In his recently published memoir, To Live Outside the Law, sixty-three-year-old Leaf Fielding gives the first ever account of the legendary Operation Julie drugs bust from the perspective of inside the gang, whose motivation was to transform the world for the better through the mind-altering powers of LSD. For Leaf the drug proved to be both an avatar of enlightenment and downfall, leading to him serving a five-year prison sentence. He first tried it back in 1966, as an idealistic eighteen year old, and that wholly positive experience kick-started his quest. He captures his youthful excitement and enthusiasm beautifully in the text:
‘…Jack and I were afire with our trip and talked about it for days. He too had experienced a sense of oneness with nature, life as energy and worlds in grains of sand as well as the sensory overload, distortion of time and space and hallucinatory after-images. Our lives had been turned on their heads and we were a great deal better for it, we agreed. Our friends ought to try this miraculous stuff. Everyone should… The light of joy was in our eyes; we’d stumbled across the elixir of life, the substance that was going to transform humanity!’
By then LSD was illegal, so Leaf’s inclination naturally pushed him onto the wrong side of the law. The next few years were colourful and picaresque, involving travelling and dope running in Europe, Turkey, Morocco and Thailand; and later back in England, he became a key member of the Julie outfit, who manufactured and supplied millions of doses of acid in the 1970s. In the book Leaf conveys the subtle changes in his outlook over the passage of time, and also the ambivalence of his position, distributing acid for idealistic reasons, yet having to put up with the stresses and strains of outlaw life.
‘At the beginning of our acid-dealing days I was light-hearted and full of optimism. Over the years the stress levels grew. Life is a continuum – by the time of the bust I was paranoid and full of anxiety, not a good exemplar for my wares.’
In the Operation Julie bust all his worst fears were realised. The gang were treated like big-time criminals and parallels were drawn between them and the IRA and Baader Meinhof. ‘It was falsely stated that there were links between us – a very effective smear in terms of demonising us in the mind of the public.’
The ‘real story’ from Leaf’s point of view – of wanting to raise consciousness to free the spirit – was lost and he became famous for all the wrong reasons and faced years in jail. So how did he cope with such a crushing experience?
‘I’d been busted with a sizeable group of like-minded friends. That helped enormously. Although riven by divisions we were all in the same mess and many of us were still good pals – we’d been through a lot of psychic territory together. By the time we were split up I was well used to being in prison. Anyway, I was accustomed to institutional life, having done ten years in boarding school. Being part of the Julie mob was another big plus; we had status. All these factors contributed to my survival.’ Read more…
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. Read more…
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…
It’s been a long time since I read a book that has held so much personal significance for me as Andy Roberts’ Albion Dreaming, which with great enthusiasm and obvious love for the subject matter, relates the specifics of how LSD tripped out British culture—a story as least as interesting as its American counterpart, featured in works such as Storming Heaven and Acid Dreams. Many intriguing threads are woven together, from early military experiments in the ’50s at the infamous Porton Down chemical weapons facility, where unwitting volunteer servicemen ‘were expected to hallucinate for Queen and country’; to early examples of LSD psychotherapy, involving famous figures such as the comedian Frankie Howerd and actor Sean Connery; to the more familiar ‘swinging ’60s’, the free festival movement and beyond.
Roberts charts the influence of acid on the ’60s music scene, which gave us the Beatles’ celebrated Sgt. Pepper album and launched the mighty Pink Floyd at the UFO club in London, as well as many other acts, including the Moody Blues, the Small Faces, Donovan, the Move and the Incredible String Band. As more and more psychedelic lyrics began to seep into the zeitgeist, the BBC banned certain tracks and newspapers such as the News of the World ran exposes on these so-called corrupting and decadent bands, which turned out to be laughably self-defeating:
‘By explaining exactly what LSD was, its cost and its effects News of the World gave thousands of teenagers a glimpse into a way of life they desperately wanted to be part of… To an extent the unwitting media promotion of LSD led to thousands of young people throughout Britain becoming more knowledgeable about the drug than they would otherwise have been.’
Albion Dreaming also gets behind the scenes and documents some of the less well-known LSD movers and shakers: evangelists such as Michael Hollingshead, who first turned Timothy Leary onto LSD and founded the World Psychedelic Centre in Chelsea; chemists such as Victor Kapur, one of the first to make blotter acid in bulk in the late ’60s; and writers such as John Michell, whose mystical ideas popularised Glastonbury and paved the way for the first free festival there in 1970. There are also many testimonies from ordinary people, ‘vox pops’ one could say, which illuminate how LSD culture inexorably blossomed throughout this period, leading to changes in lifestyle, fashion and prevailing political, social and religious attitudes. Read more…