Monday, 30 June 2014

John Clare Day (July 13th)

For those of you for whom John Clare is a new name,
But who might want to join us on a John Clare Walk,
Around the common lands of Stroud and the 5 Valleys,
On John Clare Day and Night, every July 13th,
(He was born on July 13th 1793, at, in Clare’s words:
‘Helpstone, a gloomy village…on the brink of the Lincolnshire fens’.)
Here is a selection of his poem titles, to give you a flavour,
Taken from my treasured 40 year old Everyman edition:

Impromptu on Winter; The Robin; To the Violet; Winter’s Gone;
The Village Minstrel; The Setting Sun; The Primrose; Autumn; Badger;
Swamps of wild rush-beds; The Shepherd’s Calendar; Swordy Well;
Evening Pastime; Winter Winds cold and blea; Summer Images;
The Spring returns; The Eternity of Nature; The Voice of Nature;
The Shepherd’s Tree; The Nightingale’s Nest; The Blackcap; The Vixen;
The Missel-thrush’s nest; The Redcap; The Lark’s Nest; The Flight of Birds;
The Fern-owl’s Nest; The Reed-bird; The Wren; The Thrush’s Nest;
The Mole-catcher; The Frightened Ploughman; A Walk in the Forest;
The Pale Sun; Haymaking; April; The Round Oak; The Winter’s Come; Dewdrops;
The Beanfield; The Peasant Poet; The Daisy; The Autumn’s Wind;
The Green Lane; Early Spring; The Dark Days of Autumn;
Evening. It is the silent hour when they who roam; Enclosure;
Mary. ‘Tis April and the morning, love.

This is just the smallest selection from my second hand book,
Bought in Camden Town to offer respite and relief
From the tedium of studying political theory at UCL,
When we all knew Karl Marx had it all tied up,
And was the only show in Town – plus ca change -,
So, join us for some walk, talk, refreshment and readings,
Sunday, July 13th, time and place to be confirmed.

Even though Clare was born in 1793, two of his grandchildren were still alive in the 1950s and, as Jonathan Bate points out in his biography, ‘It is strange to think’ that Clare was ‘born two years before Keats and only four after the storming of the Bastille’. But we don’t need to show this generational overlap as evidence for the relevance of Clare: far better to look at his writing. And we shall start by looking at his writing about enclosure.
We lament the disappearance of hedgerows today, but for Clare’s generation, hedgerows meant a violation of landscape and liberty. How he hated the hawthorn hedgerows of enclosure! The following selections show this; we’ll start with a few lines from ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’:
‘The gipsey’s camp was not afraid
I made his dwelling free
Till vile enclosure came and made
A parish slave of me.’
His poem about his village, Helpston, contains lines that Lord Radstock objected to as ‘radical slang’; here are a few:
‘Accursed Wealth! o’er-bounding human laws,
Of every evil thou remain’st the cause:
Victims of want, those wretches such as me,
Too truly lay their wretchedness to thee:
Thou art the bar that keeps them from being fed,
And thine our loss of labour and of bread;
Thou art the cause that levels every tree,
And woods bow down to make a way for thee.’

Now here’s a few lines from Impromptu on Winter:
‘To me all seasons come the same:
Now winter bares each field and tree
She finds that trouble sav’d in me
Stript already, penniless,
Nothing boasting but distress;
And when spring chill’d nature cheers,
Still my old complaint she hears;
Summer too, in plenty blest,
Finds me poor and still distrest;
Kind autumn too, so liberal and so free,
Brings my old well-known present, Poverty.’

And now here’s a stanza or twain from The Village Minstrel:
‘Spring more resembles winter now than spring,
The shades are banish’d all – the birds have took to wing.

There once were lanes in nature’s freedom dropt,
There once were lanes that every valley wound –
Inclosure came, and every path was stopt;
Each tyrant fixed his sign where paths were found,
To hint a trespass now who cross’d the ground;
Justice is made to speak as they command;
The high road now must be each stinted bound;
Inclosure, thou’rt a curse upon the land,
And tasteless was the wretch who thy existence plann’d.’
And now for a few lines from Enclosure:
‘Far spread the moory ground, alevel scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green,
That never felt the rage of blundering plough,
Though centuries wreathed spring blossoms on its brow.
Autumn met plains that stretched then far away
In unchecked shadows of green, brown, and grey.
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene;
No fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect from the gazing eye;
Its only bondage was the circling sky.
A mighty flat, undwarfed by bush and tree,
Spread its fair shadow of immensity,
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds,
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds.
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours,
Free as spring clouds and wild as forest flowers,
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once as it no ore shall be.
Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights, and left the poor a slave; …
The skybound wastes in mangled garbs are left,
Fence meeting fence in owner’s little bounds
Of field and meadow, large as garden-grounds,
In little parcels little minds to please,
With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease.’

