Monthly Archives: November 2011

Secret London: LSD experiments at the World Psychedelic Centre

Michael Hollingshead has been described as ‘an English trickster and con man of the first order’ by one commentator, but he described himself as ‘The Man Who Turned on The World‘.

Hollingshead was the British man who introduced LSD to Tim Leary in December 1961 on the recommendation of Aldous Huxley. Hollingshead was working in New York when he came upon a quantity of LSD. Huxley suggested he send it to Leary, who was already experimenting with administering psilocybin to patients during his psychological research at Harvard. Leary loved it. The LSD revolution began.

After working in America with Leary – he even lived in his house – Hollingshead was sent to London in September 1965 with enough Czechoslovakian lysergic acid to produce 5,000 trips, thirteen boxes of psychedelic literature – The Psychedelic Experience, The Psychedelic Review and The Psychedelic Reader – and plans for ‘a psychedelic jamboree’ at the Royal Albert Hall featuring the Stones, the Beatles and Leary himself. Although this is sometimes presented as Hollingshead playing the role of John The Baptist to Leary’s Psychedelic Christ, Barry Miles’s ‘London Calling’ suggests that Leary was just trying to get rid of the increasingly drug-addled Hollingshead and is said to have remarked upon his departure, ‘Well, that writes off the psychedelic revolution in England for at least ten years.’

Hollingshead promptly set up his base at his flat in Belgravia’s Pont Street, which he renamed the World Psychedelic Centre, and redecorated with the key elements needed for a good trip: bowls of fruit, handwoven cloth, open fire,  bread, cheese, wine, candles, incense and goldfish. A chill out space, basically.

This was one of only two reliable sources for LSD in London at the time, so visitors were plentiful and Hollingshead began welcoming key figures from the scene – including Roman Polanski, Alex Trocchi, William Burroughs, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Donovan and the Rolling Stones.

Guests were invited to take part in LSD sessions designed to make the most of the experience, with ‘lots of cushions, some excellent tapes and hi-fi equipment, a slide projector, and several chillums’. The LSD was dispensed after midnight inside grapes impregnated with 300 micrograms of the drug. The atmosphere was key. Hollingshead writes:

Shortly after dropping the acid, I played a tape of Buddhist Cakra music, followed by Concert Percussion by the American composer, John Cage. Next I played some music by Ravi Shankar and some bossanova. Interval of fifteen minutes. Then some music by Scriabin and part of a Bach cello suite. Interval. Some Debussy, and Indian flute music by Ghosh. Interval. Bach organ music and some John Cage ‘space’ music. Interval. The Ali Brothers and Japanese flute music. We also looked at slides projected on to the ceiling Tantric yantras, Vedic Gods, the Buddha, Tibetan mandalas.

There were also regular readings from Leary’s work

While Hollingshead dispensed LSD to his visitors in these carefully controlled conditions, he was soon self-medicating with cannabis, speed and heroin to control the fierce highs he experienced from taking strong doses of acid at least three times a week. The tabloids soon got wind of these experiments with the ‘killer drug’  and after hosting a party of 80 hippies at which two undercover police officers were dosed with acid after sampling the spiked punch, Hollingshead was busted. Naturally, he attended his trial while tripping and was sentenced to 21 months at Wormwood Scrubs. There he met spy George Blake, who promptly took a trip on some of the acid Hollingshead smuggled in to the prison, before escaping and going into exile in the Soviet Union.

Hollingshead didn’t make it quite that far himself, ending up in Cumbrae, a Scottish island, where he settled with a group of believers who treated LSD as a holy sacrament in quasi-religious services. He then went on his world travels.

Hollingshead was undoubtedly a key player in the scene. However, it’s notable that when a copy of his book, The MAn Who Turned on the World was sent to Timothy Leary in prison in the 1970s, Leary underlined only a single sentence – ‘…my taking of methedrine…’ Leary’s acquaintances believe that not everything Hollingshead said about his role in the psychedelic revolution could be trusted because of his addiction to opiates.

Art of Mapping at Air Gallery

The Art of Mapping at the Air Gallery in Mayfair is the latest exhibition to take mapping as its inspiration. It consists of 34 contemporary works that are based on maps, some more loosely than others.  Among those familiar to map freaks will be Grayson Perry’s Map of Nowhere.

Stephen Walter, who created the magnificent, possibly definitive London map, The Island, also features with two different works, Isle of Dis and Down River.

Maps of cities dominate (perhaps a little too much), and London is heavily featured. Prominent is Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear, perhaps the first map to mash-up Beck’s Tube map and deserving of praising for that, even if I’ve always found the Bear map itself rather dull.

