Derived from the juice of the poppy, it relieves our pain and cures our insomnia. It may even inspire great art. It also causes addiction, misery and death. Historian Lucy Inglis' new book explores man's long and complex relationship with opium.
"In mankind's search for temporary oblivion," writes Inglis, "opiates possess a special allure. Since Neolithic times, opium has made life seem, if not perfect, then tolerable for millions. However unlikely it seems at this moment, many of us will end our lives dependent on it."
The book is a long sprint, indeed, through the last 3,000 years or so of wars, medicine, and the drug trades, legal and illegal, from China to Afghanistan and South America. This vast scope means that sometimes the reader may not be able to see the poppy for the trees. Engrossed in some detail about the American Civil War, one realises that one hasn’t heard anything about opium for many pages... But the book’s enjoyment comes from its colourful characters: the mystical doctor Paracelsus, who invented laudanum in the 16th century, or the 18th-century American doctor and politician Benjamin Rush... The author’s style is perky and informal, which can result in her writing such things as ‘the drug is both a tremendous force for good and an indescribable evil’ — which, if true, is a shame, because it would be a decent idea to try to describe it. In fact, Inglis is throughout rather unattractively moralistic about her subject.
The problem with Milk of Paradise is that it’s not exactly a story that is being told for the first time, but to distinguish her history from others’ Inglis looks at the wider picture... Still, what does this have to do with opium, except tangentially?... The long history of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is useful to know about in terms of wider context, but one is left with the impression that either Inglis was reluctant to drop much of her background research or that there wasn’t an editor around to prune her work, (a few oddly constructed sentences throughout the book suggest the latter)... Still, this book could not have come out at a more timely moment, as we learn from the Office for National Statistics of the “spike” (a word perhaps accidentally chosen) in deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl... Inglis’s heart, and indeed brain, is very much in the right place.
Lucy Inglis’s fabulous book Milk of Paradise is the history of civilisation as shaped by opium... Inglis, a historian and novelist, is the creator of the award-winning Georgian London blog. To opium’s much larger sweep of history, she brings astonishing detail, but also freshness — a modern sensibility exploring old but still jaw-dropping facts... Milk of Paradise coolly exposes some of today’s global business brands as yesterday’s drug lords... In these chapters on the dark side, Inglis paints succinct portraits of the mafia and Afghanistan, now producing 90 per cent of the world’s heroin, that make you shake your head in astonishment... Milk of Paradise is a triumph, epic in scale and full of humanity. Geopolitics was changed by the poppy: it influenced the development of navigation, exploration and world trade; hand-in-hand with war, it helped to create the wealthy economies, science, medicine, crime and human despair of the modern world. The poppy, she says, will always be one of the greatest global commodities for good and evil — and we will always be at war with it.