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15 April 2016

Take me back to where De Quincey met his hero – and I tried to shake off the devil

If the past is another country, it’s one the boundaries of which are ever shifting, as entire features dissolve in the blue haze of partial amnesia.

By Will Self

In August 1807, Thomas De Quincey, the fanboy of English Romanticism, travelled from Bristol down to Nether Stowey in the Quantock Hills in search of his literary hero Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was said to be staying with his friend Thomas Poole, a tanner and liberal agitator. Not finding Coleridge at Nether Stowey, De Quincey stayed for a couple of days, but then received a tip from Lord Egmont – who arrived bearing a can of snuff for the poet – that he was to be found in Bridgwater, eight miles away.

In Bridgwater, De Quincey came upon Coleridge in the street and they wandered the town for a while, entering into discussion with all and sundry. In his account of the incident, De Quincey remarks on the openness and eloquence of their interlocutors, averring: “Nowhere is more unaffected good sense exhibited, and particularly nowhere more elasticity and freshness of mind, than in the conversation of the reading men in manufacturing towns.”

But this is only a rhetorical curtain-raiser, because once they are behind closed doors, “Coleridge, like some great river, the Orellana, or the St Lawrence, that, having been checked and fretted by rocks or thwarting islands, suddenly recovers its volume of waters and its mighty music, swept at once, as if returning to his natural business, into a continuous strain of eloquent dissertation, certainly the most novel, the most finely illustrated, and traversing the most spacious fields of thought by transitions the most just and logical, that it was possible to conceive.”

When I passed by Bridgwater, southbound on the M5 about a week ago, this passage returned to me . . . again. I’m not saying verbatim – but the overall idea, and the typically Procrustean stretching of De Quincey’s metaphor. These have remained with me ever since I read Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, aged about 20. By then, I already had some familiarity with Exmoor and the Quantocks – my father often took me on walking tours lasting a few days in the area. We particularly liked the long Doone Valley, which runs down off the moors to the coast: the stream leaps over mossy rocks and into pools perfect for an icily refreshing dip. What I didn’t know in childhood, or when I first read De Quincey, was how much time I would end up spending in this bosky part of the world.

In 1985, I attended a drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit called Broadway Lodge, in Weston-super-Mare. The primary treatment lasted two months; I then went to a nearby halfway house, where I remained for a further three. Poor Coleridge could have done with a spell at Broadway Lodge. As things were, he remained an opium addict to the end of his days and such cures as he took were almost wholly ambulatory.

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I, too, tried walking off my obsession with drugs: long treks from rehab up on to Brean Down, the odd, flipper-shaped promontory that thrusts out into the Bristol Channel to the south of the town. Then, as soon as I was allowed further afield, I persuaded whatever visitors I had to drive me up on to Exmoor.

Three years later, purely coincidentally, I got married at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Nettlecombe, 13 miles from Thomas Poole’s house.

And so began a period of about five years in which I regularly raced up and down the M4, M5 and A303 between London and West Somerset. And I mean raced. During those years, I had a suit-and-tie job – my only one ever – that came complete with a company car. My then brother-in-law was a pretty racy fellow, too, so we would leave London after the rush hour on a Friday evening and battle it out over 175 miles.

We observed the proprieties, if not the rules, of the road. I remember my fastest door-to-door time being two hours and 13 minutes. Perhaps the most spectacular section of the racetrack – sorry, road – is between Portishead and Weston, where the carriageways of the M5 divide and swoop in separate terraces around the hills.

Anyway, you might have thought that all of this would have come back to me as I powered south-west, almost 30 years later, just as you might have assumed that I would think about all the tender, intimate, emphatically personal times I had passed in the environs of Exmoor. After all, not only did I spend some of my childhood here, but my older children’s infancies were played out in its dells.

But if the past is another country, it’s one the boundaries of which are ever shifting, as entire features – hills, rivers, large public buildings and major communications infrastructures – dissolve in the blue haze of partial amnesia. We can never know if De Quincey’s comparison of Coleridge’s ceaseless eloquence with the flow of a mighty river has any true, topographic accuracy; and yet, given that I recall the quotation more or less verbatim, while the insubstantial landscapes of my life are steadily being washed downstream, I can only assume that it is, was and, moreover, always will be.

It took eight long years after he first read the Lyrical Ballads for the fanboy to meet his hero: but they’ll be together, in that Bridgwater parlour, for ever.

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This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster