By Andrew Maben
So, wait a minute… What, as they sometimes say, was I thinking? What indeed? I suppose that in a certain sense you could say I wasn’t thinking at all, simply living to my utmost, in the hackneyed phrase, “seizing the day”, reacting to events, euphoric with the freedom I imagined I had found, finding a path, pursuing various lines of enquiry with the certainty, or perhaps arrogance, of youth. But certainly there were underlying motives of all kinds. Despite my disillusionment with religion, I still felt a deep inchoate spiritual thirst, and I can see now that it was this thirst that colored every aspect of my naive young life. The germ of this spiritual quest was the longing for love, and the blind certainty that love is attainable. Somehow I equated the personal nurturing of human love, and somehow here I managed to also include erotic love, with the grand Christian precept that God is Love. It’s no exaggeration to say that my whole life has been shaped by this search. I wanted to live in a world whose guiding principles are love and kindness.
The leftward slide of my political ideals, and embrace of the philosophy of anarchism, was based on this. It seemed clear to me then, and that clarity still shines from deep in my heart through the grime, the shame, the fears and disappointments of the intervening years. Yes, it’s crystal clear to me that our only hope is a social organization free of coercion, an economics of cooperation based on mutual respect. Easy enough, you’ll say, to announce the lofty goal of a world free of hatred, violence, war, oppression, not so easy to realize, or even to embody those ideals in my own life. Nevertheless I was determined to make the attempt, and even in the darkest of times, in the face of disillusion and despair, that hope has refused to die.
If Buddha, Christ, Bakunin, Trotsky, Gandhi, King, Huxley, Orwell had colored the foundation of my nascent philosophy there were exciting new possibilities being expressed by new Pied Pipers. Ken Kesey, Tim Leary, Tom Wolf, Alan Watts, Alan Ginsberg, Beatles, Stones, Maharishi, J.G. Ballard, R.D. Laing …
And I felt that I was not alone in my quest. These ideas were everywhere, around the world young people were stirring, and this was to be the “Summer of Love”. San Francisco was our Mecca, and while thousands made the geographical pilgrimage, millions more journeyed together to a San Francisco of the spirit…
Since that first smoke with Bob, back in November, I had become a fairly frequent hash smoker. I found it heightened my appreciation of music, and felt it also fueled my creativity. There were certainly plenty of opportunities to hear music and see bands in those days. I have already mentioned the Bluesbreakers, and then there was the Move at Lewes Town Hall, the Spencer Davis Group headlining Brighton Art School’s Christmas Dance, but maybe more important were the frequent Folk Nights in various pubs, and of course, given the serious lack of music on the radio, it was jukeboxes that often gave us our first taste of new music. I still remember standing dumbfounded at an entirely different kind of sound on the basement jukebox at ffinch’s. It was Jimi Hendrix with Hey Joe…
The national youthful obsession with music, and my own desire to find an art-form that could embody and propagate my evolving ideas, had led me to Paul Klee’s theories of equivalence between painting and music. Which in turn sparked an interest in synesthesia, and as that was an often touted effect of LSD my interest was further sharpened – the recent move to make it illegal in the UK seemed both arbitrary and unwarranted. As an ad in the Times in July would put it: ‘The law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice.’ Indeed. And to my mind the same could be said for acid…
Then one Sunday afternoon in early June the phone rang. It was Bob.
“It’s here”, he told me, there was no need to tell me what “it” was. “Come to Tom and Penny’s. It’s a quid.”
“See you in an hour or two.”
I grabbed a jacket, headed out to the Brighton road and stuck out my thumb.
Tom and Penny were a couple whose flat had become a gathering place for Brighton’s burgeoning hippy community. Today the place seemed even more crowded than usual, I noticed familiar faces like Adam of the huge blonde afro and grannie glasses, his friend Jeremy, Nicky the Anarchist, as well as more I had never seen before. In a corner of the living room someone was contortedly filming a lava lamp with a little 16mm camera. The arrival of someone from London with what was purportedly a bottle straight from Sandoz had evidently been widely broadcast.
Several people were already tripping. Along with two or three other new arrivals, I paid my pound and lined up in the hallway for my dose. He was carefully dispensing a single drop directly from a dropper onto our tongues. Or should I say “their” tongues? When he came to me he seemed to have a little spasm. “Oops!” he declaimed as, rather than a drop, almost the entire contents of the dropper squirted onto my tongue…
I’m sure you’ve heard accounts of trips before, so I won’t go on at length about what is after all an intensely subjective experience whose most important aspects are, in any case, inexpressible. Besides I only recall shards of refracted experience. And don’t ask if I “saw God”…
It did not take long for an extraordinary up-welling of joy to overtake me. I laughed aloud.
