Paint It Black

Welcome to the second installment of guest blogger Henry Yeomans’ new series here on Points. Henry, a Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Leed’s School of Law, has already provided us with an excellent article on Britain’s World War I-era teetotaler movement.  TodayHenry discusses debates over alcohol regulation in the Swinging ‘Sixties.

Chocolate egg, or alcohol vessel?

On 25th April 1961, an odd rhetorical weapon was brandished in the House of Commons. Members of the House debated whether or not to amend a piece of legislation passing through Parliament so as to enable proprietors to sell (alcoholic) chocolate liqueurs without a licence. Conservative William Clark MP argued that “spirits enclosed in confectionary” should not be regarded as “intoxicating liquor” and so be freed from licensing restrictions. Another Conservative MP, Sir Cyril Black, countered this perspective by producing a large chocolate egg. Black was a colourful parliamentarian, having notably campaigned against the decriminalisation of homosexuality and for the suppression of gambling, strip clubs and ‘obscene publications’ such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But he was not an eccentric maverick whose influence was confined to reactionary politics; he was chairman of the Moral Law Defence Association, president of the Band of Hope temperance society and member of the All-Party Temperance Group. Black’s views, moreover, encapsulate a significant and influential position within discourse on alcohol in England and Wales in the swinging sixties.  He was not alone in his outrage that the egg, which reportedly measured 15 inches across, “could contain enough liquor to intoxicate a considerable number of members.”

Lord Wolfenden

Throughout the mid-twentieth century, British debates over behavioural regulation were less focused on the morality of particular forms of conduct and increasingly targeted the consequences or harms associated with these behaviours. 1957’s Wolfenden Report exemplified this new approach, taking a libertarian view of sexual behaviour and arguing that homosexuality and prostitution should only be matters of public concern and legal intervention when they entail one person being involuntarily harmed by the actions of another. When no interpersonal harm is apparent, it is “not the law’s business” to intervene and individual freedom of action should prevail. This more permissive context coincided with the first significant relaxation of alcohol regulation in England and Wales for a century. The Licensing Act of 1961 allowed restaurants to apply for licences to sell alcohol for the first time, extended open hours for licensed premises, and scrapped the statutory Sunday closure of public houses in Wales. Within these shifting governmental sands, debates about alcohol came to be typified less by a Victorian preoccupation with the immorality of drinking as individuals were, to a certain extent, given greater autonomy over their own consumption. 

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Victorian Women on Drugs, Part 1: Queen Victoria

We here at Points are very excited to present the first installment of guest blogger Kristina Aikens’ four-part series. Kristina received her PhD in English from Tufts University in 2008, producing the thesis “A Pharmacy of Her Own: Victorian Women and the Figure of the Opiate.” Since then, she has been published under a variety of academic titles, including Gothic Studies, Critical Survey, and Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. In the coming weeks, she’ll provide us with her insight on the role of drugs in the lives of Victorian women.

Victorian England, an era with a drug culture as distinct as any.

As readers of this blog will be aware, many people erroneously conceive of drug use, particularly what we now consider “recreational drug use,” as a twentieth century phenomenon. People are often surprised to hear that the subject of my English literature dissertation was the depiction of female drug use in Victorian fiction and poetry. After all, the Victorian era is considered a famously morally upright time and is not commonly associated with drug use. Pre-twentieth-century English drug use is normally associated with earlier, Romantic era poets such as De Quincey and Coleridge. Further, Victorian women are usually thought of as a particularly repressed group. Nonetheless, Victorian England was clearly a site of casual drug use. In fact, drugs such as opium, cocaine, and marijuana, were not only legal and loosely regulated, but they often appeared as ingredients in both prescription and patent medication during that time.  Drugs’ effectiveness as medication made them fairly common household objects, so it would be wrongheaded to apply today’s attitudes toward the use of these drugs in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, our reaction to hearing that Victorians regularly used these drugs is usually informed by our current attitudes. The loose legal restrictions on these drugs did not mean there were no moral concerns about them, but Victorians’ attitudes regarding drugs were more complicated than what we might expect, given the era’s reputation.

Although my dissertation primarily focused on the ways authors employed metaphorical depictions of drug use in relation to female literary characters, I couldn’t help but wonder about the everyday uses of drugs by real women, especially the most famous woman of the century, Queen Victoria herself. Tracking down whether or not Queen Victoria used drugs is a difficult task, but the pursuit of this information provided an interesting case study into how people think about the gender dynamics of drug use.

I first became interested in the subject of Queen Victoria as a drug user while watching a History Channel documentary titled “Hooked: Illegal Drugs and How They Got That Way.” One of the experts interviewed for this program asserted that Queen Victoria used marijuana to relieve menstrual cramps. This was surprising to me, but certainly not outside of the realm of possibility. Women were commonly supplied with drugs in response to “female complaints,” particularly pain associated with menstruation and childbirth, or “feminine” illnesses, such as neuralgia and hysteria. My interest piqued, I looked for a citation that might corroborate this piece of information, thinking that a mention of marijuana in the Queen’s  diaries or correspondence could be highly relevant to my dissertation. All I found, however, was a number of un-cited assertions in various history books arguing that Victoria did indeed use marijuana. After some digging, I finally discovered that Queen Victoria’s personal physician, J. Russell Reynolds, widely prescribed cannabis for various reasons, including the treatment of menstrual cramps. Presumably this information is what led many to claim that Dr. Reynolds prescribed cannabis to the Queen. While this is not exactly a wild logical leap, it appears to be more an assumption than a fact. In his book Cannabis Britannica, James H. Mills writes that there is “no direct evidence” for the claim, going so far as to deem the claim that Queen Victoria was prescribed cannabis a “myth” (142).

