Puffing with Lennie

Last Friday, as I was watching the Proms on BBC Four, it brought back happy memories of the occasion when I had the privilege of meeting the great maestro of the last century, Leonard Bernstein, whose magnificent work for the stage and screen was being celebrated by the BBC with the pomp and splendour it deserves.

In September 1984 the book that drew attention, which Quartet published, was Hashish, a sumptuous and strikingly beautiful production with stunning photographs by Suomi La Valle and a text by John Julius Norwich. Hashish had long been in use in the Middle East before it was discovered by the European literati of the nineteenth century. It had become part of the alternative culture of the 1980s, being praised and vilified in equal measure, the controversy over the relative benefits and harm done by its pharmacology continuing to the present day.

Aside from the arguments, hashish was and is a means of livelihood for many people in Nepal and Lebanon. Suomi La Valle had gained the trust of the peasants who cultivated the plant, Cannabis sativa, and taken a series of astonishing photographs. John Julius Norwich, who had lived for three years in Lebanon, wrote about it with deep scholarly knowledge and level-headed lucidity. As he said:

My own purpose will be to try to put this extraordinary plant in its historical and literary perspective: to assess the effects – political, cultural and even etymological – that it has had over the two and a half thousand years or so that have elapsed since its peculiar properties were first discovered; and finally perhaps to remove at least some of the mystique that – among those who have no direct experience of it – has surrounded it for so long.

The Standard reported how John Julius Norwich had tried hashish when he was with the British embassy in Beirut in the early 1960s, smoking the stuff through a hubble-bubble at the home of a Lebanese high-court judge. ‘I puffed diligently away,’ he recalled, ‘but the incident made little lasting impression.’

My own experience was similar, though in a different environment. I enjoyed it at a certain stage of my life, but was never dependent. It was a passing phase, like some others one enjoys in the heyday of youth. There are those – mostly
politicians – who have problems admitting they ever indulged. Others of us have the courage and honesty to admit it, acknowledging it as a step on the way to becoming more sophisticated and complete human beings.

The party for Hashish was attended by a less predictable mixture of guests than usual. Its risqué aspect attracted a wider circle than the normal crowd of book-launch attendees. Suomi La Valle’s wife, being the owner of an exclusive fashion boutique called Spaghetti in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge, invited elements from the fashion industry who were not unfamiliar with ‘the weed’ and its uses. They joined the motley company of beautiful people who were intent on not being excluded from an event tinged with notoriety because of its subject matter.

Leonard Bernstein, new to the London party circuit, was there too. So was the more familiar figure of BBC Television’s weatherman, Michael Fish, seen deep in conversation with the model Marie Helvin; which only went to show that modelling and weather forecasting might have more in common than is generally supposed.

Hashish sold quite well, though it never achieved the figures we hoped for. We were definitely dealing with a book ahead of its time and lost out as a result. After the original print run of thirty-five thousand copies was either sold or remaindered, the book was never reprinted, and like various other Quartet titles it has become a collector’s item. Whenever copies in good condition surface today, they are sold at a high premium. Hashish has become a cult book throughout the world.

It goes to prove that good memories such as these release the predicaments of old age.

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