The Wolf of Wall Street On Quaaludes

February 17, 2014 Leave a comment

wolf_of_wall_street_ver3Memorable drug scenes in films tend to fall into two broad categories: either they successfully mirror the drug’s effect or the behavioural spectacle of its usage. So in the former category there’s the trippy, such as in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where a hapless Johnny Depp on acid watches the carpet pattern swim and the bar clientele transform into giant reptiles; or William Hurt’s mushroom mash-up in Altered States – a fast-cutting fury of pyrotechnic flashes, tribal ghost dancing and eventual ossification. In the latter category there’s the horrors of heroin, such as Ewan McGregor shooting up and overdosing to Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ in Trainspotting, or Frank Sinatra going cold turkey in The Man With the Golden Arm. And somewhere in between there’s the mania of cocaine, such as Al Pacino’s nose-burying excesses in Scarface, or Ray Liotta’s snort of wide-eyed wonder in GoodFellas, followed by that marvellous paranoia-fuelled helicopter chase sequence.

These substances come with natural in-built cinematic potential, and there are scores of similar examples that can be quoted. But how many memorable scenes can you think of that are based around the use of downers? Neither the inner nor the outer experience would seem at first glance to have much to offer the filmmaker, but that assumption has just been proved incorrect. Now on release, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has become a talking point with regard to the various array of amoral excesses it exposes; it will also enter the annals of movie list-making with one of the most splendid drug scenes ever, involving that most unlikely of candidates…Quaaludes.

As a movie, The Wolf of Wall Street does start out very like GoodFellas, so much so that it has the sense of being a souped-up retread. There’s the ‘wise guy’ voice-over with visuals tailored to fit, sometimes fast-cutting, other times freeze-framing; and this time the technique is taken further, with the action compressed or expanded in very deliberate schematic ways, sometimes bordering on the cartoonish – Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) even performs direct pieces to camera on occasion. Then there’s this narrator himself, an evident narcissist who opens a door to let the audience into his secret hermetic world, a forbidden pleasuredome of naughtiness and noir in which he wants you to simultaneously delight and abhor.

GoodFellas can be viewed as a kind of addiction movie, though not about addiction to any one substance or activity but instead to the whole existential package of gangsterism – the power, the glamour, the esteem of belonging to an elite crew, the easy money, the enhanced access to sex and drugs, the reckless abandon and, of course, the routine violence. Jordan Belfort is just like Henry Hill in being perpetually high on such a lifestyle, mainlining more and more of it till he suffers an overdose and the inevitable side effect of having the FBI on his tail. Being a dodgy stock-trading boss, sometimes operating outside the margins of legality, has a great deal in common with being a wise guy and many of the aforementioned boxes are ticked in both movies. Read more…

William Burroughs: Ayahuasca Tourist

September 17, 2013 2 comments

The Yage Letters – original cover

Way back in 1951, three years before Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception and awareness of the entheogenic properties of psychedelics in the West was almost non-existent, William Burroughs made his first expedition to Panama and Ecuador in search of ‘yage’, as he called it, or ayahuasca, which he knew was used by Indians in shamanic rites and was said to increase telepathic sensitivity. As one of the earliest Western explorers with an experiential rather than an academic motive, he proved himself to be way ahead of his time, prefiguring a widening interest in the substance, which has now gone almost mainstream and blossomed into what we call ‘ayahuasca tourism’.

That first expedition, described in Burroughs’ novel Queer, proved unsuccessful; but Burroughs returned to Panama in 1953 and this time he went on to Bogotá, where he had the good fortune to meet botanist Richard Evans Schultes, a world authority on hallucinogenic plants and a Harvard contemporary of Burroughs. Schultes told Burroughs about the methods of preparing ayahuasca, and also about the Indian mythology surrounding it and its use as a means of communicating with the spirit world. Schultes, who sampled the hallucinogenic specimens he discovered, had tried ayahuasca, but said his own experience was limited to vivid colours and no visions. He pointed Burroughs in the direction of the Putumayo River, where he would find brujos who made the ayahuasca brew.

In Mocoa Burroughs met an old brujo who prepared the black liquid, oily in texture and bitter in taste. Soon afterward ingesting it Burroughs experienced blue flashes and a wave of nausea, and, though he could hardly walk, he staggered out of the brujo’s hut and retched violently. He continued to have intense hallucinations, needing to take barbiturates in order to bring himself down, and he later concluded ayahuasca was the real mind-bending kick he was seeking, though this was clearly an overdose.

Later in the expedition Burroughs made a discovery about the preparation of ayahuasca that proved highly significant; in fact he is apparently the first Westerner to come upon this information – which came as news to even Schultes himself. Burroughs learned from another brujo that in order to release the full hallucinating effects of ayahuasca, another plant – chacruna – needs to be added to the brew. This functions as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor, activating the DMT in the ayahuasca and essential for the proper experience. In a letter to Allen Ginsberg in June 1953, Burroughs waxes lyrical about one of his trips in this new mode – a marked contrast to the turmoil of the earlier experience. ‘I experienced first a feeling of serene wisdom so that I was quite content to sit there indefinitely.’

The further fruits of this trip were written up in a fictional letter to Ginsberg in The Yage Letters, which includes contributions from both writers and was eventually published in 1963, when entheogenic interest in psychedelics was well established. This early work depicting ayahuasca tourism went on to inspire Terence and Dennis McKenna in their own journey to the Amazon and led to their book The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching. Burroughs’ ayahuasca visions were also very important in the development of his most famous novel, Naked Lunch, starting him on his unique and audacious path of literary experimentation.

Read my full account of how ayahuasca informed Naked Lunch in the current PsypressUK magazine, which also includes a brief history of psychedelic research from Stanislav Grof, an account of the political difficulties of getting support for psychedelic medicine from Ben Sessa, an informative story about how Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem and turned on publisher Tom Maschler in Wales, plus reflections on Jung and Castaneda and an excellent account of a recent Peruvian ayahuasca experience from Alison Terry. More details here: PsypressUK 2013 Vol.2.

The Gospel According to Andy, Leaf, Roger and Bill

Semi-Secret Fellowship of Freaks Banner

When I had the mushroom-inspired vision of The Cult of the Novel way back in 1979 – written about at the finale of The Mad Artist – I knew that although it was highly organised it was also fanciful and solipsistic and I could only hope that somehow it would filter into the outside world and connect with like-minded individuals. It didn’t much at the time and history was against me, with hippydom and psychedelia on the wane and Thatcherite values about to engulf most everything. Cut to thirty-plus years later and people are talking about a psychedelic renaissance, with the old and new coming together and the golden era of 1960s-’70s psychedelia being re-evaluated.

I’ve often asked myself why it took so long for me to finally formulate and write The Mad Artist, and perhaps it was because I wasn’t ready before or perhaps the world wasn’t ready. When I did publish it in 2010, I looked around for similar contemporary books and couldn’t find any; though Albion Dreaming by Andy Roberts, a history of LSD use in Britain, was on a most similar wavelength. Then shortly afterwards along came Bill Booker, whose Trippers, a personal memoir of LSD and the ’70s scene, is very like The Mad Artist and also had a long gestation period. And then Leaf Fielding leaped into the frame with his To Live Outside the Law, a much more wide-reaching and influential memoir about the same zeitgeist, with the added spice of the inside story of the Operation Julie bust.

The four of us liaised and chatted extensively about our shared literary involvement, and it was Bill’s idea to form the Facebook page The Semi-Secret Fellowship of Freaks, named after the original fellowship in Trippers. We were joined by Rob Dickins, a Freak of a newer generation, not even born in 1979, but very much tuned to the same vibes, as demonstrated by his site PsypressUK and subsequently his recently published novella Erin. The page provided one of several focuses for interaction, discussion and more speculation about this psychedelic renaissance we are undergoing. Something of a ‘novel cult’ was getting together. Read more…

Film Review – The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD

The Mad Artist:

Originally published on The Digital Fix, here is my review of this excellent LSD documentary.

