“…UFOs were not just in the air, they’d become a religion and the word a common sacrament to everyone who’d tripped.” - Neil Oram
The word hippie conjures visions of brightly clad youth rebelling against society while advocating peace, free love and the right to alter their consciousnesses in whatever way they chose. But behind the fashions and fads, the hippie underground movement in the UK was responsible for the greatest expansion of interest and belief in fortean phenomena in history.
Social historians invariably associate the hippie movement with Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, sources of both inspiration and imagery, and the hippies’ interest in these belief systems has been well documented. But there was another alternative to the blinkered Western worldview of the 1960s already deeply embedded in the British cultural psyche, and already present in the lives of those who would form the movement known as the Underground – the flying saucer culture.
In the mid-1960s, although flying saucers were being discussed among the influential group of post-beatniks and modern mystics who would form the core of the Underground, the nascent movement lacked a voice. A figurehead was needed, someone who could breathe life into the background hum of belief in flying saucers, articulating it for the burgeoning subculture.
That voice came in the form of John Michell, whose influence on the Underground, and forteana in general, cannot be overestimated. Like many of his generation, Michell was disillusioned by the acquisitive post-war society: “When I was at Cambridge, the whole atmosphere was extremely rationalistic, materialistic. Everyone believed the current academic orthodoxies of the time and there seemed no way of questioning them.”
UFOs first caught Michell’s imagination in the 1950s when he noticed that “it was quite obvious that people were having experiences that weren’t allowed for within the context of our education. There was a split between the view of the world we’d been taught and accepted unquestioningly and the world of actual experience.” To Michell, flying saucers were more than just ‘nuts-and-bolts’ craft; they were one of a number of phenomena which became attached to the ‘Matter of Britain’. This corpus of belief largely concerned itself with the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail and was focused on the Somerset town of Glastonbury.
The View Over Glastonbury
Glastonbury is firmly embedded in the public consciousness as a centre of all things strange. Since the early 20th century, it has been the pulse of alternative Britain and has seen wave after wave of settlers arrive there, each seeking their personal Holy Grail. This vortex of the weird was well known to John Michell, who decided to experience the ‘Glastonbury effect’ for himself:
“It was, I think, in 1966 that I first went to Glastonbury, in the company of Harry Fainlight… We had no very definite reason for going there, but it had something to do with… strange lights in the sky, new music, and our conviction that the world was about to flip over on its axis so that heresy would become orthodoxy and an entirely new world-order would shortly be revealed.
“At that time I was writing the first of my published books, The Flying Saucer Vision. It followed up the idea, first put forward by CG Jung in his 1959 book on flying saucers, that the strange lights and other phenomena of the post-war period were portents of a radical change in human consciousness coinciding with the dawn of the Aquarian Age. A theme in my book was the connection between ‘unidentified flying objects’ and ancient sites, as evidenced both in folklore and in contemporary experience.” In this statement, Michell encapsulated an entirely new way of looking at flying saucers and their meaning.
Michell may have been the catalyst and helmsman for the hippies’ interests in flying saucers but the motive power was provided by the drug LSD, which had hit London during 1964–5. LSD, or acid as it was known, was quickly taken up by the countercultural mystic vanguard and suddenly everything was not only possible, it was likely!
Art gallery owner and Underground luminary Barry Miles summed up the effect of the drug on the hippies: “From the mid-Sixties onwards you have what would have to be called a sort of LSD consciousness permeating the whole of the counterculture side of British society. And you get it in the songs of Pink Floyd… all these bands incorporate LSD-inspired imagery, and that of course was not the normal imagery of love songs and picking up girls, it was much more to do with a sort of specifically British form of psychedelia which involved dancing gnomes and flying saucers”.
The combination of a new generation of seekers with powerful psychedelic drugs revivified Glastonbury as a spiritual centre. Now, in addition to King Arthur, the terrestrial zodiacs and other landscape legends, flying saucers were also woven into the tapestry of belief. Issue one of the Underground magazine Albion, edited by Michell, provides the visual clues; dragons and UFOs appear in the skies over Glastonbury Tor, while swords, serpents and geomantic imagery are visible in the Earth below. A new meaning for flying saucers was being forged, and to the Underground this blend of saucers, sacred sites and mythology was a damn sight more interesting than the nuts-and-bolts, sci-fi derived vision of the UFO orthodoxy.
Barry Miles was also aware of the attraction Glastonbury held for those in the counterculture: “The King’s Road led straight to Glastonbury in those days… The people we knew led double lives, experimenting with acid, spending entire evenings discussing flying saucers, ley lines and the court of King Arthur. Other people waited patiently at Arthur’s Tor for flying saucers to land.” And as word got around that Glastonbury was the new ‘window area’ for UFO sightings, more and more hippies made it a place of pilgrimage. According to Michell, “UFOs were constantly being sighted over St Michael’s Tower on Glastonbury Tor. Mark Palmer, Maldwyn Thomas and their group were then travelling with horses and carts on pilgrimages across England. They often camped near the Tor, and while I was with them we used to watch the nightly manœuvrings of lights in the sky. Jung’s prophecy of aerial portents being followed by a change in consciousness was evidently being fulfilled.”
Craig Sams, who set up England’s first macrobiotic restaurant, was also a Glastonbury enthusiast: “I didn’t see a flying saucer till October 1967 when I went to Glastonbury. One day I got a ’phone call from Mark Palmer saying that it would be a good idea to come down, that there was a lot of UFO activity, that John Michell, who had just written The Flying Saucer Vision, was camping down there, and Michael Rainey. So here we are in the field and up come the UFOs. We weren’t tripping, I’d given up acid. I was completely normal, maybe I’d had a cup of tea about half an hour before… Mark Palmer saw them – they were definitely there. They were in the classic cigar-shaped mother-ship form. Little lights emanating from them. Then at one point you saw these other lights coming up towards them and the smaller lights just shot into the cigar-shaped mother-ship, which then just disappeared at high speed. The other lights had been RAF jets. It was obvious that the RAF had scrambled some jets.”
It would be easy to dismiss the Underground’s fascination with saucers if it weren’t for the fact that 1967 was a huge ‘flap’ year for UFO sightings in the UK. This wasn’t just a ‘hippie thing’ – it was even happening to policemen, who chased them for hours in their patrol cars. The MOD was so inundated by UFO reports it radically changed its UFO policy and set up a team of investigators to interview civilian UFO witnesses, the first time this had been done.
As flying saucers became further embedded in popular culture, rock musicians were becoming interested in them as a means of expressing the psychedelic experience. Music promoter Joe Boyd consolidated the link between drugs, music and flying saucers when he named one of the first hippie clubs, on London’s Tottenham Court Road, ‘UFO’. Although ‘Unidentified Flying Object’ was only one of its meanings, advertisements in International Times (it) showed a flying saucer hovering over the head of a dancing hippie. Most musical histories of the psychedelic era use Eastern influences – sitars and raga-like instrumentals – as the primary indicator of how ‘far out’ the music was. But there was another aspect of psychedelia steeped in saucers and space.
Pink Floyd’s first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn included the atmospheric pæan to deep space Astronomy Domini, possibly the first song to use outer space as a metaphor for inner space. By their second album, Pink Floyd had further absorbed saucer culture, entitling it A Saucerful of Secrets, and were mixing ideas of UFOs and the secrets of the mind (with, perhaps, a nod toward a particularly potent batch of LSD called ‘flying saucers’). The sleeve artwork left fans in no doubt that space – inner or outer – was the place: swirling universes and spinning discs mixed with signs of the zodiac (adapted from the Marvel Comics encounter between Dr Strange and the Living Tribunal). The album’s keynote song, Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, became the backdrop for many psychedelic journeys toward dawn.
Even the Rolling Stones – possibly the least spiritual band of the Sixties generation – took an interest in saucers. John Michell accompanied them on a saucer-spotting mission to Stonehenge, while singer Marianne Faithfull recalls the Stones’ ill-starred rhythm guitarist Brian Jones taking a great interest in Michell’s ideas on the subject; “Like a lot of people at the time, myself included, he was convinced there was a mystic link between druidic monuments and flying saucers. Extraterrestrials were going to read these signs from their spaceship windows and get the message. It was the local credo: Glastonbury, ley lines and intelligent life in outer space…” Similarly, the Stones’ Keith Richards was more than curious about saucers: “I’ve seen a few, but nothing any of the ministries would believe,” he told a Melody Maker journalist. “I believe they exist – plenty of people have seen them. They are tied up with a lot of things, like the dawn of man, for example. It’s not just a matter of people spotting a flying saucer. I’m not an expert. I’m still trying to understand what’s going on.”
Throughout his career, David Bowie has flirted with the idea of ‘the alien’, often mentioning extraterrestrials in songs such as Starman, and creating the Ziggy Stardust persona. In the late 1960s, before he was catapulted to fame with the single Space Oddity, he claimed to have been closely involved with flying saucer research. In 1975, he revealed to Creem magazine: “I used to work for two guys who put out a UFO magazine in England about six years ago. And I made sightings six, seven times a night for about a year, when I was in the observatory. We had regular cruises that came over. We knew the 6.15 was coming in and would meet up with another one. And they would be stationary for about half an hour, and then after verifying what they’d been doing that day, they’d shoot off.” The fact that the ‘6.15’ was so regular over south London should have given Bowie a hint that it might have been an aircraft rather than a UFO! Bowie’s active interest in UFO research dwindled as his fame as a performer grew, but it can’t have been helped by this event, recounted in a recent issue of The Word: “An early attempt, while living in Beckenham, to attract extraterrestrials involved standing on his roof at dusk pointing a coat hanger into the skies. He gave up, dejectedly, when a passer-by enquired, ‘Do you get BBC2?’”
Notes From the Underground
If music was one way of spreading the flying saucer message through the Underground, then poster art was another powerful method. Artists created lavish posters for even the smallest-scale event, incorporating the myths, signs and symbols of the era with visual images of the music and musicians. Barry Miles recalled: “The symbol of the flying saucer on the posters of Michael English and Nigel Weymouth and the references in all of the songs wasn’t just used as a graphic symbol or a convenient lyrical device. People did feel that flying saucers were shorthand for a wider, deeper understanding, a sort of god figure I suppose or a sense of an external spiritual deity of some sort. There was one clothes shop called Hung On You that Michael Rainey had, and he very much believed in flying saucers, and there was a lot of flying saucer imagery all over the shop.”
As saucers permeated the hippie subculture, they began to appear more frequently in the underground press. International Times featured many articles and book reviews concerning saucers, engaging John Michell as its ‘UFO correspondent’. In the 16 June 1967 issue, it reviewed Anatomy of a Phenomenon, the first UFO book by French scientist and influential ufologist Jacques Vallee. Reviewer Greg Sams used the argot of the period to express what a significant book it was: “Do you believe in flying saucers? Most people with even a slightly open mind accept their existence, if only because so many reliable people have seen them… The book itself doesn’t turn you on. You must read the book and turn yourself on… If you are just beginning to be interested in saucers then read his book. If you are already convinced and want a beautiful rave with your mind, read other further out authors.”
Oz was less keen on UFOs, editor Richard Neville being more interested in provoking the establishment through explorations of radical politics or sex than through modern myths. But when Neville took his eye off the ball for issue nine, leaving the work to poster artist Martin Sharp and designer John Goodchild, he was shocked at the result: “To my embarrassment, it was devoted to flying saucers.” Enraged, he asked Sharp, “How can you indulge your intergalactic delusions, when Asia is a bloodbath?” Sharp’s reply typified the zeitgeist: “There are far more things in heaven and earth, Richard, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.
