John Clare, Helpston c.1820 by John Mole

The final years of the last millennium feel like a febrile time now. Although the US and UK governments were far from being left wing, after 18 years of Conservative rule beggars couldn’t be choosers. Blair had come to power promising progressive policies (warmongering wasn’t in the ’97 manifesto), a Democrat was still in the White House, and 9/11 was beyond the horizon. I was working for the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which promoted a more social and environmentally responsible economy to the one that had emerged in the slash and burn free market of the 1980s. NEF’s philosophy was founded on the principle of ‘small is beautiful’, which grew out of the eponymous book by EF Schumacher. Here, the maxim was ‘act local, think global’; if small businesses, community organisations, individuals, acted together in consideration of the planet before profit, then we all could thrive. Such think tanks were flavour of the decade and we entered the corridors of Whitehall and the World Bank as well as big business with a collaborative, more pragmatic approach to change, which reflected the political zeitgeist.

Much of this commercialisation began in the late 18th, early 19th century, at the time of the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the birth of the modern era of capitalism. The poet John Clare (“The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet”), grew up and lived in the epicentre of this quake. The common land from which his family had eked out a living became enclosed and privately owned as did much of the country. The historian EP Thompson described this time as the making of John Molethe English Working Class; Thompson said of Clare, “that he ‘conveys with extraordinary sensitivity the ways in which the psychic landscape of the villager was savagely transformed by the enclosure of the commons and open fields’.

John Mole’s poem ‘John Clare, Helpston c1820’, conveys this situation of landowner and worker superbly. ‘With their golden notebooks/they stop to watch him carting hay’. Clare was a worker and a poet, one who witnessed the end of common land first hand and what it would mean. ‘He watches the future drive off/in its shining hatch-backs/down Heritage Lane/then, seized by love and anger/takes up his pen to write.’ The hedgerows and fences that scar the countryside today began to be drawn at this time; John Clare was the poet who described the impact it had on the poor in many of his poems. John Mole’s poem shows why and is a great homage to the man.

John Mole lives in Hertfordshire and for many years ran The Mandeville Press with Peter Scupham. Recipient of the Gregory and Cholmondeley Awards, and the Signal Award for his poetry for children, his most recent publications are The Point of Loss (Enitharmon), an online English/Romanian selection, The Memory of Gardens, from Bucharest’s Contemporary Literature Press and a collection of poems for children,  All the Frogs ( Salt ). He performs regularly as a jazz clarinettst, and has written the libretto for a community opera, Alban, first performed in St. Albans cathedral in 2009.

John Clare Helpston c. 1820

With their golden notebooks
they stop to watch him carting hay;
the embossed enclosures
of the carriages they step from
wait to bear them home.

They’ll celebrate the dignity of labour
from safe seats, the prospects
they return to, stable their horses,
hear the harness loosed and jingling
like coins of the realm.

It will have been a profitable day
to do nothing about it, besides
what is there to be done?
Conscience sleeps in the sun,
the poor being always with us.

He watches the future drive off
in its shining hatch-backs
down Heritage Lane
then, seized by love and anger,
takes up his pen to write.

( first published in The Point of Loss, Enitharmon, 2011 )

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