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

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: our fatal blunder

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide