The Art of Tripping, a documentary by Storm Thorgerson

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How does this sound? 100 minutes of solidly informative documentary about the use of drugs by artists from the early 19th century on; a production that calls upon a remarkable cast of contributors (see below), with music by David Gilmour, and the whole thing “devised and directed” by Storm Thorgerson, better known as one third of the great Hipgnosis design team.

The Art of Tripping was broadcast in two parts in 1993 during the Without Walls arts strand on Channel 4 (UK). David Gale was the writer, with actor Bernard Hill playing the part of the narrator and guide. The programme managed to deal with a contentious subject without indulging in hysteria or insulting the intelligence of the audience, a rare thing today. Twenty years ago it was still possible to make a documentary about a popular subject without having any low-grade celebrity-du-jour offering their wretched opinion. The contributors here who aren’t medical people are almost all writers of one kind or another; Thorgerson and Gale punctuate the proceedings with a few actors who impersonate various historical figures.

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Without Walls was a very good series on the whole but this for me was a real highlight (no pun intended). In addition to it being a rare example of Storm Thorgerson working in television, the direction showed how it was possible to match the theme without recourse to cliché or flashy visuals. There isn’t a single moment of archive footage either. Thorgerson’s history of “socially unacceptable” drugs is structured as a journey through the levels of a multi-storey building, from ground floor to roof; being familiar with the director’s free-associative working methods I can imagine this being a result of thinking about getting high. Bernard Hill encounters the various commentators in successive rooms, each of which is furnished and lit to suggestively imply the drug in question. The use of lighting as a key motif is a smart one, and another metaphor, of course, for literal and symbolic (or spiritual) illumination. Editing effects are also deployed to thematically correspond to the different substances.

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This would be very successful even without a wide range of contributors but Thorgerson and company assembled a stunning array of different writers, many of whom I’d never seen on TV before, and many of whom didn’t turn up again. Some of them fill dual roles, so JG Ballard is on hand to enthuse about Naked Lunch, and appears later talking about his bad LSD trip. Similarly, Brian Aldiss talks about Anna Kavan, and also about Philip K Dick. Below there’s a rough list of the drugs covered and the people involved. In the two decades since this was made many of the people involved have since died, the director included, so the film now has the feel of a historical artefact. The Art of Tripping can be see in full at YouTube. This is how good British television used to be.

Opium
Dr Virginia Berridge (author), Grevel Lindop (author), Marek Kohn (author), Dr EMR Critchley (author), Phil Daniels (as Thomas De Quincey), Dr Tony Dickenson (neuropharmacologist), Dr Ian Walker (author), Thom Booker (as Edgar Allan Poe), Dr Peggy Reynolds (author)
Hashish
Prof John Hemmings (author), Ronald Hayman (author), Patrick Barlow (as Theophile Gautier), John McEnery (as Charles Baudelaire), Jon Finch (as Gérard de Nerval), Bernard Howells (lecturer, King’s College, London), June Rose (author), John Richardson (author), Margaret Crosland (author), Danny Webb (as Jean Cocteau), Robin Buss (translator), David Gascoyne (poet), George Melly (collector, Surrealist art)
Mescaline
Prof Eric Mottram (University of London), Francis Huxley (nephew of Aldous Huxley), Jay Stevens (author), Laura Huxley (widow of Aldous Huxley),
Psilocybin
Brian Cory (as Robert Graves), Paul O’Prey (author)
Marijuana / Nitrous Oxide
Harry Shapiro (author), Carolyn Cassady (author), Prof Ann Charters (author), Allen Ginsberg (poet)
Kief
Paul Bowles (author)
Heroin
JG Ballard (author), Prof Avital Ronell (author), Hubert Selby Jr (author), Brian Aldiss (author)
LSD
Dr Oscar Janiger (experimental psychiatrist), Diana Quick (as Anaïs Nin), Prof Malcolm Lader (psychopharmacologist), Dr Timothy Leary (author), Todd Boyco (as Andy Warhol)
Amphetamine
Lawrence Sutin (author)
Cocaine
Robert Stone (author), Prof. Annette Dolphin (neuropharmacologist)
MDMA

Previously on { feuilleton }
Storm Thorgerson, 1944–2013
Hipgnosis turkeys
Enter the Void
Opium fiends
La Morphine by Victorien du Saussay
In the Land of Retinal Delights
Haschisch Hallucinations by HE Gowers
Storm Thorgerson: Right But Wrong
Demon rum leads to heroin
The art of LSD
Hep cats
German opium smokers, 1900

Weekend links 102

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Flannery O’Connor with one of her many peacocks.

When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the peacock will face you. Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing haloed suns. This is the moment when most people are silent.

Flannery O’Connor

Essay of the week was without a doubt Living with a Peacock by the great Flannery O’Connor, originally published in Holiday magazine in September 1961. I’d heard about Flannery’s peacocks before but had no idea she was such a pavonomane. Thanks to Jay for the tip!

• “‘He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature.’ But he was more like the very hungry caterpillar, munching his way through every musical influence he came across…” Thomas Jones reviews two new books about David Bowie for the LRB.

• In June Mute Records release The Lost Tapes by Can, a 3-CD collection. Here’s hoping this doesn’t merely repeat the outtakes that’ve been circulating for years as the Canobits bootlegs. This extract is certainly new.

• Animator Suzan Pitt, director of the remarkable Asparagus (1979), discusses her new film, Visitation, inspired, she says, by reading HP Lovecraft in a cabin while wolves howled outside.

Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne, a biography by Robert Fraser reviewed by Iain Sinclair.

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The Dangerous Desire (1936) by Richard Oelze (1900–1980) at But Does It Float.

• Making the Mari: the stuff of nightmares brought into the world by Jefferson Brassfield.

• The Background to the Moorcock Multiverse: Karin L. Kross reviews London Peculiar.

Orson Welles’s lost Heart of Darkness screenplay performed for the first time.

The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome: the new BFI DVD collection reviewed.

• Page designs by Alphonse Mucha for Ilsée, Princess de Tripoli (1897).

• A Slow-Books Manifesto by Maura Kelly.

Tim Parks asks “Do we need stories?”.

Musical table by Kyouei Design.

Horror Asparagus Stories (1966) by The Driving Stupid | Peacock Lady (1971) by Shelagh McDonald | Peacock Tail (2005) by Boards of Canada.