Wales is facing a US-style opioid crisis

In Europe at the end of the Noughties, the problem drug was krokodil. The semi-synthetic, necrosis-causing alternative to heroin was cheap. My father favoured it so much before his death that he started importing it from eastern Europe into Wales. Across the pond right now, the problem drug is fentanyl, which has made its way into much of the US drug supply. Indeed, it’s become so synonymous with death that many casual users have given up the bag all together (‘I love a line, but I’m not going to die for it,’ one Manhattanite told me recently). More than 75,000 Americans died from synthetic opioids in 2022. And now the

London’s dark underbelly: Caledonian Road, by Andrew O’Hagan, reviewed

‘The Cally’s named after an orphanage for kids from Scotland or some shit. Didn’t we learn that in school?’ So says Big Pharma (real name Devan Swaby), drill rapper from the Cally Active gang – one of the many characters populating Andrew O’Hagan’s vast and riveting Caledonian Road. The novel opens with a 59-strong cast list, representative of contemporary London society. At the heart of this web, spanning aristocracy, gangs and trafficked migrants via an oligarch and the middle-classes, are the celebrity art historian Campbell Flynn and his student and hacker protégé Milo Mangasha. As with the Cally and its links far beyond the capital, so O’Hagan demonstrates that his

The secret to taking ayahuasca

Antioquia, Colombia If you’ve ever wondered what happened to drug lord Pablo Escobar’s enormous cocaine and occasional execution palace, as featured in the Netflix series Narcos, I can tell you. These days – following the violent death of Escobar in 1993 and the consequent escape of his pet hippos from his private zoo – the estate is now a garish, plasticky, hippo-themed children’s waterpark called Hacienda Nápoles. I have just driven past it. I am deep in the Colombian province of Antioquia. Until about six years ago this hilly, jungly, notably remote region – halfway between the capital Bogotá and the once-murderous cartel citadel of Medellin – was strictly off

How Liverpool soon outgrew the Beatles

‘If any journalist asks you about the Beatles because you’re from Liverpool, say you hate them and you don’t listen to that old crap.’ Such was the advice that the DJ Roger Eagle, promoter and founder of the legendary (and there really is no other word for it) Merseyside punk club Eric’s, dispensed to a young Ian Broudie in the late 1970s. Little could either have imagined that almost simultaneously John Lennon, over in New York in the Dakota Building, was busy demo-ing ‘Now and Then’. It was a song which would resurface as the final Beatles single and top the charts some 40-odd years later, aided by a form

Are we any closer to finding a cure for depression?

Some years ago, the Harvard psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg commented that, in the course of his lifetime, his discipline had swung from the brainless psychiatry propounded by psychoanalysts to the mindless psychiatry of those enamoured of biological reductionism and neuroscience.  Camilla Nord, who runs a neuroscience laboratory at Cambridge, is firmly a member of the latter camp. Though in a few places in The Balanced Brain she is driven to concede that social factors seem to play a role in mental health or mental distress, she immediately insists that ‘the process by which social factors are able to cause mental illness is entirely biological’. With the zeal of a true believer,

How many Britons smoke?

Puffed up Just 12.9% of Britons smoke cigarettes, figures out this week showed – the lowest on record. How does the UK compare? – The highest smoking rate is in Nauru (48.5%), the lowest is in Ghana (3.5%). – 24.5% of people in France are daily smokers compared with 11.5% in the US. – In Germany, the overall smoking rate is 34%, an increase from 26.5% in March 2020. For young Germans aged between 14 and 17, this has almost doubled between 2021 and last year, from 8.7% to 15.9%. – Maybe it’s the price of a pack. The average cost of 20 cigarettes in the UK hit £14.47 after

A trip down Ronnie Lane: from child busker to international star

Thirty years ago, I worked for a while in a shop in Soho selling vintage newspapers and magazines. The holy grail for some customers might be the 1955 Playboy featuring Bettie Page or the 1976 Daily Mirror with the Sex Pistols’ ‘Filth & the Fury’ headline. But those of a born-again Mod persuasion were usually looking for 1960s publications with the Small Faces on the cover – preferably the August 1966 copy of the teenage music and fashion bible Rave, showing Ronnie Lane and Steve Marriott from that most style-conscious of bands, complete with a double-page poster of the group inside. Now, nearly six decades after their formation, there is,

The Teutonic goddess who ‘created’ the Rolling Stones

Feminism? Pfft! Marianne Faithfull practically spat the word at me when I interviewed her in 2017. Then she rowed back, conceding that she’d spent most of her life ‘standing up for women’s rights… I’ve had to.’ Pallenberg humilated, seduced, empowered, educated, bonded and divided the band as the whim took her In chronic pain with arthritis, she’d struggled into a comfy chair while directing me to squat on the mucky floor at her feet. Who could blame her? From the moment the record producer and impresario Andrew Loog Oldham first packaged her as a teenage ‘angel with big tits’, the media had refused to treat her with respect. She’d been

My life as a meth addict

I’ve spent most of my adult life addicted to amphetamines, including crystal meth. I first tried speed when I was 17 at a techno party while visiting Germany. I had been struggling with my A-levels and always found school hard because I was constantly exhausted, sleeping for 12 hours a day and still falling asleep during lessons. I was depressed and sometimes felt like I didn’t want to live any more. Speed changed all that. For the first time ever, I was motivated, I could concentrate and I felt that I could deal with life. I went from failing school to becoming a straight-A student, and I honestly don’t think

The dark side of laughing gas

In his memoir Spare, Prince Harry has revealed he ‘enhanced his calm’ during the birth of his son Archie in 2019 by taking ‘several slow, penetrating hits’ of the canister of laughing gas in his wife Meghan’s hospital room. He described how when a nurse returned and tried to give Meghan a dose for pain relief, there was none left: ‘I could see the thought slowly dawning. Gracious, the husband’s had it all. “Sorry,” I said meekly.’ He is far from alone in enjoying the high that comes from laughing gas. Also known as nitrous oxide, it has become the second most popular drug (behind cannabis) among 16- to 24-year-olds, according to

A shaggy drug story: Industry of Magic & Light, by David Keenan, reviewed

The Scottish writer David Keenan has published five novels in five years: This is Memorial Device (2017), For the Good Times (2019), Xstabeth (2020), last year’s magnum opus Monument Maker and now Industry of Magic & Light. At a comparatively modest 250 pages (Monument Maker weighed in at more than 800), it is practically a novella, or perhaps the sort of pamphlet one might once have picked up in a ‘head shop’ such as Compendium Books in Camden. The last book of Keenan’s I reviewed here I described as ‘either a cycle of novels or one vast fictional gallimaufry’ – to which I now approvingly add a third category. Industry

Scots are being sacrificed to a failed drug policy

The Scottish government’s attempts to spin the latest drugs deaths statistics are a grim response to a total failure of public policy, not to mention revealing of the attitudes of those responsible. While admitting the ongoing problem was ‘unacceptable’, the Scottish government could be found ‘welcoming an end to seven annual increases in drugs deaths’ in the opening line of its press release. Last year, 1,330 people died as a result of drug misuse in Scotland, nine fewer than in 2020. It was the first time in seven years that the number of fatalities did not increase overall, but it also marked the second-highest annual death rate since records began. Deaths

My brief career as a marijuana farmer

The latest heatwave reminded me of my brief career as a marijuana farmer. This wasn’t in the summer of 1976, when I was 13, but three years later, by which time my family had moved to Devon. My father had been commissioned to write the biography of Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, the founders of Dartington Hall, a utopian community in South Devon, and wanted to be nearer the archives and the couples’ friends and colleagues whom he was planning to interview. Having been brought up in London, I was terrifically snobbish about how behind the times the local teenagers were – still wearing flares and listening to Status Quo, gawd

Bisexuality was the Bloomsbury norm

It’s been a century since the heyday of the Bloomsbury group, and now Nino Strachey, a descendant of one of the key families, has written a superb, sparky and reflective book charting the doings of the younger members of the artistic and intellectual coterie. While it is easy to identify Old Bloomsbury – familiar names include Lytton and James Strachey, Duncan Grant, David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and Desmond and Molly MacCarthy – naming the younger ‘Bloomsberries’ is a slippery task. Do we count Dora Carrington, who loved Lytton to distraction, and after his death found she

Too close to home: Nonfiction, by Julie Myerson, reviewed

Julie Myerson has, somewhat confusingly, written a novel called Nonfiction. The confusion of course is the point, because this is her squarest attempt so far at auto-biographical fiction. The French author Serge Doubrovsky is widely credited with writing the first ‘autofiction’ when he published Fils in 1977. Autobiographical novels have proliferated ever since, notably by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk and Edward St Aubyn. Hari Kunzru, when asked to discuss similarities between himself and his protagonist in Red Pill (2020), said: ‘It was just the simplest solution to a set of problems to give him the furniture of my biography.’ Myerson’s narrator is a novelist whose father dies by suicide

Is this the answer to Scotland’s drug death epidemic?

Scotland could pioneer a scheme to cut drug deaths by allowing users to consume narcotics under supervision and with medical assistance on hand. The establishment of overdose prevention centres (OPCs) is proposed in a consultation launched yesterday by Labour MSP Paul Sweeney, who believes his Bill will ‘implement changes that will save lives’. Sweeney, a former Royal Regiment of Scotland reservist, previously volunteered in an unofficial safe injection van in Glasgow and has told the Scottish parliament that he saw people saved from overdose. These centres would take what volunteers have already done and give it a legal framework. Although these centres are already used in parts of the US

The treatment of mental illness continues to be a scandal

There is much more desperation in this searching and enlightening history than there are remedies. Andrew Scull is a distinguished sociologist and scholar of psychiatry. He comes across as wise, sanguine and unsurprised by his findings in this survey of how American – for which also read British – psychiatry has understood and treated the insane, distressed and traumatised from 1820 to the present. His book, however, will leave readers who are unfamiliar with the story horrified and aghast. Since my own breakdown and sectioning in early 2019 I have been working with sufferers, social workers and psychiatrists on improving the understanding and treatment of mental distress. Members of the

Will the bad luck of the Philippines ever turn?

The Philippines is the odd man out in Asia, a predominantly Catholic country colonised first by Spain, then the United States. An archipelago with more than 2,000 inhabited islands on the cusp of the Indian and Pacific oceans, its strategic location is obvious. Yet it receives scant coverage in the British media beyond its natural disasters, the flamboyance of its leaders, whether Imelda Marcos or Rodrigo Duterte, and its long-running Marxist and Muslim insurrections. On a more mundane level, our encounter with its people will most likely be through the care they provide within the NHS. Philip Bowring, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, for many years

Tina: the drug devastating the gay community

Something is ravaging through the gay community, leaving death and misery in its wake, yet few are willing to talk about it. If I’d written that sentence a generation ago, I’d have been referring to the Aids crisis. But this time the enemy isn’t a virus, but a substance called ‘tina’ or ‘ice’. It is a methamphetamine – a stimulant drug that is either smoked or injected into the veins. Tina is also called crystal meth, made famous by the Netflix series Breaking Bad. It causes a rapid increase in dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline, which leads to euphoria, alertness, energy and self-confidence. It also triggers an almost insatiable increase in

Why we drink

‘I like to have a martini,/ Two at the very most./ After three I’m under the table,/ After four I’m under my host.’ I never fully appreciated the brilliance of that spurious quote of Dorothy Parker until I visited Dukes Bar in Mayfair. It used to be the case – it probably still is – that you may order no more than two martinis there owing to their potency. Had she not preferred whisky to gin, Parker might well have banged her fists on that table for a third. After one-and-a-half before dinner, however, this critic would be more inclined to dance on it. Humans may respond to drink in