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Un-American

Mike Jay: Opium, 21 June 2012

Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream 
by Thomas Dormandy.
Yale, 366 pp., £25, March 2012, 978 0 300 17532 5
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... How can opium be so ancient, and addiction so modern? The drug has not changed, nor has the human metabolism. In the earliest written records – Sumerian tablets and Egyptian papyri – it is already praised as a euphoric, a sedative and a supreme remedy against pain. Galen and his contemporaries added cautions about its dangers, but the most emphatic of these concerned overdose: the difference between an effective dose and a lethal one is uncomfortably small, and the tolerance that develops rapidly with regular use means that no standard dose can be stipulated ...

On Michael Neve

Mike Jay, 21 November 2019

... Michael​ Neve died on 9 October. I first met him in 1995, at a funeral. We had been taught Nietzsche by the same lecturer at Cambridge; that had been enough academia for me, but Michael had advanced (or, by his own account, stumbled haplessly) to the position of senior lecturer at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL. He had a contract with Penguin for an anthology of Fin-de-Siècle writings, on which he insisted I join him as coeditor ...

At Las Pozas

Mike Jay: Edward James’s Sculpture Garden, 21 May 2020

... Edward James​ was charming, eccentric, generous and immensely wealthy. For most of his life, his greatest talent was placing himself in interesting situations, often having used his wealth to make them happen. In 1931, he was the first to publish John Betjeman, who had been a fellow student at Oxford. In 1933 he financed the final collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill ...

Magnificent Pratfalls

Mike Jay: Ballooning’s Golden Age, 8 August 2013

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air 
by Richard Holmes.
William Collins, 404 pp., £25, April 2013, 978 0 00 738692 5
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... The history of ballooning is inescapably a procession of failures. This is partly in the nature of balloon flight which, like politics and indeed life, must always end with a falling to earth, at best skilfully managed but never entirely safe from indignity or tragedy. It is also a function of the hyperbole with which it was from the beginning obliged to justify itself: it would transform science, revolutionise warfare, redraw our map of the world ...

Argument with Myself

Mike Jay: Memorylessness, 23 May 2013

Permanent Present Tense: The Man with No Memory, and What He Taught the World 
by Suzanne Corkin.
Allen Lane, 346 pp., £20, May 2013, 978 1 84614 271 0
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... Memory creates our identity, but it also exposes the illusion of a coherent self: a memory is not a thing but an act that alters and rearranges even as it retrieves. Although some of its operations can be trained to an astonishing pitch, most take place autonomously, beyond the reach of the conscious mind. As we age, it distorts and foreshortens: present experience becomes harder to impress on the mind, and the long-forgotten past seems to draw closer; University Challenge gets easier, remembering what you came downstairs for gets harder ...

Drink it, don’t eat it or smoke it

Mike Jay: De Quincey, 13 May 2010

The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey 
by Robert Morrison.
Weidenfeld, 462 pp., £25, November 2009, 978 0 297 85279 7
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... The film Confessions of an Opium Eater, shot on a shoestring by Albert Zugsmith in 1962 and starring Vincent Price, opens with Vaseline-fogged images of a Chinese junk and a delirious Price voice-over (‘I am De Quincey … I dream … and I create dreams … out of my opium pipe’). This is Gilbert De Quincey, a presumed descendant, who wanders the seas as a captain for hire, searching for ‘well, what every man searches for ...

The crime was the disease

Mike Jay: ‘Mad-Doctors in the Dock’, 15 June 2017

Mad-Doctors in the Dock: Defending the Diagnosis, 1760-1913 
by Joel Peter Eigen.
Johns Hopkins, 206 pp., £29.50, September 2016, 978 1 4214 2048 6
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... A diagnosis​ of mental illness has many meanings, not all of them clearly stated. It confines itself to the language of the clinic but its reach extends far beyond it. It confers many, often hard-won, legal rights to employment, treatment, educational support and state benefits; equally it can remove your children from you, oblige you to undergo treatment against your will or take away your liberty ...

Like Cooking a Dumpling

Mike Jay: Victorian Science Writing, 20 November 2014

Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age 
by James Secord.
Oxford, 306 pp., £18.99, March 2014, 978 0 19 967526 5
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... In 1802​ , the young Humphry Davy introduced his first full course of chemistry lectures at the Royal Institution by addressing the fear that science was a Trojan horse for social or political reform. In ‘a bright day, of which we already behold the dawn,’ he announced, ‘we may look forward with confidence to a state of society in which the different orders and classes of men will contribute more effectively to the support of each other than they have hitherto done ...

