Brian Barritt: Counter-culture writer who collaborated with Timothy Leary
Wednesday 16 February 2011
The writer Brian Barritt was a lusty, Pan-like figure who sat at the heart of the counter-culture for over 50 years. A friend and collaborator to such notables as Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, Alex Trocchi and Youth of Killing Joke, he was particularly active in the Beatnik, psychedelic, Krautrock and rave scenes.
Brian Sydney Barritt was born in Coventry in 1934, and his early childhood shaped by the Blitz. Part of the roof of his home was lost during a bombing raid, while his school was destroyed, interrupting his early education.
His education ended when he left Broadheath School in Foleshill, Coventry at 15. He worked briefly at the local Jaguar factory, where he upholstered seats on the Jaguar XK120s, before he joined the Merchant Navy. His late teenage years, spent in ports and brothels from Japan to the Cape of Good Hope, included a little gun-running and the start of his life-long love of opium; these years, he later claimed, were his real education.
Barritt then joined the British Army and served in The Royal Warwickshire Regiment as an infantryman, seeing service in Cyprus and Northern Ireland. He spent time in the notorious Colchester detention centre after being court-martialled for falling asleep during a gun battle in Cyprus. Nevertheless, he left the army with an honourable discharge and received the General Service Medal.
In 1958 he moved to London, finding a home among the burgeoning Soho Beatnik scene. He became an artist and specialised in large, expressionist paintings. Much of his work from this period is lost but one existing piece, 1962's Self Portrait With Orgasm, is believed to be the oldest surviving example of British acid art.
Barritt was introduced to LSD during this period by the Scottish Beat writer Alex Trocchi, author of Cain's Book and Young Adam. As the drug was then unknown in the UK and they had no knowledge of dosage or potency, he and his partner Paula injected the whole shipment in one go. It was an experience that he never really recovered from, but one which turned him into a lifelong psychedelic evangelist. He became one of the fabled "Cosmic Couriers", a group who distributed LSD around the world – not for profit but because they believed it was their spiritual duty. Barritt smuggled great quantities of LSD behind the Iron Curtain on the grounds that "I thought it would do a lot of good, you know?"
In 1965 he hitched overland to India and Afghanistan. Returning to the UK a year later, he was arrested when the cannabis sewn into his waistcoat was discovered. The judge took one look at his dishevelled appearance and remarked, "A glass of brandy and a good cigar would never do that to a man." He was jailed for four years.
His first book was written in jail and smuggled out in fragments taped to the underside of his penis which were then passed on to visitors while the guards were looking the other way. These were assembled by his publisher Dave Ball into Whisper, a book that received high praise from William Burroughs and others. After his release, Barritt travelled to Algeria to meet Timothy Leary, the High Priest of the psychedelic Sixties and, in the words of President Nixon, "the most dangerous man in America".
Leary had escaped from an American jail with the aid of the terrorist organisation the Weathermen and was being sheltered in Algiers by the Black Panthers. The pair became close during Leary's years on the run, co-writing Confessions of a Hope Fiend and working on a theory of consciousness that became Leary's "Eight Circuit Model". Leary considered Barritt to be a "genius."
In 1972, under the protection of an exiled French arms dealer in Switzerland, the pair were introduced to Krautrock and collaborated on Ash Ra Tempel's Seven Up album. He went on to work with a number of Krautrock bands, particularly in the more blissful sub-genre of Kosmiche Musik. A recent history of Krautrock described his involvement as "unfortunate" because the "innocent bloom of Krautrock's youth had been corrupted by the arrival of Leary and his depraved orgiastic LSD merchants."
He moved to London's Ladbroke Grove in the 1980s where he met Youth, from Killing Joke and The Orb, who introduced him to the rave scene. His autobiography The Road of Excess, was published in 1998 and was followed by The Road to Tir Na N'Og, a manual for "psychedelic archaeologists".
In 2003 his only daughter, Bella, was killed in a car accident. She was 19.
Barritt remained active until the end. In his final year he worked with the artist Flinton Chalk on a granite sound sculpture and published a near-unpublishable science fiction sex comedy called The Nabob of Bombasta. He is survived by his stepson, David Downey.
Brian Sydney Barritt, writer: born Coventry 29 November 1934; one daughter, deceased, with Liz Elliot, and one stepson; died London 30 January 2011.
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