It was 55 years ago this summer that English journalist William Rees-Mogg penned a widely read editorial for London’s Sunday Times. Borrowing from the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope, Rees-Mogg’s piece was titled Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?
In it, Rees-Mogg took issue with the severity of the legal treatment meted out in consequence of the February 1967 drug bust involving two members of the Rolling Stones. He thought a miscarriage of justice was afoot.
To quote: “If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism, then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity.”
In Rees-Mogg’s reckoning, the punishment didn’t fit the crime. An example was being made because of fame and notoriety.
The case arose out of a police raid on the Sussex home of the Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards. As a result, two of the Stones were charged – Mick Jagger with possession of four amphetamine pills and Richards with allowing cannabis to be smoked on his property.
The popular press went to town. It was a media sensation, amplified by rumours of a related orgy involving Jagger’s girlfriend, singer Marianne Faithfull. Lurid – and unfounded – tales circulated about the sexual deployment of a candy bar.
At the subsequent trial, Jagger and Richards were found guilty, fined and sentenced to three and 12 months respectively. Although quickly released pending appeal, they each spent a night in prison. Subsequently, Jagger’s sentence was reduced to a conditional discharge and Richards’ conviction was overturned.
Ironically, the police could’ve presented a more substantive and spectacular case if their timing had been just marginally different. Serious drugs had indeed become part and parcel of the Stones’ world.
And a decade on, Richards was in legal trouble again. This time in Canada.
While staying at Toronto’s Harbour Castle hotel in February 1977, Richards was raided by the RCMP and a substantial amount of heroin was discovered. He was initially charged with possession for the purpose of trafficking, an offence carrying significant jail time. His passport was temporarily confiscated.
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Some 18 months later, the case went to trial. Richards pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of simple possession and received a suspended sentence and a year’s probation, conditional on continuing his addiction treatment and performing a benefit concert on behalf of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
Many people were surprised by what they saw as unusual leniency. There were even suggestions of favourable treatment because of who he was. If you like, the very opposite of what had happened in 1967.
For better or worse, social norms and perspectives were moving on. Canada in 1978 wasn’t the same as the United Kingdom in 1967. A lot had transpired in the ensuing few years.
And there was another hot story around the time of the RCMP’s raid: Margaret Trudeau, the wife of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, went partying with the Stones.
Unbeknownst to the general public, the Trudeau marriage was in dire straits, and Margaret had decided to pursue a trial separation. So she took herself to the Harbour Castle where she met the Stones. Over the next couple of days, they hung out, drank, played dice and smoked dope. Unsurprisingly, this created a media frenzy and there was much speculation as to the full range of their activities.
For Margaret, this was the beginning of an extended public period characterized by exuberant partying, imbibing of various behaviour-altering substances and transient romantic liaisons. For her humiliated husband, it was a different matter.
Pierre Trudeau was many things, but few would have regarded him as an object of sympathy. He was too intellectual, too self-possessed and too remote for that.
However, a funny thing happened in the months immediately following the Harbour Castle episode. His poll numbers soared. In January, the Liberals trailed the Progressive Conservatives by 10 points. By June, the numbers had flipped, and the Liberals were up by 24.
The attitudinal changes over the past half-century are little short of astounding. Today’s world is something my parents would scarcely recognize. And they’d view a goodly number of those changes as iffy propositions.
Perhaps the English novelist L.P. Hartley put it best: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.
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