I play music out of an overwhelming need to play; to make the rains come; to abolish wars. The ultimate human sacrifice is to me, life, not death.
(Archie Shepp, liner note to his 1966 album, Mama too Tight)


At about 3am in the morning of Tuesday 30th July (I cannot be more precise because the shock stopped us looking at clocks) my wife and I were woken by the man who lives in the top, third-floor flat shouting loudly through his open window. He is a big man with a muscular voice. As he threw a widescreen digital TV, a Hi Fi CD player, an iron candelabra and much else through his window to smash on our stone-paved terrace four floors below, he bellowed a litany that religion was not the answer.

By the time I got out of our back door, he was still shouting. I asked him what was going on. He told me to fuck off. I was frightened. I called the police. Twenty minutes later six policemen and one policewoman arrived, but, not surprisingly, got no answer from his doorbell. The armoured policepersons said they were not authorised to break the door down.

At about 9.30am our hero appeared at his window again, naked except for his dark glasses, shouting incoherent protests at America and the moon. At 10am another neighbour, a spinster, out taking her large cat for its daily constitutional on a lead, saw him on the lawn at the front of the house, stark naked. He quickly got dressed in the clothes he had brought with him and scurried indoors.

That evening I rang the police to see whether they had followed up as they had promised. They had, but indirectly and by accident. Our cantankerous neighbour had gone down to the local shops for some fags (that’s what his ex-girlfriend said later, but I suspect it was booze) and had taken all his clothes off in the street. A shopkeeper sent for the police. He was arrested and kept in a cell with no clothes for 24 hours while they tried to find him a hospital he could be committed to.

There were no beds available locally, so he was driven to London in a police van, handcuffed and wearing nothing but the paper jump suit they give suspects to wear when their clothes are being investigated. The police knew he had once been ‘in the job’, a policeman. To ‘ensure he caused no trouble’ there were six policemen in the van all the way to London. Humiliation.

The pain that creeps beneath the veneer: his mania exploding through pustules of addicted drinking. Drinking to avoid the torture of knowing he is prone to mania.

He will be released soon to a shambles of neglect called ‘care in the community’: a weekly one-hour visit from a Community Psychiatric Nurse.


A phone conversation. Out of the blue, I am asked:

“What are you so frightened of?”

“I wasn’t aware… Did I say anything about being frightened?”

“No, you didn’t have to.”

“So, do you think you can get this deal financed?”

“There, you see, frightened. It’s your ego. All over the place.”

“Aren’t you ever frightened?”

“No, I don’t have an ego. Did I tell you about the time I was with…” A megastar is mentioned and a long anecdote told.

This money-and-power addict makes an art of understanding and controlling people through their weaknesses. He protects his possessions and lack of ego in a walled garden with steel gates.


The questions: What is the irrational, self-harming compulsion that is addiction? Why are so many addicted? What is it about the human condition?


My life has been shaped by addiction, though it is 27 years since I took anything psychotropic, since I have been exploring the state of being unhooked. Like Archie Shepp, my life is my human sacrifice. I mean: at my best moments my art is my life and vice versa, and both require an understanding of the power and ubiquity of addiction. Forty years ago, in 1963, when Archie was blowing with John Tchcai in New York, I was venturing into what was the safety and therefore expansion of heroin. The dopamine and nordrenaline thus released in my brain thrilled to the visceral of black jazz being revolutionary.

This text is a narrative of addiction: how and why lives get stuck and lost in tracks around the psychotropic. In India ‘BA Cantab, Failed’ counts for something on your business card. Addicts have ‘Communicator of Pain, Failed’ on theirs, but it counts for nothing but rejection. As a writer I am a communicator of communication in and of itself, singing the thesaurus: transmission, imparting, conveying, reporting, presenting, passing on, handing on, divulgence, disclosure. It’s about contact and connection, commerce and traffic.


The setting: a double-glazed, insulated garden gazebo-shed. One of its two windows overlooks the Avon Valley from the heights of our terrace, the other the forty-five degree garden careering into the valley below. Up here, the herons fly past below you. You can watch the tourist coaches, across the valley, as they queue on the new roundabout to join the traffic jams of Bath. Over there, the coloured shirts dance to the shouts of the Bath Rugby Club practice ballet. The tourist boats pass up and down the dark green but shiny river Avon, giving Japanese and Americans a view of the English countryside. Deer, foxes, greater-spotted woodpeckers and badgers are sometimes to be seen in the field below, even in the garden.

All adding to the value of our property. But how can a view be owned? Intellectual copyright?

My gazebo is where my fetishes with technology and music happen as I distract myself from concentrating. This is the setting for a recurring meeting with myself, day after day, now I am launched into the choppy seas of crystallising outlooks, of being a writer, full time to the exclusion of any other security. The setting for what I now call work: having views.


Twenty-seven years ago my road to liberation from psychotropics started with two months at Broadway Lodge, Europe’s first 12-step treatment centre. I emerged like a traumatised gnu into the dazzling headlights of Alcoholics Anonymous; learning that I had better believe I could live without chemicals to change how I felt. Learning that I had been wrong for my entire adult life (I was 32): wrong about my torment, my emotions, my purpose and my place in the scheme of things. Learning to live in clichés: I was sick of being sick, down here at my rock bottom, so I got with the programme and worked the steps.


