Roy Jenkins believes this to have been an insular election: it has also had more than its share of the infantilism of show business, and was one of the foulest and most name-calling for a long time. Government will now resume, promises will be kept and broken, and the keepers of official secrets will try some more of their dirty tricks, secure in the knowledge that this was an issue which was never to arise in the course of the election. This was one name that was never called. When it came out in America that covert actors had been set on by the President to circumvent the will of Congress, politicians of both parties, together with the maligned American media, managed to force the President onto the defensive, and, for once, into apology. Nothing of that kind has happened here. British secrecy is more secret than American secrecy. At the same time, it would appear to have been less culpable, in certain important respects, than that of several other countries. Across the world, government chicanery has risen to new levels. One aspect of this has to do with what happens when the clandestinity of government and the clandestinity of organised crime shake hands. What brings them together is the private enterprise of drug-smuggling, and the rewards and opportunities associated with that.

I have just returned to London from Canberra, Australia’s federal capital and seat of government. The cities and suburbs of Australia’s south-east coast are like a kind of England perched on the rim of a Pampas or Sahara, or so one might imagine. And one might imagine that across the Australia Deserta which starts at Canberra’s doorstep flash messages to and from a disreputable outside world. Canberra has an air of remoteness and of filing-cabinet propriety – of there being nowhere further from the international drug trade: low-density housing lassoed by empty motorways and parked about a pastoral cityscape of pastel colours, soft-smudged with eucalyptus, loud with the song of beautiful and vehement birds with names like Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo. When Barry Humphries squawked the other day that he had been pleased to find that Canberra had become a little ‘sleazy’, he was joking.

Out of this garden city of good government, on 22 June 1983, flew a telex which read: ‘There appears to be no action which the Australian Federal Police can take in relation to the allegations. In view of the fact that Milgate/McGuinness have already advised the Indian authorities of their suspicions there seems little point in Australian Federal Police contacting them.’ These allegations and suspicions related to the world of drug scams and their masterminds and mules (or couriers). Milgate/McGuinness are two Australians, now man and wife, whose book, The Cochin Connection,* I read in between the times of a conference I was attending in Canberra of the million telexes.

The Milgates are sailors, not authors. Their book is quite often boring and bumpy. But the story it has to tell deserves to be heard. The couple were making their way across the high seas in their yacht Tiger Rag when the steering went and they had to put into the South Indian port of Cochin for repairs. Cochin entangled them with the ostentatiously bent Jim Howard, clad in cowboy boots and somehow connected with Australian officialdom. The book keeps discovering that this cowboy with the right-wing views and colourful past (Amin, South Africa, Vietnam) was not what he seemed, or rather that he was what he seemed – namely, a crook, and, to boot, very likely a double agent in the shape of smuggler and spy. When, under attack by Howard, the Milgates attempted to expose the smuggler to the bureaucracies of India and Australia, there was, for every official who helped them, another who hindered. Pirate Jim’s bumbling efforts to jail them, and to seize Tiger Rag, were officially abetted – but they were also thwarted, and his confederates, and friends in high places, must surely have wondered about the competence of this double agent.

Howard’s own boat was called the Steppenwolf and his lawyer was a Mr Vellapally – nice touches, these, which the Milgates do not seem to have made up. They claim that the contents of their book are all true, and one is bound to think that its allegations were largely confirmed when the US Coastguard eventually impounded the Hetty Mitchell off New Jersey, and, with Brian Milgate’s assistance, lit on a cache of Howard’s drugs: 14 tons of hashish worth a 100 million dollars on the American street.

