Monday, 7 March 2016

Remembering Jack Clemo

Last weekend, thousands and thousands of people from across Cornwall, and much further afield, celebrated all aspects of Cornish identity to mark St Piran’s Day on 5th March.

It was certainly great to see the explosion in the number of events, involving all manner of music, poetry, dance, food, sport and the greater use of the Cornish language.

All in all, it shows a growing confidence in Cornwall’s national identity and our wonderful culture, which is something that we should all be delighted about.

This coming week meanwhile marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Cornwall’s most iconic cultural figures, the poet Jack Clemo.

He was born on 11th March 1916, in a small semi-detached granite cottage in the very heart of the China Clay Area at Goonamarris near Nanpean. The poet himself described the cottage as a “fitting birthplace” for himself, “dwarfed under the Bloomdale clay-dump.”

It remained Jack’s home for the majority of his life, and it was here that he produced the greater part of his poetry and prose, much of which is set within the culturally distinct and geographically unique world of Mid Cornwall’s Clay Country.

He himself wrote in the poem “Clay-Dams” that he “had never been a ‘meadow, grove and stream’ poet” but that his land was of “gaunt walls and spilled sand.”

But he is not only remembered for his writing. He suffered considerable turmoil in his life because of health issues. Deaf for much of this adulthood, he had also become blind before he was forty.

Dr Philip Payton, the former director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, has described Jack as an “international poet” who was also “hugely important in a Cornish context” and “one of the greats.”

Jack died in 1994 and, by the early 2000s, his former home at Goonamarris was under threat of demolition from the china clay firm which owned it.

I was among the many people who hoped that the cottage could be preserved as some form of memorial to him.

At the time, Dr Payton rightly opined that: "to obliterate the cottage would be to erase [Clemo] from the landscape of Cornwall. There is something about Jack Clemo's cottage that says so much about him as a person. It is so humble and in such a bleak place and it speaks volumes about his disabilities and achievements."

Attempts to list the building fell on deaf ears with the (upcountry) statutory agencies, though I am sure the response would have been very different if Jack has been a Home Counties “meadow, grove and stream” poet!

His cottage was sadly demolished in 2005 and a wonderful opportunity to commemorate Jack Clemo was also lost forever.

Many people have been striving to protect Jack Clemo’s legacy, for example, with displays at the Wheal Martyn Museum and Country Park, while other arranged literary events.

But at this time of his centenary, surely we need to be asking what more we can do to celebrate the achievements of this truly remarkable individual.

[This will be my article in this week's Cornish Guardian].

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