Rob Dickins is well known as a guru of psychedelia and an avid participant in the British festival scene and here, in his first novella, he blends the two ingredients in a startlingly original and creative fusion. Erin takes place over the span of the Solpsycle Gathering; a medium-scale festival with a strong New Age ambience. Lije – ‘a schizophrenic…a journalist a druggie’ – and his group of mates move somnambulantly through festy space-time, bearing the chaotic, fractured perceptions of non-stop partying.
Last year Bill Booker and I encountered one another on the basis that we’d both written very similar books about our respective psychedelic experiences in the 1970s. As we compared notes, we found that the incidences of crossover between our two tales were numerous and uncannny in their synchronicity. I reviewed Bill’s book Trippers here, and now he’s returned the gesture, producing an incisive analysis that really gets beneath the surface and elucidates many of the typically ’70s storylines. Thankyou Bill, and long live the Semi Secret Fellowship of Freaks—both inside and outside the pages of literature.
If, like me, you like to make reading a book a journey of discovery, you won’t want a detailed map of the terrain so I’ll just give you an idea of the pharmacy to come and a few appetising vignettes and indications.
Rather than painting the sweep of its four and a bit years in broad strokes, Roger Keen paints this never-leave-a-turn-unstoned saga in intricate detail. He describes what is going on in his life alongside his trains of thought as he attempts to understand his LSD, cannabis, opium, cocaine and psilocybin experiences, often comparing them with other psychonauts’ travellers’ tales. If you’re interested in ‘man + psychedelics (entheogens) = ?’ then you should read this.
Right at the beginning Roger tells us his first acid trip was a much anticipated milestone in his life. The Mad Artist opens on ‘a dull Sunday afternoon in December 1975′ when, after a phone call from his best friend, Henry, arranging to meet up for their first acid trip, Roger already begins to feel he ‘was now a stranger in [his] own front room.’
This trip was a mixture of wonder, awe and paranoia – and interestingly, his acid visions often inspired his art college projects: ‘Suddenly the trip jumped in intensity… [...] The whole wood around me was no longer composed of trees, branches and leaves, but one composed of …letters. Letters of the alphabet.’ (p26) Later, Roger creates art out of these images. Like an explosion in a type foundry, alphabetti spaghetti recurs in other psychedelic episodes throughout the book.
At times The Mad Artist reads like a novel, at others it is very much a memoir and at yet other times it is a thoroughly absorbing blend of the two. At its best it brings Roger’s experiences vividly to life. Roger constantly attempts to understand his experiences and the psychological, philosophical and emotional concepts arising therefrom. At times he is terrified, either by the sheer power of the psychoactive substances he’s taken or from the resulting visions and concepts that are evoked. He always takes pains to provide a truthful, accurate and detailed account… Read the full review
In his recently published memoir, To Live Outside the Law, sixty-three-year-old Leaf Fielding gives the first ever account of the legendary Operation Julie drugs bust from the perspective of inside the gang, whose motivation was to transform the world for the better through the mind-altering powers of LSD. For Leaf the drug proved to be both an avatar of enlightenment and downfall, leading to him serving a five-year prison sentence. He first tried it back in 1966, as an idealistic eighteen year old, and that wholly positive experience kick-started his quest. He captures his youthful excitement and enthusiasm beautifully in the text:
‘…Jack and I were afire with our trip and talked about it for days. He too had experienced a sense of oneness with nature, life as energy and worlds in grains of sand as well as the sensory overload, distortion of time and space and hallucinatory after-images. Our lives had been turned on their heads and we were a great deal better for it, we agreed. Our friends ought to try this miraculous stuff. Everyone should… The light of joy was in our eyes; we’d stumbled across the elixir of life, the substance that was going to transform humanity!’
By then LSD was illegal, so Leaf’s inclination naturally pushed him onto the wrong side of the law. The next few years were colourful and picaresque, involving travelling and dope running in Europe, Turkey, Morocco and Thailand; and later back in England, he became a key member of the Julie outfit, who manufactured and supplied millions of doses of acid in the 1970s. In the book Leaf conveys the subtle changes in his outlook over the passage of time, and also the ambivalence of his position, distributing acid for idealistic reasons, yet having to put up with the stresses and strains of outlaw life.
‘At the beginning of our acid-dealing days I was light-hearted and full of optimism. Over the years the stress levels grew. Life is a continuum – by the time of the bust I was paranoid and full of anxiety, not a good exemplar for my wares.’
In the Operation Julie bust all his worst fears were realised. The gang were treated like big-time criminals and parallels were drawn between them and the IRA and Baader Meinhof. ‘It was falsely stated that there were links between us – a very effective smear in terms of demonising us in the mind of the public.’
The ‘real story’ from Leaf’s point of view – of wanting to raise consciousness to free the spirit – was lost and he became famous for all the wrong reasons and faced years in jail. So how did he cope with such a crushing experience?
‘I’d been busted with a sizeable group of like-minded friends. That helped enormously. Although riven by divisions we were all in the same mess and many of us were still good pals – we’d been through a lot of psychic territory together. By the time we were split up I was well used to being in prison. Anyway, I was accustomed to institutional life, having done ten years in boarding school. Being part of the Julie mob was another big plus; we had status. All these factors contributed to my survival.’ Read more…
First published in July 2011, To Live Outside the Law is a book of many facets. It is part personal memoir of the ’60s-’70s psychedelic scene, part ‘true crime’-style insider account of the Operation Julie escapade, subsequent bust and jail time, and also a larger meditation on the cultural and spiritual impact on humanity of that most potent and exotic of illegal substances—LSD.
The book is tightly and economically written, telling us enough but without going into burgeoning detail, so that a large swathe of time is covered efficiently in its near 300 pages. The structure takes the time-honoured form of two interwoven strands, the first starting with the Julie bust and continuing on through the legal proceeding and imprisonment, and the second dealing with Leaf’s past life up to the bust. It works very well, with the unrelenting downbeat dourness of the former strand contrasting strikingly with the colour of the latter; and the two synergise together beautifully to answer the book’s central question, poised on its cover: How did I get into this mess?
The answer is complicated, but the honest and candid writing, coupled with the willingness to reveal intimate details, build into a lucid and fascinating portrait of a talented individual whose youthful waywardness and ‘rebellion’ ultimately stretched too far for his own good. The roots, as ever, lie in childhood, and Leaf’s, though middle class and not ‘deprived’ in the usual sense, had huge shortcomings. From the age of seven onwards, with an army officer father often serving overseas and no mother, Leaf had virtually no proper family life and was subject to the institutionalised sadism of boarding school, where he didn’t fit in. What with having to fight the school bully to prove himself, enduring vicious canings from the headmaster and slipperings from prefects for the most trivial of ‘offences’, he became radicalised early. Through George Orwell he got interested in the Spanish Civil War and developed an anti-fascist stance that both alienated him at school but secured him a place at Reading University. Read more…
I first became aware of Trippers by ‘overhearing’ a conversation on Facebook between Rob Dickins, editor of PsypressUK, and Andy Roberts, author of Albion Dreaming. Andy enthused about this newly written but set-in-the-1970s psychedelic memoir with Kerouacian undertones, and I thought, ‘That sounds awfully like my book, The Mad Artist.’ Shortly afterwards I found Bill Booker on Authonomy, and we backed each other’s books, exchanged comments and compared notes on the remarkable similarities of our psychedelic and literary journeys. Reading Trippers, therefore, became a two-fold pleasure of me—firstly to appreciate it in its own right, and secondly to discover further parallels between what it describes and my own experience.
It’s the summer of 1971 and an eighteen-year-old Bill Booker has reached an important developmental point. With a childhood lacking in self-confidence behind him, he’s branching out, finding new friends, thinking about purposeful journeys and being lured by the exciting scent of changing times. There’s a host of new music to dig, from serious cred stuff such as the Floyd and Syd Barrett, King Crimson, Cream and Beefheart, to the more middling cred ELP and Hawkwind, to the downright lightweight, such as the Osmonds. When it comes to reading material there’s Hesse, Heinlein and Jung, International Times and Oz, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Mr Natural…all of it imbibed through ‘a scented blue haze of joss and marijuana smoke.’
Bill and his gang see themselves as ‘Freaks’ with a capital F—a new incarnation of youth culture at the start of a new decade—and one Saturday the group identity gets expanded to ‘The Semi-Secret Fellowship of Freaks’. With suitably raised consciousness, Bill attempts to define his goals. ‘I wanted to be creative. I wanted spiritual enlightenment, although I only had a vague idea of what that meant. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted true love. I wanted to be wise, joyful and fulfilled. I wanted to always know that life was meaningful. I wanted to know that there were mysteries to contemplate.’
One might well ask what is the difference between Freaks and good old hippies? As they both tick so many of the same boxes—long hair, alternative dress and lifestyles, anti-establishment, mystically orientated, into dope and acid, listen to Pink Floyd—it’s hard to get so much as a tissue paper between them. Yet early in the 1970s there’s already a sense that being a hippy is a bit old hat, you know man, so ’60s, and now we’re in a bright new decade with bright new decimal currency replacing that old £.s.d. (not LSD!) and we need to carve out a fresh identity. Being a Freak then is a reaction against the perceived countercultural conformity of hippiedom—Freaks are a bit rawer, edgier and less pretentious. Read more…
This seven-minute film is the first in a projected series of ‘trippy’ films, which in various ways will celebrate aspects of the psychedelic experience. Actually it came about as a happy accident, an afterthought. The footage was shot as part of a more extensive project—an illustration of a reading of the first trip sequence in The Mad Artist—which would also involve some night shooting in other locations. I was unable to complete the night shooting in my available window, and now the trees have come into leaf, so it might all have to wait till next winter, as the trip takes place in December.
However, in playing about with the shot footage, I experimented with various visual effects and an idea sparked: to make a trippy film in its own right, independent of the text of the book, though guided by the experiences it describes. So ‘Tripped in the Woods’ evolved as a notional, subjective point-of-view trip film, involving no people and no words, only the wood itself, progressively metamorphosing by means of trippy visual effects and complementary sound design.
Trippy videos abound on YouTube, and in the main they feature randomly generated wormhole and fractal patterning, fast cutting of anything and everything weird, strobe and flash effects, and tend to be light on original content. The better ones are impressive, but this type of video can get boring and when compared to the fabulous, polymorphous sophistication of the actual trippy inscape, they come nowhere near. With ‘Tripped in the Woods’ I eschewed the oversubscribed inner world of tripping and concentrated instead on the outer dimension—how acid transforms the look, feel and sound of one’s environment, which is especially relevant if that setting is already ‘pretty’, as the Plymbridge Woods undoubtedly is. And that area has a special significance in being the real setting for my first acid trip, described at length in the opening chapters of The Mad Artist.
As a big fan of the surrealist photographer Man Ray, master of the solarization, I’ve been dabbling in creating such effects since college days. Back then it all had to be done in the darkroom, with the results hard to predict in advance, and little did we dream that one day computers would take over the task. With Final Cut Pro, I used many different solarization effects, including double and sandwiched solarizations, alongside other image manipulations and stylisations, such as saturation, motion blurring and posterization, to gradually rack up the impression of consolidating trippiness. In Final Cut Pro one can apply posterization to the red, green and blue channels independently, so the range of combination effects is almost endless. Soundtrack Pro also has an extensive library of effects and atmosphere/musical beds, and again used in combination the sometimes melodic, sometimes eerie and sometimes frenetic moods of a trip can be evoked.
More info about my first acid trip as described in The Mad Artist: ‘The Alphabet Wood’
Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD, died in 2008 aged 102. This book, which he saw in proof form shortly before his death, has consequently become a posthumous tribute to the man, celebrating his life, work and influence. It takes the form of several essays by Hofmann himself, followed by a Festschrift of others by luminaries such as Ralph Metzner and Stanislav Grof, the whole ensemble edited by Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation.
What comes across as intriguing is that though Hofmann chose a career path of empirical science in becoming a chemist, he nonetheless had a strong mystical orientation, which first manifested in childhood: “While I strolled through the birdsong-filled forest, freshly verdant and illuminated by the morning sun, everything suddenly appeared in an uncommonly clear light. Had I previously not looked carefully, and did I suddenly now see the spring forest as it really was? It radiated the splendour of a peculiar, heartfelt beauty, as if it wished to encompass me in all its glory. An indescribable feeling of happiness, of belonging and of blissful security perfused me.”
It was this kind of perspective and serendipitous outlook that led Hofmann towards the discovery of LSD, and he gives a distinctly Jungian analysis of the string of chance events and coincidences that paved the way. Even though he was searching for a circulatory stimulant, not a psychedelic, and even though he’d synthesised the compound five years before and found it to be ineffective for that purpose, he was nevertheless drawn by its chemical structure to synthesise it again: “…a repetition, so to speak, founded on a hunch, chance had the opportunity to come into play. At the conclusion of the synthesis, I was overtaken by a very weird state of consciousness, which today one might call ‘psychedelic’.” Another chemist might have taken it no further, but Hofmann was sufficiently intrigued to conduct a self-experiment three days later, and the rest is history.
As the psychedelic movement developed, Hofmann’s mystical perspective drew him inevitably towards its other major figures. He worked with R. Gordon Wasson on the isolation and synthesis of the active ingredients of Mexican magic mushrooms―psilocybin and psilocin―and also with Wasson and Carl Ruck on an investigation into the possible psychedelic underpinnings of the ancient Greek Eleusian Rites. In his essay on Eleusis, Hofmann explores how the Mysteries can serve as a model for our times: “The necessary changes in the direction of an all-encompassing consciousness, which are prerequisite for overcoming materialism and for a renewed relationship with Nature, cannot be delegated to government―the change must and can only take place within each individual person… Eleusis-like centres could unite and strengthen the many spiritual currents of our time, all of which share the same goal, the goal of creating, by transformation of the consciousness of individual people, a better world…” Read more…
Still by prenza420 on Flickr, courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing
In 1977 I moved into Ebury Lodge student hall of residence in Bournemouth and lived there for more than two years, till I left the art college. That period encompasses the majority of the ‘psychonautic adventures’ described in The Mad Artist; and Ebury itself, as a community of wayward, madcap art student dopers, came to exist for me as almost a separate reality, hermetically sealed from regular life, complete with its own dream logic.
This sample chapter depicts the events of an afternoon and evening at Ebury—a marathon start-of-term dope session that set the tone for the remainder of the autumn! It introduces many of the colourful characters who appear throughout The Mad Artist, and also gives a good flavour of the approach and style of the book, concentrating on detail, atmosphere and in-depth subjective psychodrama regarding drug effect.
At the prescribed hour, I knocked on Sam’s door, and it was opened very cautiously by Big Jim, who gave a big chuckle when he saw it was me. Inside the whole gang were assembled, bright and eager like animals about to be fed. Sam was sat on the sofa, unwrapping the gear on a black lacquered coffee table. Next to him was Eric, a smoking mate from outside the house, who was busy assembling a set of collapsible brass scales that came in an indigo velvet-lined box. Race, Fiona and Sonya were languishing on a pile of cushions and beanbags over by the bay window, looking very decadent and bohemian. Gordon was sat cross-legged on the floor on the other side of the coffee table, a meditative expression on his face. Jim returned to his armchair on the right-hand side of the room, and I picked up a spare big cushion and sat next to him.
Jim and I chatted about our new rooms, with him especially pleased by the coup he’d pulled off in securing the big one next door. Meanwhile Sam was halving the slim oblong ounce of Leb with a serrated knife. He put a half in each pan of the scales, found one slightly heavier, so he broke off a corner, transferred it and found they matched. Then he split one of the halves into two quarters, which matched exactly at the first attempt. Sam was obviously a real expert at this trade. The two quarters became four eighths, two of which were passed to Race and Gordon respectively, and the other two further divided into sixteenths for Fiona, Sonya and Jim. The other half ounce was split into a quarter for Eric, an eighth for me, and the rest went into Sam’s tin.
Read the full chapter as a PDF on Slideshare.
To read another extract of The Mad Artist see previous post.
What better place for a discussion on the rarefied subject of magic mushrooms than the hippy-oriented Sunrise Festival in Somerset, England, just down the road from Stonehenge? On a hot Saturday afternoon in early June 2010, a group of us gathered in the Ancient Futures yurt to hear Andy Letcher’s talk on ‘Reading the Codex: Making Sense of Magic Mushrooms’.
Andy Letcher, a holder of two doctorates—the first ecology related, the second concerning Bardic performance in contemporary Paganism—is the author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, a comprehensive and informative overview of mushroom culture and its position in the larger psychedelic pantheon. Published in 2006, the book was generally well received and critically acclaimed, but due to its revisionist stance on many of the cherished theories concerning psychedelic use throughout history, it has also excited much controversy and opposition. On some internet message boards this has escalated to open hostility and outright abuse, and, perhaps worse still, the accusation that Andy has never even taken mushrooms.
In a nutshell, Shroom argues that hard evidence for much of the received wisdom concerning past psychedelic use—with a particular focus on mushrooms—simply isn’t there, and it is largely a wish-fulfilment back projection on the part of the modern psychedelic movement. So, how come such an issue has got many people’s back up? Perhaps it’s the sureness of Andy’s academic position: I must be right because the evidence (or lack of it) speaks for itself. Perhaps it’s because he takes material that is understood by many to serve as myth or half-truth rather than solid fact, and by insisting on holding it up to factual scrutiny rather tramples it into the ground. Or perhaps it’s because his literal evidence-based approach to the subject cuts right against the grain of the enchanted, mythopoeic, supra-rational radiance of mushroom gnosis itself.
As he began his lecture, no doubt aware of this undercurrent of feeling, Andy laid his cards on the table. He described himself as a ‘hippy’, an insider, who, though he’s an academic is still very much ‘one of us’. Indeed he does take mushrooms, though he prefers lower doses, and he has experienced that all-important gnosis first hand. With long flowing centrally parted hair, earrings and a neat distinguished-looking King Charles I-style moustache and goatee, he certainly looks the part of a hippy; and as the talk progressed, he used demotic, non-academic language, such as ‘tripping their tits off’ and liberal lashings of swear words. Read more…
The Mad Artist is now available from the Amazon Kindle store, for $2.99, or £2.21 including VAT from Amazon.co.uk Kindle. The first five chapters—covering the epic first acid trip—can be sampled for free, and the Kindle app is now available free for many devices, including PC, iPhone, iPad and BlackBerry.
E-book sales are soaring and the ease with which they can be obtained is increasing; like it or not, the paper-free revolution is gaining momentum. Just by downloading the PC app and going to the Kindle store, you can now read many literary classics absolutely free. Some contemporary titles are also offered free, as part of promotional campaigns, and others are priced very competitively.
The facility to price competitively is a great boon to authors of print-on-demand books, such as The Mad Artist. One of the great drawbacks of POD is the high cost of production, leading to the handicap of a higher retail price than regular books. For a relatively long book such as The Mad Artist (170,000 words), the handicap is greater still, as more paper adds up to more cost. But in the e-book world this disadvantage vanishes at a stroke, and the e-version is actually considerably cheaper than most. For struggling independent authors, this has to be the way to go!
Still: Roger Keen playing the drums ‘…imitating the style and technique of Mogadon Sammy.’ (as described in Chapter 12 of The Mad Artist)