Andy Roberts is an historian of Britain’s LSD psychedelic culture and author of Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia, as well as Albion Dreaming: A Social History of LSD in Britain. 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.
Andy, thanks very much for joining me, I’m looking forward to hearing more about your book.
Acid Drops is billed as “a collection of essays, interviews, and fiction”, along with “frank accounts” of your own LSD use. That’s quite the kaleidoscopic combination. Is there an overarching theme that ties everything together? How do the historical elements mesh with the personal accounts?
I think the psychedelic experience itself, and what can be done with it, rather than its history or theory is the overarching theme within Acid Drops. There are numerous books dealing with psychedelics, with more being published each year, but often they can be somewhat ‘dry’, focusing on the chemistry or the politics or the medical aspects of how psychedelics can be used to help people with PTSD etc.
Those are all very worthy subjects but they tend to gloss over the fact that the vast majority of people who have used psychedelics, and specifically LSD, have used them for fun (nothing wrong with that!), some form of spirituality, or to examine the “sheer unspeakable strangeness of being here at all” (to quote Robin Williamson) and I wanted to reflect that in Acid Drops, to take the subject back to the experiences that I and others had with acid and to try and broaden the psychedelic experience out and away from how culture often reflects psychedelics in the media as a bunch of weird chemicals being used by a bunch of feckless hippies who were all into love and peace and saving the world etc.
The use of recreational psychedelics began and took off in America, but if you peel back the layers of history it becomes obvious the groundwork was carried out by Brits!
There’s a cast of unique real-life characters in your book. Can you tell me a bit about one or two of your interviewees, and what makes them so fascinating?
When I was a young hippie in the 1970s I was constantly reading about some of the characters who were movers and shakers on the London hippie scene. Little did I know that over thirty years later they would be gracious enough to allow me to interview them. Many interviews I did, such as those with John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and John Michell, have yet to see the light of day but the interviews that made the final edit of Acid Drops were those with Dr. Ronald Sandison, Andy Munro, Jeff Dexter and Liz Elliot, all fascinating characters and vital characters in Britain’s LSD past.
Ronnie Sandison was one of the first people to bring LSD back from Sandoz, in Switzerland, to Britain. He was given it personally from Albert Hoffman, and in late 1952 he started using it psychotherapeutically at Powick Hospital in England, having successes with a numerous people with mental health and addiction issues. His success and the publicity which came from it led to over twenty-five clinics using LSD on over 10,000 patients in Britain, between 1952 and 1965. This was revolutionary, ground breaking work offering new and shorter treatments yet it was dashed to nothing when the British medical establishment, scared by sensational media reports about LSD coming in from the US, dissuaded practitioners from using the drug.
Andy Munro was one of the two LSD chemists involved in the British Operation Julie LSD manufacturing and distribution conspiracy in the 1970s. Along with fellow chemist Richard Kemp, the pair produced some of the cleanest, most potent LSD ever made, which kept the British hippie free festival scene going for years and was exported to the US and elsewhere. Munro (and Kemp) were more interested in making LSD for counter cultural reasons than outright profit and scared the U.K. government so much a national drug squad was formed purely to smash these acid labs. The full story has yet to be told!
Unsure of dosage and potency, Hollingshead took more than he needed. His mind was blown, his life course completely changed. He knew LSD had value and purpose for humankind and wanted to spread the word.
Jeff Dexter began as a professional dancer, one of the first people to dance the Twist in Britain. But after dropping acid he became a mover and shaker on the London psychedelic scene, DJ-ing at the famous clubs such as UFO, Middle Earth and others. He is a key cultural king pin of those times and beyond.
