LSD, Hollingshead & the World Psychedelic Centre: Interview with Andy Roberts
If you were hot on the trail of recreational LSD in London in 1965, and swimming in auspicious, velvet-trouser-clad circles, you might have found yourself at the World Psychedelic Centre on December 8th. The Centre’s first collective tripping session was underway, being led by Michael Hollingshead, the self-proclaimed ‘man who turned on the world,’ and who infamously gave Timothy Leary his first LSD experience.
There they ate acid-infused grapes containing 300 micrograms of strong Czech LSD, which Hollingshead purportedly brought from America. It was “beyond compare; everyone said so”, leading you to dissolve and “resolve into ‘astonishment at the absolutely incredible immensity, complexity, intensity and extravagance of being, existence, the cosmos, call it what you will,” in what had been set up as the ‘temple room.’
Leary’s LSD session recommendations in The Psychedelic Experience were followed to the letter, as Hollingshead had made it his mission to bring this template for psychonautical activity to the UK’s psychedelic scene. While the World Psychedelic Centre has long disbanded, however, the substances that fuelled it are back on people’s lips.
Psychedelics are now becoming just as venerated in the mainstream for their medicinal properties – bearing out many of the truisms trippers have been testifying about for years – as they were in London’s counterculture. Some things don’t change, and in 2019, December 8th remains an auspicious day for LSD exploration.
On that date, the Psychedelic Press invites you to Writers on Drugs at Tuke Hall, Regents University in London, for a celebration of psychedelic writing and history. Ahead of the event, we spoke with historian and Writers on Drugs speaker Andy Roberts, author of Divine Rascal: On the trail of LSD’s Cosmic Courier, Michael Hollingshead, to find out more about some of the differences between then and now, and what Hollingshead would have made of the current ‘Psychedelic Renaissance.’
How has the British reception of the ‘Leary method’ evolved over the years – was there ever anything like the take off Hollingshead anticipated? And do you think the British psy-scene has a particular resistance towards promoted methods/practices for tripping?
It never really took off in the ‘formal’ way Leary suggested. There was an established, albeit small, acid scene in the UK prior to Hollingshead bringing the Leary ‘method’ over and it was equally as ‘spiritual’ but much less prescriptive and not as tied to concepts of eastern religion and thought. The British acid scene has always been a tad more surreal, more interested in the ‘weird’ than the US scene, and I think there was a built in resistance to being told what to do, and how to get high with acid. But they took the bits from the Leary method they liked and ignored those they didn’t. One of Leary’s biggest failings was suggesting that people should fast more up to a day before taking high doses. Food in moderation prior to a big trip is needed to ensure enough sugar in the blood supply and foods containing sugar – chocolate, fruit etc. – is an invaluable help while tripping, and can often prevent or help manage ‘bad trips’. The Brits knew this already and eventually converted Hollingshead to the idea.
What did Leary think of the session(s) Hollingshead was holding; were there others?
Leary was happy his ‘method’ was being used at the WPC as he believed it would pave the way for his eventual visit to London where he believed he would be feted as an acid guru. I know from anecdote that Hollingshead ran other such sessions but have no written accounts of them.
What was the general reception of ‘The Psychedelic Experience’ by London’s acid heads, outside of Hollingshead trying to secure its high regard?
It was widely regarded as ‘just another’ book to have around when tripping on high dose acid. But so were many others such as the Tao te Ching, the I Ching and Indian texts. This seriousness was balanced with super hero commix, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse novels, Aleister Crowley’s books and many other surreal texts – all of which were held in equal regard by most British acid heads.
What would Hollingshead think of the current psychedelic renaissance?
He would have looked at it to see what he, personally, could have got from it and would have wished he could have played a guru-like role in it! But he would have railed against the medical model, thinking that it was only a *tiny* element in the spectrum of the use of psychedelics and not worth the fuss made about it. He would also have probably complained that the acid these days is nowhere near as potent as it was in his.
Which elements of ‘Divine Rascal’ do you think he’d be happiest with in terms of how he’s represented? And which bits would he take the most issue with/ be least pleased to have dug up by a thorough biographer?
His daughter, Vanessa, thinks that he would thoroughly enjoy the book. I tend to think he would be appalled that I had made a case for his various problems with drugs, women and his desire to be another acid guru in the style of Leary. And I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t have liked me exposing his various scams such as the Marvel comics and OMNI deceits. He would, however, probably have enjoyed how I portrayed him as a mover and a shaker; someone who changed lives he came into contact with. I also think he would have liked how I portrayed the Changes 72 exhibition/installation in Edinburgh which was genuinely ground breaking and innovative.
Andy will be joined at Writers on Drugs by psychotropic historian Mike Jay, psychotherapist Maria Papaspyrou, Breaking Convention Co-Director and Psychedelic Press Journal editor Nikki Wyrd, ayahuasquero and writer Danny Nemu, and philosopher of mind Dr Peter Sjöstedt-H. We hope to see you there for a twenty-first century psychedelic forum!
An excerpt from Divine Rascal detailing the bottled madness let loose at the World Psychedelic Centre’s HQ in London recently appeared in Psychedelic Press Journal XXVIII. Timothy Leary’s 8 Circuits of the Brain has also been published by the Psychedelic Press, with proceeds going to the Breaking Convention charity to help raise awareness about psychedelic substances.