Though the history of drug taking goes back at least five thousand years, that of addiction and prohibition is very short: 180 years at most. Since my history with psychotropics started in 1959, I have been involved in at least a fifth of it.


A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another. To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.
(Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind)

Yes, people got dependent on drugs before 1820, but the language-game of addiction, the myth, was not born until De Quincey romanticised his relationship with opium, until the Victorian bourgeoisie started to demonise the habitual user as addict. The myth was not sufficiently encrusted with its own spurious truth to create a stereotype ‘addict’ until the early twentieth century when the new puritans of the USA started to flex their righteous muscles and prohibit things.

A myth is not a lie, an untruth, a fairy story, but a way of understanding difficult things that becomes more the truth than the truth. Before long a myth starts to dictate the behaviour of its protagonists. The discourse of the drug myth goes like this: there are these things called habit-forming drugs. Everybody knows – the newspapers keep telling us – they are evil. They cause addiction. They come and get you. They relieve addicts of any morals they might have had. Their evil is contagious: it makes users evil. They cause withdrawal symptoms, one of the most severe forms of suffering known to man (see how they are portrayed in Hollywood movies).

The myth has its repercussions, its subsidiary mythettes: the existence of addicts enables the rest of us to cover up our own ordinary addictions behind the smiling face of civilisation. We have to prohibit drugs everywhere on the planet to protect our women and children (they are ‘habit-forming’ after all), while we ignore the algebra of death all around us: legal and taxed alcohol and tobacco kill ten times as many people as all illegal drugs. On the scale of evil, only paedophiles are worse than addicts. And the only way to deal with such an evil is to declare war on it: the War on Drugs.


Rowing laconically down the river with the girlfriend on the back seat holding the rudder ropes, past the couple sunbathing on a rug in the field by the blasted willow tree – these people cannot be addicts. Slinking in a slow summer Sunday afternoon, how can there be the urgency of addiction in these people?

One of the defining requisites of addiction is its private nature. I do not want to show you my enslavement in case you might set me free. Freedom is feared.

Take work addiction. You are hooked to work when it makes you happy above anything else, cycling between procrastination, work binges and exhaustion, worrying obsessively about it, with your sense of self-worth dependent on others’ approval, using the adrenaline of overwhelming work pressure as a focusing device, clicking your nails on table tops, twiddling your thumbs in meetings.

The addiction is hidden, because that is its nature: to hide. Workaholics are praised far more than they are pitied. There are ways, many ways, in which addiction is admirable: workaholics are heroes of capitalism.


Unlike the myth of heresy, which kept a subservient bend of the head amongst the faithful, the myth of addiction hasn’t done a very good job, either as truth or myth. The War on Drugs has failed: prohibition as a way of dealing with the drug ‘problem’ is a complete failure. The more drug taking becomes ‘normal’ (a survey in April 2002 showed that over 50% of Britons under 24 have taken an illegal drug), the more the myth is made ridiculous. The bishops of the myth – politicians – are beginning to wish they had a new model and the hems of their dogma are beginning to fray. Possession of any drugs for your own consumption is no longer a crime in Portugal, Italy and Switzerland, though, paradoxically, dealing still is.

What is required, and, some believe, what is already happening, is radical myth surgery, a myth transplant. We need to found our morality on inner truths not outer chimera. The prohibition of drugs causes far more harm – to addicts, victims of drug-related crime, economies, governments and moralities – than do the drugs themselves.


A rational society would legalise and licence the supply of every psychotropic substance.


There are punts visible between the trees down there on the ponderous Avon, being slowly propelled up the river, their dreaming occupants trailing their hands in the cooling water. How did punts get to Somerset? They were once an integral part of the East Anglian fenland economy. Fishermen, fowlers and reed-cutters valued punts for their combination of manoeuvrability and stability. When the good burghers of Cambridge built sewers for the city at the tail end of the 19th century, the River Cam ceased to stink to high heaven, and several things happened, coincidentally. My great grandfather, George Darwin, son of Charles, was able to buy Newnham Grange and the Old Granary in Silver Street, right on the river, without fear of malodorous vapours overcoming the household. The grain merchant who had built them used to get barges up the river from Kings Lyn, but the coming of the railway did for his trade, leaving the Granary to become Old. Meanwhile the professions of fenland fisherman, fowler and reed-cutter started to wane. Thus the genesis of the punt as pleasure vehicle. But how it got to Somerset…


The shifting sands play language in new ways. Addiction was once an entirely positive word: something you liked to do and would persuade your friends to try, and it is still used this way: we describe our favourite food, drink or music as being ‘wonderfully addictive’. In 1529 to say ‘I am addict to my employer’ meant I was assigned to him, and was its only meaning. Not long afterwards Shakespeare used the phrase ‘addicted to a melancholy’ in Twelfth Night. In 1909, the word was first used to describe habitual and harmful use of a drug. Since the advent of self-improvement, group therapy and the relentless medicalisation of the intimate details of our lives (thanks, in part, to Alcoholics Anonymous) we now regard the compulsive over-indulgence in anything as addiction. When used this way, the word carries the aura of illness. But the ambiguity is ever-present: depending on context, something ‘addictive’ is either hellish or pleasurable. Pleasure and hell have always been bedfellows, well, room mates.


Addiction is a view: desolation row. The addict has been abandoned. She is an orphan. The object of her fixation is her last hope. No person counts for anything, but for the fulfilment of the habit. The world is barren of the nourishment of love. The pain that drives the addict demands expression in the drama of her daily business: withdrawal, scoring, fixing. The worldview of addiction requires the support of its own myth. Social deprivation as breeding ground for mythic addiction raises its head here – makes good, hard edged doom reality fiction and movies.


Love ceases to be a pleasure, when it ceases to be a secret.
(Aphra Benn, The Lover’s Watch, 1686)

The punt is a pleasure vehicle, used to make journeys of leisure, trips with no other point, along rivers.

The things you get hooked on, the objects of addiction are pleasure vehicles that punt you down rivers of ennui, only to be swept over cataracts of dependency. Pleasure and prosperity cannot last; they decline into their opposites: regret, hangover, poverty.

Secrecy is the key to the love affair of addiction. As the lines under your eyes become more pronounced, more visible to the world, so the love ceases to be pleasure and the pleasure ceases to be lovable.


Our democratic, self-steering, juggernaut of unhappy individuality has a flaw: it craves definition, to know it is real, and is liable to get hooked on the sensations and things that offer it the definitions its history of wretchedness demands. We long to be someone, something, a contender – usually someone other than what fate has made us.

We carry scars, our histories of wretchedness, from the psychic trauma we endure. We are compelled to be how we are, to seek meaning and definition, by forces that are hidden from us. That they are hidden makes addiction look like an illness. You get ill from catching invisible germs and viruses: you get hooked from catching addiction.

“Who are you?” you ask, and I give you my name, tell you of my job and perhaps about my immediate family – my immediate definitions. But you want more. I tell you about my tastes and friends, my skills and weaknesses. I let you see me. But still this is not enough for you. Soon I run out of definitions. There is nothing left. Beyond these conscious definitions my conscious self does not exist. It would seem to be an empty shell, though it is in fact full to the brim with stuff I can’t see, stuff I have no control over, my unconscious, which just happens.

But my conscious self wants to exist and to know that it exists. So I cling to those defining experiences that seem to make me real. When that clinging is obsessive I am addicted. Before long the clung-to definitions cease to work, to define – the pariah status of addict has taken over. I shop, therefore I am. I am what I shop. But if I cling to this definition and shop compulsively, I cease to be what I shop. I become a shopaholic. This is true whatever the activity or substance: whether it be drinking, gambling, working, having sex, doing dope, smoking heroin or overeating, or any combination of psychotropic acts. So overwhelmed are we by the myth of self that it is hard to exist without some degree of addiction. We are all, without exception, flitting up and down a continuum of dependence that has tea-drinking and telly watching at one end and crack cocaine and slashing yourself with razor blades at the other.


So here I am, a fifty-seven year old, brought face to face, interface, with the myth, not fairy story, that I am a writer, which now meets the story of the gaping, a lament of lack, abiding in me, that has sometimes carried the word ‘addiction’.

Jean Luc Godard would include shots of the film being made in the film he was making, his communication. Like showing a bit of creative petticoat?

Addiction is not other, but integral to life, a part of the fabric, even the weft. Fundamentally, I am addicted to surviving. So I write. To bring these stories together I must now let my mind run with the exigencies of other people’s addictions. To that end I have been revisiting Broadway Lodge where I got straight at 27 years ago. Elementally, we are all addicted to surviving, to not dieing.


Freddie’s upturned-U mouth mumbled. (I think I saw a pink bottom gum with no teeth.)

“The missiz phoned yesterday.” He started a story about how she was already getting orders for Christmas. (This was July.) How he would soon have to start grafting and earning, those were the words. He didn’t know anything else. He had to keep his wife and children in victuals.

The counsellor interrupted him as if in a university debate: “Perhaps we should make the language you are using clear to the group? What do you think, Freddie? Just what you mean by ‘grafting’ and ‘earning’. It sounds like you run some kind of mail order catalogue. What do you mean by those words, grafting and earning?”

Freddie’s tattoos rippled in protest. Wasn’t it obvious what he meant?

“Thieving, yeah, thieving. People phone the missiz with their orders for Christmas about now and we get em for em. Know what I mean?”

He had been inside four times already. Thieving was the only craft he knew. Part and parcel of using heroin. The tough guys in the group moralised at him for some time about how he could change, get on the programme, work the steps and about the danger that he would be doing a ten stretch if he carried on. They were concerned that he couldn’t see a connection between thieving and using junk. Freddie didn’t know, so the counsellor helped him understand how he felt.

Freddie was an old-school cockney heart-of-gold, luvs-his-mum, villain. His lack of teeth made his speech sound stoned, heightening the 21st century Dickensian, gor luv a duck stereotype, acting out society’s expectations. His tracks around addiction deeply entrenched in the myth of the no-hope, socially deprived addict.

Earlier, before the group, I had been floating ideas with three residents who rolled and smoked cigarettes one after the other. It’s not an illness, I had said. You don’t catch it like an illness, for a start. This in response to their talk of ‘this illness’ as if it had a presence in the room and they didn’t like to point. ‘This illness,’ objectifying it, taking it out of themselves and spreading it around the room.

After Frank had had his say about the counsellor being out of order moving him to a different room, completely out of order; after Liz had declared that she was leaving the next day: she couldn’t connect, and had been attacked for spending 45 minutes on the phone last night; after all the everyday business of the emotions of addicts making a break under the wire of the myth, Freddie spoke.


Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations)

The language of punting:

Although normally rowed or paddled, the Breydon fowlers sometimes rigged their punts with a small mast and a leg-o’-mutton sail to enable them to get to and from Burgh Flats more rapidly. These punts had no keel, centreboard or rudder, being steered with an oar through a quarter rowlock. They were flat-bottomed and wall-sided, but fleet, narrow and long; by no means a safe type of craft in rough weather on Breydon Water, quite a number of fowlers being drowned when out in them.

Similar punts were later used on Hickling Broad but, being quanted, because of the shallow water and hard bottom – instead of rowed, they were made safer by giving them a wider floor particularly aft where the quanter stood, flaring sides, a slight round to the bottom and a little spring to the floor. The purpose of the latter was to help the punt over shallow reed beds, where otherwise she would have stubbed a sharp forefoot into them. Both bow and stern were likewise gently rounded for ease of ‘shoving’ in very shallow water. Broadsmen who used them as workboats claimed that a traditional Hickling Gun Punt could float wherever there had been a heavy dew.
(G. Sambrooke Sturgess, The Norfolk Punt Association website)

A quant is a punt pole; a quanter is one who punts.


Punts = Cambridge = unearthed myths and memories of the revolution of Happening = Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret being the Piper at the Gates of the Dawning of a sixties creative insistence that included me. In my head and heart, that is.

For me Cambridge also means George Darwin’s daughter, my grandmother, Gwen Raverat, who lived in the Old Granary, overlooking the Anchor and the Mill Pond, by Silver Street Bridge. She broke free from the stifling Darwin family ambience, whose tentacles were everywhere, to be an artist. Before the First World War, her peers, later to be called the Neo-Pagans by Virginia Woolf, included Rubert Brooke. There are striking parallels with what we got up to in Cambridge fifty years later. My breaking free was into the slavery of drug addiction, hers into an established bohemianism.

After the war, Gwen started writing a novel about her experiences in 1909 (the year the Oxford English Dictionary records for the first use of the word addict in the drug sense) (I have changed the names she used back to those of the real people she was clearly writing about):

I remember those first two years as long days and nights of talk; talk, lying in the cow parsley under the great elms; talk in lazy punts on the river; talk round the fire in Rupert’s room; talk which seemed always to get nearer and nearer to the heart of things. It was best of all in the evenings in Rupert’s room. He used to lie in his great armchair, his legs stretched right across the floor, his fingers twisted in his hair; while Jacques [Raverat, later to become Gwen’s husband] sat smoking by the fire, continually poking it; his face was round and pale; his hair was dark. We smoked and ate muffins or sweets and talked and talked while the firelight danced on the ceiling, and all the possibilities of the world seemed open to us.

For a time we were very decadent. We used to loll in armchairs and talk wearily about Art and Suicide and the Sex Problem. We used to discuss the ridiculous superstitions about God and Religion; the absurd prejudices of patriotism and decency; the grotesque encumbrances called parents. We were very, very old and we knew all about everything; but we often forgot our age and omniscience and played the fool like anyone else.


I had stubbed my sharp forefoot as I quanted through the group, the dew not heavy enough. Frank was a taught, articulate, good-looking guy, keen to voice other members of the group’s difficulties and denials, but not so good at his own. He made sure we understood he was an actor, though the last audition was fifteen years ago. The issue we dealt with was his being swept away by his anger. In the end the group heard his contrition. And he intoned twelve truisms in penance.

But Freddie couldn’t connect with the programme. He’d gone through treatment four or so times before, addicted to addiction and relapse and the whole nine yards of the myth, the construct of addiction, the worldview of the twelve step programme.

Liz was interrogated about her phone calls and how she really didn’t think the programme was for her and then, just as people started to eye the clock more often, Freddie said there was something he would like to say to me, William.

(I should say that, though my chair was fully part of the circular seating arrangement, I was a silent observer. I wasn’t part of the group, not part of their verity, under instructions to keep my gob shut.)

“Yeah, William,” he turned to me, “this morning, you said it ain’t an illness,” he said with confidence. “What d’you mean? Cos that is.” With this he generated a frisson like that of Jean Luc Goddard filming himself filming.

“Yeah,” chimed Frank, “that is. An illness. That is an illness. Yeah. I reckon you need to do your first and second steps again.” Hands reaching out through the orthodoxies, trying to pull me back to theirs. The counsellor explained that I was free to have whatever views I liked. (I didn’t quite believe he meant it. I was clearly a heretic.) We stood to mumble the Serenity Prayer: “…and the wisdom to know the difference.”


Only connect!…Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.
(E.M. Forster, Howards End)

(I am talking to myself here:) To connect, I must write, not to survive, but to tell the story. It must be told. I am in search of this-ness, haecceity, in the desert of Monday mornings, the particular ordinariness of the Rugby Club practice over there, across the valley, and an ambulance eye-oring up to the roundabout to convey someone’s suffering. Rising above the vapid in the silence of the self; the drab, everyday, flat passage of time where gossip and the banal are king: it’s here the addict seeks exaltation. ‘Only connecting’ carries me through the insecurity of a writer’s imagined poverty. Survival is another department.

Addiction is the wrong answer to lack, insecurity and unease. It does not fill the hole that starts it.


An astonishing number of those that have once been addicts work in the addiction industry in one way or another. And I know that writing this can be regarded as working in the addiction industry.

Imagine: many thousands of people get an illness from giving the wrong answer to the problem of human existence. A proportion of these victims of life get well, though they continue to believe they have an incurable disease. In recovery, the only job they want is helping other such victims get well. Out of the millions who have given the wrong answer to life, some are in recovery and devote themselves to giving those still giving the wrong answer help to give the right answer.

A round about way of being concerned with life, if a rather medicalised version, a circumambulation around the questions: what is life? and, by inference, is life art? Since most lives are rooted in addiction, we can make art out of that addicted life. The Happenings I was part of in the sixties were an attempted bridge to a kingdom where there is no difference between life and art, across a chasm of settling-down ordinariness, denial and ordinary jobs. And what self-respecting beatnik wants a one of those?

The attempted bridge from the gazebo.


Ideally, love and addiction do not have anything at all to do with one another. They are polar opposites. Nothing could be further removed from genuine love — conceived as a commitment to mutual growth and fulfilment — than the desperate self-seeking dependency, which, with drugs, we call addiction. Yet in practice, we tend to get them confused. We often say ‘love’ when we really mean, and are acting out, an addiction — a sterile, ingrown dependency relationship, with another person serving as the object of our need for security. This interpersonal dependency is not like an addiction, not something analogous to addiction; it is an addiction. It is every bit as much an addiction as drug dependency.
(Stanton Peele, Love and Addiction)

An excruciatingly pretty girl holds the mystery to herself, the mystery of her power to bewitch, delighting as she enthrals. Anita was pretty, like a woman, and she thrived on enthralling me when we were seventeen in Cambridge. I was a beat poet, she a goddess of the high-healed leather boot and short skirt. There were occasions on punts, when to sit next to her, being quanted by Dave down the Backs, with my arm around her shoulders, my hand on her skin, close to her capricious breast, brushing off the envious glances, occasions when this was heaven. But the post-coital sadness would creep in, or maybe it was withdrawal symptoms? Heroin loved me more privately and more completely.


Come to that, what is the addiction industry? It is constituted of straighteners of chaos, smoothers of torture and surgeons of the personality. It is divided into two broad churches: the fundamentalist (it has its dogma, its holy Big Book and its inspirational truisms), peculiarly American, Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and the looser, more European, more leftwing and liberal Chapel of Harm Reduction.


Dr J Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne is a liquid medicine which assuages pain of every kind, affords a calm refreshing sleep without headache and invigorates the nervous system when exhausted.
(from Victorian advertising for the product)

Chlorodyne is a mixture of hydrochloride of morphine, chloroform, ether, prussic acid, treacle, extract of liquorice, oil of peppermint and syrup, much used in the Empire to keep its masters from the ravages of diarrhoea.

The early sixties were another universe: music came only from the Dansette gramophone or Radio Luxembourg. We were the first teenagers; previously adults suddenly plopped out of children’s bodies, wearing trilbies and perms, as if from a chrysalis, and parents had only to deal with smaller versions of themselves.

We long-haired, revolting teenagers would go to chemists who still sold patent medicines invented by the Victorians for use in the Empire. One such was Chlorodyne. Dr J Collis Browne’s brown hexagonal bottle came in a box, wrapped in a sheet of archaic advertising. One message it carried was the text of a letter, dated 1885, to the manufacturer, J T Davenport Esq, of 33 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London:

Dear Sir,
We embrace this opportunity of congratulating you upon the widespread reputation that this justly esteemed medicine has earned for itself, not only in Hindustan, but all over the East. As a remedy of general utility, we must question whether a better is imported into the country, and we shall be glad to hear of its finding a place in every Anglo-Indian house. The other brands, we are happy to say, are now relegated to the native bazaars, and, judging from their sale, we fancy their sojourn there will be evanescent…
We are sir, faithfully yours,
Symes & Co
Pharmaceutical Chemists, Medical Hall, Simla
Members of the Pharm. Society of Great Britain
His Excellency, the Viceroy’s Chemists

Did Symes and Co employ Rudyard Kipling to write their advertising copy? “We fancy their sojourn will be evanescent!” Anyway, you get the point: opium was respectable for the Victorians and continued to be, by tacit agreement, until 1965.

A bottle cost one shilling and sixpence. One afternoon when all the family were out, Pete, Andrew, Nigel and Dave came round, bringing three bottles of the stuff. We emptied them into a small battered saucepan that my mother wouldn’t miss, added some sugar and boiled. When it had stopped effervescing, we let it cool and divided it among five cups. It tasted disgusting, but we managed to get it down without vomiting. We sat round waiting. Nothing happened.


Thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!
(Thomas de Quincy, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1822)

A blanket of nothing happened, a fuzzy wrapping of mental cotton wool. We felt nothing, no sensation and yet a buzz, a humming, and with that, a release and disinterested amusement. Our minds could follow themselves, go where and how they wished with no emotional complication, no pain. I was no longer the shell, the tormented genius that had lost the love of his life and could not engage with his friends. Now I could BE, free from the hole in my belly. My intelligence could do what it was supposed to do.