“There he goes,” someone said.
Sergeant Pepper on the record player…
Watching jewel-skinned snakes entwined in the trellis-patterned wall paper… Lying face down on the carpet dissolving revealing dancing particles of atomic structure… Or something…
“We’re going to the kitchen,” someone crouched to speak in my ear. “You coming?”
“No. I think I’ll just stay here and fuck the Earth.”
Sitting in an armchair, regarding my right arm on the arm rest, my hand open loosely, palm up… And I was walking a quiet, sun-dappled country lane, bursting hedges, an overhanging tree… As I passed under the tree, a soothing rain of sunflakes bathed my heart. Ecstasy.
“This must be Heaven,” I thought.
And suddenly: “Do I deserve to be in Heaven?”
Instantly, the soothing warmth turned to an agonizing acid heat. A burning that seemed to sear my very soul. Hell. Some distant, disengaged, dispassionate part of my mind observed that the apparently experienced phenomena had not changed. The swirling colors, the falling drops continued as before. The sensations were in no way different. Somehow my interpretation of sensation had made some kind of reversal. Heaven had become Hell. I realized in this detached portion of my thought, that Heaven and Hell are one and the same transcendent space, that how this is interpreted and experienced is entirely subjective, and in some sense self-willed…
There was a clock in the room, but time was no longer sequential. Seconds might pass, experienced as an eternity, hours in the blink of an eye.
The curtains of an east-facing window began to brighten with the dim grey light of dawn…
I gathered my coat to leave.
“Yes. I was supposed to be home last night…”
“Sure you’re OK?”
“I’m fine.” And I stepped out into the street.
The world was once again recognizable. But different. On the pavement, on walls, words, phrases revealed themselves, rearranged themselves, merged, disappeared, returned amid intricate, complex arabesque patterns…
As I reached the Eastbourne road, I stuck out my thumb at a passing milk-float. To my astonishment the milkman stopped and, smiling, invited me to hop on. The sun rose into a perfect blue summer morning sky…
I got home a little before seven, crept inside and up the stairs to my room. As I opened my door, Mum came out of her room.
“Did you just come home?” she whispered.
She shooed me into my room and followed me in. “Lie down for a bit. I’ll bring some tea in a little while.”
Breakfast. Mum nervous. Dad scowling.
“You were out all night.” Was that a question or an accusation?
“Smoking hashish.” Again: question or accusation?
“Don’t deny it,” – I didn’t think I had, or was going to – “you stink of the stuff.”
“Yes. But I’m giving it up.” A decision, fully-formed, that I suppose I’d arrived at during the night.
“I took LSD. It’s incredible. You should try it!”
Well, perhaps that wasn’t the brightest thing to say to him at the breakfast table after being gone all night.
Face scarlet and breathing hard he pushed his chair back and stood.
“I’ll deal with you later,” as he strode from the room.
Mum: “Oh, darling…”
As it happened, that day there was another school trip to the Tate. Picasso this time. I was still, and remained all day, let’s say “dazed”. Perhaps I gained a deeper appreciation of Picasso’s work, I don’t really remember. I think Sally was there…
“If you can remember the 60s you weren’t there.” Perhaps. Certainly the rest of that summer is even more hazy, fragmented, chaotic than perhaps any other time of my life. But on the other hand perhaps it really was also “the time of my life”. So anyhow…
At least for a while I kept to my resolve to lay off hash and alcohol. But I wanted to do acid again. And again. So I eagerly took up Bob’s suggestion to go up to London for a night at UFO.
Friday evening after school the train to Victoria. Tube to Chalk Farm filling with other outlandishly clad freaks and heads, disgorging in a smiling horde, drawing puzzled disapproving looks from the staid populace of Camden Town. The Roundhouse, an abandoned railway locomotive shed that to an impressionable eye bore a more than passing similarity to some alien spacecraft. Lining up at the entrance. Paying £1 at the desk to a smiling pale faced black-afroed freak. And inside. Dazzling, deafening. Music, light, a swirling colorful crowd… It took only moments to be offered some acid. Wandering dazedly. Liquid lightshows and films projected on screens hanging from a tall balcony, music blasting, a cafe serving vegetarian treats, a room with rows of chairs set up for film screenings. As the acid came on, I was caught up watching Mothra, fascinated by the Luminous Fairies, and utterly unable to even begin to follow the film’s plot – if it even had one. I was, I think, peripherally aware of some commotion from the main room, but I missed Arthur Brown’s spectacular entrance, would have missed his whole set most likely if Bob had not come in to find me and drag me away. Arthur Brown! Pyrotechnics and some kind of diseased English swamp-rock soul, rasping voice, unrelenting beat. I stood stunned, then found myself dancing spasmodically to the irresistible rhythm, transported, ecstatic, just another idiot dancer… Tripping at UFO was overpoweringly physical, sensual, thrilling, far from the cerebral, contemplative visions of Huxley or Leary. Arthur Brown’s set was followed by a mesmerizing performance from the Soft Machine, a highlight being a lengthy percussion solo from Robert Wyatt on two Coke bottles. After the show the party continued on the tube, the hippy herd moving without plan or aim from train to platform to escalators to stairs to platform to train, following a circuitous and apparently random route across London, shedding members along the way. Somehow Bob and I found ourselves at last back at Victoria and boarding a Brighton train.
I left Bob at home and made my way to the sea front to hitch-hike back to Eastbourne, but once on my way I decided to stop in Seaford to visit Sally. And so began what became an almost weekly ritual. We would sit together in her room and simply talk. I was always tired from an all-nighter, and coming down from acid, while she’d be fresh and lovely. I remember almost nothing at all of the content of our conversations, beyond the comfort of her presence, her attentive listening, her open curiosity, the peace and sanctuary I enjoyed in that small room. But one afternoon she happened to ask about my schooldays.
“I had a cousin at Sherborne,” she told me.
Her cousin turned out to Jeremy, my erstwhile rival in French. This tenuous thread was the first in what was to become a web of associations that led me to believe that Fate was taking an active hand in the events of my life – a belief that, in spite of all the trouble it’s led to, I still find myself rising to… And so, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but deeply and irrevocably I fell in love. A love I concealed as best I could for months. A love that, as you’ll see later, was to have the most profound effect on the course of my life over the next few years…
Relations with Mum and Dad were, as you might imagine, becoming more than a little strained, and my philosophical certainties were built on a foundation that was far less stable than I’d have liked, while my psyche was in a state that I can only characterize as disarrayed, what with the damage done during my school days and the contrast of the boundless freedom that I imagined I now enjoyed. So partly in some attempt to mollify them, and partly as an extension of my own explorations, I put forward the suggestion that I might perhaps benefit from seeing a psychiatrist.
Well, the first step in that direction was a visit to our GP in order to get a referral. He wasn’t having it.
“Get a haircut and settle down. Get a job for the summer,” was his advice. Hardly helpful. Then, on condition that I follow the dictate to find employment, Dad contacted an old colleague from his RAF days who was now practicing on Wimpole Street. So began a series of fortnightly visits. I’m sure we covered a lot more ground than I now recall, but as I think back only three items of discussion come to mind.
The first is more farcical than profound: I told him of a rather bizarre fancy I had of a nose growing from my shin. From this he conjured what seems to me an equally fanciful Freudian explanation.
“When you were an infant did your father bounce you on his leg?”
“No. But my grandfather did.”
“And when he did, did he recite Ride a Cock Horse?” Well, you can see where that was going…
Naturally the topic of my adventures with LSD came up, and he revealed that he was still licensed to do research on the drug’s effects. So, naturally, I asked if he’d sign me up as a guinea pig.
“I don’t think so. You’ll certainly have more fun going on as you are, and discussing your experiences with me.”
And finally: “In an insane world, a sane man is mad. You are one of the sanest and most intelligent nineteen-year-olds I know.” Hey ho, that one’s stayed with me, its effect veering unpredictably, inspiring confidence or terror…
To fulfill the job requirement, I got hired at a large bakery factory in Brighton, working the night shift. It didn’t last long. At first the sweet smell of fresh-baked bread was enticing, but by the end of my brief sojourn it was cloying to the point of disgust, and it would be months after I left before I could bring myself to eat factory-baked goods. Unsanitary is as mild a term as I’m prepared to use to describe the conditions. Workers would almost reflexively spit into the dough, the icing mix. My own small contribution to the squalor was to take the opportunity, whilst carrying a tray of cream buns for loading, to dig my thumbs in deep and when I put down the tray to scoop up and swallow big dollops of sickly-sweet “creme”. But the vilest practice was surely what happened at the end of every shift in the steak and kidney pie room. Here was a huge vat of pie-filling and another of dough. Through some mechanical marvel the dough would be formed into pie-crusts and filled with the steak and kidney and gravy. It was a messy process and after eight hours the floor would be covered in a gooey mess of meat, gravy and dough, leavened with whatever detritus, including but not limited to old fag ends, may have been dragged in on people’s shoes. Before clocking out the final duty was to take a shovel, and rather than throw this foul mixture in the rubbish where it belonged, to add it to the vat of meat and gravy. Small wonder then, that the first Friday of my employ, rather than go to work I changed course and ended up instead at UFO.
Brighton in the summer of ’67 was in many ways an English echo of San Francisco, with its burgeoning artsy-bohemian-undergound scene. On those weekends that I wasn’t up at UFO, I’d join a group at the house of a local painter. To follow the San Francisco parallel, John might be said to have been Brighton’s Ken Kesey. His large canvases of circus themes resembled perhaps a neo-primitive Rouault.
These nights would follow a familiar pattern. The group would gather chez John in the evening around nine and everyone would do a hit of acid. We’d sit around chatting, looking at art books and other entertainments while music played on the stereo. I remember sitting with John looking at a book of Turner’s work. Under the influence of acid I saw herds of white horses surging in breaking waves, dark legions charging from storm clouds.
I turned to John and asked, “Are they really there?”
“Of course,” he replied, and I took him at his word, never doubting for a moment that he knew exactly what I meant. Ever since, Turner has been a favorite, but I search in vain for those so-real armies…
Around midnight we would all set out for a walk around the town, enjoying the peace, the architectural wonders both large and minuscule, and finally the beauty of the sea, before going back for a nice cup of tea and then dispersing into the dawn.
In those days the Arches on the sea front by the Palace Pier were in disrepair and rather unsightly, so a local patroness of the arts with some local art luminaries came up with the idea of a giant communal mural. The Countess laid on barrels of paint in brilliant colors and one Sunday morning a large group assembled to work together on the transformation. But of course it was not to be, and after an hour or so the police showed up in force, with several paddy wagons. The artists, laughing, scarce believing that this ridiculous scene was actually unfolding, were soon rounded up and loaded into the wagons for delivery to the police station, charged with criminal mischief, or malicious damage, or some such…
As it happened someone had just been arrested for robbing a taxi driver, and as he was long-haired we provided a convenient pool of likely subjects for a line-up. Volunteers were called for, at half-a-crown apiece. I was selected, with some half dozen others, and we were escorted to the line-up room. I ended up with the actual suspect standing by my side, and decided on a little experiment. When the victim faced me I was shifty-eyed, refusing to look at him full in the face. He moved on to the end of the line, paused, came back to me and poked my chest. “It’s him.” The suspect glanced at me in relief and gratitude as he was led away. We other miscreants were led off to the cells, where we languished for some time. There were three of us in our cell, and when the sound of footsteps and opening doors grew near one of the others jumped onto the cot and sat cross-legged, covering his eyes with his hands.
“Quick!” he said. We immediately grasped his meaning, and when a policeman opened the door a few minutes later he was confronted with three wise monkeys. To his credit he didn’t bat an eye.
“OK, wise guys,” he told us, “the Countess has bailed you all out. You’re free to go.”
As we all stood around in front of the cop shop wondering what to do, the Countess emerged and announced that all charges had been dropped.
Beyond these remarkably distinct recollections I find only shards…
A warm afternoon, tripping, walking the Esplanade at Eastbourne with Tina. I was barefoot and bare-chested, wearing jeans and a silver Indian temple-dancer’s necklace borrowed from Barbara. Tina held my hand. As we passed the elderly deck chair denizens a chorus of disapproving “tsk-tsks” followed us. Tina looked at me and asked, “Why do you walk like a god?”
“Festival of the Flower Children” at Woburn Abbey. I was there, but remember nothing at all beyond a glimpse of the stately home in the distance. I can only conclude that either I had a fab time or it was too boring to make an impression. Were you there? Did you see me?
Garden steps surrounded with flowers on my way to an upstairs flat somewhere off Ladbroke Grove to buy white caps of acid from someone who called himself Mr. Trips…
An art school excursion to see Pink Floyd at UFO. We went in Pete’s van, so Lillian was probably with us, I don’t remember who else, or much about the show beyond being utterly stunned by the entirety of the performance and it being the first time I heard Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun… Somehow there were several more passengers for the return trip and fitting everyone in the little Morris Minor was so problematic that we resorted to the expedient of three of us sitting in the front seat. Being tall, I was put in the middle to operate the pedals, while the person beneath me had charge of the gears and the one on top steered. Don’t ask me how we managed to maneuver all the way across London without incident…
And another summer Eastbourne afternoon, making love to Tina, at last. It was, alas I fear, anticlimactic for us both, and it never happened again. Though I walked on air for days…
As the enchanted summer drew to a close I got ready to start my second year of art school. Things were not to turn out quite as expected…