IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE OPIUM EATER
Poems by John Ashbrook
‘This volume relates in three ways to the Confessions of an English Opium Eater: firstly there are many coincidental parallels between my early life and De Quincey’s, secondly I am a child psychologist and therefore interested in his theories of childhood and the nature of dreams, and thirdly because our present interest in ecological problems relates to his early concern with the destruction of natural beauty.
‘My father, like his, was a Manchester businessman with an interest in literature who died young, leaving a permanent knowledge of how close death is. Like De Quincey I ran away from Manchester Grammar School and walked through North Wales to Bangor. There I slept on the golf course, woken early by sheep or later by men with clubs. Each morning an old man came down the hillside, tied string to his teeth, dunked them through the grating of a grid, returned them to his mouth with a clatter. My first job was in an office directly opposite the De Quincey house on Cross Street, and I first taught at Greenheys, the school and the area named after their country house, then a clear mile from the city, now in the midst of its most magnificent and up-to-the-minute slums.
‘A quarter of a century before Freud was born De Quincey showed how dreams are symbolic interpretations of our lives, especially our childhood, and how our early experiences make us what we are. “ Those vast clouds of gloomy grandeur which overhung my dreams … were they not derived from childhood experience?”
‘Many of my generation, children in the Second World War, experienced more rapid “progress” than man had previously known; we remember being evacuated to rural areas where power was real horses, machinery quiet and primitive, but have come to live in an increasingly artificial, industrialised and mechanised world. This has led to a strong realisation of the passage of time, of ageing, of approaching death. What would De Quincey have made of this progress towards a blindly materialistic existence? In 1856 he added a footnote to his early description of Grassmere (where he took over Dove Cottage from Wordsworth): “Thirty years ago a gang of vandals, for the sake of building a mail-coach road that would never be wanted, carried a horrid causeway right through the loveliest succession of secret forest dells and shy recesses of the lake.” ‘ John Ashbrook
Manchester To Bolton
Between blackened walls beside the railway track
and corrugated iron of Viking’s Boiler-Making Yard
two almond trees blossom white tears.
By road there’s frontages on view, by rail the back
side of everything’s exposed; wrecked cars on land cleared
for rebuilding, left vacant for fifteen years,
oil drums, scrap metal, coal-hoppers, slim-waisted
cooling towers. Behind a bridge a disturbed
boy, his face streaked with tears, sleeps
away the day he should have been in school. A raised
pickaxe, delicate as a seagull or a child’s drawn bird.
Beyond the Irwell’s shining waters a willow also weeps
IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE OPIUM EATERS
Price £7.95 per copy post free (£5.30 post free to Associate Members)
Cover illustration: Eighteenth Century Print - Saint Ann’s Square, Manchester
Publication: WINTER 1980 (56 pages laminated paperback)