Baby boomers bat for Hillary

Joe Treasure among California’s Clinton-lovers

Politically committed Californians have been watching Iowa these past few weeks with a mixture of frustration and anthropological curiosity. Who are these people? And how come they get to make decisions that might have an impact on the rest of us? The bafflement is emblematic of the coastal response to eight years of national politics.

To watch the returns, I've come to an elegant home in southern California, where I'm surrounded by sophisticated artwork and a big crowd of Clinton supporters. The invitation I received included the curious statement that "Hillary is committed to ending the war in Iran" - a Freudian slip, I assume, suggesting that Hillary will begin opposing the Iranian war once she has voted in favour of it. It's a dissident thought I decide to keep to myself, along with my sneaking preference for John Edwards.

Women of the Clinton generation love Hillary, in a theoretical kind of way, as the fulfilment of the women's movement. Opinion polls indicate this, and the Hillary gathering bears it out. There are more women than men, even in this right-on part of the country, and baby boomers predominate. "To have a female candidate," a woman with a Hillary badge tells me, "and not to support her because we dislike this or that about her and because we hold her to a higher standard than the guys - it's unthinkable."

I ask another woman why Hillary, and get a one-word answer: "Competence." A third says: "I can't bear the thought that the last of our age group to hold high office will turn out to have been Bush - that this will be the final impact of the Sixties generation." The woman standing next to her, a sceptic like me, I suspect, protests that their generation can surely take some credit for Barack Obama: "Without us, without the Sixties, without the civil rights movement, his rise would not have been possible." "Yes, but Obama is part of the next generation. If he gets the nomination, our role in history is over." It occurs to me that this is the kind of argument that makes younger people wonder when the baby boomers are going to get over themselves.

My fellow sceptic is gloomily predicting a three-way split among the leading Democrats, a result that will settle nothing. As for the Republicans, she tells me, she doesn't "care what they do, as long as they stick it to Giuliani".

When CNN begins to call the results, I find the woman with the Hillary badge. "Are we downhearted?" I ask her. She raises an eyebrow. "By this? This is nothing. It's not even binding in Iowa - it's just another poll, really." Which might be technically true, but it doesn't explain why we're here, with these televisions on, looking in at this strange, bucolic event.

A man passing with a plateful of food stops to point to some statistics on the screen. "You see that?" he says. "Hillary got almost as many Democratic votes as Obama. It was only the independents who gave him that big lead." But isn't this what you need to win an election, I ask him, the undecided voters? "I guess," he says. "But independents can't vote in most of the primaries." So the primaries are more important than the real thing? "Listen," he tells me, "Hillary's going all the way."

Watching Obama's victory speech, as the party goes on around me, I can't help thinking that these members of Generation Hillary might be shutting their eyes to the big story.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked

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 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked