London Special - Ken's friends

Few doubt that the Mayor of London has been successful in promoting the capital as a major global fi

His enemies have always thought Ken Livingstone rather fancied himself as a left-wing dictator of a Latin American state. The Mayor of London's latest forays into foreign policy will have done much to confirm them in their views. His oil deal with Hugo Chávez's Venezuela is a classic piece of Livingstone political theatre, designed for maximum impact. But quite how he will square the import of Venezuelan diesel with his latest pledge to cut London's carbon emissions is yet to be explained. It also suggests a mayor who sees himself as an alternative focus of foreign policy to the national government.

As elected leader of a major world capital, he can claim political legitimacy for using his limited powers to develop policies in the best interests of Londoners. As a result of the Chávez deal, 250,000 poor Londoners will benefit from half-price travel. But as the Conservatives have point-ed out, the deal means that one of the poorest countries in the world is effectively subsidising the transport in one of the richest.

The mayor will argue that it is a mutually beneficial arrangement: London will advise on redeveloping Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, as a modern international city. He might also point out the novelty of the Conservative Party taking an interest in the slum-dwellers of Caracas.

His interests extend beyond South America. Livingstone has just hosted the mayors of Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Beijing in London. And now there are reports that his officials have been "scoping" links with Brazil's left-wing president Lula da Silva. While the Blair government parades its close relationship with the Bush administration, Livingstone is developing a network of alliances with the US government's opponents in its own backyard.

To his critics, Livingstone's Latin American approach is the perfect complement to his Middle East policy - fiercely anti-American and anti-Israeli. (Livingstone supports the radical Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has applauded suicide bombing of civilian Israeli targets, female genital mutilation and the execution of homosexuals.)

John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington who is standing as a left-wing candidate for the Labour leadership, worked with Livingstone on the GLC. The two have not always seen eye to eye, but McDonnell believes the mayor's foreign policy is consistent with a lifetime commitment to international causes: "He's had a genuine interest in Latin America for years and wants to demonstrate solidarity for the Chávez regime."

But it is not only Conservatives who are critical of Livingstone's new initiatives on the world stage. One former Labour Party colleague from his GLC days said Livingstone risked becoming a figure of ridicule: "He's had one really good idea, congestion charging, but that doesn't give him the licence to become a world statesman."

Oddly, Livingstone's policy on South America did not figure in a recent statement on "Globalisation and the International Promotion of London" presented to the London Assembly. This concentrated on the importance of developing links to the emerging economies of China, Russia and India (the GLA has "embassies" in Shanghai and Beijing and plans to open two more in Delhi and Mumbai).

According to figures from the mayor's office, London now has over 60,000 foreign students, of whom 7,300 are from China and 4,300 are from India. Tory attacks on Livingstone for wanting to make 2007 the year of promoting London in India rightly backfired, as did attacks on the quality of London's universities and the wisdom of attracting foreign students. But critics have noted a disjuncture between the pragmatic politics of representing London's interests in a changing global economy and some of Livingstone's more ideologically driven initiatives.

The veteran left-wing journalist Nigel Fountain, who first met Livingstone in the early 1970s and has taken a close interest in Venezuela, believes the mayor was wrong to take up Chávez as a radical cause: "The left has always loved a man in uniform who claims to be left-wing. Chávez is a populist authoritarian sitting on an oil well. Ken Livingstone gets incredibly enthusiastic about things. But he doesn't have any idea what Venezuela is really like."

Livingstone would do well to at least address some of the concerns of Chávez's left-wing opponents in Venezuela itself. Take, for instance, Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual. Petkoff, a former resistance fighter who founded the democratic left-wing party Movimento al Socialismo in 1971, has called on the international left to expose the contradictions of the Chávez regime. Asked by the website Harry's Place to describe the country, he provided the following useful pen-portrait.

"Venezuela is a racially mixed [mestizo] country and you can find white and dark-skinned people on both the pro-Chávez and anti-Chávez sides . . . It is true that Chávez's social programmes have reached the broad masses of poor people, but his economic policy has increased poverty by 10 per cent since 1998 according to official figures from the National Institute of Statistics."

Livingstone has already been rightly criticised by those on the traditional left for his dalliance with the Islamic religious right. There remains a distinct possibility that his alliance with Chávez will prove equally difficult to justify as a genuinely progressive political strategy.

A senior adviser said the mayor's office had examined and rejected claims about the authoritarian nature of the Chávez regime. "We prefer to deal with a government that spends its oil revenues on health and education rather than exporting it to banks in Florida," he said.

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.