The cover of Flying Saucer Oz, as it became known, featured a large flying disc, taken from a collage by the Dadaist/Surrealist Max Ernst, with six coloured pages featuring a variety of quotes about the saucer phenomenon from ‘hip’ people ranging from Charles Fort to Mick Jagger.
John Michell’s influence on the hippie movement, coupled with his erudition, was such that the ‘establishment’ couldn’t just ignore him. Following the screening of UFOs and the People Who See Them on BBC1 on 9 May 1968, The Listener devoted most of that week’s issue to a discussion of flying saucers. Michell was asked to contribute an essay, simply entitled Flying Saucers, which clearly laid out the hippie philosophy in relation to aerial phenomena – a blend of sightings of inexplicable lights in the sky, snippets of folklore, Glastonbury ley and dragon lines and other ephemera from the Underground’s dream world.
Listener editor Karl Miller contributed a critical piece, Midsummer Nights’ Dreams, analysing the ‘UFO cult’ and Michell’s place within it. “He is less a hippie, perhaps,” opined Miller, “than a hippie’s counsellor, one of their junior Merlins.’ Recognising Michell’s influence, but critical of his stance, Miller wrote that “Michell behaves like a visionary, though his language doesn’t always avoid the current jargon of the pads and barricades. He likes to talk about how the light from the midsummer sunrise shot across the land, travelling a line from holy place to holy place, starting the crops, bathing the feasts and fairs that saluted its passage. I would say that… his book is relatively weak, busying itself with sundry mysteries like that of the Mary Celeste and converting them to extraterrestrial proofs.” ‘Straight’ society was intrigued by the hippie take on flying saucers but then, as now, saw no real evidence it could take seriously.
Just as straight society dissociated itself from the hippies, mainstream UFO enthusiasts kept their distance too, the nuts-and-bolts saucer buffs considering the newcomers to be just a bunch of drug takers with strange views (the irony that mainstream society viewed the nuts-and-bolts crowd as being equally strange was completely lost on them!)
Nevertheless, some influential individuals from the orthodoxy saw that the hippies were receptive to new ideas, and that mercurial aristocrat of flying saucer culture, Desmond Leslie, decided to organise the UK’s first flying saucer convention for them (see FT225:40–47). The conference, held during the summer of 1968 on Lusty Beg Island on Lower Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, was jointly organised by Leslie and Camilla, Countess of Erne. Camilla was a wealthy socialite with an interest in flying saucers who frequented the edges of the Underground.
The Lusty Beg event was small, with attendance estimated at about 80 people, but many of those who attended were influential movers and shakers from the Underground, including Nicholas Saunders, editor of Alternative London and founder of the Neal’s Yard shopping complex in Covent Garden. Saunders recalled: “I was fascinated by what John Michell was saying about UFOs and leylines and so on, but felt pretty guarded about it too. I did go to a Flying Saucer conference on an island in the middle of a lake in the northwest of Ireland. There were all these people plodding about in the rain and the mud and there were very serious talks by people who either said that flying saucers had visited, that they’d been on flights themselves or that they’d seen them.”
Another key member of the Underground, Neil Oram (See FT217:44–49), was also there. Oram had morphed from beatnik wanderer to hippie philosopher, later writing his semi-fictional memoirs as The Warp trilogy. In Lemmings On the Edge, he describes the scene as he arrived at the shores of Lough Erne: “At the water’s edge, we were met by Michael Roner, who took us across the choppy lake in a battered rowing boat which was equipped with a noisy, erratic outboard motor. Apart from the big white house on the lawn, the rest of the island was overgrown, without a trace of permanent habitation. Although now there were camp fires and tents scattered all over the wooded hills, which rose quite steeply from the beach.”
Desmond Leslie was responsible for organising the conference lectures, held each evening in a large marquee. Scant information now exists as to exactly who spoke, but Neil Oram remarks that they consisted of “rather dull pronouncements of what lay in store for the human race”. According to Oram, “It wasn’t until the fourth night that we were given some real information, by an ex-Australian Air Force radar expert.” This impressed Oram: “It made my hair stand on end when we learnt that he’d picked up unidentified craft, whose estimated diameter was in the region of three hundred miles! MILES! Travelling in excess of one hundred THOUSAND miles an hour!”
Johan Quanjar, another attendee, recalled: “[D]ozens of people had descended on the island for fun, jollity and invocation of higher energies. By the end of the week, the entire hippie UFO community had gone native. They had formed separate tribes with some not speaking to others.”
This event was as close as the hippies ever got to organising the subculture’s fascination with flying saucers, but they were rapidly losing interest. Too many other fantastic possibilities vied for their attention, and when you’d explored inner space, outer space could seem positively tedious. Essentially, those among the Underground who took an avid interest in flying saucers did so not out of certain belief, but from a desire to explore the possibilities. When the flying saucer experience didn’t deliver the goods or, as the hippies saw on Lusty Beg, it descended into conflict and argument, they didn’t want to know.
Poet and author Barry Gifford, whose novel Wild at Heart was used by David Lynch as the basis for his film, sojourned as a hippie in late 1960s London. In The Duke of Earls Court, Gifford writes of his interest in UFOs and refers to an incident in which a friend called Ace invited the editor of Flying Saucer Review to dinner. The clash of cultures was inevitable: “It was obvious upon his entrance that the editor, an ordinary-looking, balding, middle-aged man in a dark grey three-piece suit, was visibly shaken by the den of freaks to which he had unwittingly lent his presence. He had no idea, he said, attempting to smile, that the dinner was to be such an event.
“After answering a few desultory questions about saucers, it was clear that the editor wanted to be anywhere else but with those people. The food was macrobiotic and when he enquired what was in the meal was told, ‘Brown rice, kasha, bulgur, soy, miso. The food of the people. It makes you high’. Mention of the word ‘high’ caused the editor to drop his fork, obviously afraid that the meal had been spiked with drugs of some form. He left soon afterwards, pleading a prior engagement.”
Selling Saucers by the Pound
Flying saucers continued to be courted by the Underground in the dying embers of the 60s, but by 1970 the hippie movement had become subsumed into the broader spectrum of youth culture: now, you could buy kaftans in Marks and Spencers, and like all youth movements, it had been diluted and repackaged by commercial interests; it was being sold rather than invented. Those who had been heavily involved in saucerdom moved swiftly on. For everyone else, the subject of UFOs was now just another hip belief to be ‘into’; the publishing floodgates opened and books on Earth Mysteries, witchcraft, folklore, astrology, occultism and mysticism offered other ways of thinking and being.
But were it not for the hippies’ interest in flying saucers, nurtured by John Michell, it’s doubtful that the continuing interest in such subjects would be part of our cultural landscape in the 21st century. This brief burst of drug-fuelled exploration cross-pollinated many fortean subjects, the results of which we see today. Where mainstream ufology was mired in the yes/no argument about the physical reality of UFOs, the hippies treated the subject as just one in a long line of possibly useful ideas. This difference of attitude between the hippie and straight views of saucers was aptly summed up in an exchange between Barry Gifford and his friend, after the FSR editor had fled their dinner party. Referring to the editor’s ‘stuffy’ attitude Ace pointed out to Gifford:
“But it’s OK man, it really is; he’s a dedicated cat. I mean he’s never seen one, but he really believes in them flying saucers.”
“So do you,” Gifford said.
Ace nodded. “Sure, man, sure I do. The difference between him and me is that I’m not so bloody serious about it.”