James Murray-White

A (mid) life with John Clare

I’ve come late to John Clare.  This despite what I thought was a good literary education in that most cultured of Cities, Cambridge. Indeed, Helpston now lies within the Cambridgeshire boundary, transferred from Northamptonshire in 1974, so it is acutely embarrassing that I didn’t get to study him while at secondary and sixth form not 50 miles from  Clare’s physical and emotional and space and place.

Diving into Clare through the facebook group and then Jonathan Bate’s wonderful biography, I support the growing case for the Helpston man to be recognised as our National Bard, much in the way that Burn’s and Yeats are iconic figures in their respective cultures and their poetry, prose and physical and intellectual impact upon Scotland and Ireland is seared into public consciousness.

Clare is the poet for our times: in terms of observation and custodianship of the earth, in this age of fracking,  increased awareness of climate change and biodiversity loss; as well as speaking out against land enclosures, the power of private landlords (though he was caught between a rock and a hard place throughout his life in accepting sponsorship from wealthy patrons), and community, village life, and the influence and impact of religion upon our lives and beliefs. Creativity, mental health, and watchfulness, which author and bird watcher Jeremy Mynott refers to as ‘wonder’ (and Mynott has made a joyous study of how many times Clare expresses wonder in his writings) have become for me the essence of Clare, and ideals to live by. Overall, it is his insider-outsider status within a divisive, fragmented society that absorbs me.

The shifting literal and meta-physical worlds Clare experienced from agricultural worker to London literary society and then the ‘safe’ confining spaces within 2 asylums (coupled with the 3 days, “hungry, hobbled and deluded” on the open road between Epping and Northborough), in many ways mirror my movements through communities ranging from the theatre and the often self-aggrandising literary set, to indigenous peoples in shifting desert places, and back to the claustrophobia of England’s narrow political and social economic mindset (or is that just my current jaded prejudice?). How much should we compromise within the parameters life and our own upbringing, beliefs and responses to circumstance and happenstance? I’m gauging this through Clare’s dance.

  There is a breath, indeed there is
 Of Eden left,
  I feel it now,
 Of something more than earthly bliss,

  That falls and cheers my sullen brow;

  I gaze about upon the trees,
 I view the sweep of distant hills;

  More high than sources such as these 
Comes joy that in my heart distils;

  I view the sky - away despair!

  There falls the joy, 'tis only there....

  From 'On Visiting A Favourite Place'

For me, finding Clare has come at a time of return to my home place (primarily to care for an elderly parent), and a time of questioning about needing a rooted home place after the most extraordinary 20 years of nomadic life and adventuring, in such diverse places as Hull (university), Edinburgh, County Donegal and the entire West coast of Eire (which is my heart home), Mongolia, Jerusalem and the Middle East, and more latterly Bristol and the south west of this island again.

There is for me in Clare an ordinary and yet extra-ordinary aura of common sense, rootedness, conflict and despair. He craves solitude and community in equal measure, needs physical love while seeking a higher connection between spirits, and thrives within the expression of music and words. Much like me, you, all our neighbours?

In an attempt to right the wrong of not ‘knowing’ Clare earlier, I’ve been walking the land he knew, in excellent company. I’d like to pay tribute here to Roger Rowe, Peter Moyse, Mike Hobson, John Lincoln, and Pete Relph for being such excellent guides and deeply knowledgeable sources of Clare and his life, words, and places. The irony of such an excellent group of scholars and thinkers being all men is also not lost on me.

As a filmmaker, I’m pointing my cameras at all things Clare too. It’s a real joy to spend time in the company of someone who is inspired by Clare, be they a poet, writer, painter, or soil scientist, and combine my journalist skills by asking what JC means to them on camera, and hear a range of experiences and stories. I’m documenting those who turn their inspiration into creative practise, and this is being filtered through my documentarian and artistic eye and will become I know not what! A film? A collection of linked pieces? An art-doc homage to Clare?

Let’s wait and see – but I’m always keen to meet and talk and walk, so get in touch. I admire scholarship, plantsmen and women, birders and artists of all hues. Clare has inspired all these, and is the focus for much literary controversy and financial and political mis-management. Bring it all on (and to hell with it), JC might respond.

Turning off the A1 and stumbling into the land that resonated through Clare always lifts me, and though it’s close to the busy bustle and lofty idealism of Cambridge, it feels such a world away. As my feet hit these paths again I know I’ll meet Clare somewhere, lying face down in a field, or tracing the path of a bee back to it’s hive, maybe even carousing round the Helpston roads, fiddle in hand.

The only strangeness came during the recent election period when the A14 and A1 out of Cambridge City into Cambridge Shire was the abundance of UKIP posters everywhere – and this nasty, jingoistic party, founded on some flimsy currents of a shallow debate on immigration and belonging to a place, went on to win in this county. What I wonder, would John Clare have made of that? I’m dipping deep into his words to discover, and to gain strength to challenge the fickleness of this insipid debate.

What I do know from my years is that poetry (and all creativity) enriches and creates space beyond ourselves, and it can bring us back to our lives with deeper resonance. Clare’s words, and the lived experience – the sublime joys (the “childhood sweetly slept”) and the darkest suffering (the |”nothingness and scorn”), are informing my life and the places I tread, and I’m deeply grateful to this writer of untrammelled time and place for that.


Links to Clare film projects:
This is my edited version of Mike Hobson’s photographic & musical responses to Clare’s landscape around Helpston & Northborough: ‘Footin’ It’, April 2014

A rough draft piece of super 8 footage, shot in Epping Forest, in the footsteps of JC. Featuring Mike Hobson and Pete Relph. Shot in January 2014 (needs further editing).

My John Clare Project 2014 album page on vimeo: watch this space for clips & sequences of footage as the project progresses……..

Cambridge Sustainability Residency project:
This year I participated as artist & videographer in the Cambridge Sustainability Residency. Keep an eye on these websites for my current work recording the development of the City of Cambridge, and my response to that in film & words.
An e-book of the residency will be published shortly.

My website:
See my recent commission for Cambridge Botanic Gardens, my film about my mum Pauline’s journey through dementia, and my film exploring 5 years amongst the Bedouin tribes of the Negev Desert, with random articles, reviews etc.

James Murray-White
June 2014