Magazine article The Spectator

All Levelled like a Desert

Magazine article The Spectator

All Levelled like a Desert

Article excerpt

More than any other English poet, John Clare's sense of himself depended on an unchanging countryside and on the familiar customs that belonged there. Enclosure, in all its hard-headed re-ordering, disregarded the intimate connection between people and place. It outraged Clare's conservative countryman's instincts and grieved him to the point of madness.

Going back through the flat agribusiness prairies that now surround Clare's home village of Helpston in Northamptonshire, it is hard to see any least thing capable of attracting affection, or whose loss would excite a moment's regret. Here and there scraps of hawthorn quickset survive of the hated enclosure hedges, and superficially the removal of this 19th-century clutter might appear to have reinstated Clare's beloved open fields. But there is no life here: no meadows full of wildflowers, no 'misty green sallows' or 'crimping' ferns, no wild cats in the woods, no hares 'sturting' in the corn or yellow wagtails nesting 'in a quiet nook'. Across the stretching distances church spires still push up through the earth like bodkins, but everywhere between, giant pylons march like mastodons over an empty land. No room here, in the seamless monoculture, for Plough Days or botanising or 'kidding furze on the heath' or games of leapfrog among the 'thymey molehills'. In Helpston, the families that Clare knew, who had lived in the village for centuries, have almost all long gone - following the railways for work, or into the factories. Any that survive will typically live in the post-war semis strung out in grey ribbons at the edge of the village. The old heart of Helpston, including the thatched 'low huts of the farm labourers', is of beautifully pale Barnack ragstone and it has experienced the sort of seriously expensive gentrification that only arrivistes can afford. Clare's cottage was one of a terrace of five, 'the old house stooped just like a cave'; this is now a single property beyond the wages of 50 farm labourers. Nearby, the once ramshackle Bachelors' Hall, the poet's favoured drinking den, has the scrubbed face of respectable retirement.

Clare's writings (there are about 3,500 poems alone) are full of lamentation for what is lost. Enclosure meant the felling of trees, the stopping-up of streams, the end of villagers' freedoms and commoners' rights, and the infringement of the historic right to roam: 'Each little tyrant with his little sign/ Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine./ On paths to freedom and to childhood dear/ A board sticks up to notice "no road here".' To Clare's mind, the culprits were the 'new men' flush with new money, selfish 'improvers' who cared nothing for social justice or the sufferings of the poor. But Clare was no leveller: however indignant he felt at the tyranny of landlords and the 'accursed wealth' of the spoilers, he was equally distrustful of Captain Swingstyle revolutionary violence and 'self-interested' reformers. He yearned, with William Cobbett, for the golden age of an imagined past when a paternal nobility respected local traditions, and as a patriotic countryman he was that most paradoxical of political animals, the conservative radical.

This apparent contradiction finds a modern echo in the mostly Conservative memberships of bodies such as the National Trust, English Heritage and town preservation societies, who often find themselves in opposition to profoundly capitalist housebuilders and developers. …

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