Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Wordsworth’s Prelude – and remembering Robert Woof

Dr Robert Woof, with his wife, the Wordsworth scholar Dr Pamela Woof

In the current strange time of the Covid19 lockdown, one unexpected pleasure has been to hear – on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, of all unexpected places – Sir Ian McKellen’s reading of passages from William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude.

It’s a fine reading, in McKellen’s thoughtful, resonant voice, of selected highlights – including the famous ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ passage about the poet’s youthful optimism regarding the French Revolution.

But for me, a completely unexpected pleasure – though a very poignant and almost shocking one – was to hear, all of a sudden, the episodes being introduced each time by a few brief words in the voice of my old friend Robert Woof, Director of the Wordsworth Trust and Dove Cottage, Grasmere.

Robert (1931-2005) was the world’s leading Wordsworth scholar, and also an extraordinary man: humorous, difficult, charming, eloquent, devious, generous, loveable and much more. It was his work, at the head of a matchless team of staff, that turned Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s former home, from a minor ‘heritage’ destination into a powerhouse of scholarship and creativity, nationally recognised as an exemplary museum and centre of culture and creativity.

Robert was Director when I went in the late 1970s to research my biography of Thomas De Quincey; and it was his idea that I should assemble a team to edit De Quincey’s complete works – a project which came to fruition in a 21-volume edition from the London publisher Pickering and Chatto in 2000-2003.

Robert was a source of endless wise advice and friendly comfort through these difficult projects. His wry sense of humour and his endless knowledge were great resources. He taught me resilience and a lot about handling people (I had a team of ten co-editors to work with!).

He was, above all, a wonderful reader and interpreter of Wordsworth. His rich, gentle, slightly grainy Northern voice was exactly right, and his understanding of the poetry was second to none. In fact, if anyone could have read The Prelude better than Ian McKellen, it might have been Robert Woof.

Sadly, Robert died in 2005, just after the completion of the Wordsworth Trust’s new Collections Centre – the ‘Jerwood Centre’ – into which he’d put his heart and soul. Indeed, I think that, though seriously ill, he willed himself to live long enough to see it complete and open.

It was a complete shock to hear his voice introducing a passage of McKellen’s reading. The presenter didn’t mention his name, the announcer never credited him; since the reading was clearly from an archive, I wondered if anyone at the BBC knew who he was, or even realised that he was there alongside McKellen. I’ll admit that I shed a few tears when I heard my old friend’s voice so suddenly, with all his old clarity and thoughtful eloquence.

In these strange days, it was oddly like getting a message from a friend who is gone, in one sense; but who is in another way very much present for me, and will always be.


If your working life is much concerned with a famous person, it’s probably inevitable that you will occasionally dream about them.

images[1]A few years ago at the Dartington Festival, I bumped into Andrew Motion and we spent an evening chatting. Andrew was Laureate at the time, and somehow we got onto the subject of dreams. I asked him if he’d ever dreamed of previous Laureates.

Only once, he said. He’d dreamed he went out of his house, and parked by the kerb nearby was a white van. On the side of it was written:


Underneath was painted a neat image of a rainbow, and the motto:

The sounding cataract
Haunted him like a passion.

– lines adapted, of course, from ‘Tintern Abbey.’ Andrew later made a poem out of the dream.

images[1] (2)My dear friend Pete Laver, who died on Scafell aged 36 back in 1983, worked as Librarian at Dove Cottage. He too had his Wordsworth dream. Pete dreamed that he met the great poet (whose books and papers he spent his waking hours conserving and cataloguing) and asked him the question he’d always wanted to put: ‘Mr Wordsworth,’ he said – and you need to know that Pete wasn’t normally the deferential type, he was into punk rock and wore badges saying ‘Anarchy’ to work – ‘Mr Wordsworth, what is your personal favourite among your own poems?’

Wordsworth’s reply was: ‘Stanzas Suggested in a Steamboat off St Bee’s Head’ – which, as anyone who’s read their way through Wordsworth will know, is almost certainly his worst, and definitely his most boring poem.

‘And,’ said Pete, ‘I just couldn’t tell if he was joking!’

To complete a trio of dream encounters, when I was finishing my biography of Thomas De Quincey I dreamed that I met him. And I asked him something that had never crossed my mkind while I was awake: I asked him if he’d read Alice in Wonderland – not a bad question to put to the old opium-eater, I now think.


De Quincey said ‘Yes, I’ve read it.’
‘And what did you think of it?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ said De Quincey, ‘I enjoyed it; but I learned nothing from it.’

And that was that. I’m still wondering what he meant.

Grasmere with David Morrell and De Quincey

Just back from Grasmere, where the Wordsworth Trust hosted an evening with thriller-writer David Morrell. David (who created the character of JohnRambo in his first novel, aptly titled First Blood, the basis of the Sylvester Stallone movie franchise) recently published Murder as a Fine Art, a serial-killer thriller set in Victorian London, with Thomas De Quincey – the famous ‘Opium-Eater’ – as action hero and detective.


With David Morrell and De Quincey and his family (pastel by James Archer) – and a big thankyou to Ali S. Karim for the photo


We had great fun presenting an evening ‘in conversation’ between biographer and novelist at the Wordsworth Trust’s Jerwood Centre, just a few yards from Dove Cottage where De Quincey lived and wrote for so many years in the 1820s and ’30s.

We were also able to spend a day exploring Grasmere and its surroundings. We walked around both lakes – Grasmere and Rydal Water – by way of Loughrigg Terrace, Rydal Cavern, Rydal Mount and the Coffin Path.

And the next day David and his wife Donna were able to walk up the fell opposite the village to see the view De Quincey might have had when he first tried to visit Wordsworth in 1806 – walking up from Coniston and gazing across the lake at Dove Cottage, but finding himself too shy to come any closer!


Andrew Forster of the Wordsworth Trust also gave us a special tour of Dove Cottage and a viewing of De Quincey and Wordsworth manuscripts at the Jerwood Centre.

To find out more about David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art, click on the panel below.

And for David Morrell’s personal website, click on this link:

Murder as a Fine Art: David Morrell’s New Thriller Portrays De Quincey as Detective

When I completed The Opium-Eater, my biography of De Quincey, I thought his story was told. Little did I know that in 2013 he would be vividly brought back to life as the dynamic hero of an action thriller set in Victorian London.


De Quincey: back to fight crime after 154 years

David Morrell, creator of Rambo (see his 1972 novel First Blood) has done an excellent and ingenious job of creating De Quincey as a credible fictional character, closely based on authentic biographical sources, and set him to work pursuing a serial killer through the London of the 1850s.

Morrell has immersed himself in every detail of his setting. Police work and prisons, street life, taverns and prostitution, crime-scene procedures, political high-life and chimney-sweeping: it’s all there, recreated with all the sounds, smells and discomfort of an overcrowded, insanitary nineteenth-century metropolis, where a vicious psychopath is recreating the series of murders described by De Quincey in his epoch-making essays ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’.

Naturally De Quincey himself becomes a prime suspect, because the murders seem to be following the sequence of the essay he published many years before. If he is to stop the murderer in time, he will have to escape the clutches of the corrupt and stupid police who are holding him as the likely culprit. And – to make him look all the more guilty, as well as rendering it harder for him to think, plan and act – De Quincey has to contend with his lifelong opium addiction. A recipe for a nail-biting (and at times stomach-churning) suspense, created by an acknowledged master of the action thriller genre.


David Morrell

Morrell has taken great pains to base his De Quincey on what is known of the real man. He makes the Opium-Eater’s dialogue – thoughtful, a touch pedantic, and full of sharp insights – exactly right. And he creates De Quincey’s daughter, the tough-minded Emily, as a resourceful feminist with ideas and plans of her own: a worthy companion for her adventurous father.

Morrell makes De Quincey’s crime-fighting intelligence and imaginative knowledge of how the criminal brain works completely credible, and in tune with the fact that De Quincey’s stories and his essays ‘On Murder’ are important elements in the early pre-history of crime fiction, still influential today. And if De Quincey in Morrell’s fast-paced and violent action thriller seems a touch fitter and more athletic than I imagined him, well, it’s great to find my old friend in such good shape!

Murder as a Fine Art is a breathlessly good read which will delight De Quincey addicts, entertain lovers of Victorian fiction, and grip anyone who enjoys the very special flavour of murder in the foul and fascinating labyrinths of Victorian London.

De Quincey and Rob Morrison at Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage: De Quincey lived here from 1809 after Wordsworth left

Dove Cottage: De Quincey lived here from 1809 after Wordsworth left

I went up to Grasmere yesterday: a special occasion. Thomas De Quincey (the ‘English Opium-Eater’) died 150 years ago that day, on December 8 1859. To mark the occasion, and to celebrate the fine new biography of De Quincey by my old friend Robert Morrison, the Wordsworth Trust decided to recreate ‘a winter’s evening at Dove Cottage’ just as De Quincey loved it, and recorded it in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: a roaring fire, candlelight, an ‘eternal teapot’ and ‘a decanter of ruby-coloured laudanum’ – though yesterday mulled wine served as a very acceptable substitute. And of course the weather was terrible, just as De Quincey liked it. After all, as he said, why pay for coals and candles if you’re not getting a proper winter for your money?

Rob was signing copies of his new De Quincey biography

Rob was signing copies of his new De Quincey biography

Rob’s biography – the first since my own life of De Quincey came out in 1981 – is a great read, as well-written as you’d expect from a scholar of De Quincey, one of the best-ever prose stylists. And it’s packed with new information about the extraordinary life of England’s most famous literary drug addict. I’ll slot in a link to the book right here: it’s highly recommended. Ideal Christmas present, in fact.

A new life of De Quincey was much-needed because when Rob and I and nine other editors researched our 21-volume edition of De Quincey’s complete Works in 2000-3, we dug up so much new information that I knew my biography was now out of date. Rob took on the job and has produced an amazingly fresh story full of insights that even I never dreamed of.

Dove Cottage Wordsworth Trust Morrison De QuinceyRob and I discussed De Quincey – his addiction, his dreams, his wonderful writing, his phenomenal memory, his part in the making of modern literary biography, and many other aspects – with a moving crowd of around a hundred people in those candlelit cottage rooms where De Quincey lived and wrote, where he met Wordsworth for the first time, and where he dreamed of (or did he really meet?) the terrifying Malay addict who so unexpectedly knocked at his door one day.

If you were there, I hope you enjoyed it all. If you missed it, you can still catch Rob, when he gives the Bindman Lecture, ‘Thomas De Quincey and the Lake District’, at the Wordsworth Trust on Saturday 12 December at 3 pm. See for details.

Afterwards I dropped in for tea and mince pies with some old friends, Tim Melling and Liz Cooper at Nab Cottage, Rydal, where De Quincey courted Margaret Simpson, the beautiful daughter of a local farmer. Nab Cottage, a fine traditional Lakeland farmhouse on the shore of Rydal Water, is now a B&B and language school ( and ). They told me that during the recent floods they had water coming under the door (the house is right between the lake and the slopes of the fell with consequent water runoff) but it didn’t get serious and everything is now fine. Though it was pelting with rain outside as we talked!

Nab Cottage still has a small built-in writing cupboard with fold-down

Tim and Liz relax in the 'Opium Den': once De Quincey's writing space?

Tim and Liz relax in the 'Opium Den': once De Quincey's writing space?

desk, and since De Quincey owned the place briefly in the 1820s he may well have written there. Tim and Liz keep the room decorated as an ‘Opium Den’ in his memory.

They also got out their copy of the fascinating game Transformation which they tell me originated at Findhorn. Although it’s a board game it seems to provide real-life challenges and counselling for players, and they tell me it can actually change the lives of people who play it. I wasn’t able to stay long enough to play it (Liz tells me she has trained as a ‘facilitator’ to play the game in enhanced mode with people who seriously want to transform!) but I heard enough to want to give it a try. I’m putting a link in, but this is not an arbitrary plug because I am buying this myself. I delight in any spiritual/psychological/divination-type thing, and this one looks really good . If anyone out there has played Transformation and can write a comment about it, please get in touch; I’d love to hear from you!