might as well be in China. Sure. This place is as Chinese as spaghetti.

We dump our bags and eager plungers into experience that we are go down to the gaming-room. And that's it, really. In some basic psychological sense, we never get out. We may move around to different places but they might as well be the same one.

Something happened to us that first night in the place. I'm still uncertain what it was or how to analyse it exactly. Maybe you could call it the Las Vegas effect. It has something to do with time, for sure, and how it doesn't seriously seem to be there. How can you have time without any continuity? It has something to do with identity and how it's hard to have any that isn't subservient to a slot-machine or the turn of a card. Las Vegas, it seems to me, is where you can go to be nobody for a time. It shimmers like a mirror of narcissistic pleasure but the more you stare into it the less anybody looks out. You become a function of the place.

Somebody told me they oxygenate the atmosphere in those hotels to keep you awake for the gambling. I don't know if they do but something happens there to make you go on, compelled as a somnambulist, to repeat the same rituals beyond any serious exercise of will that you have performed. When you're not gambling, you're watching other people gamble.

I remember once in a casino surfacing from my stupefied automatism and looking around me. The moment was like the feeling I used to have occasionally as a boy when the strangeness of the ordinary would assail me. This is like some religion, I thought. All around were rows of people sitting devotionally in front of their slot machines and spinning them like prayer -wheels. God of chance, give me the accident I need and I will take it as personal sign.

Another time, I suddenly thought, these people are supposed to be on holiday. But they don't look as if what they're doing is having pleasure. They look like workers, workers in money. They sweat. They are compelled. Their time is not really their own. Their hands stink of verdigris. They can't see the emptiness of what they're doing for the need to keep doing it. If they had them doing this in a factory, they would go on strike.

But nobody does, not us either. After all, the workers have good conditions. The food is amazingly cheap and swiftly available at any time. You can even have edible chicken. While you're doing your stint of hard graft, pretty girls, dressed in ways that do not tax the imagination, will come up to you in the casino from time to time and serve you a drink that costs no more than the tip. Who needs shop stewards? You take a break whenever and as often as you decide.

But the break isn't really a break. For what can you do with it? In a place that exists for gambling, you are liable, like a neurotic workaholic, to wonder what's happening at the casino. You'd better get back to it. I bet somebody's winning at that table right now. Maybe that machine that almost paid big is ready to disgorge the jackpot.

At the end of a shift, Liam and I used to lie on our beds and stare at the ceiling, like people convalescing after an operation for removal of the will. I suppose we felt much the way labourers must feel who are too exhausted to enjoy or make positive use of their rest time. We kept making desultory plans to do other things we never quite got round to. We threatened more than once to go and see a show.

One idea in particular became a kind of obsession with me during those listless but sometimes lucid intervals when we lay wondering what the hell we were doing here. It was like the escape plan a prisoner may devise. It may never happen but he needs it to help him through the day. `There must be real people living here,' I intoned into the stillness. `in Las Vegas, I mean.' I meant people who go to their work and try to bring up a family and have meals where everybody argues about how everybody else is cramping their fulfilment. Where were they? My plan was for us to get in a taxi and ask the driver to take us to reality. It might not have worked. But I still sometimes wish we'd tried it.

What we did do was walk sometimes and go into other places. Las Vegas during the day: the heat outside will drive you into any place and every place will drive you into the heat outside; a desert within a desert, the human within the natural. Sometimes the town seemed to me merely an intensification of the emptiness of Nevada around it, the way the mirage of an oasis might make you thirstier. Caesar's Palace, for example. Into all of that mock grandeur you are fed inescapably on a conveyor belt while the fruity American voice of Caesar on the endlessly repetitive tape says, `Welcome to my palace', and tells you about his slot machines. The historical disjunction is total and you realise this couldn't be anywhere. You feel embarrassed for Caesar, both Caesars. The American capacity for cultural kitsch is amazing. It is as if an art thief should break into the Louvre and steal the frame of the Mona Lisa.

Back in the room, I notice an increasing tendency in us to swap anecdotes and memories and maybe even the odd quotation from a loved writer. We are squeezing every drop of cultural sustenance we can from whatever is to hand to moisten our parched sensibilities. Back at the saltmines of the spirit, the toil of pleasure goes on, and on and on.

We are eventually airlifted out. The same group of Vancouverites are around us on the flight back. But this time the husband is sitting across the aisle from us and the woman is beside me. It doesn't take me long to regret the new arrangement. She asks me how I did at the gambling.

`I lost,' I say.

She isn't quite sure she has heard right. She asks me again, I repeat the shameful fact. She is embarrassed by me. I suspect it is the openness of my admission that has offended her. It carries no qualifying clauses with it about how I literally come within an ace of making it rich or how I'll beat Las Vegas next time. How can a man just sit there and admit he has been a failure? It's not what you do in her scheme of values. I lack class. I might as well have farted. I swear she visibly recoiled from me.

You've got to be more swept up, accentuate the positive. She does. `Well, we won. All of us. Everybody won.'

Maybe you did, I think. But she reminds me of other returning holiday-makers I have known. I have been on holiday with people who would sit round a cafe-table on the last night abroad and synchronise their stories about how wonderful it had all been. They were like a committee preparing a press statement. The food hadn't really been so bad and that waiter had been so funny and the jellyfish stings had been nothing, when you think of it. Given the commonness of our desire to have the admiration of others and to protect ourselves from their feelings of superiority, we'll often say anything except we bought a piece of shit. This woman could have been chairperson to one of those committees.

She named in particular the three men in their group, repeating after each name the same word. `Won. Won. Won.' It was a word she liked. I think perhaps she was trying to tell me something about the inadequacy of my manhood. Losing at Las Vegas equals castrato. She seemed uncomfortable at finding herself having to sit beside me, presumably in case failure was contagious. When will North Americans realise, I reflected in my philosophical, old world way, that you learn nothing from success? Failure is the great teacher. Therefore, I should have learned vast amounts. She was looking at or trying to avoid looking at (beware the evil eye of destitution) someone who had graduated summa cum laude from the University of Las Vegas, Faculty of Blackjack and One-armed Bandits.

We spoke stiltedly and intermittently until the chicken came. I thought I recognised it. Excuse me, didn't we meet on the flight down? I had a vision of this chicken as being legendary in the folklore of fowl, their version of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to fly forever from Vancouver to Las Vegas, from Las Vegas to Vancouver, trapped in its immortal inedibility. I looked again along the row I was sitting in six people hesitantly miming a meal: a group exercise in the Chartered Flight School of Method Acting. I was relieved to see that my neighbour, votary of the bitch-goddess Success, was being miserably incompetent in finding a way into her chicken. But she managed to turn her failure into mine.

`You should be enjoyin' this,' she said. `You're a loser.'

I discontinued the conversation for fear of brain-damage. I concentrated instead on recapitulating what it was I had learned.

Las Vegas, I had to admit it, is a triumph. People fly in there in countless numbers and then fly out again, telling everybody how wonderful it has been. As the woman on the plane might have said, you can't knock success. But you can wonder about the terms of that success and what it means about the way we live. I do.

For what has happened here? A group of gangsters got together and fabricated a city in the desert as a factory for making money. It would not have to grow. It would just be there. It would have no natural roots in human development. It would be life reinvented through the mechanical womb of finance. It would be a monument to sterility, since it produces nothing but money.

Ah, but you're wrong. Surely it does produce something: pleasure. Not really, since the pleasure does not merely exist as an experience, but must convert instantly into money, money lost or money gained. Whichever way you play it, Las Vegas wins, for its purpose is to turn everything into the pursuit of money. It is Capitalism triumphant. Here the workers will pay for the privilege of making your money. Harness their greed and it will serve your greed. Here labour is offered to the labourers as leisure, a pastime they have chosen.

It is a brilliant concept. Its efficacy troubles me, because I think it can lead to the perception of our lives as an exclusively economic phenomenon. That is an assumption that seems to be becoming more and more pervasive these days. When I eventually returned to Scotland from Vancouver (in August 1987), after about a year abroad, I wondered how far from Las Vegas I had travelled.

It wasn't that the people of Scotland had altered. But I noticed, with the perspective of prolonged absence, how much the terms of their lives were being changed. After all, they had by that time served eight years without remission for a crime they hadn't committed the voting in of alien values they didn't believe in. Aspects of their society that should have had nothing to do with material values (like health and university education) were being determined by purely financial considerations. Scotland was becoming a plutocracy.

Las Vegas comes back to me from time to time, like a bad dream, some version of which we may all be living in one day, if the present Gadarene rush into materialism isn't diverted. It is the right-wing policies of our time apotheosised in a town. Monetarist governments should go there to do fieldwork in how it's done: offer the hallucination of wealth for all and get back the reality of money for a few. In return for the illusion of money you almost certainly will never have, it takes some of the money that you do have, as well as time and energy. It offers you pointlessness as fun that is a seductive offer in times that are short of moral purpose. Turn your aimlessness into a pastime.

And it works. It works so well that I can imagine many of those who enjoy the place dismissing my sense of it as an over-reaction that misses the point. They would see my bad dream of it as originating in my dyspepsia with the times. And maybe they would be right. Las Vegas is about gambling, and gambling can be enjoyable. End of story. Nobody forced you to go there. Nobody held a gun to your head. But there are subtle modes of coercion, subtle modes of violence.

For me, trying to programme people into developing the basest aspects of their nature is an act of violence against them. On these terms, it seems to me, the city could be seen as a 24-hour-a-day larceny done on the human spirit. I don't think its smiling face should fool you. Someone who smiles doesn't always mean you well. I don't think you should be misled by its ersatz exoticism. Las Vegas is by Disneyland out of the Mafia a jacket of fantasy with the bulge of a real gun in it.