Last week I had the honour of acting as discussant at a panel on Modern Britain On Drugs at this year’s MBS conference at Birmingham University. (It was a really great conference, but more on that another time.)
Peder Clark, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: ‘“Do You Love What You Feel?”: Ecstasy, Rave, and Ways of Knowing, 1988-1995’.
Ben Mechen, Royal Holloway ‘Rubber Gloves and Liquid Gold: Poppers and the Policing of London’s Queer Nightlife’.
Yewande Okuleye, University of Leicester ‘You Call It Marijuana and I Call It “The Herb”: Cannabis as a Boundary Object’.
The history of drugs in modern Britain has always been one of boundary construction, regulation, transgression and dissolution. Indeed, drugs are classic ‘boundary objects’, united by their psychoactive or body-altering effects but otherwise plastic in use, meaning and interpretation. Across time, then, distinctions between ‘illicit’ drugs and ‘legitimate’ medicines, or between “Class As”, “Bs” and “Cs”, have wavered and blurred. As commodities, but also as cultural phenomena, drugs have flowed across borders and between social groups, and through colonial, postcolonial and globalised channels of extraction, influence and exchange. Opening the ‘doors of perception’, they have revealed for some the threshold between lower and ‘higher’ states of consciousness, reality and illusion, or the secular and spiritual worlds. As substances that have been shared or consumed together, that have sparked joy and desire, or that have produced experiences of ‘ego death’ and radical empathy, they have liquefied the lines between self and other. As the focus of regulation and control, and as the subject of claims to rights of consumption and cultural recognition, they have constantly unsettled divisions between the public and private spheres, cultures and subcultures, and individual and social wellbeing.
In this panel, we therefore examine the work of three different drugs as ‘boundary objects’ in three different historical contexts. Yewande Okuleye considers the role of cannabis in the spiritual practices of Rastafari men in postcolonial London, but its policing, conversely, as a harmful ‘recreational’ drug. Ben Mechen traces how ‘poppers’ became a key site of cultural contestation and sexual politics during the AIDS crisis, reframing old questions about what it was okay for consenting adults to get up to in private. Finally, Peder Clark unpacks competing constructions of ‘ecstasy’ (MDMA) in the early years of rave culture, as its consumption became a common formative experience for hundreds of thousands of young people. Together, the papers ask: what happens to modern British studies – as an object and mode of enquiry – if we turn on and tune in to the cultural and social history of drugs?
Each paper explored drugs and drug use as a boundary objects, although each did so in their own way and using their own case studies. What follows is based on my contribution to the panel.
The Modern Britain on Drugs panel showed us genuinely original ways of mapping the historical significance of drugs, their communities, and their control. I was particularly struck with the ways in which together the panels moved beyond a focus on deviance, moral panic surveillance and criminality, in isolation, and to map these alongside agency, identity formation, and the things that people do with, and because of, their recreational drug use. This was no nostalgic celebration of drug use, together this panel took people’s experiences of what they can get out of drugs, in a specific historical location, and what the down sides might be too. There has always been a price, for the pleasure that we find. The point is not to celebrate or denigrate drug use, but to take it seriously as a way into the broader historical forces, economically, culturally, politically, individually and collectively.
Three different papers with three different case studies, disrupted the boundaries between what people are told about recreational drug use by the state, health service and education, and the affective networks and collective identities produced through the distribution and sharing of drugs. Indeed poppers, pills and herb have historically drawn boundaries that include people within these affective networks, as much as exclude them from law abiding citizenship.
Hilary Pilkington’s work on Russian youth cultures as affective communities draws out the importance of the shared vocabulary, rituals of preparation, peer care and shared inter generational knowledge that glues individuals together. It is not, she argues, that young people are unaware of the risks associated with drug use. But that rather than take the advice experts at its word, “their judgements …are developed through acculturation and embodied in taste, style, leisure”.
Popular culture and subcultural group membership is the glue through which we are able to define ourselves – to be somebody. As these papers showed, together we can build a history that takes drugs seriously, at the intersections of the state and judiciary; education and employment; religiosity and resilience; street cultures and bedroom cultures; the folk devil and the moral panic; music and sound as industry and cultural space; the homosocial continuum; sex drugs and rock n roll.
As the work of Alex Mold in the UK has shown the history of Britain on Drugs situates the public within the history of public health in complex ways. International proejcts like Points in the US help us to see how Britain on drugs puts the local into its global context. Even the most site specific local scene is produced in the context of international drug cultures; the violence of paramilitary protection of crops, and the post-colonial economies of drug transportation. After all there are some bodies that risk their lives to carry the drugs so other bodies can enjoy the rush.
One of the things that really impressed me about the Britain on Drugs panel was that each of the papers refused easy generalisations. In the case of rave for example, the story usually goes that E stopped the hyper masculinity of football violence. So often the popular narrative is that ecstasy reformulated working class masculinity to such an extent that every football hooligan put down their weapons and picked up a glow stick instead. This version of rave assumes that working class men could only demonstrate comradeship or love because MDMA dissolved their masculinity. With the counter assumption being that all queer club cultures were middle class. (God forbid there might be any gay football fans in that equation). Rather than celebrating the dissolution of working class community into the melting pot of rave, Peder pointed out that it was exactly the point at which kids, beyond the metropol, beyond the Balearic holiday makers, beyond the posh boys, got into rave, that the original DJs and promoters started to bemoan the watering down of their nice elite club nights.
