Occasional observations on life

Category: Sociology

Keeping Wartime Britain Fed

Ann Kramer

Land Girls and Their Impact

(Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Remember When, 2008)

Land Girls and Their Impact - Cover

The world described in Ann Kramer’s book seems very remote from the one that British people inhabit in 2019. As I write this review, the United Kingdom is in the midst of an unprecedented constitutional crisis in the run-up to the latest deadline (31 October) for the country’s exit from the European Union, following a 2016 referendum that revealed a severely divided electorate (only 52% of those voting supported withdrawal). Eighty years ago, by contrast, the British people were overwhelmingly united in their determination to defeat a very different kind of enemy. This involved both military and civilian mobilization, the latter including the Women’s Land Army (WLA), the subject of Kramer’s book. Although the role of the armed services was clearly critical to the war effort, I suspect that more recent generations would be unfamiliar with the equally vital task performed by the WLA (popularly known as ‘land girls’) in nourishing the nation and averting starvation. My mother, who grew up in the West Midlands and was 12 years old when war broke out, often referred to the rigours of food rationing, but I don’t recall her ever mentioning the WLA.

Starvation was regarded as a very real prospect by a government preparing for war in 1938–39, based on the experience of the First World War, when hundreds of thousands of men left agricultural work to fight overseas, leaving the country heavily dependent on imports that were in turn disrupted by the predations of German U-boats: ‘According to some accounts [by 1917] there was only about three weeks’ food supply left in the country’ (p. 5).

Thanks to the work of the WLA, British people did not starve during the Second World War, unlike their civilian counterparts in occupied Holland and France and in Germany. By 1943, the WLA was providing something like 70 per cent of the nation’s food which, together with rationing, meant that the British population were able to eat a balanced and extremely healthy diet throughout the war, even if food dishes were sometimes peculiar and more exotic fruits and foodstuffs were absent. The work of the WLA meant that Germany failed in a major objective, which was to starve Britain into submission. (p. xx; see also p. 164)

An offshoot of the Women’s Farm and Garden Association (established in 1899), the Women’s National Land Service Corps was formed in 1916 and disbanded in 1919 (pp. 1–9). When it became clear that another war was imminent, the British government realised that it would be essential to recruit women for agricultural work again, and preparations began in 1938. The highly capable Lady Gertrude Denman assumed leadership, but her initial organisational efforts were hampered by the Ministry of Agriculture. Notwithstanding the changes in female political and social status since 1918, many still regarded agricultural work as unsuitable for women. Lady Denman threatened to resign unless her proposals were implemented, with the result that the WLA was formed on 1 June 1939. It was initially part of the Ministry of Agriculture, but staffed and run by women, with headquarters established at Lady Denman’s Sussex home on 29 August, five days before war broke out (pp. 10–19). The book goes into considerable detail about the administrative complexity of the organisation, which would enlist more than 80,000 women over the course of the war (pp. 20–21).

The remaining chapters of the book explore different aspects of the WLA: recruitment and propaganda; the age and social background of the recruits; the nature of their work; the specialist sub-section known as the Women’s Timber Corps (‘lumber jills’); the pros and cons of working in the WLA; the end of the war; and reflections of recruits on their experiences. Much of the detail is fascinating for anyone with a taste for social history.

Despite the harshness and danger of the working conditions, the prejudices that they confronted (and mostly overcame), instances of sexual harassment, occasional loneliness, and the jealousy of some farmers’ wives, the land girls successfully performed an essential role with great pride, and without the level of recognition that was awarded to their sisters in the armed services. Moreover, those interviewed generally described the experience as the best time of their lives. With the majority coming from urban backgrounds, they gained new skills, independence, camaraderie, and an appreciation for the countryside. Some remained in agricultural work after the war, and there were cases of marriage to farmers.

Kramer briefly mentions that in 2007 the British government announced that a specially designed commemorative badge was to be awarded to surviving members of the WLA, in recognition of their wartime service (p. 165). The book had presumably gone to press by the time this occurred in July 2008, with over 45,000 former land girls receiving the award. Further recognition occurred in 2012 and 2014.

Features of the book that enhance the reading experience include two separate sections of colour plates, containing 58 illustrations in total; text boxes on special topics (e.g. Lady Denman); illustrative quotes from interviewees and published sources like the Land Girl magazine; a timeline; a bibliography with suggestions for further reading; and an index. The writing is aimed at a general readership, and the scholarly apparatus, although present, does not overburden the text.

The book was lent to me by a former WLA recruit, now resident in Australia. At 96 years of age, she is still as sharp as a tack, and I am grateful for many very interesting conversations with her. I was reminded that in 2017 I had bought a DVD of a BBC drama entitled Land Girls, which I had not yet watched. The book’s blurb points out that Kramer was the history consultant for that 2009 series. I have since watched it, and, although it does capture many aspects of the WLA experience as described in the book, it tends towards melodrama and is no substitute for Kramer’s written account.

The WLA had counterparts in the United States and Australia. The Woman’s Land Army of America (WLAA) operated from 1917 to 1919 and was re-formed as the Women’s Land Army from 1943 to 1947. The Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) existed from 1942 to 1945.

As a final reflection, I would like to draw attention to two aspects of the story told in this book that I think should give twenty-first-century readers particular pause for thought. The first of these concerns the sociability of the experience. One interviewee is quoted as follows:

It was a bit scary at times in the hit and run raids, but I wouldn’t have changed it. We were happy, we use (sic) to sing on our way to work, you could always hear someone singing on the tractors and we got so good. If we had two or three working in the field, which most times there were because they were big fields, you could see we were singing and if we did the actions of the song, the other one would pick it up. I remember one song was Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer, and a lot of popular songs, wartime songs, it was good. (p. 170)

Although the technological and economic factors contributing to large-scale industrial farming had been developing long before the world wars, clearly agriculture in the early 1940s was still highly labour intensive. This meant that the hardships experienced, compounded by war, were ameliorated by the support network that labour-intensive work entailed. By contrast, it is not difficult nowadays to find isolation and loneliness being listed as contributory factors in the high rate of farmer suicides. I suspect that ‘virtual’ contact via the Internet is a very poor substitute for persistent, face-to-face involvement in shared labour.

The second aspect concerns the love of the land that many land girls described, often in movingly poetic form. A selection of poems was assembled in An Anthology of Verse (1945) by Vita Sackville-West, who also wrote The Women’s Land Army (1944). A couple of these are quoted by Kramer (p. 175), for example:

Mine is the moonlight-silvered winding river,
Mine are the trees that grow, the birds that sing,
Mine are the happy woods, the friendly wild-flowers –
For, having nothing, I have everything.

Mine is the splendid sun, my bridge the rainbow,
Mine are the shining darts the rain-clouds fling.
Mine are the winding lanes, the curving hillsides –
For, having nothing, I have everything.

The boist’rous wind is my familiar playmate,
The beauty that dawns and sunsets bring,
The chattering streams are mine, and I am happy –
For, having nothing, I have everything.

As Kramer reflects:

One thing that seems to have united land girls, whether from town or country, was a deep love of the country itself. Those who came from the country already understood country ways and country life, but all evidence seems to suggest that women who came from the towns also developed a deep love of the countryside and missed it deeply if, and when, they returned to urban life. (p. 175)

If they were penned by an urban dweller on a day trip to the countryside, such poetic flights could be accused of romanticism or sentimentality. The land girls were not tourists, however, and were well aware of the hardships of working on the land. We must conclude, therefore, that their words express something deep.

It shouldn’t surprise us that an emotional connection with nature is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Think, for example, of the central significance of ‘connection to country’ associated with Aboriginal Australians, often described as having the world’s oldest civilization. Yet this connection has been increasingly disrupted by modern life. Industrial-scale food production is no exception, as we have become increasingly dependent on technologies that separate us from nature. Economies of scale may have produced higher yields, but have also led to monocultures, dependence on agrichemicals, destruction of habitat and wildlife, and the sort of social isolation already described above. Many of the practices of industrial-scale meat production are particularly disturbing, given that they are carried out on sentient beings. Film footage taken in abattoirs reveals a brutalising environment, as shown in the 2018 Dominion documentary.

These problems are systemic and seemingly intractable, resulting from intersecting causes like population growth, economic rationalism, and technological development. We are all caught up in them, as producers and consumers. While it doesn’t address such matters, Land Girls and Their Impact is a reminder of how much things have changed in agriculture in a short period of time, and not always for the better.

The Women’s Land Army has a Facebook page, where memorabilia of various kinds are shared.

Simon Kidd
Perth, Western Australia
September 2019

A review of Stephen J. Castro’s Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation

hypocrisy and dissent at the findhorn foundation


Hypocrisy and Dissent concerns a controversy that occurred in the first half of the 1990s at the Findhorn Foundation, a registered charity located in northern Scotland and considered by many to be the leading New Age centre in Europe, a counterpart to Esalen in California. My review was originally published in the August 1996 edition of Network, the journal of the Scientific and Medical Network. Other positive reviews appeared at the time. The local Forres Gazette described it as ‘a searching and sharply-observed book’. Writing in The Christian Parapsychologist (Vol. 12, No. 2, June 1996, p. 63), Canon Michael Perry summed it up as a ‘sorry tale of how an idealistic group of ecologically-motivated people turned themselves into a typical cult’.

Revisiting my review after almost twenty-three years, I realized it would benefit from an explanatory introduction. Not only was the original limited by the spatial constraints of the journal, but there have been further developments concerning the events described in the book. Other critical accounts of the Foundation have been published too, such as John Greenaway’s In the Shadow of the New Age: Decoding the Findhorn Foundation (London: Finderne Publishing, 2003), and Kevin R. D. Shepherd’s Pointed Observations: Critical Reflections of a Citizen Philosopher on Contemporary Pseudomysticism, Alternative Therapy, David Hume, Spinoza, and other subjects (Dorchester, Dorset: Citizen Initiative, 2005). The following paragraphs, therefore, are intended to provide both some context for my original review and an update.

My personal interest in the philosophy and sociology of religion began in 1988, the year of my graduation, when a friend recommended an introductory book on Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys. Over the next few years I read widely on religious topics and observed several religious groups in Ireland and the United Kingdom. My philosophical background gave a critical edge to my reading, and I was particularly keen to learn about the effects of conditioning, indoctrination, submission to authority, and so on. As a teenager I had been fascinated by the 1980 television miniseries about Jim Jones, and I later became acquainted with the outrageous behaviour of so-called gurus like Rajneesh (Osho) and Sathya Sai Baba. More salubrious was my correspondence with renowned Benedictine monk, Bede Griffiths, whom I met in 1990 at his ashram in southern India.

When I visited the Findhorn Foundation in 1994, therefore, it was more as a critical observer than a participant. The best way for me to achieve this was to enrol in the residential induction program known as Experience Week. This program typically includes team-building activities, tours of the various Foundation properties (including a ‘pilgrimage’ to the ‘shrine’ of the original co-founders’ caravan), and work experience in the gardening, homecare, kitchen, or maintenance departments. Another fixture at the time of my visit was a talk given to the group by figurehead Eileen Caddy (d. 2006), the only co-founder still resident. It was the ‘voice’ heard by Eileen that had guided the co-founders in the early days (i.e. from 1962). All in all, it was enough for me to witness in person many of the things I had heard about, and which would also be described in Castro’s book: the sort of people drawn there, the commercial ‘workshops’ on offer, the organizational structure, the daily routine, and some activities that are distinctive to the Foundation (the regular ‘attunements’ mentioned in my review, for example).

The first half of the 1990s was a time of unprecedented media scrutiny for the Foundation, fuelled by two controversial developments. The first of these was the increasing role of commercial therapies in the program. The most contentious was ‘Holotropic Breathwork’ (HB), the trade name for a therapy developed by Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, following the legal suppression of his research into the effects of LSD on psychiatric patients. It is a form of hyperventilation that induces altered mental states via changes to blood chemistry, with unpredictable results and sometimes extreme side-effects. It was introduced at the Foundation in 1989, under the directorship of Australian Craig Gibsone. Alarming effects were reported by participants and witnesses in Foundation precincts. These were known to include vomiting during sessions, and post-session disorientation and psychological disturbance requiring remedial psychotherapy. The leading opponent was Kate Thomas (d. 2017), who documented the entire episode in a lengthy chapter of the third volume of her autobiography, The Destiny Challenge: A Record of Spiritual Experience & Observation (Forres: New Frequency Press, 1992). She described how other Foundation community members had strong doubts about this experimental practice, including Eileen Caddy, who significantly failed to make her misgivings publicly known. The Foundation attempted to ban the book, but their solicitor pointed out that there was no legal case.

In a 1993 article in The Scotsman, Dr Linda Watt of Leverndale psychiatric hospital in Glasgow, who had studied accounts of HB, cautioned that hyperventilation could cause seizure or lead to psychosis in vulnerable people. The Scottish Charities Office (SCO) became involved and commissioned a report into the effects of hyperventilation by Anthony Busuttil, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Based on this, the SCO recommended suspension of the HB program at the Foundation. The latter complied officially, but authority figures exacted revenge on the dissenters. Although her position had been vindicated, Thomas was expelled from associate membership without a hearing. Her associates received similar discriminatory treatment. These events are at the heart of Hypocrisy and Dissent.

In 2006 I became involved in a sequel to the HB controversy, when I modified the Wikipedia article on HB to include sections on criticism of the practice and on the contraindications listed by Grof himself. Although I adhered to Wikipedia guidelines, I ended up in an ‘edit war’ with HB defenders, which eventually exposed broader problems with sectarianism on Wikipedia. I documented this at ‘Wikipedia and Kevin R. D. Shepherd’. The HB article no longer exists, having been subsumed into a more general Breathwork article.

The second controversial development was an increasingly expansionist policy within the Foundation, which aroused the suspicions of the indigenous populations of Findhorn and Forres. Relations with the locals had often been strained, particularly with the swelling of visitor numbers from the 1970s. Spokesman for the locals was the formidable Sir Michael Joughin (d. 1996), the chairman of Scottish Hydro-Electric, a former Royal Marine lieutenant, a past president of the Scottish National Farmers Union, and a justice of the peace. In 1992 a leaked memo revealed plans for the acquisition of land and an expansion of business operations. Although the plans were later dropped, the episode confirmed the local suspicion that the Foundation was serious about building a ‘vast city of Light’, as predicted by Eileen’s ‘guidance’. Along with Holotropic Breathwork, the planned expansion was the subject of a two-page spread in The Guardian (see Richard Boston, ‘If only the spirit could move them’, The Guardian, 11 November 1992, pp. 10–11). The article concluded: ‘In recent weeks the foundation has suffered one setback after another. The plan to launch a public company has been dropped, the holistic health centre has been abandoned, and the attempt to stop Kate Thomas’s book has failed. The foundation is under attack from without, and is divided and demoralised within. All in all they’ve got themselves into a right old mess.’ Undeterred by the setbacks, however, the Foundation was in the national press four years later, this time because of ambitious plans to establish an ‘eco-village’ (see Amanda Mitchison, ‘Invasionary forces’, The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 24 November 1996, pp. 12–19).

As critics like Greenaway and Shepherd point out, these controversies sprang from the same root cause, which was the transformation of the Foundation from a small group of idealistic (if eccentric) seekers, interested in alternative lifestyles, into a commercial centre for New Age therapies. In Chapter 2 of his book (‘Transition to Managerialism’), Greenaway dates this change as early as the mid-1970s, although the formation of New Findhorn Directions in 1986 was the impetus for the ‘strong commercial drive of the Foundation of the 1990s into the new millennium’ (In the Shadow of the New Age, p. 44). He finds that this ‘growing managerial and commercial culture drew strongly on ideas and methodology taken from successive phases of “New Age California”’ (p. 44). The major influence was the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, which began in 1962, coincidentally the same year that Peter and Eileen Caddy, along with Dorothy Maclean, established themselves in the caravan park at Findhorn. Stanislav Grof was a scholar-in-residence at Esalen from 1973 to 1987.

That the commercial New Age continues to be the context for the Findhorn Foundation is confirmed by their sleek website, which describes the Foundation as ‘a dynamic experiment where everyday life is guided by the inner voice of spirit’. The website presents the official history, a simple and sanitized account that naturally omits embarrassing details that undermine such vaunted claims. For instance, the charming story that Peter Caddy and Dorothy Maclean received help from nature spirits in growing giant vegetables in an inhospitable environment has become the stuff of legend, but ignores the more prosaic published data about the sheltered climate and Peter’s horticultural prowess. To take another example, in mentioning that Peter ‘left the community in 1979 to work internationally’ and that he ‘came back to visit Findhorn regularly until his death in Germany in 1994’, the official history glosses over the following facts: that he also left Eileen, his third wife of five; that he later repudiated the basis for her ‘guidance’ (a skeptical turn that is justified when one takes a closer look at how the guidance was produced); and that he was sympathetic to the dissident perspective in evidence during one of his return visits.

If anyone doubts the commercial New Age context, they need only visit the relevant section of the website, where ‘workshops’ retail for exorbitant prices. Visitors can play ‘The Game of Transformation’ for four days (£500–£800) or seven (£700–£1120), or even train as facilitators over a fortnight (£2,090/£2,275/£2,465). If Celtic mythology takes your fancy, you can spend three days ‘Unfolding Your Inner Sidhe’ (£460–£720) – ‘sidhe’ (pronounced ‘shee’) being the anglicized spelling of a Gaelic term signifying a supernatural being. Seven days of ‘Christic Mantras’ will set you back £690/£840/£1110. Also available is the 28-day ‘Esalen® Massage Certification Training’ for £3610/£3890/£4160, with a further £150 payable directly to Esalen for the certificate on completion of training. (It was a familiarity with the materialistic and entrepreneurial nature of the New Age that motivated my satirical ‘I wish I knew how to be wise’.)

For detailed information about the Findhorn Foundation, Shepherd’s online articles are the most accessible. The full list is available on his bibliographic page (see ‘Findhorn Foundation and New Age’). ‘The Findhorn Foundation: Myth and Reality’ presents a good chronological overview that begins with the early years, while ‘Findhorn Foundation ecobiz and commercial mysticism’ goes into greater detail about the commercial context.

Download a PDF of the published review



Stephen J. Castro, Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation: Towards a Sociology of a New Age Community (Forres, Morayshire: New Media Books, 1996).

This book provides an important insight into the disparity between the professed ideals and the actual reality of a New Age community; namely, the Findhorn Foundation in the far north of Scotland. As its subtitle indicates, it is intended as a contribution towards a sociology of such a community. The author has meticulously collected his data and presents it with notable perspicuity in an attempt to inform both sociologists and general public alike. Its broader significance lies, I believe, in the possible implications of the case in question for our perception of similar organizations.

The Findhorn Foundation is, as sociologist Eileen Barker has noted, ‘one of the best-known of the New Age communities in Britain’ (quoted p. xi). As such, its influence is considerable, having connections with similar communities worldwide. By 1993 the net worth of the Foundation’s properties was quoted at £l.6 million, and the commercial turnover for its trading arm, New Findhorn Directions, was said to be £1.2 million.

In the light of its charitable status, its material wealth, and its obvious prestige in the New Age milieu, it is rather startling to learn something of the modus operandi of this organization. Its members claim to receive the ‘direct guidance of God’. This is a highly questionable basis for the administration of any organization, especially when one learns later in the book the basis on which the claim rests. Yet the process of ‘attunement’ is used in the Foundation to this day, and is applied to the whole spectrum of decision making. The danger, as Castro points out, lies in the sense of infallibility that such a belief provides. Its implications are very serious, as this book reveals.

The Findhorn Foundation has had numerous dissenters. In addition to its very strained relations with the indigenous populations of Findhorn and Forres, a number of those who have had internal experience of the organization, including the author, have noted the disparity between preaching and practice in a community nominally devoted to love, truth, and spiritual growth.

Several cases are presented, but the most striking one is that of Kate Thomas, who first came into contact with the Findhorn Foundation in 1988. She wrote an additional 100-page chapter for her autobiography, containing a detailed record of her subsequent experience. Thomas entered fully into the life of the community, but became increasingly disconcerted as time passed. She discovered that this supposedly spiritual centre was actually devoted to commercial therapies, and not even in a professional manner, but applied indiscriminately, often by people without recognized academic qualifications. (Castro points out that this is possible in the UK, due to the absence of the stricter legal controls which are in evidence in other European countries.) Her mildly expressed protests drew mostly hostility, from authority figures and fellow participants alike, and she was subsequently labelled, by the former group, as a ‘troublemaker’. The situation was exacerbated by her stand against the introduction of Holotropic Breathwork™ in 1989 and by the publication of vol. 3 of her autobiography (with its additional material) in 1992.

Castro reveals Thomas as a person of great integrity, who was not willing to compromise principles in the face of injustice and hypocrisy. It seems that the more the members, and in particular the leaders, of the Foundation were confronted with their misdeeds, the more wilfully they refused to face up to them. Subsequently there was a great deal of publicity, at both local and national level. Among other significant events, we learn that the SCO commissioned a report by a forensic expert at Edinburgh University into the effects of hyperventilation, on the basis of which, in 1993, the Findhorn Foundation suspended its Holotropic Breathwork™ courses.

Kate Thomas was blocked from any closer involvement with the community, and even banned from its properties. She was never given an adequate explanation, nor a public hearing within the Foundation. Similar treatment was extended to anyone who supported her, and who likewise questioned the policies of those in positions of power. Castro points out that such censorship and aversion to criticism is typical of the cult mentality.

The book brings us up to 1995, with the situation still unresolved, at least to the satisfaction of the dissenters. In conclusion, I regard this as a timely publication. It provides material for a much needed investigation into the claims and activities, not just of the Findhorn Foundation, but of similar institutions in the New Age environment. Such institutions should not be exempt from sociological analysis. But one doesn’t have to be a sociologist to benefit from the book. Indeed, it is equally relevant to a general public in need of the sort of information it provides. Such information must become more widely available, if contemporary society is to be able to make a distinction between that which is genuinely spiritual and that which only masquerades as such.

Addiction Unlimited

A review of

Damian Thompson

The Fix

How addiction is invading our lives

and taking over your world

(London: Collins, 2012)


Introductory comments
Given the seriousness of its subject matter, it might seem insensitive to joke that I couldn’t put this book down, but in truth The Fix is a highly readable account of the hydra-headed reality of contemporary addiction. Author Damian Thompson, a journalist with a PhD in sociology, and himself a former alcoholic, describes with disarming candour the ‘addictive desires’ to which he is subject, and which he believes are far more common than most of us would like to admit. Indeed, it is precisely the prevalence of such desires that makes them a target for those whose job it is to manipulate us into consumption of one form or another, and this is really what The Fix is about.

The science of addiction
The book doesn’t present any groundbreaking research. The perspective is more sociological than neuroscientific, although brain chemistry is central to the story, and Thompson’s exposition of it is lucid and interesting. He points out that the scientific jury is still out on the precise causes of addiction. Although the role of neurotransmitters – such as dopamine and the opioid system – in reinforcing certain behaviours is well understood, there is less certainty about what causes some people to cross the line into debilitating addiction, while others evade this outcome. One thing that Thompson is adamant about, however, is that addiction is not a disease.

As an alcoholic, Thompson attended the AA 12-step program and is open about the benefits he received from it, but he attributes the success of the method to the ‘remarkable power of peer-group moral support’ (p. 34), despite – rather than because of – its adoption of the ‘disease model’ of addiction. For Thompson, the disease model is pernicious, because it removes ‘will’ from the picture. Not that his tone is moralising – he recognises the adverse circumstances that can lead to some forms of addiction – but he favours an account, more traditional in my view, that sees addiction in terms of habit formation. In this context, he approvingly cites psychologist Dr Stanton Peele, who ‘argues that AA preserved the temperance movement’s message of total abstinence – deeply rooted in American Protestant society – while relieving guilt by naming illness rather than sin as the cause of addiction’ (p. 44). Thompson finds the jargon of addiction specialists to be fuzzy and superficial: ‘They’ll use a term like “compulsion” without exploring the philosophical questions it raises about free will’ (p. 43); and he accuses them of a circular logic: ‘heavy drinkers who give up alcohol of their own accord … cannot have had the disease and were therefore never alcoholics in the first place ‘(pp. 35–36). The problem, of course, is that there is no diagnostic test for the ‘disease’ of addiction, unlike cancer or tuberculosis.

Countering the disease model, Thompson presents both anecdotal evidence and the results of large-scale research. In the former category is his account of Robin and James, friends from similar backgrounds who both drifted from alcohol to hard drugs. But while Robin gradually turned his life around with great effort, James committed suicide. Thompson points out that if Robin had died during his addiction phase, as nearly happened, the specialists would have felt vindicated in attributing his fate to a disease. Since he recovered through his own efforts, however, the conclusion must instead be that he never had the disease.

The disease model is not supported at an epidemiological level either, as extensive US government research conducted with Vietnam veterans demonstrates. Fearing a massive public-order problem caused by thousands of heroin-addicted GIs returning to American cities, the government commissioned a study of 400 users who described themselves as addicted. What they found, however, was that 88% of the subjects kicked the habit once they returned to civilian life. It seems very likely that it was the extreme circumstances in Vietnam, coupled with availability and peer behaviour, that was the cause of the addiction. Once the circumstances changed, for most of the soldiers the addiction was overcome. For Thompson, this identifies a key factor in addiction, which he describes as the ‘availability hypothesis’. Following Professor Michael Gossop, a leading researcher at the National Addiction Centre, King’s College, London, he describes different ‘dimensions of availability’: physical, psychological, economic, and social. The Vietnam GIs ticked all of the boxes.

Chapter 3 takes a closer look at the science of addiction. The role of dopamine is discussed, as is the opioid system, which contains the brain’s morphine-like compounds (endorphins). The former seems to have more to do with desire (wanting), and the latter with pleasure (liking). The surprising fact for me was that the former is stronger than the latter – our bodies reward wanting more than liking, although the latter plays a role in the former. Grafted onto this schema is what Thompson calls the Go and Stop impulses. The Go impulse is very primitive and we share it with animals. Dopamine is central to this urge. The Stop impulse is associated with the frontal lobes and is highly developed only in adult humans – it helps us to manage the Go impulse by reasoning about the consequences of immediate reward. I might observe that, if we leave out the technical vocabulary, none of this would have been news to the philosophers of the ancient world, who developed reasoning about desire to a high degree.

The point about the brain chemistry is that the same chemicals are involved in any form of addiction, be it ‘substance’ or ‘process’ addiction. The effects of different ‘recreational’ drugs on the brain may vary, and can be observed in addict behaviour (pp. 60–63), but ‘dopamine is still the master drug’ (p. 63). It plays a role in fastening onto ‘cues’, and here Thompson links the rarer experience of addicts to our everyday experience. The physiological effect of cues has been understood at least since Pavlov, but the point here is the continuity of the experience – ‘ordinary’ and ‘addictive’ represent different points on the same spectrum, and that is significant to the case that Thompson is making: ‘the brain’s reward circuits don’t necessarily distinguish between supposedly innocent and supposedly dangerous pursuits … addictive behaviours are accompanied by physical changes in the brain – whether or not they involve drugs’ (p. 65).

This brings us to the heart of the argument about brain chemistry and addiction, and it recalls what was said earlier about the will and habit formation. The following key passage is worth quoting in full:

Why does science have such a hard time getting to grips with the phenomenon of addiction? In a nutshell, because human brains, as opposed to animal ones, can instruct the body to perform an almost infinite number of voluntary (and therefore unpredictable) actions. And, contrary to the beliefs of disease-model advocates and the huge therapeutic industry, addictive behaviour is essentially voluntary. Addicts may be influenced by their disordered brain chemistry to make bad choices, but they are choices nonetheless. (p. 67)

For Thompson, addiction is a disorder describing how ‘people choose to do things that are not in their best interests … addicts are those who consistently seek damaging short-term rewards’ (p. 70). He doesn’t rule out an inherited predisposition, since, for example, alcoholism is known to run in families, but unlike a genetically inherited disease, no one has isolated a specific gene for alcoholism, and Thompson isn’t sanguine about the prospects of finding one: ‘since addiction consists of complex sequences of voluntary acts, such neurological reductionism is a waste of time’ (p. 70). Here he anticipates much of the theme for the remainder of his book. Hard drugs are not physically, psychologically, economically, or socially available to most of us, but there are many other substances, objects, and processes that are, and the producers of such things have a very strong interest in getting – and keeping – us hooked on them.

The chapter concludes with some semantic considerations that emerge from the science. First, ‘the old distinction between “psychological” and “physical” addiction is misleading’ (p. 72). We can be physically addicted to something, meaning that its consumption or repetition is reinforced by changes in the brain, but it is nonetheless reversible if the behaviour changes. Second, ‘dependence’ can mean different things. A diabetic may be dependent on insulin, meaning that he will die without it; but a heroin addict will not die without heroin. Thompson urges that ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’, though not scientific terms, ‘can be used unambiguously because they correspond to discrete urges governed by different brain mechanisms … [and] we can say with some confidence that, increasingly, our wanting urge is overwhelming our liking urge’ (p. 72). He argues that corporations have become very adept at manipulating our environment ‘to make us as greedy as possible’ (p. 73).

The business of addiction
Chapter 4 links what has already been said about brain chemistry and the availability hypothesis, with what we know about evolutionary biology, and applies this knowledge to our contemporary world, with some historical examples that lend support to the argument. A key paragraph is the following:

In evolutionary terms, we essentially have the brains and bodies of hunter-gatherers. Our biochemistry has changed a bit in response to our dramatically altered surroundings, but not nearly enough for us to be able to adjust to them without damaging ourselves. Most people don’t reach the point of becoming addicts; but this mismatch between our bodies and our environment is the fundamental problem of addiction, and it is common to all humanity. (p. 76)

The biological goal of evolution is survival, and the mechanism that drives it is pleasure. Pleasure rewards the behaviour that increases our chances of survival. The problem is that our brain chemistry keeps pushing us towards those pleasurable experiences after our biological needs have been met: ‘We have no way of switching off the hunter-gatherer instincts inherited from the mammals that preceded us, which have developed over hundreds of thousands of years’ (p. 79).

Technology plays a central role in the struggle for survival. Thompson defines technology as ‘an infinite number of tools, crafts and techniques that, thanks to scientific discoveries, have the potential to make life more bearable for us’ (p. 80). Technology ‘allows us to achieve greater rewards for less effort … [it] pushes the work-to-reward ratio in the direction of rewards – and usually short-term rewards at that’ (pp. 80–81).

Problems begin when – due to urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism – we arrive at a situation of unlimited availability. The well-known example of sugar is given: useful in the form of occasional fruit for hunter-gatherers, but positively dangerous in the quantities that we are now consuming it. This brings us to the concept of ‘addictive epidemics’ (p. 87). Heroin addiction among Vietnam GIs was an example of this, and Thompson provides others, such as the eighteenth-century ‘Gin Craze’ in London – the ‘first recorded epidemic of drunkenness in history’ (pp. 84–7); and, in the same century, the epidemic of opium smoking in China (pp. 89–92). In both cases, the epidemics involved a combination of technological developments and other social factors, leading to ‘availability’ in the senses discussed earlier.

Moving on from heroin, alcohol, and opium, Thompson points out that addictive urges needn’t involve ‘substances’ at all, and he gives the examples of casinos and strip clubs, both being cases where the thrill-seeker ‘is endlessly teased with cues that signify sudden wealth or a glorious sexual encounter’ (p. 93). It’s not important that the customer knows deep-down that these expectations are unrealistic, since his brain chemistry leads him to ignore the long-term consequences in favour of a ‘short-term buzz of excitement’ (p. 93).

For Thompson, there is no tidy explanation of what tips people over into self-destructive behaviours, but he asks us to step back and remind ourselves of the big picture:

The only things limiting our ability to stimulate ourselves to the point of frenzy are our fragile biology and our common sense. Western society has moved beyond the point where addictive epidemics can easily be distinguished from everyday behaviour; the dynamics of addiction and the dynamics of the free market simply have too much in common. (p. 94)

Dramatically illustrating this point is the example of the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, which commercialized the drug diamorphine in 1898, marketing it as a syrup for ‘coughs, colds and “irritation”’ (p. 95). It was trademarked as Heroin, ‘to indicate its “heroic” properties’ (p. 95). (Diamorphine had first been synthesized by an English chemist in 1874, but Bayer led commercialization after Felix Hoffmann independently re-synthesized it.) Although they had been searching for a less addictive form of morphine, they ended up producing a substance that was more addictive, and then making it readily available with dreadful consequences. We now know that once demand has been created, limiting supply becomes ineffective, because addicts will switch to other substances, and even to non-substance forms of addiction:

Addictive behaviours aren’t necessarily locked on to specific things: in a world where there are practically limitless pleasurable experiences on offer, obsessive behaviour becomes promiscuous: it can grab hold of any object or activity that promises us a hit. (p. 98)

Most of the rest of the book applies this argument to various modern forms of addiction. Chapter 5 is devoted to sugar, which Thompson points out shares some of the psychoactive properties of ‘recreational’ drugs. Lab tests at Princeton University indicate that sugar induces cocaine-like reactions in rodents (pp. 107–8). Beyond the substance itself, however, is all of the daily behaviour that surrounds it, and which surrounds our consumption (and over-consumption) of food in general: ‘the food industry not only engineers food that exploits our natural preference for sugar, fat and salt, but also grabs our attention when we’re not eating, employing cues that awaken our wanting instinct’ (p. 123).

Chapter 6 considers the social phenomenon of binge drinking. Public drunkenness has become more prevalent, even among women, and its effects are graphically portrayed not just in the traditional media but on social-media platforms like YouTube. The ‘narrowing of the alcohol gender gap … [means that] women are now exposed to changes in brain chemistry that had previously been restricted to men’ (pp. 134–5). A large part of this chapter is autobiographical, but Thompson draws out the implications, describing himself as ‘a fairly typical casualty of an environment saturated with my drug of choice’ (p. 141). He goes on to link the social change in drinking patterns to the related ingestion of recreational drugs, which are being synthesized at an increasing rate, and often available at low cost on the Internet. The acceleration of the process makes it virtually impossible for the authorities to keep up. The conclusion is a pessimistic one:

Government scientists are scrambling desperately to classify these drugs and warn young people of the dangers of taking them. But the underground laboratories, and their new digital sales departments, are too far ahead. It’s a lost cause. (p. 150)

Chapter 7 takes a look at the converging problem of prescription medication. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, designed to treat ADD and ADHD (controversial diagnoses in their own right), have become widely prescribed, particularly in the US. These stimulants have been adopted as cognitive-enhancing drugs, particularly by students who are under pressure to perform, and they are traded accordingly. The social pressure on students to drink, at parties or in clubs, has resulted in widespread self-medication, often involving carefully-planned sequences of alcohol, amphetamines (legal and illegal), painkillers (e.g. codeine), and tranquilizers.

What we’re confronting here goes further than a blurring of the boundary between legal and illegal drugs. Also evaporating are the distinctions between the legal, inappropriate and unlawful use of medicines, plus the difference between medication and self-medication. (p. 159)

The pattern doesn’t necessarily end with graduation either, but can be carried over into a high-pressure workplace. Research indicates, however, not only that the drugs are damaging, but that they deliver no long-term cognitive enhancement. In the case of such self-medicating high achievers, Thompson suggests that ‘it might be worth checking on the state of their brain chemistry in a few years’ time’ (p. 171).

The next two chapters take us beyond substance abuse to forms of non-substance addiction, such as ‘gaming’ (Chapter 8) and pornography (Chapter 9), both being areas where computer technology has created unheard-of forms of addiction.

The title of Chapter 8 (‘Gaming, the new gambling’) is a succinct summary of its content. A watershed event was the passing of a law in the US in 2006, making online betting illegal and preventing any company from providing it there. People who had been addicted to online gambling switched instead to online gaming, and gaming companies recruited programmers from the now-illegal industry. The switch would have been relatively smooth for them because, as Thompson points out, the two activities employ similar ‘reward dynamics’ (p. 174). He describes them with an evocative phrase: ‘brain-hijackers with transferable skills’ (p. 180). Supporting this claim is a statement from an anonymous Silicon Valley gaming company CEO:

We design an environment in which losses are insignificant and there are regular reassurance mechanisms. Then we make modifications to that environment and monitor which combinations of punishment and encouragement keep users playing for longer. We engineer the game very precisely to keep players enjoying it for the longest possible time, and we use complex software to help us monitor what the entire installed user base of players is doing with their copy of the game. (p. 181)

Who are these players? Thompson points out that ‘it isn’t just children who are getting trapped in cyberspace’ (p. 176). There are adults who spend hours in front of a screen tweaking their online personas (avatars), purchasing virtual real estate, furniture, and clothing, and interacting with other avatars in an immersive virtual world (e.g. Second Life). Corporations take male and female preferences into account and tailor their games accordingly. Furthermore, not only has the ‘traditional’ gaming market mushroomed, but a host of other software applications has been ‘gamified’ (p. 177), including email, Twitter and Facebook. That such applications are now installed on multiple platforms (smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers) means that we are increasingly bombarded with visible and audible notifications that give us a buzz of excitement.

Although games and social media technologies might appear trivial by comparison with some forms of addiction, Thompson believes we are facing ‘yet another social epidemic, born out of the marriage of marketing and reward-responsive brain chemistry’ (p. 183). He numbers ‘300 internet addiction clinics in China alone, catering to some of the estimated 17 million game and internet addicts in that country’ (p. 188).

A troubling implication of this burgeoning online interaction is that ‘relationships in the real world will resemble those in the digital one: transitory, accelerated, pragmatic associations that provide a hit of narcissistic reassurance rather than lasting bonds between close friends’ (p. 194). If this sounds far-fetched to some, Thompson concludes, consider that ‘by the end of 2011, Facebook was being cited in a third of divorce cases in the UK’ (p. 195).

Chapter 9 tells a similar story, but this time it is digital pornography that is of concern. Men are more prone to this addiction, but women are affected. It is a difficult area to research, but the available data ‘suggests that the sexual appetites of countless millions of people are being manipulated in ways for which there is no historical precedent’ (p. 196). Of all the addictions that Thompson describes in the book, ‘it’s the one that comes closest to panicking the experts’ (p. 198).

By contrast with the pre-digital version, digital porn has become increasingly explicit, in response to the jaded appetites of consumers. This includes a ‘drift towards violence and cruelty’ (p. 204). Furthermore, although porn has always taken advantage of new technologies, the Internet has made it available on an unprecedented scale, frequently without cost, and to children as well as adults.

Thompson cites psychiatrist Norman Doidge, whose 2007 book, The Brain that Changes Itself, has made popular the idea of ‘neuroplasticity’. For Doidge, ‘internet porn is addictive in roughly the same way as drugs’ (p. 211). In the mid- to late-1990s, he noticed that some of his male patients complained of problems with normal sexual performance, and he ascribed this to brain rewiring, brought on by repeated bursts of dopamine in response to explicit pornographic images. The business side of porn may not be as systematic as online gaming, but the effects on the brain are just as pernicious, if not more so.

The examples provided by Thompson demonstrate that this problem is affecting males of all ages and backgrounds, with publicised cases revealing the collection of hundreds of thousands of illegal images. This is one of the instances where addiction reveals obsessive-compulsive traits. Like other forms of addiction, internet porn exploits loneliness, and masquerades as an antidote to it. It is a case of the progressive replacement of people by things, in this instance by increasingly hard-core images.

The title of the final chapter (‘Deliver us from temptation’) has religious overtones, perhaps reflecting Thompson’s academic and professional background – his PhD was in the sociology of religion, and he has been religious affairs correspondent of The Daily Telegraph and editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald.

In this chapter, we return to the big picture, to get some sense of what we are confronting. Regarding legalisation of drugs, Thompson points out that the resulting changes to lines of supply would not provide any remedy for addiction. Furthermore, technological changes mean that the boundary between legal and illegal drugs has become blurred, and, in any case, many abused drugs are already easy to get hold of (e.g. Adderall, Ritalin, codeine).

As a way of understanding addiction in the 21st century, Thompson adopts the pyramidal model proposed by Dr Adi Jaffe, a former addict and dealer turned academic psychologist. According to this model, the pyramid is divided into thirds: the bottom third represents ordinary people whose addictive impulses are ‘difficult, but not impossible, to excite’; the middle layer consists of ‘vulnerable individuals whose natural reaction to stress is to search for a fix’; at the top are those we consider addicts in the real sense, ‘with their wide-open “wanting” pathways who are capable of developing an all-consuming obsession with anything from candy bars to sadomasochistic sex acts’ (p. 237). In the light of the preceding chapters of his book, Thompson proposes that we are witnessing an upward trend within this pyramid:

More of us find ourselves in the category of addict or the intermediary layer of vulnerable consumer. More of us are at risk than ever before of developing crippling addictive behaviours. Ignoring potentially harmful temptations involves significantly more willpower than it once did. (p. 238)

If, as Thompson argues, addiction is not caused by brain malfunction, but rather the opposite – ‘addictive behaviour, influenced above all by the available supply of addictive substances and experiences, can sometimes cause brain abnormalities’ (p. 238) – then the social implications are enormous.

Thompson refers to ‘the sudden disappearance of political and cultural obstacles that limited the geographical spread of particular addictive products and practices’ (pp. 240–41). These include the fall of the Berlin Wall, hi-tech globalization, migration, organized crime, and long-haul travel (which ‘has changed the attitude of students and young professionals towards mind-altering drugs, which they have seen consumed in developing countries as part of the natural rhythm of life – or so they like to think, in their romantic way’, pp. 244–5). The changes are too rapid to be described as ‘generational’ and they place a huge burden on our psyches:

One way or another, everybody in the Western world has to confront the quickening of desire. It’s true that many people can’t afford to pursue more than a few of those desires. Most of us, however, face an intensity of temptation that we can only intermittently resist. Managing those temptations draws deeply on our psychological resources: it can dominate our thoughts and swallow up our time. (p. 246)

The modern consumer society only exacerbates this burden, since it is ‘partly fashioned around our inability to exercise willpower’. Indeed, our livelihoods often depend on ‘other people’s vulnerability to temptation’, which implies that we are all implicated: ‘The multiplication of choice, the expansion of the free market and the stimulation of greed are so tightly interwoven as to be almost indistinguishable from each other’ (p. 258). The result is that the ‘addictive personality … is fast becoming the default personal style of disoriented modern citizens’ (p. 259).

The medical model may appear to lighten the burden by making us think that ‘addictions are not so much the product of our actions as something we are unlucky enough to have acquired’ (p. 247), which Thompson describes as ‘a recipe for learned helplessness’ (p. 249), but it will not help us in the long term. In the final analysis, he believes that ‘addiction is a disorder of choice, and we’re not doomed to carry on making bad choices to the point of helplessness’ (p. 259):

Perhaps we need to rediscover the vigilance that protected our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The quicker we are to spot the technological tricks that manipulate our “wanting” impulse, the greater will be our chance of resisting them. That’s if we want to, of course. (p. 260)

Concluding comments
The Fix is written for a general audience, although the influence of Thompson’s background in sociology is detectable. With minimal use of scientific jargon, he makes a plausible case for the continuity between extreme forms of addiction, which we might all recognise, and the more mundane experience of giving in to temptation, whether the object of our desire be food, prescribed medication, or digital distractions. Furthermore, he suggests that our contemporary way of life is pushing us into addictive-type behaviours.

A recurring theme in the book is that addiction involves the progressive replacement of people by things. This is particularly evident where addiction intersects with obsessive collecting (a form of OCD), but it is not limited to such cases. Even the people in an addict’s life often become a means to the object of his addiction. And addicts often end up alone in their bedroom or sitting room, whether they are addicted to alcohol or gaming.

Describing himself as a former addict, he refuses to accept the ‘medical model’ that claims addiction is an incurable disease. Although he acknowledges the role of ‘situation and context’, and agrees with Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, 2000) that we tend to ‘overestimate the importance of character traits’ (p. 88), his description of addiction as a ‘disorder of choice’ is entirely compatible with traditional accounts of habit formation.

We know from their writings that ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle well understood the human psyche to be a battleground between competing influences. Notwithstanding the power of irrational forces, they regarded rationality as the defining characteristic of human beings, and they claimed that the ordered psyche was one in which the irrational was submitted to the rational. Ancient philosophical schools, such as the Epicureans and the Stoics, developed a sophisticated understanding of desire and emotion, including a hierarchy of different kinds of pleasure, and they elaborated exercises to help students strengthen the will against temptation. Their goal was eudaimonia, often translated as ‘flourishing’, in the sense of a fulfilling human life. They were concerned with ‘normal’ desire, rather than the extreme of addiction, though doubtless they would have seen the two lying along a spectrum, with the latter being the developmental endpoint of a dissolute life, one in which there was no attempt to subjugate the lower desires.

Thompson, perhaps judiciously, doesn’t bring such historical considerations into his account, which is generally factual and descriptive rather than moralizing. I believe it is significant, however, that he leaves open the door to what the ancients have to teach us. Although no stranger to addictive desires himself, he refuses to shirk responsibility for his own poor choices in the past. Rather, he returns, like the escaped prisoner in Plato’s cave allegory, to help liberate his erstwhile fellow captives, and warn against complacency in a world increasingly governed by desire.

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