Taking the high road
Decca Aitkenhead admits that her original outline for The Promised Land offered to “subvert the genre” of travel writing. This turns out to have been a foolish proposal on two counts — first, because she’d read very few travel books, and second, because The Promised Land does no such thing. Which is not to say that it’s either predictable or dull.
Aitkenhead discovered Ecstasy as a student in Manchester in the early 1990s and acknowledges that one of its key properties is to leave users longing to re-live their first great times on the drug, their “freshly minted astonishment of happiness”.
In a preternaturally aged attempt to recapture her youth, she therefore conceived the idea of touring the world in search of the perfect E.
At first sight a daft quest, since the overwhelming majority of ecstasy pills come from the same place, Amsterdam, this turns out in fact to mean the perfect clubbing experience, rather than the perfect chemical concoction. Luckily for her readers, Aitkenhead isn’t much interested in the solipsistic high and resolves not to bore on about the effects of her various doses of MDMA.
What she craves is to be with other people, in clubs that are new to her.
“Without the surprise,” she explains, “ecstasy can offer only pleasure; it can make you feel good, probably better than most, but this is private gratification, not collective wonder.” Her real subject is other people’s places: her quest to buy drugs and find somewhere decent to take them is simply a way of getting to know them.
In her hands, the differences in clubbing culture between Detroit, Ko Samui and Cape Town turn out to be a surprisingly serious subject. Her observations are spiky with attitude; in Thailand she notes, “it was important to have a tan deep enough to convey that you took being a backpacker seriously. The correct position of the knot in one’s sarong was a minefield; we watched one girl discreetly tie and re-tie hers in the reflection of a window for 15 minutes.”
But this is more than mere attitudinising; the impressions pile up into analysis — in this case, the (admittedly not entirely original) conclusion that the tourists in the Oriental in Bangkok and the travellers at the full moon rave are spoiling Thailand equally. You feel it, though, because the writing is so passionate.
It’s just as well that Aitkenhead has produced such an intelligent and absorbing book, because it becomes clear well before she finally ‘fesses up to it that her project is flawed. She is pursuing hedonism as a form of work, which, when you think about it, invalidates the whole thing. I kept having visions of her rushing off to the toilets not to up her chemical intake but to get the dealer’s mannerisms down in her notebook. (If she didn’t do this she has a prodigious memory, because her descriptions are funny and acute.)
This translation of the high into hard work may be why a lot of the book has a rather disgruntled tone. (Although, obviously, if she’d simply had a lot of lovely drugs and a brilliant time, there wouldn’t have been much copy.)
One of the problems of writing about such vastly different places as San Francisco and South Africa, Thailand and Amsterdam is that they demand quite different responses. Aitkenhead casts herself and her husband (who was with her throughout) in more than one familiar travel-writer role.
Hapless outsiders in San Francisco, hopelessly unable to access any drugs, they become appalled liberals among Ko Samui’s bar girls and fat foreign clients. And although the overriding tone is one of frustration — why aren’t things working out better? — these shifts of stance do give the book a certain unevenness.
In Cape Town, Aitkenhead and her husband not only partied but also met leading figures in the drug gangs and the equally vicious schemes set up to counteract them. They toured the townships with the police and concluded that “the violence that night was so careless and complete, it felt likely to go on forever”.
The South African section is a sustained and insightful piece of journalism — more genuinely engaged with place than her encounters with hippies in San Francisco or tourists in Thailand. It provides the best drama, when a drunk, mad gang leader points a loaded gun at her head, and the best meeting, an extended interview with a mild-mannered Boer farmer whose murderous racism is astonishing even in the context of Boer farmers.
Aitkenhead concludes that the main problem with taking ecstasy is that it implicates the clubber in all of this and helps fuel the violence. (She rejects this assessment in the final chapter, when she takes ecstasy among the peaceful people of Amsterdam, but it retains some of its force.)
To the non-user, the most surprising effect of MDMA is that its pursuit leads otherwise perfectly sensible people to do such boring and frightening things, often at the same time. It is to Aitkenhead’s credit that she writes about her trek so thoughtfully and wittily. The upside of the slight unevenness of tone is that her writing has wonderful range, from jaded irony to passionate analysis. She is especially good at the deftly flicked image — like her description of the Detroit hotel, “the reception staffed by women in beige nylon who looked as if they had been crying”.
She admits that she hoped (as, no doubt, did her publishers) that her book would be “hardcore cool”. The Promised Land does have something of The Beach-type glamour. But the drugs aren’t really the point. Drugs, like travelling, are about the pursuit of happiness, and Aitkenhead’s dogged pursuit of a good party is compelling, not least because it finally seems so irksome. As she says: “Because nothing the traveller does is ever strictly necessary, there’s no excuse for anything to be less than brilliant.” The pursuit of happiness — increasingly the ambition of human beings — can be a wearying thing.