Tag Archives: Barry Miles

Disappearing London: Food For Thought

I have a piece in the Guardian about the closure of Food For Thought, one of London’s most charismatic and seemingly nuclear-proof (and I’m not just talking about the consistency of the scones) restaurants. It closes on June 21, rising costs – basically rents and wages to cover staff’s rents – forcing the owner Vanessa Garrett, to shut a business that has been successfully operating since 1971.

Food For Thought is one of those places that’s always been there. It was there when I prowled Neal Street on amateur shopping trips in the early 1990s. I knew, instinctively, that it was some sort of hippie joint, so went elsewhere, a teenage boy in thrall to the twin thrills of the Sex Pistols and bacon double cheeseburgers.

Years later, grown up somewhat, I began to eat there regularly, usually nabbing a takeaway from the ground floor during lunch breaks at Time Out. It always felt more than just a lunch venue. Without wanting to get too Sinclair about it, waiting in line at Food For Thought felt like a visit to polydimensional London, somewhere that had been quietly doing the same thing, for the same people, in the same place, for generations. Close your eyes, and you could be in 1970s London or even London in 2015. For secular souls, there are few areas that carry this atmosphere in quite such an effortless way, not so much a timewarp as timeless. It wasn’t dated, retro or old-fashioned, it just was.

I didn’t realise then quite how entwined Food For Thought was with the counterculture that spawned Time Out. When I tweeted about the closure of Food For Thought, the writer Richard King responded thoughtfully that: “FFT felt like one of the final remaining traces of the original Tony Elliott vision of London for Time Out.”

It was an astute observation. Food For Thought was born in the same spirit as Time Out, a desire to make London new, fresh, exciting, modern and funky, but also to make it, for want of a better word, good: cheap, utilitarian, healthy, an experience to expand the mind and reward the soul. London can still do this, but not in such a distinctive and understated political manner.

It went deeper. One of Food For Thought’s first chefs was Sue Miles, the wife of Barry Miles, founder of International Times, the underground newspaper from which Time Out hatched in 1968. Sue had learnt her trade at the Arts Lab, a counterculture take on the ICA that operated from Drury Street, and she later worked at Time Out, writing its first pair of London guides, which included enthusiastic reviews of Food For Thought.

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What’s particularly depressing about the closure of Food For Thought is that it wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was popular, it was serving good food at reasonable prices. They could have expanded, sought outside investment and gone into the franchise business, but they felt that would dilute the experience. Why should they change when they were doing what they wanted and doing it well?

And it was this commitment to offering value for money – that deeply held desire to not rip off the consumer – that led to its demise. That was at the heart of what Food For Thought represented, and it is precisely the sort of thinking that doesn’t wash in rentier London, where even success is punished and landlords feel duty bound to wring more profit out of something they have done nothing to create, like Mafia bosses demanding their cut. People revolt when a government behaves this way, so why is it acceptable for landlords?

What a city we have created.

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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.