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"Widdicombe Corner" - drug influenced literature


A quick guide to pharmalogically influenced work from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Irving Welsh.

From Lit-Net, by appointment to Her Majesty for the procurement and presentation of educational devices and enlightenment to members of the Royal Family & Household.

Do you care two hoots about which Windsors or Shadow Cabinet members admit to have taken illegal drugs?

– here’s the beans on great writing by great writers who definitely did, arranged in chronological order, earliest and possibly most stoned first.

Ask in your local libraries or bookshops, and add any of your favourites by clicking Add Content.

= on film or video

*** probably in print, and available in most good libraries and bookshops
** possibly not in print, but copy somewhere in your library system?
* almost certainly not in print, could be somewhere in library system, try 2nd hand & specialist shops, and university libraries with courses in contemporary culture?

- apart from recent novels such as "Trainspotting" by Irving Welsh and "From Blue to Black" by Joel Lane, the general - and ironic - rule of thumb is that the older the book, the more available it will be. Thus, "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge will be in any half-way decent anthology, you should find Sherlock Holmes lurking in most good libraries and bookshops, Jack Keroac maybe - even though he's in most top hundred authors of last century lists - but Jeff Nuttall's 'Bomb Culture' may still be a bit of a hunt.

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge ***
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A Stately Pleasure Dome degree.." before being interrupted by a man from Porlock.

Rimbaud *
French Poet, at the forefront of experimenting with drugs and literature 150 years ago.

Confessions of an Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincy **- how does the defendant plead?

Alice in Wonderland/Alice through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll ***
- jury still out

Doctor Jekyll & Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson ***
'Fanny Stevenson burnt it after dismissing it to a friend as "a quire full of utter nonsense." She said - of what became the world's most admired and profound horror story - "He said it was his greatest work. I shall burn it after I show it to you."
'Stevenson, an invalid almost deranged by tuberculosis and the effects of medicinal cocaine, had to spend the next three days feverishly rewriting and redrafting the 30,000 word story by hand.
'Within weeks, the new version of his pioneering novel about split personality was in print. Despite Fanny's views it was an instant best-seller. Sermons were preached on it in thousands of churches, including St Paul's Cathedral.....It rescued the Stevensons from acute debt. For the first time, the couple had enough money to live comfortably'
John Ezard, The Guardian page 3, 25 October 2000

Cocaine then was considered an acceptable analgesic - extra-strong asprin (Just as combat troops have been issued with benzedrine [aka speed] while morphine [aka heroin] is regularly given for relief of extreme pain.) Jekyll and Hyde was the first novel to explore the concept of a 'split personality,' whose study and classification had only just begun. It is far more profound than the horror genre it is typically assigned to, and far more adult than Stevenson's adventure yarns such as Kidnapped and Treasure Island. In short, a short literary novel.
Film versions abound: the classic stars Spencer Tracy, but I also have a soft spot for the Brit production of about twenty years ago starring Michael Caine, who does remarkably well. Not many people know that.

Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ***
Nothing got up the Good Doctor Watson's nose than the master detective's cocaine habit - brilliantly exploited by Nick Meyer in 'The Seven Per Cent Solution' * where Watson takes Holmes to Vienna to be cured of his addiction by Sigmund Freud.

A Long Day's Journey Into The Night by Eugene O'Neill***
Okay, it's a play, and by a Yank, but arguably the most important from the last century, or so says Richard Eyre in his current Beeb-2 20th century theatre series. Drugs? The mother is Eugene O'Neil's who was addicted to heroin after taking it as a painkiller. 50s film version beloved by the method acting school.

Islands & The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley **
Especially towards the end of his life Huxley espoused the use of Mescalin, a natural form of LSD, as means towards perceptual enlightenment. Islands is the novel, The Doors of Perception the philosophy behind it. (Thanks for reminding of Islands, Tom Flemon)

Opium by Jean Cocteau *
His extraordinary experiences when taking the drug and his acute suffering while being reated for opium addiction. "It has a curious sorcery about it. The notes and spidery, hallucinatory drawings crawl over the mind like deadly nightshade." Kenneth Alsop, Daily Mail

The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs ***
The original US speed freak

On The Road to Satori In Paris by Jack Keroac * to ***
The beat generation writer. Big Sur is perhaps the most psychedelically influenced and poetic of his books

City of Spades, Absolute Beginners@Colin MacInnes **
Afro-Caribbean and swinging 60s society experimenting with everything from sex and drugs to commercial tv. Unlike Kingsley Amis, Hunter Davies... MacInnes never dates, it seems as fresh as when it was written. Serious weed.

How to Talk Dirty and Influence People by Lenny Bruce *
The best stand-up comic ever, Lenny made Ben Elton seem like Des O'Connor. A gripping autobiography.

The Politics of Ecstacy by Dr Timothy Leary *
A cogent and controversial espousal for why LSD can be good for you, and why society might say otherwise. Controversial because it was so cogent.

The Centre of The Cyclone-an autobiography of inner space by Dr John C Lilley*
Scientific and personal account of the effects of LSD

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Woolfe **
The book that made journalist Woolf (The Right Stuff ** Bonfire of Vanities ***) a best-selling respected author. Takes the US psychedelic scene from Burroughs and Dr Timothy Leary through the Keroac-inspired Merry Pranksters – with their yellow school bus and its destination board that read [FURTHER] including Neil Cassidy (The First Third*) Ken Kesey (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest *** Sometimes A Great Notion*) as well poets such as Alan Ginsberg (Howl!*) Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, who when his publishers dared asked what happened to their countless advances replied "Money Doesn't Come With Instructions."

The Teachings of Don Juan, A Separate Reality, Journey to Ixtlan & Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda *
A spiritual and anthropological journey into the traditional use of natural drugs in search of enlightenment by Mexican Indians.

Ice by Anna Kavan *
Just predates the hippy era, very haunting and evocative novels about being a heroin addict: otherworldly within a science fiction setting

Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall *
The British alternative scene in the 60s/70s. Looking back now the hippies' reaction to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear devastation can be seen as being fairly hard-nosed and sane. Read especially the fifth section "The Underground" - poet Jeff Nuttall is very readable and objective.

Play Power by Richard Neville *
The book by the editor and co-founder of Oz, the alternative magazine that led to the last great obscenity trial. Sections about the trial can become tedious, but shows how the establishment reacted and why. Interestingly their defence barrister was one John Mortimer, author of the Rumpole*** series and Voyage Around My Father ***

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess ***
Controversial and gripping exploration of sense, drugs and violence.

Sombero Fallout & A Confederate General From Big Sur by Richard Brautigan **
I never think of Richard Brautigan as a drug influenced novelist; he was so naturally mellow. All West Coast late hippy cool, but so lyrical. These are his most druggy novels, I guess, but try 'Willard and His Bowling Trophies,' 'The Hawkline Monster,' and 'Dreaming of Babylon,'
while everyone who works in a library should read 'An Abortion; a historical romance.'

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson ***
Another Yank journo turned writer by drugs. A mad, compelling and sidesplitting view through a heady drug cocktail of a Republican Convention that chose Nixon to run for President. In Britain the best we've managed is Jeffrey Barnard is Unwell. Film is pretty good and Johny Depp is an unbelievable Hunter S

Postcards From The Edge by Carrie Fisher **
Semi-autobiographical novel by daughter of Debbie Reynolds & Eddie Fisher, and leading lady in films from Star Wars and Hannah and Her Sisters. Any book that starts "Maybe I shouldn't have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares" gets my vote. As Steve Martin said "Makes 'Moby Dick' seem like a big, fat dumb book .....savagely funny and savagely revealing" Also good film version with Meryl Streep and Shirley Maclaine as daughter and mother.

Requiem for a Dream by Herbert Selby Jnr
Guardian Film of the Week www.requiemforadream Sad, sparse and intriguing. screenplay co-authored by Selby who wrote

Last Exit To Brooklyn by Herbert Selby Jnr
Most famous book, if only because they tried to ban it. Also film but not as good as the book.

Cocaine Nights by J G Ballard (publisher Flamingo) Five die in ex-pat Spanish nightclub fire. Why?
"It's disorientating, deranging and knocks the work of other avant-garde writers into a cocked hat"
"Shoot up Cocaine Nights"

Trainspotting by Irving Walsh ***
You've all heard about it. Have you read it? Great book, film's better!

The Long Arm of Gill Hamilton by Harry Harriman **
Sci-Fi drug use

From Blue to Black by Joel Lane ***
Just out and set in Birmingham Indie scene of the 90s. Comparable in style and quality with The Great Gatsby by Scott-Fitzgerald. Fuller review in Lit-Net shortly
ISBN 1 85242 618 7 10 published by Serpent’s Tail, 4 Blackstock Mews, London N4 2BT tel: 020 7354 1949 fax: 020 7704 6467 e-mail: website:

The Long Firm - Jake Arnott ***
Out now with BBC adaptation which is a gripping cross between The Sopranos meets The Krays. Great depiction of the birth of flower power and psychedelic tabs - split narrative technique same as City of Spades, Colin MacInnes (above) written at the time nearly 50 years ago

"Which do you prefer? Grass or astroturf?"
"Don't know, never smoked astroturf." Joe Namath, New York Jets Quarterback

With thanks to Tom Flemon, John Lancaster, Elspeth and Alan Bailey, and Annie Lightly

© 2001; David Fine

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