History remembers John Clare as a troubled ‘peasant poet’, an obsessive romantic-era wordsmith who penned more than three and a half thousand pieces over 70 years. He wrote, among other things, about the subtle wonders of the natural world and how the land enclosures of his time frustrated his experience thereof.
Born to a labourer in Helpston, Northampton, he was a rambler, a man of the fields. In 1841, after a four-year stint of fairly benevolent internment in a progressive Epping Forest asylum, he trudged 80 miles home – almost four days with no food and not a penny to his name. In the weeks that followed, he wrote a manic prose account of his ‘Journey Out Of Essex’, a document of memory and delusion, loss and longing.
Hackney-based writer and chronic walker Iain Sinclair echoed the poet’s infamous trek for his 2005 book Edge of the Orison. It was an escape from his eternal circuit of the M25 (London Orbital). He recently convinced his artist-filmmaker friend Andrew Kötting to take a camera to the route and make something more of Clare’s terrible journey. The result is By Our Selves, a hazy, Herzogian work in progress starring Toby Jones and his father, Freddie.
Having raised £20,345 through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, the film previewed at Hackney Picturehouse last month and is a welcome addition to a growing field of work in response to Clare’s life.
“I guess in a way the credit for the film should be given to Iain,” says Kötting. “He started badgering me a couple of years ago. He suggested that perhaps we could make a film around his book Edge of the Orison, and I’d read it and in fact it was one of my favourite Sinclair books. It was the first book I’d read of his where he was digging into the autobiographical.”
He explains that on revisiting the text, he was beguiled by an image of a man in a suit holding a rope attached to a straw bear, a ritual that Sinclair sheds light on before the preview.
“Somebody dresses up as a shamanic straw bear,” he says, “and they dance around the pubs of Whittlesey, a brick-making town, and then on the second morning they burn the bear. Andrew suddenly thought that if he performed as the straw bear and he accompanied John Clare on the road it would be really interesting, and from that moment he was right up for it. That defined the film.”
A feverishly experimental documentary, By Our Selves sees Jones, Kötting and Sinclair ghosting through a middle-English landscape of hedgerows and wind farms, with Sinclair – dark-suited and goat-masked – reading excerpts from Clare’s journal.
Fragments of sound from other films and recordings add to a hallucinatory atmosphere. “John Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad,” flickers throughout.
It’s a stunning piece built on connections, coincidence and déjà vu – an introverted work, with Jones, as the poet, silent, given a voice by his real-life father’s trembling renditions.
Sinclair, whose book details his own significant links to Clare, explains: “The interesting thing was that Toby’s father, Freddie Jones, this terrific actor, had acted John Clare on TV in 1970. Toby was four years old and his father was playing John Clare and his mother Mrs Clare, and of course he goes off into an asylum in the end and Toby was freaked out by this.
“I think out of respect for what his father had done he wanted to take part. So the father and son are haunting each other… There were very strong connections and all these things came into play as we went along the road.”
Kötting elaborates: “We hatched this idea that Toby wouldn’t have to say anything, he would just be with us and he would be ventriloquised by his dad. That only came about because I went and met Freddie with Iain and he was so enthusiastic about the project. We got him to read ‘Journey Out Of Essex’, so we had a voice that could possess a younger John Clare.
“It’s that duality you get throughout the film, you know, the father and son, the heaven and the earth, the human versus the animal – there are lots of dualities at work in the piece.”
Kötting is a rare breed of filmmaker. While he’s an eccentric performer, a larger-than-life, frenetic comedian, the spaces in which his films unfold are, on the surface, quieter and more tranquil – but no less mysterious: the River Thames in Swandown, the Pyrenees in the beautiful This Our Still Life. He cuts a fine balance between contemplative poetry and absurdist hilarity, unearthing a strange energy wherever he goes.
Of his roving approach to gathering material, Kötting says: “I’ve often felt that it’s such an easy way of doing things and it flies in the face of structures. What I find is, as with Iain’s writing, you turn the page and you could end up in Africa, or contemplating land enclosures, next thing you’re at a funeral, you know, you’ve no idea where you might be from one page to the next.”
Although humour has “infested” much of Kötting’s work, this latest piece, he explains, is perhaps his most emotional and pensive film to date. “I made the decision in the edit suite to try and coax out the spookiness. Ultimately it became a far more tense, melancholic drift of a piece than I imagined it would have done, and a lot of that is given over to trying to enter into the mindset of John Clare. I don’t think he was a happy man – he was always battling his demons.”
That’s not to say there’s no trace of his signature comedy: a conversation between Sinclair and graphic novelist Alan Moore, musing on a Northampton life, is laugh-out-loud hilarious; so, too, is the moment a passer-by on a mobility scooter is told, on enquiring, that they’re filming John Clare. “That’s not John Clare,” he cries, aghast.
Ultimately, though, By Our Selves is a serious and successful film about following the footsteps of an obscure literary figure, confronting madness, the politics of the English countryside and a whole lot more. It’s another curious collaboration between two of the UK’s most interesting artists, forever tramping the ley lines.