Jonathan Bate comments in The Song of the Earth; ‘In 1809 Parliament had passed An Act for Inclosing Lands in the Parishes of Maxey…and Helpstone, in the County of Northampton.’ And so:

‘These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hates sign by vulgar taste is hung
As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, sacred freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came’.

Professor Bate in his biography John Clare mentions EP Thompson’s perspective on Clare: ‘Clare may be described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest’; Bate goes on to show, as Thompson implied, that enclosure affected Clare in a visceral way: he felt the changes in the landscape personally, for his village community and, as it were, for the very fields, trees, flowers, hills and springs themselves.
‘By Langley Bush I roam, but the bush hath left its hill;
On Cowper Hill I stray,’tis a desert strange and chill;
And spreading Lea Close Oak, ere decay had penned its will,
To the axe of the spoiler and self-interest fell a prey;
And Crossberry Way and old Round Oak’s narrow lane
With its hollow tree like pulpits, I shall never see again:
Inclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain,
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still,
It runs a naked brook, cold and chill’.
Bate goes on to show this ecological empathy with ‘The Lamentations of Round Oak Waters’; Clare uses the voice of the water to voice his lament for the clearing of the trees that once shaded the brook (‘There’s scarce a greensward spot remains, And scarce a single tree.’) This mixture of the personal and the ecologically empathetic was always unceremoniously and forcefully brought home to Clare when he could no longer walk and wander where old habits would lead:
‘I always wrote my poems in the fields…I used to go out of the village to particular spots which I was fond of…in one of these rambles I was in a narrow escape of being taken up as a poacher…I found a beautiful spot…and…began to rhyme till I insensibly fell asleep and was awakened by muttering voices on the other side of the thicket – I looked through and saw they were keepers by their guns – one of their dogs came up…the part I was in was enclosed by a wall and belonged to the Marquis.’
These lines written after his move from Helpstone to Northborough (a 3 mile distance, but infinite to Clare) further convey his sense of intrusion, loss of freedom and anxiety about new rights of property:
'I deaded walking where there was no path
And prest with cautious tread the meadow swath
And always turned to look with wary eye
And always feared the owner coming bye
Yet everything about where I had gone
Appeared so beautiful I ventured on
And when I gained the road where all are free
I fancied every stranger frowned at me
And every kinder look appeared to say
You've been on trespass on your walk to day
I've often thought the day appeared so fine
How beautiful if such a place were mine
But having nought I never feel alone
And cannot use another's as my own.'

Monday, 16 June 2014

Magna Carta, the PM, British Values and 1066 And All That

Magna Carta, the PM, British Values and 1066 And All That

Here are a few of the comments of Sellar and Yeatman, from their 1930 classic, on Magna Charter (‘on account of the Latin Magna (great) and Charter (a Charter)’):
1.     That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason – (except the Common People).
2.     That everyone should be free - (except the Common People).
3.     That everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the Realm - (except the Common People).
4.     That the Barons should not be tried except by a special group of other Barons who would understand.

Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).

Gentle readers, this inter-war parody should be dated, dry and dust. Did anyone imagine that it would become a satire on a prime minister in the 21st century?

Saturday, 14 June 2014

'No Pasaran!': A West Country Declamation

This is the eulogy read at the performance at Whiteway in early June, as part of the Laurie Lee Festival. These are the names I discovered when researching this, around 1998, covering the Bristol-Swindon-Gloucestershire area; these are the names of people who contributed to the anti-fascist cause, either in Spain or in our neck of the woods. There may be more, of course.

We remember Bill Morrissey of Elmore,
Gloucester vehicle builder and keen cyclist,
He crossed the Pyrenees by night,
To fight fascism at Teruel.

We remember Percy Williams of Swindon,
GWR engineer and then the 15th Brigade,
A young man killed at Caspe in machine gun fire.

We remember James Albrighton,
A young student from Wiltshire,
First protecting Madrid, then wounded at Brunete.

We remember Stafford Cottman,
Attacked by Blackshirts in Bristol,
He volunteered straightway at the age of 17,
To join the POUM and sleep in caves,
Then fight on the Aragon Front;
He escaped from Barcelona to pay tribute
To the International Brigade at Jarama.

We remember the Bristol Brigaders,
Who lost their lives:
William G. Boyce, January 1938, Teruel;
John Burton, February 1937, Jarama;
Lesley Huson, May 1938; E. Stephens, July 1938.