I was, however, fascinated by Jeremy Wood’s My Ghost, which used GPS to map nine years of movement around London, creating a spidery thread that created an approximate outline of the city’s streets.

My Ghost

Jeremy Wood's My Ghost

It reminded me of a similar project undertaken by London cab driver Richard Cudlip. Similarly, I liked Rob Good’s Two Cities, which reproduced a stencil of the south-east of England shorn of anything manmade, and mounted powerfully on stainless steel.

Two Cities

Rob Good's Two Cities

There was something in both these maps about landscape and the way humans interact with it which is best expressed through contemporary art. Many of the maps seemed to promote this similar sense of alienation with the city, making it a stark contrast to the Museum of London’s recent Londonist-inspired exhibition, which emphasised the way areas of a city can become as familiar to us as our own bodies.

Stanley Donwood’s London was a more colourful and less ambitious version of The Island, emphasising that where Patterson’s Great Bear introduced a concept others could better, Walter has created something that will probably never be matched.

Stanley Donwood's London

The last London map was Nigel Peake’s XXXIV Crossings, which was a lovely stylised look at London’s various river crossings, overlapping chaotically. Nigel has created a lovely book on a similar theme, featuring London’s bridges drawn in various ways.

Nigel Peake's XXXIV Crossings

Away from London, I also loved Susan Stockwell’s Jerusalem, which reconstructed a map of the British Isles out of recycled computer components, and Emma Johnson’s Dislocation: Time And Place, for which she had taken a pair of scissors to a map, removing streets and parks and then reconstructed it in  an overlapping 3D effect, like a pop-up plate of paper spaghetti.

The Art of Mapping, curated by TAG Fine Art, is at Air Gallery on Dover Street until Sat November 26.

Hippy-dilly: squatting and the London Street Commune at 144 Piccadilly

Tonight, Radio 4 will broadcast a show on squatting, called ‘From Frestonia To Belgravia‘.

Squatting as a 20th-century phenomena originated in the wake of the acute housing shortage after the Second World War. Homeless families began to occupy empty mansion blocks and hotels, including Duchess of Bedford House in Kensington.

Squatters move into Duchess of Bedford House

Some of the squatters of the 1960s took this as their inspiration. Among the most political were the London Street Commune, a group of self-declared space cadets from the streets who were turned into a minor political weapon by a Spart called Phil Cohen, aka Dr John, who had previously been involved with the British Situationist International group, King Mob. The LSC became loosely involved in the counterculture scene and even at one point managed to occupy the offices of the underground newspaper, International Times, believing it was ‘bourgeois’ and needed to be ‘liberated’. They gave up after a few days when they realised they didn’t really understand how to put a newspaper together.

The London Street Commune’s most conspicuous act came when they squatted a vast Park Lane mansion, 144 Piccadilly, at Hyde Park Corner in September 1969. This gained them massive media attention, and the building quickly came to be dubbed ‘Hippy-Dilly’ and attracted vast crowds of largely hostile onlookers. The LSC responded by barricading the front door and creating a ‘drawbridge’ out of wood from one of the ground-floor windows, and asking the Hell’s Angels to protect them.

Around 100 people were said to be living in the building, among them the odd journalist who infiltrated the squat so they could produce salacious copy about the drug-taking ne’er-do-wells. After surviving an attempt by skinheads to ‘take’ the mansion – the LSC threw carpet bowls and balloons filled with ink at the approaching skins – the police decided to take action.

The police moved in on September 21, leading to in the words of the Daily Mirror, ‘The Fall of the Hippy Castle‘. This took place the day after a free festival at Hyde Park, which many of the LSC had attended. The squat was now filled with numerous disparate groups, including Hell’s Angels and French veterans of May 1968, alongside the original Dilly drop-outs, but they were quickly moved out by police, who arrested around 70 of the squatters.

While John Lennon went on TV to offer the displaced squatters a home in the shape of an island off Scotland, the high-profile eviction was greeted with delight by the media. The Times demanded the squatting be made illegal and that hippies be arrested under the vagrancy act. This remarkable Pathe newsreel – with talk of ‘scroungers and drop-outs… snubbing the conventions of decent society… doing the real homeless a disservice’ – demonstrates the prevailing attitude. It is difficult to conceive of broadcast media speaking in such terms today.

In 1972, American film director Sam Fuller wrote a pulp novel about 144 Piccadilly, but the building itself was not to last much longer. It was knocked down in the 1970s and replaced by the ghastly Intercontinental Hotel.

Secret London: the Temple of Mithras goes back where it came from

The Temple of Mithras is one of London’s most easily viewed and best known Roman sites, but it is also one of its crappest. The temple has been in the wrong place pretty much ever since it was discovered 50 years ago and now sits unimpressively in a bed of a concrete in front of a banal office building in the City (image below from Knowledge Of London).