I don’t understand it at all

Mike Jay: Chernobyl, 6 December 2018

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy 
by Serhii Plokhy.
Allen Lane, 404 pp., £20, May 2018, 978 0 241 34902 1
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... When​ you look at it, it looks like any other piece of land. The sun shines on it like on any other part of the earth. And it’s as though nothing had particularly changed in it. Like everything was the way it was thirty years ago.’ This is the first description of the Zone, the enigmatic and forbidden locus of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic (1972), filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker (1979 ...

‘I’m not signing’

Mike Jay: Franco Basaglia, 8 September 2016

The Man Who Closed the Asylums: Franco Basaglia and the Revolution in Mental Health Care 
by John Foot.
Verso, 404 pp., £20, August 2015, 978 1 78168 926 4
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... In Britain​ , the man who closed the asylums was Enoch Powell. ‘There they stand,’ he announced to two thousand delegates at the 1961 annual conference of the National Association for Mental Health (now known as Mind), ‘isolated, majestic, imperious … the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day ...

Elves blew his mind

Mike Jay: Hallucinations, 7 March 2013

Hallucinations 
by Oliver Sacks.
Picador, 322 pp., £18.99, November 2012, 978 1 4472 0825 9
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Spiritualism, Mesmerism and the Occult, 1800-1920 
edited by Shane McCorristine.
Pickering and Chatto, 5 vols, 1950 pp., £450, September 2012, 978 1 84893 200 5
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... In February 1758 the 90-year-old Charles Lullin, a retired Swiss civil servant whose sight had been progressively failing since a cataract operation five years before, began to see considerably more than he had become accustomed to. For the next several months he was visited in his apartment by a silent procession of figures, invisible to everyone but him: young men in magnificent cloaks, perfectly coiffured ladies carrying boxes on their heads, girls dancing in silks and ribbons ...

Who gets to trip?

Mike Jay: Psychedelics, 27 September 2018

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics 
by Michael Pollan.
Allen Lane, 465 pp., £20, May 2018, 978 0 241 29422 2
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Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs that Changed Our Minds 
by Lauren Slater.
Little, Brown, 400 pp., £20, February 2018, 978 0 316 37064 6
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... Wouldn’t you like​ to see a positive LSD story on the news?’ asked the late comedian Bill Hicks in one of his most famous routines. ‘Today, a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves ...

The Wrong Head

Mike Jay: Am I Napoleon?, 21 May 2015

The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon: Towards a Political History of Madness 
by Laure Murat, translated by Deke Dusinberre.
Chicago, 288 pp., £31.50, October 2014, 978 0 226 02573 5
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... Scarcely​ one year has gone by, and everything has taken on a new countenance.’ Early in the French Revolution, in 1790, Philippe Pinel observed the ‘salutary effects of the progress of liberty’ everywhere he looked. During the Ancien Régime he had seen Paris as an incubator for madness; now he recognised the epidemic of nervous illnesses that had plagued it as symptoms of a ‘social order ready to expire ...

Don’t fight sober

Mike Jay, 5 January 2017

Shooting Up: A History of Drugs in Warfare 
by Łukasz Kamieński.
Hurst, 381 pp., £25, March 2016, 978 1 84904 551 3
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Blitzed: Drugs In Nazi Germany 
by Norman Ohler.
Allen Lane, 360 pp., £20, October 2016, 978 0 241 25699 2
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... In October​ 2013 a Time magazine article entitled ‘Syria’s Breaking Bad’ alerted Western media to the prevalence across the region of a little-known stimulant drug, Captagon. Lebanese police had found five million locally produced tablets, embossed with a roughly stamped yin-yang symbol, sealed inside a Syrian-made water heater in transit to Dubai ...

Riot, Revolt, Revolution

Mike Jay: The Despards, 18 July 2019

Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Culture, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class and of Kate and Ned Despard 
by Peter Linebaugh.
California, 408 pp., £27, March 2019, 978 0 520 29946 7
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... Before dawn​ on 21 February 1803, the day of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard’s execution, London’s entire armed forces were on full alert. Every member of the Bow Street, Queen Street and Hatton Garden militias, along with numerous petty constables from the outlying boroughs, was placed on duty in ‘all the public houses and other places of resort for the disaffected ...

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