Interview – Larry Harrison for Glimpses of a floating world

2# Glimpses of a floating world  Larry Harrison


Nice cover, is that someone famous?                          


It’s Ronnie Jarvis, the hero, or rather anti-hero, of Glimpses of a Floating World. He’s a heroin and cocaine addict in London, in the early Sixties—a junky, whose attempt to escape the influence of his father, a senior police officer, leads to big trouble.

The story opens in 1963, when it was common practice to prescribe narcotics for addicts, although this policy operated alongside laws which penalised unlawful possession. Addicts like Ronnie Jarvis received a daily supply of heroin and cocaine, but could be prosecuted if found in possession of any unauthorised drugs. Ronnie is arrested for the illicit possession of opium, and after doing a cold turkey in prison, he’s transferred to a country mental hospital. When he is pressured into becoming an informer, Ronnie deliberately supplies false information, in an attempt to embarrass the police—and especially his father. Unfortunately for Ronnie, his information results in the conviction of a gangster, owing to the routine police practice of planting evidence. This makes Ronnie a marked man.

So, it’s about London in the Sixties then?


It’s about the real Sixties, not the make-believe era in which middle-class kids became hippies and smoked dope, without ever inhaling.  It’s about heroin, cocaine, incarceration in mental hospitals, police corruption and gang violence. The Sixties were far from being an innocent, peaceful time: when the decade began, the death penalty was still in force, and youngsters were routinely flogged for offences against prison discipline. English seaside resorts were given over to mass brawls between Mods and Rockers, and London gangsters had celebrity status.

There’s nothing about Hong Kong?

No, not directly. But any story about the international drugs trade concerns Hong Kong, because the War on Drugs has its roots in the way Britain excluded the US from Far Eastern markets through control of the opium trade. As Marx showed, the revenues from opium virtually paid for the administration of British India in the nineteenth century, and Hong Kong was at the centre of the drive to export opium to China. I wrote an article about this with Kam Yi-Mak. Since tobacco provided the funding for the establishment of English colonies in America and the Caribbean in the seventeenth century, we argued that Britain might never have become a world power without drug dealing.

Addiction made Britain great?

You could say that.

So what did the Americans think of opium?

In the nineteenth century, America was engaged in an economic struggle with Britain because opium was China’s most costly import, and there were no revenues left to purchase US goods. This became linked, in many American minds, to the broader issues of anti-colonialism, the struggle for national Prohibition, and an extended vision of America’s manifest destiny: it was God’s will for America to lead the world to sobriety. This mission suffered a temporary setback with the repeal of Prohibition, but the energy and resources tied up in the battle against booze soon flowed into the campaign against opium, the opiates and cannabis.

Didn’t the British believe opium smoking was wrong?

The British took a pragmatic view. If the Chinese must kill themselves through opium smoking, one English MP declared, it was better they did so for the benefit of the British economy, rather than those of our competitors. And the Chinese had created the social problems around opium use through their policy of prohibition, when the sensible course of action would have been to regulate consumption through taxation. The British resisted US demands to put an end to the opium trade, and the Foreign Office fought a long rearguard action in defence of opium, which was not outlawed in Hong Kong until 1943.

What’s all that got to do with the Sixties?

The UK toleration of opium use was reflected in the policy of permitting family doctors to prescribe heroin and cocaine to addicts, which continued until the late 1960s. Lax prescribing, especially from private doctors, led to a small black market in pharmaceutical heroin and cocaine, but the availability of medical care, and the low price of illicit drugs, meant that there was virtually no organised criminal involvement in the British Isles. The black market only began to flourish in London in the 1970s, when prescribing to addicts was restricted and the police given a lead role in responding to addiction. Since then, law enforcement has consumed the greater part of the resources allocated to drug dependence, and the number of people in the UK who are dependent on heroin has increased from under 400 in 1962 to an estimated 280,000 in 2006.

So you’ve written this book to highlight a failed policy?

Not really. The book isn’t intended to be didactic, and hopefully it’s quite funny in places. But it’s true to say that the driving force behind the book is anger at the hypocrisy associated with drugs policy, and the nonsense talked about treatment and law enforcement. Setting the story in the early Sixties also provided an opportunity to revisit a recent history that has been thoroughly mythologised. Television documentaries offer the comforting story of Flower Children who wanted ‘love’n’peace’, smoked dope rather than harmful skunk, and stuck flowers in the helmets of policemen. The story told in Glimpses of a Floating World is much closer to the truth.

And it’s out now?


Yes, out now on, same as Oli’s.  Or Gupter’s. I’m never sure exactly who’s doing what where he’s concerned. It’ll be on by October.

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