At the weekend I was watching a BBC 4 documentary called Psychedelic Britannia. It traced pop music’s fixation with the novelty and power of LSD and its artistic results. For five years, roughly 1965-70, the taking of those silver pellets or acid sugar cubes produced some wonderful, weird and downright bad music. The programme was a pleasing nostalgic hour for anyone who’d been around then; old enough to remember ‘tripping the light fantastic’ and surviving intact.
Memories of my own three LSD trips (from 1977-1980) caused me to dig out my hand-written accounts. It was such a long time ago but I can still vividly recall what happened: indeed my mind and body sometimes involuntarily shivers at the recollection of each acid tremor. I am not a drugs person. My three experiments were taken in the spirit of a test. A pushing out into other states to enlarge my sense of self (expanding and contracting) and achieve moments of ego dissolution.
Apart from a few edits and some tightening up of grammar and style these accounts remain intact and uncensored. I’ve given them the title An English Dreamer 1,2,3. That’s a reference to De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, but without that work’s great sense of pain. (My trips were two good and one bad but still manageable).And my English Dreamer accounts will be spread over three Blessays.
An English Dreamer 1 (1977)
It was nine thirty on a sunny October morning. The leaves of the trees were inviting. Very soon I would be seeing their autumnal colours as if for the first time. But for now they were getting ready for my looking.
Stephen’s house was in a comfortable suburban part of Liverpool. I’d chosen Stephen’s place and him because here was a refuge to return to if anything went wrong and I had a reliable guide, for my safety, who’d already experienced a trip with his own helper.
The acid came in the shape of a pellet. It looked like something you inserted into an air rifle. I swallowed it down with a cup of coffee. The adventure had begun. My mind was a packed suitcase ready to be broken open. Half an hour went by and nothing. Perhaps the stuff was passed its sell-by date. Toilet before the journey proper. Mild excitement with the usual coloured urine. I wasn’t peeing out new worlds.
Fifteen minutes later my corduroy trousers became animated and pushed out roots. My legs felt unreal and no longer part of me as they assumed the shape of inflated balloons. An oriental settlement, of bamboo wood, was built on my knees. My insides began to shake. An earthquake was about to destroy me and the village. Gradually the shaking stopped and my legs deflated. I stretched myself out on the sofa. The ceiling called out to me. I saw clouds of horsemen riding by. I wanted to fly up and join them. Then I needed the toilet again.
Returning to the living room, I asked Stephen to put on some music. I chose the last movement of Sibelius’s 5th symphony. My mind measured its structure as the music got slower and slower. Finnish nature was in no hurry. Its forests and lakes stretched out before me. When the great, if strangely abrupt climaxes of the music, arrived I reached up to grasp them, only to fall off the sofa with a sore bladder. Peeing was painful now. Yet so luxuriantly warm. I avoided looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. Would the image still be me?
I showed Stephen the objects I’d brought for the day. An old octagonal mirror containing a tinted picture of my grandmother. She was a beautiful looking French woman who’d died at thirty-six. I lay her image next to a book on the painter Ben Nicholson. I asked Stephen if he could leave me alone for half an hour.
I started to push the furniture around. Needed to give myself more space to explore. I drew the curtains. In the dimmed light I attempted to conjure up grandmother over the book, now opened on Nicholson’s Painting 1936. The colour tint of her face brightened. Grandmother’s pink cheeks bloomed. I sensed some great genetic kinship with her. A relationship that kept pushing away Nicholson’s abstract style. Mirror image and book began to compete for more three-dimensional room on the carpet. I settled for the mirror and closed the book.
I began to kiss grandmother’s cold glass face. “You’re with me, aren’t you?” I said. My lips reached back into her 19th century time. I almost lifted her face off the glass. A sound disturbed me. I looked round at the door, certain that it was about to open. That grandmother would enter the room. I stood up and went to the door-knob. Tried to turn it, but nothing happened. I tried for ten minutes and it seemed like ten hours. Then the door opened of its own accord. Stephen stood there with more coffee.
The coffee tasted so bitter, like burnt earth. I needed more music. I played a cassette of a Mozart piano concerto. Here was the formal beauty and elegance of the eighteenth century. I moved closer to a lost sensibility. Pressed my ear against the loudspeaker. The music became sadder and sadder so as to express the human troubles of every subsequent age. Through the wall came the sound of a baby crying. Stephen told me it belonged to the family next door. The child’s distress sailed on top of Mozart.
I was drawn to the bookshelf. The title on a book spine was The Intelligent Heart. It made me feel you had to have a clear picture of your struggles throughout life, whilst trying to discover it through the intelligence of your own heart. I kneeled on the floor. Began to cry and closed my eyes. Slowly I had the odd feeling that Mozart was sitting on the chair in front of me. I opened my eyes. Stood up to greet him. No one there. The piano concerto reached its last movement, saying “Here I am, at last.”
Small things took on an importance and absurdity. I heard a vase of dried grasses breathing. They assumed the appearance of a rabbit’s nose. I removed one grass, placed it in the carpet and asked it to run. It didn’t. So I chose something smaller. A speck of dust was perched on my knee. It had tiny arms and legs. I picked up some more dust and placed it on the other knee. This grew to look like a pelican. I placed the arm and leg thing next to the pelican: asking them both to jump onto the floor and run but they just floated downwards.
