Catching up with High Society

Meerschaum tobacco pipe, Europe, 1851-1900. Wellcome Images

Drug paraphenalia isn’t a patch on what it used to be. That was my first conclusion from viewing High Society, the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition of all things mind-altering.

On entrance to the exhibition, you’re confronted with a case full of exotic pipes, bowls, pill boxes and other accoutrements for the taking of drugs. An elaborate hookah, a meershaum tobacco pipe and a Chinese bamboo opium pipe, all decorated within an inch of their lives, revealed an elegance sadly missing from the contemporary crack pipe (also on display), with its bits of scruffy foil and adapted plastic bottle. Even the 19th century glass and brass hypodermic syringe was rather beautiful, in its elegant silver case. An ideal Christmas present for Sherlock Holmes, should you be Doctor Watson.

But this being Wellcome, there was more to the exhibition than a lesson in declining standards of intoxication. Round the first corner was a little history lesson that never fails to shock me – the story of the opium wars with China, when the British collaborated with smugglers to create a huge market for opium from the East India company’s Indian poppy plantations.

It’s ironic, then, that by Victorian times opium dens were seen as a Chinese menace, imported into the East End of London by nefarious Orientals. Dickens’ Edwin Drood, and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four, both began with graphic descriptions of heroin use. Early editions of both books were on display, along with vivid drawings of said opium dens.

Of course, the cultivation of mind-altering plants is far from a recent phenomenon, as the exhibition reminded us. And for anyone following the recent brouhaha about drugs classification, the hair-raising little bottles of highly narcotic children’s cough syrups (one non-ironically named The Infant Preserver) remind us of a time when the government was a bit less hung up on heroin.

The drugs that worry governments tend to be the ones that stop the workers from working properly, hence the scare about gin in 18th century London, and the ill-fated attempts to prohibit the sale of alcohol in the US during the 1920s. I found the prohibition part of the exhibition especially interesting, with posters and pamplets outlining the benefits to health, wealth and productivity since the ban was introduced.

If found the artworks on display, especially those intended to replicate psychadelic experiences, rather tedious. Does anyone really need to stand in a cubicle looking at coloured lights and listening to trancey music? And then, just as I was reflecting sourly on how boring and self-indulgent drugs can make people, especially artists,  I was stopped in my tracks by a modest manuscript.

‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree…’ I checked the label. Yes, this was an original manuscript of Samual Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, a poem I’ve revered since my school days. Coleridge’s handwriting was admirably clear and readable, quite an achievement if he’d really written it under the influence. Maybe some artists have the talent to transcend the trance.

High Society is showing at the Wellcome Collection until 27 February.

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