SULTRY July days. Twin calendars rule them: the lectionary, and
a writer's. Thus our trip to Helpston, the birthplace of the great
ruralpoet John Clare. It is exactly as we left it last year, except
that astrange additional memorial rises over his grave. Dear
once-a-year friends walk along the broad village street, with its
handsome Barnack stone houses and towering hollyhocks.
Ringing the changes, my lectureis on Thomas Hardy, whose hands
did not touch the soil; and Clare, whose hands drove the plough.
Their days slightly overlapped - had they heard of each other?
Neither could really operate, as it were, outside their own
country-side. In their time, the "peasant" would become a "farm
labourer", and the bottom of the rural population.
And towards the end of the 19th century the British countryside
would fall into a depression that would last until the opening of
the Second World War, when food needs, and today's non-traditional
farming methods, would rescue it from decline.
I looked up Clare's activities in July from his wonderfully
useful The Shepherd's Calendar. So far as I can tell,
virtually nothing happens in Wormingford in July. You might have to
squeeze past a hay lorry whose dizzy oblong load totters ahead, and
whose driver waves his sunburnt hand. No women semi-dressed in the
hay-making fields which so tantalised the young poet. What work
does he list for July? Well, mostly anything which meant using a
I keep my scythe in cutting order with a whet-stone. I bought it
in Stowmarket a long time ago, and I am enchanted this moment to
see Adrian wielding it in the orchard. Softly, it lays the summer
growth down in rhythmic folds. Greengages will tumble down on to
them without bruising. You have to beat the birds where there are
greengages. A week late, and they will be the debris of a
Clare's July village is noisy with "singing, shouting herding
boys", and bagpipes, as young Scots tramp down the Great North Road
to seek their fortunes in London. Our car makes its journey through
ancient lanes and motorways to the church at Helpston, where I sit
on the chancel step to talk on England's most eloquent village
voice, and a prolific one, so that the John Clare Society need
never run out of subjects.
We come home to matins and evensong in two different churches,
and to the lasting heatwave. Now, with the house empty, and
thewhite cat thanking her god for summer's torpor as she sleeps
inthe window ledge above what was the copper, I get back to
routine, breaking into it now and then to pull up some giant weed.
By farmy most wondrous July achievement this year is the sweet-pea
wigwam: a score of bamboo rods that carry the flowers to heaven. A
vase of them locked into a room overnight is the best welcome to a
Clare sees "the gardener sprinkling showers from watering cans
on drooping flowers" as he tended both wild and cultivated plants
behind his cottage. It could have been a statement on his own
genius. His natural history was marvellously inclusive. It began
when he was a boy, lying low in the summer grass, watching climbing
insects; and it ended as the beautiful sane regionto which he could
escape from the "madhouse".