Amongst the hash-head community in Britain, Howard Marks is a bone fide legend. Belonging to the same generation as the Rolling Stones, with similar looks, hairstyle and attitude, he has become a paterfamilias of the pro-cannabis movement, a figure whose former criminal activities have given him a Robin Hood or Butch Cassidy status—a freedom fighter with a smile on his face, as his famous moniker suggests.
As ‘careers’ in cannabis go, his has no equal, starting with his introduction to the drug as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1960s, moving quickly through the ranks of smuggling to become a major player through the ’70s and ’80s, whilst having spectacular run-ins with international policing and attaining media celebrity in the process. Later, he became a best-selling author with his autobiography, Mr. Nice, and other books, and also carved out a niche as a stage performer, a DJ and raconteur, pontificating at length about his favourite subject. He could have been a Richard Branson-type alternative entrepreneur, apart from the mere detail that his trade was highly illegal.
Mr. Nice the movie encapsulates this picaresque life, using Marks’ own choice of actor to play him, Rhys Ifans, a fellow Welshman and like-minded friend. The evident chemistry between the two works well, with Ifans in dark wigs slipping easily into another louche Welsh charmer role, assuredly inhabiting the character of ‘Howard Marks’ and making him very sympathetic.
The movie starts with Howard’s teenage life in Glamorganshire, which, shot in black and white, 4 : 3 ratio, has a kitchen sink-drama quality, made stranger, almost Dennis Potteresque, by using Ifans himself rather than a youthful look-alike. Gaining a scholarship to Oxford, Howard mixes with the toffs and posh totty, and like Dorothy entering the land of Oz, his world blossoms into colour and widescreen after having his first toke of dope, soon followed by the inevitable sugar cube of LSD.
This method of referencing the visual formats of the era is further reinforced by blending in actual period background footage, with Howard digitally transposed into the scenes and rendered suitably grainy to match them—a nice touch, giving a contemporary technical leg-up to nostalgia. These early scenes of university life, partying and self-discovery are given a similar treatment to that of druggy films of the era, such as The Trip, Easy Rider and Performance, compounding the period associations yet more. Read more…
(Note: This review is based on the 1996 Citadel Press Edition, translation and introduction by Stacy Diamond. All photographs are in the public domain.)
The 1821 publication of Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a watershed event, injecting into the Romantic era a commentary on what opium addiction actually involved, its effects on the mind, body and spirit, and effectively establishing the genre of drug literature as we know it today. The phenomenon of narcotic fancy was an integral part of the Romantic mindset, best exemplified by Colleridge’s opium-inspired epic poem ‘Kubla Khan’, and poets of the next generation over in France, notably Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, caught the vibes. In the 1840s, these two were members of the ‘Club des Hashischins’, a loose group of artists and writers who gathered in the Hotel Pimodan in Paris in order to partake of cannabis orally in what we would now describe as ‘heroic doses’. Of western countries at that time, France was the best acquainted with cannabis, due to its invasion of Egypt in the Napoleonic era and the subsequent interest in and importation of the drug by its soldiery. These poets would now put cannabis on the drug-lit map, alongside opium and its derivative laudanum.
In his 1843 account ‘Le Hachich’, Gautier beautifully captures the sensations: ‘My body seemed to dissolve until it became completely transparent… My eyelashes lengthened immeasurably and wrapped, like gold threads, around a small ivory spindle which then began to spin with astonishing speed. Shimmering cascades of multi-coloured gemstones, arabesques and flowers presented themselves in endless succession, in effects which I can only compare to those of a kaleidoscope…’
Baudelaire penned his first piece on the lyrical nature of intoxication in 1851: ‘Du Vin et du hachish’. It uses a poet’s eloquence and ironic perspective to explore man’s love affair with firstly wine then hashish, tracing the contours of the highs and lows with a subtle judgemental air hovering in the background. ‘How radiant are those wine-induced visions, brilliantly illuminated by the inner sun! How true and burning this second youth which man draws from wine. But how dangerous, too, are its fierce pleasures and debilitating enchantments. And so I ask the judges, legislators, and worldly men, all of you on whom good fortune smiles, to tell us truly: Would you, in your soul and conscience, have the pitiless courage to condemn a man who drinks of genius?’ Read more…