OFF to Helpston for the 32nd time. For John Clare, its native
voice, the first Sunday in July was the Helpston feast: "Wrestling
and fighting, the ploughman's fame is still kept up with the usual
determined spirit." Like his contemporary, William Hazlitt, another
quiet man, Clare accepts violence in the village. He walks away
from it, and into his intellectual world.
"Saw a bird that was an entire stranger to me about the size and
shape of a green linnet, and with wings of a brown-grey colour, the
crown of the head a deep black that extended downwards no further
than the eyes. Went to see Artis [his archaeologist friend] who
tried to look it up in his bird book. It was an unnoticed species
of the linnet tribe."
Clare was all too noticed for his own peace of mind. A ploughman
who wrote poetry? People came to look at him in the fields. He
tried to hide - an impossibility in a 19th-century village. And now
we continue to look at him from all angles.
I read him yet again, before Alan and I set off for what is now
the Cambridgeshire border, early in the morning. And there it is,
the walled park that cost a pound a yard, the Clare Society, his
birthplace next to the pub where he worked, the pleasures of
repetition. Although not too much in my presidential address.
The white cat sees us off. For her, the top of the farmtrack is
Ultima Thule. Only once in a dozen years did I find her up it, and
had to call her back to her own two acres. Meriel the organist is
taking her cat miles away, and is dreading it. But long ago some
Suffolk friends drove their cat, Holly, to Cornwall, and suffered
more than he did. Neither did he recognise me when I arrived,
having become Cornish at once.
Today, reading in the study, I watch the horses out of the
corner of my eye. One wears a white mask against the flies, the
other makes do with her tail. There they stand, deep in horse talk,
which is silent.
I have allowed the Himalayan Balsam to riot. It has explosive
seeds. Touch their capsule, and they're off. A small child was more
disconcerted than amused when invited to do this. Pretty flowers
were not supposed to end their lives with such power. The gardener
brushing against them with the mower is peppered with seed
What do I say in church in early Trinity? Something I haven't
said before, if possible. Shall I read Francis Kilvert? What was he
doing on a Victorian July day? He died so young - 39 - and a week
after his wedding. His coffin was carried beneath the bridal
William Plomer, the South African poet, published some of his
diary in 1939. Amid all the parish duties, there is a longing for
girls. It also contains one of my favourite clerical anecdotes.
The curate took his candidate for confirmation when the bishop
arrived. They were both youthful and nervous.
"Stand up!" the bishop cried.
"But I am the curate, my Lord."
"Stand up!" the bishop cried.
So the curate was confirmed.
This was on the Welsh border, you understand.