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I'm in the toilet, sitting on the closed lid. It's dark, though not completely. The orange glow of the streetlight outside is making a bubble-effect pattern through the frosted glass, and there's a splash of light under the door from the hall. And there's my own internal light too, of course, those geometric flashes of colour that tend to dance before your eyes whenever external light is dimmed or diminished.
I'm in the toilet because I've just had an anxiety attack. There's a knot of tension in my stomach. It's like that feeling you have when they've finished cranking you up to the top of the roller coaster and you look down at the sheer drop in front. A lurching sensation, a real physical pang which, if it were to be verbalised, would come out something like: "Oh my God! Oh Jesus! Oh Lord! What the hell am I doing here?"
Except that a roller coaster ride is over in a minute or two, and the ride I'm about to embark on will last all night.
I've just taken LSD. For the first time in 25 years. That little brown drop of liquid, placed on the end of my finger and ingested some 30 minutes ago, is about to play havoc with my sense of self.
Suddenly there's a kind of humming noise. This low-down, deep-bass growl sound, like the boom of an organ in an empty Cathedral, like the lowest, low-down bass note on a massive pipe-organ going in and out of phase. Reverberating. In and out. Hum. In and out. Hum. Like that. Slowly and deliberately. With a sort of rhythmic insistence.
It's hard to say where, exactly, the sound is coming from. It's not in the room, as such. It's not in my head. It's just there, at some deep level. It's like I'm hearing the sub-atomic pulse of the Universe in the very fabric of matter, so low it's thrumming in my guts. And then it's as if an invisible pair of hands had taken space itself and was squeezing it like a concertina. In and out. In and out. The Universe is pulsing to a living heart beat.
Now the colours in front of my eyes are circling, shifting, swirling, weaving, shaping, changing to make an endlessly morphing, moving mandala, the colours coming in from all sides now, streaming at me, taking on dimension and form, creating a sort of tunnel down which my all too mortal eyes are staring in fear and awe and wonder.
In and out. In and out.
That's my breathing.
Where am I?
Oh yes, I'm in the toilet.
That's when I decide I have to leave. Not just the toilet. This house.
Ace of Spades
Downstairs they are playing the Ace of Spades by Motorhead.
You know I'm born to lose
and gamblin's made for fools
But that's the way I like it baby
I don't want to live forever
The ace of spades...
I pop my head around the door. Back in control, momentarily.
There’s a bunch of people in there, sitting around on the soft chairs and settees ranged around the room. Posters on the wall (including one of Che Guevara). Lamp to one side, draped in a red, translucent scarf, giving off a soft, silky light. Low table in the middle of the room, scattered with bottles from our earlier drinking. No one’s drinking now. One person is rolling spliffs. This is the person who’d given me the acid. He’s hunched up over the table, concentrating, looking like a big, friendly devil. He turns to me slowly with this arch look, out of the corner of his eye. It‘s like he knows what’s been going on in the toilet.
The rest of the room are chattering in what seems, at first sight, to be a perfectly normal manner. There’s a lot of laughter. But, you realise, this is nervous laughter. There’s kind of hum in the air. The trip is coming on. You look people in the eye and you can see it: a sort of swirling depth of colour with a startled spark in the middle.
I must admit I’m panicking. I’m afraid that if I stay I’ll not be able to get out again. The room wants to suck me in and hold me there forever. It‘s looks like a bordello dungeon in the mansion-halls of hell. All I want to do it to get out of the front door.
There’s one man sitting near the door. This is my charge, my guest for the evening. A man who calls himself Arthur Pendragon.
I say, "Um, I'm off. I'm off. I'm going home."
"What about him? Aren't you going to take him with you?" says Polly, indicating Arthur. She’s in her early 40’s, an old friend of mine. She says it like he’s some sort of a package I’ve got to deliver.
"Oh yes. Are you coming Arthur?"
And he gets up, and we go out together saying our goodbyes, closing the door behind us. Who knows what will happen next? Who knows what demons of hell or angelic apparitions are lying in wait for us on our strange journey home?
