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Articles - Dance/party drugs & clubbing
Written by Marek Kohn   


Marek Kohn

Dancing, clubs and stimulant drugs were at the centre of Britain's first drug underground, which arose during the First World War and reached its climax in the I ?20s. There are evocative resonances between this period and that of contemporary dance culture. Most notably, public commentary about drug use in both periods is centred upon the deaths of young women: an actress and a nightclub dance,- then; Leah Betts now. But public discourse about drugs today is very different to what it was 10 years ago, let alone 80 years ago. In the mid- I 980s and the mid-20s, the mood was hysterical and scarcely any voices dissented from prevailing opinion. These days, while popular anxiety remains as deep seated as ever, it is addressed by a range of voices offering diverse views about drug use. History suggests that this state of affairs may not persist for ever, and we should make the most of the opportunity.

Sometimes, driving on a road in a foreign land, you pass a shrine; a cross in pious regions, a bunch of flowers in more secular territory. It's gone in a moment, but the after-image lingers. It colours and to some extent defines the journey. The road traced in this essay is that of underground drug use in Britain over the course of the past 80 years or so. The first of the shrines stands a couple of years into the journey, at the end of the First World War; the second a few years later, early in the brittle and feverish 19 20s. We have recently passed the third, a couple of years ago. All three mark the deaths of young women who came to personify drug use in their respective times, and upon whose posthumous images were projected terrible warnings about the dangers of drug use.

It has been observed that fiction's power derives from its ability to make the familiar unfamiliar, which allows us to see the world afresh. 1 see the narrative of British drug history as an illustration of the fact that this goes for non-fiction too. Accounts of the world of the drug underground in early modern Britain seem in the same moment uncannily familiar and irreconcilably different to the world we know today (Kohn, 1992). Young women and men in the early 1920s spent their nights touring the clubs of the West End; they took drugs to keep awake as they danced to rhythms with roots in Africa. But the men wore evening dress and one of the most popular dances was still the foxtrot. A legitimate club could lose its licence if a woman sat on a man's knee.

Nightclubs had reached London shortly before the First World War; during wartime, their activities were curtailed, causing them to go underground. Illegal or semi-legal clubs persisted once peace came, encouraged by the demand aroused by the vogue for dancing and jazz that marked the lifting of wartime austerity. By that stage, too, Britain's first underground drug scene had arisen.

The first reports of cocaine use in the West End entertainment scene appeared at the end of 1915, shortly after close restrictions had been placed upon legitimate entertainment. The venues were suggested to be clubs; the users young women. A few weeks later, public concern about drugs begin to grow, following a case in which a man and his female accomplice, a prostitute, were caught selling cocaine to Canadian soldiers. In the subsequent months, the idea became established that Canadian soldiers had brought the 'drug habit' to Britain. The motor of anti-drug agitation was the fear that prostitutes might corrupt soldiers by introducing them to cocaine. Police surveillance did not find evidence for this, but revealed the existence of a thriving cocaine traffic among West End prostitutes and street criminals.

The non-medical use of cocaine was not unknown in Britain, but had hitherto been associated in the public mind with individuals from the better classes, who were thought to be vulner4ble to the drug because of the pressures modern life exerted upon their refined nervous systems. This was the first point at which cocaine was associated with lower class, and specifically delinquent, users. The police saw it as an aspect of delinquent activity that ought to be controlled; the army remained concerned about the possibility that soldiers would take it up.

The press depicted it as a catastrophe, which in six months had become a 'veritable mania', 'driving hundreds mad', with 'women and aliens preying on soldiers', who had been seen crawling into chemists' shops on their knees, desperate for 'snow'. (Umpire, 1916). The slang betrayed a transatlantic influence: ideas about the effects of cocaine were immediately imported from the USA, and used as the rhetoric of Britain's first drug panic. By the end of July 1916, the possession of cocaine and opium had been banned under emergency regulations. These were transferred into permanent legislation after the war.

