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BOOK REVIEW / Bucking up the aristocracy with delicate needles: 'Dope-Girls' - Marek Kohn: Lawrence & Wishart, 11.99 pounds

THE PAST is a foreign country - they do drugs differently there. When Margot Beste-Chetwynd, exquisite heroine of Waugh's Decline and Fall, takes barbiturates, with what grace she falls into a weekend-long stupor: 'her lovely body cool and fragrant and scarcely stirring beneath the bedclothes . . .' With what elegant nonchalance Sherlock Holmes, a few decades earlier, prepares his cocaine, taking 'his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjustedthe delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff . . .' It is always salutary to realise how unstable the very bedrocks of our culture are: in Dope-Girls Marek Kohn performs a useful service by tracing the sudden criminalisation of so- called 'hard' drugs, which moved in about 20 years from the hands of egregious private individuals to those of threatening social groups.

Although uninterested in the literary myths, Kohn is fascinating and assured on popular culture. He tracks the secret history of drugs through newspapers, forgotten novels from David Garnett's Dope-Darting (1918) to Sax Rohmer's Dope (1919), and films like The Curse of the Poppy and Human Wreckage, all of which contributed to the newly resonant myth of a dope underworld.

At the beginning of the period, drugs were taken at the top of the social spectrum, and retained a genteel, individualist aura. So Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper) could write to Raymond Asquith in 1915 about how she and Raymond's wife Katharine had lain 'in ecstatic stillness through too short a night, drugged in very deed by my hand with morphia. O, the grave difficulty of the actual injection, the sterilising in the dark and silence and the conflict of my hand and wish when it came to piercing our flesh. It was a grand night, and strange to feel so utterly self-sufficient - more like a Chinaman, or God before he made the world . . .'

Such habits, risque though they may have seemed, were for a long time neither illegal nor declasse. At the opening of the war, Mayfair chemists were at liberty to advertise in the Times for cases containing gelatine sweets impregnated with morphine and cocaine, a 'useful present for friends at the front'. But gradually the social paranoia caused by war stripped such jollity of its innocence. Just as so-called Defence of the Realm regulations made possible stringent licensing laws that have remained in place to this day, so they created the legal and moral potential for criminalising drugs; and in July 1916 the possession of opium or cocaine was just such a criminal offence.

Kohn shows with consummate skill how the drug trade blossomed once it was placed outside the law, creating a rich underground folklore of wicked foreign men, exploited women and irresistible vice that society could react hysterically towards and also yearn over. Kohn isolates particular, highly romantic cases that catalysed these emergent myths. On the occasion of Lady Diane Manners' engagement to Duff Cooper, a victory ball held in the Albert Hall, one participant in the revelries was an upwardly mobile chorus girl, Billie Carleton. Worlds away from Lady Diana's gorgeous milieu, Carleton's best friends were hard-headed but unsuccessful loungers, scroungers and poseurs, while she was a brisk Antonia de Sancha lookalike who had posed naked for

Tatler and went to the ball wearing jewels redeemed that very morning from hock. When Carleton was found dead the next morning - almost certainly from an overdose of sleeping pills - it was cocaine, and her cocaine supplier, an effeminate dress designer called Reggie de Veulle, and his supplier, a Chinese man called Lau Ping You, that were blamed. In the furore that followed, the circle became a lawless band of outsiders; Carleton lost her hard- edged reality and was resurrected as a vulnerable butterfly with a 'frail beauty and delicate art . . . of that moth-like substance that does not last long in this rough-and-ready world'.

The essential ingredients of the dope myth - the otherness of drug takers, the tragic vulnerability of would-be independent young women, and the Russian roulette danger of the habit - were thus established. Suddenly dope became a media rather than literary subject. The blurb for the 1922 film Cocaine ran: 'If you're down in the mouth, dull, depressed, take a dose of cocaine. It will buck up your box office receipts.' And in the real life cases that Kohn traces, more and more seedy underworlds

emerged, generally run by one of two grand dope kings, Brilliant Chang, a Chinese man, or Edgar Manning, a black American.

Given the romantic and bizarre interest of these tales, Kohn's book has few longueurs. But his conclusions are nebulous. In the introduction he makes one claim: 'The same imagery and the same level of hysteria can be found in British newspapers of the Twenties and the Eighties . . .'; but in the conclusion, another: 'The system of belief underpinning the (contemporary) drug issue dates back no further than the Sixties.'

Against this mass of colourful detail and paucity of clear interpretation, the reader's reaction is confused, troubled by shocks of familiarity and strangeness. But perhaps this is only to be expected. After all, what can equal the oddness and ambiguity of this secret history, in which some of our most deeply held values lie hidden? As Kohn puts it: 'There is the unexpected recognition of cultural experiences that people born after the Second World War tend to assume they were the first to enjoy . . . Yet even as one recognises a common strand of culture, the gulf between then and now reasserts itself. It was still the age of foxtrots and evening dress.'