The first time I tried to buy heroin was Summer 1962. I was 17 years old and I’d tried various pills, including uppers and downers stolen from my – and my friends’ – parents, also amphetamine from Nostriline inhalers and grass and hash, but hadn’t yet tried opiates or strong hallucinogens. My friend Tony and I were staying at the Beat Hotel at no. 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur in Paris. We heard that the guy in Room no. 1 was a dealer. We knocked on the door and met a bearded American guy, sitting on his bed. We told him we wanted to buy some heroin and cocaine. He asked if we were users and we told him we hadn’t tried it yet. He looked at us and said “You look like a nice couple of boys and I’m not going sell you any H or C. That’ll just fuck you up! Why don’t you try some mescaline, that’s a good mind-opening drug?” He sold us two doses of mescaline, which we took a couple of weeks later in Barcelona, on our way to Tangier. But that’s another story!

I first took heroin when I was 18 years old. I had already injected morphine several times, having bought a box of 6 ampoules stolen from a snowbound car on Eton Avenue, in the great winter freeze of 1962/63. In Spring 1963, for my first purchase I bought a grain of heroin for one pound from registered addict named Gypsy John. This consisted of 6 ‘jacks’, soluble pills roughly the size of saccharine tablets. Putting my score in my pocket I went to a nearby friend’s flat.

Having ground up one jack up in a coca cola bottle cap making a pinch of white powder, I snorted it and sat back on the sofa. I was in the empty living room of Sebastian’s flat on Heath Street, Hampstead. The others were in another room and didn’t know what I was doing. After a few minutes I sensed something like soft and ever-so-charming little bells gradually drawing closer. I felt a warmth cocooning me, a comfortable and growing euphoria, an increasing and spreading sense of well being.  I was enveloped in a warm blanket of peace, joy and pleasure. My body was singing. All my cares were lifted away;I was contented and happy. I was in paradise in my own body. I sat back with my eyes closed watching little scenarios, waking dreams, unfold on the inside of my eyelids. Over a period of an hour the wonderful feeling lessened, and I was left feeling relaxed, lazy, slothful, not wanting any distractions or demands on me, just somewhere to sit quietly and enjoy my continued relaxation.

After a feeling like that, I wanted to experience it again. I still had 5 of the 6 jacks I had bought in a little stoppered glass bottle in my breast pocket. More pleasure for later.  I wanted to inject it, for even more pleasure. Next time I did. Soon it became a hobby, a habit. The loveliest way to spend an evening with a few special friends who shared this joy. Jump ahead 6 months, pass over my failed A level examinations, pass over the Summer I spent travelling to Tangier and Paris with Tony, to the Autumn day Kennedy was assassinated. I was relaxing in my bedroom with a couple of friends stoned out on H. My father came up to the top of the house and came into my room. “Kennedy is dead – he’s been shot!” It was unbelievable! We turned on the radio and scanned stations in picked up in various languages “El presidente Kennedy está muerto!”. The shock penetrated our groggy brains.

Heroin was cool. It was fun. A bunch of us, school friends, although most of us had left school by now, would gather in the evening to shoot up, enjoy the flash, then gouch off. They called it “doing an Ernest” for a while because I was greedy and often had a little bit too much and nodded off. Of course, before that we had to score. This meant going to the Duke of York pub near Goodge Street to meet junkies or calling around their flats. We were rarely desperate enough to go to the Dilly at midnight for Boots and John Bell & Croydon. Or to Bliss in Kilburn, if that was an option then. I don’t remember. That would come later.

New Year’s Eve 1963 I met Joe Hennessy at the pub, and he said he had a couple of grains to sell at his room near Chalk Farm. He swore he would be home at 11 pm. So, at that time I was there waiting to score. He was out. I could see the windows of his first-floor room. I knew it was hidden in a Chinese vase on the mantelpiece. But I couldn’t get through the front door. Somebody opened it and I told a story about need to get my girlfriends number from Joe’s room. They didn’t let me in. I tried to scale the front of the building. Gave up. I went around the back to see if I could break in anyway. No, the house was impregnable. I waited and waited, lurking in a nearby doorway. At midnight doors flew open across the street and people rushed out kissed each other and welcomed in 1964. I waited miserably. My worst New Year’s Eve ever! At 1 am I gave up and got a cab to Henry’s, in St Johns Wood, where there was a party. I got drunk quickly on 3 or 4 pints of beer. At 2ish I persuaded Gabi to get on his bike and check Joe’s. He came back with the stuff, a grain was mine. I injected 3 jacks in one go and slumped to the floor mumbling incoherently. Half an hour later I bullied Alan into injecting the remaining 3 jacks into my arm. I couldn’t do it myself and I overcame all the others’ friendly protests and cautions.  I slumped to the floor again. Next thing I knew it was 6 am and I was stoned, happy and raring to go. I prodded my friends who like me were lying on the living room carpet. There were some protests and then finally Alan said “Shut up Paul and let us sleep. We’ve been up half the night giving you artificial respiration so you wouldn’t fucking die on us!”.

One month later my mother woke me up crying in my room. A friend’s parents had told mine I was on heroin. It was awful seeing her cry. I promised to give it up and I did. I didn’t have any withdrawal symptoms. Although I was a regular user usually it was only once a day and the dose varied according to what I could score. After a couple of days my father took me with him on a visit to Paris, just to get me away from my friends and habits. It worked and I gave up all drugs for a couple of months and hard drugs for well over a year.

In 1963 I was still writing poetry, sketching and painting. I sort of lost that habit with heroin by 1964. But early on I was still enamoured of the romance of heroin. When I saw junkies on the TV news huddled in doorways, I didn’t see squalid misfits and outcasts with self-destructive habits, but cool people embarking on the poetic quest for bliss.

Here’s something I wrote when still entranced by the romance of heroin



Your eyes were following the empty mussel shells


                        as they drifted down through the clear water

The dropper sucked the solution up

                                                the needle

            I slid it into a vein

                        A red orchid


                                    at the bottom of the dropper

Then you pointed out the empty mussel shells


                        as the sea rocked them on the ocean floor



The anxious circle of your faces

slowly turning

                                    as they drift up

into the night

My body gently spins backwards until I sink

                                                            Into soft flowers

Their strong scent cascades in

            Through my nostrils



The finger of perfume I am in

            Flows out

                                    A droplet detaches itself

            I drift down to a mirror

                        And slowly rise

                                    On a pillar

                        Above me in the black

                        a point of light blossoms

            into a spinning whiteness

                                    around me

                                                            Paul Ernest, 1963



The romance of Heroin is expressed in the song Heroin – written and sung by Lou Reed –  on the 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico.  


When I put a spike into my vein

And I tell you things aren’t quite the same

When I’m rushing on my run

And I feel just like Jesus’ son


Cause when the blood begins to flow

When it shoots up the dropper’s neck

When I’m closing in on death

You can’t help me, not you guys

Or all you sweet girls with all your sweet talk

You can all go take a walk


Heroin, be the death of me

Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life, haha

Because a mainline into my vein

Leads to a center in my head

And then I’m better off than dead

Because when the smack begins to flow

I really don’t care anymore

About all the Jim-Jims in this town

And all the politicians making crazy sounds

And everybody putting everybody else down

And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds

Cause when the smack begins to flow

And I really don’t care anymore

Ah, when that heroin is in my blood

Heh, and that blood is in my head

Then thank God that I’m as good as dead

And thank your God that I’m not aware

And thank God that I just don’t care


One of the key elements of this song that the words alone don’t show is the use of the accelerating rhythm, the excitement mounts as the singer is about to use the heroin and it reaches a climax and then cruises into a release of tension, a sunlit upland as the heroin rush takes over and layers all feeling with ecstasy, and the a slow calm escape from all of life’s worries.


As is universally acknowledged, Heroin is a very addictive drug. It is addictive, not just because of the withdrawal symptoms experienced by a regular user of high doses when they stop taking it. It also causes extreme psychological addiction, leading addicts to go to great lengths to obtain it. They will sacrifice the needs of loved ones, their own dignity, bodily safety, and almost anything else, to obtain the next dose. I never had to sell my body for heroin, as a middle-class young straight white male. But in extremis I would have done. Even so I stole, begged, pleaded and traded anything to hand when I needed heroin. I traded my sister’s brand new ice-skates for a couple of ampoules of methadone in 1968. (I felt really guilty about this, but when I ’fessed up years later she said she never used them or missed them.)


There are two parts to the heroin high. First, there is the immediate flash, the rush, the ecstatic minute as it takes hold of your mind and body. when you inject or smoke it. Second, there is the afterglow, the extended high, the numbed contentment that follows.


During the Rush, the Flash, the orgasmic and ecstatic Peak high, you are bathed in a golden glow, you are overwhelmed with euphoria, your body sings with exquisite joy. You are transported like Saint Theresa in her ecstasy by Bernini, pierced with the divine arrow of God’s love. Except you are pierced with a needle in your vein.


Second, there is the extended high, the afterglow, with a tailing off euphoria. This is the numbed contentment phase where your gaze remains turned inwards and the woes and concerns of your life remain lifted off your shoulders. You have no worries, no anxiety, no self-doubts, no fears; only perhaps mild irritation if outsiders intrude into your peace by making demands, needing your attention or requiring you to stir yourself. For the neurotic, for the needy or uncertain, for those with unquiet minds this phase is the reassuring place where your worries and anxieties leave you alone.


For the romantic addict, it is the first part of the high, the rush, the ecstatic peak of the high, that draws you to heroin again and again, like a moth to a flame. It is not just the obliteration of the self, but the transfiguration of the self into an exquisite exploding firework, engulfing you in ecstasy, a fire of pleasure both of body and mind. But like a firework, your exploding ecstasy diminishes and burns out as the drug takes over. For the drug attacks the very seat of consciousness, awareness, and appreciation of beauty while it is working! Not only is the beauty fleeting, but your ability to feel it is turned way down.


When you are in love with Heroin you see it as a magic shining saviour. It is romantic, your love object, the pure grail you will sacrifice all to attain. Your quest has a lit-up goal, it is pure beauty, it is worth the sacrifice and hardship. Heroin is a cruel but beautiful mistress, and you will do anything to be in her arms again. It is not a basic bodily need like hunger or thirst that drives you, it is an elevated and exquisite longing for transcendental bliss, for ecstatic Buddhahood even for just that magic minute. The gambler may be drawn by a romantic love too, excitement for the spin of the wheel of Fortuna, promising to shower you with her gifts. But it is not material gifts the gambler wants, it is that ecstasy of uncertainty with golden bounty just out of reach, the exquisite promise of a dreamed of heaven where you are a prince and all the world is yours. But even when you win you are not transported to heaven. Heroin takes you to heaven, it delivers bliss, but only for a few moments, and then it takes you away, back into your squalid life, for many, back to Hell.


All desire is irrational. Working towards whatever you love is beyond reason, it flows from your commitment to that object. But some goals, some desires are self-destructive, self-negating. Loving heroin erodes your capacity to love, to feel, and to look after the people that matter in your life.


Heroin addiction is a manifestation of Thanatos, the death drive, the will to destroy the self and revert to an unfeeling and inert inorganic state. But from the inside it feels like a holy quest, to become ecstatic, like one of the gods. The tragedy lies in the mismatch, the contradiction between these two realities. For one must sacrifice love, caring and the needs of other people in that hero(in)ic quest. You end up numbed, uncaring, even subhuman in your submission to that harsh mistress. Not so poetic. Not so romantic!


All that I have described was with pharmaceutical grade heroin, 99.9% pure and sterile, obtained on prescription. Since 1968 most heroin available to novices and addicts alike has been impure and adulterated, manufactured in illegal laboratories, mixed with god knows what, and sold on the black market. This adds further layer of danger to the habit.


The boy with the magic in his hand, Paul Ernest, 1963


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