Long ago, I went out with a good-looking young man with an
intermittent drug habit, mainly cannabis, but occasionally some of
the harder stuff. Yet this same man was also a convinced health
food nut. Whenever he was “wasted” he would insist on eating only
the purest food.
A few decades on, I can still see elements of that old friend’s
personal paradox played out all around me. On the one hand, hard
drugs are a major and growing problem and I find them just as
alarming as I did all those years ago. On the other, there’s an
obsession with health and fitness that my boyfriend of old would
Half the people I know are on some sort of diet or fitness regime.
Our culture is permeated with information and advice on everything
from weight loss to complementary therapies. Doctors now suggest
healthy eating, exercise and everything from shiatsu to homeopathy
as a way to battle some forms of depression.
Yet, strange as it sounds, there are strong connections between the
drugs trade and the health and fitness industry. For a start, both
have spawned and sustained multi-million pound businesses that feed
off people’s insecurities. More importantly, both play into the
illusion that we have some measure of control over our individual
It seems odd, in an age of globalisation, inter-faith wars, mass
famine and political apathy, that so many of us still believe we
can make our own lives. But we do, passionately.
New Labour’s core philosophy, for rich and poor alike, is based on
the idea that each of us can shape our own destiny if we only work
hard enough, exercise well and hold to some moral credo. In many
ways, we have not travelled that far from the ideology of those
puritan ancestors described by R H Tawney who were convinced that
“character is all and circumstances nothingÉ”, for whom
poverty was a moral failing and riches a reward for
And in a modern, surreal twist to the idea of character carrying
all before it, the premise of celebrity culture is that anyone can
make it, as long as they are young, fit and willing to make an ass
of themselves for loads of money and maximum broadcast coverage.
But how much control do we really have?
I watch a lot of people, particularly in mid life, struggling with
their lives like wasps caught in honey. Their relationships are
made or unmade, often several times over; the trajectory of their
work lives set and unsatisfying, their children growing up and
away, childhood innocence lost for ever. For many, the supposedly
simple task of losing weight or stopping smoking can seem an
Drug addiction is the flip side of this story; at its worst, it is
the language of total hopelessness. The difference between an
abstainer, a recreational user and an addict will depend on
temperament to some degree but it will also be determined by
circumstance: the degree of real control over real-life things.
Ruth Wyner, the homelessness worker imprisoned for allegedly
allowing drug users on her premises, recently described being
offered heroin in prison. Such was her misery at being
incarcerated, she was seriously tempted by the drug for the first
time in her life. But she refused. As she did so, she watched the
women around her “chasing the dragon”, women with much less to
lose, so much less to get out for.
I am not saying that we should not take care of ourselves and
others as much as we can. We should. But part of that “taking care”
is to recognise the limits of individual destiny and effort as well
as the still unmined possibilities of acting together. Who we are,
what we can become, how much we can change depends far more on
wider social forces than we are led to believe by everybody from
our form teacher to our GP, our best friend to our prime minister.
Privilege, power, connections, money. All these things are real and
operate powerfully in the real world. Similarly there are global
industries concentrated on the profits to be gained from persuading
people to eat more than they need, smoke and drink alcohol, often
to excess, and consume both legal and illegal drugs.
Yet these social forces are not seen clearly, spoken of openly or
We would do a lot better to think and speak of these aspects of our
world than dwell obsessively on our individual weight or
consumption of wheat or sugar or, worse still, try to escape the
real world altogether.
1 R H Tawney, Religion and the Rise of
Capitalism, Penguin, 1926
Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist.