Trippers by William J. Booker
Originally published in 2011 ‘Trippers’ by William T. Booker is based on the author’s adventures around Britain in 1971. Set against the backdrop of travels, acid trips and a haze of cigarette and cannabis smoke, the book explores the role of ‘freaks’ in early Seventies British society as well as some of the colourful, and darker, characters of the subculture. In many senses a very personal book, but one that paints a vivid picture.
Bill Booker is walking the tight-rope of decisions that is early adulthood in Leicester. Caught between the relentless social push of a steady job, and the yearnings for new experiences and alternative pathways, Bill is a character trapped trying to balance the pressures of life. The book opens with a disintegrating friendship, with a boy named Eric and this really sets the scene for new beginnings, as Bill falls in with a new crowd, who together plan a trip to Weymouth. The book largely centres around the seaside town and their adventures hitch-hiking to and from, and finishes with a party in Leamington Spa, as Bill and his friends explore what it is to be themselves, in light of their culture and LSD experiences.
Bill and his friends, and indeed the wider counter-culture across Britain, went by the name ‘freaks’ in the early 1970s, which functioned not only to differentiate themselves from establishment attitudes but also from the ‘hippie’ tag from the previous decade. This social schism is marked by the music one listened to, the clothes one wore, and the books one read. In keeping with other self-published books of this ilk, of which there has been a spurt over the last couple of years, there are constant references to these differentiating artefacts. Especially in terms of music, where the soundtrack of their journey is reiterated at every turn in the text. For the songs and music I was familiar with, it lent a further dimension to the reading experience, and also had me rustling through the net to look up tunes I didn’t know. However, as far as ‘freaks’ are defined by themselves culturally, they are also defined by their opposition to state attitude.
“And we moved among the crowds but we were Freaks; we weren’t of the crowds, though we mingled with these jolly folk: we were separate. There was no question of difference: we took it for granted, totally. In our eyes, we were the members of a semi-secret fellowship, an underground movement” (312). This empowerment, as they strutted through Weymouth, is interestingly juxtaposed alongside a passage on the old sixties veneer of Weymouth; described as a fading “Summer of Love” that was “filtered through the cheap lens of mass production” (ibid.). Being a ‘freak’ therefore was stepping outside the glare of capitalist mass-culture, which the hippie movement had fallen foul of, and the author seems to be acutely aware of this in his text.
Yet, to be apart from the social is, of course, an almost impossible detachment. Hitchhiking as a freak, for example, meant dealing with the normalised world: “A car pulled up. We ran towards it. It pulled off. Its wheel-spin shot grit at us. We could hear someone laughing” (351). Later in the book, one of the characters has a psychotic breakdown and there are some wonderful literary illustrations of the gap in knowledge between the ‘freaks’ and the medical establishment. When Bill and his friend Ray visit the individual in hospital they are accused of smuggling him acid in order to feed his addiction; a facet of LSD that they are both aware of as false, like the accusation itself. This social tension is sometimes exacerbated by the feelings of the author, and yet at other times cooled; the text oscillates beautifully between the two.
For instance, they are never too far away from the ‘reality’ of everyday British life. While not strolling through the countryside trying to find campsites, hiding in bus shelters from the rain, or sleeping on the hard floor of a squat, the setting often revolves around the group of friends going to the pub for a pint of bitter, or cafés to eat their almost ubiquitous meal of egg and chips; a tripped out but slightly gordy image of which adorns the front cover of the book. Yet this, at times, overt nod toward bohemian café culture from the beat generation and earlier European culture, also grounds their relationship with wider culture. They aren’t visiting ‘freak’ cafés but rather the classic British caf’. This background blankets the whole social: “Why was I so different? What a fool I was” (331). What seems to unravel is the problem of finding oneself, and finding oneself within greater socio-cultural field.
Booker cites various literary influences throughout Trippers: Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Timothy Leary’s The Politics of Ecstasy, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Wolfe to name but a few. The mention of these books not only goes to show the influence drug writing had on the early 1970s counterculture but also, within the text, how they became something other than merely words. They are imbued with a preternatural essence that elevates them as sacred texts within the book. For example, in reference to Leary’s The Politics of Ecstasy: “That book, with its silver cover and swirling psychedelic image, seemed to me to sit in that little window display confidently radiating power, a great energy waiting to be unleashed” (241). In this sense, the books take on the power of LSD itself and they become as one. The line between drugs, writing and culture is blurred to such a degree, as to become a congruent intensity over and above themselves as individual objects.
Technically speaking, the finest passages I am happy to say, are the descriptions of the acid trips. At times, it feels like Booker stepped outside himself to write the passages. Whereas his general narrative ticks along nicely, with good dialogue and careful incisions of self-reflection, his descriptive powers seem to come to the fore in the face of LSD. Not only does this place focus on the trips within the text, it also begins to weave a ‘higher-consciousness’ narrative, which culminates with a peak experience while making love to a girl: “It whispers of a meeting of the powers of life, of the life beyond life and the mysterious Primum Mobile, the First Cause, the stillness of One before vibrations of time shake down into matter” (436). However, every esoteric-thread needs its material-anti-thread and this is perfectly illustrated by the role of alcohol among the non-trippers. For instance, a party scene toward the end of the book in which Bill finds himself by a fire sat between drunken “Bacchanalians” on the one side and tripping “Eleusinians” on the other. An incendiary of ideas for the story, in which the private vista of LSD gives way to the violence of alcohol.
In conclusion, something must be said about the role acid plays in the lives of the characters. The view given by the narrator describes LSD as being a rite of passage for the ‘freaks’ of Britain in the early 1970s and, moreover, a badge of mutuality. There is of course a thread of the mystical woven into the magic of LSD. For example, two reoccurring apparitions appearing outside a church in the countryside on acid strolls, or the character Ray’s ‘psychic ability’ but this doesn’t drive the drug textually. The mystical element acts as a device for the author to enter into discussions about life, the universe and everything. It is the friendship finding, experience sharing, and love making that seem to resolve the question of why people took acid in Britain in the early 1970s. Perhaps because of this, the book lacks an element of the extraordinary to create a stronger narrative. However, this is not to say it also lacks cohesion, because the book leads you very lucidly through an LSD-drenched summer and its greatest strength is the painting of its scene.