Face of death: the prospect of nuclear Armageddon in an early CND poster
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The magazine, the missile crisis and the movement

As tensions rise between Russia and the west, we recall the role played by the New Statesman in the creation of CND and how the Cuban missile crisis led to the decline of the anti-nuclear movement.

The most influential article in the history of the New Statesman was written by J B Priestley and published on 2 November 1957. Goaded by Aneurin Bevan’s crushing of unilateralism at the recent Labour party conference (“And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm”) and using the father-of-the-nation style that had served him so well in his 1940 Postscripts for the BBC Home Service, Priestley ended:

 

The British of these times, so frequently hiding their decent, kind faces behind masks of sullen apathy or sour, cheap cynicism, often seem to be waiting for something . . . great and noble . . . that would make them feel good again. And this might well be a declaration to the world that after a certain date one power able to engage in nuclear warfare will reject the evil thing for ever.

 

After this, the birth of the Campaign for Nu­clear Disarmament was just a matter of time.

Later that month, a meeting of opinion-shapers was held at the flat of the NS editor, Kingsley Martin. Bertrand Russell was there. So, too, were Priestley and his wife, Jacquetta Hawkes; the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, whose concurrent Reith Lecture series, “Russia, the Atom and the West”, had begun to stoke anxiety about nuclear warfare; and the Labour MP Denis Healey, a specialist in defence. The young NS leader writer Paul Johnson watched it get off to a bad start:

 

Someone spoke advocating a unilateralist line and Healey replied, “Yes, yes, that’s all very well, but what we’ve got to do
is to be responsible about this.” Priestley exploded: “Responsible. Responsible! How many times have I heard that dreadful word!? It has led to two world wars and the prospect of a third.” I noticed that Bertie Russell was cackling . . . because if anybody knew how to be irresponsible then he did! I knew then that this was going to be a lot of trouble.

 

Over the next few months the NS became a forum in which global leaders protested their commitment to world peace. Russell began the exchange on 23 November by publishing his “Open letter to Eisenhower and Khrushchev”. It came down to the exhortation “to agree to disagree” (this being the mantra first coined in the NS by Richard Crossman): “It is not necessary that either side should abandon belief in its own creed. It is only necessary that it should abandon the attempt to spread its own creed by force of arms.”

Nikita Khrushchev replied to Russell’s article a month later, in an article written in Russian and accompanied by a personal letter to the editor. When the package arrived from the Soviet embassy, Kingsley Martin suspected it was a hoax. The Soviet leader endorsed Russell’s hopes for a sunlit future for mankind and condemned “the criminal policy of militarism”. With that scoop, sales of the Statesman went up by 2,000 to well over 70,000, an all-time high.

The uplifting tone was distorted by the eventual reply of the implicit villain of the piece, John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, whose public aphorisms of cold war principles were adding to the state of anxiety – “neutrality is an immoral and short-sighted concept”, “brinkmanship is the ability to get to the verge without getting into the war”, and so on. Dulles pointed out in the NS of 8 February 1958 that the Soviet Union had never renounced the use of force to resolve international tensions, as its invasion of Hungary in 1956 had proved.hese “open letters” read somewhat platitudinously today, but at a time when the Gallup Poll was consistently finding that 65 per cent of adults were worried “a lot” and 25 per cent “a little” by “all this talk about H-bombs, rockets, satellites and guided missiles”, they must have had the effect of a good sermon without God in it.

It was left to Spike Milligan, appropriately, to poke fun at the Dr Strangelove concept of mutually assured destruction (Mad). He was one of hundreds who joined in the New Statesman debate:

 

Let me be the first to say it. Mr Khrushchev’s letter in reply to Bertrand Russell is all a fiendish plot. [It] is a deliberate attempt to rob us of the promised American rocket bases on our soil. We must arm, arm, arm, arm, arm. For the Russians must be taught that the only way to end war is to have it.

 

Kingsley Martin’s own attitude to nuclear weapons was surprisingly equivocal. Then again, he was notoriously indecisive. Indeed, when he finally left the editorship in December 1960, the historian A J P Taylor sent a message: “The end of an era! It is most distressing to think that the New Statesman may now follow a consistent line two weeks running.”

