Extraordinary to see a sympathetic obituary of Nicholas Sand in a mainstream British news outlet. Once upon a time he was public enemy number one. OK, maybe not number one. Or even two. But certainly in the top one hundred or so.
It’s made me rather curious to get hold of a copy of The Sunshine Makers. I hope it tells us lots about his exotic life and times.
Sand was deluded of course. Dangerously so. But in hugely interesting ways.
He’s the sort of person we absolutely should know more about. His, not to put too fine a point upon it, whole milieu. And I think I’ve always assumed that one day I’d see the publication of the Compleat Book of LSD. The drug, after all, was a prime factor in a revolution, more social than cultural and more perceptual than either, that began in the 1960s and petered out towards the end of the 80s.
And yet insightful writing about this is surprisingly thin on the ground. Yes, there’s lots of anecdotal stuff about wacky happenings in the late 60s; and screeds of hagiographical material about psychedelic music.
But no-one’s ever really got to the heart of the subject: LSD as a movement, as an ideology, as a sociological phenomenon. For instance, LSD’s impact on Silicon Valley (personnel, product, business culture), a notion alluded to in the obit I’ve reproduced below, is surely worth exploring.
LSD’s power to alter the way we see the world (even if we’ve never taken it) is far more important than, say, the impact of the recreational use of opium on the early 19th Century Romantic movement, which in any case had a relatively small influence within society as a whole.
And yet I own at least two versions of, in effect, The Compleat Book of Opium. And there is less interest generally in (to use a crude shorthand) LSD Culture than there is in Ecstasy Culture or Heroin Culture.
The reason for this disparity is, I’d argue, easy to pin down – the LSD era produced few compelling narratives. Interesting as his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is, Wolfe doesn’t really cut it. Kesey is a banal writer. Hunter S Thompson was a prize clown. And in any case, their perspectives were terribly narrow and ultimately parochial.
Huxley was more on the money, clearly, especially where the inner journey is concerned; but I’d always assumed that someone would come along and tell me, for I am terribly curious, about the bigger picture.
Yet the people best placed to tell that story, people like Sand, tended to be anti-literate, both by design and inclination. I’ll bet he didn’t keep a journal worth publishing. Yet in some respects he was one of the most important figures of the 20th Century. He helped mould its final three decades.
The participants are muted. And publishers have been, seemingly, reluctant to pull at whatever meagre threads they are offered. I’ve seen this in action myself, albeit at one remove.
At least two writers have attempted to sell the story of the spring and summer of 1978, when Edinburgh became the LSD capital of the world.
The only major flaw in Operation Julie in 1977 was the failure of its officers to realise that the Richard Kemp’s empire had a Scottish outpost, with manufacture and distribution centred on an isolated cottage near East Linton.
It was never raided… and to cut a long story short, several hundred thousand tabs, possibly millions, eventually made their way onto the Edinburgh streets at knockdown prices.
This (and what followed) was one of the oddest chapters in the whole history of the city, yet you will struggle to find any mention of this online or in print. Both of the writers who attempted to tackle this promising subject made the mistake of attracting initial interest from Canongate Books which, no doubt confused by the double vision it began suffering, dithered chronically – and both books were shunted off onto the too-difficult-to-take-any-further pile just prior, ironically enough, to the publication of Trainspotting.
I think I’ve recorded elsewhere my fitful attempts to find out what happened to the manuscripts.
Nicholas Sand would have known all about Edinburgh’s LSD Galore story. But with his passing, the odds on it ever seeing the light of day are further diminished.
And he must have known a hundred stories like it from around the counter-culture world. There are a thousand questions someone should have asked him while there was till time.
Do these stories matter? And if they never make it into print, will they somehow survive as oral history?
Here’s hoping. One way or another, via forensic archaeology if not from the horse’s mouth, we’re bound, ultimately, to discover the intimate truths of our lives and times. Aren’t we?
Letters page. Being an acknowledgement, in passing, that an alphabet learned by heart will be lost by reason
Two more postcards. My mailbag bulgeth. Truly.
Firstly, a fretfully plaintive note from a middle-manager in a marketing department who has been invited (I can hear his snort of contempt as he pens this word) to attend a day-long communications course.
