Opium being harvested. Photo: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images
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Suzanne Moore: As I munched on the opium, I pondered the benefits of a drugs-based economy

Jean-Claude had certainly not been in love with me when I was conscious.

When I set off for India I knew only two things: what I had read in Midnight’s Children and that Indians were mad for whisky. I wasn’t sure if the second thing was racist.

Suffice to say that I spent the first two nights in a fleapit in Delhi, terrified by men knocking on my door all night long. “Johnnie Walker,” they hissed. “Give it, madam.” I’d bought some in Abu Dhabi but I was too scared to open the door and sell it to them.

But I got into it when I realised that you could finance a trip to Nepal by bringing back whisky.

The bit no one ever told you was how everyone got stuck in Kathmandu. After a few months in India, Kathmandu was a paradise. Brownies. Lemon meringue pie. Burgers. The hippies had turned the locals on, not only to shooting up heroin, but the munchies. The economy was seemingly based on drugs and patisserie, although once you ventured further afield the medieval poverty of the villages was truly scary. We would scuttle back, usually sick and craving sweet things.

It seemed to be the ideal place then to start eating opium. I was sharing a room with Jean-Claude, a French guy whom I’d become mates with on the road, but was having a peculiar affair with Daba. He was a beautiful Tibetan ex-monk. I was entranced by his long, black hair and er ... spirituality.

Except, like all eldest sons, Daba had no choice about being a monk and there is little spiritual about Tibetan Buddhism as it is practised. Having left the monastery, he now belonged nowhere.

Daba seduced me as we drank out of an ancient silver samovar.

“What kind of tea is this?” I said, as it hit the back of my throat. He drank this all day.

It took a while for me to realise that Daba was a lost alcoholic. But lots of things took a while to dawn on me as I munched my sticky little balls of opium. I carried on drinking “tea” with Daba, trying to see if me and Jean-Claude could get a cheaper room, and waiting to feel something.

Some days later, I was woken up by being slapped round the face by Jean-Claude.

“I thought you were dead.”

He was in a right state. I’d slept for 72 hours. No dreams. Nothing.

This was a bit alarming, I could see that. Not as alarming as what he said next.

“I love you but you cannot live like this. I want to save you. I want you to understand Jesus.”

Jean-Claude had certainly not been in love with me when I was conscious.

That was the wake-up call all right. I was on the next coach out of Kathmandu, with a completely pissed Daba, propped up by a weeping Jean-Claude, waving me off.

It could have been worse. I had an entire suitcase full of Johnnie Walker. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.