John Clare's Scraping

You know how it is, you're doing the ironing or cooking and you have the radio on in the background and suddenly your ears prick-up as you become aware of something familiar or interesting.  Well, there I was preparing an early supper when I heard Jon Boden's voice talking to me from the radio.  He'd put together a great little programme about the poet John Clare, the "Northamptonshire peasant poet".  He's one of my favourite poets and I even have an 1820 copy of his first book "Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery" which I inherited from my Mum.  So, Jon Boden immediately got my full attention, especially as the programme was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of that book.

John Clare poet

John Clare, the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet

The programme was on Radio 4 on Sunday 12th January at 4.30pm and can still be found on BBC Sounds but only until 10th February 2020.  Sadly, it doesn't seem possible to download the programme.  Boden celebrates John Clare's tune and song collecting, some of which Clare learned from the gypsy, Wisdom Smith, who he met around the Cambridgeshire village of Helpston, near Peterborough.  Clare was described as a "decent scraper" and learned to play his fiddle tunes from visiting gypsy camps.  He was one of the earliest folk song collectors and amassed a collection of 263 tunes and songs, some from the gypsys and others from his father's collection of over 100 ballads which he sang at local pubs. 

The reason for including all this in a piece in Mardles Morris On! is that Morris does get a mention.  One of the contributors to the programme says that Helpston had its own "Morris dance, as Clare calls it", but then says "which we would now call a Mummer's Play".  Disappointingly, from my perspective, no more detail is provided in the programme after this tempting mention but it's further evidence of an East Anglian Morris tradition of some kind and an interesting glimpse into England at the time of the enclosures.

Have a listen to the programme yourself if you get the chance, and you'll also hear Jon Boden singing the John Clare version of Bushes and Briars.

Dave Evans

20th January 2020

 

 

 

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