Psychedelic Cyclists – An Irishman’s Diary about Albert Hofmann and Flann O’Brien
In April 1943, the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann accidentally ingested a small amount of a compound he was analysing, LSD
Much as I enjoy cycling, I didn’t participate in the global event known as Bicycle Day, the 75th anniversary of which fell on Thursday. There wasn’t much of it happening in Ireland anyway. In fact, the most enthusiastic celebrations seemed to be in San Francisco.
And there was no mention of actual bicycles there.
But then again, the main point of the original Bicycle Day was taking drugs. Earlier in the same week of April 1943, the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann had accidentally ingested a small amount of a compound he was analysing, called in German Lyserg-säure-diäthylamid – or LSD, as it’s known to you and me.
The effects were so interesting he decided to do it again, three days later, in his Basle laboratory: this time using 250 micrograms.
According to experts, that was an overdose. This time the results were alarming. So he cycled home, having a trip in more ways than one: hence Bicycle Day.
But after calling a doctor, to assure him he wasn’t dying, he resumed what became a lifelong scientific and philosophical study of the mind-altering substance.
In the process, he helped create the counterculture of the 1960s, including flower-power, the Sergeant Pepper album, and the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Hofmann did not approve of all that followed his breakthrough. He considered the “drop out” evangelist Timothy Leary, for example, to be dangerously irresponsible.
But he did champion LSD throughout his long life, calling it a “sacred drug” and “medicine for the soul”.
Worryingly for temperance campaigners, he lived to be 102, microdosing until the end.
The 75th anniversary of Bicycle Day found the world no nearer to legalising LSD, with regulation, something he supported.
But by a curious chance, the United Nations chose this past week to inaugurate a new annual celebration called World Bicycle Day, which looked like a back-handed compliment.
The event has nothing to do with mind-altering substances, however, unless the General Assembly was on something when adopting the motion.
World Bicycle Day will instead promote cycling (of all things). The first edition will be on June 3rd.
In another coincidence this week, I have been reading The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien. I say this is a coincidence because, as fans of that writer will know, O’Brien’s writings are synonymous with bicycles.
Also, like Hofmann, he did some of his most interesting work in the early 1940s. And parts of it, especially the bicycles, might suggest that he was taking the same stuff as the scientist. To paraphrase the writer himself, he was producing psychedelia at a time when it was neither popular not profitable.
But there is no mention of mind-expanding drugs in his letters, only the mind-shrinking ones that were available over the counter of Dublin pubs, which he consumed in large quantities.
And there’s not much about bikes either.
On the contrary, his preferred method of transportation was the car, or “the mechanically propelled vehicle” as it becomes known when attracting the attention of the Garda Síochána, which in the case the real-life Flann, Brian O’Nolan, it did often.
In the 21st century, we have grown accustomed to scoff at the culture of health and safety that now surrounds us. But one of the unexpected lessons of O’Nolan’s letters is that the health and safety era is not all bad, compared with what proceeded it.
A sub-plot of the letters book – mostly revealed indirectly, as noises off – was the astonishing number of car crashes the writer was involved in.
By my count, there at least six between 1950 and 1963. He was also in a bus accident in 1960.
And on that occasion, at least, we can assume he wasn’t driving.
As to the others, they feature in his correspondence mainly for their consequences – a broken leg here, a cracked skull there – as they affect his attempts to write.
In the only one he deals with directly, he disputes a claim by the Garda Síochána that it had a “hub-cap” belonging to him and, in passing, mounts another favourite form of transport – his high horse – at a suggestion that investigating officers “had some doubts as to [his] sobriety”.
There was no question of breathalysing, it seems. And in its absence, the writer calls the Garda’s mere suspicion “a most improper smear”, adding: “I was perfectly sober.”
Alas, he was all-too-rarely sober in later years, a fact that surely contributed to his lifespan being half that Albert Hofmann’s.
Who knows? Perhaps if Flann had been micro-dosing on LSD, instead of overdosing on whiskey, he might have lived longer and wrote more.