BOOK REVIEW / Sex and drugs and woman's role: Dope girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground - Marek Kohn: Lawrence & Wishart, pounds 11.95

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The Independent Culture
ON THE night of 27 November 1918, 16 days after the end of the Great War, the curtain fell on 22-year-old Billie Carleton's theatrical career. After playing in a lightweight confection with a patriotic theme, called Freedom of the Seas, she sent her

maid for a gold box from her dressing table at home, had dinner with the actress Fay Compton and attended a Victory Ball at the Albert Hall at which a pageant of the Allies represented symbolically was led by Lady Diana Manners as Britannia. Later that night, Duff Cooper was to make a formal request to Lady Diana's mother for her daughter's hand. Billie Carleton's glittering future had only a few more hours to run. She went off with Fay Compton and a party of friends, held court in her bedroom and the next day was dead, apparently of a cocaine overdose.

The drug connection was traced back to Limehouse, and the Chinese community, who were widely believed to entice women into slavery by addicting them to opium and other opiate-derived drugs. For another 40 years, the Billie Carleton case was to represent, in the popular imagination, the inextricable links between dope, young girls and men of another race, a nexus that would not fade until the Sixties. The scale of the moral panic that ensued is traced in Marek Kohn's elegant and compelling

narrative of the deep-seated cultural obsessions in the years that were the dawn of modernity.

Kohn reveals that while there was, during the First World War, a genuine drug and club underground operating in London where the races and the classes met and freely mixed, the demonisation of drugs really represented an anxiety about women's new freedoms. Dope bore the blame for the dissolution of the stereotype of the Victorian women. If girls sought autonomy and emancipation, it was argued, it could only be because, frail and impressionable as they were, they had been led astray by sinister foreign forces.

Although a great deal of work has been done on the Greenwich Village bohemia of the war years and their aftermath, the British flapper seems to have been born, cropped and leggy, on 1 January 1920. In fact the image of the brilliant, sexually sophisticated, essentially marginal new woman was already being formed during the war years and Kohn has resurrected some astonishing accounts of Dionysian exploits in the nocturnal world of the West End. This book explores not only a fascinating period, but an important one in the genesis of women's emancipation. In archaeological terms, it is as if Kohn had found one of the original cities of Troy. As a freelance journalist, rather than an academic, he has put the gender studies industry to shame.

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