In the late sixties, of course, LSD was on everyone's mind. That was my era. I was in my teens at the time. I'd been interested in acid ever since I'd first seen Timothy Leary in a news item on TV, since seeing a picture of the Grateful Dead in a Sunday newspaper (they looked so cool, with their granny glasses and long hair), since hearing Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds from the Sergeant Pepper album down at Robert Russell's place. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was, I was reliably informed by Robert Russell - who was an expert on such things - an elliptical reference to the LSD experience.
"See, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," Robert Russell said, pointing out the letters as he went along, "It spells LSD."
“Picture yourself on a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.”
I pictured myself doing just that.
I used to go to a large municipal library about four or five stops on the bus from where I lived. I loved that library. I loved the sense of hushed reverence that seemed to pervade the place, the smell of the books, the air of musty restraint. There was one particular corner I used to frequent. It was full of peculiar tomes about psychic phenomena and the like. I guess it was the parapsychology section. There was a book about LSD. I got it out. It was a case-studies book, full of people's first hand experiences of the drug. They were describing all sorts of weird events, like tasting colours and smelling sounds. Synaesthesia. Visions. Nightmares. Surrealistic dream phantasms. Hallucinations. I guess I thought it must be like a picture show, a bit like Disney's Fantasia, perhaps, with cartoony colours swirling and dancing about. I imagined the tripper would lie back and just watch the entertainment as it unfolded on the TV screen of his mind. I had no idea.
I’d taken a few drugs up till now. I’d smoked cannabis at a festival once, and it felt like my body was melting into the ground. I’d drunk some beer and laughed loudly in the evening and then been woken up by a raging thirst and a head full of concrete. I’d taken some cough medicine containing Morphine and watched grey, night-time visions in a detached, headless sort of way. I’d sniffed some glue and disappeared down a funnel in my brain. Drugs did all sorts of things to you, but they always still left you feeling like you were yourself. Not so acid, although I didn’t know it yet. Acid is like eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once you’ve taken it, nothing ever looks the same again.
I finally managed to get some in the summer of 1971. It was California Sunshine, pretty well the last of the strong, pure Owsley acid coming out of the West Coast hippie scene at the time. It was a big, orange tab, like a flat square, about the size of my fingernail. I say "big" because acid after that got smaller and smaller, till it came in tiny pillules, the size of pinheads. They were called microdots, and they were always black. That was the only kind of acid in the 70s.
I was with Colin, a friend of mine at school. We got the acid from an older head. "Head" was a word we used to describe each other back then. We were either heads or freaks. This guy seemed so sophisticated at the time, although, thinking back on it, he was only about 20 years old. A child like us. He had bright red, bushy hair and a beard. I can't remember his name. Graham maybe. We took the acid and went out to the park. I was wearing my new skin-tight loon-pants, made of fine-weave corduroy. Straight black hair, parted in the middle, just grown over my ears. Colin was little and blonde, with a similar hairstyle. He was wearing his trippy tee shirt.
We were walking through the park when it hit. When I say "hit" I mean that literally. It was like a blow to the temple, and then, there I was, catapulted into a different world. It was so disorientating I felt I'd lost my balance. We were walking up a slight incline through some clumps of grass. Only now the clumps seemed like vast tracts of untamed jungle, and I was trying to make my way through them. The rise was suddenly mountainous. I think I actually did lose my balance, and had to grab hold of Colin's arm for support, only he was as unbalanced as me. We were holding onto each other, wobbling. And there was a strange feeling in my body. It was like my body had become lighter. It was made of cork, light enough to float on water. And when I lifted my legs to get over these epic jungles of deliriously knotted grasses, my legs came right up. Right up. It was like my eyes and my legs had become disengaged from each other. Like my eye didn't know what my legs were doing. Everything loomed and lurched as if the whole world was made of elastic.
I said, “wah!“ Words were coming out of my mouth, only they didn't have any meaning. I was still holding onto Colin. I looked him in the eye. He didn't say anything. He was silent, in some other place. Words were tumbling from my lips in a torrent of nonsense, like someone had opened the sluice-gates of my mind, and all of this dammed up verbiage was being released. I was trying to find Colin. He was there, but he was somewhere else at the same time. Where had Colin got to?
Graham was looking at us, worried. He was standing about three feet away. He'd come on like this oh so cool head, but I don't think he had any idea what was happening. Now he had these two raving lunatics on his hands, one of them gabbling incoherently, the other in stunned catalepsy. Time had hit a brick wall. It had come to a sudden catastrophic end at this exact moment, like a train hitting the buffers. Colin and I were stuck here in this moment of foreverness, on a slope in the middle of a park in suburban Birmingham, boomed into oblivion.
