DIARY 16 June 1970 Doors of Perception

1972 Leeds #10 - Copy

Taking a pose in the house I shared with two other students. The wall is covered in magazine cuttings.

In June 1970 I had just finished my second year at Leeds University, supposedly studying the philosophy of Wittgenstein[1]. However, during that year, I had been subjected to weekly incomprehensible lectures on Gottlob Frege, a nineteenth century logician, one of Wittgenstein’s intellectual precursors.

I was rescued from academic boredom by my other field of study, a course entitled ‘The History of Scientific Thought’ during which I came to study Galileo, Newton, Napoleonic science and a bit of alchemy. My cultural life included helping to run the student union’s film society, attending a couple of rock concerts and drinking quantities of Tetley’s beer.

You would say that I looked like a hippie. Long, frizzy hair, a straggly beard, cast-off clothes which might be dyed pink or yellow or orange. Despite this, I had managed to be accepted by a group of friends. And I had a girlfriend, Gill. I was not always accepted outside the university campus. On a trip to York, I was refused entry to a café with the owner silently pointing to a sign saying ‘NO DOGS’.

Hippies were few and far between in Leeds; there was little prospect of a Haight-Ashbury culture developing among the terraced streets Leeds 6. There were few drugs available. Occasionally you might hear of a friend of a friend who was returning from London; there was little trade because the amounts were so small. You might get to share a joint. This usually involved a pinch of resin, cooked and sprinkled onto tobacco.

This shortage led to numerous experiments with ingredients rumoured to contain mind-altering substances, from banana skins to plant seeds.  None was ever successful. More fruitful was the purchase of cough medicine containing dextromethorphan. Some relatively high dosage products were available at the time over the counter. Larger doses could give you a mystical high.

I knew the literature of drug culture – Aldous’s Doors of Perception, Wolfe’s Kool Aid Acid Test, Castaneda’s The Teaching of Don Juan. There was a striving for a different perception of the world, a desire to leave behind the less than beautiful aspirations of the world we were expected to live in. Perhaps drugs like LSD would help.

Tudor was a fellow student although I cannot recall what he studied. Like me, he was a bit an outsider. Perhaps because of that we gravitated towards each other. I came to know him through his girlfriend; sitting on the steps of the Hyde Park Picture House[2], I heard a Birmingham accent. I had lost mine when I went to London and this was a surprising reminder of my hometown. Her name was Maggie and it turned out that she was Tudor’s girlfriend.

Tudor produced a photograph of me, floating above the tower of the university library[3]. He also thought that I would be amenable to taking acid. I was not fully aware of the dangers, and eager to experiment. The reports I had heard about LSD appeared to suggest an increase in creativity and heightened perception.

I didn’t tell anyone, not even Gill. One day, Tudor and I shared a small gelatine capsule and out dropped a crystal. We crushed and shared it, washed down with orange juice, sitting in the middle of Woodhouse Moor, an open park adjacent to the university campus. I had imagined a small dose, perhaps on a sugar cube or blotting paper. I must have taken a massive overdose.

At first, the colours were beautiful. Shimmering and kaleidoscopic. I thought that the hexagonal shapes were the same as the shape of my retinal cone receptors. It all seemed to be a landscape in my mind that was complex but fitted together marvellously. Had I found the answer? I forgot what the question was.

The overdose meant that my trip lasted for 12 hours. The colours and feelings of well-being turned into a nightmare. I was taken back to the small terraced house I shared with two others by friends of Tudor who were concerned that I was responding so badly. I remember little of those twelve hours. I spent a lot of time with my face on the floor and I remember the smell of the dusty carpet. I shed my clothes until I wore only a pair of purple loon pants. These became torn and filthy as I lurched about in delirium.

No-one knew what to do. I was plied with anything that might make a difference. They tried to make me vomit. I was smeared with Marmite because the B vitamins might make a difference. Nothing worked. Eventually, I was taken, by what means I do not know, to Leeds General Infirmary where I was left on the steps. No-one wanted to stay with me; it would be difficult to explain what they were doing with someone high on illegal drugs.

I woke up in a hospital bed at about midnight. Still in my torn, dirty trousers with a few cuts and grazes. I felt surprisingly peaceful but also washed out. I asked for a shower and some clean clothes. I bathed myself. No medical help was offered. My mind was clear. Someone in the next bed was wired up to a monitor and it began to beep. I had the clarity of mind to call the nurse who attended to him but ignored me.

I stayed overnight, the only night I would ever spend in hospital until 47 years later. The next day I went home. I do not recall seeing a doctor. I received a few quizzical looks from my friends but I was unable to explain anything to anyone. I felt peaceful but I did not realise the damage I had caused to myself. I carried on as usual. It was summer and term had finished so all I had to do was to earn a little cash and consider what to do with my vacation.

A few weeks later, I went to the Hyde Park Cinema to see a film with Gill. I think it was Prudence and the pill, a 1968 comedy about the newly available contraceptive pill. I had my first panic attack. An overwhelming sense of terror, a feeling of no escape and the fear that I was going mad. I remember having to leave the cinema but had no idea what to do. It passed within a few minutes but it left me exhausted.

I had suffered a ‘flashback’. In its mildest form it is a recurrence of the hallucinations which might even be pleasurable. But, in my case, my response was more like psychosis. I would suffer in this way for nearly six years. Sometimes that psychosis would become an irrational fear, particularly a fear that someone would spike my drink. Going to the pub, even with friends, I would become distracted. I was fearful of any drug. I stopped going to the dentist because of fear of anaesthetics (and now have very few teeth).

My personality changed. Permanently anxious, I was both agoraphobic and claustrophobic. I learned to drive because I felt safer in that metal cocoon. I went to the doctor but received no treatment except a prescription for Librium. I slept with the light on, fearful of nightmares. When I could not sleep I self-medicated with alcohol, usually cheap Sicilian wine from a local off-licence. I avoided all other drugs in fear that they might trigger flashbacks.

Despite this, I did not fall apart completely. A year later I sat my final exams and earned my degree. Not a particularly distinguished one but I graduated and wore my gown and mortar board for the ceremony. A career was a different matter. The fact was that I had learned nothing to qualify me for any job. There were few career opportunities for philosophers, let alone one who barely passed the exam and by then lacked any interest in the subject.

I was already President of the student union film society, which brought me into the organisation of the student union’s cultural life.  I was elected to the Executive Committee as Cultural Affairs Secretary in 1971. As a member of the Union’s Executive Committee. I was given the equivalent of my grant for a sabbatical year.

I became a student entrepreneur. I also helped to run the Union’s second-hand record shop and set up a food co-operative.  I opened a junk shop, appropriately named ‘Junk’ and scavenged for things to sell among the derelict houses in Burley. I hired myself out as a film projectionist but abandoned that when I was asked to show films at a men’s club, but only if I was naked.

My most successful enterprise, which still operates nearly fifty years later, was to set up a bookshop on behalf of the union. Whilst doing this job, I was approached by another student who had an idea for producing leather goods which we sold on street markets in London and hawked them around boutiques.

During all this activity I suffered a few panic attacks and periods of anxiety. It probably affected my decision-making because I gave up the regular wage at the bookshop to become a full-time entrepreneur. I moved to London with Gill in summer 1975 full of uncertainty. Business failed. We broke up, entirely due to me, during Christmas 1975. A few weeks later, while delivering leaflets in North London to earn a little money, I felt that the clamp around my brain had loosened. I realised that my nearly six years of paranoia had come to an end.

[1] Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. I retain little of what I thought I had learned about his writings.

hyde-park-picture-house

[2] The Hyde Park Picture House on Brudenell Road is a much-loved institution, now a Grade II listed building. Built in 1914, it retains many original features including gas lighting.

Scan_20191219 - Copy (2)

[3] Tudor’s photograph of me.

 

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