. . . and finally

The last word on Blair

Britain is changing before our eyes. From 1 July, people will no longer be allowed to smoke in public places, as the ban is extended to England. Hunting has already been outlawed. For beagles, this represents a double whammy: the poor creatures now have few pleasures left. But there is a further development in the air: from 27 June, the date of his resignation, it will no longer be permitted to discuss Tony Blair in public. No longer will innocent people be subjected to others' views on the theme, or inhale their stale opinions. Pubs, clubs and offices will be transformed, as the air clears and the fog is lifted. Those sad addicts who cannot kick the habit will be forced to huddle under patio heaters on the pavement to indulge their craving. Already, in the Westminster village, helplines have been set up and special areas designated where lifelong Blair devotees can gather and discuss his legacy without fear of harassment.

For me it will be something of a relief, albeit a mixed one. In common with many Labour MPs, I disagreed with most of what he said, but was grateful that he kept me in work. When he became Prime Minister, I remember thinking "What do I do now?". I later realised he must have been thinking the same thing. As it was, through the twists and turns of his career, from the Bambi years - all smiles and seeking to please everybody - through the Alastair Campbell era to the grotesque error of Iraq and the surreal spectacle of his final weeks, where Britain has had a dual-fuel premiership, he has provided more material than one could ever imagine.

I wonder, as he looks back, what Blair makes of it all? What Dorian Gray picture there is in his attic to remind him of the difference between the fresh-faced idealist of 1997 and today's careworn practitioner of realpolitik. His speeches as opposition leader are certainly in marked contrast to the direction he later took. I think it's because, as Neil Kinnock has said, he was always impressed by money, by power and by uniforms. He sought to deal with the rich and powerful and ended up doing so on their terms. Likewise, in seeking to harness the power of the media, he ended up in hock to it, seeking "eye-catching initiatives" and becoming preoccupied with spin.

It will be hard for him to leave the big stage behind: I imagine that in the privacy of his bedroom, Blair is probably very good at playing "air prime minister". He must have loved shooting the breeze with Clinton and Mandela - even felt that when Bush came to power, he could be Bill Clinton to Bush's Blair - the wise, guiding influence of a more experienced, liberal world statesman. We know what happened to that dream. At least Blair can walk away from it all. I bet there are a few troops in Iraq who'd also like to get out just by handing over to their next-door neighbour.

He spoke only two words to me as Prime Minister. When I told him he was making our job too easy, he simply stammered "My kids!", which I took to be a reference to his kids doing impressions of me doing impressions of him. As it was, there was so much about new Labour that was beyond parody. Having in John Prescott a deputy PM who looked more like a National Express coach driver; Reid and Clarke, the home secretaries who moonlighted as night-club bouncers; Blunkett, the unlikely Casanova. The purring Mandelson, incapable of keeping his fingers out of the pie. Whatever else, they provided rich pickings as characters. Blair's departure continues a fire-damage sale at Westminster: a bonfire of the vanities, as all the colourful characters head for the doors. ("This deputy PM MUST GO! This shop-soiled home secretary, no longer fit for purpose! These former Tory and Lib Dem leaders, free to good homes!"). I look at the six candidates for deputy PM and despair. Perhaps they should have taken a leaf from Simon Cowell's book and run the deputy leadership contest as a week-long TV spectacular: "Labour's Got Talent!" Except there's one obvious problem with that. The title.

As I write, we really don't know that much about what Gordon Brown will be like. Will any members of his cabinet be recognisable? Is there a factory somewhere, even now turning out Miliband after Miliband on an assembly line, each indistinguishable from the other? Blair once said, "We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose." Will Brown go a step further? "We campaign in prose but we govern in morse code?" Such is our uncertain future. But at least it will be different. It is the end of an era. The Americans pronounce that as "error". Time will tell.

And what of the legacy? Northern Ireland and devolution are plus points, certainly, but all pales into insignificance beside Iraq. For the rest, will this PM be remembered for any great achievements? Or will he be like the fallen hero of antiquity in Shelley's poem:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains: round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Rory Bremner writes for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

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 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins