We’re back from our two-week honeymoon. More precisely, I’m at 33,000ft somewhere above the Atlantic and heading away from New York, back toward London. During the hours I’ve had to kill in airport lounges – and more pleasantly, by a warm poolside – I have been reading Alan Whicker’s 1982 autobiography ‘Within Whicker’s World’, an impulse £1.50 second-hand purchase. If you’re outside the UK you may not be familiar with the late Alan Whicker. Whicker presented a very long-running documentary series named ‘Whicker’s World’ which aired from the 1958 to the early-1990s. The concept was simple, Whicker – a former war correspondent – would scour the planet for an interesting person to feature in each of his documentaries. Whicker was believed to be one of the world’s most widely-travelled men, no corner of the planet had ever been out-of-bounds. Whicker’s interviewees spanned humanity from murderous dictators to billionnaires and princesses, yet wherever his programme took him Whicker was always immaculately dressed in a sharp suit, thick-rimmed spectacles and a tidy moustache. He was eternally polite, unflappable, and tremendously at-ease in any conceivable scenario, and above all… strikingly and unwaiveringly British. Whicker’s globe-trotting broadcasting career began to draw to a close in the early 1990s. In 2009 Whicker presented a short series named ‘Journey of a Lifetime’, a retrospective look at his many decades of travelling. ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ was my first encounter with Alan Whicker, I found him fascinating and affable; and he immediately earned a place on my short, but very select, list of role-models. It feels apt that at some point during the remaining five hours of a trans-Atlantic flight that I shall read the final chapter of ‘Within Whicker’s World’. In addition, it also feels appropriate to document our holiday with Alan Whicker in mind.
We arrived at Las Vegas McCarran airport in warm afternoon sun. From the window of the coach transferring us the short distance from the airport to the Bellagio, grandest of the oppulent Vegas resorts, I was struck that Vegas is quite literally in the middle of nowhere; a city contained within a desert dustbowl surrounded on all sides by scorched mountains. Vegas is entirely artificial; not created through hundreds of years of incremental evolution but instead constructed with huge investment in a terrain where no city should naturally develop. Vegas was created from the outset as an adult playground, a playground that dedicates every hour of the day to satisfying the whims and vices of the rich and not so rich alike – though both will usually leave Vegas considerably poorer than they arrived. Describing Las Vegas as a city is, I presume, merely to appease bureaucracy. Las Vegas is a city-sized themepark for grown-ups, a sleazy adult Disneyworld with the benefit of an airport and round-the-clock alcohol and gambling license.
The aesthetics of every detail in Las Vegas are designed – down to the very smallest detail – to elicit childlike excitement from those whose childhoods are long behind them. Our hotel, as a small example, boasted the world’s largest chocolate fountain. I cannot recall seeing more than a dozen children in Las Vegas; Nevada gambling laws prohibit those under the age of twenty-one from entering areas where gambling is taking place, to all intents and purposes this excludes all minors from the inner-sanctum of Vegas, ‘The Strip’. Whilst Children would be free to walk the sidewalks of central Vegas even these public spaces aren’t free from Vegas’ adult treats. Newspaper vending machines are a common sight on the sidwalks throughout America, Vegas no different – yet its machines do not dispense The Chronicle, The Gazette, or even The Daily. Behind each window is local rag ‘Adult Informer’.
Mobile billboards also cruise back and forth along the strip at all hours hours of day or night, three topless women with the accompanying bold text ‘Girls Direct To You!’ It was a multiplatform campaign, a team of both men and women in bright ‘Girls Girls Girls’ t-shirts congregated at the entrances of hotels, handing out ‘promotional literature’ for their girls.
I ventured out of the hotel early one morning to gather supplies at a local drugstore, the streets and sidewalks were littered with small cards – women kneeling on beds, biting their bottom lip and pushing their assets toward the camera. I feel for the women on the cards as business in Vegas must be very demanding, the capacity of Vegas hotels being almost impossible to comprehend. Chose any one of the Vegas hotels as a permanent residence and a guest would likely not be able to spend a night in every one of its rooms before their demise – although given the fast-living lifestyle in Vegas the date of their departure into the grave could be sooner than anticipated.
Each and every mega-hotel in Vegas has its own casino. British readers may understand a casino to be perhaps moderately larger than a seafront arcade. The casino at the Bellagio is of such a scale that the journey from our room to the sidewalk required a six-minute walk through a sea of slot-machines and roulette tables. Few of the casinos have windows to the outside world, and none have clocks on the walls, For as long as a gambler remains in play, preferably in debt to the establishment, waitresses will serve them drinks free of charge. Passing through the casino on our way to breakfast each morning I would see disheveled men, and leather-faced women supping from whiskey tumblers at the same poker tables they had occupied the preceding evening. A gambler may leave any time they wish; although any given exit will invariably lead directly into to a covered arcade of luxury shops. If the shops are unsucessful in extracting money from the punters, the arcade often leads directly through to the floor of the neighbouring hotel’s casino – providing an unbroken gambling experience without having to suffer the stinging pain of daylight.
I can’t bring my thoughts on Vegas to a close without making mention of the Bellagio’s ‘all you can eat’ breakfast buffet. As a chap used to paying no more than seven quid for a Full English on the high street, thirty-bucks a head for a breakfast buffet felt like extortion. However, leaving my credit card details with the concierge allowed us to frequent any of the hotel’s facilities on tab – a novelty which seemed to temporarily blind me to the fact a bill will reach me in the end. That said, everything in America is bigger – even breakfast.
The Bellagio’s breakfast buffet was equivalent to the size of a couple of supermarket aisles, catering for almost every conceivable definition of breakfast. American bacon, Canadian bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs, eggs benedict, eggs florentine, hash browns, potatoes, country gravy, ham, muffins, dumplings, pancakes, crepes, waffles, maple syrup, caramelised apples, lemon, sugar, not to mention the various Jewish specialities and a whole other central counter for pastries and cooked meats. I almost managed to reach my ‘getting my money’s worth’ goal of two full breakfast plates – I made a valiant attempt, but had to admit defeat. Even breakfast encourages guests to gamble their cash in an attempt to walk away the victor.
To its core Las Vegas is an inherently sleazy place where grown-ups come to gleefully throw their money into a furnace, the odds are almost always in favour of the house. In return, Vegas provides almost limitless adult fun with no questions asked. Vegas makes its guests feel special, members of a priviledged elite group of VIPs with expendible income – no matter how much or little – to gamble. Even as they lose, the sacharine decadance of Vegas makes visitors feel they must be amongst life’s winners.