Self-centred

This was commissioned as a Diary Piece for the Daily Telegraph Magazine. Unlike pieces bearing the same name in, say, the London Review of Books, these were required to be ‘light’. 

First published in the Daily Telegraph Magazine 1997 

 

People are so self-centred these days. So narcissistic. Look at this conversation I had:

– Hi. How are you?

– I didn’t get it.

– What?

– I didn’t get it.

– Oh dear.

The problem here is that the other person thinks I know what he’s talking about. Last time I met him he probably told me that he was going to try and get something. From his unadorned and blunt response to my friendly greeting one can deduce that he didn’t get it. But what on earth is it that he didn’t get? And why does he think I remember? Does he think I go around retaining the minutiae of the last few days of his life? I can barely remember my own, let alone his. Ask me what I did last night, for example. I have to pause to think about it. It doesn’t come easily. It’s not like I’m a computer, where you just save it. I mean, I certainly save it but I can rarely access it. I ask him how he is and he immediately puts me on the spot. Do I do that to him? No. Here’s how I am when he asks me how I am:

– Hello, David! How very pleasant to see you! How are you?

– I mustn’t grumble.

I always say that. I say it in a matter of fact way, trying to suggest that in some unspecified way I have been warned not to grumble. By a doctor, or a policeman, say. People usually find this rather amusing. Other things I say are:  I can’t complain. Or, Oh, surviving. The latter I say in a resigned, melancholic way – the way some self-centred depress­ives do. People usually like all of these so I’ve got in the habit of using them as a matter of course.

Now the point about these little ripostes is that I’m very user-friendly. I don’t give you a problem within seconds of your meeting me. I don’t assume that you’ve memorised the circumstances of my life as they were when we last met. Unlike the first man who clearly thinks that I’m going around thinking “I wonder if Keith has got that thing he was hoping to get.”

It’s happening more and more. I’d go so far as to say that, based on empirical evidence, most people are doing this. Look at this convers­ation I had:

– Hello. How are you keeping?

– Oh, well.

– Well? Good.

– No. You know.

– What?

– Still pretty sad.

– Oh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are you supposed to do next? Okay: you know they’re still sad. This could be because they didn’t get something or because – let’s be pessimistic – somebody that they liked died. So they could be grieving. Did they tell me this, though? I can’t remember. So many people are dying and, frankly, it’s hard to keep up. One shouldn’t, of course, rule out the possibility that they’re suffering from what is known, in specialist circles, as endogenous depression. This means, for all intents and purposes, that they’re always sad and they don’t know why.

The excellent ‘Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis’ [Charles Rycroft; Penguin 1972] is a little more precise, in that the depression is ‘presumed to be the result of (unspecified) constitutional disturbance’. Something terrible could have happened to them when they were two and they’ve repressed it and have been sad ever since.

When you think about it, it’s unlikely that if it were endogenous, they’d tell you about it. In fact, it’s quite likely they wouldn’t even know they were sad. As far as they’re concerned, life is always this bad so why grumble?

We shouldn’t rule out that it is endogenous but that someone they liked died anyway. Obviously this will happen. Can you imagine a world where people who are always depressed don’t get bereaved, by some kind of arrangement? They’d be queuing up for it! Everyone would take the sad option. Because then your mother wouldn’t die. But that’s silly.

So maybe their mother died and that’s why they’re still sad. Usually when your mother (or other dear relative) dies your friends give you three weeks. During that time the conversations go like this:

– Hi.

– Hi.

– I expect you’re still sad.

– Well, yes.

– I’m sorry.

After three weeks you’re supposed to snap out of it.

What can you do about this appalling self-absorption? In the short term, faced with yet another enigma presented by some solipsistic miserabilist, you just have to busk. You have to manufacture a series of vague conversational responses that allow the self-obsessed malcontent to get it off their chest without you risking the exposure of your ignorance of their details. This is really hard work! Is it any wonder people go on about football?

So you won’t catch me pulling this tedious stunt. Once I’ve made my little opening joke, you can ask me what you want and you’ll get an answer that comes with all the facts you need to really enjoy my company and my views on things. You can ask me about my childhood, for example, and you’ll know where you are, for God’s sake. It was actually quite disturbing, my childhood, but I’m pretty self-aware about it and I know I can tell you about it in a way that you’ll find genuinely compelling.

¶¶¶¶¶¶¶

Roswell – a Journey into American Folklore

First published in GQ 1993

 

“From now on do exactly as I say,” says PsychoSpy. “And act like you know what you’re doing.” We walk quickly along the carpeted terrace and duck through a service door. “Security doesn’t cover these,” he mutters. Suddenly we’ve left the hubbub behind and our footsteps are echoing as we climb a bright aluminium stairway through a confusion of fat ventilation pipes and wiring ducts. Surfaces are scuffed and dusty, and clumps of congealed brown insulating foam protrude from the walls. “It’s tempting to throw a coin down, isn’t it?” PsychoSpy says, squinting at the sloping inner skin of the building as it falls away from us into the darkness many levels below.

Five floors up we come to another service door. It opens onto a walkway leading directly to the lip of the high terrace. “It’s at this point,” remarks PsychoSpy, “that I start to feel just a tad afraid.” The walkway ends in a sheet of waist-high plate glass. Beyond this is a sheer drop of a couple of hundred feet. Far away on all sides are stacked terraces, their back walls lined with doors, beside each of which are columns of painted hieroglyphics. It’s down on the floor, though, that the most arresting sight is to be found.

Apparently growing towards us like a vast living crystal, is a glistening monolithic structure in black glass. On its near side is a curious jutting prow that partly obscures the tiny figures milling beneath it. Since the huge space we’re surveying is pyramidal, in order to see what else is beneath one’s feet it is necessary to lean out and peer in a dangerous downward diagonal, at which point another incongruity is revealed. Running around the base of the pyramid is a ribbon of dark water, a canal in fact, and on it floats a gondola-like craft. Even from this height it is possible to make out the boatman standing in the bows. He is wearing a tunic and a short skirt. “Aah! That’s the Nile, right?” I exclaim. “Nice, isn’t it?” retorts PsychoSpy, “Shall we lunch?”

The Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas, has a number of dining spaces, but we choose the buffet lounge, a straightforward eatery in the shadow of the Virtual Reality cinema whose glass exterior we had recently examined from above. The hotel itself is a gigantic scale model of the Great Pyramid, clad in a dark golden glass that’s very difficult to keep clean, so PsychoSpy tells me, with a hint of satisfaction. My companion’s real name is Glenn Campbell and he is Nevada’s foremost expert on Area 51, the legendary ‘Dreamland’ zone deep in the desert wastes north of Vegas. Area 51, which officially does not exist, is the site of the top secret U.S. Air Force base at Groom Dry Lake, itself a small part of the 8 million acre Nellis Air Force Base. It is here that the government is said to be holding the remains of the flying saucer that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico on July 8th, 1947. Some researchers assert that not only alien craft are held in Dreamland – their pilots are there too, engaged in mysterious transactions with the American government. The business at Roswell is the single most perplexing episode in the history of UFOlogy.

After two cans of Diet Coke and a mound of buffet – “Five and a half dollars and it lasts me all day!” – Campbell leads me out into the stupefying afternoon heat, past the silly Sphinx and the unlikely Obelisk, across Las Vegas Boulevard and down to The Oasis, a group of apartment buildings one hundred feet from the northwest corner of McCarran Airport. Kind of noisy, one would think. PsychoSpy has his reasons, however. Standing in the porch outside his front door he points to a building half a mile away across the simmering tarmac. “That’s a secret government terminal,” he declares. “I can watch the JANET flights go out to Groom Lake every morning.” JANET, followed by a flight number, is the radio call-sign used to designate the unmarked Boeing 737s that carry civilian workers on a short hop to and from the non-base.

An ex-computer programmer from the East Coast, Glenn Campbell edits an Internet newsletter (enquiries to PsychoSpy@aol.com) called ‘The Groom Lake Desert Rat’ and its consistently wry, sceptical and inflammatory stories have, in the view of certain government security agencies, put him near the top end of the Most Irritating Man list. Normally a resident of the tiny town of Rachel, Nevada, the closest civilian cluster to the base, Campbell has recently taken an apartment in the ‘centre of the known Universe’, as he unironically describes Las Vegas.

Seated in his apartment beneath a detailed wall map of the Nellis Air Force Base Bombing and Gunnery Range, Campbell insists that his obsession is fuelled partly by a political concern with government accountability and partly by a fascination with the ways in which contemporary folklore is generated. “What the aliens intend, who they are, how many races of aliens there are – that’s quite beyond what I’m prepared to tackle. I’m concerned with only a very simple thing: what is this government program, how is it structured, how does it work and what are the ˜humansˇ doing? I’m only interested in the human story – I have no means of approaching the alien thing itself.” Compared to many of those in thrall to the emanations from Groom Lake, Campbell’s style of surveillance is cool and his conclusions are inconclusive. This is, as we shall learn, a rare condition. There are people out there claiming to have seen things so extraordinary that if they’re true we’ll all have to rewrite our lives from the bottom up.

I was getting a bit pissed off with Vegas. So hot, so crowded. I wasn’t learning from it. Sliding into my Geo Prizm, which is a form of car, I took off for Lake Mead Marina, to get a beer and think about porosity. There is a personality type, I was beginning to feel, that leaks. The membrane between the inner and outer worlds is more than usually permeable, resulting in confusions of perception. Dreams and ideas may seem to originate in the real world rather than the mind. If this never happened, of course, then we would all be restricted to a form of consciousness more animal than human – we’re talking about a matter of degree here. Leakage can be regularly experienced in the most ordinary situations – whenever we feel that someone is shadowing us in the street or lurking in a darkened room we are momentarily giving reality to ideas that may have their origin solely in memory.

Once you buy into the leakage thing, however, it seems you’re fair game for absolutely anything that resides in the inner. Studies of ‘fantasy prone personalities’ – those whose inner lives were highly active and imaginative and sometimes became inseparable from reality – have shown that often a condition called dissociation can develop, in which mental processes may co-exist without becoming connected or integrated. This splitting of the mind can lead, in extreme cases, to multiple personality disorder and at a lesser intensity will generate exotic, detailed and often persecutory visions. 

