'Visionary in a utilitarian age': John Cooper Clarke on 19th century opium eater Thomas De Quincey

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Dr John Cooper Clarke, to give him his full honorary academic title, does have a certain affinity with Thomas De Quincey, 19th century author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and friend and admirer of the Lake Poets.

JCC was born in Salford, and De Quincey in nearby Manchester. And brandishing De Quincey’s work during his presentation of BBC4’s The Secret Life of Books programme on Monday night, Cooper Clarke, a heroin addict for a number of years, described himself as an “erstwhile resident of the consensual world of slavery described herein”.  

In the programme he explained how De Quincey made opium appear glamorous - "the first depiction of recreational drug use ... the first self-copnfessed literary dope fiend" - although he did not eat it, preferring to drink laudanum. And speaking of one of opium’s derivatives, heroin, he added: “Me and it have history.”

Where JCC parted company with De Quincey was in the latter’s appreciation of the poetry of the Lake District. De Quincey became a regular visitor to the Wordsworths at Dove Cottage, now a museum. For a time he almost became one of the family, to the extent of his mourning the death of William Wordsworth’s three-year-old daughter Catherine by sleeping on her grave every night for eight weeks.

Lurking in and outside Dove Cottage, JCC muttered darkly that he had never “bought the whole mythology of the Lake District”.  He described how De Quincey had later fallen out with Coleridge, and noted that De Quincey’s death at 74 did not indicate that taking opium had shortened his life.  

Paying tribute, JCC called him “a visionary in a utilitarian age”. An entertaining and informative half-hour, illuminated by the urban, if not urbane, Bard of Salford’s verdict on the Lakes, which he referred to as “this morbid crater”. Greg Freeman     

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Laura Taylor

Tue 10th Nov 2015 10:26

We watched this the other night, and it was really entertaining. Having tried and failed to read the book itself, due to its turgidity, I appreciated JCC's presentation of it.

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