He asks: Can you really learn to write better?
Well, let me say, I’m more than happy to respond.
In this instance, I’m very much at one with Ogden Nash.
If you want to write better, you must first be able to write good – which will open up to you the prospect, in the fullness of time, of writing best.
Secondly, a missive from my very dear friend Anna Davis, chief financial officer of Curtis Brown Creative, the world’s only agent-led writing school.
She asks: “Can a novel-writing course teach you to write a bestseller?”
No, Anna, it can not. Sorry to have to break this to you.
It goes without saying, though, that you must absolutely refrain from sharing this insight with any of your prospective customers.
I hope this has helped.
Hereinafter, lovingly reproduced for whomsoever it may concern, the scherzo to The Last of the Mohicans, Book Five of Flying Over Ruins
That August, it snowed neither in Berlin nor in Guernica nor in Warsaw nor in Rotterdam nor in Caen nor in Coventry.
Actually, that’s a lie. It snowed in Berlin.
There was an industrial accident. An explosion at a factory in the Siemensstadt area of the city, followed by a ferocious fire. A plume rose and was carried towards the stadium at the Reichssportfeld.
It snowed briefly on spectators watching the athletics there. Smuts of soot, like tiny feathers, black cygnet or dark eiderdown, fell. As they fell they rocked gently. The effect was soothing. Eerie but soothing.
There was a susurrus of whispering in the crowd. Murmurings. Then pockets of laughter.
Then the wind changed and the moment passed.
Someone made a winning attempt in the long jump final.
In Guernica and Caen and Warsaw and Coventry and Rotterdam, it didn’t snow until later.
But in some of those cases not all that much later.
In answer to a recent inquiry… Yes, by and large, I tend to keep Edwardian-era Foreign Office hours.
This is not because I believe, as one of my earliest editors did, that early to bed, early to rise is a dictum solely for “the little people.” She wasn’t Irish, by the way. She wasn’t talking about leprechauns. Or, indeed, Sir Martin Sorrell. Not directly at any rate.
She subsequently became, albeit briefly, a Conservative Member of Parliament. Which suited her down to the ground, because in the House you’re not expected to clock on until 2pm.
But anyway. The Edwardian Foreign Office. No-one of any seniority, in that august institution during that Golden Era, arrived at his desk before 11am, the hour at which communiques from far-flung fields would begin arriving from that morning’s Dover packet.
I cannot pretend to argue that this has any relevance to my own particular circumstances. I can only assume that I must have absorbed this morsel at some point in my dim and distant past… and found the notion extremely pleasing.
Well. There you have it. The copula in action. Some things just are: and they may be said to have attained that status in their own sweet way.
But wait. There’s more. Another correspondent asks… Am I a fan of leaning in? Yes. Naturellement! But I am also comfortable with leaning back. And occasionally sideways. Sometimes I even have to lie down.
I hope this helps to clarify matters.
“90% of my digital advertising spend is wasted. The problem is I don’t know which 90%” – digital marketing consultant, Alasdair Douglas Reid
Oh! I seem to have put the whole article into the headline. Damn. I hate it when that happens.
Lots of Robert Pirsig obituaries this week. A greater number, across a more diverse range of outlets, than you’d expect for the death of a mere writer.
The publication in 1974 of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in some respects marked the point at which (to borrow a Dodie Smith notion) the so-called counterculture captured the castle.
It turned out to be a short lived stay. Shorter than most people remember. Or would like to believe.
But still. The book straddled audiences as deftly as it straddled genres. It was a big seller in the sorts of alternative bookshops that offered a heady mix of pornography, Marxism, vegan cook books and psychobabble self-help manuals alongside its Picador display stands; yet by the end of the decade it had made its way onto the reading lists of Eng Lit modules exploring the 20th Century after-currents of Romanticism.
Forget much of the zeitgeist stuff in the obits. Yes, the book was a success because Zen Buddhism was modish and motorcycles were still cool. But of equal importance was its compelling structural elegance.
Indeed, there were those on the intellectual wing of the book publishing business (mainly in the US but also, somewhat insipidly, on this side of the Atlantic too) who also believed that Pirsig had stumbled onto a magical recipe.