Stephen drew back the curtains. It was noon. The sun struck the grandmother mirror, causing it to sparkle. She was my dead heroine. I had to wear her image as a shield for my protection. Stephen gently persuaded me not to go out with the mirror. We left the house and headed for the park. The very act of walking on the pavement fascinated me. And when my shoes hit gravel I was back on holiday on a dirt track in Morocco.
Two schoolboys waved at me. Or did they? I felt such happiness that everyone in the whole world ought to be waving at one another. We stood in a bus queue that started to look very large then appear miles away. All traffic noise merged into a throbbing river. I felt I’d been waiting for this bus for days. Did I have enough money for my fare? I took a ten pence coin out of my pocket and glared at its regal lion. It cowered in fear of me. I couldn’t trust it to be accepted on the bus. So I asked Stephen if we could walk instead.
Stephen bought me fish and chips. So that’s what the queue was for? Or was this a new queue? The oil on my chips couldn’t disguise the fact that they were once potatoes buried in the earth. The soil clung on. As for the fish. It was so salty-almost tragically so. My fingers were stained by white greasy dabs of salt. I heard my mother saying, “Ugh, this is so salty!” I stuffed re-assuring chips into me, convinced my food supply would never end.
The church clock struck one. I screwed up the fish and chip newspaper and brushed the salt off my trousers. Around me the park was so clearly defined. It’s soft dewy grass supported a small wooded area of Croxteth Park. I halted at the entrance and hesitated. Decided I didn’t want to walk into its history and myth. What I needed was to sit in the thick grass. But I felt a great heaviness inside. Stephen helped me down. I saw a common dandelion whose petals were enormously magnified. The flower was created for me to look at. I mattered. It mattered. Real things living in a real interconnected world. A wind caused the grass to gently sway. Any lingering summer lushness had to die. Dying to return again next year. When I die I would not return. My season was a very short one. Like the life of a solitary park hut. The one now approaching me. I stood up to greet it.
Broken window panes with a roof of black shredded linoleum that flapped in a mournful manner. These thin strips of roofing reminding me of Giacometti sculptures on the move. I walked right round the hut and came across a sign that read, “No dogs on the grass, please.” The chalked up rules of the planet. The “please” had a smug repressiveness. Please don’t do anything that could offend the order of things. What order? So many varieties of order. And many layers of chaos.
Stephen became my confessional box.
– I stole thirty pounds from my father.
– Never gives me a penny. Besides I needed to buy a stereo tuner.
Help, my words fell off my tongue like leaves or dust. I started to babble in a language I didn’t understand. I soared with my gibberish as Stephen kept bobbing round me till his glasses fell off. Or where they my glasses? No, I didn’t wear glasses. All my strange words became bigger than myself. Where Had my body gone too? Babble and body become one without a proper form. I felt I could assume any shape. And such a shape would be more important than me.
I was peaking on the trip. But did I really want to lose my ego and become anything – a stone, a car, a street lamp or a window? Yes, the tobacconists window. Remnants of my self were very thirsty. I or what remained of me needed a drink. The tobacconist’s trembled with colours and shapes. Bottles of lemonade,greeting cards and sweets all mocked me in their Aladdin’s cave of goodies. I asked for a lime flavoured ice-cream. The shop assistant handed over a repellent pistachio cornet, such a sickly synthetic green (bearing little resemblance to the grass I had laid in). Stephen was forced to eat the cornet. I went for a large bottle of orangeade and swigged it down with a boyish enthusiasm.
Outside I finished my nectar and I threw the bottle over a wall. I heard a growling in my pocket. I took out my ten pence piece to see the lion roar at me. I threw the angry coin over the wall so as to greet the bottle. At that moment an all too real policeman approached us.
– Did you see what you did sir?
– Yes, officer.
– How old are you?
– Twenty eight.
– Act your age sir
Back at Stephen’s home I experienced the final stages of the trip. It felt like a good moment to go and look at myself in the mirror. I rushed up to the bathroom and locked myself in. The ageing process was rapidly accelerating. I looked very old, wizened and skull-like. Gradually my face disappeared. Then I was staring at the back of my head. When my full features returned they were two dangling half-faces wanting to be pieced together. A voice, in my head, kept whispering “You’re just an English dreamer.”
In the evening, after a meal, I watched a western on TV. Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. No acid effects now. I was very tired and needed to take a sleeping tablet. The next day found me dazed and depressed. I constantly grumbled at my father and accused him of betraying the family. He cowered away. My mother was in hospital again. She would have cried if she’d been home.I’d experienced such an urge to dream up better people. But you can’t live in the unconscious. Acid gathering is too big a harvest to handle. I had to refine what it had revealed. Sift through and cleanse.
I went back to work on the Monday. Grandmother stepped onto the bus. She nodded and smiled.I paid my fare. She handed me my ticket soft and blue on thick paper. The change was now less as the fare had increased. Grandmother went to check the passengers upstairs. I carefully placed the ticket in my shirt pocket. One journey was over. Whilst another had begun.