Literary Drinkers by Pete Bunten
If you enjoy this extract from Literary Drinkers, try the articles on Thomas Hardy and P G Wodehouse - and why not buy a copy for yourself or a friend or two?
Northamptonshire is in many ways an unassuming county. Squatting in the centre of England, it is often by-passed by travellers hurtling down the M1, or heading for the more conventional tourist traps of Warwickshire and Cambridge. But it has its own unsung charms, among which are some admirable villages hosting equally admirable pubs. It was in the then Northamptonshire village of Helpston, in 1793, that the poet John Clare was born. Helpston has now been claimed, or swallowed up, by an expanded Cambridgeshire, but Northamptonshire folk quite rightly continue to claim him as their own.
Literary drinkers can make their own pilgrimage, if they wish, to the present day Helpston, and celebrate John Clare's life and work during an annual festival held around the Blue Bell pub, a most appropriate site for a poet whose very sensible appreciation of women, song and beer makes it rather ironic that he is best known for his later descent into madness.
Clare's father arrived in Helpston some thirty years before the poet's birth. He was a big, swaggering fellow, and his capacity to drink a gallon of beer at a sitting clearly made him ideally qualified for the post of village schoolmaster, a post which he occupied until having seduced Clare's mother he vanished as suddenly as he had arrived.
His son evinced an early taste for ale in a Stamford pub called The Hole in the Wall. Throughout his life, Clare demonstrated a further taste and talent for beer-drinking ballads; one of these, 'The Toper's Rant', rightly proclaims that it is the duty of every patriotic English man or woman to drink as much good beer as possible:
Give me an old crone of a fellow
The dictionary definition of a 'toper', readers may be interested to know, is one who ' drinks intoxicating liquor to excess, especially habitually'. Here's to a good tope, say I.
Who loves to drink ale in a horn
And sing racy songs when he's mellow
Which topers sung ere he was born'
Clare's publishers seem to have failed to see things in quite the same grown-up way. One described him in a letter as 'a fiddler- loves ale- likes the girls- somewhat idle – hates work.' Thinly disguised envy, one presumes.
Clare was a great admirer of another so-called 'peasant poet', Robert Burns, celebrated in an earlier article in this series. One of Clare's later ballads is written in Burns' style, and in praise of ale. It appears from the poem that Clare was in the habit of drinking strong nut-brown ale by the quart. Perhaps, under these circumstances, it's not altogether surprising that Clare's publisher later extracted a promise from the poet to keep sober for a year.
He didn't always stick to it, though. A later letter confesses that he 'went a frolicking yesterday . . got too much of Barleycorn broth . . fell down and got a black eye.' A late publisher bewailed Clare's tendency to become 'a little too elated with a glass of ale if you indulged him in it', and the onset of Clare's later bouts of depression was marked by the poet's account of himself as reduced to 'small beer's sad reality'.
Although Clare was in many ways forced to accede to the demands and opinions of editors and aristocratic patrons, he never lost his strong sense of social injustice. This emerges most powerfully in his poem 'The Parish', not published because of its radical views until after his death. The poem contains a series of biting satirical portraits of representative social types, where pride and hypocrisy sit side by side, often revealed through drinking metaphors. 'Young Brag's affectation and posturing is reflected in his drinking habits:
sips his wine in fashionable pride
In contrast, the honest and unassuming local vicar is apotheosised through his hospitality offered to 'plain old farmers' who came to 'taste his ale'.
And thrusts in scorn the homely ale aside.
In later life, now sadly resident in an asylum, Clare took commissions for poems in exchange for beer. This allowed him on some occasions to celebrate to such an extent in the local town that the authorities found themselves obliged to limit the extent of his liberty.
Clare died in 1864. His body was returned to Helpston, where – very appropriately - the coffin spent its last night above ground in a local pub, the Exeter Arms. Clare's reputation has continued to grow since his death. He is a genuine poet of the people, and a representative of a real 'Middle England', far more worthy than the distorted versions offered by certain national daily newspapers.