Public concern then died down until just after the Armistice in 1918, when an actress called Billie Carleton, aged 22, was found dead after attending a Victory Ball. The inquest found that she had died of cocaine poisoning, though it seems likely that she was actually killed by some sort of depressant. The court proceedings revealed a way of life highly questionable for a young woman of her time. Apart from a well attested history of cocaine use, she had left home in her teens to go on the stage, and had for some years been 'under the protection' of a middle-aged man, who lavished huge sums of money upon her. She struck up a friendship and drug-taking partnership with her dress designer, who had been involved in a homosexual blackmail case, and was alleged in court to have attended a party dressed as a woman. Carleton also took part in what a magistrate described as 'unholy rites', in which a group of men and women wearing nightclothes smoked opium at an all-night 'orgy' in a Mayfair flat(Times, 1918.) Despite the rich possibilities for scandal, Billie Carleton was depicted free from moral opprobrium. She was recalled in sentimental valedictions as a creature of frail beauty, too delicate for the real world. This was not simply because newspaper prurience was checked by the conventions of the time. It was because she was there, posthumously, to play a particular part.

Her death was a moral lesson about the true nature of femininity. In the war, working-class women had enjoyed the wages and consequent freedom of well paid industrial labour, and shown that they could do many jobs hitherto the preserve of men. Women had served in uniform, many under fire; the reward was the vote. This, however, was restricted to women over 27 years of age. Younger women were still held to be too immature to vote; too emotional and vulnerable. The idea of extending the franchise was derided as 'votes for flappers': silly, if lively, creatures. Billie Carleton was not blamed. Her tragedy was depicted as the consequence of allowing a young woman, whose frailness was shared by all her sex, a freedom she was not equipped to handle.

Billie Carleton continued to serve as the type specimen of drug victim-hood throughout the first underground drug scene, which lasted into the mid1920s. In 1922, the third phase of public agitation was triggered by the death of another young woman, about the same age as Carleton. Freda Kempton was a nightclub 'dance instructress'- a paid dancing partner-who used to chew gum to mask the grinding of her teeth that cocaine induced. One night, after attending a birthday party, she went to the West End at midnight and returned in the morning after a tour of the clubs. The last port of call was a Chinese restaurant in Regent Street, where she met the proprietor, Brilliant Chang. Later that day, at her lodgings, she went into convulsions and died. She had committed suicide by swallowing cocaine.

In reports of the inquest, Chang was portrayed as a figure with a magnetic attraction for white women. After the verdict, 'some of the girls rushed to Chang, patted his back, and one, more daring than the rest, fondled the Chinaman's black, smooth hair and passed her fingers slowly through it'(Empire News, 1922). Frustrated by the failure to pin the blame for supplying the cocaine on Chang, the press fanned out into the clubs, reporting them to be packed with foolish young girls and sinister foreigners. With the appearance of Chang, the narrative of the dope panic reached its climax. The ultimate menace of drugs was that they encouraged miscegenation between young white women and men of colour.

There are distant echoes of Billie Carleton and Freda Kempton in the tragedy of Leah Betts. A1.1 the deaths followed celebrations: the Victory Ball, the birthday of a friend of Kempton's, Leah Betts' own 18th birthday. Kempton died in her landlady's arms; Leah Betts' agonies were witnessed by her horrified parents. All the deaths were attributed to stimulants; in the latter two cases, these were associated with nightclubs. But these essentially literary details are subordinate to the most notable similarity, which is the posthumous use of the young women's memories to warn against drug use.

The principal representation of Leah Betts was iconic. Her photograph - an ordinary teenager, laughing -appeared on advertising hoardings, funded by a group set up for the purpose. The E2 million campaign made an impact. According to press reports of a study for the Home Office (Sunday Telegraph, 1997), demand soared for ecstasy tablets with the motif featured on the poster, leading to a rise in price. And 'Leah' rose 20 places to number 36 in the Office for National Statistics chart of the most popular names for newborn girls, the first time it had entered the top 50.

Why Leah Betts? Her sex is relevant- a boy would not have served as an icon in this way - but not freighted with symbolic messages about femininity. Other young women died in comparable circumstances, but Leah Betts' parents launched an impassioned campaign to redeem her death. Mr Betts, a former police officer, called for her supplier to be tried for murder and hanged.