Martin’s dilemma was that although he was a pacifist at heart he did not want to put the NS in the hands of a pressure group; he was an enthusiastic member of the national executive of CND but a lukewarm supporter in the office of the NS. This infuriated Priestley. “He is always dodging in and out on this,” he said of Martin.

But according to Johnson, Martin’s hands were tied anyway: “Barbara [Castle], John Freeman [who succeeded Martin as editor] and I would not let him take what we considered a pacifist line. He referred to us as the ‘Red-Headed League’ [all three had red hair] and thought we were ganging up on him.”

In October 1962 the world came as close as it ever has done to nuclear war. The NS was once again an important forum for national debate; again it was showing its own confused thinking. And behind the scenes there was an emotional rift, which has not been exposed before. The occasion, of course, was the Cuban missile crisis.

US spy planes obtained photographs of Soviet nuclear missiles recently moved to Cuba in retaliation for similar missiles the Americans had placed in Turkey and Italy. The US considered attacking Cuba by sea and air but decided instead to blockade the island, imposing a military and legal “quarantine” to prevent the delivery of more offensive weapons and strengthen its demand for the removal of those already in place.

As the NS went to press on 25 October these facts were not clear and the Soviet response was unknown. It was a fearful time. The previous day, Premier Khrushchev had written a public letter to President John F Kennedy, accusing him of “an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war”. Soviet ships attempted to run the blockade and two days later a Soviet missile crew shot down a US U-2 spy plane.

That week John Freeman was in Paris and the NS leading article was written by Paul Johnson. Contrary to readers’ expectations, particularly to those who remembered his anti-American leaders of the late 1950s, Johnson positioned the NS dogmatically behind the United States:

 

. . . the Russians stand accused of an act of provocation unprecedented since the onset of the Cold War [carried out] in haste, in secrecy and behind a curtain of falsehood . . . In the event, Kennedy chose what seemed to him the least of three

evils [the other two being diplomacy and invasion] . . . The initial Russian response suggests that Khrushchev will not allow the operation of the quarantine to degenerate into conflict . . . [and will accept] humiliation over Cuba . . .

 

His prediction proved correct. On 28 October the Russians withdrew from Cuba, taking their missiles with them, and subjected to UN verification. The NS leader had been courageous. Even the Daily Telegraph had hedged its bets by calling for the US to act through the United Nations.

At the NS office on Great Turnstile Street in London, however, there was dismay. Anti-American feelings over nuclear esca­lation could not be eradicated that easily. That early nickname of the New Statesman, “the Staggers and Naggers”, was proving all too accurate, in the sense of staggering from one view to another.

Norman MacKenzie, the assistant editor, had left the NS the previous week after nearly 20 years on the staff to return to academia. Now he wrote a long and anguished letter to Freeman blaming Johnson’s leaders for taking away “the conscience of the paper”:

 

Paul cannot bear those aspects of English radicalism for which the paper has traditionally stood – scepticism, uncertainty, the small battalions, even emotional responses if you like. The paper’s job is not to be bedevilled by taking sides, but to have the courage to stand alone, to rise above the sterilities of Cold War polemics and to offer a view that may not be “practicable” but is desirable as an alternative to cynicism and stupidity.

 

The significance of the Cuban missile crisis for CND was that it led to a decline from serious influence for the anti-nuclear movement. In May 1963 the Gallup Poll asked for the eighth time in six years, “Does all this talk about H-bombs, rockets, satellites and guided missiles worry you a lot, a little or not at all?” The answers showed that, for the first time, anxiety had fallen back below the level of May 1957: 12 per cent “a lot” and 31 per cent “a little”. Senior members of CND admitted that they had read the Cuban crisis wrongly, underestimating American restraint as well as the Russian rashness and subsequent willingness to accept a humiliating reverse.

As for the NS, its coverage of the nuclear bomb issue over these years showed that it was seminal enough to give birth to a leading disarmament pressure group, powerful enough to be a forum for debate by world leaders and human enough to wear its left-wing conscience on its sleeve.

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.