"WHAT," enquires Sir John, after the
service, "is 'the Proper'?" I explain, and we all go home little
the wiser. It is St Swithun's, and the sun stares down on us. Lunch
in the wet-but-warm garden, and kindly joined by the white cat.
Yesterday, we travelled 100 miles to Helpston to honour John Clare,
our natural-history poet sans peer, and I gave my 31st
presidential address in the marquee.
We went to the Blue Bell, the pub
where he worked as a youth, doubling the professions of ploughman
and potman. Morris dancers clicked and cried in the car park.
Schoolchildren had placed "midsummer cushions" round Clare's grave.
These are made by sticking wildflower heads into turf. Clare wrote
about what I call his "commonwealth of flowers".
The most terrible thing for him during
his long asylum years was the deprivation of the seasonal
countryside, for, like all village people, his interior clock kept
time with that of the birds and plants. He complained to a friend:
"Like the caged Starnel of Sterne, I can't get out. . .
"I love the rippling brook and the
singing of birds. But I can't get out to see them or hear them -
while other people are looking at gay flower gardens. I love to see
the quaking bull rushes and the broad lakes in the green meadows,
and the sheep tracks over a fallow field, and a land of thistles in
flower. . . I am in this damned madhouse and can't get out."
James, the chaplain of Chelmsford
Prison, comes to evening prayer with us, fresh from the myriad
troubles of men who deservedly yet tragically can't get out. As a
nation, we are notorious for locking people up and forgetting them.
George Fox could never forget the teenaged James Parnell, who had
walked all the way to Carlisle to be converted by him and made a
member of the Society of Friends, and who was now thrown into
prison in Colchester to be slowly murdered by the gaoler's wife. So
Fox visited him.
Jesus said that when we visit someone
in prison we visit him. We can visit prisoners by not forgetting
that they exist. The demented are now prisoners in the old people's
home. How can they be visited? Clare's madness never sounds very
mad to me. A multiplicity of difficulties had brought him down. A
couple of signatures had confined him for ever. Except that his
poems ran free.
Clare's feelings towards flowers were
intimate and profound, and not unlike those of a child who runs
towards them. He and his friend Tom Porter "used to go out on
Sundays to hunt curious wild flowers". And when he was "down", he
would write to Mr Henderson, Lord Fitzwilliam's head gardener, to
ask him to bring him both cultivated and uncultivated flowers. They
grew side by side in Clare's own garden.
For the poet, botany became both part
of his humanity and his theology. They had rarity, but not rank. He
would write compulsively about them, in and out of his
Thirty years ago, it was chemical
sprays which threatened our wild flowers. Now it is the lawnmower.
Stripes are part of our worship. Clare taught his neighbours what
to find in the ruts. Such stamped-on treasures!