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  1. Long reads
11 October 1999

Bet you a fiver he’s on something

Charlotte Ravenadmits that her reasons for taking cocaine were probably banal

By Charlotte Raven

At 11am on the day of my best friend’s wedding, I found myself in conversation with a woman I knew vaguely, though our paths hadn’t crossed for some time. She was beautifully turned out, as ever, and I was pleased to see her. We talked about her job, the men in both our lives and came clean about how jealous we were to see our friend so well matched. I asked if I could wear her sunglasses – it was a glorious morning and I hadn’t had much sleep the night before, what with fretting about my bridesmaid’s duties and praying for the clouds to lift. I got us both a glass of champagne and, as I sat back down, I remember thinking how lovely all this was – the sun, the sky, the greenness. Then she muttered something I didn’t quite catch. “Dyouwerlne?” it sounded like.

“Sorry?” I said.

“Doyawannaline? Do you want a line?” Then, rather unnecessarily: “I’ve got some.”

One Sunday, a few weeks later, I went for lunch in the garden of a pub near where I live and found myself watching a man chop out what must have been at least three grams on a Boddington’s tray. “Doyawannaline?” he said when he’d finished. Then, in case I’d flown in from Venus: “It’s cocaine. Do you want some cocaine?”

A couple of years ago, you wouldn’t have heard that word in a nightclub, let alone a family-friendly local. People used euphemisms when they were discussing drugs and, while this was annoying, it did at least make taking them seem less ridiculous. As long as cocaine was a whisper, its meaning was never fixed. It wasn’t just another commodity – like trainers – or an activity – like sinking 17 pints. Nor was it a “proper” drug in the sense that it never demanded submission. People took cocaine, they didn’t “do” it. However great a time you had on it, it wasn’t a “drugs experience”. This elusive quality – its effects are almost impossible to explain to someone who has never taken it – has made it more susceptible than other drugs to cultural suggestion. In the eighties it stood for the age, now at the turn of the millennium its integration into the mainstream has made it less charismatic and also, somehow, blander.

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Hard as it is to pin down why I took cocaine, in varying quantities, for most of my twenties, I have to admit that the most plausible explanation is also the most banal. When anti-drugs campaigners say that drug-users are motivated by the need to “escape from reality”, this is probably much closer to my experience than any “largeing it” rationalisations. This is not to say that I couldn’t “face up” to reality, or that the everyday stuff of life was in any way problematic. I wasn’t a victim of circumstance and therefore have some sympathy with the functionalist position currently favoured by the pro-drugs lobby. When they say there’s no sinister subtext and that people who are sane and successful simply take drugs to enjoy themselves, I understand what they’re getting at but I still can’t help feeling there’s more to it than that.

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When I think about cocaine, the first thing that comes to mind is Julie Burchill’s flat – specifically, the first time I saw it in daylight. I’d been there on several occasions and had always wondered how it would cope if someone pulled back the curtains. To say it was a 3am environment is possibly too precise. As long as it was dark outside, everything inside made sense. The matt-black eighties furniture, the cocktail bar, the fairy lights, the mirrors – none of it seemed too eccentric if you left your “straight” head in the vestibule. The day I arrived there at lunchtime, the door was open and the blood-red walls of the corridor were taking noisy issue with the day. The whole flat, in fact, was in dispute with the sunlight. Even the carpets looked anxious, as if at any moment they might give up the whole ghastly business and disappear behind the skirting-board. And at one end of the 100-mile hall – always reminiscent of Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, but never more so than that day – there she sat, swathed against the dusty brightness, looking like Poe’s Lady Ligeia. She greeted me and held up a plate. “Do you want a line, then, baby?”

“But it’s lunchtime,” I wanted to say but didn’t. So we had a line and went to the cinema. When we came out, it was still light.

That’s what I mean about cocaine. Like Julie’s flat, it plucked you off the street and put you back down somewhere which, for all its resemblance to the place you left behind, might as well have been Timbuktu. In this sense, the pleasure of it had less to do with its effects than the fact of its being out of synch with “normality”. Like seeing a film in the afternoon, it made you feel temporarily that you were living in another register. Things were the same, but different. The world was going on and you had stepped outside it for a moment. It wasn’t a thing, so much as a change of atmosphere. If cocaine had a character, it was a softly spoken advocate who took our part in a long-running but civilised dispute with the council for clocks and flipcharts.

I’d probably still be taking it if I hadn’t started sensing, of late, that the envoys of the Everyday had offered poor old Charlie a place in mainstream culture if he only agreed to change sides. It is with a heavy heart that I note that 99 per cent of London banknotes are contaminated with the substance and that cocaine is the fastest-growing recreational drug among 20-24 year olds. I don’t mean this to sound elitist. It only matters that more people are taking if that changes its character. The more popular the drug becomes, the less it is an “escape” hatch and the more it gets mixed up with the very things it once opposed. Instead of letting you “step outside” for a moment, it will simply allow you to stay where you are for longer.