Tuesday, July 03, 2012

A snow job by Ian Walker (New Society 16 October 1980)

Think of all the great music that's been made under the influence of (some) drugs. Now subtract from that all the self-indulgent wankish follow ups albums that have been made whilst your once favourite group were nose-deep in Bolivian marching powder. Gutting, isn't it?
A snow job 

"Never buy coke off a man with no nose." Joe chuckles at this one-liner delivered from the stage at the Alternative Cabaret in the backroom of the Pegasus, in north London. He started snorting cocaine about two years ago, when it cost £30 a gram. Now it's around £60 and he's heard of it going up to £80 soon. "You can work and still feel OK on it," says Joe, a sociologist, aged 29, who gets through about a gram a month. "It's a soft drug as far as I'm concerned."

This alkaloid cocaine was first isolated from the coca leaf, chewed by South American Indians since at least the 6th century, in 1857. Freud commended its therapeutic value in 1884, the year cocaine was introduced into ophthalmology as a local anaesthetic. Dr Conan Doyle, an eye specialist, began placing references to Sherlock Holmes's cocaine habit as early as 1886. James Joyce was taking cocaine as a pain reliever when he revised the final chapter of Ulysses in July 1921. A chic drug in the 1920s and 1930s, the white powder is once again back in fashion. What's the attraction?

"You're not looking for an alternative state of consciousness," replies Joe. "It makes things clear and it puts you in a good mood, but without the depressive effects of dope or amphetamines. And whereas with alcohol you're going to become more blurred in your speech and thought, with coke you become clearer. I like that sense of control. But it won't give you  a great uplift in itself. You can't be in some state of depression and expect to get out of it. It doesn't work with snow (cocaine)."

Joe also admits to enjoying the ritual: taking the cocaine out the fridge, spending about five minutes chopping it up with a razor blade on a small mirror to make it very fine, arranging it into neat lines and then snorting, usually through a biro tube, but sometimes through a plastic straw. A rolled-up pound note will also do the trick.

"After it goes up it takes about five minutes before you can feel it trickling down the back of your throat and your tongue starts licking a bit. But then all that goes as it starts going through the body and hits the brain."

Too expensive to be an opium of the people, cocaine is not the kind of pleasure to share with strangers, even for a marxist like Joe. "Just one line can be a fiver," he says. "It's not like buying a round of drinks or passing a joint around." Cocaine, like heroin, is a class A drug, and pushing or possessing it carries stiff sentences.

"Not many people on the left are into it." Joe smiles. "Unacceptable decadence. It's like old-hat politics, you know, an unnecessary deviation. But that seems to have eased a bit recently, so you can be a part-time revolutionary as well as a full-time one, and mix a bit of hedonism in with it." No one still clings to the 1960s desire for drugs and politics to coalesce in some subversive delight. Elitist, anti-social, non-hallucinogenic, coke is the perfect drug for the pessimistic no-illusions 1980s.

Clean and white, it gets you high and leaves you sane for the working week. Bob Nightingale, on the Release switchboard, says they never get any calls from people messed up on cocaine. "The clinics don't consider coke addiction a problem," he says. Not many people earn enough to take an overdose of cocaine.

An ex-cocaine dealer, Alan, says he used to earn on average £600 a week. He has recently returned from a nine-month tour of South America. "I used coke for the high altitudes, up in the Andes. I climbed to 5,600 metres without oxygen on coke," he says, rolling some Lebanese into a post-breakfast joint. His experience in the Andes is supported by the evidence of Sir Robert Christison, the78 year old President of the British Medical Association who, in 1876, claimed that coca-leaf chewing enabled him to take 16 mile walks and climb mountains. No trouble.

Alan paid between five and six dollars a gram for cocaine in Bolivia, one of the main exporters, along with Columbia, Peru and Brazil in the coke police state belt. Those who do the actual importing, he says, are anything from air stewardesses to hippies returning from holiday. The stuff sold in Britain is anything from 10 to 50 per cent pure. "It's cut with anything, procaine, or any chemical synthesis, sulphates or other stimulants, even down to chalk powder and such things," he says. "If it's cut with amphetamines, which is quite common, it's no good. You get an instant speed rush and then a gradual decline into a soporific depression."

What sort of people were his customers?

"Artists, creative people, or anyone very into their work. managing directors. Anyone who wanted to maintain a certain level of activity for long periods . . . Mostly they were in their late 20s, although I had one 55 year old explorer. And my grandfather, he takes coke occasionally. He's an Austrian Alpinist."

Anna, an Argentinian exile, who is also sitting round this breakfast table, interrupts. "I think it's the most decadent drug going," she says. "It's just sort of nice, nothing special. And you pay all this money for this tiny pleasure."

"The price is inflated because of the risk," replies Alan. "It's always been a class A drug in the eyes of the law." He once shared a train compartment with three drugs squad cops. He chatted to them about their work. He had three ounces of cocaine on him at the time. Was it close escapes like that which made him give up dealing? "It just seemed the time to stop," he says, slowly. "Things were coming down. People around me were getting busted. Time to call a halt." So dealing isn't addictive? "No. Only to a young egoist who finds himself with lots of friends all of a sudden." Alan, who is 27, painstakingly prepares the third joint. He didn't bring any cocaine with him.

No one is too sure how or why this or that powder or liquid (why do the fashion conscious swig Pils?) becomes a thing to do. One theory is that the widespread availability a few years ago of amphetamine sulphate, a form of speed which is snorted, created the taste for white powders. That is anyway how Richard, a 29 year old magazine designer, first developed his nose for a buzz, in 1975. "I was working on this magazine three years ago and cocaine was around then," he says. "Used to go clubbing and you'd be there, ogling ladies. Sometimes you were with a lady and sometimes you weren't. If you weren't, the idea was to get some Charlie (cocaine)."

He tells me the white powder is everywhere in his line of work. "All these people are wired all the time, wired at work, got to keep their front up. Been trying all day to be Mr Big. Then you think, this is a bit silly. Have a nice meal, nice time, nice snort. Wake up next morning and feel good." Richard thinks cocaine dissolves all his aggression, even when he's in his car.

"Drive home at night after the pubs have shut and the roads are full of loonies. The other guy sitting in the other car, he's revving up to pull away from you at the lights. Then he goes and you don't. He hates you next lights. But you don't care. You don't always want competition. Don't want to be like that."

Richard was using up to three or four grams of cocaine a weel at one time. After leaving one job he landed a £7,000 settlement and reckons he spent about £2,000 of that on the drug, which he didn't always consume in the Gents at clubs: "We'd all go round to someone's place. A guy's cooking the food. Nice wine, nice food, like mussels and legs of lamb. Have a good rap, a couple of reefers, a few glasses of wine. You get out of your tree. Then you have a couple of brandies, coffee, real proper stuff. And then, later in the evening, you have some coke. It's like an After Eight . . .  But you don't do that all the time. Other times just take the odd reefer, watch telly, get through the night."

Unlike any of the other coke users I talked to, Richard had for a short while the time and the money to go over the top, to punish his brain too hard. "You've smoked a few reefers, maybe had a few (magic) mushrooms in a quiche, had some Charlie. Suddenly you open your eyes and no one's there. It's like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Your eyes feel like ballbearings and you feel there's this extra coating, this film, between your skin and your hair. You think, 'Oh fuck it, I've overdone it.' Don't know whether to go home, take a bus, take a train. You get palpitations. Can't sleep. You know it's crazy."

His descriptions get more manic the more we drink, and the more he tells ne about how it feels to lose complete control, walking to the edge  . . .  but drugs have always had that kind of masochistic appeal. Reject official sanity and, instead, explore the character of madness. When Richard first used drugs in 1968, he was 17, his favourite group was The Doors.

He tell this one story about a friend of his, he says, but I think he experienced it himself. "A mate of mine took two grams to himself one night. His heart started thumping. He was anxious, nervous, depressed. His doctor said, 'It's your own stupid fault. Just drink Perrier water till you feel OK.' He spent £100 in one evening alone. His eyes were staring out their sockets."

He draws circles on his glass of beer. "You don't feel physical sickness. It's more anxiety because you brain's working overtime and it's got no material to work on. There's nothing new happening. You start regressing into the past. You can't eat. Your jaw's really sore. Front teeth protrude. Your saliva goes all thin and horrible. You feel you've got a piece of cellophane in your mouth, slightly damp, and you don't know what to do with it."

Heaven then is when it's all over.
16 October 1980

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