Lost in India: passengers on an Indian railway platform. Photo: Getty
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Why did a man wake up on an Indian train platform with no idea who he was?

When David Stuart MacLean woke up in India with amnesia he assumed he was an addict who had overdosed. In fact, the only chemical he’d been taking was the prescribed antimalarial drug Lariam.  

On 17 October 2002, David Stuart MacLean woke up on a train platform in India with no idea who he was. “There, there,” a man dressed like a police officer said. “I have seen this many times before. You foreigners come to my country and do your drugs . . . It will be all right, my friend.”

David followed the man to a safe house for troubled foreigners, run by a Chinese woman whose son had overdosed in Singapore. “You have no idea what you do to your mother when you put these drugs into your body,” she said, crying as she told her story. David cried, too.

Later, he was taken to a neuropsychiatry centre in Hyderabad where a doctor administered antipsychotic drugs to stop the hallucinations that were keeping him awake at night. He managed to remember his parents’ phone number. “I’m so sorry,” he wept down the line. “I’ve been a terrible person. An awful son.” An Indian friend rounded up every American he knew in the city and brought them to the hospital. They arrived with newspapers and cigarettes, which David began to chain-smoke, despite never having touched a cigarette in his life.

As far as he knew, he was a junkie who had got himself into trouble. “I assembled a working self out of the behaviour of others,” he recalls in his memoir The Answer to the Riddle Is Me. In reality, he was a bright American student on a Fulbright scholarship suffering from amnesia, insomnia and convulsions. The only drug he had been taking was the antimalarial Lariam.

Lariam was developed by the US army with the Swiss pharmaceutical company F Hoffman-La Roche in the 1970s. It was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1989. When a randomised double-blind study was conducted in 2001 – a study that should have been completed years earlier – researchers found 67 per cent of patients suffered at least one adverse affect; 6 per cent required medical treatment. If this data had been available, the drug may not have been approved.

Between 2002 and 2004 the journalists Mark Benjamin and Dan Olmsted filed more than 40 reports on US soldiers who had returned from malarial countries such as Rwanda, Liberia and Afghanistan and killed themselves. Sometimes they killed their wives and children, too. The murder of 16 Afghan civilians by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales in 2012 has been linked to Lariam. For those with susceptible brain chemistry (or who have suffered brain injuries, as in the case of Bales), the drug can pool in the brain, inflicting irreversible damage.

When David returned to Ohio, he was confronted by photographs of a stranger bearing his name. He met a woman named Anne, who told him they had been in love. He couldn’t picture the two of them together and ended the relationship. Over time, most of David’s memories returned but he still lives with the threat of relapse, unable to prove that Lariam caused his condition.

The US military stopped the procedural use of Lariam in 2009. Roche has ceased marketing it in the US (though it is still available to British soldiers and on the NHS). An army epidemiologist told the US Senate that it was the Agent Orange of our generation. In 1994, a Roche safety report noted that Lariam could cause depression, which may involve suicidal ideation in a few cases. That it could lead to suicide was harder to prove. The cause was more likely “the progressive breakdown of traditional values”, the company wrote. It had nothing to do with its drug.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.