We remember Ralph Bates of Swindon,
Out on Barcelona Docks, then defending Madrid.
And then directing mountain troops in the Pyrenees.

We remember Winifred Bates, writing pamphlets
At the Ministry of Information,
Coordinating medical volunteers,
Then working in the French camps.

We also remember Ronald Bates of Swindon,
Fighting with the anti-tank unit at Teruel.

We remember Thomas Duncombe,
Of Wotton-under-Edge,
Killed at Gandesa, April 1938,
Trying to stop Franco reaching the sea.

We also remember Margaret Duncombe,
Gallant nurse,
International Brigade Medical Services.

We remember Laurie Lee,
Writer, poet, labourer and ant-fascist,
Walking out from Slad with his violin,
Crossing the Pyrenees to fight Franco.

We remember Wogan Phillips from Colesbourne,
Driving his Ford to Barcelona,
Helping Stephen Spender;
Ambulance driver in the Segovia Offensive,
Demanding compensation for British ships
Bombed by Franco,
Then organising a refugee ship for Mexico.

We remember Ted Fletcher,
30 Regent Street, Stonehouse,
Ambulance driver;
And Michael Johnston of Great Rissington,
He fought all the way from the Jarama to the Ebro;
Wounded, he then worked as a transport driver.
We remember the Minchinhampton naval rating,
Dive-bombed by Stukas in his frigate off Alicante.

We remember Alfred Brooks of Bream Labour Party,
Cinema manager in the Dean,
Shielding his six Spanish refugee children
From the Pathe newsreels of Spain,
By keeping them busy in the projection room,
Or dancing flamenco in the Dean.

We remember Mrs. Phelps,
Saluted by a Spanish refugee
Saluted by a Spanish guard of honour,
At her wedding at Holy Trinity, Stroud.
We remember Harry Clements,
Nellie and Bert Mardell, Nellie Shaw,
Mary Robert, Marcel Morand and Joy Evans,
All of Whiteway,
Who helped the refugees feel at home and find work.

We remember the Stroud greengrocer,
With his gifts of food to the refugees,
The local fundraisers,
Mr E.G.Hobson,
And the Stroud Committee to help Spanish democracy.

We remember Paul Ruiz,
Rowed by his dad to a waiting ship,
11 years old, bound for Gloucester;
Paul would later marry a local girl,
Not returning to Spain until after the death of Franco.
We remember Lawrence Baxeda of Catalonia,
His children taken by their mother to Mitcheldean,
He stayed with his brother to fight Franco;
Under a death-sentence, they escaped to France,
Surviving the Nazi occupation,
To be reunited with family in 1949
And find work in Cinderford Saw Mills.

Finally, in this eulogy,
We remember once more,
Laurie Lee,
Writer, poet, labourer and ant-fascist,
Walking out from Slad with his violin,
Crossing the Pyrenees to fight Franco.

We shall remember them all:
‘No Pasaran!’

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Laurie Lee Walk from Slad to Whiteway: June 7th

As we walked out on our Laurie Lee walk,
Discussing moments of peace and war,
In an inter-textual - meta-textual
Wander from Slad to Whiteway,
We tripped through the harmony of landscape
And the poetry of past and present cartography:
No blue line motorways or red and yellow roads;
No pale blue tourist signification;
No black lines of railway tracks,
Cuttings, embankments, viaducts or tunnels;
No red square and circle railway stations;
No bus stations, power lines or pylons;
Instead: footpaths, byways and bridleways,
Past names such as Steanbridge, Redding Wood.
Catswood, Driftcombe Farm, High Wood,
Dillay Brook, The Scrubs, Famish Hill,
Sydenhams, The Camp, Calf Way, Wishanger Farm;
And all the while whilst we walked through woodland,
The tumbling waters of springs all around:
What euphony there is in the vowels and consonants
That litter our landscape with their litany!
What secrets of etymology and topography are revealed,
When we tramp the land rather than drive the road,
When we disconnect the sat-nav and navigate
By ancient tracks that connect our ancient springs.

Liminal shrines: those strange, trickling gateways
To mythopoeic underworlds of mystery,
(Or Limestone, Fullers’ Earth and Cotteswold Sands),
Quicksilver mercurial alchemy,
A continuous flow of constant change,
One sip of which will switch your sense of time
(Drinking rainwater that dropped who knows when),
Like star-shine from ancient constellations,
A laughing trick all that slakes and comforts,
Yet mocks the tension of the present tense,
A spring-tide clock whose hands revolve backwards,
With messages from another aeon.