An obituary by comrade and lifelong friend Charlie Radcliffe …
The death of Christopher Gray on May 14 2009 leaves a huge gap in the lives of his many friends and particularly in the lives of his children Maria and Eliane.
I first met Chris at a London anarchist meeting at the Lamb and Flag in June 1966 soon after returning from a trip to Amsterdam, then, with the provos, seen as the centre of the “worldwide revolution of youth”. Chris had already seen THE REBEL WORKER 6 (1), a magazine I had produced with the also recently deceased Franklin Rosemont and his wife Penelope. Chris wanted to buy a copy.
It was the beginning of a disrupted but life-long friendship, perhaps the most important of my life. We talked at length, excitedly, and swapped addresses. Our friendship rapidly developed. Tall, neat, dark-haired, skinny, striking-looking, very intelligent, fastidious, softly spoken and serious but with a ready laugh that often collapsed into hopeless giggles, when something really amused him, the name might be Gray, but the sense of humour, like the clothes, was often black.
Then Chris had recently worked with Conrad Rookes on Chappaqua, an early attempt (with an Ornette Coleman soundtrack) to capture drug consciousness through film. He knew Tangiers and the Paris scene fairly well. Perhaps, most importantly, he had read Situationist International magazines, impressed by both their analysis and their style. I’d simply read and re-read their classic piece on the Watts riots of 1965, The Decline and Fall of the Spectacular Commodity Economy, becoming ever more taken. I’d also remembered IS’s strong support of Spies for Peace. I now rapidly picked up from Chris a much clearer impression of this mysterious group.
Though Chris’s bourgeois background seemed superficially akin to mine our experiences were different. While I had protested with the Committee of 100 in England, he had travelled extensively. Hanging out in Tangiers and Paris’ Beat Hotel, Chris had met and knew several of the leading lights of the cultural avant-garde now burgeoning into an élite within the then new ‘counter-culture’. While my past included a veritable mishmash of ill-digested influences – largely ‘Beat’, anarchist and then surrealist – he was a cultural dissident, led into the ‘new politics’ by an initial interest in the angry young men. By now, however, he had read Antonin Artaud, had pronounced ideas on the Surrealists and Dada-ists as well as on art and anti-art. He was scathing about all avant-garde art – except Dada and to a more limited extent Surrealism. He was equally utterly contemptuous of hippie culture – “the latest slave ideology imported from America” he called it – fingering Barry Miles in particular! Chris and I liked each other immediately and we seemed to be in a very similar frame of mind. Neither of us was interested in ‘old style’ anarchist politics (the only English-speaking libertarian communist groups we respected were THE REBEL WORKER, Solidarity, Resurgence, and later Black Mask). Our views on the future also seemed to gell. He was soon a very close friend.
As I took more and more time off work, Chris and I spent more and more time together, writing, talking, laughing, walking. I suppose each of us cultivated a rebel posture. Chris, wearing black, and looking like an intellectual, very cool, Thom Gunn-type biker, probably more exactly reflected our imagined Dark Host collective image. I was now stuck somewhere in a sartorial Bermuda triangle between mod, Beat and Dylan. We both saw ourselves as rather politicised delinquents; beat-ified blousons with attitude, vandals ready to camp out in the squares of the falling empire, to help it’s collapse with firmly pushing hands and cackling, nihilist merriment. Finding such a sympathetic comrade so soon after the Rosemonts’ departure was a real stroke of fortune: the elation of THE REBEL WORKER 6 days was combusting enthusiastically in new directions.
ACID DROPS! WORK STOPS!
Sometime in July 1966 Chris, his girlfriend Stella, my girlfriend Di and I set off for Berkshire and the enormous grounds of my old school, Wellington College, in Chris’s very old, very battered, somewhat green, Bedford Dormobile van, untaxed, uninsured and unfit for the road.
Finally I was about to take LSD, the infamous acid, soon to be banned as a scourge of youth. Back then I knew very little about LSD25, other than that it had been discovered by a Sandoz research chemist. By then Mr Cube, whose Nebbish make-over of the Daily Express’s crusader logo adorned the paper packaging of British sugar cubes, was already becoming a minor psychedelic celebrity since sugar cubes were reckoned an ideal medium for carrying doses of LSD. Lysergic acid diethylamide 25 had been synthesised from the ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) by the late Dr Albert Hofmann, a Swiss pharmacologist, in 1938.
Outbreaks of ergot poisoning or St Anthony’s Fire, usually from rye bread – ergot is predisposed to rye – had been common throughout Europe up to the early twentieth century. Hofmann’s research into this had initially seemed a dead end, but, a few years later in 1943, Hofmann seemed to hear his rejected potion calling to him, he famously observed that he didn’t discover LSD, it discovered him. As a speaker commented – to enthusiastic applause – at a January 2006 symposium in Basel, Switzerland, to honour Dr Hofmann on his 100th birthday, which I attended with Chris – LSD certainly knew what it was doing! Dr Hofmann duly re-synthesised the drug contained in the ergot. This time LSD took no chances: the ‘accidental absorption’ of a minute quantity of his discovery was enough to propel Dr Hofmann into the first ever acid trip.
Acid’s discovery and first use ran more or less parallel to the Manhattan Project’s development and the Allies’ use of the atom bomb: many acid users considered acid the quintessential antidote to the bomb. Chris had taken acid but I hadn’t found his somewhat dismissive approach (something along the lines of “a total experience leading nowhere and saying nothing” as I recall) either particularly re-assuring or particularly persuasive. I’d read Huxley (though it took far longer to appreciate fully The Doors of Perception’s elegance, wisdom, wit and intelligibility as an introduction to consciousness-expanding drugs), and a few articles about acid. It was already widely used in San Francisco and Amsterdam, not least around the Provo scene, and increasingly in London.
It was a beautiful summer day and the trip was a total revelation. Acid certainly seemed to be the great antidote, not only to the bomb, providing a way of seeing the absolute reality beyond assumed reality, a step outside samsara, dissolving all the barriers, turning the world immediately upside down, but also of understanding it, in ways deeper and more complete than could be achieved by thought alone. It wasn’t an escape from thought but an exploration into soul or spirit, into what it truly meant to be denizen of the planet. It was still hard to verbalise adequately the insights from that first trip, which slowly took form over the following weeks (and months and years). I had no idea then how far-reaching the effects might be.
Chris remained sceptical of acid for many years but by the time I caught up with him again in the new millennium he had changed his views completely, which is why I have dwelt on that first trip. The Acid, published under the pseudonym of Sam by Vision Press this year, is as much a contribution to the politics of the new millennium as it is to psychedelic exploration and may eventually be recognised as being of more single importance than even his seminal situationist assessment of the politics of the 60s, Leaving The Twentieth Century, which will, for many, be his best remembered work.
For Chris there was precious little contradiction between the one and the other and he saw The Acid as a rational and entirely logical development of his 60s and 70s political agenda. He wrote to me in 2003: ‘The issues are so vast and complex – and highly personal… I remember Raoul (Vaneigem) saying somewhere in Banalités de base (The Totality for Kids)  “Sooner or later the IS must define itself as a therapy…” (which probably in the circumstances promptly sealed his fate) but that still seems to me a more ‘positive’ approach to the whole mess of revolutionary psychology. I don’t mean just Guy (Debord), look at the competitiveness, the casual vindictiveness, the wallowing in unworked-through anger so characteristic of the Left. No one, apart from Reich maybe, has made the slightest effort to address this. For me one of the main issues the whole débâcle of l’Internationale situationniste highlights is this need for some clear therapeutic experimentation right at the heart of any future revolutionary upsurge. It’s not peripheral, not a luxury, but the very essence of the matter…’ it’s rather hard to argue otherwise! As the famous acid chemist Nick Sand advises “Read this book”.
Chris helped me produce the first issue of HEATWAVE and was fully involved, as co-editor, with HEATWAVE 2, the magazine that effectively became the open sesame to L’Internationale situationniste. Chris was the effective leader of the English section which later became King Mob after its expulsion by the French. By then I had gradually become less and less political, eventually to be seduced by the lure of dope dealing, but Chris continued his political life through the late 60s, before moving to India in 1969 to join Osho. Chris’ interesting account of this period of his life is in Osho (also by Sam!) His ‘retreat’ to India earned him the opprobrium of the ‘politically committed’ but a close reading of the book is enough to indicate that Chris never turned his back on his political convictions.
I met up with him again at the beginning of the new millennium and we immediately found coincidences in our lives and once again he became a hugely important influence in mine. Highly intelligent as he was, Chris might have appeared somewhat austere to slighter acquaintances but to his friends he was a warm and loving companion, never frightened to offer an opinion but open minded, tolerant, wise, and, whenever the giggles didn’t submerge it, extremely articulate.
The future will be a little more uncertain. The sun will perhaps shine a little less. And I shall sorely miss his wisdom and insight, and above all his forgiving warmth. He was my best friend and I love him.
(1) LEAVING THE TWENTIETH CENTURY Free Fall, London, 1974, most recently republished by Rebel Press, London, 1998, and still probably the best (and undoubtedly the most famous and influential) brief introduction in English to Situationist ideas and history.)
(2) ’L’IS devra se définir tôt ou tard comme thérapeutique: nous sommes prêts a protéger la poésie faite par tous contre la fausse poésie agencée par le pouvoir seul (conditionnemente).’
(Raoul Vaneigem, Banalités de Base, Part Two (p. 39, section 17) L’Internationale situationniste 8, Paris, January 1963.)