How long did this go on for? Well, forever, of course. Or for a few minutes. In the end some sort of sense floated in through the forests of time. It became obvious that Graham was panicking and wanted to get rid of us. We started walking home and eventually came to the parting of the ways.
Then I was on my own, walking down long streets lined with restless confusion. Colours were everywhere, in every branch of every tree, in the pavement, in the hedges. The colours conveyed strange messages. It wasn‘t clear whether the messages were in my head, or out there, in the world.
I got home and braced myself for normality before knocking the door. My mum answered it. As the door opened I was assailed by this scent. Pungent, sweet, like slightly gone-off meat. It was obviously the smell of all those human animals nesting in there. The smell of human. My smell. Immediately I was back up there amidst flying lights, reeling. I went into the living room and the rest of the family were watching TV. I tried watching TV too - this little black and white flickering thing in the corner - only I couldn't make any sense out of it. The room was streaming with viscous colour, bending, looming. It was all too distracting. I got up and went to bed.
Later my mum popped in to see how I was.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes," I lied. "I'm a bit tired. I want to go to sleep."
But there were too many colours for me to sleep.
The spirits of wood and stone and water
I took LSD, on and off, for a number of years after that. I learned how to cope with it. Sometimes it was an ecstatic experience, sometimes less so. I was always searching for something, some meaning in my life. I guess I thought acid might help me to find it. The earlier hippies had told us that acid was going to change the world. By the mid-seventies this had become Holy Writ. Acid was the sacrament that would bring on the New Age. It was a new evolutionary step. And - young and naïve as we were - some of us believed it.
No one is completely sure how LSD does what it does. One of the explanations is that it works on the Hypothalamus, the emotional centres of the brain, blocking the regulators that censor the flow of information. Normally information is carefully ordered into what is important for survival and what is not. What you’re getting with acid is sensory overload. Everything assumes an equal importance. The brain just seizes up, trying to make sense of it all. In this sense, what you are experiencing is not hallucination, a kind of unreality, but MORE reality. It is this, maybe, that makes acid so disorientating, the sense that this isn’t some living cartoon to be observed from a safe distance, but more real than the real world; something to be lived not commented upon.
I used to get my acid from Colin, the same man who I’d taken that first trip with. I’d hitch over to Colchester where he was living, and he’d sell me about 20 at a time, most of which I’d sell on. Always black microdots. There was a whole industry in the 70s. A bunch of crazy hippies trying to sell the stuff as cheap as possible. It was 50p a tab for nigh on ten years or more. Less if you bought in bulk.
I never quite lost my mind on a trip as I had that first time, but I was never entirely comfortable with it either. Some people love it. Some people don't. It depends on your personality. I wasn’t what you would call a happy hippy. There's something about acid that's just not like other drugs. There's a part of the experience that the mind simply cannot accept. It messes about with time and it messes about with language. I'm a punctilious linguaphile by nature. It really didn't suit me.
But - well - I believed the hype, didn’t I? Timothy Leary had spoken to us from on high, as the High Priest of the High Church of the Holy Sacrament. He’d said, “this will change your life.”
And - Lo and Behold! - nothing much happened.
I'd thought it would help me with my writing. I was writing science fiction short stories at the time. After the acid I became self-obsessed. My stories became a form of emotional naval-gazing, almost always exclusively about myself. In the end I gave up writing for several years.
The last time I took LSD I was in my mid-20s. This was in 1977, the beginning of the punk era. We took the acid and went to look at the sea. I wasn't all that impressed. I'd been doing this, "being a freak", surfing the impossible realms, roaming in these weird wildernesses of alienated thought-forms for too damn long now. I'd also just come through a crippling depression. What was I doing with my life? Endless days overly focussed on internal processes. I wasn't making anything. I wasn't doing anything. I'd stopped functioning as a person at all. Didn't know who my friends were. Wasn't even sure I had any friends. Stuck in this out-of-the-way seaside town bringing myself down.
Not that that last trip had been bad in any way. It was comfortable enough. Pleasant. But I realised then that it wasn't going to change the world. It wasn't going to change my life. Only I could change my life. I vowed never to take it again.
