Albion Dreaming By Andy Roberts
‘Albion Dreaming’, written by Andy Roberts, was first published in 2008 by Marshall Cavendish. The book explores the history of LSD use in Britain, charting the military, scientific and cultural use of the psychedelic since its introduction in 1952. Joining an illustrious line of psychedelic drug histories, ‘Albion Dreaming’ is not only a fine addition to British psychedelic literature but to the whole genre worldwide.
The opening chapters explore the military and scientific use of LSD, two threads that entwine with one another and, interestingly, throw up as many questions as Roberts answers.
Psychiatrist Ronald Sandison was the first to bring LSD into Britain, in December 1952. He worked in the, now demolished, Powick hospital in Worcester. It was after the publication of his first science paper on the topic that the media became alerted to its use in the UK. However, initially, their coverage was unsensational and always interested in the scientific potential of new discoveries.
First MI6 and then the MOD also ran trials with LSD. Unknown to him, they asked Sandison’s research partner to aid them. Similar to, and latterly supplied by, the Americans, their interests were in ‘truth drugs’ and ‘chemical weapons’. As is the nature of the psychedelic however, they all proved to be unreasonable uses. By the mid-Sixties all trials had ceased. According to Roberts though, even with the Freedom of Information Act, details are still difficult to come by.
Roberts grants that the early American LSD scene heavily influenced what was happening culturally in Britain. The psychedelic movement, as a cultural phenomena, gained credence and widespread dissemination, across the pond, much earlier and is consequentially regarded as an initial model for British users.
According to Roberts: “Leary’s books and magazine interviews were widely read in Britain. His translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Psychedelic Experience, was highly regarded as a tool for guiding LSD users through their early trips.” However, his later writings, like The Politics of Ecstasy, sold less well and were less influential on the British counterculture.
The extent to which Britain had an autonomous LSD scene is a focus throughout the book. As the British Underground began to form post-1965, a distinct counterculture subsumed the psychedelic movement into itself, LSD and other psychedelics became symbols for this phenomenon.
“The new ways of living embraced a kaleidoscope of elements: music, food, spiritual beliefs, anti-authoritarianism, interests in ecology and much more. The notion of the ‘acidhead’ –someone whose life was structured around the LSD experience and vision – came into being.”
One of the great schisms in the counterculture was between those who were politically active and the ‘acidheads’ who saw politics as the trap in itself. This is one important reason why the psychedelic movement never became a particularly distinct entity in Britain. The ramifications of which are plain to see:
“1967 had been a watershed year of LSD use. Although the drug had only been illegal since late 1966, an organized pro-LSD movement might have been able to lobby the government for a change in the drug laws. But the lack of any such movement, coupled with the media’s dogged pursuit of LSD scare stories, meant the public and politicians largely saw psychedelic drugs as a dangerous influence on young people and a possible threat to the fabric of society.” What ‘movement’ there was, was “unfocussed and had many strands, some interlocking, some entirely discrete.”
Roberts neatly argues how the LSD culture later peters out into the free festival movement and rave culture, without the strictures and institutions of before. Historically speaking, I found these sections to be the most interesting. Reading how the counterculture was slowly marginalized and practically speaking, made unlawful, is a serious condemnation of subsequent British governments. The increasing length of prison sentences for large-scale LSD alchemists from the Sixties to the present day is remarkable in itself.
“The history of LSD in Britain shows this to be not just a war on the personal freedoms of individuals who wish to alter their consciousness, but also a war on the lifestyles connected with particular drugs, such as LSD.”
Albion Dreaming is an important piece of the story in Britain’s relationship with psychedelics and its counterculture. It is sympathetically written and Roberts manages to shed light on which questions have been left unanswered by Establishment silence and fifty years of myth-making. Where is Britain’s stockpile of LSD now? Great book.