Drug addicts are always picked on in times of anxiety and so it is today. The hardline right-wing approach is seen at its most extreme in the war on drugs waged by President Duterte of the Philippines and condemned by Catholic bishops. After he was elected last year Duterte visited a slum in Manila and said: “If you know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself.” More than 7,000 have been murdered by police and vigilantes.
In the West – in the US particularly – the worry is over the heavy use of opioids, both painkillers too freely prescribed and illegal heroin. What to do about it? Conservative commentators like the American Christopher Caldwell think the answer is to get tough – on users as well as dealers.
Drugs have always been the bane of society, says Caldwell in First Things, and he claims that “the tally of wrecked middle-class families and lives was already high by the time Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914”.
But that is not true. What there was in 1914 was a lot of hysteria and prejudice – like the belief that cocaine caused “negroes” to rape white women or the irrational fear of Chinese opium dens.
As the academic Virginia Berridge showed some years ago in her exhaustive study Opium and the People, the clamping down through legislation at the time of the First World War was tied up with global politics and the desire to control the opium trade in the Far East, as America expanded its interests into that region. It was convenient to characterise addiction as a medical and social problem.
Before that, Berridge says, throughout the late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, opiates were freely available over the counter in powder, pill or liquid form (laudanum was invented by Thomas Sydenham in the 1660s). They were used to varying degrees in all levels of society.
You could buy opium (and cocaine) at Harrods, and the Duke of Wellington remarked on George IV’s self-medicating for his hangovers: “He is obliged to take laudanum to calm the irritation which the use of spirits occasions.”
Poppies were grown in the Fens; poppy-head tea was a standard treatment for “ague” and toddlers’ teething pains. Cocaine lozenges were reported to be “much used by clergymen”.
Crucially, regular opium users or “opium eaters” were not stigmatised in their communities. Addiction was “rarely discussed and generally calmly accepted”.
And yet at the end of the 19th century something changed. The conceptualisation of addicts as “deviant” took hold. Berridge’s insight is that the shift of focus was not chiefly the result of an actual increase in harm caused by opium; instead, narcotics were a useful “scapegoat for wider tensions within society” – and the process has been gathering pace ever since.
Ian Nairn was an exhilaratingly original writer and broadcaster. He wrote about buildings as if they had souls. Unfortunately for him, he was also a melancholic and he drank himself to death with London beer at 52. There was a touch of Tony Hancock about Nairn; he liked to say “marvellous” in the same downbeat way.
Now there is great news for Nairnophiles. Next month Notting Hill Editions is reissuing Nairn’s Paris, first published in 1968, the companion volume to Nairn’s London (which Penguin reissued in 2014). It is a delightful small hardback, in bottle-green cloth with stitched binding and creamy white pages. It will stand up to being carted around Paris in a pocket.
One thing I like about Nairn is that he doesn’t write about churches merely as aesthetic objects. He understands that structure is bound up with purpose. He was an Anglican and quite a tribal one. So when he talks about St Paul’s Cathedral in his book on London (“utterly un-Catholic, utterly un-totalitarian”), he rhapsodises about Wren’s all-inclusive Anglicanism: “One feels, without blasphemy, that the transepts and diagonals could hold a mosque or a Hindu temple.”
In Nairn’s Paris he explains: “As a person who drinks a lot and can’t bear either pretensions or possessiveness, I look for a shabby but clean hotel where the menu is written up daily in near-illegible purple ink.”
He liked pub company, and wanted to die in the arms of a fat Walloon tart. He got his other expressed wish, which was to be buried under the Heathrow flight path – his grave is in Hanwell cemetery, Uxbridge Road. On it are the words, “A man without a mask”.
Andrew M Brown is The Daily Telegraph’s obituaries editor
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