The Temple of Mithras: ‘crap’

All that is about to change. Next week, Museum of London Archaeology will begin a three year project that will put the Temple back where it belongs, and restore it to something closer to its original form. They will also do a little digging, to see what else they can discover.

The Temple – a shrine to an Iranian god who was said to have killed a mythical bull – was found by archaeologist WF Grimes  in 1952 on Walbrook. The cult was adopted by the Romans in 1 AD and the temple – probably built in around 250 AD – would originally have been a subterranean space where bulls were sacrificed. Archeologists had suspected there was Mithran temple in London since 1889, after the discovery in Walbrook of a relief depicting the god killing a bull but it was only uncovered after the Second World War, when the area suffered heavy bomb damage and became ripe for development.

A statue of Mithras were found buried beneath the temple, and it may well have later been used by followers of Bacchus, as Mithraism went into decline. Mithraism is sometimes seen as a precursor to Christianity, although I don’t know enough about that to possibly comment.

The temple was dismantled shortly after it was discovered so the construction of Bucklersbury House could continue. The material was put into storage and many of the statues loaned to the Museum of London. In 1962, the temple was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street, 90 metres from its original site at ground level, embedded in the courtyard of a City office block. It was a particularly dismal and unsympathetic treatment of a genuine archaeological curiosity. Most people had no idea what it was, and even if they did, it was very hard to care.

The site is now owned by Bloomberg, and they are about to start dismantling the temple by removing it from the cement that currently encases it, and then reconstructing it on its original site in what they call ‘a purpose-built and publicly accessible interpretation space within their new building’. This will take three years, but many will rejoice that it is happening at all.

Brixton Village hawk

I saw this harrier hawk in the unlikely surroundings of Brixton Village this week while I was quietly tucking into a galette washed down by hot ginger beer.

He is flown around the market twice a week to keep pigeons away and dis-encourage them from nesting in the rafters, where they would crap merrily on hip Londoners going about their hip business. Many of the local stallholders looked terrified.

William Burroughs and the strange demise of London’s first espresso bar

In 1953, a momentous event occurred in Soho. London’s first proper coffee shop – one equipped with a Gaggia coffee machine – opened at 29 Frith Street. This was a place where teenagers too young for pubs could come and gather, and it is said by some that the introduction of this coffee bar prompted the youth culture explosion that soon changed social life in Britain forever.

Inside the Moka Bar

The Moka was an instant success, selling over a thousand cups of coffee a day. The author John Sutherland recalls, ‘the Gaggia machine, a great burbling, wheezing, spluttering monster, would grudgingly excrete some bitter caffeinated essence.  It would be swamped with steamed-milk foam and dusted with chocolate to form its ‘cappuccino’ hood… Glass cups and brown sugar (lots of it) were de rigueur.  Frankly, 50s espresso was no taste thrill.  But it felt smart as hell.’

By 1972, coffee bars where everywhere and the teenage revolution was firmly established. At this time, the author of ‘Naked Lunch’, former junkie and all-round Beat legend William S Burroughs was living in London, quietly going about his business in St James’s. He lived in Dalmeny Court, Duke Street, and loved the plush gentlemen’s shops of the area, not to mention the ‘Dilly Boys‘, young make prostitutes who hustled for clients outside the Regent Palace Hotel.

Although Burroughs was fond of the finer things in life – he got his shoes from John Lobb, hat from Locke’s and bought most of his food in Fortnum and Mason’s – he did at some point stumble into the Moka Bar, and was not impressed by what he found.

Burroughs and friend Brion Gysin in London

Burroughs at this time was getting sick of London – sick of the licensing laws, sick of the crap food and small drinks, sick of the weather, the terrible service and sexual hypocrisy. He was also sick of the Moka, which he believed responsible for an ‘outrageous and unprovoked discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake’.

The Church of Scientology, Fitzroy Street

Burroughs decided to mount a sound-and-image attack. He had previously launched one of these against the Church of Scientology, of which he had been a member, turning up at their headquarters at 37 Fitzroy Street every day, taking photographs and making sound recordings. He believed that ‘as soon as you start recording a situation and playing them back on the street, you are creating a new reality’ and that repeated exposure to such an attack would lead to ‘accidents, fires and removals’. After a few weeks, the Scientologists did indeed move, round the corner to 68 Tottenham Court Road.

Photo taken by Burroughs during the operation

On August 3, 1972, Burroughs turned his attention to the Moka. He would stand outside every day taking photos and making recordings by tape, and then return the next day to play the previous days recordings. Burroughs was convinced he was winning. ‘They are seething in there,’ he said. ‘I have them and they know it.’

On October 30, 1972, the Moka Bar closed.