He later withdrew the call, admitting his view of the drug scene had been naive. Of the four teenagers charged with supplying the ecstasy that killed Leah Betts, one was acquitted, two received cautions and the other got a conditional discharge. None of these were dealers, supplying for profit. They were users who shared, suppliers in the narrowest sense only. The cautions and the conditional discharge occupied the nearest the judicial system has to a grey area. They showed that the judiciary had no desire to insist on dividing the illicit drug scene into two exclusive populations, one of misguided victims and the other of their malevolent exploiters. The law had first been forced to recognise this in the Carleton case, in which a jury had ignored the judge's direction and acquitted her friend Reggie de Veulle of her manslaughter.

The opposition between dealer and victim belongs to a narrative that has much in common with the vampire genre. The suave Brilliant Chang in his evening dress, moving mysteriously in the night, exerting his uncanny powers of seduction over young white women, had affinities not just with Fu Manchu but with Dracula. (Reggie de Veulle, depicted as an effeminate homosexual, really did not rise to the part.) What passed between Chang and Freda Kempton remained undetermined, and so did what passed between him and the other young women with whom he formed associations. According to one, not untypical, report, 'half-a-dozen drug-frenzied women together joined him in wild orgies' (World's Pictorial News, 1924).

There may have been a core of truth in the emphasis on sex, since Chang certainly seems to have been energetic in pursuit of female company. The connotation of perversity is also significant. It was not readily comprehensible that a diminutive Chinese man could hold an attraction for young white women. Chang's urbanity itself underlined the perception of the Chinese as an effeminate race, which implied that relations between them and Europeans must be unnatural. Two explanations were advanced for the success that he and other Chinese men in England enjoyed with indigenous women. One was that they used addictive agents to seduce and enslave their victims. Though these agents were usually identified as cocaine and opium, a number of stories about the East End of London claimed that a lottery game known as 'puk-a-poo' was also used.

The other was located in the characters of the women who took drugs. In the terms delineated by Susan Sontag's (1983) essay 'Illness As Metaphor', they were tubercular types. In the words of one newspaper reporter, the 'predominating type 'was' young, thin, underdressed, perpetually seized with hysterical laughter, ogling, foolish' (Daily Express, 1922). Another described the sight of 'three girl-addicts to cocaine' in a club.

One was a frail-looking creature of about twenty in a flimsy frock that left three-quarters of her back bare. During the intervals-of her vivacious dancing in an underground room, she gave herself over to almost hysterical attacks of inane, purposeless laughter, and now and then stroked the man sitting with her. (Evening News, 1922)

This febrile, unstable, undernourished abandonment was opposed to a model of vigorous health into which the lively young women of the 1920s were encouraged to channel their energies. Sport and fresh air were recommended: one account of Billie Carleton's decline told of how she had at one stage taken up riding and golf, before lapsing back into drug use.

Thinness and pallor have been hallmarks of a certain perennial sensibility in youth and pop culture. They have been adopted by beatniks, Warhol's Factory crowd and their descendants, punks and adherents of the cartoon style known as 'Gothic'. But one of the contradictions of the dance culture of the past 10 years is that it combines heavy drug use with an essentially wholesome style. The rave scene has never cultivated the 'elegantly wasted' look. The kids look ordinary, and their lives outside dance events are rooted in normality. They pose no challenge to convention during the rest of the week. Their radicalism is basically apolitical, concerned with inner perceptual states and the pursuit of sensations of collective intimacy. They have no pretensions to changing the world.

When the first drug underground arose, pleasure was an inherently suspect quality. It always had to be kept under surveillance and in check. Today, its pursuit is the basis of modern consumer capitalism. It is generally accepted that the collective good is served by encouraging people to work harder in order to consume faster. The pursuit of intense pleasurable sensation has been the theme of thousands of magazine articles and television shows, all devoted to exploring sexual possibilities in the name of personal development. Under these conditions, it is now an anomaly that drugs are excluded from the range of commodities that can be consumed and sensations that can be enjoyed.

