It should have been one of the most enduring countercultural unions of the century: Alex Trocchi, avant-garde novelist, drug fiend, pornographer, anti-philosopher, Situationist, former Hudson River scowman and pig farmer and Ronald David Laing, aka R.D. Laing, “mad doctor”, poet and seer of visions. Trocchi, the creator of the Project Sigma organization (such as it was) and Laing, the public embodiment of what would formally become the Philadelphia Association (PA), with its ambition to set up an asylum or “anti-hospital” in which so-called schizophrenics could “live out” their madnesses without mind-numbing drugs, the threat of locked wards, lobotomies or any other form of medical “persecution”.
As Laing himself commented, the two men had much in common (Mullan 215): shared origins in Glasgow; overlapping interests in philosophy, literature and drugs; not to mention various mordant and sometimes quite entertaining character traits.
It should have been one of the most stimulating countercultural unions. But it turned into what? A screw-up? Some people might say that. This article is an attempt to trace the union’s contours.
I’ll begin my account of their relationship with a weekend at Braziers Park, an intentional community situated in a “Gothick” villa on the edge of the Chilterns in the intensively cultivated rolling countryside between Oxford and Reading – though even that has a backstory.
Earlier that year, 1964, one of Laing’s colleagues, probably the social worker Sid Briskin, had placed an advertisement in the New Statesman magazine calling for the gift or loan of a property to house a small community of “young intelligent schizophrenics” (New Statesman 475), and Trocchi had responded – not with the offer of a property, mind – he could barely keep a roof over his own head, – but nonetheless with a something that clearly piqued Laing’s interest.
By the end of June, the two men had become friends – at least that is my reading of a letter from Laing to the American psychiatrist Joe Berke, a letter written just a few days after the Braziers Park meeting, which took place between Friday the 3rd and Sunday the 5th of July. “Last weekend we had a conference (about 30 adults + children) in a country house, to discuss general principles, strategy and tactics, with a number of people who seem to be on the same basic kick,” Laing writes. And then, after a few sentences, follow the observations which nail the length and intensity of the relationship: “I have got to know Trocchi rather closely recently, and look forward to a long future of being together.” (Laing, 8 Jul.)
Organized by the poet, writer, artist, school teacher, and jazz musician Jeff Nuttall, the meeting at Braziers Park was supposed to formalise the relationship, so it is fitting that it was Nuttall who went on to write the most widely-referenced account of it in Bomb Culture (1968), his still very readable book about the failure of the various anti-nuclear peace and disarmament organizations and of that failure’s internalization in the emergence of a neurotic and nihilistic counterculture.
As the book recounts, the late spring and early summer of 1964 was an exciting time not just for Laing and Trocchi, but for everyone who believed that with Project Sigma Trocchi was onto something.
So what was Project Sigma? Why the special hope? Why the excitement? Why the appeal to Laing as well as to other psychiatric doctors as well as to poets, artists and/or other intellectuals? Indeed, why the appeal to anyone? In other words, what did Trocchi have that other self-defined, mid-century revolutionaries didn’t?
Well, for starters, as Laing’s letter makes clear, Trocchi wasn’t merely dabbling or play-acting with revolution; he wasn’t just spouting words; he had tactics and a plan. Moreover, he seemed to have the necessary connections.
In a nutshell, Project Sigma was Trocchi’s name for a body of work and for a combination of networked individuals that would initiate a “cultural revolt” on a level far transcending anything offered by the majority of the more obviously “political” or left-wing ideologies. Its aim was nothing less than an “invisible insurrection”, a covert uprising of the alienated and the repressed, a “super-geographical happening … or international conspiracy of intelligence” (Trocchi, 3 Nov.) – or, to put it another way, a supranational revolution, both creative and peaceful, that would fundamentally alter the way that human beings related to each other.
The strategy he therefore had in mind was more along the lines of a coupe du monde than a coup d’état. What, no intention of storming the Winter Palace? Certainly not. With the world on the “edge of [nuclear] extinction” (Trocchi, “Invisible” 1), that would be neither timely nor appropriate.
