Magazine article The Spectator

Sniffing out a British Tradition

Magazine article The Spectator

Sniffing out a British Tradition

Article excerpt

AFTER the News of the World's 'outing' of England's rugby captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, and Mr Tom Parker Bowles for using drugs, it is worth remembering that journalists have a notoriously high incidence of drug use and abuse. Leaving aside alcohol, cocaine is the classic scribblers' drug. We even have a medical name for its effects (graphomania) and I bet that a bit of sly urine testing at Murdoch Towers would turn up some interesting results. Truly, the vice anglais is humbuggery.

I favour the Avocado Theory of contemporary drug use. Consider the rather dull 1950s. Most people stayed in Britain for their holidays and ate overcooked beef washed down with beer or tea. If anyone had offered them an avocado, they'd have dismissed it as funny foreign stuff. Likewise funny foreign drugs such as cannabis or cocaine. Today, avocados are everywhere. So are cannabis and cocaine. Why should poor young Parker Bowles be expected to think and act globally at work, and at the dinner table, but not at play?

Worriers about drugs usually lose all sense of history and reality. Britain's biggest drugs problem always has been and probably always will be alcohol. I visit almost as many prisons as my friend Theodore Dalrymple, and much of the really serious violence I read about in the files is fuelled by alcohol. The heroin users I see are a comparatively pacific lot and would be even more pacific if they didn't have to spend, because of its illegality, ten or twenty times more on a heroin habit than alcoholics spend on theirs. This disparity didn't exist in the 19th century. What we now call `illegal drugs' were legal for a lot longer than they have been prohibited.

Heroin is just souped-up opium and opium has been a part of British life since mediaeval times. By the 17th century, it was widely used and widely praised. As with alcohol, not everyone who takes opium becomes addicted to it but there were several prominent 18th-century addicts, including Clive of India and William Wilberforce. By the 19th century, opium was commonplace. De Quincey published Confessions of an English Opium Eater in 1823. He was not ostracised. In East Anglia, so many people used opium that it was added to some types of beer.

Opium could be bought at any grocery until 1868 and at any pharmacy without a prescription after that. The habit of injecting started around 1850 (Florence Nightingale was a fan) but most people took opium as pills or as laudanum - an alcoholic solution. It was cheaper than beer or spirits and much less damaging to the body. Then, as now, the high-minded worried that instead of putting in a full day's work, the proletariat were getting stoned, and there followed scare stories about poisoned babies. But others argued that, compared with alcohol, people behaved less badly and lived longer on opium.

As well as laudanum, resourceful Victorians had other recreational drugs. Ether was used for fun (`ether frolics') long before it was used for anaesthesia. How do you suppose laughing gas got its name? This was the Victorian version of glue-- sniffing. Cannabis enjoyed a small vogue, perhaps more in France, where Gerard de Nerval enthused about hashish. British writers, like their servants, used opium extensively. The Victorians also had absinthe - a potent (140 per cent proof) green drink containing the allegedly hallucinogenic Oil of Thujone. …

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