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Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s ‘Journey Out of Essex’

By Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair has become justly celebrated as an exponent of what he terms, in this book (although not in reference to his own work), ‘psychogeography’. This hybrid genre, other practitioners of which include such wonderfully incomparable and incomparably idiosyncratic talents as W. G. Sebald and Geoff Dyer, is part-memoir, part-travelogue, part-historiography and part-mystery story. That said, it is about as far removed from the ‘how-awful-my-childhood-was’/‘how-I-beat-my-addictions’ formulae of most contemporary memoirs, or the ‘men-in-linen-suits-mingling-with-the-natives’/‘the-world-on-$10-a-day-for-backpackers’ routines of the majority of modern travel guides, as it is possible to imagine.
In another age, perhaps, these writers would simply have been called belles-lettrists. But, while they have certain characteristics in common with the prime cuts of the English prose essay – Bacon, Hazlitt, Lamb – what they produce is really something almost entirely new. If one had to cite a reference-point from the cannon as a possible influence, it is with De Quincey that Sinclair shares most, both in terms of his skill as a stylist – one can hear amplified echoes of the cadences of those elaborately piled-up, grand nineteenth century sentences (themselves owing a debt of honour to seventeenth century Sir Thomas Browne’s ornate, slowly evolving, patterning of sound sequences), falling sonorously like organ music heard in some vast, empty cathedral – and in his blatant indulgence in what some academic critics haughtily dismiss as the wilful whimsicality and unsystematic mess of his endless digressions. But these creations are more expansive than neat essayistic arguments; they are deliberately open-ended. It’s extended prose sequence as improvisatory jazz. One thinks of that observation from J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: the students at Holden Caulfield’s school are encouraged to call out ‘Digression!’ if one of their fellows is thought to be straying too far off the point while reading his literary efforts out to the rest of the class. But it’s the digressions Holden finds most interesting. One thinks also, even, of the technique of ring composition, used in the oral epics of Homer.
As with Homer, most of these more recent capacious compositions take place around the scenario of a journey. Sinclair has previously wandered through the districts of London adjacent to his home base of Hackney in Lights Out for the Territory, and circled the outlying regions of the city by following the M25 ring road in London Orbital. This one finds him, and the few friends with whom he intermittently shares his trudge – filmmaker Chris Petit, artist Renchi Bicknell, Oxford sculpture professor Brain Catling, graphic novelist/screenplay writer/general magus and all round good guy Alan Moore, plus his wife of forty years, Anna – following in the footsteps of so-called ‘peasant poet’ John Clare who, in July 1841, escaped from a private lunatic asylum in Epping Forest in Essex, and spent three and a half days walking the eighty or so miles to the village of Glinton (in Northamptonshire then, but Huntingdon now), next door to his native Helpston (in Cambridgeshire now, but Northamptonshire then). Sleeping rough, Clare orientated himself by lying down at night with his head pointing towards the north, so that he would know which way to go in the morning. He kept a journal of his journey, as he kept heading for the horizon, which he spelt ‘orison’. Penniless and starving, he ate grass along the way. By the time he arrived he was hallucinating.
Like Thomas Chatterton, who died young, Clare, who fossilised into old age, has become emblematic of tragic romantic poets, and something of a touchstone for those interested in them. He has had many treatments in both fact and fiction previously, not least Irish writer John McKenna’s novel Clare. When he reached his destination, Clare was hoping to find his childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce. He did not know that she was already three years dead.
Just a few months after his ‘Journey out of Essex’, Clare was committed to St. Andrew’s, Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the remaining twenty-three years of his life, never visited by his wife, Patty. Perhaps not so surprising, given that chief among his delusions was that he was married not only to her, but also to Mary.
A more recent well-known, long-term inmate of St. Andrew’s was Lucia Joyce, daughter of the composer of our own sprawling national epic, Ulysses. Sinclair enjoys riffing on the coincidence of surnames, a particular example of his general liking for weird juxtapositions, serendipitous associations, fortuitous connections in the same place, from different times. This one opens a rich vein of trivia. Did you know that in later life her father’s protégé, Samuel Beckett, made an annual pilgrimage to Northampton to visit Lucia (and also to survey the county cricket ground, scene of his two gallant performances as a bowler for Trinity College against the county side)? Or that Lucia herself had written a novel, subsequently destroyed by the Joyce estate?

 

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Sinclair paints a depressing picture of England today, and is scathing in his assessment of supposed progress, with people ‘facing up to the consequences of the good life’: ‘Welcome to Middle England. Xanaxshire…is the home of dolour. State-sponsored clinical depression. Valium villages under the ever-present threat of imported sex criminals and Balkan bandits; human landfill dumped in an off-highway nowhere, an uneconomical airship hanger, a reclaimed bunker.’ Not that he is without humour: Oliver Cromwell is ‘the killjoy English ayatollah’, and Sinclair relishes seeing the old Puritan’s portrait on pub signs, as he ‘finds himself strung up outside a chain of roadhouses and boozers’.
At one point, Sinclair posits a familial relationship to Clare, since Clare’s name is a direct Anglicisation of his own Scottish one, and one of Clare’s grandparents was an itinerant Scottish schoolmaster. But it remains wishful thinking, as no hard evidence is discovered. Much more time is expended excavating Anna’s family tree, in the vain hope of establishing some missing link, as she, like Mary Joyce, hails from Glinton. Unlike Clare, Sinclair did marry his sweetheart, whom he met while a student at Trinity in the early ’60s. Even if they cannot discover a direct lineage to Clare, she digs up much new material about her antecedents. However, the psychogeography is more interesting than the genealogy, which can become a little self-indulgent at times.
That caveat aside, like De Quincey before him, Sinclair has developed a mode of organisation which is not based on chronological narrative, or exposition, or argument, but on the statement, variation, development, and counterpoint of thematic imagery, in a pattern derived principally from music. He is, in effect, an early 21st century strolling player. It may seem like he’s just rambling around in circles, but that’s because he likes travelling hopefully as much as arriving. For those lucky enough to accompany him, there are few greater reading pleasures than walking with him for a while.

First published in The Sunday Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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