Published by Dedalus Books (based in Sawtry) the book is not a classic as a novel, it is more of a lengthy spoken narrative of the kind of which Lupton is famous. The book is let down in places by typographical errors and continuity.
Nevertheless, it is fascinating to read the detailed descriptions of place names most people in the village will be familiar with including Ailsworth Heath, Langdyke Bush, Lolham Bridge, Milton Estate, Swaddy Well quarry and the surrounding villages of Helpston, Castor, Maxey, Glinton, Northborough and Peakirk.
Lupton isn’t strong on literary form and structure, but his engaging narrative style and his skill as a story-teller make up for that. What he is very strong on however, are his descriptions of local customs that have long since been consigned to history or forgotten altogether.
May Day and Harvest Home celebrations were closely linked and Lupton describes these links nad how they fit in with the day-to-day life of the parish. Everyone’s lives were inextricably linked with the calendar and the seasons and these customs are a celebration of those links, which have been lost today for many of us.
Other customs are described such as the riotous behaviour of the village youth on Plough Monday and the performance of traditional plays by local ‘guisers’ who used festive performances at Christmas to supplement their meagre wages.
Rogation Sundays a year apart frame the structure of the novel. Villagers beat the Parish Bounds and give alms to the poor. The first occurs before the enclosures of the Parish fields nad commons have taken place, the second after. Changes are charted throughout the book as the winners and losers in the process are identified.
It’s a great period story and a historical document of local interest. His depiction of rural life in Georgian England just as the Enclosure Act is taking effect resonates even now as the countryside is again going through a period of fundamental change that will alter it irrevocably. In fact the foreword is a quote from Ted Hughes:
But while the mice in the field are listening to the Universe, and moving in the body of nature, where every living cell is sacred to every other, and all are interdependent, the Developer is peering at the field through a visor, and behind him stands the whole army of madmen’s ideas, and shareholders, impatient to cash in on the world.
The Ballad of John Clare is available at Waterstone’s in Peterborough or via Amazon.
Also read last year another novel about Clare called The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds. This is also a debut novel and a far superior work to Lupton’s. In it Clare is incarcerated in a private asylum in Epping Forest in Essex, where he encounters Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose brother Septimus is an inmate. He eventually escapes and, delusional, walks back up the Great North Road to his home in Northborough.
Other literary figures with a local connection:
L P Hartley, author of The Go Between lived in Peterborough.
William Le Queux – the father of spy fiction, adventurer, radio pioneer and onetime resident of The Cedars, Castor.
Edward Storey – Fenland writer from Whittlesey who wrote A Right to Song – A life of John Clare.
Mark Haddon – Used Peterborough as setting for his novel A Spot of Bother. It drew criticism locally at the time of publication because Haddon admitted that he had only visited the city briefly.
Marina Lewycka – Used Peterborough as the setting for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
- The Ballad of John Clare, By Hugh Lupton (independent.co.uk)
- Letters: Clare’s rail lines (guardian.co.uk)