Take a first person narrative, a testament of sorts, ideally a quest – but disguise its true nature by clothing it in more abstract intellectual pursuits and the riding of choice hobby horses. It’s a form of misdirection, but a remarkably potent one.
Some of our more precious novelists attempted to absorb its lessons – Flaubert’s Parrot springs to mind – but never quite made it up to the mark. Sincerity, as they say, is incredibly hard to fake.
And in fact it turned out that Pirsig couldn’t repeat the trick himself. I’m almost certain I read, or tried to read, Lila… but I can remember not a single word of it.
The lessons, though, are still there to be learned. And well-written high-concept books will surely return. At their best they can be hugely rewarding for the reader. The sort of reader who likes his or her art multi-layered in ways that current templates (as policed by a dreary UEA diaspora) just can’t accommodate.
These days, if you pitched a point-counterpoint narrative even remotely resembling Zen, you’d get one of those witheringly-ghastly wall-eyed agent’s notes.
A day will eventually dawn, though.
As, indeed, it must.
I never quite know what to say when people comment on how amusing or ironic or perplexing it is that I have, supposedly, turned into a Tory. Actually, they don’t comment as such. They merely note. With resignation. How very… well, disappointing, they imply. Or sad.
This on the basis that I had a long history of voting Liberal; yet, in recent Elections, have tended to vote Conservative. Unashamedly.
Because it is hardly a secret that my Liberal heritage runs deep. Deepish. My only overtly political act arrived in the early chapters of my story, about a hundred years ago, when I campaigned on behalf of one of my classmates standing on a Liberal ticket in a mock General Election. I was even issued with a schoolboy Liberal Party membership card. I’m not sure how “real” this was. It was probably run up ad hoc by our history teacher to make the whole business seem even more authentic and immediate.
We won, by the way. I have a 100 per cent hit rate as a political campaigner. Who can match that, I wonder?
But anyway… I was once a card-carrying Liberal. So. How could I even contemplate letting the side down? I stand accused, if that is the right word, of betraying my former self. All I once held dear.
And yet, my critics infer, how terribly predictable. This sort of thing happens to the weakest and weariest among us. They succumb to the tired, disappointed, intolerant pessimism of middle age. In other words, something in me has clearly died. A vitality, a sensitivity, an appetite for life’s possibilities.
Shame on me for losing the courage, the energy, the vision to be a Progressive.
Ah, yes, the P word. This is the point at which you can expect a tart reply.
I hate the P word. I loathe it with all my being. Self-proclaimed Progressives almost never are. In my experience, they are rarely, de jure or de facto, in theory or in practice, unambiguously on the side of the angels. Often they are cynical or narcissistic or both.
But enough of what I don’t like. Here it is. My political testament.
I am still a liberal. In fact, I am more liberal than most members of the Liberal Democrats. Including its leader. Make that especially its leader. I have nothing but contempt for the pinched sort of Christianity he represents.
A liberal still. Indeed I am (count them) once, twice, three times a liberal.
I am, number one, an economic liberal. I believe that the joint stock company is one of the greatest inventions of mankind, bringing, as it does, the Rule of Law into our general economic activities. The things, in short, we do to keep the wolf from the door. It is the engine of prosperity and of technological innovation. And let’s not forget (though goodness knows, comrades, it’s so easy to do) that the joint stock company is the one and only source of funding for the welfare state. Attack one and you attack the other.
Which brings me to item number two: I am a welfare liberal. I believe that the NHS should be the best we can afford and that the benefits system should be as generous as it is enlightened. I believe that the strong should help the weak. (Always and ever, because, whatever Occult Socialists may have you believe, both will always be with us.) I believe in equality of opportunity. I believe in education and the power of books.
But I also believe that the welfare system must be paid for using real money (see above). There is absolutely nothing Progressive about bankrupting the public finances.
Lastly (for now), I am a social liberal. I believe that what people do within the privacy of their own four walls is their own business, providing they’re causing no harm to the vulnerable. More broadly, I believe in public tolerance. Utterly.
None of this matters much to those who, by a process I can’t say I fully understand, maintain a visceral hatred of the party they call The Tories. Among the more “creative” and “intellectual” (apologies for the quote marks but in many cases they are well-and-truly earned) of my contemporaries there’s often a sly insinuation that if you vote Conservative you’re really, whatever you say, voting for the Powell-ite wing of the party, circa 1968. That there’s really something rather monstrous in play here.
Well… I’ll keep buggering on regardless. The party that’s closest to being liberal three-times-over is the one most likely to get my vote.
If that means you think I’m rabidly right wing and an enemy of the people, then so be it.
So, bless your cotton socks, be it.
Claud Cockburn was a former Times journalist, a Middle Class (pour épater les bourgois) Communist and an inveterate mischief-maker. He was arguably the first man in the world to intuit the media implications of a new technology – the mimeograph machine.
“When Northcliffe started the Daily Mail in the nineties, he was not “playing a hunch” but tapping into a mathematical certainty. He argued: The Education Acts of the 1860s have changed the entire character and extent of the literate public. But in the years since the 1860s the newspapers have not changed at all. Therefore there must exist a new pool of potential readers not taken care of by the existing newspapers. And this pool, if correctly tapped, could provide a new multi-million readership.
“There was not much doubt in my mind as to the sort of people who would constitute [my new conception of] the pool. Anyone in, for instance, London or New York or Berlin or Vienna who frequented any kind of club or other meeting place where, say, diplomats, lawyers, bankers and newspapermen gathered together and talked, must have been deeply aware of the strange contrast between the colourful information and significant rumours – for rumours can often be as significant as facts – circulating in the clubs, and the awful tight-lipped drabness of the newspapers being sold on the club doorstep.
“What all this added up to was that I had better go to London and start a weekly newspaper of a new type.
“G K Chesterton had written of editors that lived in the shadow of three fears – fear of misprints, fear of libel actions and fear of the sack. I would aim to disregard all considerations of that kind, more particularly of the second, because what I had in mind was a revival of the uninhibited eighteenth century English tradition of the Newsletter. It was going to give the customer the sorts of facts – political, diplomatic, financial – which were freely discussed in embassies and clubs but considered to be too adult to be left about for newspaper readers to get at them.
“The method I proposed to use – the mimeograph machine – would kill two birds with one stone: we should on the one hand ensure we were in total control of our own paper, and on the other that people who wanted to bring libel actions could of course do so, but probably would not, because most libel actions are brought for the purpose of getting money, and it would be evident to one and all that I had no money of any kind.
“Lawyers volunteered to help, but I had to point out to them that either they were good lawyers, in which case they would have to keep saying, “You can’t publish that, it’s libellous,” or bad lawyers, ignorant of whether things were libellous or not. In either case, what use would they be? It was sad having to fight off so many well-intentioned offers of assistance, but I had to keep firmly in mind that what we were running was a pirate craft and we would not burden ourselves with conventional navigators and mates, however skilled and knowledgeable…”
Let us not allow this incident to blind us to the great qualities of Charles Lindbergh; he is, and always will be, not merely a school-boy hero, but also a school boy
In September 1938, Charles Lindbergh betrayed not only Harold Nicolson personally but Britain too. Not quite two months after the outbreak of war in Europe, Nicolson wrote this piece about him in the Spectator, 20 October 1939, page 15.
COLONEL CHARLES LINDBERGH has again been broadcasting to the American people. He urged them (as he had every right to do) not to repeal the Neutrality Acts; but he also abused Canada for entering the war on the ground that “as an American country” she should have remained neutral. This extension of the Monroe doctrine has caused surprise in the United States and rage in Canada. Even in this country there are those who contend that the respect which all classes showed for his privacy might have tempted him to prolong that privacy until the crisis in our national existence had been surmounted. I do not agree with this criticism. I have myself enjoyed much hospitality in Germany and in Italy, but do not feel precluded thereby from expressing my views upon the foreign policy of Herr Hitler or Count Ciano. I see no need to excuse Colonel Lindbergh; I want to explain him.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
His grandfather emigrated from Sweden; and on reaching the United States changed his name from Manson to Lindbergh. His father was a gentle, conscientious, almost fanatical Democrat. He represented Minnesota in Congress, and belonged to a small group of insurgents who fought the governing classes and Wall Street with might and main. As a child in Washington young Lindbergh spent much time listening to Victor Murdoch and other fiery radicals from the Middle West denouncing the whole political system of the United States and the “decadent Europeanism” of the Atlantic seaboard. Congressman Lindbergh died, and young Charles returned with his mother to the bleak farm in Minnesota and to the rigours of an impoverished boyhood. This tough existence was scarcely mitigated by the three terms which he spent in the engineering school at Wisconsin University. He entered the flying corps and became a pilot upon the St. Louis-Chicago route. At 10 p.m. on May 21st, 1927, he landed at Le Bourget, having flown the Atlantic alone.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
He returned to the United States in a blaze of glory. The American public had been deeply disappointed that the war had produced no romantic figure, and they seized upon their “lone eagle” as the embodiment of all that American youth should be. His charm, his boyishness and his modesty were everywhere acclaimed. He drove in triumph through New York; he was the guest of the President at the White House; he visited every State in the Union and was accorded the freedom of seventy-eight cities. He found himself a national, even a world-hero, at the age of twenty-five. His head was not turned by this apotheosis; it merely became completely stiff. He remained from then onwards the lad from Minnesota, the slim pilot upon the Chicago-St. Louis trail. The ideas which he had acquired from his father, or at the University of Wisconsin, were no whit changed by contact with men of great experience of or wide outlook upon world affairs; when wealth came to him, and with it the contact with gentler and more sensitive minds, he retained unaltered his simple habits of life; he never drank or smoked; his life was completely ascetic; he continued to prefer corned beef to terrapin; he continued to believe that virility was the highest human virtue and that anything which might sap that virility (such as art, literature or music) must be something un-American, some “poisonous honey stolen from France.” To this day he remains the fine boy from the Middle West.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
The strain was terrific. How was this young man to maintain his own simplicity, his own few clear-cut convictions, against the adulation of a whole continent? It was almost with ferocity that he struggled to remain himself. And in the process of that arduous struggle his simplicity became muscle-bound; his virility-ideal became, not merely inflexible, but actually rigid; his self-confidence thickened into arrogance; and his convictions hardened into granite. He became impervious to anything outside his own legend – the legend of the lad from Minnesota whose head could not be turned. Then came the murder of his child. The suffering which that dreadful crime entailed upon himself and those he loved did pierce the armour and enforce a change. He emerged from that ordeal with a loathing of publicity which was almost pathological. He identified the outrage to his private life, first with the popular Press, and then, by inevitable associations, with freedom of speech and then, almost, with freedom. He began to loathe democracy.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
We cannot blame him. The life which he and his were forced to lead became abnormal. He is not possessed of any sense of humour and was unable to add that lovely lubricant to the harsh grating of his machine. He could not buy a stick of chocolate without being mobbed in the drug-store; when he visited a theatre both he and Mrs. Lindbergh were forced to assume disguise. I remember him telling me a story which explained much. He told me that when his child had been kidnapped he received a clue which seemed at the time hopeful. He leapt into his car to follow it up. As he left Princeton he found four Press cars following in his wake. He stopped and addressed the leading car. “Yes, boys,” he said, “I have got a clue. But unless I am left alone to follow it up, there is no chance of success. I beg you as human beings not to follow me.” The younger newspaper men were embarrassed by this appeal. An older one answered for them. “Sorry, Colonel,” he said, “but business is business.” Lindbergh turned his car back to Princeton and drove home in white anger. “So you see,” he said to me, “I have cause to hate the Press.”
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
It is not true to say that Colonel Lindbergh was ungrateful to the British Press and people for the reserve with which they treated him when he was living over here. He came to me one day in London and asked whether he could help in any way. “I’d like,” he said, with his shy smile, “to do something in return.” I introduced him to two Cabinet Ministers. Little came of his suggestion. He went to Germany. Like most aviators, Colonel Lindbergh is certain that any modern war will be settled in the air. He was shown all the more modern types of German aeroplanes and given full facilities to observe their pilots practising. He became convinced that both in men and pilots the Germans possessed the mightiest air-force in the world. There were other things that he admired. He liked their grim efficiency, he liked the mechanisation of the State, he was not at all deterred by the suppression of free thought and free discussion; he admired the conditioning of a whole generation to the ideals of harsh self-sacrifice; the rush and rattle of it all impressed him immensely.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
He would return to the little Kentish village where he lived. Slowly the smoke of burning weeds would rise against the autumn woods, and lazily the apples would drop in the orchard. His mind had been sharpened by fame and tragedy until it had become as hard, as metallic, and as narrow as a chisel. The slow, organic will-power of Britain eluded his observation; he regarded our indifference to the mechanical as a proof that we, as they say in Minnesota, were “incurably effete.” He liked England; he had no desire to see her murdered; he hoped that we should run away before Marshal Goering could catch us.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
Let us not allow this incident to blind us to the great qualities of Charles Lindbergh; he is, and always will be, not merely a school-boy hero, but also a school boy.
March: Belatedly, I’ve decided to add, as a comparison piece, Lindbergh’s reflections on England.
Sticklers will point out that the following paragraphs are highly unreliable. And they will be right. All autobiographies and journals, if they are published on the basis of their historical or literary merits, will be subject to judicious editing: but in most cases (especially where diaries and journals are concerned) the aim is to remove or compress much that is trivial or self-indulgent or quotidian or just downright dull.
Lindbergh’s autobiography, published two years after he died, was by its very nature the product of a more exotic editorial process.
In the weeks before Lindbergh died, he told his publisher, William Jovanovich, that he had begun a memoir, but had not finished it. The likelihood now was that he would run out of time. Would Jovanovich care to look over the manuscript and related papers?
Indeed he would. The draft, he discovered, was good but negligible. Of even more interest were the notes, sketches, earlier abandoned drafts, a fitfully maintained journal, scraps of philosophy and a memorandum of intent as to what he, Lindbergh, hoped a completed memoir would achieve. In other words, its design, its architecture.
So, soon after Lindbergh died in August 1974, Jovanovich set to work. He co-opted one helper: Judith Schiff, curator of the Lindbergh archive at Yale University. Another was thrust upon him: Charles’s widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Anne’s involvement complicated matters considerably: because of course Anne was keen to remove or amend anything that might compound the ambiguous nature of the Lindbergh legacy.
But in truth, even without Anne’s involvement, it would have been a task of Byzantine complexity. Beginning right back in the late 1920s, Lindbergh was continually rewriting his own history and recasting his opinions. The material was riddled with all sorts of contradictions and inconsistencies.
Students of the autobiographical genre will be familiar with this notion – and it’s a fascinating one in and of itself. The history of modern autobiography since Wordsworth’s The Prelude illustrates, if nothing else, the contingency of consciousness.
(Not, you understand, that I am offering the same sort of houseroom to Charles Lindbergh and William Wordsworth.)
But here’s the thing: most autobiographers, be they ever so unreliable on their own account, are usually able to affirm their own revisions.
Great swathes of Lindbergh’s testament were effectively written by Jovanovich or Schiff or Anne, sometimes using ingenious circumlocutions and editorial sleights of hand to weave together different accounts, often written decades apart, of the same events; sometimes paraphrasing as they saw fit.
The following is a case in point.
“The year and a half I spent in England left me with no desire to return for other than visits. I was impressed by the great traditions of the British and by their stability and laws and their sense of justice. The family summers at Long Barn were among the most wonderful summers of my life. I valued highly the friendships I made within a people who through commerce, Christianity and conquest had established the greatest empire ever to exist on earth. But there was a sense of heaviness of life in England that pressed like a London fog. It was as though the Englishman’s accomplishments, century after century, had become a cumulative burden on his shoulders until his traditions, his possessions and his pride over-weighed his buoyancy of spirit. I felt that England, aged, saw not her greatness year by year. She was satisfied with her empire and a legal status quo enforced by her warships’ guns. It was as though her desires blocked out the knowledge of her mind that life is not stabilised long by conquest, and that wings fly over land and sea and gun batteries.”
“I wondered whether the temperament of the English people was compatible with the rising tempo of other Western countries’ life. For it seemed more attuned to ship and sail than to wings and the speed of aircraft.”