Memories of May 1964

I have decided to record my memories of 40 years ago, the centenary of John Clare's death. The local Peterborough newspapers were full of articles and photographs leading up to and around 20th May. An oak tree was planted on the village green at Helpston, close to his monument. This tree is quite a fine specimen and, I hope, will still be flourishing in 2064.

1964 saw the republication of Frederick Martin's biography of Clare, with an introduction by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield.  This was a great treat for me to read, as it was originally published in 1865, only a year after the poet's death and therefore as close to his time as possible.

In 1964 these editors, with David Powell, published an edition of The Shepherd's Calendar.  At twenty-one shillings it was superb in every way - the quality of paper, print, binding, dust jacket, and above all, apart from the poems themselves, the wood-cut illustrations by David Gentleman.  No other illustrator could have done a finer job.  Gentleman captured the very essence of the poems and period of Clare's own time.

Every month on the radio the BBC broadcast the poem for that month from The Shepherd's Calendar.  I do not know who the reader was, but they were read most beautifully.

I remember going to Helpston at the time of the events and, for the first time in my life, I walked up the drive at the side of the birthplace cottage and viewed the garden which was open to the public.  It was so very large and so lovely I felt I was in paradise.  I was so used to average sized town gardens, all rather bland, and this was so unexpected.

The monument on the green was cleaned up and the lettering picked out in jet black, as was his gravestone, and so, on to the gate way to the churchyard and on the righthand side of the path, leading up close to the church porch, was a line of coins - in those pre-decimal days old large copper pennies, with a few florins, and even the odd half crown.  The raised stone ridges of the poet's tomb were decorated with an overlapping pattern of real laurel wreaths, all held in place by wires and screws drilled into the stone.  Who was responsible for this act of artistic vandalism I do not know.  The traces are still there at the time of my writing this article.

As I stood with the crowd of people that evening, viewing the grave, I heard one woman say to her companion, "Oh look, he's got his laurels!" and another very elderly woman stood glaring and she snorted  "all this fuss!"  It takes a long time to educate some people, but I do know that the numbers have vastly increased in appreciation of his writing since 1964.  And most sincerely do I hope that the Clare Society will continue, and another similar event be staged in 2064.  It is just feasible that some young persons reading my words in 2004 will still be alive and attend in 2064, and think back that they read someone's reminiscences of a century before.

I will end with the final words written by Frederick Martin: "...John Clare, one of the sweetest singers of nature ever born within the fair realm of dear old England; of dear old England, so proud of its galaxy of noble poets, and so wasteful of their lives".

Russell Carter
JCS Newsletter No. 83 (March 2004)