Saturday 18 January 2014

Heroes and Heroin

You will have heard commentators before, many times perhaps, complaining that it's almost impossible to have 'a sensible, grown-up debate' about drugs policy in this country. Whenever a politician dares to peep out from behind the privet hedge of acceptable parliamentary opinion and say what he or she really thinks about drugs policy, all Hell descends upon them, breathing fire, and they scuttle away with a pitchfork or two still sticking out of their jacksies. 

That's certainly true, though you may have noticed that those breaking cover tend to do so on the pro-liberalisation side of the argument and that the above complaint also tends to come from that side of the argument. Nor does their complaint tend to get aimed at the BBC.

Such thoughts came to mind while listening to Heroin, a fascinating Radio 4 documentary, this week. It was written and presented by Professor Andrew Hussey and looked at how heroin (and, before it, opium) effected  the work of famous addicts - from Berlioz and Baudelaire to Chet Baker, Lou Reed, Nico and Bill Evans. 

Will Self and others acted as Professor Hussey's 'talking heads', and the programme made it clear that the impact of heroin on those great artists' work was profound, bringing forth works of genius that otherwise could not have been brought forth - such as Berlioz's beautiful The Spectre of the Rose, the Velvet Underground's glorious Velvet Underground and Nico and Bill Evans's magical Peace Piece. Altered states of mind - out-of-body-like detachment, darting energy - led to very special things that we, in spite of all suffering that these addicted geniuses may have inflicted on themselves through their heroin use, can still appreciate. The heroin-taking made them possible. 

The programme's website make it's clear that Radio 4 foresaw the obvious accusation that could be made about it:
The programme in no way seeks to glamorise heroin use, it simply addresses the question of how artists who've used the drug have been influenced as a result.
Andrew Hussey didn't omit the down-sides of taking heroin. He began by asking listeners to compare photos of the youthful, James Dean-like Chet Baker with those of his older self, ravaged by years of heroin taking. But, still, it can't be said that he dwelt on the negatives very much - hence, presumably, the BBC website's need to assert so clearly that "the programme in no way seeks to glamorise heroin use". 

However, speaking as a listener, I did find myself thinking that some of the altered states of mind did sound very pleasant, admiring the creative works that resulted and thinking about what I might achieve creatively if I used heroin. I wonder how many other listeners had those sorts of thoughts too.


  1. Hmm, Craig. I did wonder what’s behind today’s impressive spurt of creativity........ *smiley face*

  2. Dipping into this radio programme as I was busy round the house, I didn't hear much other that positive words about heroin's use. Whilst it was on I wondered how common its use was amongst employees of Broadcasting House, that it could be portrayed so positively.

    1. Yes, Deborah.

      Chet Baker's face was, in fact, the only STRONGLY negative thing mentioned in the entire programme; the other negatives were merely hinted at, glanced at. It was the positives which dominated the programme.

      Despite the website's protestations, it DID make many of the effects of the drug sound pleasant/glamorous.


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