In an extreme version of the porous condition the most fantastical inner events may be projected onto the outer world. The only limits to this process would be cultural: the things ‘seen’ in the world would reflect anxieties about that world and the appearance of the things seen would broadly correspond to contemporary visual realities. Throughout most of the 20th century it has been inappropriate to see fairies, for example. Seen creatures still tend to be small, however, and they still have big eyes. There must be reasons for this.

As you leave the Marina, softened by an hour’s release from the stridently porous architecture of the Strip, you must walk from the bar across a chain of linked pontoons that float in the shallows of the lake. Dusk was falling and the heat had settled to a comfortable 98 degrees. As notions of the phantasmal still circulated in my mind, I became aware of a most peculiar sound. Somewhere, very close at hand, something was sucking. I walked across the intersection of two sets of pontoons and stopped to look around. Yachts bobbing gently, not a creature in sight. The sound was now much louder and it was at my feet. I looked down. Gazing up at me were a hundred pairs of round, unblinking eyes and a hundred gaping, gasping mouths. The mouths were big enough to take a baby’s fist and they were fringed with black whiskers.

Catfish.

Thick velvety bodies squirmed and writhed in the water as the fish strove to elicit the breadcrumbs that passing humans throw them. As I stared down in fascinated horror the picture swung round and I found myself wondering what they saw, what kind of figure it was that loomed in those pale, supplicating eyes.

But where’s the Prizm? Back on dry land I can’t see my car anywhere. Scanning the rows of parked vehicles I double take and realise that I’m looking straight at the car, but something isn’t quite right. It takes a couple of seconds to register: the licence plates have gone! Suddenly the world turns over and I’m seized with a panicking dread. It’s all perfectly clear: Government agents, who routinely tap Glenn Campbell’s phone, have discovered that tomorrow I shall be travelling to Rachel in order to get near Area 51. This is their message, just like the one they left in the car belonging to Bob Lazar. Without licence plates I’m a sitting duck, a plaything for the Highway Patrol who can bust me whenever they feel like it.

George Knapp is a reporter and newscaster with KLAS-TV in Las Vegas. In 1989 he was approached by John Lear, a colourful UFO researcher who had claimed, among other things, that praying mantis-like aliens, more advanced than us by a billion years, were providing the Government with their technology in exchange for the right to conduct genetic engineering experiments with our womenfolk. Lear told Knapp of a man called Bob Lazar who had worked in Area 51 and had something of a tale to tell. Knapp tracked down Lazar and set up a TV interview that had sceptics catching their breath and the credulous on their knees weeping with relief.

So I’m sitting there with George and he seems a perfectly rational, collected guy – a no-bullshit professional investigative reporter who has spent years dealing with conmen, fraudsters and your bottom line delusionals. And George buys it. He believes it when Bob says we are not alone. Something starts to shift inside me. What if…? Oh, but surely not! You’ll be an abductee next! It must be the heat.

As we stroll out to the studio foyer George tells me that Bob Lazar was a scared and reluctant interviewee who had intimated more than once that people were out to silence him. On one occasion, Bob, who carried a hand-gun in the glove compartment of his car, left the vehicle in a parking lot for the day. When he returned the trunk, the hood and all four doors were wide open. The glove compartment was open too, and the hand-gun was just sitting there, for all to see. George went over to Bob’s place a while after that and Bob wouldn’t open the door. George convinced him it was alright so Bob started sliding back the bolts. The door opened and Bob stood there sweating with fear and clutching a Uzi submachine-gun.

“We put Bob on the air, blacked out his face and asked him who he’d worked for and what he’d seen. And he told us. He’d been out at the location called S-4, south of Groom Lake, at Papoose Dry Lake bed, and it has this series of interconnected hangars and inside were the nine flying disks, what he called ‘The Variety Pack’. I thought ‘If this were true it could be the story of the century.’” Yes, but what about corroboration? “I’ve found a lot of it. In the six years since the story broke I’ve had more than two dozen people who’ve had bits and pieces of the same story – people who worked there through the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, people who didn’t know each other or that each was talking to me.”

Back at the hotel in Vegas I can’t get to sleep. The air-conditioning is shot and my personal porosity reading is at colander level. I open my eyes and instantly go rigid with terror. Floating across the room towards me is a six foot high, multi-faceted red diamond. It stops at the foot of my bed and hovers. It’s the Whitley Strieber author of “Communion” (1986) thing! Little grey guys with big eyes are about to do sex operations on my mind! The government is in league with creatures from the Pleiades! I sit bolt upright and blink insistently. The diamond disappears. I leap out of bed, put the light on and gaze at the ceiling. The tiny red light on the smoke detector is designed to blink on and off at regular intervals to signal its readiness. The insomniac eye distorts small points of light.

8 a.m. at Alamo car hire. “Yeah, they steal the plates all the time. Put them on their own vehicles so’s they don’t have to pay.” He gives me a very big Buick to make up for my disappointment. I love him and want him to come on holiday with me. Ten miles up Route 93 en route to Rachel, the speedometer cuts out. I’m driving alongside Nellis Air Base. Scrub, sagebrush and Joshua trees stretch to the horizon in all directions. Not a car to be seen. Off to my right is a range of parched grey hills. Three helicopters flying in echelon hurtle out of a ravine and take up a position four hundred yards away and about a hundred feet up, just over my shoulder in the blind spot. Without a doubt it’s the Jim Keith ˜Black Helicopters Over America˜(1995) thing, where the notorious conspiracy researcher and Patriot Movement sympathiser documents ‘the mysterious phenomena of black helicopters which have been seen all over America and often linked with mysterious troop movements and shipments of war material and strange things which are taking place in terms of a consolidation of the new world order’!

I peer casually over my shoulder. Okay, so they’re not black, they’re dark green. But they’re definitely trailing me. After about ten minutes during which I adhere faultlessly to the speed limit, the ominous escort moves ahead, flies a mile down the highway, crosses in front of me and hovers eight feet off the ground about a hundred yards from the road. I drive through the dust cloud affecting nonchalance. The choppers let me pass then vanish into the hills.

 

Hours of scrub later I come across a settlement of about fifty mobile homes, one gas station, a general store and a bar. This is Rachel, pop. 100, elev. 4970, gateway to Dreamland. Glenn Campbell’s Area 51 Research Center is a battered brown trailer set beside a small lawn on which are playing three blond children and two dogs. Running the office in PsychoSpy’s absence is the mother of the kids, a waif-like young woman called Sharon Singer. I ask her what she makes of this UFO business. “You sure you wanna know?” Definitely. “Okay. I’m a Christian and I believe that the aliens are part of the fallen troops of Satan. They are demons sent here for the final deception of the world. The New Age movement is telling people that there’s gonna be a planetary cleansing and that they’re gonna remove the menaces to society and I believe they’re gonna to tell their people this after Jesus Christ returns and takes His body home – takes the Christians up to Heaven – and that’s how they’re gonna explain this away, they’ll say ‘Oh, the UFOs took’em, they were a menace to society, now we can go on with human evolution, now we’re Gods.’”

Sharon, I wonder if you could just run that last bit past me one more time? “Yeah. This UFO thing, it’s the biggest lie that’s ever been. They come from the Second Heavens, that’s where Satan and his troops abide, that’s their domain, and I do believe that they’re actually there.” Where is Second Heaven? “That’s from where the ozone layer stops. It’s outer space.” So what happens to the non-Christians who don’t get to go to First Heaven? “Okay, the Christians will go for a seven year party, in Heaven – the Wedding Feast – and the people here are gonna be left for the seven year Tribulation, where the AntiChrist will reign. It’s gonna get hard here on Earth, you’re gonna have to have the Mark of the Beast in order to buy, sell or trade. Then after seven years Satan will be locked up and Jesus will hold the key.”

Over at the Little Ale’Inn – Earthlings Always Welcome – proprietress Pat Travis deepens the theme. First of all, though, she indulges the ritual that must preface all conversations about flying objects: the citing of the sighting. “A beam of light came through the centre of our back door, that’s a steel-clad door. It was not an open door, it came through the metal itself as if someone had walked through with a flash-light, but a big one. It illuminated the whole door-jamb. I knew that there were beings in our room. Prior to this we had talked about selling our business and the next day I mentioned it again and my husband said ‘But we’re not selling this – last night you told me that the beings do not want us to leave yet.’ To this day I have no recollection of this at all – he said it was me talking to him but I feel it was them talking to him through me.”

Pat believes there are definitely live aliens on the Groom Lake base, a belief which is, if you like, Level Three on the Dreamland scale. At the first level you believe that the base is simply a testing ground for highly advanced military aircraft. Subscribers to Level Two know that the flying disk that crashed in Roswell was an alien craft ultimately transported to Area 51 for reverse engineering trials with the likes of Bob Lazar. At Level Three, however, not only did the disk crash on the debris field at Foster ranch near Corona, New Mexico (actually a ninety mile drive from Roswell itself), but it then limped on to the impact site on the San Agustin plains west of Socorro, crashed again and disgorged five alien passengers. An addendum to this narrative has escape capsules from the damaged craft being found at a third site just north of Roswell, also with aliens on board. The only alien to survive the journey went on to work with the US Government.

Extensions to the Level Three belief shade across into a very dreamy land indeed, where porosity meets paranoia and generates theories of conspiracy so intricate and comprehensive that it seems as if all that is unknown is uncannily linked in a devilish lattice comprising a hidden underworld of deception. This is an ethereal place where haunting landscapes, vast empty spaces and heavy handed government secrecy constitute a psychoactive force that dissolves the membranes of the mind so thoroughly that the inner becomes hopelessly lost in the labyrinths of the outer.

While Glenn Campbell, for example, moves gingerly through this mythic territory, protecting himself with invocations of his academic and folkloric concerns, there are increasing numbers of Americans who have been swept away from the shoreline and are not waving but firing. Pat Travis, clearly not a militant herself, does nevertheless articulate the vector that runs from UFOlogy to an extreme libertarian view of government. It will, she feels, not be long now before the truth about aliens is publicly admitted at the highest level. “But what they’re gonna try and do is say that they’re invading us. And they’re not invading us. The idea is to bring everybody into the circle of the One World Government that they’re trying to pull off on us now. The United Nations are trying to do this and the banks are involved. I don’t believe it’s the US Government per se, I believe it’s…they.”

