How John Clare’s home defined his life and work.
Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By SARA LODGE
Being in Helpston, you can see why the limits of the local were both a delight and a problem for Clare. He loved the landscape of gently rolling meadows, heaths, woods, and streams, and no poet conveys the ecology of his place more vividly. But he also yearned for intellectual adventure and a fame that would remove him from the cramping force of pastoral poverty. The cottage where Clare was born and where he returned to live with his parents, his wife, and children has recently been restored and opened to the public as a museum. It is tiny. It is hard to imagine six or more bodies sharing the space, let alone one of them writing.
The festival began with an evening walk on Torpel Manor fields, which border the village. A local trust has taken over the site, which is archaeologically important, harboring the remains of a medieval earthworks as well as a conservation area for rare wild plants, birds, and amphibians. It was a perfect July day, still warm at 7 p.m. (a rarity in Britain), and it was a pleasure to wander across the kind of wild space that Clare enjoyed.
From time to time, a Clare enthusiast came up to me and said, “Can I read you a poem?” This is the only occasion when I have been buttonholed in verse, and once I got used to being poured a sonnet, in the way that at a different kind of party you might be poured a dry martini, I decided I quite liked it. It is not always best to have a bard in hand; sometimes being surprised by two in the bush can be quite entertaining.
Afterwards, I meandered, as Clare might have done, to the Exeter Arms, a pub that hosts a folk music evening in Clare’s honor. There I found a cheery sight. Pete Shaw, the amiable master of ceremonies, was leading an impromptu gathering of singers and players, including two violins, two guitars, a banjo, a double bass, and no fewer than five squeezeboxes. They were drinking a local ale, “Waterford Wherry,” and improvising on traditional tunes that Clare himself, a keen fiddler, is known to have played. One guitarist also performed his own, modern settings of songs that Clare wrote. It was as if Jack Johnson had traveled to the early 19th century to do a jam session.
“I haven’t really read much of Clare’s poetry,” confessed Pete, “but I know him through his music.” During the festival, I came to realize that everyone had come to Clare through a different route—natural history, music, biography, literature, politics, even religion—and that everyone had their own Clare, someone they knew intimately, but who was not the same figure that another enthusiast would recognize.
Saturday dawned sunny and fair as the main celebrations got underway. The Clare Society had its Annual General Meeting in a tent behind the village school. I didn’t observe any mad members, but mild eccentricity was much in evidence. There was a discussion about the increasing costs of printing and posting the society newsletter. “Why don’t you just put it online?” someone suggested. This idea caused great consternation. I have a sense that many members of the Clare Society are better acquainted with Gutenberg than Google. As one of very few people present under the age of 40, I began to feel pleasingly young.
There were bookstalls, where one could buy everything from a Clare postcard to a first edition of Poems Descriptive, talks about Clare, local exhibitions of weaving and woodblock printing, and various kinds of Clare-related performance. At lunch I adjourned to the Bluebell Inn to watch the morris dancers. There is much hilarity at the expense of morris dancing in England, and Sir Thomas Beecham’s adage—“In this life try everything once, except incest and morris dancing”—is widely quoted. You can see why. The spectacle of eight middle-aged men in white smocks, decorated with ribbons, bells and flowers, going through dance routines that involve bumping sticks and waving handkerchiefs has its comic side. But it is a friendly and ancient tradition, which dates back to Shakespeare’s day. And Clare enjoyed it, writing a poem in praise of the men deckt out in ribbons gay and papers cut / Fine as a maidens fancy off they strut / And act the morris dance from door to door / Their highest gains a penny nothing more. The notion of ordinary people practicing an art that is fun, community-based, and available to all seems very much in the spirit of Clare’s writing.