I've always written. But about 15 or so years
ago I decided simply to be brave enough to commit myself,
thoroughly and properly, to it, whatever the cost, as it were.
There's a fine line between bravery and insanity, I believe.
My most recent book publication is Devon
Hymns- a record of my time spent on a Devon dairy
farm some years ago. I'd left London with the vague idea that a bit
of quietness might facilitate some creative thought. The book was
one of the things that came out of that time.
Much of my other work is rather urban. I'm
interested in what I feel most people dismiss, disregard. There are
countless moments of eye-watering beauty in the simplest of urban
realities. Stand on any patch of pavement, and you'll see and hear
it. It is happening underneath what we normally register. In the
"I'm a perfect stranger/passing through the commonplace,
amazed." If there's anything that I hope might happen
through my writing, it is that people might walk through this world
in that way, almost with a sense of awe, which certainly in an
urban context gets lost. Partly because we're inundated with so
much wow factor technology, the lights, bells and whistles of the
urban experience, we have to constantly make choices as to what to
attend to and ignore. Attention spans get necessarily shorter. The
small details of life begin to be dishonoured.
I'm looking down right now, and in the street I see a
flashing light of a zebra crossing, and that's a simple
thing. If a child looked at that, it would stand amazed
for some time, till it was tugged away by its mother saying, "Come
on: we've got to do something else." It's not immaturity, it's awe
and wonder that we're born with, that we eventually have educated
out of us.
If you walk in the world as a perfect stranger, as a
child does, everything is worthy of attention, is
examined, considered, picked up, put down. If we walked through the
world in this way, it would change everything.
I see God's creativity in every single moment in human
interaction, at the lowest levels that people often don't
consider or think of as creative, of bringing something into being
- a half-smile between strangers, a dog looking up into its owner's
eyes, the slow fall of a leaf, a breeze stirring a puddle, all
randomly occurring, generally dismissed. It's that creativity that
I'm trying to express all the time, and point to as worthy of our
I live in central London. At times, the
relentless energy of the city can be challenging, and lead to
sensory overload. Perhaps that's why I'm a night owl. Night is when
the city boils down to a level of freneticism one can just about
I'm not sure where my sense of obligation to write comes
from. Finding a reason for a particular compulsion is
never straightforward. I believe that I'm doing what I'm supposed
to be doing. It's enough to simply know that.
What makes it worth it? Finding that something
you have done has been a blessing. In whatever way or ways.
Paying the bills is always difficult! I need
acres of time to think and produce work (ideas too big, brain too
small); so I simply can't do too much other work without being
diluted and delayed in what I'm trying to achieve. I work a few
hours in a second-hand bookshop, which makes a dent in the
And I'm about to add a little something else:
poet-in-residence at Eton. I'm not a teacher, but rather
will be hoping that my one small example of a way of working, of
paying attention, might offer something to interested boys in
pursuit of their own individual voice. We will learn from each
other. I'm looking forward to it.
Blake thought education had a lot to answer for in
making us grow up, learn to run businesses, have families,
rule the world. Well, we do need to grow up - doesn't it say
somewhere in the Bible "Now I have put away childish things"? But
it's vital to retain an openness to things. All artists walk
through the world in this way.
I think it would make the world a gentler place if we
all did so. If you're honouring everything, whether it's a
leaf in flight or the flashing light at a zebra crossing, you can't
help but have an empathy for the person beside you, whether you
know them or not.
I've just published a long piece in the journal
Artesian called "Walking In Beauty". It's about
a street sweeper walking through his day shift and then a night
shift. He is himself unnoticed and disregarded, and yet sees,
hears, and understand every single thing. For me, the street
sweeper is a kind of reference image of how to proceed through the
world. If we walked through the world in that ground-level way,
paying that kind of close attention, it would change everything,
make us more worshipful, appreciative, more acknowledging of each
other, and of God.
When I talk about my search for truth, I
suppose it is linked to the search for beauty. But beauty is so
threaded through the ordinary one is tripping over it at every
I have a rather simplistic way of walking through the
world as a Christian. I rarely attend formal church
services. I will go into a church when it is empty. I very much
like being "attached" to a church, and having a spiritual guide (I
have both at St Pancras Old Church, London). I regard that kind of
home base vital.
I consider my working to be prayer, and what I
produce to be an extension of my faith. I think I have invented a
new kind of urban monasticism. . . It's important that I maintain
a connection to a particular church: a rootedness in an otherwise
unrooted life. And this great sense of peace I feel when I walk in
to that place, or any church - a traditional church - if empty and
alone. I feel that I have come back, in that particular moment -
this small homecoming. Then you go out, leave home, carry on.
The most important choice I have made? Well,
the one where I decided to embrace poverty, obscurity, loneliness,
and rejection by deciding to write full time [laughs]. And regrets?
I have no regrets about making that choice, of course. I regret the
loss of certain people - some through faults and weaknesses of
mine. But, in the end, it's difficult to have regrets. What I've
been through has led me to here: to what I am, to what I've
produced, to where I'm growing. Whatever the journey you're on is,
it's the right one.
Posthumous fame would be lovely: I hope I get to enjoy
it. It would please me to think that one or two pieces of
mine might continue to resonate and have meaning and relevance to a
few others in the future - if people could walk through the world
in this way.
Tutelary or kindred spirits? Milton, Van Gogh,
John Berger, Emily Young. They are mentors and guides and quiet
supports, both for what they have done, and the way in which they
have gone about doing it. Milton wrote Paradise Lost when he was 68
and completely blind. I'm on my knees.
I don't have a favourite place. Having one
would mean having to tell everywhere else: "Just so you know,
you're not my favourite." Awful. I tend to move a lot: 13 times in
17 years. I love to be able to look and listen and learn in a
different street, engage and adapt to new circumstances,
difficulties, differences. It all goes in, and changes you. And
sometimes it comes out, on the page.
My favourite part of the Bible is the Psalms.
Well, it's the only part I read, really. I'm sure that makes me a
pretty useless Christian. I take some consolation from the fact
that Jesus read them. And that monastic traditions use them as a
focus of their worship. Whittle it down further? Psalm 1. It's like
having one poem. How many do you need?
When did I last get angry? Goodness, what time
is it now? I get angry all the tedious time. Usually at myself,
and quite often at uncooperative inanimate objects, They have their
sly way of provoking you.
I'm happiest when I've just put down on the page - after
weeks and pages of workings out - a line that finally seems to
work. I'm unhappiest immediately afterwards, when the
newly blank brain says, "Yes, fine, fine. Now what?"
I don't actually pray for anything; I usually just give
thanks. Quietly, rather too quickly, perhaps. I pray the
Jesus Prayer often; and the Lord's Prayer.
Locked in a church with someone? Well, it would have to
be Jesus, wouldn't it? If only because I'd like to know if
I was on the right track (or, indeed, travelling in the right
direction). If he paused before answering, I would immediately
know that, up till then, I'd been slightly missing the point.
Jeremy Clarke was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.jeremyclarke.com