I’m in a café in Market Deeping, just north of Stamford, Lincolnshire. I buy a coffee and then pull out from my wallet two miniature black and white photographs from the early 1950s. They show a house that still stands, I think, somewhere in the village. One shows part of the frontage, the other the rear, from across a river. I show them to the three people at the counter. I say I have a challenge for them. I tell them I lived in Market Deeping for the first three years of my life; the photos, presumably taken by my father, are of the old house we lived in. Does one of them by chance know where it might be?
The older of the two women thinks it might be a doctor’s house by the roundabout. The young man, her son, thinks it might be further down the river, towards Deeping St James. But before I can go outside and test their theories there’s a deafening crack of thunder and within minutes the street outside turns into a river. Next, a steady flow of water spreads across the café floor. I take a spare mop, and like the sorcerer’s apprentice try in vain to stem the flash flood. But the rain keeps falling and I cut my losses, run to the car and resume the journey to my destination on the north Norfolk coast beyond King’s Lynn. Darkness covers the fens, though it’s only half past three. Only on the far horizon is there a strip of light, silhouetting occasional groups of poplar and church towers.
I’m back in Market Deeping. It’s sunny, and safe to resume my search. I start by the river Welland, on both sides of the bridge, trying to compare the profile and shape of the higgledy piggledy old buildings with those in the tiny photo. Some details seem to match, others don’t (though a lot can change in sixty years). I don’t feel entirely convinced, and move back to the frontages on Stamford Road. There, three doors along, a house with two bow windows and a central door with a semi-circular light overhead: number five. It looks quite like the grainy house in the 1950s photo, though the frontage seems wider, and both the doorway and the windows have been remodelled.
Could this handsome building be where I spend my earliest years? It’s hard to be certain, and back home the doubts multiply. Both my parents are dead and I’ve no documentary evidence. I only remember my mother saying how lonely she used to feel, wheeling my pram in solitude along the straight, flat lanes, while my dad was at work in Stamford. Beyond the few surviving memories and guesses everything else about those three years has to be reconstructed from imagination alone. How did it feel to live here, in the remote early 1950s, for an expatriate Yorkshireman and an exiled Scot, in charge for the first time of a small baby boy? Were the neighbours welcoming or cool to these outsiders? How did the three of us keep warm in that old house when the winter winds swept in from the icy east? Were they consoled by the varied glories of the natural world around them, before agribusiness transformed the fens into monocrops to be carted off to the continent in the giant trucks that terrorise the main roads? What about the boy in the pram and pushchair: what was going on in his growing mind?
Before going back to Market Deeping I first drove to the village of Helpston, just a few miles away over the border in Northamptonshire. I’ve no recollection of my parents ever telling me, but it was here that England’s greatest poet of the labouring classes was born and raised. It’s 150 years this year since the death of John Clare. The small cottage he shared with his parents, his wife Patty and their six children still stands, recently renovated by its new owner, the John Clare Trust. As you walk through the small, cramped rooms you follow the periods of Clare’s life: the joyful boy, running free in the fields and woods, experimenting with writing poems; the published poet, lionised for a short time by London society and torn from his local roots; the disturbed older man, his poetry now ignored, lost in the isolation of asylums.
Clare is the supreme poet of loss. He felt acutely the appropriation by local elites – ‘enclosure’ is the misleadingly neutral term still in use – of land by long tradition shared in common by all the population, for it led to further impoverishment of the poor and the loss of freedom to roam the countryside. Mary Joyce, the girl he met and loved at school in nearby Glinton, was lost to him and later died (I went to see her grave outside the tall-spired St Benedict’s Church). Literary fame quickly evaporated and his social dislocation led to mental disintegration and years of confinement, at first in High Beech, Essex and later in Northampton.
Clare’s later writing is full of pain and self-questioning, like the tortured poem ‘I am’ and the prose narrative ‘The journey out of Essex’, impossible to read without tears, which tells of his escape from the High Beech asylum and his journey on foot back to Northamptonshire in vain search for lost happiness and his imagined ‘second wife’, Mary. (In 2000 Iain Sinclair retraced Clare’s steps and wrote a fine book about the experience, Edge of the orison.) One of Clare’s last letters, on display in the Cottage, was written in Northampton Asylum on 8 March 1860 to an enquirer, Mr J. Hipkins:
I am in a Madhouse & quite forget your Name or who You are You must excuse me for I have nothing to communicate or tell of & why I am shut up I dont know I have nothing to say so I conclude yours respectfully
The poems are overwhelmingly concerned with the countryside around Helpston. Clare could read its fields and streams, animals, flowers, birds and insects with minute attention, and possessed a gift for giving human voice to the numberless non-human lives that were lived within a single day’s walk. As that way of life began to pass away, and his own life came undone, Clare’s task became one of memorialising and reconstructing. In the late poem ‘Remembrances’ he lists the local places he haunted as a boy, and his adventures – eating haws, stripping the branches of an oak to make a cart, hiding from the rain in a hollow ash, pockets full of stolen peas, seeing the bodies of moles swinging on a willow. But the effort to recall the world of his boyhood is constantly undermined and demolished by the knowledge that that world has gone forever – or rather has been taken away:
Inclosure like a buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked stream cold and chill.