UFOs as State Theatre. It’s a plaint I’ll hear right across the West. Many people believe it and a handful are acting on it. That’s Level Four and ultimately it leads to Oklahoma. Before I leave Rachel, though, there’s one more thing I have to do.

With Glenn Campbell’s ‘Area 51 Viewer’s Guide’ (a snip at fifteen bucks) beside me in the car, I head south out of town on Highway 375 until I reach the Black Mailbox. The latter, a meeting place for the steady stream of UFO nuts who pass through the area, is described by Campbell as ‘a religious site for True Believers’ and many sightings have been notched up in its vicinity. Most of these are flares dropped during war games exercises, asserts the author, and the mailbox itself is more useful ‘for the busloads of Japanese tourists or anthropologists who want to observe the True Believers.’

A dirt road runs into the desert from the mailbox and after about four miles meets up with Groom Lake Road, which leads directly to the non-existent base. The Buick does pretty well on the bumps, any of which may occasion a jolt to be picked up on the illegal sensors buried by the military in the roadside dirt. If detected, the visitor can look forward to the sight of the ‘Camo Dudes’, security patrols in white Jeep Cherokees who will peer at him through high power binoculars from a ridge within the bounds of the base.

Eight miles later, having paid adhesively close attention to the list of landmarks in the Guide, I slow the car to a crawl. The Guide is explicit: ‘The Border – Restricted Area begins in a blind ravine, just before the road turns a corner. There is no fence or gate, just a half dozen warning signs on either side of the road.’

Right foot hovering above the brake pedal I roll into the ravine. On either side of the road is a large white sign. In recovery from a recent bout of porosity fever I cautiously approach the signs by foot and take advantage of my extreme long sight to read their legend. ‘It is unlawful’, I gather, ‘to enter this area without permission of the Installation Commander.’ At the bottom of the sign, in red, is a disincentive for the cheeky chappie: ‘Use of deadly force is authorized.’

That’s it then. Off to Roswell now, a thousand miles to the east. As I’m bypassing Vegas, the speedo comes on again. Get thee behind me, transmembranous leakage, we’re going back to the 40s where it’s perfectly safe!

Later that night I check into the Hill Top Motel in Kingman, Arizona, an old Route 66 town. The proprietor is a fan of ‘Coronation Street’ and has a signed photograph of Molly Sugden. “Maybe you’d like Room 119,” he says. Why’s that? “Oh, Timothy McVeigh stayed there for five days while he was planning Oklahoma.” Wow. “Yes, a very nice young man, very, very nice. Very polite. And so tidy, he even made the bed in his own room. My maid said the sheets were so tight she could barely move them. Just like he learned in the army.” Perhaps I’ll have 118. “You sure? We had the FBI crawling over that room.”

The mournful whistle of a Santa Fe freight train rolls through the warm night as I float in the motel pool. Why didn’t I take 119, for Heaven’s sake? I could have dined off it, I could have written about it for GQ! It’s porosity again – McVeigh has left a taint of derangement in the room and I don’t want it to infect me. My conversations in Rachel had been so dreamy that my own osmotic shortcomings had, up till this moment, seemed quite manageable. Just who are the fallen troops now?

Leaving Highway 40 at last and heading south down what must be the longest, straightest road in New Mexico, I find myself, every couple of hours or so, overtaking camouflaged camper vans. The drivers invariably wear camo peaked caps and full fatigues, as do their passengers in the back. The ponytails and straggly beards indicate that we’re not talking US army here. Maybe they just have a rugged love of the outdoor life.

South of the windswept hamlets of Encino and Vaughn with their crumbling clapboard store fronts, smashed gas pumps and deserted, peeling motels, the landscape becomes wholly featureless, unless sagebrush and the odd wandering steer still count as a visual occasion. When least expecting it I catch sight of a sign pointing into the desert. Slamming on the brakes I’m gratified to find that this is the road to the ‘UFO Crash Site 1947’. Parked just off the road is a battered four wheel drive. Seated inside is Hub Corn. For fifteen dollars, Hub tells me, I can get a guided tour of the Impact Site. As it happens, he is waiting even now for a party of tourists to arrive, so why don’t I join them?

The release form enjoins me to ‘realize that being on a ranch in the desert may be a hazardous activity including, but not limited to, snakes, scorpions, cactus, lizards and other wild animals, and I hereby accept any and all risks associated with that activity.’ Having released my host, a genial rancher in his early thirties, I follow the 4WD as far as a flooded creek where we find that Hub’s wife Sheila has already assembled the day’s tourists. Two schoolteachers from Amarillo, Texas have brought four silent, sunburned children out to see one of the two, or maybe three, most important places in the world. Also bunched by Sheila’s 4WD is Ron, an amateur UFO researcher from California, accompanied by his son.

We pile in the pickups, squelch through the creek and follow a track over low scrubby hills studded with shattered boulders. Hub explains that he’d gotten so irritated at chasing trespassing UFO nuts off his ranch that he’d decided to give in and make a buck instead. There’s been a big conference in Roswell earlier in the year so Hub had got the bulldozer out, dug a road and levelled out a car park. Business had been brisk.

A corridor of rope hung with blue and white pennants leads from the park to the site. We trudge through the heat and fetch up at a wooden railing. And there, a dozen feet away, halfway down the face of a low ridge is…a bunch of rock. Just like the rock next to it. What you have is some rock, right, and halfway down it some orange and blue paint marks, put there by Hub. They show where the UFO hit.

We stare silently at the rock. I steal a glance at the schoolchildren. A couple of them are looking at their shoes and the smallest one is gazing distractedly at the sky, showing early signs of heat stroke. Ron asks a number of perfectly reasonable questions about angles and so forth. Hub delivers answers in a slow drawl. Sheila holds up a parasol but no one will step into its shade. Minutes pass. The schoolteachers’ eyes wander increasingly off target. A gangly teenage boy with a camcorder covers every exchange, panning abruptly into the crowd whenever someone thinks of a new question. After what feels like many hours but is probably fortyfive minutes, Hub says “Well, if there are no more enquiries.”

Back at the creek, two miracles have taken place. The schoolteachers’ car has developed a flat tyre and Hub and Sheila’s dog has had two puppies. The children, looking uncomfortably baked by now, suddenly become very animated and poke at the puppies with delight. Hub gets under the schoolteachers’ car with a big jack.

Roswell, far from being the grey and dusty stage set of my daydreams, is a bright and bustling town at odds with its location in the middle of nowhere. It has two UFO museums, both packed with maps, photos and texts about The Incident. At the International UFO Museum eager patrons squeeze past each other bearing notebooks, cameras and dictaphones, while the Visitors’ Book attests to the global allure of flying disks. When I boast to the receptionist of my trip to Area 51, several pairs of eyes glance enviously in my direction and a longhaired man in denim overalls approaches with a solemn warning. “You know, they take these energy signatures now. If you get out of the car they have this device that  can record a man’s energy, it takes about seventeen seconds. If you ever go back there they’ll compare your signature to the one they have on computer, to see if you’ve been there before.” Fine with me, friend, I’m not exactly figuring to go back.

Robert Shirkey was a First Lieutenant and Assistant Operations Officer in the USAAF in 1947, stationed in Roswell with the 509th Bomb Group, then the only outfit in the country licensed to carry atomic bombs. Today he is invigilating at the Museum and consents to what he jocularly claims is the day’s 43rd interview. Like many of the accounts available from Incident veterans still resident in the town, Shirkey’s testimony is teasingly slight, a mere fragment of the picture that dedicated researchers claim to have put together from dozens of overlapping stories.

“Colonel Blanchard came in after lunch and asked ‘Where’s the B-29, is it ready to go?’ We said yes so he stepped into the hallway and waved to some people and they came walking through. I asked Colonel Blanchard to turn sideways in the door so I could see too. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that. We watched these people walk through the hall onto the aircraft and several of them were carrying open boxes of material. I saw a cardboard box with pieces of what looked like aluminum foil and I saw the I-beam sticking up in the box that Major Marcel was carrying and I could see that it had some sort of hieroglyphic writing on it. Today I cannot tell you what they were.”
Weather balloon or UFO? Maybe the papery metallic fragments were scraps of then unfamiliar neoprene plastic developed for top secret Project Mogul balloons, destined for high altitude spy flights over Russia to detect nuclear tests but launched experimentally from nearby Alamogordo Air Field throughout June and July of 1947. Maybe the hieroglyphics were simply the flowerlike designs on the reinforcing tape used on the Mogul radar reflectors, designs printed on the tape in the New York City toy factory from which it was obtained. This is the view of the American skeptical movement and sounds rather mundane, undreamy and conclusive.

Heading back to Las Vegas to catch my plane, I travel north of Alamogordo, past White Sands Missile Range and over onto the Plains of San Agustin, where some respected researchers claim that, back in 1947, a number of people watched as a wounded and terrified alien crawled from a second crashed craft. At the western edge of the Plains the bare landscape is broken by long lines of towering white radar reflectors arranged in a Y shape. Known as the Very Large Array, the installation consists of twenty-seven eighty foot steerable dishes set in thirteen mile lines. The radiotelescope is listening to the stars, picking up signals from deepest space. Climbing over the wire fence between the VLA and the highway is a man in combat fatigues, carrying what looks like a powerful crossbow. Parked at the roadside is a camo van. The rear doors are open and two bearded men in fatigues are standing beside them.

Bill Cooper, Managing Director of the militia newspaper ‘Veritas’, a copy of which I purchased from the Little Ale’Inn in Roswell, is also a prominent UFOlogist of the high conspiracy persuasion. Earlier this year in an article for his paper called ‘The Truth About Militias’, he wrote “A nation or world of people who will not use their intelligence are no better than animals who have no intelligence. Such people are beasts of burden and steaks on the table by choice or consent. Find and join a militia or form one of your own.” Not wishing to become a steak on a roadside table, I use my intelligence to drive right on past the camo van and its troops without, I trust, more than an imperceptible sideways glance. What didn’t go away, though, is the question of just what the patriots were up to. If they suspect that the Government is about to orchestrate an alien invasion in order to enforce the New World Order – a nightmare of national and racial porosity – then maybe I had witnessed a crack redneck cadre casing the VLA in a bid to cut the lines of communication between Earth and the Pleiades. Or maybe they were after jackrabbit.

The prospect of contact with extraterrestrial life is, quite simply, enchanting. For most of the UFO community the enchantment is benign and, if one subscribes to a psychological view of folklore, the leakage from the inner onto the outer is directly comparable to those medieval processes that led to the evolution of stories of faerie in which wise, generous and magically assisted beings helped us to manage our lives with greater insight. Just as many stories, however, refer to malevolent, bewitching entities who would enjoy casting us into pain and confusion for eternity.

So is this a way of saying that there is a new medievalism abroad? Of course not – it never went away and has ever been thus. When the aliens do arrive, as they surely will, one of their first tasks will be to wake everybody up to the 21st century.

Mudflat Apogee

First published in GQ 1993

7 a.m. and the machines are still clanking and whirring in the windowless slot halls at the Railroad Pass, a casino hotel at the edge of the Mojave Desert, just outside Las Vegas. Every now and then the slowed-down machine gun stutter of a modest jackpot cuts across the cacophony but no one looks up. The punters slump in their stools and shovel quarters while the ra-ra skirted waitresses track ceaselessly from the bar to the slots with trays bearing cooling coloured liquids in three pint cardboard cups crammed with ice cubes.

 

 

Right across the hall there are signs of life from the outside world. Cheerful families with kids are filing into the restaurant, where breakfast is served casino style, stretch-mark inducing portions twentyfour hours a day for two and a half bucks. Among the clusters of regulation baseball caps and T-shirts one particular set of shirt-front images catches the eye. Picked out in bold orange and turquoise, a grinning skeleton relaxes in a deck-chair in a parched and barren landscape. Held jauntily aloft in his finger-bones is a cocktail glass brimming over with sand. In the background a rocket belches orange flame as it blasts heavenwards from the desert floor. This is not the no-hope logo of a group of fatalistic slotdrunk gamblers however. The brash cartoon signifies membership of the Mojave Desert Advanced Rocketry Society, an affiliate of a nationwide organisation dedicated to the pursuit of a dream that has gripped America since the dawn of the Space Age.

 Five miles down Highway 95 from the Railroad Pass Hotel, the road skirts a dry lake bed. For several miles in each direction the terrain is absolutely flat, a vista of cracked yellowish mud. The Chevy Cavalier has to be eased gently off the tarmac onto a steep incline before it can be rolled down onto the sunbaked crust. It’s past eight in the morning now and the temperature is climbing steadily through the low 90s. Off towards the horizon a thin dark line interrupts the shimmering blankness that runs all the way to the mountains of the McCullough Range. With the air conditioning on max cold and full fan, the car closes on the undulating mirage, trailing a cloud of desiccated dirt. In a couple of minutes the thing takes on substance, lines of parked cars snap into focus and knots of peak-capped people can be discerned beyond them. With an insistent whine a go-kart hurtles past, a blonde and solemn eight year old girl at the wheel: mud-flat speedster heaven. Over the roar of the full fan a voice can be heard booming out of a PA system. “If you’re standing there not watching the rockets and everyone starts running like hell – do the same thing!” This must be Tripoli country.

 The Tripoli Rocketry Association presides over the activities of enthusiasts who build and launch rockets. It publishes the glossy bimonthly magazine ‘High Power Rocketry’ and today its Nevada and California Prefectures are hosting Summerfest ‘93, the biggest of the season’s launches. Californian law dealt the rocketeers a mean blow recently, restricting all launches to a ceiling of 5000 feet. That’s a dot in the sky to you and me but to those in search of apogee at altitude, an 11,000 foot window in Nevada is more than worth the journey into the merciless heat. Besides, those casinos do a can of Budweiser for 75 cents.

 It’s illegal to launch rockets in Britain – there’s nowhere for them to come down. In the USA the hobby has followers in every single state. Enthusiasts build from kits or else start from scratch with cardboard tubing, plastic, fibreglass and aluminium. Motor chambers are filled with short tubular lengths of solid propellant that looks like dog biscuit. Thus powered, a rocket only thirty inches long with a three inch diameter can scorch out of sight in an instant. Imposing twelve to fifteen footers are quite capable of getting to fifty thousand feet, given sufficient motor impulse, but federal regulations generally keep them much lower. Rocket clubs meet at weekends, when the members head for places where there’s plenty of up and nothing at ground level but flatland.

 Between where the cars stop and the launch zone starts is a fifty foot deep cordon sanitaire delineated by two parallel strings of pennants on ropes. Halfway along the outer limit of this no-go lies the range head, nerve centre of the operation. Hard-wired to its control desk are twelve remote launch pads split into three groups. The centre group lies furthest from the desk, about sixty yards away, and accommodates the larger rockets. Pad Three, momentary home of the recently shattered model, is in one of the close groups, reserved for small diameter stuff.

 From the range head outwards is the serious area. Between the inner line of pennants and the parked cars lies the strip dedicated to shade, beer and socialising. Veteran rocketeer Chuck French, seated under a canopy with a cold Bud, cannot fail to have a good time in this spot. This is less to do with his array of creature comforts than his flexible attitude to the launches. “If it goes nice and straight, that’s good. If it goes all squirrelly, throws fins off, the parachute comes out, parts and pieces coming out, that’s good too.”

 Chuck cackles at the prospect and is immediately rewarded with the spectacle of a rocket breaking up in the air above us, nose cone blown asunder and airframe dropping too fast beneath a balled-up parachute. “There’s one right there, heh heh.” A perfect launch, however, is a less dramatic affair. “That’s a good hard flight, ejection at apogee right at the top and then have it float right back down right here where I’m sitting with a beer. Not have to get out of my seat!”

 The doomed rocket is now a few dozen feet from the ground. Whoops of glee can be heard all around the site. “Heads up!” chides the announcer. “It’s doin’ the whoop-de-doos!” snickers Chuck, “Gonna be a good one.” “I put my money on the nose hitting first,” yells the announcer, his  mask of neutrality dissolved once and for all by brazen pranglust. The nose plows straight into the deck with a puff of dust and a big bounce. Elation is unconfined. “Aagh..right! Yay!” The announcer, and several of the guys, are slapping their thighs appreciatively. “Doesn’t take much to make anybody happy here,” observes Chuck’s buddy Mark, with mock contrition. Just in case we were still fuzzy on his own position, Chuck adds “I’m a firm believer if it doesn’t come down with a parachute you want it to come down real hard or go out real spectacular.”

 As the temperature soars more and more rocketeers line up to take a punch at the 5000 foot ceiling negotiated with the Federal Aviation Authority. The agreement guarantees that within certain time brackets aircraft of all types will keep three miles clear of the launch site. At eleven thirty the ceiling will be extended to 11,000 feet, a two hour window created by the FAA to give the altitude crowd a chance to head for the high spots. At this height non-pro rocketry moves abruptly into the realm of the abstract. The lay observer, craning his head and shading his eyes, can see absolutely nothing. The white sun makes him wonder whether his pupils can possibly contract any more, but all around him guys are staring straight up and talking the missile through its paces just like they were astride it. “She’s goin’, she’s goin’.” “Yeah, she’s good.” “Ee-ject!” “We got a parachute. There she goes.”

Slowly the massed heads decline, expertly tracking the microdot through the firmament. Now and again some of those not blessed with extreme long sight will lose visual contact, especially when the chute, usually a bright and colourful item, fails to open. If this subgroup reaches critical mass, its membership will start to shift uneasily from one foot to another, eyes darting about the glare in an attempt to preempt the cranial puncture that must surely be visited upon he who stands hapless at the foot of gravity’s rainbow. On one occasion the lay observer, convinced he has located the incoming, is smiling complacently as others blindly scatter, only to be jerked rudely from his smuggery as twelve feet of nicely painted carpet tubing whistles to earth some two yards from his hired Chevy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outside the car, in the shock heat, the PA is much louder, delivering the message that every novice rocket watcher expects. “And five… four …three…two…ONE!” A slender thirtysix inch tube hurtles up from beyond the cars and streaks away with the urgent sound of ripping silk. “Uh oh! Heads up!” The white vapour trail, a perfect arc drawn against the sky in less than three seconds, has gone crazily erratic, an ugly corkscrew with ominous trajectory. Still under power, the delinquent projectile speeds nose first into the lake bed a couple of hundred yards away. “Aaaah! Somebody go out and step on it – make sure it’s dead!” A rocketeer walks out past the launch pads, shaking his head wryly as he nears the mess of fractured fibreglass and plastic.

All along the social strip are caches of rockets: stacked in pick-up trucks, strapped on saloon roofs, poking out the front of mess tents. Delicate lime green fast burn performance birds a couple of feet long, a scale model of the V2 in original black and white, an eight foot high multi-fin sky climber with immaculate sponsor’s logos. Further piles of projectiles are stacked like logs in front of tables on which rocketeers with X-Acto knives carry out running repairs. Slices of broken fin are deftly excised, sealed with epoxy and sun dried for blast off, all in a few minutes. On other tables propellant blocks are packed into motor tubes then threaded with thermalite ignition cord. Thrust factors, timer specs and newton seconds impulse measures are tossed to and fro in a constant bantering chatter.

 

Although many wives and children are attending the launch, not a single woman steps up to the pad in the course of the day. Scarcely surprising, one might feel, given that paper-back Freud has made us all such nimble decoders of the subtexts of the gleaming projectile, its furious discharge and its lazy descent. Not to mention the unattractive proximity of exploratory rocket to murderous missile. Hobby sadism on a budget; men getting as close to it as they can without actually coming out. The riposte to chattering class psychologism of this order often involves a chiding evocation of the virtues of awe, wonder and the thirst for knowledge, with a coda of ‘Anyway, everything’s dick-stuff at the end of the day, so what’s the difference, spoil-sport?’ And so forth. Which way to turn?

Steve Peterson, a construction worker from Phoenix, may not have the answer at the tip of his tongue but his contribution to non-pro rocketry is contentious by any account. Tall, lean and wiry, he cuts a dash in big shades and a cap with a white kepi, or possibly hanky, protecting his neck. Steve is lolling round the back of one of the shade tents with a woman’s head in his hand. The head is life-size, moulded in rubber with a joke shop blonde wig and staring, mannequin eyes. “This is my ex-wife,” he announces laconically. “I stick it on top of a rocket every time. We name it different names as we go along – they usually aren’t nice.” “Her hair streams nicely, though,” observes the wife of another rocketeer. “Yeah, it’s beautiful when it bounces. A wonderful recovery system, it’s like a ball.” Steve drops the head on the lake bed, catches it as it comes back up, then regales the group with details of his last launch. “The ex-wife got crashed – I didn’t have my delay quite right, the ejection happened about thirty feet off the ground, it drove the head, the head bounced up and the rocket stuffed. But it was beautiful, it worked out just right. The ex-wife got annihilated!”

Steve lends his ex-wife to anybody who wants to see her bounce. “Whoever comes up with an airframe I say ‘Well, you have to name the rocket.’” Two of her most recent sobriquets have been ‘Heads Up’ and ‘Sky Sabre Slut’, the latter reflecting the down grade in reputation that befell the previously uncontaminated ‘Sky Sabre’. The slut’s tormentor has greater things in mind, however. “I have all kinds of weird ideas for rockets.” Really? “Oh, demented ideas. I wanna have a mannequin body fully clothed with the rocket on the inside of the body and then shoot it out where the head will actually lift up out of the body.” Steve’s admirers have wandered off, their enthusiasm waning, perhaps, as the capitator starts getting technical. “I’ve had a hard time finding a body, though,” he confesses, turning away as a rocket rises off the pad nearby. “Hey, ni-i-ice long burn! I love them long burn motors.”

As he goes on to talk about scrabbling for money to pay for rockets and the sweat of keeping the hobby going at all, Steve’s voice takes on a wistful, melancholic tone. For a moment it’s like listening to a small boy, any small boy, keening for marvels that his parents can’t afford. As he comes through that bend, Steve touches on something quite removed from his fantasies of dismemberment. “Once you push that button you don’t have any control. Then all it is is luck, fate and skill all put together and see whether it works right.” An instant later he completes the tight emotional loop that seems to encircle the passions of so many of the rocketeers. “When I launch I figure it’s going to do two things: it’s going to be a beautiful flight or it’s going to be a beautiful flight. Either it’s going to go up and be perfect or it’s going to come down in a blaze of glory that would just be awesome!” His eyes come back off the horizon to our spot in the shade and he nods his head vigorously.

                                       

 

Syd Barrett

Syd died on July 11, 2006. This appreciation of his life appeared in ‘The Observer’ on July 16


On a summer afternoon in 1965 Syd, Paul, Storm, Imo and myself were sitting in my parents’ pleasant back garden in Cambridge. My parents had gone to Australia for six months and I had turned the dustless house into a hipster hostel. Syd and Paul lived round the corner and we used to smoke dope and talk about Jack Kerouac together. Syd, an art student, was involved with a band called Pink Floyd and their work was just starting to get noticed. He was a man without moods, delighted by everyday absurdities, at all times sunny, chuckling and serene.


Earlier in the day Syd and Paul had each taken a heroic dose, as was the custom, of LSD, on a sugar-lump. Syd had giggled for a while then become contemplative. He had found, in my mother’s kitchen, a plum, an orange and a matchbox. He was sitting cross-legged on the manicured lawn, gently cradling the items in his hands, studying them intently. From time to time he would smile at them in a friendly way.


Syd studied his objects for four hours. Paul Charrier found this unwholesome. He strode over to Syd, seized the plum, the orange and the matchbox and jumped up and down on them, roaring jovially. Syd shouted with laughter and Paul began chasing him round the garden. They rushed into the house and up to the bathroom where Paul yanked the shower from its holder, turned it onto cold and proceeded to soak Syd. They played together like six year olds, wrestling, splashing, tearing their shirts off, throwing open the windows and bellowing merrily into the leafy repose of the afternoon.


Like his song lyrics, Syd’s humour was both subtle and silly. On one occasion we were driving around Cambridge in Storm’s old Studebaker when someone observed that something or other was ‘rancid’. Syd instantly shouted “Well ran, Syd!” and the car swerved across Hills Road as we all cackled with delight. It was the way he said them.


He was also very fond of a catchphrase. We used to go to a fearsome pub called ‘The Criterion’, patronised by Teds, beats, undergrads (largely in disguise), American servicemen and short but psychotic youths from the car breaker’s yard. It was wise to go to the toilet in twos and it was there that we stood next to two quiffed Teds discussing their favoured sexual practices. With a connoisseur’s gravity the larger one announced “Me, I like it in the head”. Although my gaze was firmly fixed on the cluster of white disinfectant cakes beneath me in the rancid trough, I couldn’t help noticing that my companion was shaking helplessly. For months afterwards, when one might, for example, finish buying a round of drinks by asking “What about you, Syd?” he would declaim, in a firm but affectless way “I like it in the head.” Sometimes when a conversation briefly faltered he would nod wisely and, a propos of absolutely nothing, say it again. His own laughter – he laughed at his own jokes with a certain grace – was disarming.


Syd moved up to London and a few months later I joined him. We shared a cold-water flat just off the Tottenham Court Road. The room was about twelve by eight with a mattress running down either wall. At the end of the day Syd and I would lie back and discuss our experiences in the big city. We had devised a points system for evaluating celebrities spotted in the street. I recall my Petula Clark sighting being awarded five out of ten while Syd’s Hank B. Marvin got a seven. On another occasion we went to the Zoo and were much taken with the spectacle of an orang-utang using a hairy fore-finger to prise chunks of shit from its arse then convey them to its mouth. Syd dashed off a sketch of the incident and pinned it to the wall. It had great economy of line and considerable compositional elegance.


All this lightness left him. As the hallucinogens and the downers ploughed through he became morose with his friends and a professional nightmare for the band. He wasn’t helped by the romantic culture of madness that surrounded him- a wilful misreading of the revolutionary but fashionable work of R.D. Laing persuaded many of those around him, myself included, that it was, like, uncool to interfere with Syd’s trip because he was, like, on a journey.


By 1967 Syd Barrett had taken so much acid that his beauty and his cheerfulness were extinguished. He stood on stage arhythmically strumming an untuned guitar, his hair bedraggled, black eye-liner running down his pallid cheeks, confronting his fans with a sullen thousand yard stare. Not only Syd but the rest of the band were at their wits’ end. They let him go and, after languishing mute and unapproachable in Earls Court for a while, he walked back home to Cambridge. With the help of his sister, Rosemary, he shunned the world in a small house for several decades.


Before Syd left London I’d see him in the street now and again. He looked straight through me. There seemed to be no whites in his eyes. I never saw him again.


It’s tempting to read the episode in the garden as an early sign of an inwardness that would later consume him. This entails our subscription to the ‘beast in the basement’ analysis, wherein Syd’s sunniness was merely a tissue draped across a psychic disaster waiting to happen. Another view is that the acid ripped up his brain forever. His serotonin reuptake was fucked bigtime. There seem to be no reliable diagnostic tools available here. We describe him as an ‘acid casualty’ and leave it at that.


But then there’s the photo. The iconic unshaven tortured portrait. It’s in all the papers. Clearly Syd serves a purpose. He gives us, for forty years, something very satisfying. The image of escape without death. He is alive but deathly still. Syd is undead. This is terribly appealing. It’s appealing in smacked and doe-eyed Pete Doherty: it is possible to die without having to go. Best of both worlds.


Syd was lovely. There are lovely photos of him. Grinning, gorgeous, giggling. That’s how I will remember him.

Terry Gilliam

This piece was first published in Icon magazine in 1998

“I wanted to keep him away from the film,” says Terry Gilliam, film-maker, of Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist. “His chaotic behaviour would not work there.” This is curious. It’s true that Thompson, a known wildman, has acquired an impressive reputation for his mastery of drugs, booze and high-powered weaponry, but one might imagine that 57 year old ‘Monty Python’ founder member Terry Gilliam could match him shot for shot. The director of such anarchic and visually dense flights of fantasy as ‘Brazil’, ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ and ‘Twelve Monkeys’, Gilliam has come to be seen as a force of misrule both on and off the screen. Surely he would embrace Hunter Thompson’s flamboyant eccentricity with open arms.

The truth of the matter is that Gilliam is a man for whom a fine balance is all. In his films, in the making of his films and in the conduct of his life Gilliam constructs a relationship between order and disorder that often unnerves those around him. Sometimes he thrives in the chaos that he generates, sometimes his sallies into wildness have disastrous results that threaten to destroy his career.


The contradictions abound. Gilliam started his professional life in cartoon animation, a medium that demands a slow, painstaking precision quite at odds with the themes of abandonment that his work celebrates. His attitude to Hunter Thompson, whom one might imagine to be a soul mate, suggests that, for Gilliam, wildness is all very well as long as it’s kept firmly in its place.


The film that its director wished to protect is, of course, Gilliam’s version of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, starring Johnny Depp and currently scheduled for a Spring release. The movie is based on Thompson’s legendary account, first published in ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine in 1971, of the hallucinated journey of Thompson alter ego Raoul Duke and his attorney, Oscar Acosta, to Las Vegas in order to cover the Mint 400 off-road race. ‘Fear and Loathing’, subtitled ‘A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’, was published as a book in 1972 and won the intense admiration of multitudes of those who Just Say Yes for its integration of Odyssean quest themes with the most scabrously lurid, no-holds-barred, no-substance-too-hair-raising chronicle of excess that did for psycho-tropic drugs what the Marquis de Sade did for animals and hand-maidens in ‘100 Days of Sodom’.

Despite Terry Gilliam’s circumspect approach to the erratic author of ‘Fear and Loathing’, the director’s latest project is, in terms of spirit, squarely aligned with the body of work he has produced over the last thirty years. The quality that links spirit to visual content is, in Gilliam’s case, effervescence. The frames of his movies are thick with detail, layered plane upon plane and receding into architectures that are both labyrinthine and cavernous. Costumes are elaborate and objects are exotic – qualities that can readily be applied to the characters that inhabit Gilliam’s narratives. The films typically foreground men distinguished by their unruly energies and vaulting imaginations. Although they are often pitted, like Sam Lowry in ‘Brazil’, against byzantine bureaucracies or, like Parry in ‘The Fisher King’, against oppressive convention, there is invariably a suggestion that those with a soaring spirit deserve to fly even though they are as likely to find degradation as redemption.