So why have I taken it, all these years later?
That‘s difficult to say. I was drunk for a start. I remember it being offered and looking around the room, asking everyone if they were going to take it too? Everyone said yes. Someone bought out the bottle. It was about the size of a salt cellar, with a dropper on the top. He squeezed the bottle while I held out my finger. I remember the little blob of brown liquid glinting on my finger like a polished jewel. It looked so innocuous, so harmless. I’d just drunk gallons of another kind of liquid and the most that would do would be to have me babbling nonsensically before sending me to sleep. I looked at the acid, weighing it up, for maybe half a second. Should I? Maybe? Yes? And then it was just: “oh fuck it! Why not?” And it was in my mouth. Gone, but not forgotten.
I guess I thought I could handle it, and I wasn‘t expecting it to change the world this time. I’m fifty something years old. I’m an adult. It’s easy to forget just how warping the LSD experience can be. The intervening years had formed a sort of cushion against the sharper edges of memory.
And I was right, to some degree. Being older does help. Once we were out of the door, it was lovely. Acid is usually much better in the open air. The world of nature is a safe, kind place, full of presences. You sense the life-force rustling through everything like a wind. So I was walking home with Arthur, and he's all dressed in white and his hair is white and floating like a mad magician, and he's talking about his mum and dad, and I'm listening.... listening to him, listening to the breeze, listening to our footsteps echoing down the empty streets, hearing colours and seeing sounds, being at one with myself and my surroundings. I'm guiding us home. This is my town. I'm in my element.
It was after we got back to my place that things began to go wrong. Arthur went to bed, and I did a conditioned thing. I did what I always do when I get home. I switched on the TV. This was late at night, perhaps 3 or 4 in the morning, and the only thing on TV was BBC News 24. So there were these images of mothers and children being driven by unnamed soldiers, running screaming from the guns. You could see all the pain and fear etched into their faces: the pain of mothers in fear for their children, the pain of children in fear of their lives. And now that was the world. That was what the world was like. It was utterly, unspeakably evil.
I can’t say now where the film was from. It could have been from any one of a number of places. Such scenes are the norm these days. No one is immune from the horror of war any longer. Even children are targets.
Acid works well with the imagination. It works well when you can project your child-like senses into something neutral and safe. Music is nice. Trees are nice. Soft breezes and lyrical sunsets are nice. But heavy reality is like a grinding chainsaw to your heightened sensitivities. Those images on the news were a reminder of how ugly and vicious the world is becoming. I came down with a jolt.
After that I was stuck with this caustic chemical pumping inexorably through my veins, that wouldn't let me relax, wouldn't let me sleep, wouldn't let me be, but which had absolutely nothing to offer. All the visionary colours were gone. It was just grim reality out there. Bleak and drained. I guess I was creaking through the house moaning to myself, waiting for the dawn.
The following day I just sat around. What else can you do? I felt like my brain had been put in the blender and liquefied. All I could say to myself was, “I’ll feel better in the morning, I’ll feel better in the morning.”
And I was right. A good night’s sleep did me the world of good. But I’m left with a puzzle, whether to take it again or not. Elements of the trip were a healthy reminder that the world is not quite as we perceive it. It was good to be made aware of the sheer beauty of the natural world again, the way the trees shivered with a kind of innocence, how everything seemed to glow with its own internal light, the sense of personality in every discrete object, as if the whole world were alive, and not some dead thing to be administered and then forgotten.
I remember from my early readings in that case-histories book, that often people who had taken acid would claim to have encountered God. But that’s not what it is at all. What you encounter are the gods in the old sense, the spirits of wood and stone and water, the feeling that places are alive with their own presence. There’s also the reminder that imagination - that long-forgotten childhood thing - is real and substantial, and that it has a place in this world.
On the down side, you are so over-sensitised that it’s as easy to get sucked into another person’s unconscious cycles as it is to get trapped in your own. The barriers are down, both between different people, and between various parts of yourself. That’s what had happened with the news item on TV. That snippet of horror had sucked me into a depressive portion of myself which then would not let me go.
That’s the problem with acid, you’re not even in control of your own mind.
So - on balance, and for the time being at least - the answer has to be no. No I will not take acid again. Not until the world is a better place, that is.