'They’re calling me home, the starlings and crows'
The spark that inspired me to write the song that began this album, 'Starlings & Crows', was a story of the poet John Clare. In 1841 he walked 90 miles from the asylum where he was living in Epping Forest to his home in Northamptonshire. He didn’t quite know who he was – his mind was disordered and he had delusions, believing himself to be Shakespeare, or Keats – but he knew his way home to the landscapes, the countryside, the trees, the birds, the place of his home.
I knew some of Clare’s poetry a little bit, but mostly I knew the context of his work – that he grew up in a landscape that was then violently altered by Enclosure and that he returned again and again in his poetry to these places, to the natural world he knew before it was dramatically changed and the commons taken from him and his community. This was the 1809 Enclosure Act that changed utterly the way people lived with the natural world around them. The old rotational field systems of strip farming were replaced and large areas of common land shared for pasture and wood were enclosed. For John Clare this was a disaster:
'Inclosure like a Bonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still'
For me, this image and the thought of Enclosure means a separation, a splitting, a traumatic dislocation of people from their way of life, their natural home, their resources and particularly for Clare, his inspiration and joy. And it resonates with me now so powerfully partly because we are at such a crucial point in our relationship with the natural world and our place in it.
That isn’t the whole story though, it’s just where the initial idea for my song came from. The image of a man, deeply connected to the land, not in his right mind, finding his way home.
I wanted the starlings and crows to be the centre of the song because they are so 'every-day' and yet not. I don’t know which birds Clare would have heard daily back then and in that part of the country, but for me, these are my ordinary birds. The starlings crowd into our garden in the spring feeding their screeching babies from the fatcake and lining up along the fence. They never make eye-contact with me. They are absolutely beautiful. When the sun glints on their wings they shine like petrol-spills on the pavement with peacock-blue and greens and pinks. They are so domestic in the garden and then so mysterious in crowds in the sky, swirling in murmurations.
I feel the same way about crows – I hear them every day and see them stalking up and down the roof ridges and being extremely clever with the feeder. They also never catch my eye but I feel them watching me. And then in the sky, they are dark silhouettes in the tops of trees, launching themselves in clusters up into the wind. They become so mysterious and mythic. The sound of starlings and crows is the comforting every-day domestic sound of home to me and yet they are both enigmatic and astonishing. And I think that’s partly what my album is trying to express: that duality.
Who Owns England by Guy Shrubsole ~ a brilliant and eye-opening book about the true nature of landownership in England and how it got this way!
John Clare at Poetry Foundation ~ poems and biography online