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High Times: The influence of drugs on arts and culture

Will Gompertz | 09:26 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010

I spent yesterday making a package for last night's News at Ten about High Society, an exhibition that's about to open at the Wellcome Collection in London.

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It's an interesting show that neither condones nor condemns the use of mind- or mood-altering substances (alcohol and caffeine are included in the explorations).

It's in two parts: the first presents the informal collaboration that took place from the mid-19th to the mid-20th Century in which scientists, including psychiatrists, encouraged writers and artists to take drugs and report back.

The scientists reasoned that gifted communicators such as poets would be better than them at describing the subjective experience of an altered mental state in words or pictures.

The second part of the show looks at the concept of collective intoxication: the phenomenon where an individual's experience is subjugated to a shared experience.

The rave scene of the 1990s is an obvious example, but the curators argue that it is a universal human impulse that can be traced back thousands of years to the temples high in the Peruvian Andes where participants carved sculptures depicting various stages of their intoxication.

John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke

I interviewed the poet John Cooper Clarke for the piece. He was terrific but rather succinct. With news packages the rule of thumb is that the interviewee's answer needs to be between 15 and 20 seconds.

Given that it is not normal to think and talk in such a truncated timeframe, most people take about 30 seconds to express what they want to say.

That means that either I have to introduce the clip with a precis of how the answer started or the video editor has to use the infamous "noddy", where a shot of me nodding provides a way of cutting out extraneous words.

All of this is quite normal in the making of television. What is unusual is for an interviewee to talk in soundbites of a few seconds. That's tricky.

Such clarity and precision of thought is admirable - but tricky in TV terms. You need at least five seconds to bring up text on the screen explaining who the interviewee is, not to mention the viewer's need for a bit of acclimatisation along the lines of "now I know him/her, don't I?"

John Cooper Clark talks in four-second soundbites. They are pithy, pertinent and profound, but they are too short for telly. I was re-watching one of my favourite YouTube clips where JCC is being interviewed by the wonderful Tony Wilson for the 1970s Granada show So It Goes (a reference to the recurring phrase in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five).

Tony Wilson was more able than most when it came to precision and phraseology. His line at the beginning where he says that JCC is the brightest performing poet since Cassius Clay is pitch-perfect. But when it comes to being clear, funny and pointed, few match the Bard of Salford:

Tony Wilson: What do people think about you being a poet?
John Cooper Clarke: Not many of them know; they do now you've blown my cover.

He told me that two weeks after the interview, he had left his job at Salford Tech and became a full-time performance poet. He also talks in the piece about why he uses rhyme, explaining it as a device to stop him being verbose. Well, it's worked; he's cured.

I asked if there were any publications due that would cover all the decades he has been writing and performing. "Oh, I've had some offers," he told me with genuine modesty, "but it's a big job."

Apparently JCC's archive doesn't share the same precision and order as the man in interview. It is scattered throughout his house, in no chronological or subject order and all hand-written. And then comes the problem of his perfectionist streak: "Every time I pick one up I want to re-write it - I know I could do better".

It seems a job that needs doing. He was one of the great punk-poets, touring with the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, the Fall and most of the other remarkable bands of the time. He seemed to share their attitude to life, summed up with lines like "I'd consider killing you / If I thought you were alive".

Who knows when a complete anthology might come out; in the meantime, you can read some of his work here.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Nice.

  • Comment number 2.

    Will Gompertz.

    "It's an interesting show that neither condones nor condemns usage of mind or mood-altering substances.."

    it also does not allude to the political and economical circumstances which have led to the rise of the (fascist, IMO) prohibition that is now almost universal, I take it??

  • Comment number 3.

    A little bit of imagination. When answers are too succinct, instead of the noddy how about stroking the chin? I'm sure you could get away with 10 seconds, and it would prompt the viewer to consider those words of wit and wisdom.

    (this tip was brought to you without the assistance of pharmaceuticals.)

    ''...one of the great punk poets.''

    Good grief, there was more?!

  • Comment number 4.

    If you like him so much, at least take the time to get his name right - it's John Cooper Clarke.

    Some of us are attached to that 'e', which is only right if you think about the topic...

 

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