As a child of the Sixties, these days it often seems to me that history is repeating itself. Only this time, instead of the demon drug being cannabis, it’s tobacco. It may be worth recounting what it was like back then, for those who weren’t there.
Back in the Sixties, a subculture grew up around cannabis and the music and clothes and the experimental attitudes of the time. It was a separate culture from the main culture. In the main culture people smoked cigarettes and drank beer and did so quite openly in pubs and restaurants. By contrast the drug subculture was to be found behind closed doors and drawn curtains in flats and houses all over Britain.
You either belonged to the drug subculture or the main culture, and there wasn’t much interaction between the two. If you belonged to the main culture, you didn’t regard cigarettes and alcohol as “drugs” at all: you regarded “drugs” as being things like cannabis and opium and the like, and you were utterly petrified of them, because everybody knew that you got addicted to them, and it was a rapid spiral downwards once that had happened. Equally, if you belonged to the drug subculture, you very often had a high opinion of cannabis (and perhaps a number of other drugs), but hardly ever touched alcohol or cigarettes, which you regarded as far more dangerous drugs than cannabis. Smoking tobacco, you believed, caused lung cancer, because the US Surgeon General had said so just a few years earlier, and you believed him. Smoking cannabis, by contrast, was good for your health, although the US Surgeon General hadn’t actually said that.
I guess that back in my university days, about half the students I knew belonged to the drug subculture, and the rest belonged to the main culture. And the two cultures gradually grew apart. Moving from one culture to the other entailed adopting quite different attitudes to a whole variety of things, and not just drugs. The drug subculture had not only its own drugs, but its own music, and its own fashions and hairstyles and even its own home decor (lots of velvet). People in the drug subculture didn’t read things like newspapers, or watch television, or listen to the radio. They instead played music and smoked cannabis and talked an awful lot about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Theirs was a very introverted world.
The drug subculture was also a persecuted minority. There were quite often police raids on flats and houses, and people were carted off to police stations and had their drugs confiscated (and sometimes planted on them), and were fined and sometimes sent to prison. And one result of this was that the drug subculture was rather paranoid. People wondered if they were being watched or followed. And quite often they were being. And they were often angry about this, angry that their chosen drug was being unjustly singled out for draconian treatment, while the smokers and drinkers engaged in their habits undisturbed. “How would they like it if tobacco was made illegal?” was a question that was quite often asked.
I got rather tired of the drug subculture after a few years. It wasn’t the drugs that bothered me, but instead the growing paranoia and gloom that seemed to afflict more and more of its members – and which was increasingly reflected in its music. I didn’t want to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”. I wasn’t much interested in Indian gurus. I didn’t see much point in railing against “the system”, or engaging in long discussions of how it was all going to collapse when the nukes started landing, or the oil or the food ran out, or because there were “too many of us”. I didn’t want to set up a commune somewhere, and live on rice and beans. I increasingly began to think that everything that the people in the subculture were thinking and talking about was complete claptrap, all the way from the Indian gurus and the meditation to the vegetarian food and the save-the-whales environmentalism. I set off instead in pursuit of cold reason.
Over the next decade or so, I gradually rediscovered the main culture. I began going to pubs and smoking cigarettes. I started reading newspapers. I got a radio and later a TV set, and a motorbike, and eventually a car. But above all I got away from the subculture’s dystopian obsessions. Instead of being pessimistic about everything, I began to become optimistic, and to enjoy life.
So it’s been rather odd, and very deja vu, to find myself back in a persecuted subculture, only this time being persecuted for smoking tobacco. It’s quite surreal. And I’ve stopped reading newspapers again. I no longer have a TV. It seems to be an alien and threatening world out there once again, just like it was in the late Sixties. And the smoky-drinky subculture that is now emerging is the mirror image of the drug subculture of long ago. And it’s also a rather paranoid and gloomy subculture, that sees doom in all directions. And instead of heading off to Morocco or India, people now head for the bars of Spain or Eastern Europe. And they have their very own “drug dealers”, in the form of the ubiquitous ‘man in a van’.
It’s a world that has been turned upside down, and one in which the fearful, paranoid, pessimistic drug subculture of 40 years ago has become the main culture, complete with windmills, solar heating, and an apocalyptic Malthusian vision of impending disaster, if not from peak oil, then over-population or global warming or whatever. I was familiar with most of it 40 years ago, before anybody else had heard of any of it. And I was pretty much as sick of it 40 years ago as I am today.
And I really believe that if you could see what someone like Chris Huhne or George Monbiot or perhaps even Deborah Arnott looked like 30 years ago, they’d have had long unkempt hair, and beads, and a well-thumbed copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue in the back pocket of their dungarees. And they haven’t really changed. They still have the same mindset. They see imminent threats everywhere to continuing human existence. And it’s all justified with a we-can’t-go-on-like-this mishmash of irrational beliefs and assumptions. They’ve simply donned suits and brought their nightmare visions into the heart of the main culture, which they want to destroy. Because they don’t care about pubs or alcohol or tobacco or anything of the old culture. They loathe it all. They always did.
For there are an awful lot of people like that out there. For the subculture gradually expanded to include more and more people. They may now hold down steady jobs and be married with children, but in their hearts they’re still pretty much Woodstock hippies, and what they believe is a confection of William Burroughs and Carlos Castaneda and Paul Ehrlich and John Lennon and Karl Marx and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Twiggy, with none of it ever having been subjected to serious criticism of any sort ever. Theirs was a ‘consensus’ that had emerged, complete with windmills and mung beans, in the curtained rooms of the subculture. It was a shared mood. And in the privacy of their own homes, even today they’ll now and then pull out a little brown lump of hashish, and with a conspiratorial grin start rolling a joint, just to show that they’re still the cool dudes they always were. Except that many of them are now as terrified of tobacco as their parents were once terrified of cannabis.
Theirs isn’t a rational world. It’s a subjective, touchy-feely, wishful, magical, emotional world. And what they believe has been shaped as much by the music they’ve been listening to as anything they’ve read anywhere. They’re not ‘watermelons’, green on the outside and red on the inside: they’re Habitat bean-bags that have been moulded into shape over several decades by hundreds of bottoms, and gradually solidified into a one-size-fits-all accommodation. And now they can’t change. And they can’t bear disagreement or criticism, because they’ve never had any experience of it. And now they’re running the country, and they’re doing as they were done to, and closing down the pubs, and building windmills galore.
I should know. 40 years ago I was one of them. And back then, I would have been listening to this:
It takes me right back.