After some marvelling at how we became nicely contained, we were stoned stones amongst the trees and bushes in the garden, simply standing, as though playing ‘statues’. It was a wonder to be so very immobile, to allow nature to grow around us, a breeze to stroke my face. The experience of permanence that only a rock would feel, to revel in just being, no more, just being, without nagging doubt, fear or conflict. Instant wholeness in a bottle.

A love affair began, a marriage of an existential metabolism and a substance, a delirium of belonging, being understood, coming home, being seen. The world was complete now I was in the arms of my beloved.


Addiction is a love affair with an imaginary friend: a secret lover whom no one else can see or understand. The trouble is that as the addiction develops, your imaginary friend changes shape and disappears into the dark forest of sensory delight. The harder you look for him, the darker the forest, the more difficult it is to find him. You may see him intermittently, as he darts through the trees, but before you can stop yourself you are in the self-regarding, auto-destructive drama of living addiction.

You know it is addiction when something compels you to keep returning to an experience that seems to meet your inner pain, but in fact only compounds it. Like a black hole, the affair sucks all pain into its vortex, metamorphosing it into the very pain of addiction. And the addict’s mind says this pain is unbearable, that he must have more stuff, more drug. And the more he takes, the worse the pain. And so he enters the spiral repetition that is hell.


Everything I want to write I already know. In the British tradition, I improvise, like a gentleman: I write what I discover as I discover what I will write. Film of myself making the movie is part of the movie. I am not going to find any truths outside except in the watching and must bring the longueurs of Monday mornings into the picture. But these truths must be mined inside. I need my gazebo to look out on the passing show. I also sometimes imagine I need financial security, to know there will be a buck of some sort, to make sense of what I see. The lack of panic. I am addicted to the lack of panic.


A year after the stoned stone experience, I was a beatnik, a poet, a cultural revolutionary, reading – wonderful irony – Moral Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, as philosophy was then called. An American blues guitarist I had met in Greece that summer, turned up with some ‘goodies’.

“Hi William,” he said as he came in the door. “How’s it going?”

“Oh fine, fine,” I replied nervously, having no idea where we were heading. “Hey, come in and sit down, man.”

“Yeah, right man. Hey, is all this stuff yours? I mean, do you get to have two whole rooms to yourself? Is that right? That’s too much, man.”

“Yeah, that’s right.” And we flannelled on like that for some time. He offered me some of that hash and opium stuff and I rolled a joint. It had the same power that I remembered. I put on some Eric Dolphy: his bass clarinet laying down a spiky, gruff commentary. A good time of appreciating each other’s company in increasingly stoned silence.

“Bill, what do you feel about H, you know, heroin?” He blurted out as though he’d been working out a way to ask. And why couldn’t he use my full name? I am not Bill.

I had always said that anyone who touches that stuff must be mad. Well, I thought I had said it. It was obvious, wasn’t it, that that was real self-abuse. Anyway, I, for one, had no intention of getting hooked. He was only asking out of something to say, wasn’t he?

“I really don’t know. I mean, it must be an awful drag to get hooked, to need the stuff every day. I think that people who get hooked only have themselves to blame. Such an idiotic thing to do.”

“Don’t know so much, takes weeks to get hooked.” I should have known; he is a junky. “Yeah, you’ve got to use it everyday for weeks before it gets you hooked. Look, I’m asking, because I happen to have some here. Would you like to try a real small dose? Can’t hurt you. No way is it going to get you hooked.”

“Well…. I don’t know,” I prevaricated. The phial he’d just put on the table had his name on the pharmacist’s label. How come he’d written that he was just back from Greece, when he’d obviously been back long enough to get himself registered. Why had he lied to me? But, on the other hand, did it matter? He had it all there on my table: the tiny pills of heroin, the syringe in its box and some needles in their foil. Just one tiny dose couldn’t turn me into a raving addict, not just like that, not one minute dose. And I would know what it was like. I would be able to tell people how dangerous it was.

“Well, OK then, just as an experiment, but only a small one, a really small one.” His face took on a serious purpose as he went to the sink in the bedroom and brought back a glass of water.

“Yeah, just a really tiny one. How do you, well, go about it?” The anticipation became granular in the endings of my nerves, not unlike that before sex.

He showed me how to wrap the belt round my arm, just above the elbow, keeping it tight against my knee. My veins quickly swelled up. He took the syringe from me and pressed the sharp point of the needle, the shiny, tapered, metal point, against one of the veins and slowly pierced the skin.

At first, the vein retreated, but with an almost audible click, such was our concentration, it soon penetrated the wall of the vein. All four of our eyes were focused on the tiny spot where the metal shaft of the needle entered my arm. I held my lower lip behind my teeth, he screwed up his brow in concentration.

“That’s it. We’ve got it. Let go the belt. Wish I had veins like this.” I lifted my arm from my knee to release the belt. He pulled the plunger a short way out of the syringe. A cloud of crimson swelled up into the colourless liquid.

“Here, you do it. Much better you do it.” I pushed the plunger halfway and not more than twenty seconds later there was a flash, the taste so much in my root, my basis, my matrix that it could have been my bones that were buzzing. I played with it: pushing and pulling the plunger to watch the crimson liquid rush to mix with the heroin essence. It was a good five minutes before I’d emptied the syringe.

I was floating, suspended from the world. My body and its functions very distant. Before long I developed another symptom common to those under the effect of junk, an incessant itch just beneath the skin as though my blood were the agent, but that didn’t matter either. I was borne up from an unloving world on welcoming, fluid dreams that I could control.


Addiction happens to selves: no self, no addiction. Before the reformation there were no addicts, because that’s when the autonomous self sprang into life. And it is the self that ‘has’ addiction; indeed it was invented because this new self needed some validation, as I shall explain.

The reformation told us that we could, and should, have a direct relationship with God – the Church no longer ruled every aspect of our lives; we did. We had to be good all on our own, and demonstrate our goodness. The romantics instilled this new self with heroism. Freud told us it was driven by dark unseen forces. Psychotherapy, consumerism and post-modern democracy showed us it had needs, rights and preferences.

The end result is a society populated by billions of autonomous beings driving the lives they think they own down the motorway of circumstance.

Many-wheeled juggernauts (from the Sanskrit, jagannatha, ‘lord of the world’) thundering along their circumstance highways, in control at all times, because this is to be good, and we need to be good because this is to be loved by God and your fellow juggernauts. And love is what we crave. Losing control, as in ‘my life is out of control’, is a negation of the new self’s purpose. This is bad. This is depressing. This is weakness.

The brave new world of the self says it’s a good thing to ‘unwind’, to render your self temporarily out of control with alcohol, ecstasy or other changers of consciousness. By some strange magic, this emphasises how ‘in control’ we are the rest of time. Enjoyment is out of control; business is in control. The juggernaut that knows how to keep its out-of-control interludes temporary is deemed to be a successful, and therefore a good juggernaut. The one that can’t draw that boundary, and crashes across all three lanes of the motorway is deemed unsuccessful, a bad juggernaut.


My addiction had begun. I was transfixed. It was inevitable that I have another fix of heroin. In hindsight. The love affair started immediately. Heroin met my imbalance, my depth of anger and wretchedness, offering to put a warm coat round its shoulders and mop its brow. The ideas of the ‘addictive personality’ and of the ‘addiction gene’ are compelling propositions in such circumstances, but they are still cogs in the mythology machine.

The puzzlement as to why I got hooked and not my peers remains – we were exposed to exactly the same cultural, environmental and revolutionary inputs. I say it was my pain, my particular and unresolved pain, what done it – it was met by the magic of opium and then heroin. Others would say it was my addictive personality or even my addiction gene that marked me out. It is a question of style and responsibility. My pain is something that can be looked at, understood, changed. Of the mind, it is a close relation of mood, a mystical object. It is not what it presents itself as. Whereas addictive personality and addiction gene both have a gloss of science and objectivity to them, such that you have no responsibility for them and no chance of changing the fundamentals.

“Sorry guv, but I got the thieving gene. I gotta thieve at least once a week.”

“It’s not the stuff, it’s the style that stupefies,” wrote John Wisdom, my Moral Sciences professor at Cambridge.


If the goodness of the good self is demonstrated in its being controlled, then the badness of the bad self manifests when it is out of control, and you can’t get more out of control than addiction. Society needs addiction and the idea of evil drugs to keep its understanding of itself intact, just as the medieval Church exorcised the devil from heretics to maintain its power. Medicine detects the symptoms of addiction and exorcises its evil, just as the priests and torturers of the Inquisition detected the symptoms of the devil in those it diagnosed as heretics.

So persuasive is this myth that it is reality that addicts comply with and act it out, just as the medieval heretic acted out his possession by the devil. They are self-fulfilling myths. Addicts become expert at being addicts: they behave and think according to the social constructs that determine what addicts are. They are scapegoats, taking on the poison of their families and communities.


Despite the way we use the word ‘drug’ to mean ‘habit-forming substance’, there is not, and cannot be, any substance or activity that has addictiveness built into its marrow. What is addictive is our response to the sensations we get, the experience arising from the ingestion of substances or the participation in activities.

The problem is always us. Our private experience, inside, determines truth. When the world does not give us the experience of solace we want, we perpetuate the collective hunch we call reality by eating some of it. We get fat. We get indigestion. We cannot stop eating. The solution is always us. Not it. Not chemicals. Not money. Us. Inside. And a confusion of inner and outer.


It turns out that Frank, the taught, articulate guy at Broadway Lodge, always keen to voice other members of the group’s difficulties and denials, but not so good at his own, it turns out he is not and has never been an actor. His acting was good enough to fool me, though. I’d gone back again and had been invited to ‘do a share’ to the assembled secondary care clients.

“You might want to tread carefully about not going to meetings,” the counsellor held my elbow, watching the orthodoxies, before we went in, “these guys are in a delicate state.” After introducing me to the people, he left me on my own, to share.

I was as honest as I knew how about the process of my last twenty seven years, without making too much of my AA denial. I was Francis Drake returning from his discovery of San Francisco, of where it would be, to tell his future crews how natives would say: “missing you already” when you parted company. My audience couldn’t imagine life as adults, sans comfort blankets, with friends and relationships that worked.

Frank told me his story. His first years were spent in Catholic Belfast, but when still very young his mother and stepfather moved to London, sarf Lunnun where he acquired his savvy and accent. His stepfather didn’t talk to him and would slap him about a bit. He would take him to the Irish pub so he could drink the heads of the men’s Guinnesses.

