Iain Sinclair's retracing of one of literature's most famous (and sad) journeys- that of the 'Peasant Poet,' John Clare from his Epping Forest asylum back to his home in Northamptonshire-should have been a classic. John Clare was unique among the romantic poets in that he was from the labouring classes; he wrote some of the finest nature poems in English literature and he was one of the first 'celebrities' in the modern meaning of the word. Feted by London society, Clare succumbed to madness and entered into a long decline. Sinclair is working with such promising material that I'm surprised that he didn't do more with it. Surprisingly, Sinclair choses to go off on tangents so we get lots of material about Sinclair's small walking party; Shelley's drowning, James Joyce's daughter (a later asylum inmate) and biographical information about Sinclair's wife's tenuous family connections to Clare.
I felt that Sinclair did best when he stuck to his story. In 1820 Clare makes his first visit to London as a rustic novelty: Sinclair compares him to the Elephant Man, which I thought was an interesting comparison. He is also good at describing the wide eyed wonder Clare must have felt walking around the city in the era of Blake and Keats. It was a city of whores, resurrection men, disease and overcrowding. A world away from Clare's rural life and a wholly different moral atmosphere to that of the poet's rural upbringing. Was being feted in this corrupt city the source of Clare's mental torment?
Sinclair's latter day reconstruction of Clare's journey begins in the industrialised landscape of the Lea Valley in the midst of industrial estates, motorways and travel lodges and he makes his way north via various Hertfordshire towns. He encounters the England of chain pubs and shopping outlets and as one might expect Sinclair is scathing about the heritage industry version of history that he seemingly encounters everywhere. Although the place names may be the same as in Clare's time, the 'meaning' of the land had changed beyond all recognition. If you enjoy Sinclair's post-modern style of writing then you may enjoy the book however, I felt that it only scratched the surface of Clare's life and art.