John Clare in Space

Poetry, Nature and Contemporary Culture

150th Anniversary Conference

30–31 May 2014, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK

This two-day conference at Oxford Brookes University sought to explore the work, life, contexts and culture of the English poet, John Clare (1793–1864). Clare died in Northampton on 20 May 1864. 150 years after his death, delegates are asked to explore the places and spaces of Clare’s life and work, and the broad dimensions of his engagement with traditions across literary, rural and folk cultures, and to investigate the reasons Clare might be increasingly relevant to contemporary culture.

Keynote speakers

  • Jonathan Bate
  • John Goodridge
  • Nick Groom
  • Andrew Kötting
  • Josie Long
  • David Morley
  • Brian Shields
  • Iain Sinclair
  • Fiona Stafford

Invasion of the Straw Bear

The conference saw academic literary critics mix with visual artists, film-makers, poets, a biographer and a stand-up comedian.

JohnClareNews

Conference organiser, Simon Kövesi, who edits the John Clare Society Journal, was delighted. “Clare is attracting a lot of attention right now, partly because his acute sense of the natural world seems somehow prescient at a time of environmental anxiety, but also because the full significance of his work is only now being widely appreciated. We wanted this conference to show how Clare works as a presence in contemporary culture. The wide diversity of responses, drawing on the full range of his work, was breath-taking.” Clare died in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum on 20 May 1864, and this conference was one of many events coordinated by the John Clare Society, to mark the anniversary. Trustee and Vice-Chairman of the Clare Society, Revd. Ron Ingamells, said “I have no hesitation in saying that the conference was by far the best event for the Society, during my many years on the committee.”

“John Clare in Space” saw the first public showing of a full exhibition in The Terrace of the Clare series “Preparing to Fly” of Brighton-based artist Brian Shields, the first ever stand-up comedy based on Clare by Josie Long, and the first public showing of an extract of a major feature film starring Toby Jones, currently being developed by Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair – author of the Clare-based book Edge of the Orison (2005); a conversation between them and Clare biographer Jonathan Bate, closed the conference. The film was enhanced by the first live performance of a straw bear, which seemed to capture Clare’s sometimes spooky other-worldliness perfectly.

Jeannette Lynes, poet and Professor of creative writing at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, said “The ‘John Clare in Space’ conference was an interdisciplinary hub of intense engagement with topics that matter and will matter for a very long time: Clare (of course), poetry, art, the environment, work, politics, and many others. I learned and experienced so much at the conference, everything from what a bumbarrel is, to a real-life encounter with a straw bear. Thank you for this amazing conference!”

Nick Groom, Professor of English at Exeter University, delivered the opening plenary, drawing on his recent book of environmental criticism, The Seasons. He said: “The conference was a landmark in Clare studies. By bringing together poets and artists, Clare Society members and experimental filmmakers, academics and stand-up comedy, and even nightingales and a straw bear, the conference set the agenda for the future of Clare studies. It was a truly memorable event, and a privilege to be part of these 150th anniversary celebrations.”

Vice-Chancellor Professor Janet Beer opened the conference, while Brookes’ academics Simon White, Caroline Jackson-Houlston and Simon Kövesi, all presented their research alongside academics from the USA, Canada, Germany, France and the UK. Final-year English students Tegeirian Downer, Nicola Morgan and Charles Regnart were the busy student hosts; English alumni Melissa Camwell and Jonathan Mercer ran the bookstall, and Vickie Mason in conference services, also a Brookes English graduate, was the lead conference administrator. The conference dinner in the Brookes Restaurant featured Regency-inflected dishes, drawing directly on the 1818 bestseller, The Cook’s Oracle by William Kitchiner.

There are plans to publish the proceedings and to host a follow-up event at Brookes in the autumn. The development of the Andrew Kötting film – which is about to launch a fund-raising campaign – can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

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Sample Plenaries

Delegates are encouraged to join the John Clare Society (UK registered charity)

The image Beak! is Copyright © Brian Shields, brianshields-artist.co.uk/. Used with kind permission of the artist. An exhibition of Brian Shields’ John Clare series of works, will be launched at the conference.

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