This is not to say that drugs are no longer perceived as a moral threat. At a deep level, I believe, they still are. But it is now difficult for people who feel this way to give a rationale for their feelings; to place drugs in a moral framework. Nor, in the case of rave culture, do they believe that drug takers are deviants who pose a threat to the social fabric. So they fall back on the simple idea of physical safety, a very modest notion compared with the archetypal cocaine morality story of the first drug underground. That ran: girl flirts with the demi-monde, is introduced to cocaine, becomes addicted, is morally compromised, loses her looks and health, declines into insanity, and eventually dies. It was a gendered version of the core drug morality formula, of instant addiction leading through inevitable decline and degradation to death.

Such messages thrived in the Britain of the mid1980s, when heroin was represented as the paradigm of illicit drug use. Heroin was associated in the public mind with the socio-economic upheavals of the Thatcher years; with urban decay, youth unemployment and widening social divisions. At one level, anxiety about heroin was a way of expressing anxiety, and guilt, about the future that was being created for the next generation.

But when the next generation of youth culture emerged, in the late 1980s, it did not much resemble a victim culture. These were, in the words of one song, 24-hour party people. Certainly they complained, about unemployment and job insecurity and the state of the planet. But they had consolations not available to other victims of Thatcher's revolution; such as former miners, for instance, shuffling through a middle age of driving minicabs and working as part-time care assistants in old people's homes. Whatever the future might hold for the rave generation, its present was an ecstatic whirl of clubbing on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza, convoys of vehicles on the way to giant outdoor raves utilising the latest in electronic and laser technology, and copious quantities of expensive drugs.

In short, they were leading-edge consumers, not rebels or deviants. Their parents largely understood this, and thus the drug morality tale was heavily truncated. Now it was simply asserted that 'one ecstasy tablet killed Leah Betts, as the poster caption put it. This was closer to the truth than the assertion that cocaine had killed Billie Carleton, but still. dubious. It was open to the objection that she actually died as a result of drinking water, following standard harm reduction advice. But as the coroner pointed out, she would still be alive if she had not taken ecstasy.

More significant was the low level of risk. In the court proceedings that followed Billie Carleton's death, the coroner and judge both endorsed exaggerated claims about the likelihood of death from tiny doses of cocaine. These do occur, but very rarely. The same is true of ecstasy, which appears to have led to the deaths of several dozen young people in Britain. The difference is that the users of ecstasy are aware that the number of such cases is very small compared with the number of instances of ecstasy use. Authority figures make comparisons with Russian roulette, but these fail because they imply a revolver with a million chambers. indeed, you believe accepted wisdom, they imply many millions of chambers. The figures routinely given are a total of 50 ecstasy deaths, and a million users every weekend. The basis for the first figure is soft, and that for the second is non-existent. But each suits the arguments of both ecstasy's sympathisers and its opponents.

Another important difference between today and the 1980s, not to mention the 1920s, is the acceptance in parts of the mainstream media of drugs as part of the cultural furniture. The upscale press, and at least one TV channel, is firmly oriented towards the under-40s. For many journalists and TV editorial personnel, knowing about drugs is as essential a part of their cultural credentials as knowing about fashion or football. And drug-taking as delinquent behaviour has to some extent become conventional. During the 1997 election campaign, Will Self, a writer known for his history of drug abuse, was barred from the then Prime Minister's plane for taking heroin in the toilet. It appeared that he had been hired by the New Statesman magazine to cover the campaign in the 'gonzo' style of Hunter S. Thompson. The general reaction was one of amusement.