Howard’s girlfriend Jyl Gocher spoke of the Milgates as her ‘good little children’, and at one point these good little children witnessed a stage version of the very drama in which they felt themselves to be performing – on the night ‘we attended the Hindu temple festival at Edacochin and watched the actors play out the ritual struggle of good against evil. Unknown to us as we walked home that night along the sandy paths to the Edacochin boatyard, Jim Howard, Jyl Gocher and a number of Indian thugs were waiting for us in the boatyard.’ Soon afterwards they were assured by an Indian customs official that ‘this man Jim Howard was a good fellow after all.’ By then, though, the Milgates had more or less discovered that he was not. Their role in the struggle of good against evil had brought chases through the jungle and rovings round the world. Brian Milgate even made it to Sheffield, to be befriended over Christmas by the mother of one of Howard’s henchmen – in jail by that stage, but ‘such a good boy,’ she said, slipping a fiver into Milgate’s jacket pocket as she kissed him goodbye at a pub. He was later to receive a rather different goodbye from an American law-enforcer, who urged him ‘to be careful since a number of characters in this drug organisation checked directly back to the intelligence community – the CIA as well as another foreign government. And if the CIA’s business had been threatened, he told me, their wrath would be far deadlier than what might be expected from the Mafia.’ Meanwhile Canberra’s lips are sealed and Howard is still at large.

The Milgates come across as wholesome, intrepid, awkward Aussies: but their book suggests, inadvertently at times, that dramas of good against evil are not simple. And drugs are not simple either. No one loves a drug dealer, and the authors of books can be expected to describe how they tried to detect and upset their scams. But drug supply and drug-taking are probably ineradicable, and are certainly behaving as if they were. In Cochin, the Milgates have lifted their stones and had the temerity to add to the pieces of evidence and rumour which indicate that governments, bureaucracies, economies, intelligence services and counter-insurgencies are taking money from the suppliers of drugs. In the West Country, a Hell’s Angel has just received a nine-year sentence for supplying its little grey homes with cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine and LSD. It is now being said in Britain that too much is made of the drug question, that the Police should stand off, and let those who want to take drugs, or most drugs, take them. I doubt whether Mrs Thatcher’s fiefdom would put up with a free market for that particular commodity. Despite what is sometimes said, it could hardly be counted on to deter the thefts that are taking place in and around our centres of financial excellence; nor would it deter the corruption and clandestinity of repressive governments elsewhere in the world. But it is unlikely to happen here. What could and, I think, should come about is a limited freedom which might well strengthen the hand of those with the thankless task of restricting the distribution of hard drugs. These drugs could be distinguished in law from cannabis, with which they currently, and dangerously, share outlets on the street, and in the country: and cannabis could be treated on the same footing as alcohol. Are you listening, Cornwall and Devon?

This is not the only book I have been reading in which the vulnerable Anglo-Saxon, landed in foreign parts, risks himself in search of a drug connection. In contrast with the Milgates, Charles Nicholl is a fully-functioning, two-tiered man of letters, whose book The Fruit Palace, published in 1985 and reissued last year, is a triumphant piece of travel writing which is also a comic extravaganza. A further dual role is evident here, that of the beachcomber detective. The scene is Colombia, to which Nicholl was drawn by its mala fama, its bad name, and whose black economy, based on the transit of drugs to Europe and America, is, in a sense, the only economy there is in that country.

The drama of good and evil is even more ambiguous in this book than in the other. The author takes drugs himself on occasion – a joint of basuko, for example: ‘you are soothed rather than fired up. It has none of the Ice Nine crystalline quality, the cool fever of the true cocaine high.’ At the same time, he is busy exposing the suppliers of the drugs he takes. Charles Nicholl told the readers of this journal not long ago that the trade is ineradicable, that people like drugs, like stupors, like letting go – and perhaps the element of farce in his book accommodates this view. When he finally caught up with some coastal smugglers, the smugglers caught up with him, not having been able to help noticing that he was writing a book about them: but they refrained from killing him. This, perhaps, was an act of literary criticism. Perhaps they felt sure he was writing a comic novel, which would no more lead to arrests in Colombia than the Milgates’ revelations will lead to demotions in Canberra. Nevertheless, The Fruit Palace does find things out about the way things are in Colombia, and they are summarised in one of its bravura passages, which describes the long road to London – where Nicholl’s publisher awaits that big book on the drug trade to which The Fruit Palace is due to bear a somewhat ambiguous resemblance:

