Parallel lives

Edge of the Orison: in the traces of John Clare's "journey out of Essex"

Iain Sinclair <em>Hamish

This is another work from Iain Sinclair that will be the despair of tidy-minded librarians and the defeat of the Dewey decimal system. While its subtitle might seem to label it a literary travel book, it includes lit crit, art theory, biography, polemic and personal memoir, and touches on subjects - the Knights Templar, the avant-garde film-making of Stan Brakhage, the Beats, James Joyce's clever, mad daughter Lucia - far removed from the life and work of the Romantic poet.

John Clare was born in 1793 into the rural poverty of Helpston, near Peterborough. The son of a farm labourer, he was taken from school at the age of seven to tend the sheep and geese on the farm. His employment was various - pot-boy in an alehouse, gardener at Burghley House, lime-burner, militiaman - but never settled. He had discovered poetry in his teens and, inspired by a copy of Thomson's Seasons, began to write his own poems. Through a lucky meeting with a bookseller in Stamford, his Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery was published in London in 1820 and was well received. The novelty of the "peasant-poet" rapidly palled on the literary public, however, and he received less and less notice or praise for his subsequent volumes.

Clare tried hard to live by his writing, but was obliged to work from time to time as a labourer, and became increasingly unhappy with his ambiguous position between the two worlds. Displaced from his rural community by his small share of fame and wealth, he was merely patronised by the upper classes and not accepted by the literary world. His mind began to give way, and in 1837 he allowed himself to be placed in a private asylum in Epping. Four years later, inspired by a vision of his first love, Mary Joyce, to whom he imagined he was married, he escaped and in four days, on foot and penniless, sleeping rough and eating grass, covered the 80 miles to his home country. He was taken in by his real wife and family, but soon was removed to the Northampton general lunatic asylum, where he remained until his death in 1864.

Sinclair is intrigued by the parallels between his life and Clare's, beginning with their names: Iain is the Celtic form of John. They share Scottish ancestry, and have both been poets and manual labourers; both lost siblings in early childhood, and both are curious about doubles. Sinclair's method of investigation is to follow on foot Clare's flight from Epping and, through a close reading and imaginative exploration of the landscape, to recover the remains of Clare's mental and physical world. He is alert to the rhymes and half-rhymes, echoes and coincidences in lives, literature and landscape. His voice is always compelling, whether in thick description of contemporary England, recollection of his book-scouting days, or in this typically pregnant speculation at the Shelley Memorial in Oxford, a life-size sculpture of the dead, naked poet:

Shelley's likeness, vague as Shakespeare's, is as liable to misattribution. (He was lucky to avoid being turned into a novel by Anthony Burgess.) What we want is a way of hiding the poetry, that difficulty, so we trade in the fiction of biography; selective quotation dresses a dramatic life. Dead as mutton, the veggie republican Percy Shelley is neutralised in satin-finish marble: a premature trust fund hippie. The accident of the boat wreck is rebranded as martyrdom. A chaos of wives, bad debts, bad karma, justifies the neurosis of composition.

Sinclair is also very funny. The chapters in Northampton, possibly feeding off the energy of his friend Alan Moore, the graphic novelist and occultist, are hilarious and Gothic, especially the account of a poetry reading menaced by a revolver-wielding psychopath. He can be as choleric as a Daily Mail columnist when witnessing lard-ass proles gorging themselves at an eat-as-much-as-you-like Chinese restaurant, and as despairing as Betjeman at the ubiquity of retail parks, shopping malls and orbital bypasses. The privatisation of public space is for him as much a blight on the population as enclosure was in Clare's time.

Much of the book is a love letter to his wife, Anna (to whom it is dedicated), in the form of an investigation of her family history: her remarkable father believed (not the least of his eccentricities) that he was a descendant of John Clare. Sinclair acknowledges his wife's contribution to what now appears his lifetime's project: to re-energise mythical England and - through the power of imagination - to re-enchant the lamentable wasteland of contemporary life.

Ian Irvine is an editor at the Independent