Psychedelia Britannica by Antonio Melechi (Ed)
Originally published in 1997 ‘Psychedelia Britannica’ is a collection of essays dealing with the cultural history of psychedelics in Britain, edited by Antonio Melechi. The book looks at psychedelic drugs through the context of literature, music, psychiatry and the counterculture and includes a number of prominent individuals like Ronald Sandison and Alexander Trocchi, with a foreword by Albert Hofmann.
The publication of this book foreshadowed a number of subsequent texts that dealt with the subject of the connection between drugs and culture more explicitly than ever before; Mike Jay’s Emperors of Dreams (2000) and Andy Roberts’ Albion Dreaming (2008) for example, both of which embed the drugs discourse within wider cultural narratives. What makes this collection an especially interesting book is the diversity of voices contained within it, a diversity that its editor, Antonio Melechi, has excellently woven together. Also, in the seeds of the book, one is able to see the foundations of later scholarship and it thus plays an important role in the recent rise of interest in psychedelics over the last decade or so.
This is no more true than in the opening chapter, written by Michael Carmichael, entitled Wonderland Revisited. Carmichael’s excellently researched essay examines the possibility of a connection between Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which holds such a unique place in the minds of psychedelic enthusiasts, and psychedelic drugs. He concludes that there is no obvious evidence that Carroll was ever a hallucinogen user himself, and although at the time of his writing the book society was entrenched in drug taking, it was usually opiates. Instead the literary motifs of growing larger and smaller and of mushroom taking are thought to have been influenced by Mordecai Cooke’s The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860), which included similar stories about mushrooms, brought back from Siberia by travellers. Carmichael’s research, however, was invaluable to later researches, not least the aforementioned book by Mike Jay and Andy Letcher’s Shroom (2006), which placed the episode within wider drug-culture contexts.
Britain’s psychedelic movement during the 1960s is an important epoch in the book with a number of essays intersecting the period in a number of ways. Alexander Trocchi’s unfinished work Drugs of the Mind has a passage included that the editor retrieved and compiled from the writer’s literary estate. The Scottish writer was a central figure in the underground literary movement, a friend of Guy-Ernest Debord and (though happening in his absence) a founder member of the Situationist International. Although he is most usually associated with his heroin addiction, his collaborations with the likes of Timothy Leary and Michael Hollingshead and his own drug experimentation, places him firmly in the psychedelic picture. According to the introduction to this piece, by Andrew Wilson, he was attempting to find ‘a new language of expression’ for drugs:
Each time I sit down to take up where I left off, I am in a certain mood whose symptoms I recognise: a quickening of pulse, a shortness of breath, a tingling in the abdomen. I have usually rid myself of any impulse to go out into the world, often availing myself of one drug or another, or of a few of them at the same time. Heroin, hashish, cocaine, LSD… whatever it is at hand, and whatever I think I need. Now I have no fear of such things, insofar as they are predictable. It is I who am not predictable, and that is something to do with myself, not something to do with the drug (Melechi 108)
Trocchi’s one-time collaborator Michael Hollingshead also has a chapter centred on him, written by Melechi. The Englishman played a role in the 1960s psychedelic movement on both sides of the pond, which he detailed in his account of the period; entitled The Man Who Turned on the World (1973). The book, in which the author writes that it should be read as fiction, is filled with historical inaccuracies and Melechi does a good job at recapitulating the story in a less bias light. The book, according to Melechi, “provided an opportunity for Hollingshead to re-invent his past, casting himself as an innocent pilgrim on a psychedelic journey of self-discovery” (Melechi 103). There are, it seems, two Hollingsheads; the historical figure and the literary figure. Yet, beyond the authorial truth obsession of researchers, there remains a narrative that lucidly illuminates the tensions and hopes of the age.
Another interesting chapter was written by Dr. Ronald Sandison, the first person known to bring LSD into Britain and the individual who developed psycholytic therapy during the 1950s and early 1960s; a therapy that utilised psychoanalytical techniques alongside doses of LSD in patients. However, Psychedelia Britannica is far from just dealing with this period of time. During the late 1980s and early 1990s rave culture swept across Britain, partly driven by the influx of 3,4 Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA). Traditional psychedelics took a role in this cultural movement, especially in fashion and names like ‘Acid House’ and, no doubt, interest in them peaked: “elements within rave culture declared that British youth would pick up the mantle of 1967 and once again rock society’s foundations” (Melechi 168). This book could easily be read as coming off the back of this wave of interest but Stuart Metcalfe, in his chapter Psychedelic Warriors and Ecstasy Evangelists, is brutally honest in his assessment of its outcome:
If society is to create a music and culture that can bring about change, if youth culture is to progress and diversify, then simply following in the footsteps of the 1960s will not suffice. Recreational drugs and psychedelic experimentation amount to no more than beautiful eyelid movies, an inner entertainment that must never be allowed to become the be-all and end-all of life itself (Melechi 182)
In conclusion, Psychedelia Britannica is a fascinating, excellently edited and illuminating book that brings the British cultural connection to psychedelic drugs to life in a way that had never before been achieved. Not only is it still an extremely relevant source book for researchers and enthusiasts alike, but it also, in itself, bridges that interesting gap between Britain’s last great, pop-cultural psychedelic wave and the critical reappraisal that has been occurring over the last fifteen years. While some of the book’s conclusions, especially like the above quote, reveal the ever-existing political tensions of drugs and their position within a countercultural/youth arena and, to take Sandison’s position, between it and the medicalisation of drugs, this only goes to further illuminate the drugs discourse as it stands today.