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?