Pills, thrills and bellyaches: the lost underworld of Human Traffic

Twenty five years on from its release, the rave culture of Justin Kerrigan's ode to doomed youth is all but lost.


Billie Walker

Jip (John Simm) is pissed off at the world and at himself. He’s sick of working in retail and he’s sick of overthinking everything, sometimes to the point of sexual inadequacy. At least his friends are just as disaffected as him – Nina (Nicola Reynolds) can’t stand her job, Koop (Shaun Parkes) is worried about his dad and Lulu (Lorraine Pilkington) is through with dating. But it’s finally Friday night and as proud members of the chemical generation, they will spend their weekend forgetting the woes of their daily life by whatever means necessary.

So begins Justin Kerrigan’s Human Traffic, the comedy exploring the drug-induced highs of the 90s rave scene and the dopamine-deficient lows where family dinners are spent trying meekly to hide a comedown. Kerrigan’s debut was released amid drug-filled cinematic features such as Trainspotting (1996), The Acid House (1999) and later It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2005). These films demonstrated Britain’s raving youth and tendency towards recreational usage of Class As, but Human Traffic had a lighter tone than the heroin-induced tragedy that is Trainspotting. But 25 years on from its cinematic release, what Human Traffic truly understands is the widespread disenchantment of a generation.

At the pub, Jip decides that Britain needs a new national anthem which captures social anxiety during rapid technological advancements. Pint raised high he sings “I’m trying to be myself, understand everyone, it’s a mission and a half.” The whole pub chimes in, expressing the widespread alienation of the youth and how hard it is trying to be cool. It’s a moment that reminds me of something Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath says in the TV show Girls, which debuted more than a decade after Human Traffic: “I have work, then a dinner thing, and then I am busy trying to become who I am.” Hannah and Jip couldn’t be more different but the sentiment remains the same. Trying to discover who you are, compared to who society expects you to be, is an exhausting task. Especially when you also have to be a productive member of late-stage capitalism, pay your rent on time and be ready to get absolutely annihilated every weekend. Seriously, who has the time?

Human Traffic has more in common with the housemates of the British sitcom Spaced, which debuted the same year. Tim (Simon Pegg) and Daisy (Jessica Hynes) are energetic amateur grifters trying to have a great time and work as little as humanly possible. Much of Human Traffic’s vibrancy seeped into later shows that centred teen culture – Skins (2007 – 2013) may have swapped the jungle beats and house tracks for the electro-indie sounds of Crystal Castles and Bloc Party, but its characters share much with Jip and co. The wasted youth of the Bristol suburbs are all in the throws of an identity crisis while the yoke of adulthood is being tightened around their sweaty necks.

Jip would never claim to be the “voice of my generation“, but in many ways he is, and shares much with Skins’ Sid and Spaced’s Tim. Fears of sexual inadequacy haunt them all and they are constantly questioning their masculinity because of it. But Jip has a certain buoyancy that is lost in Tim and certainly in mopey Sid, as the cynicism and dull reality has set in by the noughties. Back in the 90s, the lack of social mobility was – at least for Jip and his friends – a slightly tragic game. Jip encourages his mate Moff (a young Danny Dyer) to move out of his parent’s house, suggesting he can easily get a flat “on the social”. This might have been as Jip puts “a piece of piss” in the 90s when there was some assemblage of a UK welfare system, but today obtaining social housing is nigh impossible in the UK, even for the most desperate. As documented by Shelter, many candidates wait more than two years for a home. Where demand is higher it can be much longer.

When Jip’s gang enter the club, they’re approached by reporters attending to understand the “youth of today’s” inclination towards Class As and dance tunes above 120 BPM. This scene is a direct reference to the BBC’s 1992 documentary E is for Ecstasy about British rave culture, in which the subjects explain the power of uppers transforming the drones of the working world into happy weekenders. But the gang are wise to their mission – another journalist can’t get usable quotes from Lulu and Nina, who even in their wasted state joke about their impressionable young minds. There’s no spiritual pretence to their drug intake; the only truth in their sarcastic responses is that they’re here to get “absolutely trashed”.

It’s not just the welfare system that has crumbled in the two decades since Human Traffic. Rave culture is dying a painful death. Kerrigan’s film may mock the drug utopia the talking heads of the documentary describe – comparing the rave culture to a religious experience – but today Human Traffic looks like a paradise compared to UK club culture’s current state. Thanks to years of austerity politics, greedy real estate developers and combative drug laws, the hedonistic experiments of youth are less common than before. We are living through an accelerated closure of late-night venues, with 3000 venues closing since the pandemic in London alone. Time Out cites “soaring energy bills” and “sky-high rent” while “young people are changing their going out habits to cut back spending”.

But if you are inclined to pop a pill or cut a line at the weekend, buyer beware. Jip and his mates feel drug use is a habit they will soon brush off, but today the dangers of drug use have rapidly increased with overdoses at an all-time high. Ella Glover’s recent Dazed article addresses how the mental health care crisis is a huge factor in fuelling the rise in ketamine addiction, and according to The Face, modern ecstasy pills contain less than 50% MDMA, with some containing none at all. Arguing this rapid decline in quality down to a multitude of factors, namely the pandemic, and the police crackdown on dark web wholesalers. Instead of a society that decriminalises drug use and works towards safer consumption and education, years of anti-drug policy have made suppliers cut more corners, making illegal substances more risky for users.

All generations have their own history of drug abuse, and there’s no sense in romanticising partygoers past. But Human Traffic almost invites a nostalgic lens; for Kerrigan chemical experimentation and hedonistic expression are a right of passage, today limited by physical and financial costs that make the risks far greater. Human Traffic was always intended as an affectionate salute to rave culture, but only 25 years later this world seems lost to us. Reaching for the lasers is becoming a rapidly distant memory.

Published 6 Jun 2024

Tags: Human Traffic John Simm Justin Kerrigan

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