Beware of the blog

Boris underestimated the web

When Boris Johnson was elected as London's mayor last year, the Evening Standard had openly campaigned for him, and there seemed little for the Conservatives to fear in either the local or the national press. Boris cycled in to City Hall with all the self-confidence of the most powerful Tory in Britain.

But then the Standard was sold to a Russian billionaire who promised a shift to the centre ground and ran an ad campaign apologising for previous bias. The Guardian increased its London coverage and many new left-wing bloggers began to emerge. The mayor was faced with an ever less Tory media.

When I started my own blog last year, I was surprised by the lack of London political news coverage. Outside elections, London government had been largely ignored. Only one blog, Mayorwatch.co.uk, reported on City Hall. Even the right, dominant online nationally, was all but extinct in the capital.

In fact, what little attention right-wing bloggers have paid to Boris has been critical. ConservativeHome claims to represent Tory activists, but in practice acts as a pressure group for the party's right. It has not escaped bloggers' notice that Boris, as mayor of one of the world's most diverse cities, has been more keen to mollify the left than to further a hardline Tory agenda.

Recently this has led to open confrontation between Boris's administration and the right wing of his party. It started with a blog post by the ConservativeHome owner, Stephan Shakespeare. "Real problems are not solved - in fact, there's not even a discernible attempt to solve them," he wrote. A series of posts by the Tory councillor and Daily Mail writer Harry Phibbs followed, criticising Boris for failing to sack "diversity officers" at City Hall.

Boris's deputy mayor Richard Barnes then told the Guardian that Phibbs did not "represent the Conservative Party that David Cameron is promoting across this country". In response, Phibbs accused Boris's team of "seeking to ingratiate themselves" with "the Livingstonian blogosphere".

This exchange underlines how Boris has refused to depart too far from the agenda of his predecessor. London is a diverse and liberal city, and any mayor would have to act accordingly; however, this only goes some way to explaining the city's political shifts.

Early on in his administration, Boris cancelled the weekly press conferences held by Ken Livingstone, inviting hand-picked journalists to stage-managed "policy launches" instead. But attempts to co-ordinate his press coverage have had unexpected results. Starved of access to the mayor, reporters have looked elsewhere for their scoops. Over the past year, more and more stories originating from the London blogosphere have made their way into the mainstream media.

Wading through committee papers, attending Assembly meetings and building up relationships with insiders, bloggers have broken many of the stories that have dogged Boris's first year. His use of taxis, his advisers' expenses, his broken promises on rape crisis centres, have all gone on to make headlines.

The London left is succeeding online by setting the news agenda. It remains to be seen how the left can replicate that nationally. But Cameron, like Boris, cannot take the support of his party for granted. In London, the Tories' electoral success has provoked a resurgence from the left, but also restlessness among those on the right of their own party.

London's changing political landscape has created both difficulties for the Tories and opportunities for their opponents. These opportunities may soon be taken up at a national level.

Adam Bienkov blogs at Torytroll.blogspot.com

Adam Bienkov is a blogger and journalist covering London politics and the Mayoralty. He blogs mostly at AdamBienkov.com

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

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 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken