The language of love

Next year, Pakistan will celebrate the centenary of its premier Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-84). The Pakistan Academy of Letters has announced an impressive range of events for 2011 - it plans to hold international conferences in Britain, Sweden and Canada, co-ordinate a huge translation project and issue memorial stamps. Faiz's work will be introduced on to the national syllabus in Pakistan and his "public-oriented poetry" will be disseminated at central and provincial levels.

Despite being a known supporter of the Communist Party, Faiz was both highly respected and popular in his lifetime, so the wider introduction of his work 26 years after his death is long overdue. It is also a relatively safe option, as those protesting against the current political order tend to be drawn more to Islamic-style solutions than to communism. The thundering success of the apocalyptic title poem of his verse collection In the Valley of Sinai (1971) bears witness to this trend.

From the masses to the classes, Pakistan is a nation that is passionate about poetry. Admittedly, levels of understanding vary, not just as a result of differences in education, but because of Pakistan's many regional languages, each with its own literature.

Faiz's language of choice, Urdu - Pakistan's lingua franca - is associated not with any specific province, but with the Mughal courts of the 18th century, where it gained royal patronage as a literary language. We know for certain that even the most warlike tribes among the Pathans and the Baluch are devoted to love poetry. Faiz excelled at it; his love poems are immediately expressive and abound in fabulous images, with flashes of forbidden love, particularly poignant in societies where people are killed for romantic liaisons even today.

Even his harshest protest poems are nuanced with a wider kind of love and longing. His signature works in free verse also employ the specific devices of a split voice or the idea of divided love, in which romantic passion transforms, often without warning, into a tormented love of humanity; from a soporific romantic trope into an unsparing picture of harrowing poverty, unbearable loss and self-obsessed leadership. Yet Faiz very rarely sacrificed lyricism for rhetorical effect, as the large number of his verses performed by the greatest Pakistani singers (including the foremost diva, Noor Jehan) attests.

The circumstances of Faiz's life add exceptional interest to his poetic achievements. There was his early attachment to the ideals of the highly political Progressive Writers' Movement; his war service in the British Indian army (in which he rose to become lieutenant colonel); his romantic marriage to a British woman, Alys; his outspokenly left-wing editorship of the Pakistan Times in the early years of Pakistan; his arrest and imprisonment for alleged involvement in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case in the 1950s (his newspaper supported the coup as a quid pro quo for the Communist Party's entry into parliament); the award of the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962; his role as cultural adviser to the Bhutto government in the 1970s; and then his self-exile in Beirut following the July 1977 coup by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

In 1984, the year of his death, Faiz was nominated for the Nobel Prize but, according to one theory, was struck off the list because of his association with the Palestinian leadership.

Shahrukh Husain is an author and screenwriter. She is the editor of "The Virago Book of Erotic Myths and Legends"

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan