To Live Outside the Law by Leaf Fielding

Originally published in 2011 ‘To Live Outside the Law’ by Leaf Fielding is an autobiographical account of his life leading up to, and his involvement with, the distribution of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in Britain during the 1970s. One of a number of people involved who were caught and sentenced by the infamous Operation Julie, this is the first primary account of the events told by an individual not employed by the police force. A constantly poignant and insightful book ‘To Live Outside the Law’ sheds new light on a period of drug history thus far dominated by establishment values.

To Live Outside the Law (2011) is narratively structured along two courses. The book opens on March 26, 1977, with Leaf and his wife Mary being woken up in bed by police under the direction of Operation Julie; Leaf was an LSD distributor. As the criminal and judicial process unfolds around Leaf, he recalls certain episodes from his life that led him to the moment of the morning arrest. A typical yet effective structure, it thrusts the reader straight into the heart of the central, emotive episode of the book, and then slowly reveals the context over the course of the text. The skill of this method is to immediately pose a question to the reader: What sort of person winds up as a major distributor of LSD? Before looking at this question in more detail however, it seems pertinent to first say a few words about Operation Julie itself, the context which has dominated the events until now.

Police suspicions were raised about the production of acid in Britain in 1973 and a couple of years later a covert police operation, called Operation Julie, was brought into existence, with one Dick Lee taking the role of investigating officer. As a result of the operation, and subsequent arrests, two books were published: Busted! The Sensational Life-story of an Undercover Hippie Cop (1978) by Martyn Pritchard (the undercover cop) and Ed Laxton, and Operation Julie (1978) by Dick Lee (the investigating officer) and Colin Pratt. The arrests also became a long-running, sensationalist news story at the time and as a result the events have become collectively known as Operation Julie in the popular psyche. In doing so, there has been a rather narrow, state-ridden, viewpoint that did not take into account the complexities and contradictions of British culture in the 1970s.

“The fifteen of us made an initial appearance at Bristol Crown Court to be charged and enter pleas. Scenes around the courtroom depicted the tobacco and slave trades on which the city’s wealth had been based. We were to be tried amid scenes celebrating the traffic in an addictive drug and in human beings” (Fielding 135)

More recently however, books like Albion Dreaming (2008) by Andy Roberts, have re-examined the events in a more sympathetic and countercultural light. The timing of this publication coincides with the current, historically revisionist tendencies in drug writing and the changing approaches toward the events described within the book. To Live Outside the Law is firstly the story of Leaf, the first account by someone genuinely operating from outside the police operation; but secondly it begins to tell the story of all those individuals who found themselves segregated by establishment values and draconian drug laws during the 1970s. This fact alone is enough to make the book historically significant.

The story of Leaf’s life begins when he arrives at boarding school aged seven. He is sent because his father was in the services and was posted to different countries around the world, and his mother had tragically died the previous year: “After the death of my mother, when I was six, I retreated into myself. The early realisation that life is built on sand, that nothing is solid, changed me for all time” (Fielding 30). Thus begins a narrative thread of  introspection, which in his childhood plays against a difficult relationship with his step-mother and the characteristic troubles of an old-style British boarding school.

By his late teens Leaf is reading the likes of Jack Kerouac and George Orwell and this combination of beat-counterculture and political engagement begins to shape his intellectual arc. In 1966, he attended Reading University, and these influences manifested in his taking part in peace marches and protests. And, later in life, Leaf travels extensively, which in many respects comes across as being framed by his earlier literary adventures with Kerouac, much like the counterculture from across the pond and the hippie trail. Some of the passages about his travels, and cannabis dealing, are amongst the strongest in the book, beautifully carving up culture through experience. They are thickly laced with angst-ridden images of nation borders, police, laws and the state, set against the everyday people of places like Bulgaria, who lived simply behind the iron curtain yet were happy in themselves.

These splits reflect the culture/counterculture thread of the book, the political divisions that separate people economically, socially and emotionally and the effect for the reader is that it begins to paint the world as being schizophrenic in nature, and LSD as its possible cure. Before this occurs however, Leaf first makes the discovery that irrevocably changes the course of his life toward the psychedelic counterculture. In 1967, after reading numerous stories in the newspaper, Leaf learned of LSD and the hippies in San Francisco and soon took his first trip.

“The world, waking up from its sleeping-beauty slumber, was as conscious of me as I was of it. Life sparkled and twinkled from every flower and leaf, every insect and tree. The energy of the universe was pouring through us. I could see it all in microscopic detail, but it was coming at me so fast there was no time to even think” (Fielding 48)

As one might expect, Leaf’s experience is filled with the sort of imagery one can find in texts published during the preceding fifteen years of his LSD encounter – certainly of Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary – even though he was unversed in their works prior to having it. For the book though, it becomes an important culturally-grounded set and setting. For instance, the experience allowed him to make peace with the death of his mother, and to reflect on the need to rise above himself, as a being of confliction in ideas and opinions, which all point toward the 1960s psychotherapeutic discourse; dealing with personal trauma (psycholytic therapy) and the overcoming of the ego in order to realise a universal self (psychedelic therapy).

The rest of the book carefully unrolls the changing attitudes of the counterculture from the 1960s to 1970s through its autobiographical mouthpiece i.e. Leaf himself. Later, as he learns about ecology he begins to see a correlation between the interconnectedness of life and the oneness of his LSD experience. The rise of the ecology and environmental movements are depicted as being historically contingent with the lessons learnt from the psychedelic experience a decade earlier, a question that surely deserves closer analysis in the academy.

As a result of his experience, Leaf does not bother going to his university exams and, though he sees the need for the world to change its seemingly self-destructive direction, he came to believe protests would not work, instead “LSD was the tool that could help us to see a way back from the brink” (Fielding 70). As the 1960s become the 1970s, he gets involved with the production of LSD as a tabletter, only for it to come to an end in 1973 when the principle alchemist, Richard Kemp, leaves the operation. The initial LSD operation eventually became split into two organisations, and Leaf rejoined as the head of distribution for one of them. Although the high idealism of Leaf’s early years wanes slightly as the decade wore on, he retained a belief in the transformative and ecologically informative nature of LSD and his eventual arrest is seemingly the culmination of the great cultural schism that dominates the book.

“Generations grew up, grew old, died and were reborn on the little rock spinning around a fire in space. Through the confetti of millennia I grew tired of the interminable human story, but it rolled inexorably on and on, cruelty upon kindness upon cruelty until, mercifully, at the smoking end of time, Lord Shiva danced the world out of existence” (Fielding 225)

Though the historical significance of the book and its brilliantly presented cultural motif are very interesting and revealing, it is foremost, however, a well-told story. Episodes like the policeman “Wally” dismantling the LSD laboratory and getting high and confessing to Leaf that he had a great experience but still preferred Gin, lay both humour and personality into the story. And interesting characters like Billy Bolitho, an ex-army, aristocratic Cornishman, speed addict and taker of huge LSD doses gives the text great colour and engagement; while the relationship with his wife, who divorces him while in jail, gives a touching, human element that really draws the reader into the story. For all these reasons To Live Outside the Law is well worth reading for both the psychedelicist and book-lover alike – highly recommended.

Via the House

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6 Responses

  1. Alison Terry says:

    Fantastic review Rob. I’m going to have to read this book now. Ouch! And there was me thinking my reading pile was gradually going down :-000

  2. Nowhere Girl says:

    You’re lucky… here in Poland probably the only opportunity to read this book would be through ordering it.

  3. motley says:

    just read this book in 2 sitting and i have to say it was a fantastic read A well written and interesting autobiography.Leaf -, for what is worth you are exonerated in my humble opinion.

  1. October 10, 2011

    […] the best in his future projects. To read more about his book, please visit the PsypressUK review of To Live Outside the Law. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  2. August 10, 2017

    […] and spent five years in jail, ending his sentence at Leyhill Open Prison. He published his memoir, To Live Outside the Law, in 2011 – a gripping account of the Julie bust, the events that led up to it, and Leaf’s more […]

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