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Wouldn't you prefer an on-site beauty therapist, a Rover or free fruit to a trip on Concorde? Giles

I haven't paid for a meal, taxi, book, theatre ticket, journey by train, boat or plane, pad of paper, pen, stamp, tank of petrol or holiday since 1995. I thus hesitate to pour scorn upon those honourable friends of ours who have been implicated in Perksgate.

What makes me sick, however, sick do you hear me, is to have the poverty of our leaders' imaginations laid bare before the eyes of the world. Jack Cunningham, for example, who claims to have a PhD, rewarded himself for 20 grim years slogging his way into the top ranks of a vain and gruelling profession with, according to press reports, "several nights in a plush hospitality complex owned by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd".

A plush hospitality complex. I think we have all stayed in one of those places with geometrically patterned green synthetic carpets that spark when you walk on them in socks, pay-per-view porno TV, Fry's chocolate creams in the mini-bar and tournedos rossini with pommes dauphinoises in the "convenient restaurant and bar, open till 9pm". Whatever happened to droit de seigneur, your weight in gold, lands in Aquitaine, or a place in Valhalla? You would never have got a crusade going on the promise of plush hospitality complexes.

Would it have impressed Idi Amin? Daniel Arap Moi? Francois Mitterrand? I think not. "But Jack," Idi would no doubt have pointed out to Dr Cunningham, as he nibbled on one of the many choice human titbits stored up and refrigerated as part of his own famous reward system, "if you'd got a Saturday job at Hoseasons you could have had a free fortnight in Bermuda."

Chevening? Chequers? Dorneywood? Soulless and sad. Offices with nice gardens, and anyway you have to give them back when you get caught accepting a free cheese from a local scoutmaster. Newspaper editors who have their houses given to them by their munificent proprietors do not have to give them back. At least, not as far as they know.

Concorde, schmoncorde: a plane full of grotesque old men in shiny suits, grown fat on expenses, trying to hustle stewardesses into the loos. Nobody rich actually travels on it at all. In my experience, 90 per cent of the punters have won magazine prizes or Blind Date, and they spend the whole flight tutting at the noisy kids at the back who wrote to Jim'll Fix It. Speed is all very well, but with an IMF/World Bank meeting at the end of the journey, I'd have thought the most desirable flight is the one that takes longest to get there. You'd want as many crap films and strange pink cheesecakes as possible to make up for having to listen to the Belgian finance minister talk about okra, or whatever they do there.

Now, Airforce One is a perk - that is the sort of thing that might persuade a chap to go into politics. America's continued confidence in Bill Clinton is due almost entirely to his having a cool aeroplane. And think of the Harrison Ford movie Airforce One - if someone made a thriller in which Tony Blair got kidnapped they'd have to call it Quite Nice Rover.

The Prime Minister's decision to forgo large chunks of a fairly innocuous salary package, which the cabinet followed like a stack of grumpy dominoes collapsing, has created an environment in which politics is suddenly something you do for your God or your country or your principles, and any talk of making a living is a bit rude. You are meant to do it because you love it.

Like footballers - most of whom have courtesy cars. Last week a fifth Manchester United player took delivery of a new Ferrari. And yet Gordon Brown is embarrassed over a few helicopter flights round Bangkok. Now, what is sleazy about that? Well, yes, OK, but not the money part of it.

Frankly, I'd rather be a nurse. A glance through last week's Nursing Times found the Gloucestershire Royal Trust offering "on-site beauty therapist and holistic massage service" as part of a perks package for staff, not forgetting to mention, to those pained by the thought of relocation, "Gloucester's attractive docks area, home to the fascinating National Waterways Museum". More enticing still, the Leicester Royal Infirmary offered potential recruits a guided tour of Leicester night life and a free raffle with prizes from Next.

Nor is perk-related indignation confined to these shores. A Dutch newspaper headline on 6 January lamented "Jobless Irish flown to Holland by private jet" and went on to rant that hundreds of Irish people were being offered, in return for working in Dutch factories, four free air tickets home a year. (Bad workers, I suppose the joke goes, were offered six.)

If perks are to determine your choice of job, then who would not forgo the sad life of a cabinet minister with its miserable extras for, say, a job with Pertemps Recruitment, which offers long-term staff the services of a dating agency? Or with Reuters, which has recently signed up Impropera, an itinerant improvisational opera show, to help motivate jaded hacks? Workers at Loot have been receiving free fruit since the mid-eighties and Virgin Atlantic Airways staff get an annual party at Richard Branson's home with funfairs, Sumo wrestling and boating. Besides such riches, do not the charms of Concorde seem a little wan?

In a survey by Hogg Robinson Financial Services it transpired that 75 per cent of UK workers who have life insurance as part of their pay package do not know they have it - the ingrates! Perhaps dear Jack should take heed of their professed ignorance and claim he did not know his hospitality complex was plush.

Such a ploy would never appeal to BP's operations support secretary, Marion Culder, however, who revealed in the same survey that she had recently received her "dream perk": a "familiarisation visit" to Gleneagles, to be shown the facilities and attend a banquet.

It is all a question of ethics. But help is at hand. The Infoworld website attempts to help workers through this moral labyrinth with five easy guidelines suggested by Bill Nance, professor of management information systems at San Jose State University. I particularly like number two, in which he advises workers to "Follow the 'would I tell my mom?' rule: if you're engaging in an activity that you would feel uncomfortable telling someone about whose approval you seek - like your mother - then think twice before conducting that activity." Otherwise known as the Code of Onan, this little gem could be just what Tony Blair is looking for to tidy up his cabinet.

On a personal note: aside from the occasional three-star titbits that fall to my feet as a restaurant critic, and the holidays which are, after all, a terrible burden to write up, and the taxi journeys which are crucial because if I was on the bus my writing hand might get damaged, it is not all a bed of roses. When, in 1996, a short article on aftershave required the acquisition of £1,500-worth of complimentary designer pong I was burgled within a week by young men who took every bottle but the Old Spice. When I phoned my insurers to explain that these freebies had been nicked, they informed me that I could claim three-quarters of their full value. I thus trousered £1,125.

"Great," said my girlfriend. "We can go to Barbados."

"We already are," I said despondently. "The paper's paying."

Cash, you see, had become utterly useless.

Giles Coren is restaurant critic for "Tatler" and editor of "Tatler About Town". Research for this article was carried out at the Paris Ritz. His wife picked up the bill

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again

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 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again