Review: To Live Outside the Law by Leaf Fielding
First published in July 2011, To Live Outside the Law is a book of many facets. It is part personal memoir of the ’60s-’70s psychedelic scene, part ‘true crime’-style insider account of the Operation Julie escapade, subsequent bust and jail time, and also a larger meditation on the cultural and spiritual impact on humanity of that most potent and exotic of illegal substances—LSD.
The book is tightly and economically written, telling us enough but without going into burgeoning detail, so that a large swathe of time is covered efficiently in its near 300 pages. The structure takes the time-honoured form of two interwoven strands, the first starting with the Julie bust and continuing on through the legal proceeding and imprisonment, and the second dealing with Leaf’s past life up to the bust. It works very well, with the unrelenting downbeat dourness of the former strand contrasting strikingly with the colour of the latter; and the two synergise together beautifully to answer the book’s central question, poised on its cover: How did I get into this mess?
The answer is complicated, but the honest and candid writing, coupled with the willingness to reveal intimate details, build into a lucid and fascinating portrait of a talented individual whose youthful waywardness and ‘rebellion’ ultimately stretched too far for his own good. The roots, as ever, lie in childhood, and Leaf’s, though middle class and not ‘deprived’ in the usual sense, had huge shortcomings. From the age of seven onwards, with an army officer father often serving overseas and no mother, Leaf had virtually no proper family life and was subject to the institutionalised sadism of boarding school, where he didn’t fit in. What with having to fight the school bully to prove himself, enduring vicious canings from the headmaster and slipperings from prefects for the most trivial of ‘offences’, he became radicalised early. Through George Orwell he got interested in the Spanish Civil War and developed an anti-fascist stance that both alienated him at school but secured him a place at Reading University.
By now it was 1966, the dawn of the hippy era, and in more congenial surroundings, Leaf made new friends and had an early taste of acid, which proved a highly positive life-changing experience. In the trip account, he doesn’t indulge in protracted descriptions of way-out visuals, but instead concentrates on the sense of existential transformation: ‘I was a human archetype, making every journey of exploration that every man has ever made for as long as we’ve been walking the earth. I watched myself moving forward, assessing danger, looking for opportunity, alert to the possibility of treasure. With an instant change of perspective, I saw myself leaning out of my narrow window of consciousness and scanning the wide horizons, observing the very processes of existence unfolding.’
Interestingly there was also a spontaneous psychotherapeutic element to this first trip, with Leaf able to plumb some of the painful issues of his childhood and reach a catharsis. Now fired with purpose and the belief that acid could change humanity, Leaf and his friend Jack became proselytisers, turning on as many people as were willing and going full swing into the ’67 Summer of Love. Leaf didn’t even bother to turn up for his exams, rationalising that ‘dropping out’ was the higher and nobler thing to do. Yet interestingly the text invites us to read between the lines and perhaps conclude that the decision had as much to do with economics as idealism, and the act was as much a rebellion against an unsatisfactory upbringing as a ‘political’ act against ‘society’. Leaf’s father’s upright military bearing and his insistence on conducting himself according to a rigid set of rules led to considerable pusillanimity in his role as a parent. One example of this was his refusal to pay his parental contribution towards Leaf’s student grant, making university life far less tenable than it might have been. Ironically in those days students from low-income backgrounds were often better off, as they received the full grant automatically and were free from the scourge of parental tyranny. Poverty stricken, Leaf at first had to resort to gambling to make ends meet, and later, as his immersement in the growing alternative society became more complete, he financed himself through drug dealing and trafficking.
With picaresque tales of hitchhiking, partying and dope running in Europe, Turkey, Morocco and Thailand, To Live Outside the Law starts to resemble Howard Marks’ Mr Nice in giving an uplifting sense of the wide-open frontiers of the dope trade in those earlier halcyon days. Like Howard, Leaf rose steadily through the ranks of the trafficking ‘industry’ to a position of importance, and similarly eschewed dealing in ‘hard’ drugs, staying with the more ethical psychedelically oriented fare. Back in England, he became a key member of the outfit that manufactured and supplied millions of doses of acid in the ’70s—including my own first trip—leading eventually to the Julie debacle: that most horrendous collision of hippy idealism and law enforcement overkill. By that time Leaf had settled down, was married and involved in a successful wholefoods business. His view of acid had become somewhat tempered, and he no longer retained the youthful, Learyesque belief that it could transform the world:
‘…taking a drug that expands your consciousness doesn’t, in itself, change your life. You come back to your everyday reality… A glimpse of heaven can be inspiring, but when it contrasts so strongly with your life it can also be dispiriting. And it’s no good taking more mind-expanding stuff to lift you above the fray, because acid operates on the law of diminishing marginal utility: the more you take, the less it does.’
And if the rose tint had faded somewhat from the vision, the reality of Leaf’s role as the link man between manufacturers and dealers, carrying around 50 or 100,000 tabs at a time, was hardly much fun either, producing jitters, paranoia and eerie precognitive nightmares. The actual bust and the static horror of living through interrogation, remand, trial and a lengthy stretch inside are conveyed with a sobering immediacy, stripped of any false bravado or the kind of defiance a real criminal might display. As Leaf tells it, there was also a surreal element to the treatment the gang received, with Sweeney-style cops with guns escorting them whenever they were at large and rooftop marksmen at the court proceedings. ‘Who did they think was going to come and save me—the acid army?’
Tellingly Leaf quotes Evelyn Waugh, who said, ‘Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.’ And the two have striking similarities—a life of day-by-day survival, flying by the seat of one’s pants, ‘putting up with unpleasant company and disagreeable surroundings.’ Having to sew mailbags whilst listening to the continual dirge of ‘Mull of Kintyre’ is about as bad as it gets! In a conversation with the acid chemist Richard Kemp, both men agreed that their sense of being on a mission had done them a fat lot of good from the perspective of inside prison walls.
Overall the account comes over as an especially extreme version of the crash of the hippy dream; yet the indomitability of Leaf’s spirit and the survival of his core beliefs and attitudes is inspiring indeed. What makes To Live Outside the Law an excellent work is the way Leaf succeeds in conveying his shifting points of view in a kind of ‘Seven Ages of an Acid Idealist’ fashion, so that we get the frank and honest fruits of his experience and not some loaded piece of propaganda or regilded tale of romanticised outlawhood. It is a great read—an entertaining peculiarly British nostalgia-trip page-turner and an invaluable addition to the canon of acid literature.