How do you choose to read a book? a recommendation or a good fly leaf ? I often wonder at gems which disappear through the cracks. This book which came to me via a promotion event at the Five Leave Bookshop which I was drawn to because of my interest in the poet John Clare.
John Clare known as the ‘peasant poet’ had little education, was poor, and worked as a farm labourer. At times relying on parish relief. The brilliance of his poetry, filled with intelligence, and lyrical beauty, was a giant leap from the expectations of his class. He brought language, grammar and detailed observations of the natural world which could only be born from his experience of working rural life. For these reasons, in addition to the struggles he had with his mental health, he was someone who my parents loved and championed. Hence my interest.
A Length of Road is written by the poet Robert Hamberger, it is his account of walking in 1995, from Epping Forest to Northamptonshire. Retracing the route take by John Clare in 1841, when he escaped from a psychiatric hospital in Essex and walked over 80 miles home. Later that year he was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum (now St Andrews Hospital) eventually dying there in 1864.
Robert Hemberger, chose to make this journey in reverence to John Clare, and to face his own personal demons. At the time his relationship with his wife was ending and he was on the cusp of permanently moving out from her and their three children. The book is well written and stands alone as a reflective memoir. Robert leads us through a working-class childhood, his loss of father figures, meeting his wife and having children, the cherishing and loss of male friendships. The strength of this book lies in his honesty and his own sense of culpability. There is an avoidance of placing blame on others which enables us to share with Robert his struggles with mental health and considerations of gender and sexuality. Without gaining conclusion Robert emerges from the roadside with knowledge as to his own resilience.
This writing skilfully takes you between the landscape of John Clare, his life and works to Robert’s story and poetry. Contrasting a landscape, which passes the same road markers and plants as Claire did in 1841 and is now also populated by lorries, the A1 and fast-food restaurants. Change and our journey through it, appearing to be the theme of this book.
This is a thoughtful account of personal growth, and a great introduction to the poetry of both John Clare and Robert Hemberger. I have read many well promoted books and memoirs which I have enjoyed much less. All hail to John Clare.
All nature has a feeling by John Clare
All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.