Books: Put that in your pipe and smoke it

OPIUM: A HISTORY by Martin Booth, Simon and Schuster pounds 17.99

Opium casts its drowsy light into surprising corners. It has left its mark on history, on culture, on politics, on trade, on maritime technology, on language: the word "hip" comes from the sore hips of addicts lying on boards in opium dens. The sensation of the whole world being viewed through the distorting lens of one commodity, as it is in Martin Booth's discursive narrative, is by turns intoxicating and alarming, with everything dissolving into a blur of traffickers and addicts, the users and the used.

The great and the good of past centuries are outed as opium takers, if not hopeless devotees: among those who indulged were Hannibal, Wilberforce, George IV, Benjamin Franklin, Walter Scott, Poe, the goddess Demeter and more Romantic poets than you could shake a daffodil at. But rushes of addiction swept through the most unlikely places and times, such as America in the aftermath of the Civil War, during which morphine had been used as a painkiller. Closer to home, even small towns in 19th-century fenland boasted several chemists dealing principally in laudanum, and brewers added opium to their ale. As late as 1920, animals were given veterinary laudanum, some of which found its way to humans.

Opium did not become illegal in Hong Kong until 1945, and Hong Kong, in Booth's account, is one of the centres of the opium story. It was originally ceded to Britain after the Opium War in the 1840s, a war that came about when a zealous Chinese high commissioner tried to interrupt imports of Indian opium into China. Opium was one leg of a three-cornered trading route between Britain, India and China, with Britain exporting textiles to India, buying opium and shipping it to China and using those funds to buy Chinese goods, the Emperor having declared that there were no Western goods that the Celestial Kingdom needed. (There is an uneasy parallel with the trade cycle that took slaves from West Africa to the plantations in the West Indies.) In this business, speed and the ability to tack against prevailing winds was all-important, hence the development of the tea clipper - and the less-renowned but equally important opium clipper.

The other epicentre is the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. The south-east Asian end of the trade is inextricably bound up with American politics, the US at once cajoling and bullying governments to stamp out a crop on which many of their peasant farmers depend, and using opium to prop up its favoured local warlords (drugs being a more efficient and less traceable universal currency than travellers' cheques), depending on whether the Drugs War or the War on Communism temporarily enjoyed the higher priority.

The CIA ran its own cargo airline, Air America, to handle distribution for the Hmong in Laos, who were fighting the Laotian communists, the Pathet Lao. When the Laotian government reached a ceasefire with the Pathet Lao, Air America abandoned the country and its clients, who fled to Thailand. The new communist government in Laos had learned its lesson, though, stamping out domestic abuse while preserving heroin as an export crop, both for cash and as a weapon, drug exports being the poor countries' equivalent of the atomic bomb.

Opium and its derivatives, like all drugs, are object lessons in the laws of supply and demand. Booth is strong on supply, disentangling the murkiest byways of history with ease, but weak on demand. This can lead him into lop-sided tabloid prose: "It is almost as if God, feeling guilty at having made his own medicine, is offering his own relief from it," he exults, describing missionary efforts at detoxification in the Walled City of Kowloon; elsewhere, he quotes a police expert on the advantages lying with the traffickers in their struggle with the police, and then sums up in a one-sentence paragraph: "His words are just as true today."

But the story is much less simple than that, and Booth, when he is not riding his hobby-horse, knows it. Characters shift throughout the haze of his history: here a drug smuggler, there a warlord, here a champion of indigenous peoples; hopeless junkies are also towering literary figures, and dedicated secret-servicemen turn out to be smuggling heroin to pay for their minor wars.

When it comes to policy prescriptions, Booth falls more or less silent. The option of legalisation, now being seriously canvassed by the Left and the Right, he dismisses in an airy paragraph; by contrast, he devotes endless pages to an inventory of smugglers' hiding places, a list which assumes in the end the status of unintentionally comic poetry as it moves from toothpaste tubes, fountain pens, bicycle frames and fire extinguishers to the horns of cattle, the bodies of kittens and the buttocks of a Colombian woman in 1992, who had three-quarters of a kilo surgically implanted in an attempt to pad her trip to Miami.

The lack of recommendations is particularly surprising for a commodity that, in Booth's words, has "destroyed millions of lives, enslaved whole cultures and may well yet prove to be the downfall of humanity". In fact, as his book shows, there is little sense of political urgency behind efforts to curb drug use. The CIA shipped opium to fight Global Communism in the 1960s (and cocaine, allegedly, in the 1980s); Syria grows huge quantities of opium in the Bekaa valley, but the US was prepared to turn a blind eye to that in order to win Syrian support during the Gulf War. But then, oil and realpolitik are more addictive than any opiate.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album