Liz Elliot is probably the least well known yet possibly the most interesting of my interviewees, not least because her story is one of the few of a woman embedded in psychedelia. But Liz is well worth reading about; she was a beatnik before hooking up with Brian Barritt and together they sought Tim Leary out in Algeria. Leary and Liz became lovers and shared many a psychedelic adventure in Algeria and later Switzerland when Leary fled there. Her husband, Brian Barritt wrote the legendary Whisper: A Psychedelic Timescript and ghost wrote Leary’s Jail Notes. Astute psychedelic historians will recognise Barritt as being the guy who performed an acid fueled magical ritual with Leary in the Algerian desert, unwittingly in the same spot that Aleister Crowley and Victor Nueberg had several decades earlier! Liz is currently writing her own book which, I suspect, will be a revelation!
Your book — and your work as an historian — focuses on LSD in the context of British culture, which is often overlooked in favor of the American hippies of the 1960s. What made UK psychedelia unique back then in the heyday of LSD, and what lasting effects has the UK scene had on the global psychedelic culture?
One of the things I tried to do in both Acid Drops and Albion Dreaming was to re-emphasise the part the British played in the development of psychedelia in America. This stemmed from my reading of Storming Heaven and Acid Dreams, both excellent books about the development of psychedelia in America but to me they somewhat glossed over the early British influences.
There’s no doubt about it – the use of recreational psychedelics began and took off in America, and psychedelia developed and spread culturally much faster there than anywhere else. But if you peel back the layers of history it becomes obvious the groundwork was carried out by Brits! Way back in the 1950s a small group of British expatriates in America started to explore the potential, mainly for self-development and spiritual reasons of various psychedelics including LSD. They include Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts and of course Aldous Huxley all of whom were influential in the early days of American psychedelia and who all American psychedelic enthusiasts should be aware of.
But perhaps the main instigator of psychedelia’s development in America was another Brit, one Michael John Shinkfield, better known as Michael Hollingshead. Hollingshead is an enigma, to put it mildly. The son of a working-class coal mine manager from Darlington in the north east of England, Hollingshead began using heroin and cannabis in 1950s London, where he was friends with the notorious Alex Trocchi, then in late 1959 he turned up in New York where he had a doctor friend, John Beresford, who had a liking for various obscure psychedelics. Hollingshead had heard about LSD and inveigled his friend to legally order a gram from a pharmaceutical company. Unsure of dosage and potency he took more than he needed! and his mind was blown, his life course completely changed. He knew LSD had value and purpose for humankind and wanted to spread the word. He allegedly got in touch with Huxley, who pointed him in the direction of Leary.
If you disrespect psychedelics they will, at some point bite back, kick your ass, turn you inside out and show you just how stupid you were!
Now, this is where it gets weird. In the early 60s Leary was already no stranger to psilocybin and was fully aware of the existence of LSD yet had chosen not to take it. It took a bit of Hollingshead’s famous persuasion to get Leary to take acid, but when he did, his life course also changed. But why was it Hollingshead, a small time British crook, who was the guy to introduce Leary to the potency and potential of LSD? After that first trip with Hollingshead, Leary became somewhat obsessed with the Brit who was, from then on, like a psychedelic Zelig, always in the background (yet largely written out of American LSD histories) as Leary became the pre-eminent spokesperson and evangelist for LSD.
Hollingshead and Leary remained friends until the latter’s death in 1984, and from their correspondence, much of which has been recently discovered in the NYC library Leary archive, it was clear both men held each other in high regard. I am currently writing Hollingshead’s biography which will reveal much about Leary that is as yet untold. If anyone reading this knew Michael Hollingshead, in any context whatsoever, I would love to hear from you!
From indigenous shamans and the “spiritual tourists” who seek them out, to festival-goers and patients undergoing psychedelic-assisted therapy, approaches to psychedelics vary widely. Is there a “right” way to use these substances? Or are all safe uses of psychedelics legitimate?
I think there are several aspects to this broad question. Firstly, I’m loath to be prescriptive to anyone about the use of psychedelics, or indeed any other drug; people should take responsibility for taking what they want in the manner of their choice. But…
There are, obviously, certain elements to taking LSD or indeed any psychedelic, which will enhance rather than hinder the experience. The first maxim is to treat psychedelics with the utmost respect and pay due diligence to your set (your beliefs, what mood you are in etc.) and setting (your physical environment). If you’ve just finished a long week at work and split up with your girlfriend then taking acid and popping down to your local Death Metal club is unlikely to result in a fruitful experience, for instance! And that principle goes for even the most experienced high dose user.
