I have been an admirer of John Clare's poetry for a long time. I find his verse to be the most precious pastoral poetry in English. Being from humble origins, Clare looks at nature not with the eye of a gentleman striding across his estate, but with the eye of labouring poet. There is such a wealth of detail in all of his descriptions and his language is free of the fetters of an overbearing classicism. His poetry can be full of the sorrow of dashed hopes, disappointed love, the pain of poverty, or a simple short delight in a charming image.
It was my enthusiasm for Clare that lead me to purchase Hugh Lupton's book. The choice of Samuel Palmer's beautiful painting Autumn Harvest was also admittedly a factor in my initial curiosity. My hope was for a novel that would attempt to give me something of Clare's spirit and something of the enviroment and history that nurtured that spirit. I think this has been admirably achieved.
The novel follows the year in the life of an adolescent Clare, we are introduced to his home life with his mother, father and gossiping little sister; we see his friendship with the young gypsy Wisdom Boswell; how his family struggles with the increased penury of the enclosure act, which gives land held in common to enterprising Yeomen farmers; the naive sorrowful romance of John Clare with Mary Joyce; and the hours that John spends alone wandering through the countryside, fitting rhymes to folk melodies, or lost in the deep sorrow of his tribulations.
I recommend anyone with an interest in English rural history, the beautiful paintings of Constable, Palmer and Gainsborough, and people familiar with Clare, to read Lupton's sensitive and skillful depiction of one of England's very special poets.
Given this as a Christmas present, and was unsure about it at first as much of it is fictional, but it is easy to pick out the truth from the invention. Hugh Lupton is a brilliant storyteller, with a book that is well researched, featuring a troubled year in the life of John Clare; he cleverly weaves into the narrative the disadvantages of the enclosures to the labouring man, and the consequent social upheaval which is beginning to result as the commons disappear,the peasant is dispossessed, and rambling becomes trespassing. Also the book shows the worry that Napoleon was causing in the lives of ordinary people, the layers of class in village life, the pecking order, and the possible behaviour that could make one an outcast. Although Lupton also shows how insular rural life was at the beginning of the 19th Century, describing old and lost customs, unwanted pregnancy and murder without the modern scourge of over dramatisation; the book is well written and hugely entertaining, there is no filler, and I didn't want it to end.
If you were upset by the "powers that be" tying to sell-off our woodlands then read this faction novel which touches on the previous sell-offs of our lands, when common land was sold in the 1820's in Helpstone. A must for all John Clare readers and if his name is new to you then this is still a The Ballad of John Claremust.
Hugh Lupton already has a reputation as one of the finest performance storytellers in Britain and there will be those who begin this exceptional first novel only to find themselves missing the rich speaking voice and soul-stirring accompaniment of Chris Wood's fiddle that characterise his shows.
It isn't long however before Lupton's singular handling of the written word draws the reader in. As one reads on, the curious cumulative immersive effect of falling under the storyteller's spell is strikingly similar to that of hearing Lupton live. (Even Chris Wood's music seems somehow present, both in the melodic lilt of the sentences themselves and also, within the story, whenever John Clare rosins his bow to strike up with the village band.) So what I would like to add to the reviews above are a few thoughts on the creative play of language in The Ballad of John Clare.
Lupton is writing in a longstanding vernacular tradition, most famously exemplified by Clare, and found more recently in the Henry Green of Loving, Living, Party Going, the George Mackay Brown of The Golden Bird and the Alan Garner of The Stone Book Quartet. It is, in my opinion, an underrated tradition, one that revitalises written standard English through the particularities of regional speech. In the process, stories are created that read more like poetry than prose (and, it might be said, more like poetry than much poetry.)
Lupton's own distinctive style draws its strength from, yes, the ballad genre (as well as other popular forms such as folk tale, proverb and riddle), weaving typical motifs - heartache in love, unwanted pregnancy, feud, injustice, smuggling, the Napoleonic wars - into a beautifully crafted mesh of stories all underpinned by the dominant historical reality of the Enclosures. Just as the ballads do (and as Clare himself does), Lupton presses the rhythms and refrains of working people's everyday talk into the service of the storyteller's art to conjure up a bygone world that teems with authentic colour, detail and feeling.
In following the course of the ritual year and the half-forgotten lore that informs it - Beating the Bounds, Harvest Hokey, the auguries of All Souls, the Mummers' Play, the misrule of Plough Monday - The Ballad of John Clare gives shape to Lupton's abiding fascination with an age-old circular seasonal sense of time (long superseded by the linear schedules, countdowns and deadlines of our own machine age). So it is no wonder that this taste for the perennial fills the novel with recycled terms of reference. Lupton patterns his word pictures from familiar and once-familiar figures of speech to create something resonant, moving and original - all the while uprooting the barbed wire of linguistic snobbery and the critical fenceposts of modernist dogma that would bar us from the verbal commonplace.
I was going to select a few phrases from the book by way of example but, interestingly, out of context they tend to look thin and even clichéd, for Lupton's special talent lies in working these discarded motifs into something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Instead I will quote the very first sentence and leave you with a little mystery. "There is nothing in the parish of Helpston that I cannot see and hear." Although there are clues along the way, it is not until the final pages of the novel that we are told who this "I" is. So buy the book, read it and find out!
l read this book as l am interested in social history, particularly that about ordinary people. What struck me most was just how little has changed since 1811 when the 'Enclosures act' was enforced. It seams that, as today, the rich and privaleged are able to grab more for themselves at the expense of the common man. This book, although a fiction, gives a fair view of the lives of farm workers and the hardships they had to endure. l know the area that this book is based, and little had changed in 250 years, until mechanisation displaced the working population. The book does not paint a rosy picture of the countryside, as Victorian writers and the BBC would have us believe. Well worth the read and recommended to any student of social history. KG
Hugh Lupton has captured rural England just before land enclosure in an engaging way. The fictional story of this young poet's life (based on a small part of Clare's poetry) conveys you back in time convincingly. The hints at the young man's talent as a poet shines through Lupton's beautifully crafted prose and you are imbued with the sense of both the hardships and the joys of life two centuries ago in the heart of the English countryside. The strength of village commununity is portrayed well and makes you nostalgic for what we have lost. However, it is certainly not just a pretty picture, it both enchants and disquiets in equal measure. The depth of the anguish over the immiment enclosure of the land is very evident and creates a canvas for the story. For readers who have a love of the countryside this is a treasure. Thomas Hardy comes to mind, as well as great British landscape artists. I would like to read John Clare's own poetry next.
For some reason there are books that slip under the radar of wider recognition. Hugh Lupton's debut novel would appear to be one such; what a sad reflection of today's fiction market of over hyped poorly written million seller pulp! The Ballad of John Clare, held me spellbound from start to finish with its luminous descriptive prose and a narrative that always falls short of nostalgia but is history,love story,social commentary, murder mystery and much more. If I was twenty years younger and still involved in drama and theatre I would be rushing to get permission to write an adaptation for the stage. This a must read, definitely my novel of the year
This was a book chosen by a member of my reading group so not one I would ever have chosen for myself but most enjoyable. It details life in the country just before the Enclosure Act. Based on Clares early life in the real places he lived, it details work and pastimes, friendships and hardships. Knowing nothing of John Clare it made me look up his life on the Wikepedia site and also search out some of his poems.
Hugh Lupton is an internationally renowned storyteller and his storytelling voice comes across loud and clear in this evocation of an English village just before the enclosures, giving us an insight into the probable early life of the much loved poet, John Clare. A good read.