Divine Rascal: On the trail of Michael Hollingshead, LSD’s cosmic courier by Andy Roberts
The history of psychedelia is littered with half-forgotten or mysterious characters. There are those who simply pass through the spheres of dominant figureheads, or those overshadowed by them, and those who purposefully left themselves half-hidden in the shade of obscurantism. Occasionally someone fulfills all these roles and resembles a lost puzzle piece, potentially drawing together many elements of a picture, but remaining elusive. One such person is the Englishman Michael Hollingshead (1931–1984); the self-described ‘man who turned on the world’.
Hollingshead’s infamy is irrevocably tied to an LSD-filled mayonnaise jar that he wielded like a psychedelic troubadour during the 1960s. He and the jar provided Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary with his first acid trip, accelerating the shift of LSD from medicine to counterculture. Aside from Leary circle stories, however, much of what we knew about Hollingshead came from his self-mythologizing autobiography, published in 1973. That it was largely ghost-written based on taped conversations by Kristof Glinka, who was never paid nor given recognition for his work, is perhaps the most revealing fact about the book.
To his credit, Hollingshead informed the reader of the book’s fluid notion of truth, claiming ‘I have tried to write this book as an inwardly conceived and inwardly coherent work of fiction that isn’t exactly fiction, and only those who read it as a novel will discover its real meaning.’[i] Following this cue, when the Psychedelic Press reviewed it in 2011 it was largely treated as an LSD-relic rather than a work of historical fact.[ii] It was Hollingshead hiding most of himself in the shade, revealing his life in a carefully choreographed fashion, and aping a persona he admired in others such as Leary, but was often jealous of. A fluid notion of truth is perhaps the book’s most pertinent autobiographical observation.
Try as characters like Hollingshead might to spin a web of credibility while leaving a storm of limp and untangled strands hidden away, history has a way of tying them up. So it is that a frank and revealing biography has now been written by historian Andy Roberts: Divine Rascal: On the trail of Michael Hollingshead, LSD’s cosmic courier (Strange Attractor Press 2019). The Man Who Turned on the World (1973) was almost entirely concerned with aggrandizing Hollingshead’s countercultural credentials and LSD wizardry during the 1960s. Divine Rascal, however, strips him firmly back to a more human context using not only primary documents but extensive interviews with those who knew him—including his daughter Vanessa.
Born in Darlington, County Durham in 1931, Hollingshead was originally named Michael Shinkfield. He adopted his later name during a self-reinvention in the United States thirty years later, adding to a newly minted southern English accent and a ‘Magic Gram’. His adolescent years, however, were a far cry away from that persona, with a drunk and occasionally abusive father driving a wedge between him and his parents. His mother, not unusually in these cases, took his father’s side when he attempted to intervene. Hollingshead’s behaviour changed for the worse and an unknown incident forced him to Red Hill school; a boarding establishment for ‘difficult children.’ This set a broad pattern that would come to characterise many of his relationships and behaviours over the course of his life.
In the early 1950s, after a stint in the Royal Air Force, Hollingshead moved to London, and met his first wife Ebba Riis-Peterson, with whom he had a son, Timothy. He undertook several jobs throughout that decade, most notably working as a presenter for Danish radio. The marriage to Ebba was over by 1958, fraught by difficulties and long periods apart. At this time he was also ushered into the drugs world, striking up friendships with future denizens of the British scene Alexander Trocchi, Desmond O’Brien and Brian Barritt. The scene across the Atlantic, however, is where he would reinvent himself in 1959, after meeting his old friend Dr John Beresford in New York, and moving soon after.
There are of course conflicting stories on precisely the roles that Beresford and Hollingshead played in getting the ‘Magic Gram’ of LSD from Sandoz, although it would seem on balance to have been mostly the former, with the latter taking credit and a half-gram. Roberts does an excellent job at examining this episode. It was shortly after that he began his friendship with Tim Leary, living and working with him, and of course providing him one of the most famous LSD trips on record. It resulted in a whirlwind decade for Hollingshead that saw him be part of the Millbrook inner circle, set up the World Psychedelic Forum in London, and do a stint in jail, before travelling to Kathmandu. It was psychedelic high-jinx.
Only it was not high-jinx for everyone. Alongside another failed marriage, and the birth of his daughter Vanessa, there were a string of badly treated lovers. Many of his contemporaries viewed him with suspicion and were wary of his motives. He showed aptitude for event planning, creating psychedelic theatre shows and art installations, but was on the whole simply a charismatic grifter. One wonders why he was tolerated for long. The clue to answering this probably lies in his relationship with Leary. After his extraordinary LSD experience, Leary came to view him in shades of dark and light fascination, to use his own terms, Hollingshead had seemingly ‘imprinted’ himself on him. A tolerated madness.
For all Hollingshead’s supposed mercurial powers in the psychedelic state, able to level-headedly (and mischievously) guide others, one of the most revealing acid trips described was when those powers failed him. On the remote Pacific island of Vava’u, he agreed to guide an LSD session for three Peace Corps Americans. After boating to an uninhabited island nearby, one of the Americans quickly developed a messiah complex, and he ‘ranted about his imaginary ministry, variously displaying anger, laughter, dismay and fear.’[iii] Unable to control the group, they all scattered from the overwhelming spectacle. It is verging on hilarious that a person so well versed in trickster psychedelia was undone by Jesus Christ.
Andy Roberts has an excellent reputation as a historian, and he has proven himself with Divine Rascal to be a very good biographer too, really getting to grips with such a many-faced subject—lucidly, honestly and when needed compassionately. One of the areas of his expertise that he brings to bear on this biography is Hollingshead’s associations with the counterculture scene in Britain. Whether at Hilton Hall with Steve Abrams and others, or in founding the ‘Free High Church of the Isles’ in Scotland, a fascinating backdrop of alternative Britain is woven together with one of its most troubled sons. Despite the darkness of Hollingshead’s alcoholism and abusive tendencies, one is constantly reminded of the period’s colourful cultural outpouring, which Roberts paints with great aptitude.
Hollingshead wanted to be recognized as a skilful guru, with a central role in the psychedelic underground, and this drove his self-mythology. It also apparently drove him to seek out people and places that would enhance this persona, and to some degree he was relatively perceptive in doing so. As noted, this biography teaches much about the world its protagonist inhabits. Divine Rascal truly does put him front and centre in a story, not in the light he would have perhaps liked himself, but a tremendously human one. As Roberts concludes, ‘Running parallel to Hollingshead’s more glamorous exploits is a very real trail of human sadness.’[iv] His story reflects the tragedy and comedy of the world of drugs and alcohol, but he will likely always be remembered as the man who turned on Timothy Leary.
This review first appeared in the Psychedelic Press Journal: Issue XXIX
[i] Hollingshead, Michael (1973) The Man Who Turned on the World. London: Blond & Briggs. 253
[ii] Accessed online 28.10.2019: http://psypressuk.com/2011/11/28/literary-review-the-man-who-turned-on-the-world-by-michael-hollingshead/
[iii] (Roberts 2019: 166)
[iv] (Roberts 2019: 275)