John Clare - In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg

Tony Gosling tony at
Tue Apr 11 21:25:01 BST 2017

John Clare - In Our Time With Melvyn Bragg
John Clare: In Our Time
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the 
Northamptonshire poet John Clare who, according 
to one of Melvyn's guests Jonathan Bate, was 'the 
greatest labouring-class poet that England has 
ever produced'. Clare worked in a tavern, as a 
gardener and as a farm labourer in the early 19th 
century and achieved his first literary success 
with Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. 
He was praised for his descriptions of rural 
England and his childhood there, and his reaction 
to the changes he saw in the Agricultural 
Revolution with its enclosures, displacement and 
altered, disrupted landscape. Despite poor mental 
health and, from middle age onwards, many years 
in asylums, John Clare continued to write and he 
is now seen as one of the great poets of his age.
Sir Jonathan Bate
Provost of Worcester College, University of Oxford
Mina Gorji
Senior Lecturer in the English Faculty and fellow 
of Pembroke College, Cambridge
Simon Kövesi
Professor of English Literature at Oxford Brookes University
Presenter Melvyn Bragg
Producer: Simon Tillotson.

John Clare’s walk, 1841

On 20th July 1841, after four years residence at 
Matthew Allen’s High Beach Private Asylum near 
Loughton, in Epping Forest, John Clare, England’s 
greatest peasant poet,  absconded and began 
walking back to his home in Northborough in North 
Cambridgeshire, along the route of the Great 
North Road. He walked over 80 miles in four days, 
on foot, alone, penniless, sleeping rough and 
eating grass. This is his extraordinary account of that nightmarish journey:

“July 18, 1841, Sunday. Felt very melancholy. 
Went for a walk in the forest in the afternoon. 
Fell in with some gypsies, one of whom offered to 
assist in my escape from the madhouse by hiding 
me in his camp, to which I almost agreed. But I 
told him I had no money to start with; but if he 
would do so, I would promise him fifty pounds, 
and he agreed to do so before Saturday. On Friday 
I went again, but he did not seem so willing, so 
I said little about it. On Sunday I went and they 
were all gone. An old wide-awake hat and an old 
straw bonnet, of the plum-pudding sort, was left 
behind, and I put the hat in my pocket, thinking 
it might be useful for another opportunity. As 
good lack would have it, it turned out to be so.

July 19, Monday. Did nothing.

July 20, Tuesday. Reconnoitred the road the 
gypsey had taken, and found it a legible (!) one 
to make a movement; and having only honest 
courage and myself in my army, I led the way and 
my troops soon followed. But being careless in 
mapping down the road as the gypsey told me, I 
missed the lane to Enfield Town, and was going 
down Enfield Highway, till I passed the 
“Labour-in-vain” public-house, where a person who 
came out of the door told me the way. I walked 
down the lane gently, and was soon in Enfield 
Town, and by and by on the great York Road, where 
it was all plain sailing. Steering ahead, meeting 
no enemy and fearing none, I reached Stevenage, 
where, being night, I got over a gate, and 
crossed the corner of a green paddock. Seeing a 
pond or hollow in the corner, I was forced to 
stay off a respectable distance to keep from 
falling into it. My legs were nearly knocked up 
and began to stagger. I scaled over some old 
rotten palings into the yard, and then had higher 
palings to clamber over, to get into the shed or 
hovel; which I did with difficulty, being rather 
weak. To my good luck, I found some trusses of 
clover piled up, about six or more feet square, 
which I gladly mounted and slept on. There were 
some drags in the hovel, on which I could have 
reposed had I not found a better bed. I slept 
soundly, but had a very uneasy dream. I thought 
my first wife lay on my left arm, and somebody 
took her away from my side, which made me wake up 
rather unhappy. I thought as I awoke somebody 
said “Mary”, but nobody was near. I lay down with 
my head towards the north, to show myself the steering point in the morning.

July 21. Daylight was looking in on every side, 
and fearing my garrison might be taken by storm, 
and myself be made prisoner, I left my lodging by 
the way I got in, and thanked God for His 
kindness in procuring it. For anything in a 
famine is better than nothing, and any place that 
giveth the weary rest is a blessing. I gained the 
North Road again, and steered due north. On the 
left hand side, the road under the bank was like 
a cave; I saw a man and boy coiled up asleep, 
whom I hailed, and they awoke to tell me the name 
of the next village. Somewhere on the London 
side, near the “Plough” public-house, a man 
passed me on horseback, in a slop frock, and 
said, “Here’s another of the broken-down 
haymakers,” and threw me a penny to get a half 
pint of beer, which I picked up, and thanked him 
for, and when I got to the “Plough,” I called for 
a half pint and drank it. I got a rest, and 
escaped a very heavy shower in the bargain, by 
having a shelter till it was over. Afterwards I 
would have begged a penny of two drovers, but 
they were very saucy; so I begged no more of anybody.

Having passed a lodge on the left hand, within a 
mile and a half, or less, of a town–I think it 
might be St. Ives, or it was St. Neot’s, but I 
forget the name–I sat down to rest on a flint 
heap, for half an hour or more. While sitting 
here, I saw a tall gypsey come out of the lodge 
gate, and make down the road to where I was. When 
she got up to me, I saw she was a young woman, 
with a honest-looking countenance, and rather 
handsome. I spoke to her, and asked her a few 
questions, which she answered readily and with 
evident good humour. So I got up, and went onto 
the next town with her. She cautioned me on the 
way to put something in my hat to keep the crown 
up, and said in a lower tone, “You’ll be 
noticed.” But not knowing at what she hinted, I 
took no notice and made no reply. At length she 
pointed to a small church tower, which she called 
Shefford Church, and advised me to go on a 
footway, which would take me direct to it, and 
would shorten my journey fifteen (!) miles by 
doing so. I would gladly have taken the young 
woman’s advice, feeling that it was honest, and a 
nigh guess towards the truth; but fearing I might 
lose my way, and not be able to find the North 
Road again, I thanked her, and told her I should 
keep to the road. She then bid me “good day,” and 
went into a house or shop on the left hand side of the road.

Next I passed three or four good built houses on 
a hill, and a public-house on the roadside in the 
hollow below them. I seemed to pass the 
milestones very quick in the morning, but towards 
night they seemed to be stretched further 
asunder. I now got to a village of which I forget 
the name. The road on the left hand was quite 
overshadowed by trees, and quite dry. So I sat 
down half an hour, and made a good many wishes 
for breakfast. But wishes were no meal; so I got 
up as hungry as I sat down I forget here the 
names of the villages I passed through, but 
recollect at late evening going through Potton, 
in Bedfordshire, where I called in a house to 
light my pipe. There was a civil old woman, and a 
country wench making lace on a cushion as round 
as a globe, and a young fellow; all civil people. 
I asked them a few questions as to the way, and 
where the clergyman and overseer lived; but they 
scarcely heard me, and gave no answer. I then 
went through Potton, and happened to meet with a 
kind-talking countryman, who told me the parson 
lived a good way from where I was. So I went on 
hopping with a crippled foot; for the gravel had 
got into my old shoes, one of which had now 
nearly lost the sole. Had I found the overseer’s 
house at hand, or the parson’s, I should have 
given my name, and begged for a shilling to carry 
me home; but I was forced to brush on penniless, 
and be thankful I had a leg to move on. I then 
asked him whether he could tell me of a farmyard 
anywhere on the road, where I could find a shed 
and some dry straw, and he said, “Yes, if you 
will go with me, I will show you the place; it is 
a public-house on the left hand side of the road, 
at the sign of the Ram.” But seeing a stone heap, 
I longed to rest, as one of my feet was very 
painful. So I thanked him for his kindness, and 
bid him go on. But the good-natured fellow 
lingered awhile, as if wishing to conduct me; but 
suddenly recollecting that he had a hamper on his 
shoulder, and a lock-up bag in his hand, to meet 
the coach, he started hastily, and was soon out of sight.

I followed, looking in vain for the countryman’s 
straw bed. Not being able to find it, I laid down 
by the wayside, under some elm trees. Between the 
wall and the trees there was a thick row, planted 
some five or six feet from the buildings. I laid 
there and tried to sleep; but the wind came in 
between the trees so cold that I quaked like 
having the ague, and I quitted this lodging to 
seek another at the “Ram,” which I scarcely hoped 
to find. It now began to grow dark apace, and the 
odd houses on the road began to light up, and 
show the inside lot very comfortable, and my 
outside lot very uncomfortable and wretched. 
Still I hobbled forward as well as I could, and 
at last came the “Ram.” The shutters were not 
closed, and the lighted window looked very 
cheering; but I had no money, and did not like to 
go in. There was a sort of shed, or gig-house, at 
the end; but I did not like to lie there, as the 
people were up; so I still travelled on. The road 
was very lonely and dark, being overshaded with 
trees. At length I came to a place where the road 
branched off into two turnpikes, one to the right 
about, and the other straight forward. On going 
by, I saw a milestone standing under the hedge, 
and I turned back to read it, to see where the 
other road led to. I found it led to London. I 
then suddenly forgot which was north or south, 
and though I narrowly examined both ways, I could 
see no tree, or bush, or stone heap that I could recollect having passed.

I went on mile after mile, almost convinced I was 
going the same way I had come. These thoughts 
were so strong upon me, and doubts and 
hopelessness made me turn so feeble, that I was 
scarcely able to walk. Yet I could not sit down 
or give up, but shuffled along till I saw a lamp 
shining as bright as the moon, which, on nearing, 
I found was suspended over a tollgate. Before I 
got through, the man came out with a candle, and 
eyed me narrowly; but having no fear I stopped to 
ask him whether I was going northward. He said, 
“When you get through the gate you are.” I 
thanked him, and went through to the other side, 
and gathered my old strength as my doubts 
vanished. I soon cheered up, and hummed the air 
of “Highland Mary” as I went on. I at length came 
to an odd house, all alone, near a wood; but I 
could not see what the sign was, though it seemed 
to stand, oddly enough, in a sort of trough, or 
spout. There was a large porch over the door, and 
being weary I crept in, and was glad enough to 
find I could lie with my legs straight. The 
inmates were all gone to rest, for I could hear 
them turn over in bed, while I lay at full length 
on the stones in the porch. I slept here till 
daylight, and felt very much refreshed. I blest 
my two wives and both their families when I laid 
down and when I got up in the morning.

I have but a slight recollection of my journey 
between here and Stilton, for I was knocked up, 
and noticed little or nothing. One night I laid 
in a dyke-bottom, sheltered from the wind, and 
went asleep for half an hour. When I awoke, I 
found one side wet through from the water; so I 
got out and went on. I remember going down a very 
dark road, hung over on both sides with thick 
trees; it seemed to extend a mile or two. I then 
entered a town, where some of the chamber windows 
had lights shining in them. I felt so weak here 
that I was forced to sit on the ground to rest 
myself, and while I sat here a coach that seemed 
heavily laden came rattling up, and splashing the 
mud in my face wakened me from a doze. When I had 
knocked the gravel out of my shoes I started 
again. There was little to notice, for the road 
very often looked as stupid as myself. I was often half asleep as I went on.

The third day I satisfied my hunger by eating the 
grass on the roadside, which seemed to taste 
something like bread. I was hungry, and eat 
heartily till I was satisfied; in fact, the meal 
seemed to do me good. The next and last day I 
remembered that I had some tobacco, and my box of 
lucifers being exhausted, I could not light my 
pipe. So I took to chewing tobacco all day, and 
eat it when I had done. I was never hungry 
afterwards. I remember passing through Buckden, 
and going a length of road afterwards; but I do 
not recollect the name of any place until I came 
to Stilton, where I was completely footsore, 
bleeding, and broken down. When I had got about 
half way through the town, a gravel causeway 
invited me to rest myself; so I laid down and 
nearly went to sleep. A young woman, as I guessed 
by the voice, came out of a house, and said, 
“Poor creature;” and another more elderly said, 
“Oh, he shams.” But when I got up the latter 
said, “Oh no, he don’t,” as I hobbled along very 
lame. I heard the voices, but never looked back 
to see where they came from. When I got near the 
inn at the end of the gravel walk, I met two 
young women, and asked one of them whether the 
road branching to the right by the inn did not 
lead to Peterborough. She said, “Yes.” As soon as 
ever I was on it, I felt myself on the way home, 
and went on rather more cheerful, though I was 
forced to rest oftener than usual.

Before I got to Peterborough, a man and woman 
passed in a cart; and on hailing me as they 
passed, I found they were neighbours from 
Helpston, where I used to live. I told them I was 
knocked-up, which they could easily see, and that 
I had neither food nor drink since I left Essex. 
When I had told my story they clubbed together 
and threw me fivepence out of the cart. I picked 
it up, and called at a small public-house near 
the bridge, where I had two half pints of ale, 
and twopennyworth of bread and cheese. When I had 
done, I started quite refreshed; only my feet 
were more crippled than ever, and I could 
scarcely bear walk over the stones. Yet I was 
half ashamed to sit down in the street, and forced myself to keep on the move.

I got through Peterborough better than I 
expected. When I came to the high road, I rested 
on the stone-heaps, till I was able to go on 
afresh. By-and-by I passed Walton, and soon 
reached Werrington. I was making for the 
“Beehive” as fast as I could when a cart met me, 
with a man, a woman, and a boy in it. When 
nearing me the woman jumped out and caught fast 
hold of my hands, and wished me to get into the 
cart. But I refused; I thought her either drunk 
or mad. But when I was told it was my second 
wife, Patty, I got in, and was soon at 
Northborough. But Mary was not there; neither 
could I get any information about her further 
than the old story of her having died six years 
ago. But I took no notice of the lie, having seen 
her myself twelve months ago, alive and well, and 
as young as ever. So here I am hopeless at home.”

So much emphasis is placed on select Jewish 
participation in Bormann companies that when 
Adolf Eichmann was seized and taken to Tel Aviv 
to stand trial, it produced a shock wave in the 
Jewish and German communities of Buenos Aires. 
Jewish leaders informed the Israeli authorities 
in no uncertain terms that this must never happen 
again because a repetition would permanently 
rupture relations with the Germans of Latin 
America, as well as with the Bormann 
organization, and cut off the flow of Jewish 
money to Israel. It never happened again, and the 
pursuit of Bormann quieted down at the request of 
these Jewish leaders. He is residing in an 
Argentinian safe haven, protected by the most 
efficient German infrastructure in history as 
well as by all those whose prosperity depends on his well-being.
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