At the age of just 44, English poet John Clare began to suffer from a severe mental illness which ultimately resulted in him being institutionalised under private care for the rest of his life. He managed, however, one short spell of freedom by absconding from an asylum in Epping Forest and making his way home to Peterborough on an epic 80-mile walk through a rural landscape which, not long before, had ironically inspired some of his most celebrated poetry.
By Our Selves (2015) is Andrew Kötting’s spellbinding, experimental ode to that strange escape, following a half-starved, delusional John Clare (Toby Jones) through forest and field, accompanied by a Straw Bear and renowned psycho-geographic writer Iain Sinclair. The Byrons and Shelleys of this world have Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon paying homage to their poetic travels – most recently touring Italy in the second series of The Trip (2014) – John Clare, on the other hand, has a dishevelled Jones following his steps.
It would appear to be a fitting tribute. The film is shot in black and white, which lends poignancy to the direction as well as helping to smooth out a disjunction in historical continuity; we follow a nineteenth century John Clare across the terrain, but no attempt is made to disguise its modern day filming; wind turbines happily spin in the distance, transit vans take the place of horse-drawn carts. It generates an odd sense of historical overlap, but the film is too sensible about its own staging to become pretentious. An especially enjoyable scene features a passer-by in modern day Northampton pausing to stare at Toby Jones, deep in character and swaying on his feet. “We’re filming John Clare,” the cameraman tells him, “John Clare? That’s not John Clare,” says the passer-by, helpfully. This is not a standalone incident, as the fourth wall is regularly dropped for the sake of comment. As well as appearing on screen to read aloud from a book of Clare’s poetry, the goat-masked Iain Sinclair (whose 2005 book, Edge of the Orison, is an important analogue) conducts several interviews which intersperse with the story.
Sinclair talks to Alan Moore about Clare’s time in Northampton, and discusses his life and work with Professor Simon Kovesi, a Clare scholar. Thanks to all this, the film takes on a strange stripe of both scholarship, reconstruction and document all blended together. It is mostly cut to a sound collage of archive clips: voice samples from other productions about John Clare, discussing his work and reading from his poetry or diary. Early on, we hear Sinclair’s disembodied voice intoning: “They call this a paraphrenic delusion…the forest creates acoustic hallucinations.” That clip, and others like it, will be repeated more than once throughout a film that succeeds in generating a sympathetic sense of insanity. It is often mesmeric, and never short of fascinating; however, By Our Selves will chiefly be of interest to the devotees of poetry and psychogeography who helped to fund it via Kickstarter.