In the Midst of a Psychedelic Revolution: An Interview with LSD historian Andy Roberts
The second of our interview series with contributors to the newly published Psychedelic Press UK: Anthology of Pharmacography 2013 Vol.2 – Andy Roberts. Andy is an historian of Britain’s LSD psychedelic culture and author of Albion Dreaming: A Social History of LSD in Britain (Marshall Cavendish 2008, 2012). His other research interests include, listening to music, hill walking, beach combing, reading, landscapes and their mysteries, natural history and paranormal phenomena. Musically, he has been severely influenced and affected by the Grateful Dead and the Incredible String Band among a host of others. He first fell down the rabbit hole in 1972 and has been exploring the labyrinth of passages ever since. His views on the psychedelic experience are (basically) – You take a psychedelic and you get high. What happens after that is largely the result of dosage, set and setting.
PPUK: Hi Andy, thank you very much for your contribution to PsypressUK 2013 Vol.2, and for agreeing to answer a few of our questions. In your article No Imperfection in the Budded Mountain: Allen Ginsberg and the Writing of Wales Visitation you discuss Ginsberg’s visit to Britain. In your opinion, what was the extent of Ginsberg’s influence on the burgeoning British counterculture at the time?
ANDY ROBERTS: I don’t think Ginsberg’s influence on the British counterculture was massive, but it certainly informed it. In the mid-sixties psychedelic culture in Britain was in its infancy and the small but growing numbers of people using LSD had few literary figures who were actively involved in psychedelics to guide them. Of those few at the time, most were highly intellectual in nature, such as Aldous Huxley and others, such as Leary, were too dogmatic and prescriptive as to what the psychedelic experience should be. Ginsberg’s approach was much more playful and his description of the LSD experience, in poems such as Wales Visitation was authentic and meaningful, more about the here and now of direct psychedelic experience than the often convoluted pseudo-religious view of Leary and his ilk. Ginsberg was also very human in his approach to the psychedelic experience, genuinely concerned about the number of people taking LSD which, let’s not forget, was much more potent, per dose, than it is now, and wanting to help prevent people getting into spaces they found difficult to navigate. His interview in Iain Sinclair’s Kodak Mantra Diaries is well worth seeking out for both Ginsberg’s views on psychedelics and as an example of how well-regarded he was by the emerging psychedelic counterculture.
PPUK: Concerning the ban on LSD in Britain in 1966 you recently wrote: “[T]he manner and haste with which LSD was brought within the law indicates how much the drug, and its potential to radically change consciousness, was feared by the establishment.” To what extent do you think that this is an inherent facet of LSD, and why, or was the socio-political climate at the time just ripe for just such an effect?
AR: The two are linked. In the mid-sixties Britain was only twenty years on from World War Two and was a very staid and reactionary country. People were expected to know their place and follow the tried and tested route of birth/school/work/death. Britain was booming, individuality and deviance from the norm was frowned on and people were basically expected to be good little consumers and, basically, to work themselves to death. The Beatniks had already seen through this charade but it wasn’t until the advent of LSD that large numbers of people began to actively reject consumerism and to think about how their lives could be different, how the psychedelic experience could be brought into day to day life. As early as 1966 ‘pop’ songs such as Matthew & Son by Cat Stevens (himself an LSD user) referred to this enervating existence:
Up at eight, you can’t be late
for Matthew & Son, he won’t wait.
Watch them run down to platform one
And the eight-thirty train to Matthew & Son.
Matthew & Son, the work’s never done, there’s always something new.
The files in your head, you take them to bed, you’re never ever through.
So when reports from the US media about the life changing effect of LSD began to appear in the British media the Establishment (with a capital E) made snap decisions, on no scientific evidence whatsoever, that this drug had to be banned. Indeed Lord Stonham, in the House of Lords claimed that no drug had caused as much trouble in the world as LSD- and that was barely months after he and the political Establishment become aware of it. The speed with which LSD was legislated against was breathtaking but the Establishment’s desperation to make LSD go away backfired on the them and served only to alert a generation of young people that there was a drug in existence which would help them break free from centuries of societal and parental conditioning.
PPUK: In today’s culture, there is a great deal of emphasis on, firstly, re-starting clinical research with psychedelics and, secondly, leading on from this, developing managed clinics where people can go and have arranged experiences. What do you think are the relative positives/negatives of such an approach, and manner of dealing with psychedelics?
AR: I thoroughly support psychedelics being once again used as a psychotherapeutic tool. They were used in this way by the medical profession during the 1950s and 1960s with positive results. Dr. Ronnie Sandison and others in Britain demonstrated their value and LSD therapy appeared to have a bright future. But the knee jerk reaction of the British Medical Council at the time of legislation against LSD in 1966 effectively ended LSD’s use by medical professionals in Britain. We have only scratched the surface of LSD’s potential to assist people with a wide variety of problems from addictions to existential fears and I hope it will one day become available as a therapeutic tool again.
However, I am vehemently opposed to the idea of legally sanctioned ‘LSD centres’ where, as you say, individuals can go to have ‘arranged experiences’. I know some people see this as being a route by which people can have a supervised and legal LSD experience, but to me it goes against the spirit of the psychedelic experience and represents the commodification and, worse still, the medicalization of the psychedelic experience. I think people taking this route, while they would certainly be having a psychedelic experience, would be limiting themselves and missing out on the fun and spontaneity to be found in a more relaxed attitude to LSD. Essentially it’s the difference between the Tim Leary approach to taking LSD and the Ken Kesey approach. A little planning, an experienced guide or guides, well thought out set and setting and , knowledge of the dosage is, to me, the way to approach the psychedelic experience. But each to their own. One soon learns!
PPUK: As a historian of British LSD culture, how do you think the British history is different from the North American one? Are they so deeply entwined as to be part of the same story, or are there certain facets of each that point toward different socio-cultural approaches?
AR: They are part of the same story but previous historians of LSD culture have very much side lined the British experience and culturally the LSD experience is represented as very much an American one. This is, of course, complete nonsense. Britain has played a huge role in LSD’s history, the problem is that until recently, with my book Albion Dreaming, its many facets have remained unexplored. Had it not been, for instance, for Michael Hollingshead, a Brit, Tim Leary would perhaps not have taken LSD until much later and the course of psychedelic history would have been completely different. There is much to be explored and unearthed in British LSD history around the medical, military and counter culture use and what there is, is just as rich and relevant as anything which took place in the USA. We need to reclaim our psychedelic heritage and I have taken it upon myself to do what I can to reveal was has been forgotten, hidden and lost about Britain’s psychedelic past.
PPUK: Finally, you’re preparing a new book on psychedelics and the British Free Festival scene of the 1970s. Could you tell us a little about how psychedelics affected British culture in the 1970s?
AR: It’s often said that the much vaunted psychedelic revolution anticipated and hoped for by LSD users, and feared by ‘straight’ society, never happened. On the contrary, I think it did happen, and continues to happen, but that it took place primarily in the minds of those individuals who took LSD and thus the effect on British culture was not immediate or necessarily overt. What I believe happened was that the LSD visions and insights experienced by individuals were fed back into society and culture. As a result of the LSD experience, people began to live differently, became less obsessed with consumerism and material culture, did jobs which they found satisfying rather than purely for the sake of a career, changed their views on food and medicine, became interested in ecological matters and so on. All these things taken separately don’t add up to much, but a genuine LSD subculture arose in the 1970s. It had its core in squats, communes, whole streets in some towns and cities and this spread its tentacles into the season of free festivals, which ran from May to the end of September. It acted as a focus for the hard core of this subculture, events at which psychedelics were freely available, could be bought and sold and at which individuals could have a genuine psychedelic experience in the company of like-minded people. I explore this in my forthcoming book Bring What You Expect To Find.
This LSD centred subculture was not huge, maybe a few thousand people at its core, but it spread to tens of thousands of others on its periphery and, fuelled by the potent LSD created by Operation Julie chemists Richard Kemp and Andy Munro, represented a real threat to the status quo, just as the government believed LSD did in the mid-1960s. As a consequence there was a huge crackdown on LSD production, the free festivals were harassed out of existence and those who sought to live life on the road as ‘new age travelers’ were persecuted, all of which came to a head with the infamous Battle of Beanfield in 1985, which heralded the end of the original LSD subculture in Britain. Each time someone – whoever they are -takes LSD they are changing themselves and, whether intentionally or not, are changing the society and culture they live in. If they use their psychedelic experience to become more aware, to pay attention and to act with intention, the effect can be limitless. We are perpetually in the midst of a psychedelic revolution; we just need to recognize that fact and act on it!
Thanks Andy! To read his article, and many others, you can order a copy of Psychedelic Press UK 2013 Vol.2 from here.