Gilliam first came to prominence with the cheerfully violent animated links that he produced for British TV’s ground-breaking comedy series ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. In the early seventies the show was phenomenally successful, its inspired daftness and absurdist anti-authoritarianism genuinely revolutionising the state of the nation’s humour. The word ‘Pythonesque’ was understood right across the Isles and Tuesday nights (or was it Wednesday?) became a stay-at-home fixture of crucial importance. Gilliam was the only American in the six-man team yet his humour was perfectly attuned to the British sense of the odd. The trademark Python peculiarity was not merely a variety of silliness, though. It had a dark and even troubling side that would surface in a less whimsical form in much of Gilliam’s later film work.


Invited to talk about his earliest years, Gilliam kicks off with gusto, holding forth so energetically that, several hours later, his voice will eventually grow hoarse and compel him to stop. “Yes, my father was a carpenter…” He pauses, grinning impishly. “And my mother was a Virgin!” He bellows with laughter, “I’m the Messiah!”


Born in 1940 in Minneapolis, Gilliam locked into his vocation at an early age. “As a kid, animation was the thing I loved,” he recalls. “I don’t know if ‘Snow White’ was the first movie I saw but it certainly feels like it. I was a huge Disney fan and I had all these books on ‘How to Draw Cartoons’, full of Betty Boop and all of those figures.”

Like the Surrealist painters, animators work in an imaginative world in which all things have the potential to turn into other things. Seen in these terms, animation has an affinity with chaos that belies its rigid technical nature. When this fascination with the fluidity of appearances is applied to a project like ‘Fear and Loathing’ it becomes clear that Hunter Thompson’s narcotised and shape-shifting vision of America will be well served.
“My mother,” Gilliam continues, “has early drawings of mine where I was taking Hoovers and common household appliances and turning them into Martians.” Why does he think he did this? “Why? Because I’m a mutant. It’s called mutation. I’m a freak!”

The freak also had a strong attachment to all things medieval. Much later on this obsession would inform the narratives of some of his films and also provide him with sublime models of conduct befitting a man who had come to see his life as a quest for the integration of the unfettered imagination with the unforgiving world.

When he was thirteen Gilliam’s family moved to suburban L.A. and Terry found further novel uses for household objects. “I’d take a five gallon ice cream carton, cut a slit and make a knight’s helmet out of it, using eucalyptus branches as a sword.” The boy wasn’t just transposing the Wild West to Arthurian Albion, however. His interest, initially kindled by movies like ‘Ivanhoe’ and an avid reading of knightly epics, also ran to matters of specific period detail. “I loved heraldry – right from the start I was designing my own shields. I loved chevrons! Dragons, mythic beasts – they just appealed to me from a very early age. It works on different levels – viscerally, archetypically and as a design focus.”


By his late teens Gilliam was starting to go public with his obsessions. “My dad used to bring home these four by eight boxes that had held these panels he’d installed in office buildings. When you spread them out you had eight by eight of corrugated cardboard!” Such bounty could not be left unprocessed. With minutes to go before the doors would open for the Senior Prom, a manically active Gilliam would be putting the final touches to the towering medieval castle facades that fronted the stage. “No one had access to cardboard that size! I made castles for years – you can get inside them and be safe from all of the dangers of the world.”

Almost as an afterthought Gilliam mentions another aspect of his late teen years. “I was going to be a missionary. I went through college on a Presbyterian fellowship. I was a right little zealot.” The need to reconcile the pull between freakish self-expression and zealous self-discipline seems admirably served by medieval legend, which delivers equal doses of derring-do and adherence to the purest principles.

Years later Gilliam’s skills in Higher Cardboard would resurface in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. “The National Trust, who owned all the castles we’d booked, threw us out with two weeks to go,” he says ruefully. “They said that comedians would not respect the dignity and fabric of the buildings. So half the castles you see are just cut-outs stuck up on hills. It’s like life is just one big circle that keeps going round and round.”


The youthful preoccupation with the Middle Ages never went away. In addition to ‘Holy Grail’ (1974) it can be seen at its most visually explicit in the early movies – floridly in ‘Jabberwocky’ (1977), intermittently in ‘Time Bandits’ (1980), updated to a 15th/16th century hybrid in ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) and glimpsed in ‘The Fisher King’ (1991).
But what on earth can an unrepentant medievalist bring to the deranged and wanton psychopharmacological fever dream that is ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’? Gilliam’s answer establishes that his key obsessions are very much alive in this context. “It’s about two crusading people whom the world has let down in some way. The spirit of the book is about excess. Right at the start there’s a Dr Johnson quote ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’ This is all about the loss and failure of the Sixties and here we have two characters who go to excess in order to get to the heart of the American dream.”


It is not only Hunter Thompson’s fictional characters who are disillusioned by the sting in the tail of the Sixties. Gilliam himself was so upset by the turnabout in the national mood that he left America for England and has lived there ever since. Nicola Pecarini, Director of Photography on ‘Fear and Loathing’, has a keen appreciation of the film’s meaning for its director. “I discovered how important the movie is for America and especially how important it is for Terry,” he says. “It’s all about why he decided to leave: the start of the Vietnam war and the crushing of ideals – the same ideals that Hunter has.”


Medieval legend, with its epic tales of wounding and renewal, is clearly a more reliable source of ideals. Paradoxically, when the visual references to the period are at their most sparse, Gilliam’s real use for the medieval becomes clearer. In ‘The Fisher King’, two emotionally damaged men (played by Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges) in present day New York act out elements of a medieval fertility legend and regain their lost wholeness. The Robin Williams character sees himself enwrapped in the medieval story of the Fisher King who, as a boy, had a vision of the Holy Grail bathed in fire, only to wound himself badly when he reached out to take it. The King does not recover until a Fool gives him a cup of water. His wound is healed and he sees the Grail again.


Terry Gilliam implicates himself deeply in this mystical narrative of the healing quest. Within the movie itself, he admits to a very close involvement with both his protagonists – “I’m an actor-director, I identify with the characters to the point that I’m an actor: I am that character, so I see the film through their eyes. I got confused at certain points because I was both Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges.”

‘The Fisher King’ was made after the disastrous ‘Baron Munchausen’, a project that went dramatically over budget and well over length, was almost taken over by the studio and only returned on condition it be cut to two hours. The movie is a prime example of Gilliam-driven chaos untempered by control wherein the director got so caught up in constructing elaborate set pieces that the whole operation went into orbit. Gilliam reluctantly complied with the studio’s strictures but Columbia Pictures punished him by making only 117 prints for the entire American release. For a while it looked as the director would never work again. Gilliam’s confidence was shot. “So ‘Fisher King’ was a healing thing,” the director confesses. “The male characters are broken people, they’ve got to come back. That was a movie definitely done after a battering.” The medieval, for Gilliam, has become not only a source of imagery and inspirational deeds but a place in which to lick wounds and touch base.


Over the years nearly twenty attempts have been made to adapt ‘Fear and Loathing’ for the screen. Adaptations have been circulating since the 70s and Jack Nicholson was among the many who took options and hired writers to wrestle with the novel’s intractable shape and style. In 1980 Art Linson directed a Bill Murray vehicle called ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’, employing Hunter Thompson as ‘executive consultant’ and depicting the latter’s unique approach to self-medication. It didn’t do well.

British film-maker Alex Cox had the penultimate crack at the book. Viewed as a maverick for his eschewal of mainstream Hollywood values and tending to view himself somewhat as an auteur, it seems that Cox, according to parties closely involved with the project, had a vision for the film that was very much at odds with the essence of Hunter Thompson’s original. Adamant that he could successfully impose this view, Cox dug his heels in to such an extent that he alienated some of the key players.


The script went the rounds again, at one point turning up on the desk of Terry Gilliam’s agent. Gilliam had admired the book for years and, despite the fact that he rarely works with screenplays that he hasn’t written himself, eagerly took up the baton. Patrick Cassavetti, a producer on ‘Fear and Loathing’, takes up the story. “Philosophically and spiritually it felt right to Terry and he was the one director who could make it manageable. But the option on the book was about to expire, Johnny Depp had been waiting around overlong and we had another project going that we had to launch in 1998. We had to start straight away but we thought that was okay – gonzo journalism is done on the same basis.”

Gilliam rejected Cox’s screenplay and found he had ten days to come up with another one. He teamed up with Tony Grisoni, who had recently written ‘Queen of Hearts’. Initially Grisoni had problems with gonzo journalism, Hunter Thompson’s term for that branch of reportage which does not distinguish between the crazed mental state of the reporter and the objective reality to which the reporter is struggling to attune. “Gonzo works for a novel, it doesn’t really work for a movie script,” Grisoni explains, “You’ve got to try and shape it without destroying the spirit of that.”


In May ’97 the two writers assembled daily beside Gilliam’s espresso coffee machine in his London house. “We just laid into it,” says Grisoni, ‘I’d sit at the keyboard and we’d talk and talk and I’d keep typing. Terry insisted that if we needed a line, rather than invent one we’d find one from somewhere in the book and pull it in. Hunter Thompson’s writing is so particular…I can’t do better than that. Nor can Terry.”


Halfway through the novel, Grisoni felt, the narrative becomes unworkably shapeless. The writers had to have a clear strategy. “We decided to build up to this drug, adrenochrome, the drug to end all drugs. He takes it and boom! He goes out. When he comes to, time has passed and things have happened. All he has is his tape recorder, which he plays back, gradually piecing the missing time together.”

In order to impose an evolving rhythm on the screenplay the writers decided to heighten the counterpoint of relationships in the story. “There’s an interesting seesaw business going on between Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo (the attorney, renamed for the film). One is more in control than the other then the power switches. This goes on all the way through. Gonzo exhibits more and more dangerous signs of mental disorder and gives us a character progression.”

Grisoni is hard pressed to identify the specialities of each of the members of the screenwriting partnership. Both men, he asserts, are fundamentally concerned with structure and shape yet manage to construct a genuinely flexible working atmosphere. “The great thing is that you’re encouraged to come up with a thousand lousy ideas for the sake of the one good one. We were working at speed and this had a headlong energy that was right for the tale. It helped you not be too self-conscious. I learned a lot about trusting to instinct.”


Gilliam’s skill at setting up zones of creative chaos within orderly structures is not restricted to the making of screenplays. Like Grisoni, Alex McDowell, production designer on ‘Fear and Loathing’, found the director focused but elastic in the pre-production process. “Two weeks before anyone else started, Terry and Julie Weiss, the costume designer, and I went through the script in a meandering, lateral kind of way.” In the course of this protracted brainstorming session ideas for atmospheres and images began to emerge.
Gilliam had described the film as ‘Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno’ and proposed an organising vision for the character of Duke that was carried through all stages of the project. “Terry likened him to a war correspondent out there in a battlezone,” Tony Grisoni recalls. “And ‘out there’ is also inside him: the drugs are a sort of carpet bombing.” McDowell found these images crucial. “We talked and talked about where we came from politically,” he explains, “And this got us to all the layers that we were interested in: the Vietnam War, Beirut, they all came up as references.”


Those close to the director agree that he welcomes a genuine creative dialogue. Gilliam confirms this when he describes his working relationship with McDowell. “It’s a leapfrogging process,” he says. “I’ve got very strong ideas, he’s got very strong ideas. I do sketches, I get photographs, paintings, I gather research and reference material. Then I start designing the stuff. Then the designer comes on and says ‘What about this?’ and a dialogue starts. They come up with a good idea, and I come up with a better idea and they come up with a better idea than mine. And we do it.”
Once the director and designers had reached agreement in depth on the look of the thing, there was an abrupt change of gear. “Terry was off with the actors and I’m left,” says McDowell. “We didn’t see him much until the shoot.”


While Gilliam was talking visuals, his lead actor was getting to grips with the legend he had been hired to portray. Thompson has, in the past, been known to have suffered fools very reluctantly indeed. Callow journalists, for example, have had shotguns fired off (but not at them) in their proximity and rubbernecking visitors have been submitted to gruelling trials by intoxication. Depp, a Hollywood godling, was really going to have to pass muster. In fact it all went terribly well.


“Johnny and Hunter spent an enormous amount of time together at the beginning, up at Hunter’s place,” says Gilliam. For the director this was a vital hands-off period, but when it had to be wound up a certain delicacy was in order. “Then I came on board and suddenly I was stealing his creation. It’s like ‘Johnny is spending more time with Terry! Whoa!’ Suddenly jealousy is rearing its ugly head and it gets very strange.” This faintly petulant tug-of-war between the dukes of disorder is, however, only the interest paid on a shrewdly packaged loan, as Gilliam points out. “The more Johnny can absorb from Hunter the better because then I don’t have to do that research – Johnny will be the one to be truthful to what the character is.”

Although he won’t say as much, Gilliam seems not to have enjoyed the three weeks of location work that opened filming on ‘Fear & Loathing’. He refers to the fact that Las Vegas, with its mythic, monolithic public image well established, doesn’t really need film-makers or their money and consequently accommodates them rather begrudgingly. “We wanted to film in a casino, obviously, and the only time they’d give us was between two and six in the morning! And they insisted that the extras did real gambling! I just hope our people made some money!”


The movie was made in a hurry on a modest budget ($18.5m) and at times resources – human ones – were overstretched. Again, Gilliam will not commit himself in any detail – “It had to be a good shoot, we didn’t have a choice but I don’t think it was a well organised film. Its birth was not easy. It was always rough and things didn’t go the way I wanted them to. Certain people didn’t… I’m not going to name names but it was a strange film, like one leg was shorter than the other. There was all sorts of chaos.”


Nicola Pecarini is convinced that Gilliam is a master of chaos. “For example, in Bazooka Circus, you’ve got 400 extras in 70s hair dos and twenty seamstresses and costumiers on a three am call to get the first 200 ready by eight thirty. Terry walks in and asks for one little change and right there: Boom! Chaos! He’d deny it but it’s unconsciously deliberate. Chaos gives you adrenalin and speed and it awakes your senses. That’s how he likes it.” Designer Alex McDowell argues that Gilliam injects disorder when the constraints of shooting get on top of him. “He’s getting the most pressure from the most people and he gets round it by creating chaos to give himself space. There’s a lot more tension in the air when he’s on the set.”
“But Terry takes chaos very far,” says Nicola Pecarini. “And there is an amazing order in his chaos! He chooses the people next to him to handle the solutions to this and sometimes they can’t handle it. We had two of them just cracked up.”


Clearly there’s good chaos and bad chaos. Sometimes the most tiresome and inauspicious situations goad Gilliam into conjuring up the good stuff. “Somebody says ‘Hey, the sun is going!’ and I go ‘So why the fuck are we still on this shot? Come on! We gotta move! Go! Johnny, get in there, look there, say those words! Shoot, shoot! Do it again!’ If you’ve got good people, it works. And some of the best stuff comes out of that.”


The very best chaos, though, is born out of total control. This means sound stage. This means big crew, much hierarchy, lots of delegation. Take the Bazooka Circus setup. In the novel, Duke and his attorney experience serious madness in the venerable Circus Circus casino. Lawsuits being so terribly compromising these days, the producers change the name and the crew gets building. A three tier set is constructed on the stage and Gilliam braces himself for a big one.


“Ellen Patterson was the coordinator of that sequence. She had to just keep badgering me: ‘Answer this, Terry’, ‘What’s this?’, ‘What’s happening here?’, ‘What do you want there?’ – I told you – ‘No you didn’t!’ – Yes I did, that’s what I want. – ‘That’s all you get. Bye!’ So what I need is people who pester me, which is not the way most directors work.” The London-based American has severed his connections not just with his country of birth but the deferential ways of its most renowned industry. “In Hollywood the idea of pestering the director and treating him like this child who needs to come up with the goods, they find that hard to do.”

Ensconced in the set, the child director knows what he likes. “What I want is to have enough toys around, enough things: props, people, sets, anything. Toys! If somebody says ‘Oh, shit, that’s not working’, well ‘Fuck, that’ll do it, we’ll start out on that instead.'” This thing with things stems from the earliest days of Gilliam’s career. “It’s almost like doing animation again because it’s just me and these things – I’m in control. My mind is very good at juxtaposing, assembling things and that’s what the animation was all about. Suddenly – ooh, there’s an idea comes out of that. Those are the moments I really find exhilarating on a film.”

As soon as he has shot the movie, Gilliam can’t wait to get back to his family, back to the country steeped in the epic history that he finds so inspiring. In a suite in London’s Soho film district, ‘Fear and Loathing’s editors are cutting diligently for a screening at Cannes in May. Next door, in his office, Terry Gilliam is talking flat out. His arms are flailing, he breaks off every few minutes to cough convulsively and his voice is worn down to a croak. The interviewer starts to feel guilty, as if he were heedlessly exploiting this generous man. But the man keeps going. That question at the back of our minds, for instance…”Yeah – the strange thing is, I don’t take drugs. I’ve never had acid in my life. Never had peyote, never had mescaline. Marijuana makes me implode, I go numb. I never had acid because I thought I’d try to fly out the window. I don’t want to fly, I can fly. This is a thing I know.”

What the connoisseur of disorder knows very well is the border country. You don’t pitch camp on either side, you hover over the middle, taking the best of both worlds. Not like the young King who snatches at the Grail and is burned; not like the wounded monarch rigid with melancholy. Not even like the Fool, who does the right thing without realising it. Terry Gilliam knows he has to keep circulating, even when he’s with fellow wildmen. Especially then. “I wanted to keep Hunter at bay. That’s the only way I could treat him and the book with the disrespect they deserved.” He coughs alarmingly, loosening strands from his pony-tail, then looks across the desk. “You must have enough now.”


¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶

1998

Terence McKenna

This piece was first published in ‘The Daily Telegraph’

Things are starting to go squirrelly in the Amazon basin. Terence McKenna’s brother Dennis has been eating magic mushrooms and is behaving in a most peculiar way. He has just told Terence that he has rung their mother back in the States. Terence is not impressed. Mother had died the previous year and in the tiny Colombian riverside settlement of La Chorrera there are no phones. Dennis insists. Mother had been watching the World Series on TV and had refused to believe it was Dennis on the phone because, she said, she could see his three year old body, fast asleep, right in front of her eyes.

Dennis explains: under the influence of the hallucinogenic drug he has learned how to phone back into the past. Although he had placed the call on March 6, 1971, Mother was actually speaking from 1953.


March is proving to be a testing month for all five of the Americans on the expedition. They had originally met a few years earlier on the campus in Berkeley, becoming firm friends as they shot the rapids of insurrectionary politics and sailed blissfully through the dope haze of the 1968 Summer of Love. Majoring in the psychedelic experience, they had learned that other worlds existed at the periphery of the everyday, worlds that beckoned with such insistence that the graduates determined to force an entry by whatever means proved necessary.


One of Dennis’s more established real world specialities was ethnopharmacology – the study of drugs used by tribal peoples. He knew that some of the strongest hallucinogens in the world were to be found in Colombia, around the upper tributaries of the Rio Putumayo as it snaked along the border with Ecuador and Peru. The old friends regrouped in Vancouver and prepared to fly south.


Like the legendary explorer Colonel Fawcett of Brazil, the McKenna brothers would endure extreme privation and encounter great marvels as they trekked through the jungle. Their story would be the stuff of ripping yarns but with one crucial difference: the interior that the Americans were mapping was not the domain of isolated Amazonian tribes but the exotic landscapes of human consciousness. Their yarn, so they were convinced, was ripping through the fabric of reality itself.


In 1993 Terence McKenna published ‘True Hallucinations – Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise.’ As the subtitle suggests, it has much of the charm of a 1920s Boys’ Own tale yet contains an extraordinary treatise on the author’s outrageous assessment of the nature of consciousness, derived from the repeated ingestion of vines and mushrooms that blow you clear out of your tiny, socialised skull into some very strange places indeed.


The book ranges over topics such as the significance of UFOs, the virtues of ‘heroic dosage’, the Theory of Novelty and the assertion that time will end in 2012. These matters also fuel the dense, witty and infuriating presentations that the writer delivers on the lecture circuit, where he now spends much of his time. Now that LSD ambassador Timothy Leary has departed for the great trip in the sky, McKenna has taken up the mantle of consciousness expansion guru for the 90s. His lectures are invariably packed out, drawing crowds from across a spectrum covering eager ravers on the Ecstasy scene and radical physicists picking at wrinkles in the time-space continuum.


At an event called ‘The Incident’, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, McKenna is due to speak on a panel titled ‘The End of Time’. Framed by a window opening onto a view of Big Ben, a few hundred yards down the Mall from where the Queen lives, the Prince of Paradise relaxes before the show with a thirty minute monologue on on all things wild and woolly. The man Her Majesty would not wish to know is a slight, bearded figure in a tweed jacket and jeans. Nearly fifty now, his hair is flecked with grey and his round spectacles add gravitas to the image of the academic that is so thoroughly belied by his psychedelic track record. McKenna’s voice is simultaneously thin, nasal and piercing. He speaks fast and fluently, constructing long, elegant sentences that generate even longer dissertations on ideas that subvert the most fundamental notions of what it is to be human.


“It is the business of philosophy,” McKenna kicks off, “to try and go beyond appearances, beyond cultural value and individual opinion. To try and establish what, if anything, is really there. What this conference raises for me is the issue of the ambiguity of language and the naiveté of people about such things as the giving of evidence, the recollection of past experience and the way in which reality is built out of language but this essential fact about experience is never stressed.”


So far this is pretty respectable stuff, with just a dash of contentiousness emerging in the business about reality and language. It has, nevertheless, its origins in the events of March, 1971, when Dennis McKenna was making phoneless phone calls into the past. A few days prior to this unsettling event the psychedelic explorers had emerged from the jungle into a large pasture containing, incongruously, a herd of white cattle. Scattered about the field were clusters of Stropharia cubensis, a mushroom containing the potent hallucinogen psilocybin. Terence, Dennis, Dave, Vanessa and Ev gathered them eagerly and ate about six each. In his journal Terence recalls that he spent that night “on an enormously rich and alive, yet gentle and elusive trip. I am left with the sense that by penetrating the local psychedelic flora we have taken a giant step toward deeper understanding. Multifaceted and benevolent, as complex as mescaline, as intense as LSD – the mushroom teaches the right way to live.”


Particularly significant for Terence was the fact that the psilocybin mushroom returned him to the land of the elf chemists. These latter were curious little Smurfs – ‘psychoactive Munchkins’ is Terence’s term for them – who popped into the space created by another drug, dimethyltryptamine or DMT. The first time he took it he entered an alien dimension, “a brightly lit, non-three-dimensional, self-contorting” place utterly unlike the destinations provided by other drugs he’d taken. “I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope’s private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them.”


The elves were full of wisdom and their mode of communication got Terence thinking about how our normal reality is restricted by the way we describe it. “These self-transforming creatures were speaking in a coloured language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent super-conducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels.”


Terence hadn’t had DMT since Berkeley. As far he is concerned, it’s the key. Probably the most powerful mind-altering substance known to mankind, making LSD a mere girl’s blouse by comparison, DMT is smoked as a paste or powder and, within a few seconds of inhalation, deposits the user directly in the lap of God for twenty minutes before dropping him back on Earth with the abiding sensation that he’s just dined on Venus. In the sixties it was known as the ‘business-man’s trip’ because you could effect blast off and re-entry within the space of a lunch hour. Even Terence, no namby-pamby when it comes to inner space travel, was spooked by the drug. “I was aghast, completely appalled. My entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I’ve never actually gotten over it.”


Back in the Arrivals hall of Planet Earth, subsection Berkeley, Terence was compelled to start making sense. He was onto something but it needed considerable clarification. Perhaps ayahuasca was the answer. This brew made from the roots of a jungle vine called Banisteriopsis caapi was used by South American Indian shamans and tribespeople to induce visions. Its active ingredient was a chemical in the tryptamine family, like DMT and psilocybin.


Thus it was that, after warming up on Amazonian mushrooms, the explorers prepared to knock long and hard at the portals of elf-world. The Witoto Indians of La Chorrera were kind to the gringo interlopers, presenting them with a bundle of ayahuasca vines and cuttings along with instructions on how to make up an infusion. One evening they ate some mushrooms and smoked some joints rolled out of vine shavings. The cocktail was a success, generating delicate and beautiful hallucinations that the group dubbed “vegetable television.” This state of mind prompted the explorers to hypothesize that shamans and medicine-men had been whipping up these sundowners for each other since the late Palaeolithic.

Terence discussed other new ideas with the group. Early man, he surmised, could not have failed to eat the mushrooms that grew out of the cow dung left by the herds that the ape-men followed. In consequence, an epoch-making transformation occurred. The psilocybin catalysed the emergence of spoken language among the nomad groups, elevating them from their pack-hunters’ reliance on grunts and hand signals.


A little later the mushroom, which had the ability to speak to its clients, had a word in Terence’s inner ear. It told him that it was, in fact, not of this world but had been borne across the vastness of space from a far distant alien civilisation. The mushroom was an inter-galactic communication device, used to accelerate evolution on planets that might be receptive to its molecular message.


Perhaps at this point we should talk about our misgivings. Is Terence McKenna a dangerous and deluded man? Is this reflective and erudite writer spreading seeds of subversion in much the same way as the mushroom claims to be doing? Should we believe these mushrooms anyway?


The standard objections to drugs comprise arguments about addiction, madness and the social byproducts of these states. Ayahuasca can only be concocted in rain forest jungles so the possibility of its spreading to our own country need not concern us. These days our own hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD and Ecstasy are, on the whole, valued for their recreational potentials. The tryptamine drugs, however, are dramatically anti-social. The user is so comprehensively prostrated by his dosage that the possibility of, say, crime or dancing is out of the question because he is out of this world.


McKenna believes the tryptamines are chemicals with a mission. They come not to bury us but to help us see the world anew. We are, he believes, on the threshold of profound transformations that will involve mankind becoming able to use language that is seen, not spoken. The drugs are gateway lubricants preparing us for our inevitable flight to the stars. It is entirely conceivable that the young and impressionable would wish to savour such mutant delights. It’s probable that their delight would be short-lived. McKenna says of himself “I am not an abuser. Dread is one of the emotions that I feel as I approach the experience. Psychedelic work is like sailing out onto a dark ocean in a little skiff.”


If, nevertheless, we feel censorious urges arising, we might reflect on the ongoing saga of Dennis in the jungle. After partaking of a particularly large pile of mushrooms, Terence’s brother reported hearing a strange, faint sound. Terence asked him to imitate it. Dennis stiffened and suddenly emitted a loud, dry, machine-like buzz. He became very frightened and cried out “I don’t want to become a giant insect!” When he had calmed down he said that an enormous amount of energy had been unleashed with the sound, convincing him that his own voice was directly affecting the rate at which his body processed the drug.


Dennis felt as if he had tapped into some sort of shamanic power. Over the next few days he became fervently, ecstatically possessed with great insights and revelations. He telepathised Terence more than once with unsettling accuracy, he wrote and declaimed fantastic cosmic theories, he asked Terence or Ev to smoke cigarettes for him on the basis that in his expanded realm all human bodies were continuous and he could absorb what he needed from them, without contact. Memorably, he phoned home in the timeless manner already recounted.


We are bound to say that back in the 70s, Dennis, who recovered after a few weeks and is now a respected research pharmacologist, was way out on a schizophrenic limb. Terence would probably chide us for our narrowness of definition. In some cultures what we in the west call schizophrenia is the valued visionary condition of the shaman. So maybe Dennis, maybe Terence too, was seriously intoxicated throughout March, 1971. Have they, nevertheless, anything useful to tell us?


Perhaps use value is the wrong standard to apply. What the McKennas propose may be outlandish but it is certainly fascinating and becomes increasingly topical as the waves of Pre-Millennial Tension start to lap at our ankles. One idea, for instance, that still exercises Terence derives from his experiments with hypercarbolation. “This is what we had named the process of altering the neural DNA and changing man into a hyperdimensional being.”

To cut a complicated story short, Terence picked up on Dennis’ buzzing and elaborated it into the single most grandiose theory he had ever formulated. Tryptamine drugs, amplified by sound wave input, were capable of permanently rewiring the DNA code inside our every cell. This would result in our being able to convert our thoughts into matter. “We thought,” he wrote, “that the field of mind and its will toward the good could be templated onto the genetic engines of life.”


This is the dream of the magicians, that Spirit shall be unified with Matter. It is the stuff of fairy tales, that our wishes will come true. UFOs are instances of the process operating in a hesitant, unacknowledged way. Death will be defeated as humanity moves freely in and out of the museum of eternity. The human project will reach its culmination and we will roam galaxies, free of pain and suffering.


Terence knows he’s outrageous. In his books he frequently admits the possibility that he is a rewired, deluded, pre-Millennial messianic raver. Just as well, really, given that his work is so easy to deride. In conversation this strategic modesty is replaced by a calm, philosophical certainty which, as the sun sets over the Mall, is replaced by his realisation that the End of Time is only five minutes away. He must go to the conference room and defend another of his startling ideas.


Time Wave Zero is Terence’s newest theory. It gives us all another fifteen years on the planet. On December 12th, 2012, for reasons that are frankly baffling, time, which is structured in waves, will stop. The signs are everywhere and the chaos of the late 20th century signifies that the historical process is winding down. Terence has diagrams – they’re quite hard to understand.


Down in the conference room there is a subtle change in his manner. The courteous professor mutates into the guru. He alludes to his psychedelic heroism in a humorous, self-deprecating way reminiscent of the real ale enthusiast bluffly brushing aside reports of last night’s ten pints. His young audience giggles appreciatively and Terence produces another cascade of philosophy that is just beyond their reach – impressive as display but not quite clear enough to grasp.


After the last question from the floor has been taken, Terence has to hurry to Heathrow for the South African leg of the tour. Gathering up his canvas bag he leaves the congregation with two contradictory instructions “All I say is ‘Don’t believe anything anyone tells you and Take Heroic Doses!'” As he strides for the door, the time wave suddenly delivers an image from the 60s. It is Timothy Leary, garlanded, kaftaned and grinning disarmingly as he instructs us to ‘Turn on, Tune in and Drop Out!’ Is this a wave or is it a cycle?

October 1996