Thursday, 25 April 2013

Kurt Schwitters in Britain

Exhibition at Tate Britain, till 12th May.

I've always liked collages, the usage of ephemera and trash as elements of new compositions. Schwitters' is one of the names associated with this art from the beginning. So that was all I knew about this man's art. And there is more to it, much more, as this exhibition demonstrates.

First, a few notes on the early collages.

Corrugated cardboard that forms staircases, pitted wood becomes distant vague rooms, suggesting murky future places; so much is happening with w such humble materials. Tram tickets, newspaper scraps picked up in the street, removed from the context of the pavement, become tiny intimate windows. An eye gazes out of faded newsprint. Chocolate wrappers, numbers which have lost their meaning, disposable items; the mind is making sense of modern life's profligacy in terms of their form the dreams they trigger, so they become tickets to other mental places.

Proto-psychedelia, hallucinations in ephemera. A copper coin in a picture becomes the head of a person stooping to look at another picture.

In 1937 the Nazis used Schwitters' art as an example of Degenerate Art. What praise, from such Untermenschen. Nothing like militant morons to give you new perspectives. On a not unrelated theme, see - 'Untitled ( opened by customs)'.

Then abstract seascapes. Storm. A foil cap casts a solid shadow. A flower appears out of broken green glass.

Schwitters' concept of Merz - derived from the German word Kommerz - extends the collage principle into more dimensions. This art does fine in an internment camp, his home in Britain for a while. Merz plays with the stupidity of consumerism. This art has rough edges; it is not slick; it is anti-consumerist, therefore immensely relevant now as the delusions of plenty we've been brought up on shift down a gear. Merz is potentially magical art.

Then there is his (in)famous sound piece - Ursonate. One version of this can be found at

And finally... the sublime Merzbarn. Indescribable. Go to this, there are a couple of weeks left. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Review of Albion Dreaming: A popular history of LSD in Britain, by Andy Roberts

Like most bibliophiles, I have a massive pile of books to read, some of which richly deserve  reviewing. I might just be catching up...

This review seemed historically appropriate, since the 70th anniversary of the first ever LSD trip happened just the other day.

Albion Dreaming: A popular history of LSD in Britain, by Andy Roberts

I met Andy Roberts at the Breaking Convention conference in 2011, where I was delivering a talk on psychedelics in magic. He thrust this book into my hands, and I'm glad he did.

A number of worthwhile books have been written about the US experience of LSD; Roberts's goal for the book is to give a British perspective on the rise of acid. From the blurb: ''Albion Dreaming' traces the drug's complex history from its arrival in Britain during 1952 through its use in psychotherapy, the secret military experiments at Porton Down and the British hippie movement's extensive use of the powerful chemical.'

The American military uses have been well covered; Roberts recounts tales of British soldiers "hallucinating for Queen and country" in early Porton Down experiments. The psychotherapy phase of LSD is dealt with in depth, tracing the history of doctors and medical centres where the drug was prescribed. My late auntie, a wonderful woman who suffered from a disabling level of asthma all her life, was treated (unsuccessfully) with acid some time in the 50s; Roberts follows up a fair few experimental treatments for illnesses no-one would associate with psychedelic therapy these days.

The biggest base of usage was of course the 'counter-culture' of the 60s-70s. This is dealt with in a balanced way, neither attempting to hide the disasters nor downplaying the positive effects LSD had on vast numbers of people. On page 92 he writes:

'To the early LSD users the new drug signified unconditional love for other human beings and for planet Earth. It was this possibility of personal and planetary salvation that initially drove the LSD culture and which led eventually to its users becoming involved in a wide variety of transpersonal and ecological belief systems.'

That belief system of unconditional love for other people is of course one of the traps of psychedelic consciousness; no-one can sustain such a state for long, and attempts to do so sometimes broke people. The degradation of that idealism into self-destructiveness is clearly seen in some of the documents of that era. I shall eventually get round to reviewing a particularly poignant example, the novel 'Be Not Content' by William Craddock, re-released by novelist Rudy Rucker.

By the early 70s I'm sharing some of the memories. The 1971 Glastonbury Fair, summed up by Mick Farren: 'We might as well have been in the sixth or even twenty-sixth century as we told tall travellers' tales of intoxication, of outwitting the law, of lights in the sky, lost continents, the lies of government collective triumphs and personal stupidity, while the music of past, present and future roared from the pyramid stage.'

Another great anecdote concerns Inspector Lee (no, not William Burroughs' alter ego, but the one of the main cops in the Operation Julie squad!), who, after the bust, went to visit psychedelic psychiatrist Ronnie Laing and campaigner Steve Abrams. 'A bizarre night of heavy drinking ensued... Lee allegedly handed in his resignation the same day.'

Roberts's attitude to LSD is one of near-incredulity at the nonsense that has been written about it:
'The idea of LSD had grown out of all proportion to the substance itself and had, for the majority of society, become a demon, a barbarian at the doors of everyday consciousness and normality. ... How the British establishment has dealt with LSD is a prima facie example of a society's inability to deal intelligently and consistently with consciousness-changing drugs.'

Coming up to (near) the present day, Roberts discusses the reports on drug harm commissioned by the government from the Medical Research Council and top experts in the field, and the flagrant disregard for fact shown by successive governments. 'If fact and experience are to be ignored over ignorance and prejudice then society will continue to reap the dubious rewards of a disenfranchised youth who know from their own experience that, if used carefully, most drugs are not particularly dangerous.'

Yes, humankind is a stoned animal, absolutely no doubt about that. Most cultures in the past have dealt with these powerful substances by socializing them. There is something particularly hysterical and brittle in our mainstream culture that seems to make that impossible. Brittle, like the world is going to break if people stop believing the dominant nonsense. Can we give this hysteria a name? How about 'conditioned fear'? You know who you are, Daily Mail feature writers.

Finally, if anyone should harbour any doubts as to Andy Roberts's depth of research, let it be known that he quotes personal emails from Owsley. Enough said.

For a much longer review, check out

Monday, 8 April 2013

Review of a novel, Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest by Jim Crace.

I got this book (from my local library, blessings be upon the remains of that fine service!) because the review promised a vivid depiction of life in a poor village on the cusp of the Enclosures. In the early modern era, fields which had been granted in common under ancient rights to graze were stolen by the wealthy to farm sheep, and this background runs under everything happening in this novel.

This will no doubt sound familiar to the modern reader, but Harvest is not an overtly political tale. The protagonist Walter tells of the final seven days in the life of the village. Starting with a mushroom-intoxicated prank that goes wrong, and the arrival of three strangers who raise a rough dwelling and light a fire before dawn, thereby making use of ancient squatters' rights, we see the social fabric of the village come apart.

The writing is excellent in the way it shows the tensions between the law and the feelings of the villagers. And the sheer richness of the sensory environment has been called, with good reason, hallucinatory. The details are astonishing to a modern person; have you any idea how the design of a plough works, or how it feels to use one? I didn't either.

Highly recommended for those who want to know what life used to be like. Who want to know a lost and vanished world.