There’s something in the air, a sense of excitement and expectation that the various governments’ tacit support of medical psychedelic research heralds a new age.
I don’t like to dwell too much on the negative aspects of psychedelics, but they must always be borne in mind, but if you disrespect psychedelics they will, at some point bite back, kick your ass, turn you inside out and show you just how stupid you were! You might get off lightly, or you might spend several centuries (relatively speaking, but you know what I mean) in a hell tailored exactly for you, and it won’t be pleasant. And if you have a mental health condition or believe you might have then, again, caution, if not abstinence might be the best course of action.
Sadly, there is something of a macho culture I’ve seen displayed on various internet sources such as Facebook where, when people discuss dosage they are called ‘pussy’ or a ‘wuss’ or whatever if they are taking anything less than heroic doses. The fact is that you should take what you feel comfortable with to get you to the place you want to be at. There’s nothing wrong with a little nudging if you feel someone might benefit from a higher dose, if you know them well, and it’s always easier to take more than to have that sinking feeling after an hour, thinking “why the fuck did I take that?”. One person’s wuss dose can easily be another’s heroic. Taking LSD and psychedelics isn’t a competition, either between others or your ego. That stay high by all means, but stay safe.
I was very lucky, in the 1970s, that I chanced on two completely unrelated– in any sense of the word — acid heads who became what you might call my ‘acid gurus’. Both with completely different approaches to LSD use but both essentially kind and compassionate, flawed like the rest of us, people who knew their way round the intensity of the psychedelic experience and who bothered to take me under their wing to, without being asked, ‘show me the ropes’ which, considering the problems I had with my first trip (see the Introduction to Acid Drops and further along in this interview) almost certainly saved me from a life of misery. As it was they set me on a path of curiosity, mystery and wonder.
There seems to be a tension between traditional psychedelic use — of peyote, mushrooms, and ayahuasca, for example — and modern medical research, which seeks to replicate and “Westernize” these compounds’ effects. How do you see the interplay of these approaches developing over the next few decades? Is the “psychedelic renaissance” in neuroscience and medicine a cause for celebration, or concern?
I think this is the third psychedelic renaissance we’ve had and it’s perhaps the most significant, mainly because of the medical research and how that, generally, gleans good press coverage. And on the back of that, the more cultural and spiritual aspects of psychedelia, information about plants and fungi etc. from other lands and cultures seem to be spreading and also getting good press. There’s something in the air, a sense of excitement and expectation that the various governments’ tacit support of medical psychedelic research heralds a new age. A new age in which the medical ‘foot in the door’ of mainstreaming psychedelics and extolling their medical uses lead to psychedelics perhaps being de-criminalised for personal use.
But will this happen? I’m really hopeful the medical research will soon result in LSD and MDMA being at least licensed for therapeutic purposes. The potential for trained psychedelic therapists being able to improve the lives of innumerable people is immense and I know you have several champions in America; I’d like to big up the work and writings of Dr. Ben Sessa and Dr. David Luke here in Britain who are doing both practical research and writing about these substances in an inspiring and meaningful way.
I am, however, dubious the ordinary citizen will ever again be able to take psychedelics, when they want and in unregulated circumstances and environment for spiritual, religious, pleasurable or just plain ol’ curious reasons. I could be wrong, and I hope I am.
Psychedelics tend to change lives, change ways of thinking, change how you want to live, who you want to be, what you want, what you don’t want, what your beliefs and values area and much more. I can’t envisage any large world government allowing its citizens easy and legal access to chemicals that could threaten to offer that kaleidoscope of possibilities which could change or heavily influence the status quo. I believe the reason the British government’s Operation Julie destroyed Munro and Kemp’s LSD manufacturing and distribution network was because the British Establishment saw it was driving the Free Festival scene and being instrumental in the almost unwitting but new, and wide spread youth culture arising. One which was antipathical to the ‘straight’ birth/school/work/death ethos. Incidentally quite a bit of Kemp and Munro’s high-quality LSD was exported to America in the early 70s.