He, however, did lose his job as TV critic of a Sunday newspaper, and this illustrates a situation that can be described as one of 'dual power'. Increasingly, unofficial opinion among the cultural 6lite is blas6 about drugs, but official disapproval is as strong as ever. Clare Short, who after the election became a Cabinet minister, is a politician popular with the public for speaking her mind. This seems to have overcome the blot she previously made on her copybook with the mild suggestion that a debate about the legalisation of cannabis might be a good idea. At the time, she was severely reprimanded by Tony Blair. He would have been aware that, according to opinion polls, the populace at large remains firmly opposed to any liberalisation of the drug laws. (MORI found this year (1997) that only 21 % favour legalisation of cannabis.) In this they are way behind the broadsheet papers - particularly the conservative ones, whose libertarian inclinations have made them readier to countenance reform than the more paternalistic liberal press. Leaders and comment pieces sympathetic to reform have been appearing for years, without discernible effect on public opinion in general.

So why do ordinary British people still fear drugs? In some cases, traditional associations remain at work. When they read of another inner city shooting, the chances are that it will be categorised as drug-related. To a certain extent, the association is racialised. Some papers make a point of noting the race of suspects or convicts in such cases, though others make a point of not doing so. Either way, drugs are a prominent symbol of the danger zones of the inner cities. But 1 don't think that Middle England really fears the inner city. Middle England maybe alarmed, its prejudices may be reinforced, but it tends not to feel personally threatened.

There is also a broader association with criminality that is not specifically identified with urban chaos. One of the reasons that the youngsters charged in connection with Leah Betts' death did not become media scapegoats was that this would have interfered with a promising construction that began to arise in the background of the case. There were claims that the higher levels of the supply chain involved a major criminal syndicate, whose activities were connected with a dramatic gangland incident in which three men had been lured up a country lane in Essex and shot dead. It was claimed that dealers secured access to clubs by controlling the doormen. Even in suburban Essex, ordinary young people could fall into criminal clutches through innocent visits to local clubs. Here the echoes of the 1922 agitation, with its concerns about the popularisation of nightclubs through the dance craze, were at their strongest.

It's not just that parents think of clubs as places where their children will be preyed upon by crirninals, though. It is more that the point of going through the door of a club is to enter another world. If that world is characterised simply by glamour, glitter or opulence, it is legitimate entertainment. Everybody understands it. They also understand dancing and amplified music. But parents are disturbed by the thought that the other worlds of dance events are ones of altered states, hallucinations, versions of the real world that are not merely decorated, but distorted in fantastical ways. They know that drugs are the key to this world. They know their children are going there, but they don't really know what this world is like.

As always, drugs are feared because of their otherness. In the 1920s, the menace they were believed to pose found its most acute expression in fears of miscegenation. Similar alarms were sounded in a reprise that developed after the Second World War, this time revolving round marijuana and black men instead of cocaine, opium and Chinese men. In the 1980s, the symbolism took more elliptical forms, but drugs reappeared as a means of expressing fears of a foreign threat to a nation unsure about its fortunes and direction.


This time, however, it seems to be different. Britain has worked through its upheavals, and the changes now appear to have been inevitable. Youthful inner city drug takers therefore no longer symbolise the possibility that a dreadful mistake has been made. They have been replaced, in any case, by a paradigm of drug use based on a dance culture dominated by ecstasy and spanning all social classes. Despite the wishes of some of its participant-commentators, the political connotations of rave culture are tenuous.


At present, then, the otherness of drugs that the dominant culture seems to fear above all is not that of race, or crime, but the other world of hallucinatory states. This does not mean, however, that drugs are being irreversibly stripped of their symbolic connotations. The current perceptions of drug use are likely to remain in play for the time being, if only because after 10 years, dance culture shows no signs of going away. But other drug-related phenomena will rise to prominence sooner or later. It would be premature to assume that the symbolic baggage has all been left at the roadside. As long as drugs remain illegal, so will their power to serve as symbols of deeper fears.

Marek Kohn, 2 7 Warrington Crescent, London W9 IED


Daily Express 14 March 1922. Empire News 30 April 1922.

EveningNews 14 March 192 2.

Kohn, M ( 1992) Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug
Underground. London: Lawrence & W ishart.

Sontag, S (1983) IllnessAs Metaphor. London: Penguin.

Sunday Telegraph 1 June 1997.

Times 21 December 1918.

Umpire 23 July 1916.

World's Pictorial News 26 April 1924.


Our valuable member Marek Kohn has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.