Visiting the John Clare Festival 2016

At Helpston:

organised by the John Clare Society

The ‘Midsummer Cushion’ tradition is now continued the nearest weekend to Clare’s birthday when the John Clare Society hold their festival three-day weekend in his honour.

These days the ‘cushions are prepared by children from the local school and placed around clare midsummer cushionhis grave after which a small ceremony in the church and the announcement of the winning child for that year’s poem.  On the Friday evening there is a high old time of folk music and singing in the Blue Bell pub much used by John Clare.  He wrote a lot of songs that fitted the folk tunes of the day so these had a high priority for the night.

The Saturday is when even more society members and visitors arrive. Interesting in conversation to hear that there were some first-timers and a swathe of people of a few years but possibly greater numbers for the long haul and several that had been inaugural, or almost, members from 35 years ago.    It seems that once you become attached to Clare it is almost impossible to detach yourself.   I don’t know the numbers as they ebbed and flowed between a.g.m. and bookstalls and coffee shop and of course visiting the Cottage.

At the a.g.m. we listened to Carrie Akroyd’s (the new president) words; of her appreciation of Clare and his work and that his poetry inspired her art and determined her to promote his work beside her own exhibitions around the country.  The Wood is Sweet and  This Happy Place contain her superb linocuts next to selections of his poems.     In her speech she made the point that people can come to Clare’s poetry, and do, from many different directions.  The gist being:

His minute observation of flora and fauna is still critically acclaimed for its accuracy, his understanding of nature, the seasons and landscape. His love poetry, as social historian with a ground-level view or as a satirist that he knew would never be published in his lifetime. For his philosophy and learning that struggled up from his own strength of mind and determination to understand his personal world.  As a musician, a lover of tradition and collector of songs and likely a radical at least in the days of enclosure.  Indeed maybe just as a lover, and of course for his mental state as he aged; though his faculty for poetry, for writing natural history and letters, failed only slowly at the end of his life.

All these threads, once any one is found can lead you to a lasting appreciation of Clare.

Followed by a fine description of the out-going president, Ronald Blythe, by a long term friend and Clare enthusiast.  Blythe, the author of Akenfield and many fine books on landscape and Clare plus numerous contributions especially to the Church Times, is still busy writing but felt it time for another hand on the John Clare tiller and Carrie Akroyd fits the bill perfectly.

And so time to finish the business and mingle with the crowd amongst St Botolph’s church pews or outside between the lavender banks from the door.  Maybe a viewing of Clare’s grave with its recently placed memorial headstone repeating the words now almost illegible on the sloping sides of his tombstone.  Around which are the children’s mid-summer cushions.  Surrounding him on his birthday weekend for his and our delight.   A slow lunch for those who would walk the short distance to the village hall, maybe after visiting the specialist booksellers next to the Exeter Arms or the Society stall in West Street.

After lunch we heard from Margi Blunden on how her father, Edmund Blunden, discovered an early love of Clare’s poetry despite very little being published at that time. How a volume of Clare accompanied E.B. through his two years in WWI trenches (1916/18) and how his love of the poetry induced him to research for manuscripts and eventually led him to a treasure-chest (almost literally) of mss and personal scrapbooks and  book-plans belonging to John Clare.  A trail started and followed through his entire lifetime of researching and re-introducing Clare to the world.

This was followed by an hour of personal choice poetry by or of Clare spoken by visiting members and committee for the appreciation of the still quite large audience.

The first being written and read by Kelsey Thornton which was a thoughtful and joyous poem: For Peter Moyse,  a man of Helpston who spent  all his spare time enthusiastically photographing the present surroundings of Clare, promoting the man and the work and the poet.     Several of Clare poems followed, including a sonnet:  to Bloomfield on his death  (A poet neighbour he read and corresponded with but never met).  Numerous others and one recently found; recollections of an evening walk.

A break for tea and cakes or a trip to visit Swaddywell, one of Clare’s favourite spots, where oak trees had ben previously planted in memory of John Clare, Edmund Blunden and Peter Moyse.  Or maybe a beer at the Blue Bell before a well-worn stroll back to the church and the final event of the evening:

The Big Fiddle Band.

For this evening we had eleven members on violin (fiddles!) plus their leader Jenny Newman and a guitarist (Andy Glass) who joined with Jenny for a couple of tunes between manning the video camera.  Numerous tunes were played over the hour with interesting arrangements that allowed all the group to perform.   The assorted airs and jigs they played were performed superbly, faultlessly ( I am not a professional listener!)  and all the audience were delighted. Tunes offered were some of Clare’s period and ones he would have played, even written words for as well as some frequently played today at ceilidhs.  A particularly appreciated set after a reading of ‘Clover‘ by John Clare was The Sleeping Tune, Donald Willie and his Dog and, the Fall.

This was followed  by a jaunty 80 mile Waltz, written by Jenny herself.  The last to be played was written by a Northhants farmer…. Sorry, lost his name,……called the Sty at Night; starting as a slow counterbalance to the previous jogs and waltzes that burst into an almost classical arrangement of a jig that brought us into contemporary music for folk.

So for me that was the end of the evening.  Others also made their ways to home or maybeto that local pub for a couple of hours but I had a drive home.    Sunday I had to miss but john clare statuethere would be a family church service at St Botolph’s celebrating Clare followed by a gathering for wine or soft drinks to round off the Festival.  Yes, sorry to have missed that. Never mind, all the more reason for booking the diary for 2017.  So much more I could say but wouldn’t that be boring

Same again next year!


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