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St. Patrick’s Day and Temperance: An Unlikely Duo?

Editor’s Note: For Points readers getting  a head start on their St. Patrick’s day observances this year, we are pleased to present a thoughtful historicization of this generally most unthoughtful of holidays by Mike McLaughlin of Carleton University.  Drawing on research from his dissertation-in-progress, “Imperial Citizens: Irish Catholic Middle-Class Culture in Colonial Canada, 1855-1902,” it will give you something to talk about as you crawl from pub to pub this Saturday– or better yet, provide you with a usable past of pub-avoidance.

Patron Saint of Over-Consumption

Leprechauns, green beer, and shamrocks with quirky sayings on them will be everywhere this 17th of March. Yes, St. Patrick’s Day is a time to indulge in markers of Irish identity. One of the most  prevalent of which seems to be the excessive consumption of alcohol. In their The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day, Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair note the institutionalization of drinking marathons at pubs on the 17th of March.  And according to Beth Davies Ryan, global corporate-relations director of Guinness brewing company, while on any given day 5.5 million pints of Guinness are consumed globally, that number rises to 13 million on St. Patrick’s Day.

The relationship between booze and St. Patrick’s Day is not a new one. Cronin and Adair point out that as early as 1681 the English traveler Thomas Dineley observed that during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland many of the Irish drank so much that very few were found sober at night. In his writings, Dineley presented what he saw as the three main components of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in seventeenth century Ireland: wearing the colour green, adorning the shamrock, and indulging liberally in alcohol (Cronin & Adair, Page 25). These aspects resemble today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and the not unrelated phenomena of green beer, packed pubs, and general goofiness.

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On Speed: James Bond and the Myth of the Nazi Superman

Ian Fleming describes the preparations for a secret and dangerous operation of his secret agent and assassin James Bond in the 1954 novel Live and Let Die. Among other essentials, ‘There was even a box of Benzedrine tablets to give endurance and heightened perception during the operation…’

UK, 1954

Drug historians have quite rightly quoted this and similar lines from the Bond novels as an example of how the use of Benzedrine (an amphetamine more popularly known as speed) was quite wide spread throughout western societies in the 1950s. Charles O. Jackson even described the USA at that time as the ‘Amphetamine Democracy’.

Rereading the Bond novels we can detect more historical significance in 007’s drug use. Bond may be a playboy and a womanizer, an alcoholic according to present-day standards and at times a drug abuser, he is also a staunch pillar and defender of a tottering British Empire. There is a historical irony here: we notice that just before the emergence of a counter culture with a blooming use of all kinds of licit and illicit substances, a counter culture that will seem to threaten the very survival of the Empire itself, the potentials of drug use can work opposite ways. On speed you can either be ”on the bus”, as Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who were fuelled with amphetamines as much as with LSD. Or you can, as 007, be “off the bus” and stick to the old ways and manners of the Empire.

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Continental drinking: qu’est-ce que c’est?

Does drink sneak up on you? A recent UK Government campaign warns that it might, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes the odd glass of wine or beer at home.

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"Don't Let Drink Sneak Up on You"UK Dept. of Health

One drink leads to two and then … well, most of us probably recognise the pattern.  But did you know drinking two large glasses of wine a day could make you three times as likely to get mouth cancer?  No? You do now. The irony is that this campaign targets a type of drinking that British policymakers have often encouraged: the relaxed, civilised glass of wine at home, as opposed to the raucous skinful down the pub.  That is, the ‘continental’, as opposed to traditionally (or, stereotypically) British approach.

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Herding Khat

Side Effects May Include Lethargy and Refusal to Cooperate

On January 11th the  BBC reported that the Netherlands government would ban the use of khat—the mild, leaf-based stimulant produced largely in East Africa.  The ban came as something as a surprise, given the liberal Dutch approach to cannabis and the ubiquity of “Coffee Shops” selling joints in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities.  Why this apparent inconsistency?  The answer becomes clear in the comments of the immigration minister, Gerd Leers, who oddly enough, announced the ban.  According to Leers’s comments on Dutch radio, “I’m involved in the ban because it appears to cause serious problems, particularly in the Somali community.”  He went on to claim that 10% of Somali men in the Netherlands were “badly affected” by khat consumption.  According to the minister, “they are lethargic and refuse to co-operate with the government or take responsibility for themselves or their families.”

Khat (often called miraa in East Africa) is the only Africa-produced drug to develop any kind of international market.  It is chewed on a large scale in Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa, where truck drivers use it to remain alert.  I first encountered it in the 1970s, when I was briefly stranded on the Kenya-Tanzania border and some friendly drivers tutored me in its use.  I can’t say that it did much for me, except keep me awake enough to snag a ride to Nairobi. 

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