TWO DRIFTERS ...OFF TO SEE THE WORLD

by Manchester Area Psychogeographic

The psychogeographic project outlined by Guy Debord in his Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography (1955) had its origins in the urban wanderings of Charles Baudelaire, which fed into the writing of Spleen (1869). Baudelaire in turn had read Thomas de Quincey's descriptions of his compulsive walks through the nocturnal labyrinth of London under the influence of opiates. The lives of the Manchester-born de Quincey and his lesser known local follower Francis Thompson follow an interrupted psychogeographic path from the end of the eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth.

Thomas de Quincey was born on August 15, 1785, on the site of the building that now stands at the corner of Cross Street and John Dalton Street. He died in 1859, the same year that Francis Thompson was born in Preston, soon to move to Ashton Under Lyme. The opium-heightened perambulations of the former were to have an enormous impact on the fortunes of the latter.

De Quincey was the son of a local merchant who died when Thomas was seven, and was buried in St. Ann's Church. The boy was brought up along with his siblings in what was then rural surroundings at The Farm, Moss Side. In 1792 the family moved to Green Hay, another sizeable homestead two miles north-west of the city. It was knocked down in the nineteenth century, the land forming the site of the current Greenheys area of Little Hulton. They then moved to Bath in 1796, but de Quincey was soon back in Manchester as a pupil at the Grammar School. He hated the place, and ran away to Chester in 1802, thence to wander Wales. Eventually he ended up penniless in London, where, one night on Greek Street, Soho, he met a fifteen year old prostitute called Ann, who rescued him, and then disappeared. She was to become one of the figures who shuffled in and out of his imagination in years to come, along with images derived from the experience of death in his childhood.

The demise of two of his sisters, nine year old Elizabeth, in particular, merged with the figure of the hapless harlot Ann to form a repeated theme in his dreams and nightmares. And the idea of an approaching procession, echoing the sound of the carriage bringing his dying father back home to Moss Side, was also to return in the visions he experienced after 1804, when he first took laudanum, a tincture of opium mixed with alcohol, a cheap and universally administered form of pain relief in the days before aspirin. By 1807, when he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, opium addict and poet, de Quincey had made it up with his family, was studying at Oxford, and had money, which he kindly lent to the older writer. De Quincey married Margaret Simpson in 1817, and it was her unfortunate fate to have to look after an increasingly eccentric and withdrawn husband, whose habit it was to sleep during most of the day and tread the streets at night, living on small mouthfuls of rice and meat. His geographic knowledge of London was incredibly detailed. But the street patterns he retained in his memory also dominated his dreams, when 'the perplexities of my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep, with the feeling of perplexities moral or intellectual, that brought confusion to the reason, or anguish and remorse to the conscience.'

The first version of de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater appeared in 1821, and was drastically revised in 1856. Some of the strongest sections in this (quite literally) rambling book concern de Quincey's dreams and his theories as to how they came about. Alongside childhood experience, architecture and space loom large: 'Buildings, landscapes, &c. were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive.' Beyond buildings he saw lakes, beyond lakes oceans and beyond oceans he saw oceans of human faces - the faces he'd seen on the streets he'd walked. One of them would turn out to be Ann. Then there were the processions - 'of infinite cavalcades filing off'.

It's not clear which version of the Confessions Francis Thompson read, but he wrote that he was given a copy as a child by his mother, and the experience of reading it had a profound effect. Thompson felt himself destined for the priesthood but after being studying in Durham, failed, and returned to Manchester to study medicine at Owens College. Almost inevitably he lost interest in his studies, and, under the influence of de Quincey's book, started taking laudanum and wandering the streets. He had every intention of becoming an established man of letters, and dropped out of college to go to London and make a name for himself. He got a job with a publisher, delivering books, but a combination of back luck and addiction inhibited any real chance of a career he might have had, and his life fell apart. He became a newspaper seller and vagrant. It didn't put him off writing however, and fired by a vivid, visionary version of Catholicism, he sent two poems to a magazine in 1888 which were highly thought-of by editors Wilfred and Alice Meynell. They rescued Thompson from the gutter and sent him to a Welsh monastery, where he recovered enough from his drug habit to be able to put together a volume of verse. His best-known poem, The Hound of Heaven describes the evasion of the soul from the eye of god 'down all the labyrinthine ways' which Thompson undoubtedly knew intimately from having walked them and dreamt about them. During the 1890s his life oscillated between productive monasticism and bouts of drug-fuelled debilitation and street-life. He was highly-rated during his own lifetime, but when he died in 1907 he was emaciated and broke, and his reputation almost immediately went into decline.

De Quincey, and the writers who read him, like Baudelaire, Thompson, and in America, Edgar Allen Poe, are all nowadays perceived as romantics, reacting against the creeping regulation and emerging industrialisation of the societies in which they lived. Think of de Quincey's childhood experience of accompanying his older brother to school along Market Street in Manchester, and being regularly ridiculed by local lads amused by the de Quincey brothers' hessian boots: those local lads would have been the early urban proletariat, bound for the mills. Post-modernists see this rejection of industrialisation as a huge problem. But de Quincey and the early psychogeographers never rejected the idea of the city or of modern urban life, and unlike Wordsworth, Keats or Shelley, couldn't settle in isolated or rural circumstances. They needed an abundance of buildings, streets, squares, bridges, and alleyways. Their adaptation and internalisation of the city embodied a methodology which is still relevant and usable if we're to see the contemporary city differently prior to changing it. What remains painful is their dependence on drugs. The gradual structuralisation of psychogeographic perception, caused by formal and ornate religious dogma, in the transition between de Quincey and a writer like Thompson, also necessitates criticism. In the same way William Blake's radicalism was abandoned by his followers, the 'Ancients', led by Samuel Palmer, who preferred to immerse themselves in simple, nostalgic mysticism, so de Quincey (a direct contemporary of Blake and frequenter of the same Soho streets) bequeathed his personal mythology in England to the conservative Thompson. In France, matters took another turn. Perhaps it's in the lateral transmission of psychogeographic reactions to the urban world, rather than via the bourgeois verticality of inheritance, that a radical programme was and can be maintained.

Thompson's The Hound of Heaven
is now available in one of those
new cheap editions at 60p,
published by Pheonix.

 

 


First published in Manchester Area Psychogeographic 3, April 1996.

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