Wednesday, 5 December 2007

High Society

I’ve just finished Ben Elton’s High Society. It’s not about the social elite, it’s about – as Peter Paget, its central character says ‘a society in which people who are otherwise law-abiding criminalise themselves by buying and taking drugs’. Otherwise? Aren’t burglars law-abiding other than their tendency to break into people’s houses and take away things which don’t belong to them?

Once I’d started High Society, I asked the Ultimate Frisbee Freak (who’s almost 18 and therefore about to be allowed to vote for people who make this kind of decision) what he thought of the potential legalization of all illegal drugs. He thought it’d be stupid. Not only because there would be mass addiction amongst the young (‘Have you seen town on a Friday and Saturday night? And that’s just alcohol!) but also because he thinks it is naïve to assume that all the gangsters currently engaged in drug smuggling would just go away and take up crochet or working in call centres. They would, in his view, just find some other illegal and equally socially unpleasant way to earn a ton of money.

And he’s probably right. High Society portrays some very nasty criminals indeed. Pimps mostly, preying on illegal immigrants and homeless girls, who feed the young women drugs to keep them docile and – if not high - at least not entirely connected to the awful things that are happening to them and proceed to live off their immoral earnings. And the book leaves you in no doubt just how immoral these earnings are. (One of the things I consistently like about Ben Elton's books is that he can show you the seamiest side of life without ever losing his grip on your attention or allowing you to think that this is all just so grim that you don't want to read any more. His people and his plots are so engaging that however nitty the gritty gets you're always carried along.)

Interestingly, given that this is the group Ben Elton himself could be said to belong to, the book also shows the devastating effects drugs can have on those who are less socially deprived but just as addicted. Rich addicts in the book lose their sense of identity every bit as much as the drug-doped prostitutes, they just do it whilst wearing nice clothes and drinking champagne to wash down the shopping-trolleys’ worth of cocaine, ecstasy, crystal meth etc which they sniff, swallow and otherwise shovel into their protesting systems.

The moral heart of the book is Jessie, a Scottish teenager who becomes homeless after being abused by her stepfather and subsequently falls prey to the pimps. Her aspiration, expressed very vividly, is a room of her own whose door she can shut and within which her privacy – not to mention her body – will remain inviolate.
It echoes Virginia Woolf’s plea for a room of one’s own, though possibly for rather different reasons.

This extremely modest aspiration of Jessie's throws a spotlight on to the self-indulgent wastefulness of the lives lived by the book's smart set . They have so much more than a room of their own, but they don't know how to value it. They take drugs because they’re bored, because they’re aimless and because they can afford to. None of those things, the book makes it very clear, would change if it were made legal.

So, does Ben Elton come down on the side of legalisation or not? Well, all the most persuasive speeches in the book are in favour of it – in fact I can’t think of anybody actually speakng against- but a horrified little voice which comes from between the lines says ‘Are you mad? Look what drugs do to people!’ Text, as one of my lecturers from the old days would have said, and subtext.

I think, once his exams are over next summer and he’s a free man, I’m going to persuade the UFF to read High Society so he and I can argue some more about the drugs thing. Because whilst, as a police officer in the book says, we are obviously losing the war on drugs, I’m not sure I want to contemplate what making peace with them would look like.
I remember being very disturbed indeed, when I was the UFF’s age, by people’s willing consumption of soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; a whole society willingly complicit in its own oppression.

Legalising drugs and allowing the government to make shedloads of money out of taxing their sale seems to me to be teetering dangerously on the brink of a state-sponsored nation of doped-up junkies. Brave New Britain…

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