On the road with Danny Lyon

A Google search for ‘Danny Lyon’ produces more than eight million results in 0.30 seconds, yet the celebrated American photojournalist and filmmaker is little known in the UK. This superb, quixotic, bare-all memoir ought to change that. Starting in 1962, Lyon not only photographed the heroes of the US civil rights movement as staff photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced ‘snick’), but in a way was one of the heroes himself, risking jail, beatings and abuse. He’s had prizes galore and two solo shows at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2016 he had a major retrospective in San Francisco and at the Whitney; and also a

What do sugar and cocaine have in common?

Stephen Fry is a national treasure whom half the nation can’t stand. He drops his façade of loveability mid-chortle as soon as Brexit is mentioned. He threw a spectacularly pompous Remainer wobbly a few weeks ago and I remember thinking: is he determined to make the people he disdains actively hate him? If so, it’s working. Last weekend Fry was on John Cleese’s GB News chat show, talking about his former cocaine habit and its connection to his adolescent consumption of sugar. He mentioned the sweets in the shape of cigarettes that were sold at his school tuck shop. As he put it: ‘When I was a teenager, I had

Another tragic case involving medical incompetence and cover-up

It was only eight lines into O Brother that I realised I was in the hands of a good writer. John Niven’s landline phone has rung. His partner hands it to him. ‘I take the phone from her as she watches me in the intense, quizzical way we monitor people who are about to receive Very Bad News.’ I can’t recall a writer noticing that before (I presume a few have), but we have noticed it ourselves. And the narrative masterstroke is that now the reader is looking at the page in an intense, quizzical way, for we want to know what the Very Bad News is. The VBN is

An exposé of drug smuggling and terrorism reads like a first-rate thriller

The crucial moment in this vivid exposé of the murky world of transnational crime comes in 2015. Mustafa Badreddine, one of two Lebanese Shia cousins who for three decades had led the deadliest Iranian-linked terrorist network in the Middle East, was finally indicted by a UN special tribunal investigating the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri a decade earlier. After an extraordinary career of mayhem, Badreddine had spent the previous three years leading an elite Hezbollah militia shoring up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But the tide had turned, and in July 2015 Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds force in Syria, secretly flew to Moscow to

A war on drugs? I do hope so

I’m not going to lie, I let out a little chuckle — maybe even a murmur of approval — when I read that the government plans to target middle-class drug users. About time, I thought to myself. For too long the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has focused on the poverty-stricken poppy-growers in far-flung fields, or the desperate ‘mules’ who risk life and liberty to get drugs across borders, or the working-class kids in the UK who get caught up in drug-dealing because they feel they have few other prospects in life. And all the while the privileged people whose narcissistic needs motor this industry, whose selfish desire for a synthetic high is

There’s no such thing as ‘woke coke’

Have you heard about ‘Woke Coke’ – ‘Wokaine’, if you will? Apparently drug dealers are now targeting the WaWs (Woke And Wealthy) with gear at £200 a gram (when I quit six years ago, £70 was the going price) and a promise that your particular little bindel of joy is ‘environmentally friendly’ and ‘ethically sourced’ from ‘well-paid farmers.’  Reading about it this week, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or call the police and report myself for historical crimes against humanity. I don’t regret much in my long, louche life. But if I could go back in time and undo one thing, I’d return to 1985 when I started taking

Get me out of here

‘If your time ain’t come, not even a doctor can kill you’ — so goes the proverb that best echoes the dilemma of an ageing humankind as we glimpse the harrowing vista of decrepitude to come: a panorama that first takes in the custard-stained wingback chairs of a soul-extinguishing care home, then yaws off nauseatingly to a vision of the demented and the drooling as they hobble into that good night. How can you swerve incarceration and indignity when you just won’t die — and, more pertinently, when no one is allowed to kill you? How to be the auteur of your own death when ‘self-euthanasia’ proves so tricky you

Just say yes

Narcos is back on Netflix, set in Mexico this time, with a cool, world-weary, manly voiceover swearily lecturing us at the beginning that if we smoked sensemilla in the 1970s, then we were partly responsible for the bloody, endless drug wars that went on to kill more than half a million people. Oh really? Sensemilla (derived from the Spanish for ‘without seeds’) is the kind of product of human ingenuity and free markets we should be celebrating, not decrying. It’s more compact than bog-standard weed, making it easier for entrepreneurs to ship, thereby increasing their profit margins. It affords a sweeter-tasting hit and a more euphoric high, thereby giving greater

The Mutiny and the bounty

Sullying the glorious sunshine, sand and sea, Miami in the 1940s, when I first ventured there, was already overcrowded, vulgar and exorbitant. It got a lot worse. By the early 1980s, the period to which this sensational criminal history is devoted, it had become the capital of Cubans in exile and America’s most prosperous cocaine entrepot, where the annual murder rate was more than 300. Attempts to impose law and order were handicapped by corrupt police, a corrupt judiciary and corrupt juries. Over many years of intimate investigation of Miami at its nadir, Roben Farzad has succeeded in overcoming the formality of his Ivy League education (Princeton and Harvard) so

A QC’s guide to cocaine

As a defence silk, I come across some surprisingly intelligent drug dealers. Many of them are highly entrepreneurial and driven, and I’m often left wondering what they might have achieved if only they’d chosen a different career. Sharp operators are drawn to the narcotics trade because vast profits can be made in very little time. But then the consequences of failure, especially at the heavyweight end of the market, are rather worse than a tumbling share price. And we all make mistakes. I was recently involved in a case where a criminal mastermind had been jailed for 15 years for heroin importation, but had kept on running his empire from