But despite this groundswell of hope about even just the medical side of things, the U.K. government, in its latest drug strategy documents, doesn’t even mention the medical research into psychedelics, and is as insistent as ever that U.K. citizens will never legally be allowed to take any substance that gets them high! We are, of course, the nation who spawned Oliver Cromwell!
About ten minutes after I dropped the first tab Stupid Me thought, “This stuff’s pretty weak, I’ll take the other”. What could possibly go wrong? Then the acid hit me like a steam train and, literally, blew my mind apart.
What do you think of the revisionism that is snapping at the heels of more traditional psychedelic history; the ideas of Mark Stahlman, Jan Irvin, and others who suggest that the popularization of LSD was due to the CIA, KGB, and other covert actors?
At first, I was mildly amused. It’s easy to dismiss, out of hand, those who make alternate suggestions to the traditional psychedelic narrative, you know the one that insists Hofmann discovered LSD in ’38, ‘accidentally’ and then intentionally took it in ’43, the CIA and MKULTRA got hold of it, it’s quickly used and dismissed by the psychotherapists and then it leaks out into the counter culture, flower power hits and away we go – that basic idea.
And that may be the truth of it. History by almost bumbling happenstance. But having read, for instance, Mark Stahlman’s writings which, if I’ve read them rightly, suggests that LSD in the west came about because of the Russians wanting to flood western youth culture with it for obvious and disruptive reasons. Acid itself, Mark suggests, after Sandoz stopped producing it in the mid-sixties, as well as the precursors used by later western acid chemists all originates from KGB infiltrated sources, and that’s just the tip of Mark’s iceberg, the bulk of which can be read in his online essay One Indole Ring To Rule Them All.
I’m intrigued enough to look further. Mark says, quite rightly, “If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers”. Maybe I should up my questions?! At least Mark puts some thought into his theories. Irvin, I dismiss. He is unable to sustain a discussion without recourse to abuse and when some of his ‘facts’ are probed, especially his notions of what went on in Britain, he gets very defensive, can’t back up his sources with checkable evidence and then just blocks your emails!
Another critical psychedelic theorist I like a lot is Robert Forte, who appears to have hung out with most of the psychedelic luminaries of the 60s, 70s and 80s, soaking up the vibes and ideas. But now he is looking behind what he was told and read etc and pondering who or what motivated these highly influential people. Things may not be what they appear!
I adopted psychedelic use the same way many people took up Hinduism, Buddhism or other belief systems and religions that helped them make sense of identity, existence and so on. I’m not on the run anymore.
From a British research perspective I think Americans would benefit from reading Alan Piper’s Strange Drugs Makes For Strange Bedfellows, which examines the role of the far right in LSD, questions the Hofmann LSD foundation myth and brings in characters who were very influential on Hofmann such as soldier and novelist Ernst Junger. Alan asks the right questions!
If something other than the accepted history is going on then as yet there is, arguably, no conclusive ‘smoking gun’; the nature of the substance and subject matter tends to dissolve such things. But we haven’t heard the last of the revisionist historians I’m sure and even I am leaning toward there being something, something deeper, behind the Michael Hollingshead story and if there’s more to him, then where does that leave Leary and the development of psychedelic culture elsewhere in the world. However pondering this mystery is one thing, proving it so it becomes more than dizzying rumour is another thing altogether.
Acid Drops kicks off with your first harrowing journey with LSD in 1972. What was that like? What about that experience captured your interest in LSD, and acid culture more generally?
