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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers