The recent death of an extraordinary man, John Julius Norwich, has reminded me of times past and especially the publication of an equally extraordinary book.
Hashish was a sumptuous and strikingly beautiful book production with stunning photographs by Suomi La Valle and a text written 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 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.’
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 attenders. 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.
On a more personal footnote, in 1958, when John Julius was Second Secretary at the Beirut Embassy, my sister Souhaila, who worked there, took dictations from him and still remembers him rather fondly.