Weekly Briefing

Russia: espionage

"There's more politics than intelligence in this scandal," sighed Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Russian newspaper known for its links to the Kremlin, as the FBI arrested 11 alleged Russian spies. The arrests came days after the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, met Barack Obama, sparking talk of a "reset" of ties.

The western media have been more excited, reporting on "deep cover" operations and data transfers. But the US has not rebuked Russia, and the suspects are not charged with espionage but money laundering and failing to register as a foreign country's representatives.

Meanwhile, Lebanon provides a reminder that spies never really went away. A man accused of spying for Israel has been arrested. He faces a life in prison with hard labour or death if found guilty of contributing to Lebanese deaths.

Thailand: by-election

Almost 500 anti-government protesters - arrested in Bangkok in May following a two-month period of civil unrest - remain in police custody, some on charges as serious as terrorism. But one has been released, so that he could register as a candidate for a by-election due on 25 July. Korkaew Pikulthong, who will stand for the Puea Thai Party, is banned from recording audio or visual campaign materials, but his candidacy brings new legitimacy to the "red-shirt" movement.

The general election that the demonstrators called for is yet to materialise, but the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, must call one by the end of 2011. In the meantime, the fight for this seat is expected to be fierce.

Guinea: democracy

Even if Guinea's presidential election on 27 June had been a disaster - and reports say it was anything but - it would still have been the country's most democratic in more than 50 years. Since gaining independence in 1958, Guinea had endured a series of autocrats. When elections were held, they had been corrupt.

A clash last year between soldiers and protesters calling for the country's then-leader, Moussa Camara, to step down, led to horrific violence. But the UN investigation that followed also resulted in the junta's dissolution.

Guinea's transitional leader, Sekouba Konate, banned all serving politicians from running. He reminded the candidates that they would choose the country's fate : "Peace, freedom and democracy, or chaos and instability." With more than three-quarters of voters turning out for the polls, the will to achieve the former was clear.

New Zealand: smoking

"This is a prison. It's not home. It's actually a prison," said Judith Collins, the corrections minister, of the smoking ban in New Zealand's prisons, due to start in July 2011. "It will be a total ban across all prisons. Not in the cells, not even out in the yard."

Stern words. But neither punishment nor concern for the prison population's health seems to be the primary motivating factor. Instead, fittingly, it's the law. Many Kiwi prisoners now share cells, raising the risk that non-smokers forced to share with Fag-Ash Lils might sue.
Just as well the problem isn't cigarettes themselves. Research from the US - where more than half of prisons forbid smoking - shows bans merely add a new product line to the black market.

US: Marilyn's chest

Some like it irradiated, apparently. The three X-rays of Marilyn Monroe's chest that came up for auction on 27 June were expected to sell for a few thousand dollars, but in the end two anonymous bidders saw fit to spend $45,000 between them on the images - labelled Marilyn DiMaggio, her married name - of the actress's thoracic cavity.

Suddenly, the $190,000 spent at an auction the same day on one of Michael Jackson's crystal-studded gloves seems a prudent investment. At least the buyer can get some wear out of that.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

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.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals