Mike Jay’s writings have always shown an affinity with underworlds, fin-de-siècle morbidity, and madness – his study of the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic during the Napoleonic Wars, The Air Loom Gang (2003), was a particularly disorientating book. But drugs are his real bag. He compiled an anthology of writings about mind-altering substances, Artificial Paradises (1999), and wrote a study of nineteenth-century drug cultures, Emperors of Dreams (2000). His latest compilation is issued to coincide with the Wellcome Trust’s exhibition on mind-altering substances, ‘High Society’, which is showing in London until February 2011. It is illustrated with oil portraits, book illustrations, technical drawings, photographs and posters from the Wellcome Collection’s archives, but Jay’s accompanying text is not exuberant. Curatorial responsibilities and institutional solemnity have steadied his giddy approach to drug experimentation.
Permanent sobriety is an unnatural and inhuman state. People need to escape unsettled states of mind, oppressive circumstances, weariness, anguish and tension. High Society explores both the pharmacological and social aspects of a range of substances that Jay classifies as stimulants, sedatives, psychedelics, hypnotics, deliriants, and dissociatives. Some of these, such as coffee and tea, can be found in most household larders. Others – medieval herbals,