Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain
It’s been a long time since I read a book that has held so much personal significance for me as Andy Roberts’ Albion Dreaming, which with great enthusiasm and obvious love for the subject matter, relates the specifics of how LSD tripped out British culture—a story as least as interesting as its American counterpart, featured in works such as Storming Heaven and Acid Dreams. Many intriguing threads are woven together, from early military experiments in the ’50s at the infamous Porton Down chemical weapons facility, where unwitting volunteer servicemen ‘were expected to hallucinate for Queen and country’; to early examples of LSD psychotherapy, involving famous figures such as the comedian Frankie Howerd and actor Sean Connery; to the more familiar ‘swinging ’60s’, the free festival movement and beyond.
Roberts charts the influence of acid on the ’60s music scene, which gave us the Beatles’ celebrated Sgt. Pepper album and launched the mighty Pink Floyd at the UFO club in London, as well as many other acts, including the Moody Blues, the Small Faces, Donovan, the Move and the Incredible String Band. As more and more psychedelic lyrics began to seep into the zeitgeist, the BBC banned certain tracks and newspapers such as the News of the World ran exposes on these so-called corrupting and decadent bands, which turned out to be laughably self-defeating:
‘By explaining exactly what LSD was, its cost and its effects News of the World gave thousands of teenagers a glimpse into a way of life they desperately wanted to be part of… To an extent the unwitting media promotion of LSD led to thousands of young people throughout Britain becoming more knowledgeable about the drug than they would otherwise have been.’
Albion Dreaming also gets behind the scenes and documents some of the less well-known LSD movers and shakers: evangelists such as Michael Hollingshead, who first turned Timothy Leary onto LSD and founded the World Psychedelic Centre in Chelsea; chemists such as Victor Kapur, one of the first to make blotter acid in bulk in the late ’60s; and writers such as John Michell, whose mystical ideas popularised Glastonbury and paved the way for the first free festival there in 1970. There are also many testimonies from ordinary people, ‘vox pops’ one could say, which illuminate how LSD culture inexorably blossomed throughout this period, leading to changes in lifestyle, fashion and prevailing political, social and religious attitudes.
With the ’70s underway and the free festival and travelling hippy scenes well established, Andy Roberts then turns his attention to ‘Operation Julie’, a phrase that has come to have a legendary ring for ’70s acidheads, and now refers not only to the largest drug squad operation in British history but also generically to everything concerning the massive LSD manufacturing ring that was its target. Chemist Richard Kemp was another evangelist who wanted to cause an acid revolution, and in this respect he made sure each of his microdots contained ‘a minimum of 200 µg. to ensure the customer had a guaranteed full-blown psychedelic experience.’ This acid was some of the strongest ever marketed and the Julie gang produced millions of tabs, almost single-handedly keeping ’70s Britain high—and exporting as well—until they were busted in 1977.
This is where the story intersects with mine, as I had one of Kemp’s super-strength tabs for my first trip in 1975, and I got much more than I bargained for—a thirty-six-hour metaphysical marathon that altered my life and set the course for my development as a writer. As Roberts says about the gang’s legacy: ‘It certainly wasn’t a public revolution. The changes in worldview their LSD brought to countless thousands of people have had a more subtle effect in society. There are now people in their fifties and sixties who occupy key roles in industry, science, the armed forces, the police, and numerous authors, who have taken their Operation Julie vision into the heart of the establishment and tried to change things from the inside.’
Though enthusiastic about LSD himself, Andy Roberts makes us aware of the drug’s ambivalent nature and propensity to cause mental mayhem—‘the lysergic long dark night of the soul.’ He cites famous acid casualties, such as original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, who burnt himself out on the drug; then there were the unfortunate victims of the early government experiments, some of whom have now received compensation; and those who had bad trips and ‘freaked out’, due to a mixture of factors such as overdose, ignorance of the laws of set and setting or poor psychic predisposition; though he stresses that such negative reactions are generally in the minority.
Overall Albion Dreaming is a well-researched and well-rounded account of the transformative power of that most singular of chemicals on individuals and a whole nation, demonstrating the myriad worldview changes that have rippled out of the synapses of those involved and spread far and wide. Andy Roberts’ combined journalistic and storytelling skills make for a colourful zesty read, a vivid exploration of that ‘Disneyland of the mind’ and required reading for anyone interested in the synergy between acid and British culture—or in acid period.