John Clare and the Newspapers
There never was a writer more closely attuned to popular culture than John Clare -- he was one of the very first collectors of Northamptonshire songs and dances, coming as he did from parents steeped in folk music. He recorded all the local festivals in his village, Helpston, such as beating the parish-bounds. Plough-Monday, when the local lads, daubed with blacking, hauled an old plough through the village and extorted drink and kisses. Valentine Eve, Harvest Home, tossing cowslip balls over a garland that hung from the chimney tops across the street. Morris-dancing and the dumb-cake on St Mark's eve when girls went silently to bed, placing onions under their pillows, to dream of the men they would marry -- and many, many others.
Clare celebrated them all and wrote to the newspapers about them. He knew that he was chronicling them for future ages, just as he memorised ballads and wrote down the dance-tunes he played on his fiddle. He rejoiced in nursery rhymes, old riddles, folk-tales, childrens' picture books of Tom Hickathrift, Jack and the Beanstalk, Guy of Warwick, and many more -- counting-rhymes, proverbs, aphorisms and silly old jokes.
He lived with them all to the end of his days, rejoicing in fairs like Stamford's, with its bull-running; familiar with the fox-hunts from the estates of the great houses. With badger baiting, of which he disapproved and also birds nesting that made him eventually one of the great ornithologists of his time.
He loved newspapers, read them avidly, and was forever begging his friends in Stamford and in London to lend him copies of theirs. Thus he saw the Times, the Observer, the Morning Chronicle, the Examiner, the Sheffield Iris and the Atlas as well as the local papers.
Those old papers were full of marvels -- floods, earthquakes, outbreaks of cholera and plague, drownings, murders, and robberies -- tales of the burglary and disguise, of murderers and highwaymen such as Dick Turpin and Springheel Jack. Besides, the papers were about real people, even sometimes those who lived next door and went poaching, or nutting, or collecting mushrooms in a farmer's field. Every crime-story was a thrilling moral warning and a temptation. Just as Clare knew the old sailor at the fair, who had a wooden leg from his service with Nelson, and now made a living by inviting people to shy a coin at it, so a few years ago many of us knew the beggars and the gypsies who came to the door, selling pegs, recaning chairs, mending pots and telling fortunes. The press recorded them all.
Such people were also the source of a thousand stories in the narrow columns of the Mercury and the News and nowadays one can still spend days hunting for them in the archives of Stamford, Peterborough and Northampton, lifting heavy volumes onto the table to read them. Or peering intently at micro-fiche film of long forgotten reports.
Newspapers also have a hundred languages -- legalese from court-cases, sermon-language, political propaganda, and the jargon of sport and crime. And they used also to have engravings and woodcuts, adverts for patent medicines and cosmetics, the slang of the streets, and funny dialect stories. In Clare's day, it was stories of foolish schoolmasters, tyrannical magistrates and overseers of the poor, as well as the sly gamesters who conned the country-folk out of their pennies or their goods..
Many of the old customs were also recorded in the local newspapers; the Stamford Mercury, Drakard's Stamford News, the Stamford Bee and the Stamford Champion. To all of which Clare contributed, careless of their political leanings though more sympathetic in his heart to some more than others.
Eric Robinson & Roger Rowe