GUEST POST: Writing About Drugs in the 60s by WILLIAM SHAW

William-Shaw-©-Ellen-Shaw-600x600-480x480 Name: WILLIAM SHAW

Author of: A SONG FROM DEAD LIPS (2013)
                 A HOUSE OF KNIVES (2014)

On the web:

On Twitter: @william1shaw

Photograph © Ellen Shaw  

When you write a book about recent history, what’s important is the difference between then and now.

There are the blindingly obvious differences. Want to set a TV drama any time in the post-war period? Simple. Make the cast smoke loads and loads of fags.

Others deserve a little more thought, though. Like the drugs.

We imagine, for instance, the sixties were awash with pot and purple hearts. Everybody must get stoned, sang Bob Dylan, so all the hippies were stoned, right? That’s where it gets murkier. Maybe that’s because, as the old saw goes, that if you can remember the sixties you can’t have actually been there.

(With that in mind, I was once commissioned by Bloomsbury to write a book about Ibiza during the Summer of Love and had to give up because beyond saying, “Yeah, it was great,” nobody seemed to be able to put their finger on what had actually happened.)

But actually, the bigger problem with trying to figure out what the sixties were like is that you have to dig through a lot of that kind of myth first before you get to what it was really like.

There was a lot of drugs hysteria, certainly. In Scotland Yard the newly formed Drug Squad was embarking on a series of highly publicised headline-grabbing raids. A Song from Dead Lips features the notorious John Lennon and Yoko Ono bust of 1968. Staying in Ringo Starr’s flat in Montagu Square, John and Yoko were raided by the infamous bent copper Norman “Nobby” Pilcher. (In the early 70s, the Drug Squad would be exposed as notoriously corrupt, taking bribes from dealers and even supplying dealers with drugs, but that was still years away.)

In the second book, A House of Knives, there’s another well-known police raid lurking in the background. One of the main characters in the book is the great 1960s art dealer Robert Fraser; it was Robert Fraser who persuaded The Beatles first to commission Peter Blake to create the Sergeant Pepper sleeve and then Peter Saville to design the so-called White Album. He’s a tragic figure.

In 1967, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull and several others had decamped to Richards’ Sussex mansion, Redlands, to embark on a weekend experimenting with LSD, the mind-expanding new must-do drug that The Beatles had first taken in 1966 in California. These were innocent days. Drugs were more than just recreational. This was a kind of quest. The Californian drug guru Dr Timothy Leary had pointed out that an acid trip appeared very like the hallucinatory states of mind outlined in the Buddhist spiritual manual the Tibetan Book of the Dead; LSD was suddenly being touted as a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment.

That weekend, when police raided Redlands, they found cannabis, amphetamines and a small amount of heroin belonging to Robert Fraser, who was already an addict and who was at the epidemiological centre of what became a life-sucking heroin dependency that would haunt the Rolling Stones and their hangers on for years. (Amazingly, the police missed opening a briefcase that was apparently stuffed with LSD, the main drug of choice for the Redlands visitors.)

The brouhaha around the case was immense. Times editor William Rees-Mogg, wrote his famous “Who Breaks A Butterfly on a Wheel” editorial, pleading for leniency for the defendants. But while the stars of the day, Keith Richard and Mick Jagger were famously acquitted, Robert Fraser was not so lucky and was sent to prison. As a character in A House of Knives, the brilliant, but heavily addicted Fraser is recovering from his spell in Wormwood Scrubs.

But the bigger truth is that though drugs were grabbing headlines in the 60s, they had still barely arrived. In 1964 there were only 328 known heroin addicts in the UK. But the idea of what drugs were for was changing fast.

In the first half of the 20th century, drug addicts were typically middle-aged and middle class and had become drug users during treatment for a medical condition. By the second half of the sixties, drugs had transformed into a cultural phenomenon, a source of entertainment and supposed enlightenment. As a result the numbers of users started to grow rapidly. But remarkably, despite all the headlines, the number of users was minute compared to today. Even by the end of the 60s that figure for the number of heroin addicts was still in the low thousands. Compare that with a quarter of a million or so users today.

The drugs hysteria of the 60s was primarily a cultural panic. The legacy of crime and ruined lives was yet to raise its uglier head. While researching A House of Knives, I talked to Caroline Coon, who’s best known as a music journalist, photographer and one-time manager of The Clash, but also an expert on drug culture. In the late sixties she founded an organisation called Release which counselled hippies arrested by the likes of “Nobby” Pilcher. She argues that the period of 1967-69 represents the period in which we stopped treating drug abuse as a medical problem and started treating it as an issue of criminality.

She’s got a point. In Breen and Tozer’s Britain, the Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan was busy drawing up laws that would criminalise drug users culminating in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. In America Nixon was starting to call drugs “public enemy number one”. All you needed was a few strict laws and you could stamp this drugs menace out once and for all. Thirty years hindsight shows that approach was doomed form the start.

Far from being a decade awash with drugs, the truth is that in 1968-9, few people in Britain had actually taken any at all yet. Those that had took them in the hope that drugs could “set them free”. Which is exactly what Breen’s generation was so afraid of.

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