What might a drugged methodology looking like? Chris Warne and I recently updated our third year History module Post-Punk Britain. The new module Post-Rave Britain’s starting point was to think about what form would best match a history of rave and what might rave cultures teach us about doing History? As a group we use a lot of Padlet boards. Padlet’s form seems to fit. They are semi-structured but largely unordered, collaborative, encourage re-use and repurposing and a chuck it together what do you get ethos.)
A drugged up methodology would read citizenship as a function only of pleasure. A drugged up history would focus on the alternative knowledge economies. For example, it was standard for GPs to ask us to report back to them on any interactions between the drugs they prescribed and the ecstasy that we took. Drug users know their History. Rastafari understand the colonial structures that mean they have to defend their religious practice as a criminal offence. Ravers and clubbers knew and shared their histories of their drugs of choice. Drug users know about recycling and repurposing; poppers was originally a heart medicine, ecstasy was used in relationship therapy, cannabis has long been a medicinal ingredient in home remedies. Mods knew that their ‘mother’s little helpers’ and diet pills could keep them dancing all night. Vicks nasal spray could extend your rush etc.
What would a drugged up temporality look like? It would put the workday week in the shadows, instead time would be marked by long weekends and dark Wednesdays. A drugged methodology might think about the individual identities in the collective in different ways. Whereby lots of phone numbers biroed onto a hand would merge as the sweat blurred the ink. Knowing where people have come from, and what ‘they were on’ but not knowing who they were or what they did. Where a shared space is built around the collective self assurance that ‘its great here, isn’t it?’.
Perhaps the history of emotions can help us get to the embodied experience of drug use and demonstrate the limits of bodily autonomy. It turns out it really is other people’s business what we do with our body. Drug use has often been seen as either hedonist escape, or radical resistance. Our cultural history peppered by great art and culture produced whilst under the influence, and then celebrated in scenes ever since; Blake, Lewis Carroll, Jim Morrison, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Happy Mondays, The Shamen, etc etc – their drug play is given meaning because it helped them (supposedly) make great art. Inspired by Blake, and in turn inspiring Morrison, Huxley explained in 1954 psychotic drug use enlightens artists to see through the Looking Glass (as long as they are the right sort of people that is)
“He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend”
Beyond the doors of perception there lies great creativity. But, this seems to me to be enforcing a straight methodology onto drugged up history. When the currency of the weekend undermines the work ethic, living for the weekend is a political act. Why do we then only take drugged up history seriously if it produces something?
A drugged up history of Britain on drugs is the History of Britain not doing what its told, or even believing what its told by experts and educators. Where trusting your mates matters. It was the gay community who worked out that Viagra and poppers were a bad combination for example. It was ecstasy users who understood serotonin levels well enough to negotiate with their GPs prescribing SSRIs.
A drugged up History of Britain, can get in the cracks and corners of Britishness. The national broadcaster live streams Glastonbury, described in the press as the ultimate microcosm of Britain (albeit it a largely white, middle class version).
“Flying high above Glastonbury in a Tiger Moth the true scale of the festival is revealed. It is very much like a miniature Britain, a country which functions on the edge of chaos and works mostly because of mutual patience, good humour and tolerance.”
Glastonbury as Britain is a Britain in which Gove tries to score kudos with an experimental line of coke having passed a new code of conduct in 2014 that would disqualify any school teachers who were convicted of possession of exactly the same class A drug.
The first five times I went to Glastonbury there were no police on site. Whereas now the terms and conditions of each ticket state that you will be searched at the entrance.
But the website also links to the Festival Medical Services medical professionals who have been providing Glastonbury with medical services since 1979. Their advice includes harm reduction around drug use. Festival Welfare Services also work from a harm reduction philosophy. The Loop provide information and training alongside drug testing at Glastonbury including tweeting drug alerts regarding particularly strong or high risk batches. That’s seems to sum up the contradiction of Britain and the relationship between what ‘they’ say, and what ‘we’ do and how we manage to organise for ourselves, with the expertise and experience that we need.
A drugged up history of drugs in Britain builds fractals of hypocrisy. It is pretty obvious that certain groups are allowed to take certain drugs, the contradictions and hypocrisy laid bare. Unlike Blake, Huxley or Floyd, some people really don’t get away with it at all, let alone get celebrated for it. There are current moves to stigmatise pharmaceutical dependency on opioids that cause great distress to those whose ability to productively function depends on them daily. The prosecute staff at the Royal Tavern under the Offense against the Person’s act in 1986, may have been unsuccessful, but as Ben Mechen explained it underlined the combined viral toxicity of homosexuality and drug use during the AIDS epidemic (as Ben explained the police wore rubber gloves to protect them from infection during the raid). Rastafarian religious practices have justified the disproportionate stopping and arresting of black men under Suss laws and beyond. A drugged up History knows that there are always limits to what you can get away with, and that they are different for different people.
And today, journalists try pretty hard to shame women like Katie Price, Lily Allen, Daniella Westbrook, Kerry Katona. Recent tragic losses associated with reality TV have demonstrated the dangers of drugs (and tabloid driven celebrity) extremely clearly. Celebrity recovery memoirs more than cover the fees of rehab at The Priory. Gove gave interviews to other journalists expressing his ‘deep regret’ that he had occasionally used coke when he was a journalist. Meanwhile others have had to prostrate themselves on talk TV like Jeremy Kyle, to exchange their shame, and quantify their ‘rock bottom’, and guarantee a suitably reborn appearance a few months later in order to access to residential care.
Its not the drug you take that matters; it’s the community it builds; the networks it connects, (of both ‘them’ and ‘us’), that mark a drugged up history of Britain on drugs.