“Were you forced to do this?” I thought it sounded like a strange kind of child abuse, but no.

“Nar, I loved it. Well, not the taste, mind. But going round the glasses drinking the heads like. Loved it.”

At the age of ten, his mother decided she should take him back to Belfast. His step dad had left and the new bloke, very strict, but a good man, wanted him back where he belonged.

“It was a nuclear explosion,” said Frank. “Hated it. The way I spoke. They made fun of me. Always on the outside. Never went to school.”

He always had a pain. At fifteen he ran away back to London and developed a life of ducking and diving around Archway. There was Tracy. He first met her when he was getting into the ecstacy rave scene. She supplied him. This was it. He was good looking and could know his purpose raving forever with his Tracy. Her family had bought her a hairdressers.

So it went until he got to Broadway: a life of ducking, diving, living on the street, avoiding prison by the proverbial skin, but also knowing this was not it. There was no acting, but he had started studying ancient Greek history. He didn’t know what he was going to do, had not a clue, when he got out.

Frank was mildly surprised I had been taken in by his acting scam. Chuffed really.


An entire lifetime of and in addiction is not uncommon. Maybe it’s how we all are. The only difference is that Frank has been a professional addict – it has been his entire adult life. The opposite of addiction would seem to be freedom. And that’s the problem! Fear of freedom is why we retreat into addiction, into eating the world. Dubya Bush is fond of describing his countrymen as ‘freedom loving people’. But freedom is not the paradise we imagine it to be. As Franz Kafka said, “You are free, and that is why you are lost.”


A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.
(Life in an advertising slogan)

You could say the opposite of addiction is work, rest and play. You could. The business of busy-ness. But Frank had it refined. He did away with all the unnecessary trappings; pared it down to the professional, one-pointed pursuit of addiction in itself and of itself. Just enough thieving to keep him in chemicals. His pain, despair and cynicism were such. No, the opposite of addiction is mysticism: the actualisation of the purpose of life.


I can fully see that the Rowe/Breggin[1] view is challenging, difficult and upsetting. [I just wrote in an email to friends who are the parents of a sufferer from manic depression.] My addiction behaviour – me doing addict things despite the very obvious folly and death of it – was a defence against owning unacceptable knowledge: that I wasn’t loved, that I didn’t therefore exist, that I could have been someone else, that I was pointless. These items of understanding were worse, more frightening than death. The ‘mania’ of a heroin high was so much better and damn the consequences, which included the rolling up of all pain into the pain of addiction, so it still couldn’t be seen.

What wouldn’t we do to avoid execution? Existential angst can be more catastrophic than execution. It must be avoided at all costs.

Psychiatry has only chemistry to offer. Chemistry has failed. As Dorothy says, lithium et al, may calm the manias, but the depression will persist until death. Just because biopsychiatry, medical science’s only offering with regard to manic depression, says that it is chemical does not mean this is how it is. Science has a history of as many wrong turnings as it has right (flat earth, phlogiston, witch hunts, lobotomy, for a small start). This modern Western society of autonomous selves needs its policemen and has appointed psychiatrists as their labellers and controllers of awkward persons.

You say: “mania is a defence mechanism against feeling terribly bad about something or some things and that the issue can be approached psychologically (albeit, Dorothy admits in the case of manic depressives, with great difficulty).” I don’t think that’s quite right: it is a defence against totally unacceptable, as they seem, facts. It’s not that I feel sad about my mother not loving me properly, but that the FACT that she did NOT love me had an explosive, corrosive and devastating power. Whether she did or not.

We all fail as parents. “They fuck you up, do your mum and dad…” We fail as children. These failures leave their scars. Some adopt radical defences (addiction, mania) against the horror of these failures; others manage to compromise, adapt and adjust (my sisters, for instance – the signs of their compromise are clear to me).

The radical defences have two possible outcomes: 1) the symptoms get treated as reality and the sufferer lives his life as one who is the symptoms: addict, alcoholic, manic depressive, or 2) the symptoms are discovered to be a) unacceptable and b) an opportunity for change.

“I don’t need to be an addict/manic. I can change. The addiction/mania/depression does not do what it is meant to do.”

Certainly it is a huge responsibility [looking after your son], the hugest. But is the pumping of chemical coshes into the situation a responsible way forward? The fear in the sufferer generates fear in all those around him. It’s meant to. That’s what mania is ‘for’. The demand is for love and attention. But the result is fear – how counterproductive! The cliché, ‘it’s all in the mind’ is true. Not the brain, but the mind. We’re scared shitless by our creations, but it is nothing other than the mind none the less. We invest these mental monsters with hyper-reality and search for traces of their existence in our genes, urine and brain scans, but they have no substance. That is not to say they don’t threaten and hurt and confuse, but the effects of these monsters can be handled by learning the basic emotional alphabet that some people learn in infancy, childhood and adolescence and others don’t. We hate our parents and we love them. We have uncontrollable anger towards them and that, we believe, is not good, or right… etc.

[1] He and I had been to visit Dorothy Rowe, the psychologist and author the day before, about a possible documentary project. An updated version of her Beyond Fear was just about to be published. Peter Breggin wrote Toxic Psychiatry about the damage caused by that profession.

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