With his thousand technicians Trotsky seized the viaducts and the bridges and the telephone exchanges and the power stations. The police, victims of convention, contributed to his brilliant enterprise by guarding the old men in the Kremlin. The latter hadn’t the elasticity of mind to grasp that their own presence there at the traditional seat of government was irrelevant. History outflanked them. … So cultural revolt must seize the grids of expression and the powerhouses of the mind. Intelligence must become self-conscious, realise its own power, and, on a global scale, transcending functions that are no longer appropriate, dare to exercise it. History will not overthrow national governments: it will outflank them.(Trocchi, “Invisible” 1)
Among the tactics Trocchi envisioned was the creation of a million-strong invisible army or who’s who of fellow travelling “technicians” or “cosmonauts”, who would pool their creative efforts into an international “Cultural Engineering Co-operative” (Slater 36) — which would itself include an ever-expanding portfolio of ideas and articles, otherwise known as the “sigma folio”, and the foundation of a number of what he called “spontaneous universities” or Sigma Centers.
Indeed, it was this longing for a UK-based “spontaneous” or “action-“ or “free” university which was probably the main thread that connected Project Sigma to the Philadelphia Association’s own yearning for an “anti-hospital” in the first place, just as it connected it to numerous other would-be or actual experiments in “community-as the-art-of-living” such as Julian Beck’s and Judith Malina’s The Living Theater, the New Experimental College at Thy, Denmark, Emerson College at Pacific Grove, California, and Paul Goodman’s almost contemporary notion of a “Community of Scholars”.
Such experiments were not designed to placate the sceptical or the half-hearted. They were or were meant to be full-throttle counter examples of institutional life as it could be.
As for Trocchi’s particular experiment, he put it in a number of ways, both more or less sensible, but always with enthusiasm:
A place, then, in London, [is] to be found in the immediate future. From the beginning, we shall regard it as our living-gallery-workshop- auditorium-happening situation where conferences and encounters can be undertaken, contact with the city made, and where some of our techniques, found objects, futiques [think “antique” for a parallel], and publications can be exhibited. It will be our window on the metropolis, a sigma-centre where our expanding index [of fellow-travellers] is housed, and a kind of general operations base for the whole project.(Trocchi, “Sigma” 4)
The original [university] building will stand deep within its own grounds, preferably on a river bank. It should be large enough for a pilot-group (astronauts of inner space) to situate itself, orgasm and genius, and their tools and dream-machines and amazing apparatus and appurtenances; with outhouses for “workshops” large as could accommodate light industry; the entire site to allow for spontaneous architecture and eventual town planning.(Trocchi, “Invisible” 6)
It was therefore from some such phantasmagoric origins as this that a mighty transition in human relations would follow!
The meeting at Braziers Park opened on the evening of Friday the 3rd of July with a dinner, which, had it gone to plan (it didn’t), was supposed to include a welcoming speech by one of the live-in residents. Nuttall calls the residents “quiet, self-sufficient, middle-class intellectuals, totally square with heavy overtones of Quakerism and Fabianism” (Nuttall 222) which, although true to some degree, distorts both their history and their then situation.
In fact, both Quakerism and Fabianism are more designed to point to a contrast than genuinely describe the group’s ambitious and somewhat eccentric character. Their true antecedents and contemporary affiliations were in fact much further out, stemming from the Utopian ideas of a former army psychiatrist named Norman Glaister.
Indeed, it was Glaister, who had set the group up, having purchased the house in 1950; and it was Glaister’s ideas which gave the group what Nuttall describes as their air of quiet and middle-class intellectualism.
As for what those Utopian ideas were, for the most part they centred on Glaister’s understanding of group psychology. Like many people in the years immediately either side of the First World War, he had been deeply influenced by Wilfred Trotter’s writings on the so-called “herd instinct”, upon which and other sources, chiefly psychoanalytic, he had erected his own theory of evolutionary psychology.
Like Trotter, he had divided humankind more or less into two groups, with varying emphases, some people being basically “resistive”, which is to say stable and strong but resistant to change, the others being mostly “sensitive”, which is to say spiritually weaker and more flexible in character (Salter, “Norman Glaister” unpaginated).
His ultimate aim was to unite both types in the creation of a “million-minded”, “multi-mental” human organism no less. (Salter, “Developments” unpaginated). In fact, it was this bold ambition which, seemingly unbeknown to Nuttall, three years after Glaister’s death, still gave the community at Braziers its character and its methodology. He should have probed deeper.
But who were the participants? Who had Nuttall invited? Who, for starters, was in Laing’s group?
Amongst others, there were two of his very close medical colleagues: David Cooper, lead doctor at Shenley Hospital’s pioneering Villa 21, itself a sort of prototype for Kingsley Hall, and (for the first part of the weekend, at least) Aaron Esterson, with whom his association went all the way back to the late 1940s, to his time at Glasgow University, and with whom he had recently published a well-reviewed and immediately influential study of schizophrenia and families called Sanity, Madness and the Family.
Cooper brought to the conference his trademark heavy drinking, self-loathing and intellectual arrogance. He was a large, posh-sounding, man who, following a spoilt upbringing in his native South Africa, had joined the Communist Party at Cape Town University, whereafter, apparently, – the following words are Laing’s – he had been “sent to Poland and Russia and China to be trained as a professional revolutionary” (Mullan 194).
Like Esterson, he had recently published a book with Laing, in his case a study of Sartre’s post-forties philosophy and like Esterson again, he shared Laing’s conviction that contemporary western societies were pretty much driving “to [their] own destruction.” (Laing, “Massacre” 7)
Then also in Laing’s group was the aforementioned social worker Sid Briskin, the writer and journalist Clancy Sigal (about whom much more could be said then will be said), and two much older men, both mentors of sorts to Laing: the Moravian-born neurosurgeon and psychiatrist Joseph Schorstein and the psychotherapist Eric Graham Howe.
Trocchi’s contribution to the participants at the conference, bearing mind his usually tentacular reach was, perhaps surprisingly, rather slim, apparently not going much beyond his young wife, Lyn, and a young man of Chinese origins, who no one seems ever to have given a name to.
Finally, there was another group who seem to have come along under their own steam, so to speak, having had their interest piqued by Trocchi’s ideas in much the same way as Nuttall and Laing or simply because Nuttall had invited them. These included the artist John Latham and his girlfriend Barbara Steveni, the arts administrator Beba Lavrin (a strange, pointedly challenging woman with, incidentally, very interesting back and forward stories), the poet and sound artist Bob Cobbing, and then another, younger man named Tom McGrath, who like Cooper brought his wife and offspring along, and who would soon become a features editor at Peace News.
Nuttall’s account of the weekend is elliptic and its leading features not necessarily well-chosen. Nonetheless, it confirms much that we know from other sources including a ten-and-a-half minute film – which may or may not have been shot by Barbara Steveni –, an interview with and an article by Tom McGrath and a short document titled “Junkie Jottings” by Trocchi. Most of these accounts are marked by very heavy drinking and what I suppose one must call existential angst in lieu of a better description.
Nuttall characterises the Friday evening by a verbal spat between Trocchi and Bob Cobbing, the former “cross-legged on the floor painting a piece of driftwood in Cryla colour” (Nuttall 224) – one of his so-called “futiques” –, the other probably, if other accounts are anything to go by, stiff-backed and hostile:
Cobbing: “Where is the money [for the UK Sigma Centre] coming from?”
Trocchi: “The money is no problem.”
Cobbing: “Where is it then?”
Trocchi: “I’ve got the fucking money.”
Cobbing: “How much?” …
Trocchi (having hurled the futique across the room at a, by now, grinning Cobbing): “Have I got to sit here all night looking at your fucking ugly face?”
Nuttall (more hopeful than convincing): “It’s okay Bob. There is money.” (Nuttall 225)
As for Saturday, Nuttall begins that with Trocchi overdosing, following which he gives a swift, neat, account of a boozy picnic on the terrace backing on to the villa’s garden. “My obligations do not go so far as to have to eat their [i.e. Brazier’s] fuck-awful food”, he quotes Laing as remarking. “The picnic got wilder and drunker”, he then writes. “Wine got into people like the sun got into the butter. The picnic table became an image of the whole meeting. Discordant, messy, runny, sticky and finally abandoned.” (Nuttall 225)
Following that, he switches attention to the villa’s elegant Gothick drawing room where Laing, center-placed and “magnificently slewed”, is depicted leading off with a typically provocative statement: “I want everyone in this room who is not prepared to be a be a fucken general in this campaign to walk out of that door now.’”’ (Nuttall 226)
Could things get any worse? Well in a way they did and in a way they didn’t. His final major scene depicts the comedown on the following Sunday morning, the house awakening to an impromptu artwork by John Latham: a book (possibly Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) spray-painted with black aerosol and glued with Polyfilla to one of the drawing room’s walls.
The effect on the participants, however, was cathartic. At last, some sensible points were made; Laing and Cooper both spoke eloquently; the log-jam, such as it was, was broken. “It’s a question”, he has Laing remarking, “of coming down from the surface of things, from the surface of yourself, down to the core of all things, to the central sphere of being of which all things are emanations.” (Nuttall 227)
Nonetheless, Nuttall still ends his account on a sour note: “At mid-day we fled from one another with colossal relief.” (Nuttall 227)
The Braziers event was a failure then? Well, not quite. Actually, not even not not quite. Rather it became one in distant and increasingly selective memory. Nuttall’s book, the reader will remember, was not published till 1968, four years down the line, whereas the view from shortly after the conference was altogether more encouraging.
The evidence for this assertion is again Laing’s letter to Joe Berke, undated as I’ve said, but clearly written in the days after the conference. Following the previously quoted lines about looking forward to a “long future of being together”, Laing adds the following passage:
He [Trocchi] and David Cooper are trying to acquire an old 14th c. fortified manor, ex-home of Cardinal Wolsey, etc, in north London that would provide an initial base for Philadelphia-Sigma subversion and insurrection. We imagine that the Philadelphia Trust Centre would at the same time be the main Sigma Centre for Europe.(Laing, 8 Jul)
So that’s Laing and Trocchi taken care of, but who was Joe Berke? Who is Joe Berke? I may as well begin with the view from London during the early summer of 1964, as that after all was Laing’s point of view. From Laing’s perspective, he was a heavily bearded and enormously energetic American medical student, who during the previous September had come to London to work with him and his colleagues as a research assistant, in Hallam Street, Marylebone, on their Tavistock-supported Schizophrenia and Families project.
During that period, he had grown to like Laing a lot and Laing had grown to like him too and sometimes they had gone out looking for a place for the PA’s asylum idea together.
So Berke was Laing’s pal, and as was the way with pals at that period, when he went back to America (in November 1963) he and Laing had sent each other letters, keeping each other up-to-date – Berke with all the latest news about his medical training, his friendships and his adventures in New York’s counterculture, and Laing with all the news about the schizophrenia project, certain mutual Glasgow friends, and the continuing search for a base for the asylum or what we can now – fairly, I think – call the “Philadelphia-Sigma subversion and insurrection” Center.
Except that not everyone in the Laing group would have used that term at this juncture. And therein lies the rub. Just because Laing wanted something didn’t mean that everyone else had to go along with it. And so a conflict between Laing and some of the other members of the Philadelphia Association had been born at that Braziers weekend in the Oxfordshire countryside, one which Berke inadvertently found himself contributing to.
Yet before looking at that conflict I need to stop and say a little bit more about Joe Berke, for he wasn’t just a medical student; there were other sides to him also. For starters, he was, as his interest in the counterculture suggests, also rather “hip”, a fact which a few months after the Braziers meeting became the source of a major coincidence.
For not only was Laing onto Trocchi, but Berke, back in New York, was onto Trocchi too – independently. Ah, Trocchi’s dream had come true. Project Sigma really had become international.
Berke’s main extra-medical enthusiasms were poetry, drugs and higher education, not the usual sort of higher education I hasten to add: the exams, the over-mighty administrators, the sucking up to business interests, but higher education of the more interesting sort, the sort which I have already briefly mentioned under the highly questionable descriptor of the “free” universities movement. Indeed, while still in England, he had published a letter about the movement in one of the UK’s own organs of burgeoning counterculture, Peace News, in which having described Emerson College at some length, he ended with the lines: “For further radical analysis and superb suggestions for improving the situation of ‘higher’ education, get hold of Paul Goodman’s Community of Scholars.” (Berke “Universities”, 11)
In the meantime, as I’ve just said, he too had found his way to Trocchi, not via Laing’s post-Braziers letter then but via another route: “some friends”, who, sensing his potential interest, had simply happened to mention Trocchi to him. The evidence for this assertion is a letter Berke wrote to Trocchi on 5 October 1964 following a “mini tour” which Laing had undertaken of the United States, which had not only brought him to such establishment locations as the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, but to Berke’s cold water apartment on New York’s Lower East Side, from where the Scottish doctor had stepped out to meet many of Berke’s friends including Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, and Dr John Thompson, one of Berke’s mentors and a noted professor of psychiatry.
Here is the opening paragraph of Berke’s letter:
Ronnie Laing stayed at my place a couple of days last week prior to taking the NIMH by storm. He gave me one of the Sigma folios, which reiterates and dev[el]ops ideas which I and others here have been on to for some time. I really dig the project. Funny thing, I heard that you were in London from some friends a few months ago and wrote Ronnie and told him to meet you. He wrote back saying that you were already good friends and was planning a book on drugs with you and Burroughs. That guy is really too much.
He then goes on. “I agree and agree and agree. So, how to get started [?]” (Berke, 5 Oct.)
Well, one obvious way to get started was to ramp up the publicity by, for example, putting the sigma folio about. Which was precisely what Laing by carrying the portfolio to Berke was already doing. So, within a couple of days of writing his letter to Trocchi, Berke showed Laing’s copy to Allen Ginsberg. And then he showed it to other people. Then, another way of publicizing the project was to arrange a meeting with “all those folks illumed and interested”, which I would assume was also done (Berke, 5 Oct.). An invisible insurrection indeed. This one was rapidly becoming highly public.
During the rest of October sigmatic letters flew across the Atlantic: JB to AT, RDL to JB, AT to JB, recording nothing less than an explosion of sigmatic-or sigmatic-type activities. Some of the letters concerned the radio broadcast of a Laing lecture on “Love and Violence”, which Berke was busily organizing. Others concerned William Burroughs or Timothy Leary.
Then there were letters about money and poetry and about the economics of printing and publishing, gossip about Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (their “wild scene” with “4 chicks and mescaline”), plus a few about an unusual character named Michael Hollingshead, an ex-Harvard university colleague of Leary’s, who no one, not even Trocchi (who it should be said usually had an abundance of insight into this sort of thing) seemed to be sure about. Fellow conspirator or con man? Both or neither?
Joe Berke to RDL, 15 October: “I met Michael Hollingshead recently. He’s a manipulator and probably a rogue, but this notwithstanding, he will probably be an important asset in initiating the Sigma project in NY. Already he has a rich businessman whom he is turning on with women, booze, drugs, etc. ready to donate a brownstone for use as a[n American Sigma] center.”
Alex Trocchi to JB, 20 October:
Next there is the question of Michael Hollingshead. I am just a little bit concerned at certain informations regarding same which have been filtering back to me. It has been suggested that in money matters Michael is not to be trusted, but surely this is rather an unsigmatic way of expressing things. A man does approximately what he has to and trust breeds trust. It’s true Hollingshead did give me to understand he was closer to Leary than he turned out to have been. But at times I am sure we are all guilty of similar exaggerations … . I shall be writing to him (Michael, that is) frankly about all this. There is no question of sigmatic gentlemen having secrets from one another.
Laing to JB, 28 October: “Use your discretion about Holingshead (sic). Trocchi is by no means sold on him.”
Sold on him or not, Hollingshead too joined the Sigma cavalcade. During the Autumn of the following year, following Leary’s (and one must suppose Trocchi’s) instructions he set up the so-called World Psychedelic Centre (WPC), in a flat in Pont Street, near Harrods, in London, which ultimately led him, care of Fleet Street’s finest and Scotland Yard, to a nasty prison sentence.
During the early spring of 1965, Berke came to London again, this time for a couple of weeks; having previously found him a berth in the same flat where Sylvia Plath had killed herself, this time Laing set him up in a garden shed at the corner of Regents Park Road belonging to a lesbian friend of his named Flora Papstravrou. Berke’s central purpose at this point was to check up on the state of his relationship with the Scotsman: should he throw in his lot with Laing? Or should he seek another, perhaps safer, berth, mayhap at the Esalen Institute in sunny California?
He also at the same time took the opportunity to hook up with Trocchi. And, lo and behold, something fizzed, something banged, and something rumbled. But whatever it was Berke wasn’t any longer in doubt; his future would indeed lie in London.
But first he had to return to New York. No one, after all, could just move to London and expect to work. In any case, there were projects there that still demanded his attention. One of these was for a psychedelic art show (and opening night symposium) at the pioneering Coda Gallery, while another was for the launch of the so-called Free University of New York (FUNY), where he was due to teach a Laing-themed course entitled “The Psychotic Experience as an Archetype of Paradise Lost”, and which would finally open its doors at the beginning of July.
Meanwhile, what of the “Philadelphia-Sigma subversion and insurrection” Center? Well, by this time – early July, that is – it – or rather a critically truncated form of it – was already up and running. Sometime during the second or third week of June, Berke received a letter with the following lines from Laing in London: “We have got Kingsley Hall and have moved into it. … THIS IS IT.” (Laing, 11 Jun.) Then, later on, more details followed, and he learned that the Philadelphia Association had signed up to a five-year lease on a former mission house located at Bromley-by Bow, in the East End of London.
Laing and his associates’ experiment on the radical fringes of UK psychiatry had therefore already begun. But where in all of this was Project Sigma? Not at Kingsley Hall – that much at least is certain. Here the precise order of events becomes vague. But by this date it is fair to assume that the battle that had been going on behind the scenes between Laing (and probably within Laing) and David Cooper and other members of the PA – certainly Clancy Sigal and probably Sid Briskin – about the wisdom of the Sigma-PA hook-up had been decided – and not in Trocchi’s favour. In other words, the idea had been dumped.
Why? Well, for several reasons. But mostly I imagine because of Trocchi himself, who simply no longer seemed (if indeed in some people’s estimation he had ever seemed) a desirable or a worthy collaborator.
Not that Berke was aware of the PA’s official change of heart at this point. As far as he was concerned the Sigma-PA hook-up was still going ahead. Why would it not be? If Laing, for instance, had any reservations about Trocchi surely he would have told him?
During the middle of June, Berke sent a euphoric letter to Trocchi about his own plans, which included, notably, a spin on the Free University of New York mentioned above. “The beginning of the Free University of N.Y. is a key Sigma project”, he wrote.
It incorporates the concept of the University of which you speak in Invisible Insurrection. … The Sigma Brotherhood will now begin to manifest itself. … Free University of London has existed in the persons of you, Ronnie, etc. Now is the time for it to achieve an even more tangible expression. When I get to London in Sept if you have not already done so beforehand, we will find a loft and incorporate ourselves as [a] University where classes can be initiated as per the enclosed F.U.N.Y. catalogue. … PSS -[sic.] Will you be moving to Kingsley Hall?(Berke, c.20 Jun.)
Of course, he wasn’t! When eventually Berke did arrive in London, Trocchi was practically persona non grata. As for similar reasons but in a rather more limited sense and to a smaller number of PA members was Berke himself within a week or two. The charge card was long in both cases: they were too wild, too druggy (even for Kingsley Hall), too hairy (in Berke’s case) and finally too egotistical and unreliable (in Trocchi’s).
That said, Trocchi did visit Kingsley Hall on a number of occasions shortly after Berke had moved in. One occasion Berke himself recorded in a long rambling letter to his great friend and confidante the artist Carolee Schneemann. Laing invited him to a lunch party one Sunday at the end of September or at the beginning of October to a simple “wee” meal, as Berke slightly wickedly put it.
Among the fifteen or so other guests were novelist Alan Sillitoe and his wife, poet Ruth Fainlight, plus Tom and Maureen McGrath and Jeff Nuttall. A mini Braziers? I think not. “[You] would like him”, Berke writes of the latter, by now enjoying the notoriety stemming from his contribution to a physically disgusting art installation, the sTigma, recently on show in the basement of the Charing Cross Road’s Better Books. “He [creates?] most of the groovy happenings around London.”
The Hall, it turned out, had discovered its Man Friday. Not only was Berke “chief cook”, “chief shopper”, and “head stomper” (dancer, presumably) he also had to find time for a part-time job as a psychotherapist at the Langham Clinic. No wonder he hardly got any sleep. Life at the Hall could “barely begin to be described”. It was “Incredible, incredulous, impossible.” (Berke, c.6 Oct.)
Apparently Berke didn’t get wind of the Philadelphia Association’s “attitude” to Trocchi until the end of July by which time he was firmly established as a middle-ranking, if not universally popular, member of Laing’s inner entourage. It arrived via a lachrymose letter from Trocchi himself. “You ask[ed] me in a PS a while ago if I would be moving into kingsley hall. Frankly, I’m not sure quite just what is going on there.” (Trocchi, 23 Jul.)
The truth then flooded out, beginning with complaints about Clancy Sigal, then about the other members of the PA, who apart from “Ronnie himself and perhaps to some extent David Cooper” had “always been very wary of being publicly associated” with him. Was his cock “too big”? he wondered. Maybe it was “misshapen too”. Indeed, it was all “very unfortunate” – particularly as he counted Laing among his “very dear friends and sigmatician extraordinary.” (Trocchi, 23 Jul.)
Then came a real shocker: Trocchi confessed that he had never received a “direct offer” from Laing for a Sigma-PA hook-up in the first place. So, all of Laing’s talk of a “Philadelphia-Sigma subversion and insurrection” Center had been fake? Clearly, I don’t think that we can go that far. As the reader has already seen, Laing’s letter to Berke, written immediately after the Braziers Park weekend showed genuine enthusiasm. To repeat: “I have got to know Trocchi rather closely recently and look forward to a long future of being together.” (Laing, 8 Jul.)
I would put the nature of Laing’s commitment to the collaboration in this way: it started off well as, of course, friendships generally do. But then as he got to know his partner better he began to have more and more doubts about him. Then his friends, who didn’t like Trocchi period, got their teeth into him. They counselled a separation. And so it came to pass. But no one told Berke and no one – not even Laing – ever told Trocchi, who thus had to find out for himself. Result: for Trocchi at least, anger and acute embarrassment.
Poor Trocchi! Berke wrote back to him at the beginning of August:
I know little about what is happening with regard to ronnie and or kingsley hall. I agree that people are cool to you because of your reputation, whatever that is, but that is their stupidity. Anything else I cannot say, Ronnie rarely writes, and when he does, he says very little.(Berke, c.3 Aug.)
