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HUMANKIND, it’s said, has four basic urges: food, sex, shelter and sleep. But, as the novelist and cultural historian Lucy Inglis argues in a new, critically acclaimed non-fiction work, The Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium (Macmillan), there is a fifth: the desire for intoxication to ease the passage of a dreary and often pain-filled life.

As histories go, this one makes the familiar case that we seldom learn from the mistakes of the past, but it’s a compelling and epic work nonetheless, starting with the discovery about 5 000 years ago in Mesopotamia that the latex dripping from an incision in the head of the poppy palaver somniferous was able to induce a pleasurable lethargy, relief from pain and a deep sleep accompanied by vivid dreams and visions. 

It was a commodity without rival, and highly profitable: easy to produce, transport and refine and in great demand. It was also hugely addictive and, as Inglis reminds us, many of us will end our lives dependent on it.

The ancient Egyptians used opium to lull their infants to sleep. The Greeks used it for suicide and gynaecology. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was probably history’s first highbrow opium addict. Marco Polo returned from his travels with tales of men doped on opium and sent on suicide missions. 

More recently, though, it was Paracelsus, a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, who invented laudanum, a tincture of opium and alcohol, and started Europe’s craving for this miraculous pain-relieving drug. 

But it was the British — mainly through the East India Company — who made opium a truly global commodity in the 19th century and were soon shipping thousands of chests of it to China from Hong Kong in exchange for tea. Trade was so lucrative that the opium lobby was able to persuade the British government to twice wage war in the east to protect their business interests. 

Within a matter of decades, an estimated 25% of the Chinese were addicts. Many of those who were shipped off to the US as labourers took the drug with them and opium dens were as much a part of the gold rush in the American West as the brothels and saloons. 

By now, opium’s active ingredient, morphine, had long since been discovered and, with the invention of hypodermic syringes, pain relief was almost instantaneous. Heroin was first synthesised from morphine in 1897. Prohibition followed in the early 1900s and, perhaps inevitably, the criminals moved in. A century later, they’re still there. Afghanistan, astonishingly, produces 90% of the world’s heroin, and the dark web is the modern version of the old Silk Road.

Opium, of course, is also the foundation of a mammoth legal pharmaceutical industry, and has saved millions of lives, just as it has ruined millions of others. Its latest metamorphosis is the OxyContin scourge in America. “An active trade,” Inglis writes, “in opioid that will sedate elephants indicates a deeper malaise in the US psyche.”

As her publisher puts it, “[The Milk of Paradise] is a tale of addiction, trade, crime, sex, war, literature, medicine and, above all, money. And, as this ambitious, wide-ranging and compelling account vividly shows, the history of opium is our history and it speaks to us of who we are.”

ROCK & ROLL

More drugs, this time in a gritty rock memoir detailing a cult American band’s fall from grace and its subsequent determination not to get up: The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 and My Life of Impossibilities by Wayne Kramer (Faber). 

Even by the letting-it-all-hang-out ethos of the late 1960s, Detroit’s MC5 — raw, brash proto-punk rockers who would later be cited as a major influence by The Clash and the Sex Pistols, among others — were a pretty uncompromising bunch whose histrionic revolutionary rhetoric was unpalatable to hippie audiences grooving on peace and love.

The band’s manager, John Sinclair, was largely responsible for their radicalism. It was he who started the anarchist White Panther group in solidarity with the Black Panther movement. Sinclair was jailed for 10 years after giving two joints to an undercover cop. In prison, he despaired that the group were selling out the revolution for rock-star fame. “They wanted to be bigger than the Beatles,” he revealed, “but I wanted them to be bigger than Chairman Mao.”

But, as Kramer tells it, rock-star fame was never on the cards. The drugs, infighting, bad luck and stupid behaviour would see to that. Despite striking gold with their first album, 1969’s Kick Out the Jams, their follow-up, Back in the USA, went nowhere. It’s now regarded as a classic of spiky garage punk, but back in 1970, the dawn of the sensitive singer-songwriter era, no one was interested. 

Within two years, Kramer was a heroin junkie in London and dealing Mandrax with the Hell’s Angels. His memoir, gripping and sobering as it may be, is a manual of how not to be in a band. Critics have praised it for its level-headedness and “hard-won, common sense strain of wisdom”.

RAISED EYEBROWS DEPT

Some surprise among the culturati at the appearance of a graphic novel — a lowly comic, some have sniffed — and a thriller on this year’s Man Booker prize longlist. 

The former is Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (Granta Books), which explores the chilling effect of 24-hour news after a girl has disappeared. Judges described it as “oblique, subtle [and] minimal” and added that the “changing shape of fiction” meant it was only a matter of time before a graphic novel made the cut.

Judge and bestselling crime novelist Val McDermid told the Guardian: “We all read it and were blown away by it. The graphic novel has increasingly become front and centre in terms of storytelling [and] we felt [Sabrina] does just what good fiction should do.”

Elsewhere, the Times Literary Supplement noted, “Sabrina melds a literary sensibility with an impressive display of the formal techniques of comics ... through its seamless integration of pictorial form and content, Sabrina connects intimately with its readers.”

The thriller is Belinda Bauer’s Snap (Bantam), which opens with a mother abandoning her three children in a broken-down car and plays out as they struggle to deal with her disappearance. The judges called it an “acute, stylish, intelligent novel about how we survive trauma”, which “undermines the tropes of its own genre and leaves us with something that lingers”.

The London Sunday Times’s Karen Robinson, meanwhile, said Bauer knew “exactly when to turn the dial to humour, pathos or something darker”. Snap was “intelligent entertainment” — a good benchmark for “the winner of any book prize”.

ANOTHER COMPETITION

The Gerald Kraak Award and Anthology, which recognises the work done by the LGBTQIA community in Africa, is now in its third year. To date, two anthologies have been produced from the selected works of artists, writers and allies who would like to promote human rights on the continent. The second volume saw shortlistees from Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya included in the anthology, with the winner being Nigerian writer Pwaangulongii Dauod.

According the organisers, this is not always easy; some entrants must use pen names because of the hostilities they face in their home countries.

The third competition is open for submissions and closes on August 31. Judges this year are Sisonke Msimang, Mark Gevisser and Sylvia Tamale and prize money is R25 000.

For further details see: Gerald Kraak Award and Anthology

THE BOTTOM LINE

“We are living through a direct kind of orphaning — whereby children are voluntarily surrendered from the tender encirclement of loving arms, and passed, fondly and trustingly, to the baleful surrogate parenting of the baby farmers of market and technology.” — Orphans: A History by Jeremy Seabrook (Hurst)

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