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The mind-blowing story of John Esam

Of all the curious careers led by expats, few can have been more curious than that of Gisborne-born John Esam (1934-2011). Esam was an actor, writer and the first person to be arrested in the UK on LSD charges.

Obscure to the point of invisibility here – although he was included in the anthology Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-75 – he was conspicuous enough overseas to have merited an obituary in the Guardian.

Friend Michael Meeks, delivering the eulogy at Esam’s funeral, described how in 1959 “while walking in Wellington, New Zealand, John had a vision: a book of poetry suspended in the light. He said, ‘I nearly walked into a lamppost.’ He was 25 and he spent the next 50 years actualising that vision.”

Esam left New Zealand in 1961 and, according to the Guardian, “enjoyed a stint at the ‘Beat hotel’ in Paris, where he met writers including William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti”. He settled in Britain, recalling: “London was amazing. That’s where my being was. People were just there and if you were there, you met them.”

There was much expanding of consciousnesses and blowing of minds going on at the time and Esam fitted right in. In 1965, he was one of the organisers of and performers at the “International Poetry Incarnation” at the Royal Albert Hall, London, along with poets including Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Christopher Logue. A film of the event was titled Wholly Communion. Rumours that, against the spirit of the times, Esam made off with the takings proved to be unfounded.

Allen Ginsberg (centre) in 1965. Behind him are (left to right) Anselm Hollo, Marcus Field and John Esam. They were waiting to take part in the International Poetry Incarnation. Photo/Getty

In his history, 1966, Jon Savage calls Esam a “trickster-like” figure and quotes a description of him as “a frightening character [who] used to have his hair plastered down almost like an insect”.As well as being a fine poet, he seems to have had a knack for events with great names, also being behind “Christmas on Earth Continued”, held in December 1967 at Kensington Olympia and featuring Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. He was involved with the World Psychedelic Centre and, according to the Guardian, was “assistant director with [Peter] Whitehead on Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), the definitive documentary of swinging London”.

Although possession of LSD was not then illegal in the UK, dealing was, and Esam was charged with that offence in 1966. The prosecution collapsed in confusion over definitions, but the case was a landmark on the way to the eventual criminalising of LSD.

Moving from the 60s to the 70s, Meeks describes how “John transitioned effortlessly from the culture of the Beat Generation to the age of the Hippies. He was an avid jazz dancer.”

In 1981, he moved to Australia, where in his later years he became associated with the Fellowship of Friends, described in many accounts as a cult and the centre of considerable online controversy.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001 and worked to finish writing he had started half a century before. Orpheus: Eurydice: Songs Late & Early, Poems 1954-2002 was published in 2009. Amazon has one copy of Esam reading the poems on audio CD, available for $600. 

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.