An Interview with Gregory Sams
Gregory Sams is a pioneering writer, inventor, free thinker, counter-culture icon and genuine human being. We recently caught up with him in London.
THERE ARE MANY interesting characters here in London, but one of the most interesting, inspiring and creative that I have come across has to be Gregory Sams.
I cannot say that Greg is this or that, because he is one of these individuals that seems to buck attempts at classification, partly because of his diverse accomplishments and abilities, and partly because of his open mindedness and free spirit. What I can say about him is that he is exceptional in every way: he is exceptional in his thinking, his creativity, his pioneering spirit, his play time and his general human warmth and loving-kindness which sees him treat everyone as equal.
Greg was a pioneer of the wholefood and macrobiotic industry, he invented and trademarked the VegeBurger(R), and opened the first and only shop in the world dedicated to chaos theory - Strange Attractions. In fact, many of the graphic fractal images that you will see on postcards and posters have been computer-generated by him.
More recently, Gregory wrote a book called UNCOMMON SENSE - The State is Out of Date, which basically argues that humanity can spontaneously find order out of chaos, just as nature does in so many complex areas, and that the state's meddling in the affairs of the individual is the greatest cause of unhappiness and societal degeneration (available on Amazon.) He is currently taking his ideas further in a new book which will be available shortly.
* * *
AP: Hi Greg, and thank you for agreeing to do an interview with me. It was serendipity that I ran into you again at the Natural Products health show in London, by the bee pollen stand if I remember. Natural products have played a huge part of your life, why is this?
Gregory Sams: In between my brother's birth and that of myself, western medicine gave up on my father, who was wasting away for undiagnosed reasons. A family friend in Los Angeles suggested he see the Japanese Dr. Nakadadi, who put him (and consequently our family) on a clean healthy diet, based on whole cereals, pulses, fresh vegetables and fruits, with no processed, frozen or canned foods; no sugars or soft drinks; and no meat. My dad quickly recovered and our mother, Margaret, cooked and fed the family healthily thereafter, though not so strictly, and with modest meat consumption. I became vegetarian when I was 10, on a New Year's resolution - partially inspired by my father, who was doing the same. The underlying motivated was a dislike of all the red meats and seeing this as an easy means to not eat them thenceforth.
AP: Tell me a little about your early childhood: what kind of kid where you?
Gregory Sams: How can I tell you what sort of a kid I was, since that is what I was? You'd have to ask somebody else. I cannot recall any serious problems with growing up - my parents were both relatively enlightened for the 1950's and did little to suppress or redirect my natural tendencies. I was very active and interested in things, a trait encouraged by my schooling up the age of eight at the progressive St Mary's Town and Country School, near Primrose Hill. I met my first girlfriend there, who was Vicky Huxley, niece of the great man. I read her uncle's book, The Doors of Perception, at a relatively young age and found it of great interest.
AP: You were a child of the sixties, and your mind certainly reflects this in its unrestrained freedom and creativity. What happened to the new consciousness of the sixties? Is it still with us or was it whacked over the head by commercialism?
Gregory Sams: The basic driver of the unrestrained freedom and creativity of the Sixties was drugs - no question about it. LSD really did open minds and a huge part of today's culture was initiated by the ingestion of acid in the Sixties. Whether we look at the colours of fashion, the natural food movement, alternative healing, or environmentalism, we will find the roots to be in the LSD and cannabis-taking culture of the Sixties.
Much of that consciousness has now become embedded in our culture. Hardly anybody knew about, let alone practiced, yoga or meditation before the Sixties. There was only Swedish massage, a few acupuncturists covering the country, and no aromatherapy, shiatsu, reflexology, t'ai chi, reiki, etc. A lot of people now earn a living doing these things, and commercialism has made that possible. Full power to all those who create wealth through organic farming, natural healing, composing uplifting music and engaging in other planet-healing activities. But there are a lot less psychedelics going down, and because of their negative legal status there is less openness about it when it does. But wherever it does, the spirit of the Sixties continues to evolve.
AP: When you were young, what is it you thought you might do when you were an adult?
Gregory Sams: For one of our high school yearbooks (an American cultural phenomenon) each student was asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. I put down 'alchemist' as my selection, but they would not accept it and put something else down instead - I cannot remember what. In a way, my involvement with natural foods was a form of alchemy, which transformed people into higher and more conscious beings. In a sense, this was the human equivalent of turning lead into gold.
AP: Tell me a little about your time at university. Berkeley (California) in the sixties must have been incredible fun!
Gregory Sams: We rarely realize just how special and unique are the things that we are doing at the time. Certainly though, I enjoyed what I was doing at Berkeley and realized that something big was happening. There was a lot of protest going on, and I knew local band Country Joe and the Fish before their "Fish Cheer, the ultimate anti-war Anthem ("Be the first one on the block, to have your kid come home in a box"). I remember the first time that I ever tried Mu Tea, a macrobiotic concoction containing ginseng, which I had never encountered but come to view as a mythical root. After drinking my first cup, I sat down to wait for it to kick in - and was somewhat disappointed. My first LSD trip, however, was spectacular beyond expectations and, in short, made me feel like a god. It was exhilarating as an eighteen-year old to be in the San Francisco Bay area 1966, in the build-up to the Summer of Love.
AP: What were you studying there?
Gregory Sams: I was only in university for three months, and had chosen my 'Major' solely on the grounds of it being a subject that had the greatest flexibility in terms of what I was obliged to study. In light of the subject of my first book, "Uncommon Sense - the State is Out of Date," I am just a little embarrassed to admit that my choice of major was Comparative Politics. As I have often quipped, "putting Uncommon Sense in the bookshop section on politics would be equivalent to putting a book on fasting in the cookery department."
AP: You had an accident at Berkeley that changed your life. Tell me about it and what went through your mind at the time.
Gregory Sams: I lived in a communal house nicknamed Hippie House. During our New Year's Eve party I decided to have a dance on a lower branch of the tree in our front garden. My only drug intake had been a glass of wine and a joint. It was a dead branch and fell beneath me, landing me awkwardly on my back, which broke. This resulted in an immediate paralysis of my lower body - leaving me with neither feeling nor voluntary movement. The doctors told me I'd never recover, which left me quite down for a couple of days. Then, through the agency of my father, we discovered that my spine was damaged, but not sliced in two. I decided I'd be able to eat my way out of this, whether it took six weeks, months, or years. It hasn't happened and now medical science is getting closer to a fix, so we'll see whether they get there before I'll need a Zimmer frame.
AP: When accidents like this happen, it is a bit of a cliché to ask what good came out of it. But I want to ask you nonetheless.
Gregory Sams: Difficult one, since there's no way to know where I would have gone without it. Maybe I would have achieved more, maybe not. I do sort of doubt that I'd have had the concentration or focus that I had when I was intensively running different and difficult enterprises from the age of 19 to 40. I used to regularly work 14-hour days and sleep 3-4 hours a night. Bless my ex-wife Sandy for putting up with this and supporting me throughout it.
AP: Today you are in a wheelchair and yet I have never seen that stop you do anything. I have even seen you doing wheelies at raves here in London. How do you maintain such a free spirit? (Leary also had that inner freedom that nobody could take from him, even when he was jailed.)
Gregory Sams: You haven't seen the half of it. The first business I ever ran after landing in the wheelchair was located in a basement, down stone steps, which my staff carried me up and down every evening. The only time they dropped me was when I cracked a joke and they all fell about laughing. Won't do that any more. I've tried to never let accessibility considerations be an issue when I'm making important decisions about what to do. Things usually work out fine when I just go for it, and the rare times it doesn't work out are more than offset by the many when it does. I've been carried up rope ladders from a rocking canoe to the deck of a dhow and piggy backed down a cliff in the dark of night. Mind you, there were truly memorable parties at the end of those trips, which has always been a strong motivation to reach a destination.
My healthier diet since conception, which became consciously macrobiotic diet at the age of seventeen have supported and maintained my own inner strength and vitality. Free spirit - it's a state of mind and it keeps me happy, which is the bottom line. My dad always told me to keep off the beaten track, and I've always followed his advice, paving new ways instead.
AP: Why did you return to England at the time? (Wasn't the US in those days more liberal than England and wouldn't that have suited you better?)
Gregory Sams: I came back to England since Stoke Mandeville hospital in Aylesbury had the finest treatment center for paraplegics in the world. At the time, they were just about the only people who had any idea of what to do with spinal injuries. Then the chaos kept me here, and still does. Much as I love London, I am still in the process of looking for somewhere else to be – someplace that is less managed by the central state.
AP: What got you interested in macrobiotics and wholefoods?
Gregory Sams: My brother was alerted to it in 1965, after the FBI raided the macrobiotic centre in New York and destroyed the books they had on sale - because they suggested that there was something amiss with the American diet of meat, potatoes, milk, sugar, and caffeine drinks. When Craig came back to London and enthused to me about it, I read George Ohsawa's books and immediately embraced the macrobiotic diet. I had been a vegetarian since the age of ten, and macrobiotics suddenly gave me a diet that was based upon what I did eat, not what I didn't eat. I just loved eating real food with energy in it, and felt the difference immediately.
AP: In 1967, you started the UK's first macrobiotic restaurant that even attracted individuals like John and Yoko Lennon. What was it like running such an unusual restaurant at that time and tell me of some of the other characters (famous or not) that frequented your place?
Gregory Sams: When you're nineteen years old and doing something for the first time that isn't school, then it's just what you're doing. It was a joint-venture with my brother, Craig, though for various reasons he was unable to be there until Seed restaurant was over two years old. Our mother, Margaret, was invaluable during the early days - you couldn't exactly advertise for a chef familiar with cooking natural, or even vegetarian foods. I realized it was special and magic and all that, but was so up to my ears in the work of making it special that it was difficult to spend a lot of time savouring that special-ness. After a year of operation I realized what was going on and christened the place SEED.
We used to offer a free bowl of rice and vegetables to those who couldn't afford 35p for our 3-course dinner (that was cheap even then). One out-of-work musician who regularly walked half way across London to avail himself of this service was Marc Bolan. He later met his drummer Mickey Finn at Seed and brought his guitar to play for us at a few of our unscheduled 'everything is free' nights.
Another regular was someone whose fabulous and non-stop dancing would always impress me when I was at any underground music event. Years later I had a chat with him and was surprised when he told me that he'd never actually liked our macrobiotic food, but found that it was the only food that he could dance all night on. Must be all those complex slow-release carbohydrates.
Yoko Ono introduced John to macrobiotics, and the two of them became regulars at Seed. He did a great cartoon for me to help promote the magazine I published on Macrobiotics, called Harmony (three issues ensued). You can see the cartoon at here.
Jeff Dexter, resident Roundhouse DJ and co-organizer of countless psychedelic events, was a regular and often brought along the well-known 60's singers and bands who were performing at the Roundhouse.
It was a great deal of fun and occasionally, when Mary Hopkins' Those Were the Days played through the reel-to-reel tape recorder, tears would well in my youthful eyes as I thought about how much I would look back at these days with nostalgia. I have smugly recalled those moments over the following decades, at all those times when I realized with delight that 'those days' were still going on.
AP: As a child of the 60s and a Berkeley radical, I know you have done a lot of psychedelics. Tell me about some of your first experiences with these drugs.
Gregory Sams: Every experience with psychedelics has the potential to be a first experience, but the chronologically first times were at University in Berkeley when I lived near Strawberry Canyon, which rose steeply behind the campus, and overlooked the football stadium. I remember the roaring of the crowd evoking within me scenes of the Roman Coliseum. Walking straight up the side of the canyon, I felt like there were magic boots powering every step. When at the top of the hill I would stare into the Sun for minutes at a time, suffering no damage whatever from it. I still get feelings of enhanced power from LSD, but cannot stare at the Sun and would question my own clear memory of doing this, had I not met several other people who have had the same experience.
AP: What did you learn from psychedelics? (Was it anything specific or just pure creative thought and feeling?)
Gregory Sams: I've learned everything I know from life, but many of my greatest perceptions and understandings have come about through psychedelic use, or at least been enhanced by them. Many times one will already understand something based upon logic or experience, but in the psychedelic state will come to know it feel it see it clearly. And, of course, the sort of intensive ecstatic joy that can be experienced in a psychedelic state carries tremendous healing powers that can often be directed at particular ailments. I have used them many times to sort out minor and sometimes quite serious problems, though have never gotten my spinal nerves to re-join.
AP: Did you ever meet Timothy Leary?
Gregory Sams: No, but I know many people who were close to him and tell me that we should have met and would have gotten on well.
AP: What did you think about him and what did you learn from him?
Gregory Sams: He very clearly shared my own understanding of the huge relevance of chaos theory to human society and culture. I love the way he expressed this understanding as well, in print and on video. In that he was one of the primary instigators of the psychedelic era, I am forever in his debt both spiritually and intellectually.
AP: How did you come up with the VegeBurger®? Describe your first attempts at making it?
Gregory Sams: Jumping around a bit here. I developed it in 1982 after a bout of hepatitis stopped me from getting into the office for a couple months. Stuck at home I was going stir crazy, and the company was also in deep doo doo financially, so I created this product in order to save our bacon, so to speak. After all the pioneering work from brown rice to pumpkin seeds I realized that there's always somebody else who can put a pound of rice in a bag cheaper that you. We needed something unique, with a name, that nobody else could just copy once it was successful. A vegetarian burger fit the bill, and I chose the name from a list I made up including greenburger, earthburger, plantburger and others. It was not considered descriptive and I got a trade mark on it without difficulty.
VegeBurger was designed to be produced under contract with no increase in company overheads. I spent a few months developing the recipe, trying umpteen different tweaks of formulation and ingredient before getting it right. I knew I was getting close the first time my then-wife Sandy asked for a second bite of the sample I proffered her.
But neither the bank nor investors any faith in some new product that they assumed would be a failure, so after 15 years of building it from scratch I left Harmony Foods/Whole Earth, in order to devote myself to the VegeBurger. I gave my (worthless) shares to brother Craig, who took on the role of MD and Chairman, eventually getting Whole Earth back on track, and using it as the base from which to eventually launch Green and Black's chocolates with his wife Jo Fairley.
AP: What was the famous Portobello road like in the days you had the restaurant and grain shop, Ceres? How have you seen Portobello change over the years?
Gregory Sams: The best thing about the Portobello Road is that it is always changing. At the time that Craig and I moved Ceres from All Saint's Road to the Portobello, the Portobello Market did not extend past Lancaster Road. Now it proceeds all the way up to and including Goldbourne Road. It's a real market, and has so far resisted the efforts of Kensington and Chelsea council to organize it into neat little units, like the development at Covent Gardens.
AP: In 1990 you read James Gleick's book "Chaos" about the new science of Chaos Theory, and it inspired you so much that you opened up the first and only shop in the world — Strange Attractions — that was dedicated to Chaos Theory! Tell me about your first reading of that book and the thoughts that were going through your head.
Gregory Sams: Reading James Gleick's book wove together many of the intellectual strings of my life into one strong cable that made more sense than they ever had individually. I was particularly struck by the relevance of chaos theory to how we run our society, since it clearly demonstrates the fallacy of trying to plan everything out in advance and then passing coercive laws to try and structure an "ideal" society rather than letting it structure itself. It was great that science recognized the self-organization that occurred in complex systems, even though science had no way at all to explain how this organization occurred.
Since I knew that scientists would be unlikely to apply chaos theory to non-scientific arenas such as social activity, I felt it was my duty to expose these ideas to the general public.
AP: Like thousands of others, I read that book too and found it fascinating, but nobody else thought of opening up a shop dedicated to it! You are a person who is not only exciting about ideas, but is actually prepared to get your hands dirty over them.
Gregory Sams: If you say so. At the time I was racing like mad to be the first person to open such a shop, only to realize later that there had been nobody else in the race. I had ordered up tens of thousands of postcards before I even had a lease for a shop from which to sell them.
AP: What did your friends and family say about you opening a shop dedicated to Chaos Theory?
Gregory Sams: If they thought I was crazy, they certainly didn't go so far as to tell me. I did try to get help from a couple of banks, who were most certainly not interested.
AP: Strange Attractions was very successful. Tell me about some of the individuals that used to frequent it and some of the connections that you made because of it.
Gregory Sams: Quite a few eminent scientists made a point of visiting Strange Attractions, and even Arthur C. Clarke dropped by after seeing one of my flyposters on a wall and re-directing his taxi to the shop. I spent some time with him and he was kind enough to look through Uncommon Sense a few years later, and give me the great quote "Lots of good sense — seen nothing I disagree with."
Much of the clientele came from the new psychedelic trance party scene in the UK. Musicians, dj's and promoters were coming in and getting blown away by seeing, in print, the patterns and colours that they had been experiencing in some of their travels as psychonauts. I made friends with many of them, and when they all disappeared to Goa for the winter I ended up joining them and became very involved in that whole Goa party scene, re-immersing myself in a psychedelic culture that I had basically left in the early Seventies. This changed my life in so many positive ways that I have always seen the shop as being successful, despite the money which it lost.
AP: Did you ever have the chance to meet or communicate with James Gleick? Was he ever aware of the existence of Strange Attractions?
Gregory Sams: We had one exchange of letters, but I never was really in touch with him.
AP: Tell me some other people who strongly influenced your life.
Gregory Sams: You will find most of them in the back of Uncommon Sense, under credits and Big Butterflies — www.gregorysams.com. Obviously my parents were a great influence giving me truly good advice and feeding me the real food that enabled me to connect with the world. My brother and I have always shared our discoveries with each other, and his introduction of macrobiotics was quite seminal. Other major influences have been Lao Tsu, Charles Fort, Alduous Huxley, Georges Ohsawa, Timothy Leary, Professor Galambos and my teachers in school and my friends in life.
I am deeply shaped by the world itself, absorbing energies from the stars, the Sun and moon, as well as from the waters and winds of the planet, from the mountains and the flowers. There are a few mountains in Colorado whom I count as close friends, and a cow in Goa who is my good mate.
AP: How did you come to write your first book, Uncommon Sense?
Gregory Sams: I didn't really think I would need to write it, since the message of chaos theory for society seemed so obvious to me that I figured just opening up the Strange Attractions shop would do the trick. After a couple of years running that shop I realized that I would have to put pen to paper to properly express the message that seemed clear to me. I set to it over the next few years, often scribbling ideas down in the middle of a steaming dance floor or shouting concepts into my little dictating machine, to be unraveled and expanded in the following days or sometimes months.
AP: I have read the book and enjoyed it thoroughly – it is certainly original – but please give our readers a general synopsis on what it is about.
Gregory Sams: Uncommon Sense – the State is Out of Date: The book is about freedom and the incredible power of letting it work its magic. Conversely, it is also about the dangers and consequences of constricting that freedom and substituting coercively enforced plans and controls instead. It makes sense to readers of that which they already know, putting it into a big picture that they may never have seen before. Though it is an extremely radical book, most readers, whether taxi drivers, nurses or hippies, seem to agree with everything that they read within it.
AP: The idea that human society can spontaneously order itself just as nature can out of chaos is an interesting concept. And there are certainly instances whereby this happens. Please tell me more about it.
Gregory Sams: We live in a well-ordered Universe in which everything from the galaxy in which we live, to the clouds in the sky, to the bacteria in the soil have developed order out of the chaos. In our own society just about everything we value and rely upon has arisen naturally from the chaos, without forward planning. Amongst much else, this includes our means of clothing ourselves, communicating with each other, traveling around or entertaining ourselves. No king, emperor or state planning department ever invented shoes, telephones, bicycles, planes or iPods. Just try and think of something that you treasure in life which initially did not emerge from the chaos of society.
Everything else in the Universe finds its own order and I can see no reason to believe that human beings are an exception to this rule. Where we do see regulation trying to impose order we usually end up with fuck-ups such as the Common Agricultural Policy which pollutes our food and destroys our environment; the control of medicines which plays to the hands of pharmaceutical companies; or the proposed ID cards scheme which will make us all easy victims of identity theft.
AP: One criticism about applying chaos theory to human society might be that order can appear out of chaos precisely because the reality is rule based. But human society, being self-conscious, is not rule-based so it would not be able to organize order out of chaos.
Gregory Sams: It's a big Universe, and however you rationalize the human situation I still cannot see it as qualifying for special exemption from the overall rules that guide everything else that is.
AP: Interestingly, your theory of self-organization was recently backed up by physicist Donah Zohar (as reported in The Ecologist) in which she says that the main reason environmentalism has failed in transforming society is that it has an incorrect view of society, either treating them as free milling individuals (right-wing view) or a disciplined army (left-wing view). She argues that society is more a "free-form dance company" in which people move in creative harmony with each other. In this way, the rigid controls of the left-wing movements are not needed, only a fair foundation is needed and then society organizes itself.
Gregory Sams: I agree completely with that viewpoint, and love the image of a free-form dance company. A fair foundation is one that is grounded in freedom. With freedom in place, everything else takes care of itself.
AP: Where has Chaos Theory gone now? I know that "Complexity" is now becoming a common term in that field.
Gregory Sams: Chaos Theory used to be the only heading there was for this weird new field, and we had a hard time finding a dozen books on the subject for the Strange Attractions shop. As the subject has expanded, it has branched into several areas which have acquired new terms and headings such as complexity theory, dynamical systems theory, non-linear dynamics, etc. I lose count.
AP: You are unusual in that you don't read many books… you prefer to get the information straight from the horse's mouth, and I remember years ago many very interesting people used to come to your house. Who are some of the people you have met and who impressed you?
Gregory Sams: There does indeed seem to be an interesting flow of people through my house, which I cannot really explain except to say that I am good at letting things happen. Most of them have something that will add to my understanding of life and they all impress me, though impressions can be negative as well as positive.
AP: Tell me your view on genetically modified food.
Gregory Sams: I see GM foods as another dangerous beast being let loose that could have as many negative long-term and irreversible ramifications as nuclear power. There is no means to stop modified genes from escaping into the wild gene pool and there is no understanding of how this can affect the delicate balances of nature.
Geneticists really have no idea of the side-effects of consuming these products and when we are told that citizens of the USA have been munching away on GM foods for the past 15 years I think we have sufficient grounds to be very very cautious about their ingestion. Nowhere on earth has there been such an increase in allergies and obesity as in the USA over the past 15 years.
AP: Do you think there is any place for genetic modification of any kind?
Gregory Sams: Tradition selective plant breeding has brought us a wonderful array of vegetables and flowers manifesting a multitude of textures, tastes and colours. I certainly see no place for genetic modification within the food chain. Our bodies share many of their genes with the plant world and we have evolved to recognize and absorb various plant foods over millennia. It is a delicate process and the slightest accidental tweaking of a food nutrient might render it toxic to the human body for reasons we do not even understand. Many of the independent trials feeding GM crops to animals have produced alarming findings, and in some cases these findings were suppressed (see Seeds of Deception, by Jeffrey M. Smith). In the artificial and crude insertion of genes, there is no consideration of the damage done to the so-called 'junk DNA,' which makes up some 98% of most DNA. It is like assuming that because we are thought to be using only 10% of our brains, we can mess randomly with the other 90% and not risk any ill-effects.
AP: I hear you are writing another book. Is this finished yet?
Gregory Sams: Yes, and I am now looking for an agent and publisher. It's a very exciting work and a very digestible one too, even though it deals with very far-out concepts. You can see the preface to it at www.gregorysams.com.
AP: I presume your concept of "God" is a super-organizing principle?
Gregory Sams: Who said anything about my concept of God? Actually, my concept of this comes across as a sub-organizing principle, coming from the bottom up rather than the top down. It makes a lot of sense and bridges the gap between the equally preposterous positions of the creationists and the evolutionists.
AP: What do you think happens after we die? (Do you believe we become implicit order rather than explicit order… using terms of Chaos theory?)
Gregory Sams: I expect that we'll all eventually find out the answer to that one. For now, though, we might as well be molecules of water in a pond, wondering about existence after evaporation, or what it was like before the mountain ice melted which formed us in the first place.
AP: What are your plans for the future? Do you have anything you have been yearning to do or do you just live life day to day?
Gregory Sams: Biggest plan it to get my new book published and out there. Once that is done I am free to do whatever is desired or required and trust that my life will continue to be filled with interesting and uplifting events and people.
AP: If there was one piece of advice you would like to pass on to our readers about life, the universe and everything, what would that be?
Gregory Sams: Enjoy and appreciate it. That's the point of it.
Gregory Sams can be contacted at www.gregorysams.com