Wars on drugs

‘Of all civilisation’s occupational categories, that of soldier may be the most conducive to regular drug use.’ The problem with this statement — the first words of this book — is the problem with the book as a whole: it may be correct, and there again it may not be. Even the captionless cover photograph is ambiguous: of an American soldier, in Vietnam perhaps, with a corncob pipe which may or may not contain a banned substance, though we are obviously meant to infer that it does. Then there is the inconclusiveness: ‘One may say that to a lesser or greater degree drugs shaped warfare.’ Yes, one may; but to

Tainted love | 23 March 2016

In 1963, when the bloom was still on the rose, Bob Dylan described Woodstock as a place where ‘we stop the clouds, turn time back and inside out, make the sun turn on and off… the greatest place’. Six years later, he wrote in Chronicles: Volume One, ‘Woodstock had turned into a nightmare, a place of chaos.’ Barney Hoskyns, who lived there in the 1990s, marshals plenty of evidence to support both assessments. This Catskills hamlet has been at various times a blue-collar small town, a bohemian enclave, a tourist trap, a hotbed of creativity, a cauldron of hedonism, a madhouse and ‘a counter-cultural touchstone’. In its heyday it attracted

The gangs of north London

I covered another stabbing the other day, a particularly nasty one this time. An 18-year-old was repeatedly knifed in the stomach and beaten over the head with a baseball bat. Witnesses told me he’d been outside his mum’s tower-block flat in Islington, north London, when he was rushed by a group of about ten or 15 boys. He suffered serious head injuries and multiple stab wounds and was soon in hospital in a medically induced coma. By some miracle, he survived. Who would have committed such a brutal and pointless crime? A source told me police believed the attackers to be from two London gangs: the Hoxton N1 gang, whose

Low life | 31 December 2015

For me, last year started with an appalling whitey outside a pub after swallowing a second ecstasy tablet because I thought the first wasn’t working. I was saved by a young woman yelling ‘Catch me!’ and taking a running jump into my arms — which forced me back to the physical realm — and by being violently sick. The ecstasy came in the form of small white circular unmarked pharmaceutical-grade tablets. The second was passed on to my tongue via the tongue of someone I had met for the first time two minutes before. After that, 2015 was one tablet after another — legal and illegal. I also injected. Once

Marvellous, murderous city

When Stefan Zweig first arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1936, he was overwhelmed not only by the city’s magnificent landscape but also by its ordered architecture and city planning. This encounter he would later describe as being ‘one of the most powerful impressions of my whole life’. In his Brazil: Land of the Future, a book that was an exercise in wish-fulfilment masquerading as travelogue, Zweig believed the country to be the embodiment of ‘future civilisation and peace in our world’. Over 70 years later Brazil held the world’s worst record for homicidal violence: for every ten people killed, one was a Brazilian. Rio, the cidade maravilhosa (marvellous city),

Powder to the people

It’s Notting Hill Carnival this weekend. Two days of skanking, dutty dancing and daggering (the dance, rather than the weapon). No carnival experience would be complete without rum punch and jerk chicken, or for that matter crime, cannabis and cocaine. Drugs are part of the fun at Europe’s biggest street festival. There were 76 drug arrests at the festival last year, and 88 arrests made before the party even started as part of a dawn raid seizing machine-guns and crack. Not that partygoers are about to let a little thing like the law get in the way of their bank holiday. A survey earlier this summer from the European Monitoring

Lord Sewel, you’ve made me proud to be British

The Lord Sewel scandal makes me feel proud to be British. For here, thanks to some glorious John Wilkes-style dirt-digging by the Sun — in your face, Leveson! — we have a proper political scandal. This ain’t no yawn-fest about MPs claiming the cost of a Kit-Kat or accidentally favouriting a gay-porn tweet: sad little pseudo-scandals which in recent years have tainted the good name of ignominy. No, the fall of Sewel is a full-on, drugged-up, peer-and-prostitutes scandal, of the kind Britain used to be pretty good at before the square Blairites and cautious Cameroons took over. The disgracing of Sewel is a reminder of British politics at its saucy

The murderous gangs who run the world

Rosalio Reta was 13 years old when recruited by a Mexican drug cartel. He was given a loyalty test — shoot dead a man tied to a chair — then moved into a nice house in Texas. Soon he was earning $500 a week for stakeouts and odd jobs, but the big money came from slitting the throats of the gang’s enemies, which paid a $50,000 bonus. Four years later he was arrested after 20 murders; his only remorse was over accidentally sparking a massacre that left him fearing his bosses might exact revenge on him. Such bloodstained stories of obscene violence in pursuit of obscene wealth fill the pages

The white-knuckle terror of being driven by a dopehead

‘Hidden menace of the drivers high on drugs,’ says the headline in today’s Daily Mail, revealing that – according to police – six out of 10 motorists are failing a new roadside test that can detect use of cannabis or cocaine. If so, that’s worrying. But not as worrying as actually being driven by someone who’s stoned. Trust me on this. Several times I’ve found myself in California bowling along the freeway at night, trying not to think about the spliff the driver smoked before turning the ignition key. A single puff induces terror in passengers, since all dope seems to be skunk these days and the Californian strain is wickedly strong.

I know I shouldn’t ask this, but is cocaine really that addictive?

Cocaine addiction is a dreadful thing. I’ve seen it so many times: bright, once-pretty people with washed-out grey faces who can’t think about anything else. Children, partners, careers – they can all go hang so long as the restaurant has a loo where you can do a quick line between courses, or you can nip outside to suck on a crack pipe. This how frantic it can get: If anyone has stopped to watch me go to the cash machine and withdraw stacks of bills, several times because of the $200 transaction limit, then head out to an idling van with tinted windows, and return minutes later with bulging pockets, it wouldn’t take much