A little while ago I went to Colchester, to a quiet suburban street on a hill. Semi-detached houses lined one side, and on the other a grassy field rose to a high horizon. My friends Anita and Lucas climbed down from their camper van. There were a few more vehicles parked than one might expect, but no other indicatio\n that anything unusual was taking place.
Our hosts – a couple in their fifties – introduced themselves and showed us through to their beautiful garden. Conifers overlooked neat borders, and a climbing frame stood beside a trampoline. Only once we had stepped beyond a broad, gnarled apple tree did the single length of privet reveal itself to be two, with a person-sized space in between them.
Psychedelic drugs have an appropriately colourful history. The word’s origin is Greek (“mind-manifesting”, literally) and it was coined by the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in an exchange of letters with Aldous Huxley; LSD, the quintessential psychedelic, first came to Britain in 1952, in the luggage of a psychoanalyst called Ronnie Sandison. Sandison had met the drug’s discoverer, Albert Hoffman, on a visit to Switzerland, and Hoffman believed LSD to be miraculous – “You see the world as it really is”. Sandison administered it to thirty-six patients with “very difficult psychiatric problems . . . all in danger of becoming permanent mental invalids”. The Journal of Mental Science write up in 1954 claimed more than half recovered completely.
Humphry Osmond used it to treat alcoholism. By the late 1960s he and his colleagues had treated over 2,000 people, more than 40 per cent of whom did not drink again within a year. The randomized-controlled portions of this work were reviewed and found valid in 2012. LSD was also tested by the military at Porton Down, first as a “truth serum” for interrogations, for which it proved useless, and then as a mass battlefield incapacitant, where results were inconclusive. A thoroughly researched history of LSD in Britain can be found in Albion Dreaming (2012) by Andy Roberts.
Psychedelics were never going to stay in the labs for long. In May 1954, Aldous Huxley took four-tenths of a gram of mescaline under Osmond’s supervision, and the resulting account became a classic of psychedelic literature, titled for William Blake’s assertion that, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite”.
Along with Huxley’s final novel Island (1962), and the writings of the American psychologist Timothy Leary (“Turn on, tune in, drop out”), The Doors of Perception (1954) became a bible for the counter-cultural movement of the next decade and a half, the experiential cornerstone of which was taking LSD. Huxley had his wife Laura inject him on his deathbed. LSD brought, in his words, “direct, total awareness, from the inside . . . of love as the primary and cosmic fact”.
On the other side of the hedge the garden changed. Fairy lights were draped around bushes, and metal stars dangled from trees. Pink and blue mandalas painted on stones dotted the undergrowth, and a Japanese-style wooden bridge arched over a pond, overhung by an enormous willow.
The tipi on the far side of the bridge did not look out of place at all. It was 20 feet high with fabric like sailcloth, but so artfully positioned that from the house one would have to look hard to see anything other than willow leaves. A dozen or so people were milling about in loose-fitting, light-coloured clothing. I became aware that I had the shortest hair.
Antonio’s hair was black and long. He invited us into the tipi and explained the rules: stay in the tent, and stay by the fire. The fire is the grandfather, and he will keep us safe. There should be no speaking or eating, but we would be able to sing at certain times. If we needed to “be well” there was a trench outside.
Then Antonio lit the fire, departed and returned with an old man, who carried a rattle, long feathers and a drum. His white tunic was embroidered with deer and stars, and many beads dangled from his hat. This was the shaman – Don Santiago. He ground peyote buttons in a mortar and pestle, and Antonio mixed them with water. We kneeled to drink it. It tasted of earth.
What we were doing in the tipi was illegal. One may possess the peyote cactus in the UK, but one may not dry it, cut off its buttons or grind them up. Mescaline, the active ingredient, is a Class A drug, which means possession carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison. For supplying it to us, Don Santiago was technically risking a life sentence.