Until I took LSD for the first time in early October,1972 the psychedelic experience was an abstraction to me. Prior to taking LSD, I’d read Leary’s Politics of Experience and other books about LSD use and I’d seen TV documentaries about LSD, but had no real idea of its experiential potency or lasting effects. I estimate I took about 4-500 mics in the form of two very powerful microdots which I believe came from the lab of Richard Kemp, one of the two chemists involved in the U.K. Operation Julie LSD manufacturing and distribution conspiracy. I paid no regard for set and setting, dropping the two hits during a riotous, alcohol fueled house party where no-one else was using LSD or any other drug than alcohol. About ten minutes after I dropped the first tab Stupid Me thought, “This stuff’s pretty weak, I’ll take the other”. What could possibly go wrong?
Not long after, someone who had taken a dislike to me hit me full in the face and I tumbled backwards over a couch, just as the acid hit me like a steam train and, literally, blew my mind apart.
For a few hours ‘I’ was gone. I witnessed all kinds of events, all absolutely ‘real’ to me, from the utterly fantastic vision of thousands of ‘ice warriors’ riding across the moonlit sky, to a meeting with the ultimate force of evil (waaaaaay beyond the church-defined reach of the ‘devil’) who ‘told’ me I was utterly worthless, a pawn in some cosmic, Manichaean game, that I belonged to ‘it’ and exactly how I would die, and all points in between. I was given the option – more out of sport than compassion I suspect! -and this is explained in great detail in the book- of dying now or at a later date. I chose to go on the run!
In retrospect it was obvious I had no proper ‘set’ before I went into that experience and it was in completely the wrong setting. Multiply that set of circumstances by the dose and you can see my stupidity! For months afterwards, I lived in a kind of paranoid psychosis riven with a constantly shifting array of tricks to keep me terrified, and even now I can have flashes of the horror I was part of. But once I’d kicked open that door I realised there was no way back, or at least no way back in which I could return to who I had been before. I’d had the exact opposite of all the classic first time LSD experiences I’d read about! I realised that if the experience could be so overwhelmingly bad the opposite must also be true and so I adopted psychedelic use, specifically that of LSD (with occasional excursions with other psychedelics) as a ‘path’, much as in the same way many people took up Hinduism, Buddhism or other belief systems and religions that helped them make sense of identity, existence and so on. I’m not on the run anymore.
That experience may have been your first, but I’m sure it wasn’t your last. How has LSD changed you as a person? Have you had any powerful experiences or lessons that you’ve adapted into your daily life?
The lessons I learnt using LSD can be learnt via many other routes so I certainly would’t want to appear evangelical, giving the impression that LSD is the only way! Some people learn the same lessons naturally, or by religious, spiritual or magical techniques, or just by being plain lucky!
LSD taught me a number of things. Firstly, that I am a totally free individual in space/time and not beholden to any deity (unless I choose to be) for my actions and thus am not bound by the guilt and shame many religions and belief systems are based on or require one to subscribe to. It taught me I can take any course of action I want or aspire to *providing* I take full responsibility for my actions and don’t harm others. It taught me always to treat it and other drugs with respect and it taught me much about perception and awareness. And awareness, as poet Mary Oliver says, “is devotion”.
Psychedelics taught me that there are no ultimate answers and that no matter what we think is fixed and certain isn’t, yet we live, as singer/songwriter John Stewart put it “in the heart of a dream, in the promised land” although we might not always grasp this. Put simply, my core beliefs, based on what psychedelics have taught me is that we live in the midst of an ultimately unknowable mystery, let’s call it The Great Mystery, ours to play in, celebrate or ruin as we see fit.
Andy thanks so much for your time, it’s been a great trip!
You are most welcome. Hi, and thanks to everyone who reads this interview! If you have any comments or criticisms or just want to get in touch I am at firstname.lastname@example.org
I would particularly like to hear from anyone who met or knew Michael Hollingshead at any time during his life, or has interesting information about any aspect of the British psychedelic scene.
Andy Roberts is a historian and the author of Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia. He is an editor and occasional contributor for the Psychedelic Press Journal, the bastion of original psychedelic writing in the UK, and he has given several talks at Breaking Convention, Britain’s multidisciplinary psychedelic conference.
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