John Clare and my Father

Not so long ago In Our Time dedicated a programme to John Clare. Listening to it I was struck when the panel described how, after his brief lionisation, Clare was disparaged and forgotten through most of the 19th and 20th centuries until, they said, poets like Ted Hughes ‘re-discovered’ him.

Yet I remembered my father talking admiringly about Clare when I was a boy – it must have been in the mid or early sixties. Dad was a reader, but not literary and I wondered how he had found Clare for himself.

There’s an interesting enquiry here – about the way the non-literary world sustains an interest in the lost and unfashionable. It reminded me of Salinger’s dedication to one of his books ‘If there is an amateur reader still left in the world – or someone who just reads and runs…’* It’s good to hold on to the knowledge that critics and literary arbiters don’t tell even half of the story of who is read and remembered, only who is visible at any given moment.

It’s easy to see why dad was drawn to Clare. He wasn’t a countryman but, after the war, he sought out work on the land as a solace, just one of the gangs of pickers and planters that moved across the Vale, following crop and season. Like Clare, working the land, he grew interested in the hidden life of field and hedgerow, and I think, in Clare, he found a guide and kindred spirit.

Clare loved the country around his home in Northamptonshire – it was part of him – even though, to the stranger is seemed so dull and uninteresting. Clare’s fields and villages were not part of any ‘romantic’ England. His countryside was prosaic – muddy, boggy, flat and dull; except that, to Clare, it wasn’t. He’d grown up in it, played in it, worked on it from boyhood and, minutely, entered into the hidden life of all its residents – the hedgehog and the nightingale, the mouse fleeing her nest, babies hanging grotesquely from her teats, the ladybird hiding from a storm in a cowslip. This little gem, Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter:

I love to see the old heath’s withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling,
While the old heron from the lonely lake
Starts slow and flaps its melancholy wing,
An oddling crow in idle motion swing
On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig,
Beside whose trunk the gypsy makes his bed.
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread;
The fieldfares chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the haw round fields and closen rove,
And coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove,
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.

Evesham, where dad settled, is similar country – flat, dull and, while it is well gardened, can seem empty and, if you don’t know it, alienating. There are hills – the Cotswolds ring you round with the promise of new landscapes, but the market gardener keeps to the flat and fertile as far as he can.

Rush through and you’d believe there was nothing to see. Work in it – as dad did – and its life begins to reveal itself.

I remember him telling me about the nightingale that used to sing up beyond Four Pools; the Fieldfare that nested one year out at Bricklehampton. Field fares aren’t supposed to nest in this country and, sadly, this adventurer didn’t survive the experiment. The nest was in a tree beside a bedroom window and, dad said, irritated the old man who slept there so much that he took a shotgun and blasted it to bits.

He told me about the Yellowhammer’s ‘littlebitofbreadandnocheese’, and we tasted the hawthorn buds – because they were called bread and butter. In autumn he knew where the most flavoursome blackberries were and where you could find the best conkers.

One special memory is of the time that dad and I cycled up the lane to his piece of ground – I was about eight at the time – and in the distance, framed by trees that opened onto farmland, we saw two birds flying up and over and around each other. They seemed big birds to me, with unusually shaped wings, thin and sharp. Dad looked and said ‘those are two cuckoos. You’ll never see that again’. He was right, I haven’t.

*Raise high the roofbeam carpenters

John Clare and my Father

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