Mike Jay

Mike Jay’s latest book is Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic.

Edward James​ was charming, eccentric, generous and immensely wealthy. For most of his life, his greatest talent was placing himself in interesting situations, often having used his wealth to make them happen. In 1931, he was the first to publish John Betjeman, who had been a fellow student at Oxford. In 1933 he financed the final collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. When...

On Michael Neve

Mike Jay, 19 November 2019

MichaelNeve died on 9 October. I first met him in 1995, at a funeral. We had been taught Nietzsche by the same lecturer at Cambridge; that had been enough academia for me, but Michael had advanced (or, by his own account, stumbled haplessly) to the position of senior lecturer at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL. He had a contract with Penguin for an anthology of...

The Despards

Mike Jay, 18 July 2019

Before dawn​ on 21 February 1803, the day of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard’s execution, London’s entire armed forces were on full alert. Every member of the Bow Street, Queen Street and Hatton Garden militias, along with numerous petty constables from the outlying boroughs, was placed on duty in ‘all the public houses and other places of resort for the disaffected’....


Mike Jay, 6 December 2018

‘When​ you look at it, it looks like any other piece of land. The sun shines on it like on any other part of the earth. And it’s as though nothing had particularly changed in it. Like everything was the way it was thirty years ago.’ This is the first description of the Zone, the enigmatic and forbidden locus of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic...


Mike Jay, 27 September 2018

‘Wouldn’t you like​ to see a positive LSD story on the news?’ asked the late comedian Bill Hicks in one of his most famous routines. ‘Today, a young man on acid realised that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration – that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream,...

‘Mad-Doctors in the Dock’

Mike Jay, 14 June 2017

A diagnosis​ of mental illness has many meanings, not all of them clearly stated. It confines itself to the language of the clinic but its reach extends far beyond it. It confers many, often hard-won, legal rights to employment, treatment, educational support and state benefits; equally it can remove your children from you, oblige you to undergo treatment against your will or take away...

Don’t fight sober

Mike Jay, 5 January 2017

In October​ 2013 a Time magazine article entitled ‘Syria’s Breaking Bad’ alerted Western media to the prevalence across the region of a little-known stimulant drug, Captagon. Lebanese police had found five million locally produced tablets, embossed with a roughly stamped yin-yang symbol, sealed inside a Syrian-made water heater in transit to Dubai. In October 2015 Captagon...

Franco Basaglia

Mike Jay, 7 September 2016

In Britain​, the man who closed the asylums was Enoch Powell. ‘There they stand,’ he announced to two thousand delegates at the 1961 annual conference of the National Association for Mental Health (now known as Mind), ‘isolated, majestic, imperious … the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day.’ But...

Am I Napoleon?

Mike Jay, 20 May 2015

‘Delusions of grandeur’, of which believing oneself to be Napoleon became the archetype, rose to extraordinary medical and cultural prominence during the July Monarchy. By 1840 it accounted for a quarter of all diagnoses of insanity. It was a form of monomania, the term coined by Esquirol to describe an uncontrolled delusion or obsession (idée fixe) in one who might otherwise appear sane. He conceived it as a disease of the passions, a consequence of ‘self-love, vanity, pride and ambition’, and hence a moral failing as much as a pathology.

Victorian Science Writing

Mike Jay, 20 November 2014

In 1802​, the young Humphry Davy introduced his first full course of chemistry lectures at the Royal Institution by addressing the fear that science was a Trojan horse for social or political reform. In ‘a bright day, of which we already behold the dawn,’ he announced, ‘we may look forward with confidence to a state of society in which the different orders and classes of...

Ballooning’s Golden Age

Mike Jay, 8 August 2013

The history of ballooning is inescapably a procession of failures. This is partly in the nature of balloon flight which, like politics and indeed life, must always end with a falling to earth, at best skilfully managed but never entirely safe from indignity or tragedy. It is also a function of the hyperbole with which it was from the beginning obliged to justify itself: it would transform...


Mike Jay, 23 May 2013

Memory creates our identity, but it also exposes the illusion of a coherent self: a memory is not a thing but an act that alters and rearranges even as it retrieves. Although some of its operations can be trained to an astonishing pitch, most take place autonomously, beyond the reach of the conscious mind. As we age, it distorts and foreshortens: present experience becomes harder to impress on the mind, and the long-forgotten past seems to draw closer; University Challenge gets easier, remembering what you came downstairs for gets harder.


Mike Jay, 7 March 2013

In February 1758 the 90-year-old Charles Lullin, a retired Swiss civil servant whose sight had been progressively failing since a cataract operation five years before, began to see considerably more than he had become accustomed to. For the next several months he was visited in his apartment by a silent procession of figures, invisible to everyone but him: young men in magnificent cloaks, perfectly coiffured ladies carrying boxes on their heads, girls dancing in silks and ribbons. These visions were recorded and published in 1760 by his grandson.


Mike Jay, 21 June 2012

How can opium be so ancient, and addiction so modern? The drug has not changed, nor has the human metabolism. In the earliest written records – Sumerian tablets and Egyptian papyri – it is already praised as a euphoric, a sedative and a supreme remedy against pain. Galen and his contemporaries added cautions about its dangers, but the most emphatic of these concerned overdose: the...

De Quincey

Mike Jay, 13 May 2010

The film Confessions of an Opium Eater, shot on a shoestring by Albert Zugsmith in 1962 and starring Vincent Price, opens with Vaseline-fogged images of a Chinese junk and a delirious Price voice-over (‘I am De Quincey … I dream … and I create dreams … out of my opium pipe’). This is Gilbert De Quincey, a presumed descendant, who wanders the seas as a captain...


Emily Witt, 2 January 2020

‘No mind-altering substance has been described more thoroughly and from such a variety of perspectives,’ Mike Jay writes in his new history, Mescaline.

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Dr Beddoes

John Barrell, 19 November 2009

In 1794 Robert Watt, an Edinburgh wine merchant, together with a few associates, was arrested for allegedly framing a plot to seize the Edinburgh post office, the banks and the castle, and to...

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