June 19. I have just recorded a contribution to ‘Better Known’, a podcast series in which the speaker recommends six people, places, objects, stories, experiences and ideas that should be better known.*
It was a challenging task. Most of us carry in our heads our eight Desert Island Disks, revising them from time to time in the hope that one day we will be asked to make them public. The brief for ‘Better Known’ was much wider, and coming in the middle of an avalanche of work, there was little time to ponder upon it. I came up with five entries, and spent three quarters of an hour talking about them.
- Montaigne’s Tower, in south-west France. The man himself, the first modern explorer of how an individual should live, is well enough known, but his tower, which we visit whenever we are in the Dordogne, is largely neglected by French visitors. Montaigne spent his days in one tower at the corner of a large courtyard, his wife in another (now demolished), and his mother in the main house (now rebuilt), a perfect arrangement for any family.
- St Peter’s Church Melverley. A rare, perfectly preserved timber-frame church, constructed out of local oak in around 1405, every beam pegged to another without any fixtures, standing on a bluff with the River Vyrnwy swirling around it.
- The Stiperstones. A long rocky ridge, in sight of my house, with the remains of Britain’s largest lead mine at its base, and long views across the Welsh Marches.
- Caroline Testout climbing rose. Names for a late-nineteenth-century French couturier, a splendidly blousy pink rose, with a faint scent. I have one growing over my front door, and any house would be improved by it.
- Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, sometimes cited in these diaries
- The poetry of John Clare, the great peasant poet of the first half of the nineteenth century, the finest observer of the natural world this country has ever produced.
It is in some ways a counterproductive undertaking. The last thing I want is coach loads of tourists at Melverley, or Everest-like queues to ascend the Stiperstones. The writings are more secure. There will be a limit to the number willing to tackle the two million words in Mayhew’s volumes, and Clare, quite simply, really should be better known, although his reputation is building, not least thanks to a recent biography by Jonathan Bate. Here is an evocative poem written in his asylum years on the topic of solitude, to which he returned frequently over his life:
There is a charm in Solitude that cheers
A feeling that the world knows nothing of
A green delight the wounded mind endears
After the hustling world is broken off
Whose whole delight was crime at good to scoff
Green solitude his prison pleasure yields
The bitch fox heeds him not – birds seem to laugh
He lives the Crusoe of his lonely fields
*To be broadcast on July 6