Dangerous Drugs Diary of a Postpunk: Part Two

Life with heroin...There is a honeymoon period that comes with the drug- so far as that goes, the popular imagination is accurate. An enchantment sets in, a deep relaxation of body and soul, and things that previously caused stress or anxiety are relieved of their pressure. In my own experience, it is not that the user is totally obliterated, escaping from life and reality into oblivion; in this respect, popular belief is in error. Instead, life’s problems remain: it’s just that they no longer matter.

In my own case, this sense of tranquillity did not disappear as my tolerance to the drug developed. I found that heroin remained supremely reliable, never failing to provide the shelter I sought in it. No; the problem with the drug was more banal: paying for the damn thing. I should explain that, in the mid-1980s, the price of heroin was much higher than it has become over recent years. In the circles in which I moved, it was sold not in bags but in grams and fractions, with one gram costing between £100 (usually the case in South London) and £80 (north of the river). Most people sold quarter grams for £25. Later on I was able to find good quality heroin for £70 a gram and £20 a quarter in North London: the best prices tended to be from older user-dealers who had begun their relationship with the drug in the 1960s and 70s. But still: compare these with the current London average of £35 a gram…

These minor details (perhaps of historical interest) aside, the point is that even a fairly small habit of, say, a quarter gram per day, proved extremely demanding to fund over time, especially for those without formal employment. The economic depression of the 1980s was severe, and work, even casual work, was hard to come by. Many people therefore funded their habits by crime, or (preferably) through activities on the borderlines of the law. One example, involving someone to whom I was close, was Justine, a hostess working in Soho in what the cops called a near-beer, and which newspapers still refer to as a clip-joint. The scene was in those days run by a few families, gangsters of Maltese origin. The arrangement was this: a person without a criminal record would apply for an entertainments licence and start a club in one of the many basements and other commercial premises that could be had, at very high rents, in the Soho area of London’s west end. The star attractions at these clubs were ‘hostesses’—attractive, erotically clad young women (stockings & suspenders, high heels and extremely short skirts were de rigueur ) who would sit and talk to the punters on condition that they bought them a drink. The drinks were advertised as champagne, but were in fact lemonade and other soft drinks (the clubs had no alcohol licence); they cost anything from £5 to £50 a glass- basically, the hostess would get customers to pay whatever she judged them able to afford. The clubs had “doormen” on hand whose burly frames would be deployed should a customer judge himself to have received less than a fair deal. The promise of sex, of course, underpinned all this, though it was always left implicit, and the proprietor would proclaim himself shocked, shocked at the suggestion that prostitution might take place on his premises.

The girls took a smaller cut of the broad stream of cash that  flowed into this venerable trade than the token manager or the altogether shadowy presence of the real villain behind him. Nonetheless, Justine was able to rely on taking home close to £100 on an average night, which funded both her sizeable habit and the clothes, records etc that she desired. Very little of it was ever spent on food as Justine, like all of those in my circle, did not eat. Her body was adapted to subsist solely on a diet of coffee, cigarettes and smoked heroin. 

I would often visit her on winter days, and came to know the obscure pattern that structured her days. She would get up around lunchtime, with much partaking of coffee and Camel, and spend most of the afternoon hunched over sheets of tin foil, smoking her beloved drug. The Soho shift would begin at 6.00, and from around 4.00 she would begin the leisurely climb into her costume, donning her makeup of bloody red lipstick and dark mascara before summoning a black cab in Grays Inn Road and commanding the driver to take her down to the square mile of sin. There she would earn her daily bread. Like a vampire, she rarely saw daylight. In those days, neither did I; we inhabited a world unknown to ordinary Londoners, a world whose rituals and codes absorbed and desiccated our young lives, even as we felt ourselves timeless, preserved in the glow of heroin like strange, prehistoric insects captured forever in a golden prison of amber. This was how we lived in those far off days.