Originally posted on Psychedelic Press UK:

The Substance is a Swiss-made feature-length documentary which gives a general overview of LSD throughout its seventy-year history and serves as a useful primer for the subject of psychedelics. It is structured around extensive interviews with Albert Hofmann, the chemist who first discovered the substance, Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist well known for the practice of psychedelic therapy, and various other luminaries in the field. Their accounts, both personal and professional, interact with a fine body of archive footage from the 1940s onwards to weave the extraordinary story of one of the most controversial and powerful drugs – both in terms of active dose and also in transformational effect – to ever have been unleashed on mankind.

Albert Hofmann

The psychedelic properties of LSD were first discovered in 1943 when Hofmann accidentally ingested a small dose and found it unusually pleasant and stimulating. In interview he then goes on to tell the famous…

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Literary Review: ‘Erin’ by Robert Dickins

April 11, 2013 1 comment

The Mad Artist:

Originally published in the PsypressUK magazine, here is my review of Rob Dickins’ excellent first novella, available on Kindle or as a signed limited edition print copy. Highly recommended!

Originally posted on Psychedelic Press UK:

bobby cover.indd

Rob Dickins is well known as a guru of psychedelia and an avid participant in the British festival scene and here, in his first novella, he blends the two ingredients in a startlingly original and creative fusion. Erin takes place over the span of the Solpsycle Gathering; a medium-scale festival with a strong New Age ambience. Lije – ‘a schizophrenic…a journalist [and] a druggie’ – and his group of mates move somnambulantly through festy space-time, bearing the chaotic, fractured perceptions of non-stop partying. Enter the beautiful and enigmatic Erin, who manifests to Lije as a psychonautic guide, leading him through extravagant mushroom and salvia trips in an odyssey of self discovery.

At first Lije is entranced: ‘A flower appeared before my eyes and began to blossom. It blossomed in fractals, geometrically, as petals beget petals beget petals beget petals; the slow turn of a planetary arc. Reds, blues and greens…

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Review: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

January 25, 2013 1 comment

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? coverMost misery memoirs are first books penned by people who are often not primarily writers, but who simply have extraordinary tales of woe to articulate. It is a very commercially-driven genre, where writing quality is not paramount, sometimes involving ghost writing; and it’s become a bandwagon that the ever expanding ranks of celebrities are wont to climb onto, as their names alone will sell books.

This makes Jeanette Winterson a special case with Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as she’s an established writer of long standing, and way back in her twenties she already addressed her turbulent and troublesome early experiences in her semi-autobiographical first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. So why revisit this territory and de-fictionalise it? Why re-clock the car to zero, so to speak?

It’s partly down to the changed perspective of middle age, where all becomes recast in a historical rather than an immediate context; and not only her own life but also her surroundings – Manchester and Accrington and their industrial heritage. She paints a picture that certainly supports the adage ‘it’s grim up North’, involving austere little houses with outside lavvies and no central heating or fridges or telephones. I am four years older than Jeanette, but as a southerner whose childhood was surrounded by ‘all mod cons’, hers feels like it belongs to an earlier generation.

Similarly she redrafts the almost 19th century figure of her stepmother, whom she refers to as ‘Mrs Winterson’ and who uses the matrix of her religious beliefs as an enabler of her abuse. Jeanette’s childhood involved corporal punishment, dished out by her father on the instructions of the dominant mother, nights spent of the front doorstep having been locked out of the house, and the burning of her hidden and forbidden book collection after it was unfortunately discovered.

Nevertheless Jeanette absorbed enough literature to get to Oxford to study English, become a successful writer and leave all that toxicity behind. But of course it’s never that simple. And so we come to what Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is really all about – the spectre of unfinished business, the part of her story that serves as a corollary to Oranges. Read more…

Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth Twist Ending: It’s Been Done Before

September 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Spoiler warning: This piece necessarily discusses some aspects of Sweet Tooth’s twist ending, but without giving away the complete picture.

When I heard a while back that Ian McEwan was writing a novel set in the ’70s, I wondered if he would touch on similar ground to The Mad Artist, the psychedelic and mystical hippy scenes, perhaps drawing on his own experience as a one-time hippy. Born in 1948, the same year as Leaf Fielding, McEwan is just the right age to have hit the Summer of Love running, and indeed he did take acid and do the hippy trail to Afghanistan. In the cover photo of my 1980 edition of First Love, Last Rites he sports long hair, a thick dark beard and with his large round glasses, he has an Allen Ginsberg owlish look. But I was to be proved both wrong and right in my supposition, for whilst Sweet Tooth isn’t about drugs or psychedelia, it does uncannily resemble The Mad Artist in being about writing and our respective early dabblings in the art.

McEwan tells the story of Sweet Tooth by means of a female narrator, the ditsy blonde Serena Frome, who succeeds in being both dumb and intellectual at one and the same time – a splendid creation. After having an affair with an older man who is an MI5 agent, Serena gets recruited into the service, and because of her wide knowledge of contemporary literature, she is given the job of inducting up-and-coming writers into Operation Sweet Tooth, where a dummy literary foundation gives out grants to writers in the expectation that they will take an anti-communist stance and so help the West in the war-on-ideas part of the Cold War. But the caveat is the writers must remain ignorant of where the money is really coming from, so when Serena hooks up with emergent novelist T. H. Haley, persuades him to take the shilling and then commences a love affair with him, she must maintain secrecy and therefore live a lie.

For a ‘spy novel’ Sweet Tooth is low on the kind of action we associate with espionage, at times verging on the catatonic in the area of pace. Instead we get finely detailed observation of the nuances of human interaction, how one personality affects another, and the amorous and literary implications of such chemistry when sex and writing figure so strongly in the brew. Really the spy angle is mainly window dressing and the real subject of Sweet Tooth is how writing comes to be written. In this respect it’s a subtle piece of metafiction, and in the fashion of that genre McEwan enjoys himself playing endless nudge-wink games with the reader. For example Serena expresses dislike for Borges and Barth, Pynchon and Cortázar and Gaddis ‘who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life. Or on the contrary to insist that life was fiction anyway. Only writers, I thought, were ever in danger of confusing the two’ – a delicious irony considering she herself is the filling in a metafictional club sandwich.

The bulk of McEwan’s nudge-winkery is carried by his ’70s author Tom Haley, who, like McEwan attended Sussex University and started his career penning audacious short stories. As we learn their plots, filtered through Serena’s psyche, many of Haley’s stories have a familiar ring. One is called ‘Pawnography’; another concerns an affair between an isolated man and a showroom dummy; still another involves a ‘kept ape’. These are all features of the pieces in McEwan’s second collection In Between the Sheets, and not only the stories themselves but also the milieu of their creation, the ’70s London literary scene, is accurately recreated. Real figures appear, such as the poet and editor Ian Hamilton who published several of  McEwan’s stories in New Review, and also McEwan’s publisher at Cape, Tom Maschler, and they intermingle easily with the fictional protagonists. The newly emerged Martin Amis is also discussed, though he remains offstage from Serena’s gaze.

Personally I enjoyed these parts of the novel far more than the earlier ones, with their carefully researched burgeoning detail on the history of literary espionage and the obligatory info dumping of early ’70s politics – the three-day week, the miners’ strikes and the IRA. I identified with that artful blending of fact and fiction, and the controlled swerves into semi-autobiography that resonate strongly with memoir writers, even though we’re supposed to be writing ‘non-fiction’. Ultimately at the end of the day all writing is a construction. But as I neared the novel’s climax, that sense of familiarity with the territory became déjà vu and then got stronger and stronger till it turned into an almighty rush.

For if Tom Haley starts out as the young Ian McEwan – rewriting the stories from In Between the Sheets – he then transmogrifies into a figure who uncannily evokes the young me – using ongoing real-life events as the basis for a novel, which will simply track them without fictional embellishment: a ‘reality novel’ so to speak, which I write about in my memoir. Read more…

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