I AM? by David Clement-Davies
With all the splendid regal hoo-ha today, perhaps the nicest blessing to a marrying couple would be not to write about the Royal Wedding at all. Especially avoiding the kind of trashy, invasive comments from a former-Sun editor on being bald young, or why a man, ‘Royal’ or ‘Commoner’, but in this case very rich, might actually win or love a beautiful woman. That particular celebrity editor’s empty beer-glass on something also private and intimate, and probably and hopefully completely wrong. On Royal Wedding days the difficult ‘private’ is what this Cultural Essay is about then, especially the inner mind and heart. Perhaps the ‘sacred’ too, in a world where we no longer seem to really know what it means, or how to value it privately, or collectively either.
Perhaps the Media strain on things like love is just the modern world, and the sometimes difficult hypocrisies of that vital ‘freedom of the press’ too. Too often debased by the hunt simply to sell papers, in no one’s real interest but Newspaper proprietors. Although journalist Andrew Marr did the right thing to apologise recently for his own injunction. Dodgy super-injunctions in mind, the law becomes an ass if you can just look up ‘restricted’ facts via Wikileaks, as Julian Assange well knows, or on the Internet. But Obama was right too about the idiocy of having to disport his birth certificate on the internet, and wanting to get on with far more important things. On the other hand, in former days of real Kingly power, in Hampton Court or Versailles, there would have been very little privacy, because then we owned our Kings and Queens too, and glared very intently, especially at the Royal bed. It’s just the audiences get bigger and bigger, and everyone’s holding the camera.
You might of course say that in the world of Einsteinian physics Royalty itself is nuts, and in very hard times, give a loud fanfare for the common man, and especially now, woman. It is something everyone comments on with Kate Middleton being ‘one of us’, although massive popular and moving support proves indeed we are still instinctive Monarchists, despite the little scandal of two Labour Prime Ministers not being invited to what is inevitably a ‘State occasion’. Or you might say that purely materialist communism was far madder and nastier than democratic Monarchy, where our figure heads to aspiring ‘us’ are a family, and real human beings, or that the American equivalent of royalty becomes a ‘class’ of pure money and connections, or Hollywood human inflation.
I don’t want to throw too much gloom into the fun, but there could not be a figure more removed, from royalty and it all, than the ‘Commoner’ and poet John Clare. I thought of Clare recently, researching a book about Rome, and writing about the figure of Violet Albina Gibson, who at 50 shot at Mussolini, in 1926, was released by the Fascists, and ended her days ‘back home’ in St Andrew’s Hospital, ‘up North’. St Andrew’s was, in a former incarnation, the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum, where John Clare had been locked up too, in 1841, and it brought back to mind his startlingly moving, very English sonnet ‘Lines written in a Northampton County Asylum.’
‘I am. Yet what I am none cares nor knows
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live with shadows tossed’
Perhaps it’s the very proof of Oscar Wilde’s quip about there being ‘only one thing worse than being talked about’, although of course one of the agonies of ‘madness’ must be how others, or society, perceives you. Although Clare was a poet who necessarily sought fame, his true story is much about that inner Kingdom of the mind and psyche, the dangerous, vital stuff of artists and writers, and perhaps ultimately Wiki-leaking inflationists too – or, variably, ‘media heroes’ – like Julian Assange. Clare has been described as ‘the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced’ and his is the most remarkable story, in part recreated in the Booker prize-winning novel The Quickening Maze. In his own fracturing consciousness, his disconnection – that saw Clare moved from his first stint of private voluntary medical care, into that General Lunatic Asylum – he rewrote the whole of Byron’s Child Harold, but in his own image, and also told newspaper editors he was Shakespeare. It shows the danger of over identification, jealousy, or too much empathy, or maybe ‘years of poetical prosing’, as the dismissive admission report had it. Clare wanted to move in a sphere consummate with his talents though, torn between his illiterate countryside companions, and clever, critical London, but by then the ‘spirits’ of past and present writers were certainly moving inside Claire’s hurt mind and imagination. As Martin Amis had it, when the attacks on The Satanic Verses began, books and by extension writer’s minds are their own countries. Then, unlike your average hack, blogger, or rooter in Grub Street, Clare took great writing, the value of literature itself to really speak to all, much to heart…and obviously to mind too.
It’s interesting today though how many people aren’t royalists, and don’t believe in God either, but are going to wedding lunches. Quite right, because if Clare’s story means anything it is about the sometimes agonising inability to escape the Self, high or low, and the maxim ‘only connect’! It is also a testament to the eternal need to be involved in theatre, a theatre the British Establishment understands in its life blood. In terms of social connections, the real Shakespeare wrote much though on how the journey of ‘great ones’ – like those fairy powers of A Midsummer Nights Dream, flitting above all us ‘Rude mechanicals’ – can frame and inform lives, quite beyond the obvious facts of power, or of ‘cultural’ influence. Although a little in love with Princess Diana myself, as a teenager, too much champagne and Southern Comfort at a pre-nuptial party meant I missed that particular view of a Royal Wedding, groaning in the dark in my adolescent bedroom. Very rude indeed, and probably a little mechanical too, but perhaps my fairy-tale fantasies were already heartbroken, and I wanted to be a happy prince! Sixteen years later, a lost love meant that Sunday Times headline announcing Diana’s death in Paris was another kind of hard right of passage,that added to the crash of private experience, and grief, one the once lofty Royals took rather a long time to wake up to, in the public consciousness. William and Kate’s obvious and genuine openness to the crowd is just the right approach, backed by that police defence against the ‘fanatical’, ‘fixated’ and the ‘foolish’. Diana was loved for several reasons, a victim of an often nasty establishment, for several others, but perhaps the hurt and violence of famous celebrity deaths can be shattering, above all, because it slaps each of us in the face with the fact of our own mortality. Human grief is then iconised, and Elvis, Jim Morrison, or Princess Diana replace the saints of old, in our ache for comprehension, connection, and not to go down to the undertow. In fact, despite the BBC puff, as we all sell Business UK to the world, and people on the street last night wanting to be part of history, this is not a ‘truly historic moment’ at all. But William probably knows you’re nothing without a woman, and with Shakespeare in mind, today one could venture into intruding on the simple happiness of real human beings, with the words of unruly, dangerous Puck, when remastered by Titania-appeased Oberon, and not talk of the sad past at all.‘Not a mouse shall disturb this hallowed house, I am sent with broom before, to sweep the dust behind the door.’
I suppose you could say that if Titania lost the plot by falling for a mortal commoner in her ‘dream’, today Will must be Kate Middleton’s upturned ‘Bottom’, except that the royals have succeeded in becoming rather real, too real if you take Furgy’s example, and you hope the authorities too do not make the law an ass today. If the novel on Clare though, The Quickening Maze, is noted for being brilliant on that shadow-land between the sane, the odd, and the truly or dangerously nuts, watching some of the ‘Wedding Fans’ on telly, getting their places near the Abbey, or indeed watching some of the Middletons themselves, you know that madness, or certainly out-of the circle eccentricity, is alive and well in merry Britain, and always will be. But then Mark Twain joked that when your realise everyone is mad, the mysteries of life disappear and life stands explained.
Most at ‘the top’ become adept at trying to keep it all out, even Andrew Marr, although if the lowly John Clare suffered from ‘madness’, one of the eternal problems of Kingship, indeed any extended forms of leadership, was always the potential imperfections of the individual. I always loved the fact that Henry VI, that ‘saintly’ King who so abhorred the fashion of exposed breasts at his Court, and would cover his eyes in horror at the good and no-doubt scheming ladies, spent most of the battle of Tewksbury talking to a tree. But then Henry was related to the French King Charles VI, who thought he was made of glass, and might soon shatter. Perhaps modern head doctors would simply talk about inflation, as possible for a leader like Gaddafi, isolated by power, as for a poet failing to be Shakespeare. One of the most profound takes though on a state that might afflict countries, parties and groups too, as much as people, travelling through time and change towards modern psychoanalysis, and individual freedoms, is Allan Bennet’s marvellously humane The Madness of King George. The tale of a royal line affected with porphyria, and touching the wild disconnection of King Lear, but with a take on the very healing power of theatre, the very point of writing, while Ian Holm’s stoutly ordered Doctor tries to keep George III ‘in his eye’.
As for any sad past stories though, John Clare’s own agony highlighted not inevitable or sometimes tragic mortality, that Undiscovered Country that ‘we know not of’ , but in that Northampton Asylum, alone, and without the union that is the very stuff of partnership and connection, or dare we talk marriage still, Clare faced something far starker, and in fact more relevant to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ too – a kind of living death, in isolation and disconnection, cut off from the vital world, and effectively powerless. A terrifying journey into…
‘…the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,’
How and why that disconnection happened had many reasons for Clare, himself a clarion voice on the unstable and alienated Self; reasons in his difficulties of supporting his family of eight, in the growing destruction by industrialisation of a rural idyll, in drink, and in his failure, a common failure for artists, to win his audience in his lifetime. Today writers might talk, in the face of Royal expenditure and a party, of the slashing of arts grants, a deep publishing crisis, the failure to lend to small business, and ordinary people of the closing of libraries, and above all the cost of education. But in terms of Phoenix Ark Press we might be warned too by the failure of Clare’s Shepherd’s Calender, in trying to beat the ‘system’, by peddling it himself! Don’t develop a kind of Tourette’s Syndrome either, in public outpourings – although writers are made to feel and speak – or stand up in the middle of a performance of The Merchant of Venice, like poor John Clare did, and have a rant at Shylock! But today art sensitive psychologists like Oliver Sachs might remind us too of the extraordinary and fragile nature of consciousness, and the very worst response to difficulty sometimes being the negative judgement in easy or dismissive terms like ‘madness’. Diana herself was accused of it, in the public eye. Sachs represents that growth of awareness that moved us out of brutal places like Bethlem Hospital, then to become Bedlam, and turned that General Lunatic Asylum in Northamptonshire into St Andrew’s hospital.
That journey Clare took into the shades though, although he was treated humanely by the enlightened head of the institution, and encouraged to write – and writing may have been his salvation because it to be allowed a communicator to communicate -was a tragic country where…
‘… there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest -that I loved the best –
Are strange -nay, rather stranger than the rest.
That ‘vast shipwreck’ is a phrase deluged in grief, and captures the true monumentality of his mental and emotional suffering. Why should ‘the dearest’ though, that Claire ‘loved the best’, be ‘rather strange than the rest‘? In the alienations of lost loves, and friendships too, the violent flipsides of temporarily grasped happinesses, and mutual understandings and confidences, that seem sacred at the time, we all know why. But then to be hipper ‘people are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly, when you’re alone.’ Those failures and losses seem to challenge the very meaning of the private trusts and vows we can make, or don’t make these days. As Yeats put it ‘tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.’But then it is clear that something had dislocated inside Clare, and for the masculine, perhaps it lay far beyond the beginnings and consumations of marriage, but always has something to do with the loss of connection with the feminine, inside and out.
King Lear knew it above all, in his blindness to Cordelia’s real, sane and balanced love, but Clare’s re-writing of Child Harold is a lament for lost love too, and Clare’s first love for a girl called Mary Joyce was blocked by her prosperous farm-owning father. The country boy Clare, who was a farm labourer as a child, a pub Pot-boy, a gardener, a lime-labourer, and a Gypsy camp follower too, had not yet made any impression as a poet. But even if he had, and there was more money then in poetry than now, while he was supported by friends and patrons, you can imagine the scorn Mary’s powerful dad might have thrown at poets. Walking home from his first ‘mental home’, Clare was lost in the kingdom of fantasy, believing he was returning not just to his wife, but Mary too.
There is a kind of tragic purity too in Clare’s yearning for peace, in that real asylum, a sort of holy innocence, beyond the potential scorn and noise of life, or mankind, politics or power, or today the ever-present invasion of the ‘news’ hungry cameras. Or what deeply sensitive Clare at least imagined in his head to be that scorn and noise; the nasty whispers of the nasty world. Clare’s great I AM, undercut though with that bitter and yet…, is the author’s revolutionary defence of his and human identity, and of the so-called ‘common man’ too, as relevant today as then. But perhaps the Ego itself had to inflate, and then retreat, to see life and the world once more, and restore its glory and wonder, as the filmstrip of memory flickered through his lonely consciousness, in a way that could certainly ruin a good party.
‘I long for scenes where man has never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:’
Sleep – ever the natural Shakespeare’s ‘balm of hurt minds’ – but then there is for Clare, beyond hurt and near suicidal pain, the desire no longer to affect or be affected by life, and agonised memory. He should have read Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting. As if the greatest drama though is the one where nothing happens, and in a sense perhaps love is actually just that peaceful ‘un-drama’ of absolute connection, and a journey achieved. Where far beyond a great structure like Westminster Abbey, and the connectedness or supposed connectedness of rightly happy public events, a rural poet and natural and much suffering commoner was bound and healed again in the arms of beautiful nature.
‘Untroubling and untroubled where I lie, –
The grass below -above the vaulted sky.’
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David Clement-Davies April 2011. The public domain photos are John Clare, Landseer’s Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum in 1848. David is a best-selling fantasy author, a journalist and the founder of Phoenix Ark Press. You can visit his website by going to DavidClementDavies.com