My confused stumblings had actually unearthed a whole pipeline. I could trace my phantom 10 kilos of cocaine all the way – Huanaco leaves from the Yungas of Bolivia, mulched with kerosene and acid into cocaine paste, smuggled up through the jungles of Peru to the Colombian border near Leticia, flown up to the Hacienda Alaska in the southern llanos, elaborated by a German cook into prime cocaine hydrochloride, trucked up in cattle wagons to the San Felipe slaughterhouse in Bogota, distributed through Rafael Vallejo’s Transcarne meat network, offloaded in Barranquilla, driven down the Troncal de Caribe, carried down the trail to Sea Breeze Farm, loaded into a speedboat called La Solucion, ferried by Agaton and Miguelito to the island of Aruba, delivered to a businessman in Oranjestad, packaged up in a cargo of agave essence, nursed across the Atlantic by a bent crewman on a Dutch cargo ship, picked up in a hotel room in Amsterdam, spirited to London via any number of mule-runs, wholesaled, brokered, buffed, diluted, filtered through the ounce-dealers and gram-merchants, thirty thousand grams of one-in-three, sixty thousand hungry nostrils twitching, a hundred thousand toots at the parties that really matter ...

Charles Nicholl is a scholar of his subject, as well as a comedian. Here we come to his second tier of guns. The Chemical Theatre of 1980 is a study of the Renaissance Occult, of the alchemy of Shakespeare’s time, and is one of the most accessible and eloquent of the many studies in the Yatesian mode which have been done in recent years. It contains an alchemical reading of Lear, and Jonson’s Epicure Mammon is displayed – vowing, by the transmutation of base metal to gold, to ‘purchase Devonshire and Cornwall’ and ‘make them perfect Indies’, an investor’s paradise. In this book one of the dimensions of Nicholl’s later subject is prefigured: the enlightenment promised by altered or exalted states, chemically-related, was re-codified in the Renaissance, and this code was to survive in the expectations of some drug-users (not drinkers) of modern times, though there seems to have been a lot less of that highflying spirituality since drugs became a principal concern of international crime. Lexically and otherwise, Colombia commemorates an old enlightenment, hubris and greed. Eldorado – the gilded man pursued by the Elizabethan adventurer – was sought at the bottom of one of its lakes. In the wilds of present-day Latin America toil the ‘cooks’ who turn the coca leaf into cocaine, which is then transmuted into gold: and ‘cook’ was also a word for the alchemists of the past, toiling over their elixirs. The mystique of drugs, so often adjacent to a mystification of money, continues in the countries of the West, but would appear, as I say, to be badly tarnished in its urban wastelands.

Meanwhile the high of the British General Election is over, and so are its shams and scams. In the course of it, the Alliance announced that its leaders would no longer appear on television together because they looked like garden gnomes. Were the two Davids unable to reflect that the Goliath they were up against would never have considered offering such an explanation? Did Neil Kinnock never tell himself that Labour’s position on defence might make the election a foregone conclusion – a conclusion that might have been averted by taking the Gorbachev initiatives into account? In both cases, apparently not.

Canberra’s international conference on literary journals was a bracing affair – much enlivened by its cockatoos, not all of them indigenous. There were those who seemed to think that capitalist consumerism and English literature were finished, and that the true enemy lay on the moderate left, among liberals, rather than in the conservative parties of the English-speaking world. And there were moments when this conference on literary journalism seemed to have assembled to dance on its grave. I wonder whether such people will pay attention to the outcome of the British election, in which the politics of public spirit went down once more to defeat? Or to the election called in Australia by Bob Hawke? Australians I spoke to had been disappointed by Hawke’s Administration; and for them the dismissal of Gough Whitlam was still a very bitter memory. I feel they will be worse than disappointed if Hawke’s opponents succeed.

Australia is a place where the men and women do not go about together – unless there was something peculiar about the week I was there. And in a poem in this issue Susanne Chowdhury suggests that people no longer take hands or link arms. Parents have usually been keen to do it, but about twenty years ago, by my reckoning, children began to decline the offer. Now no one does it. I certainly doubt whether there will be much hand-holding in Britain for quite some time to come.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences