It seems that it is unusual for historians of any kind to discuss their own lives. Nonetheless, I intend to do so a little here, as it overlaps in multiple ways with the wider subject matter of Points, and with the topic of this post specifically – the formation and composition of the 1980s heroin-smoking culture in Britain. First, a few biographical details pertaining to Christiane F.
The autobiography Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo generated a great deal of comment and not a little panic amongst the middle classes of the Federal Republic when it was first published in (then) West Germany in 1979. It narrated the story of Christiane F., birth name Christiane Vera Felscherinow, a fourteen-year-old sex worker and heroin user. Two years later the text spawned a film featuring the music of David Bowie. Both book and film became cult classics amongst the heroin consuming culture of London, of which I was a part during the latter half of the 1980s.
Christiane began using alcohol and illegal drugs at the age of twelve. A year later she was injecting heroin, and the following year inhabiting the sex market of Berlin’s Zoo station. Subsequent to a court appearance, she met two journalists from the magazine Stern, who ghosted her autobiography based on a series of interviews. It is worth noting that her voice comes across clear and authentic enough in the text, which was published in the UK in 1981.
I first read Wir Kinder in about 1986, in the Corgi edition that screamed from so many bookshop windows, with its lurid cover featuring the blood-red letter H and a grinning skull. It was just as I was beginning my own career as a consumer of heroin. This blog describes something of the background to how these things came about. I was too young to be a part of the 1960s counterculture, but I grew up surrounded by it and absorbed many of its values, including a playful and experimental attitude toward the use of illicit drugs.
Christiane spent most of her youth living in Gropiusstadt, in the borough of Neukolln, West Berlin. Located close to the Berlin wall, this was a housing project named after the great modernist architect Walter Gropius, who designed its dense concentration of tower blocks. It articulates both the vision and the hubris of high modernist architecture. Christiane’s family lived on the 11th floor, less than halfway up one of these blocks. It was in the field of architecture that the series of critiques known as ‘postmodernism’ first emerged. This is significant because, as Wir Kinder makes abundantly clear, the lived experience of Gropiusstadt frames and contextualises Christiane F.’s flight into heroin consumption. Although she is not an intellectual, she was a smart and sensitive girl who, with a disarming clarity, pinpointed the alienating atmosphere of life in Gropiusstadt. The grey estate was pervaded by the stink of piss and shit. This was because the local kids played at ground level, and the elevators were always broken. Following a few (often failed) attempts at climbing the endless stairs to their flats in time, the children simply excreted where they could. The utopian vision of communal homes in the sky became a grim reality; the anti-play ethic was inscribed in the very concrete of the estate, and in the grid of small authorities that securitised its spaces. Her father was himself part of this network of enforcement, a brutal drunk who expressed his resentment through the exercise of domestic terror.
Set against this background, it is hard not to see Christiane’s escapological tactics as eminently reasonable. The Berlin sex industry and the place it made for her young body were likely the only cards she held with which to fund her dependence on the criminalised object of her urgent appetite. Heroin use is not, by any means, always a stratagem for living an unliveable life. But sometimes it surely is. And so, for us, the young heroin-using marginals of London, this tragic icon was a heroine, a star of those faraway days.
London. During the 1970s and 80s, a patchwork of interlinked squats had grown up across the capital. ‘Squats’ were empty houses, some of them lovely old properties suffering from neglect, into which the rootless young could move and live without fear of eviction, at least in the short term. In those times, this was quite legal. No rent to pay. Squatting was especially attractive to the young, particularly those who were not already committed to careers and house-buying, who did casual jobs (but only when it was absolutely necessary), who lived for friendship, love and music: a bohemian youth intelligentsia, ragged and anarchic, which formed a counterfoil to the Thatcherite yuppies and their upwardly mobile dreams of acquisition.
Drug use was widespread in this group. There were many former hippies, who had looked to psychedelics and cannabis to achieve spiritual highs, post-punks who liked to smoke and do amphetamines, and so on. Then, suddenly, by the early or mid-1980s (the chronology is a blur) heroin was everywhere. It seemed to happen almost overnight. My first encounter, as far as I recall, was in a squat just off the Greys Inn Road. I was visiting some friends, who lived at the top of the house. As I climbed a bare and candlelit staircase, a figure came into view, sitting on the uppermost step.
He asked, ‘Would you like a smoke of skag, Chris?’ and held out a large piece of tin foil on which a golden-brown snake of melted heroin was poised. Christiane F. remarked on how, upon having her first hit, she knew that instantly everything had changed. She now belonged to a different world, different friends, a different life. I remember precisely that feeling.
This apparently sudden event was, of course, caught up in a net of global historical processes. The first, which I have mentioned, was the availability of numerous rent-free properties in London, spaces which the various strands of British youth subculture invested, and the advent of the neoliberal McJobs economy. Squatting was a practice going back millennia and was embedded in common law until the neoliberal era.
In addition, the Islamic revolution in Iran brought a large influx of Iranians into the UK. They came from a country in which opiate culture was historically established and familiar, and in which wealth could be brought out of the territory of the new regime in a form that was readily transferable into local currencies: heroin. The migrants from Iran and elsewhere in South Asia were, furthermore, familiar with a mode of consumption that was novel in Britain: ‘chasing the dragon’ or inhaling the fumes of heroin base (heroin no.3) on a piece of tin foil heated with a cigarette lighter. This new bricolage technology of consumption was accompanied by the relatively large-scale importation of heroin base of high purity (50 – 85%) from South Asia.
The simple availability of heroin does not, however, generate a drug culture. That required a new perception of heroin use amongst youth cultures; in short cultural changes. The 1960s counterculture had valorised the use of psychedelics and cannabis as what one might term ‘imaginative prosthetics.’ At that point, heroin was, for the most part, distinctly uncool, and associated with mindless escapism and self-destruction. In the 1980s, this perception shifted significantly. The reasons are highly complex, but in Britain the new aura of heroin as cool was linked to developments in music and fashion. David Bowie was interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as referring to heroin in a number of his songs – Bowie was a leader in youth culture, and many of his listeners still embraced the 1960s belief that ‘rock and roll’ was the driving force behind social and cultural change, the most powerful speaker of truth to power. Simultaneously, the discourse of ‘heroin chic’ emerged from the fashion industry, with the UK government’s posters of spotty faced, drug-ravaged youth – ‘Skincare by heroin’ – appearing on the walls of squats where the context radically transformed its meaning; it delivered a message that was wholly disconnected from drug prevention. Texts such as Wir Kinder further romanced the figure of the heroin user as the ultimate outsider, and made it, and Christiane, irresistible for some. The smoking (as opposed to injection) of heroin eased this process: it was no longer necessary to consume by recourse to needles and syringes. Instead, chasing was much more relaxed and could be shared around a social circle like a joint or an opium pipe.
In addition, the Conservative government, in its commitment to muscular capitalism and an ethic of ‘greed is good’ contributed powerfully to the development of a new form of nihilism in youth culture. The liberalism of the sixties and the punk socialism of the seventies were replaced by an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.
This cluster of events – the safe spaces opened up by squatting, the advent of relatively pure heroin, a new technology of consuming it, and a specific mix of cultural circumstances – combined to forge a new heroin culture. And there is at least one further factor, which stems from the gradual interpenetration of boho youth and working-class youth. An example of this occurred during a short heroin drought in South London during the 1980s, when the local squatters discovered that there was now a blossoming heroin scene in the East Street area of Peckham, a ‘sink’ council estate where an illicit open-air market existed on the walkways and corridors of the tower blocks and other buildings making up the North Peckham Estate. This housing estate was another instance of the dystopia endured by Christiane F. at Gropiusstadt. On its walkways, one might speculate that the practice of consuming heroin was redistributed symbolically from the middle- and upper-class malcontents to the working people of Britain.
A final word: though I felt under a spell cast by Wir Kinder, I never met Christiane F. Two of my friends visited Berlin in the mid-1980s and, while scoring some heroin, happened to encounter her. She was great, they told me – just like in the book.