Friday 29 January 2016

Pillocks from Porlock

In 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge was living at Nether Stowey (a village in the Quantocks) and it was there, either at Culbone Parsonage or nearby Ash Farm, that he began to write out Kubla Khan - following an opium dream - when, as we all know, he was interrupted by 'a person from Porlock'. The spell was broken and the 54-line poem remains, famously, incomplete.

Coleridge described the incident (using the third person pronoun) in his first publication of the poem:

On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

Who was the person from Porlock and what was his (or her) business? As is took an hour ro discharge it can't have been a minor matter. Thomas De Quincey speculated, in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater that the mysterious figure was Coleridge's personal physician, Dr. P. Aaron Potter, who regularly supplied the poet with laudanum. Some sceptical scholars believe the whole thing is a fabrication, an elaborate subterfuge to let the poet off the hook for publishing a fragment.

I was thinking of all this on the bus yesterday morning.

I sometimes walk and sometimes catch the bus from where we live in Muswell Hill to the nearest tube station at Highgate (the one from which Juliet Stevenson emerges at the start of Truly, Madly, Deeply). It's among the oddest stations on the system, set in a deep and heavily wooded chasm, access being by a steep slope from Wood Lane. Most of the bus passengers disembark to walk down to the ticket hall, which is beneath the former overground station, abandoned for the past half century but still intact, sometimes with the lights on.

Standing midway down the crowded bus that morning was a tall young man in bulky puffer jacket, a large and immediately infuriating rucksack on his back and a huge pair of stereo headphones clamped to his head. He couldn't, of course, hear the pre-recorded announcement politely telling passengers to 'move down along the bus'; he couldn't hear the driver's equally polite but slightly irritable shouts to the same effect; he couldn't hear the yells of protest of the other passengers. Eventually a red-faced man nudged him, the penny dropped and he sheepishly moved along, allowing other passengers to get on board.

What a pillock. But perhaps from his headphone'd perspective the red-faced man was the person from Porlock, rudely interrupting his reverie? 

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