But in any case, by this time, Berke was really more interested in his own plans. In the same letter, he nagged Trocchi a little about an idea he’d had for bringing the Coda Gallery art show and symposium to Paris and London. Had Trocchi got the London gallery he, Berke, had written about? Then he mentioned a close friend of his, Ronnie Tavel – one of Andy Warhol’s collaborators –, who had just had a couple of plays performed at the same gallery – “off off Broadway”. Perhaps they could be performed at the Edinburgh Festival? “Is theere [sic.] any chance at this late date that you could arrange a theatre up there[?] … . The actors could be flown over. If yes, write back right away. If no I understand and next year we can put it on. This too could be a joint Sigma-Coda venture.”
But, of course, there never was any Sigma-Coda venture. The Coda (Europe) idea went the same way as the Sigma-PA hook-up.
All images are taken from a short film of the Braziers Park event in the Lux collection, London, with the exception of the following: Laing’s letter to Joe Berke, 8 July, the FUNY flyer and the FUNY catalogue (all from Joe Berke’s personal collection); the still of Joe Berke (courtesy of Peter Davis and Villon Films); and the photograph of Kingsley Hall in the 1990s (courtesy of John Saville, London).
Berke, Joe. Letter to Alex Trocchi. 5 Oct. 1964. Alex Trocchi Papers. Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
Berke, Joe. Letter to Alex Trocchi. c.20 Jun. 1965. Alex Trocchi Papers. Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
Berke, Joe. Letter to Alex Tocchi. c.3 Aug. 1965. Alex Trocchi Papers. Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
Berke, Joe. Letter to Carolee Schneemann. c.6 Oct. 1965. Carolee Schneemann Papers. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
Berke, Joe. Letter to R.D. Laing. 15 Oct. 1964. R.D. Laing Collection. Glasgow University, Glasgow.
Berke, Joe. “Universities”. Peace News, 25 Oct. 1963, p.11.
Campbell, Allan and Niel, Tim. A Life in Pieces: Reflections on Alexander Trocchi. Rebel Inc., 1997.
Laing, R.D. Letter to Joe Berke. 8 July 1964. Personal collection of Joe Berke.
Laing, R.D. Letter to Joe Berke. 28 Oct. 1964. R.D. Laing Collection. Glasgow University, Glasgow.
Laing, R.D. Letter to Joe Berke. 11 Jun. 1965. R.D. Laing Collection. Glasgow University, Glasgow.
Laing, R.D. “Massacre of the innocents” Peace News, 22 Jan. 1965, pp.6-7. This comment reflected Laing’s long-settled view.
Mullan, Bob. Mad to be Normal: Conversations with R.D. Laing. Free Association Books, 1995,
New Statesman, 20 Mar. 1964, p.475.
Nuttall, Jeff. Bomb Culture. MacGibbon & Kee. 1968.
Salter, Hilda. “Developments towards the making of a conscious Group during Norman Glaister’s time at Braziers Park (1950-1961)” Research Communications,21, 2002. https://www.braziers.org.uk/pdfs/salter.PDF. Accessed 24 Aug. 2019.
Salter, Hilda. “Norman Glaister and Sensory Process before the Founding of Braziers Park” Research Communications, 24, 2008. https://www.braziers.org.uk/Research%20pdfs/24/Norman_Glaister_and_sensory.pdf. Accessed 24 Aug. 2019.
Slater, Howard. “Alexander Trocchi and Project Sigma”. Variant 7, 1989, pp.32-37.
Trocchi, Alex. “Invisible Insurrection of a million minds”. All quotations from this document are from the version in the R.D. Laing Collection. Glasgow University, Glasgow. The document was first published in Edinburgh in 1962.
Trocchi, Alex. Letter to Joe Berke, 20 Oct. 1964. Alex Trocchi Papers. Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
Trocchi, Alex. Letter to Joe Berke, 23 Jul.1965. Alex Trocchi Papers. Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
Trocchi, Alex. Letter to Timothy Leary. 3 Nov. 1964. Alex Trocchi Papers. Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.
Trocchi, Alex. “Sigma General Information Service Existential Consultants London Paris New York Sigma”. Quotations are, again, taken from the version in the R.D. Laing Collection. This is the so-called second impression, dated September 1964.
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…