In many ways, she was right. It is a puzzling, strange and sometimes almost incomprehensible film. But it is also beautiful and moving and somehow gets to the heart of John Clare’s remarkable poetry and of the continuing conflicts between town and country, progress and tradition.
At a basic level, it is about the 19th century poet John Clare and the long walk he made from Essex, where he had escaped from an asylum, back to Northampton. But it is also about ancient fertility and harvest traditions and the disconnect between a man who is grounded in his place and the world of conventional success and celebrity in which he is confused and lost.
Clare, confused to the point of mental illness by the pressures he felt being taken from his rural home to be lionised as the “peasant poet” by literary society in London, escaped from an asylum and may have been trying to find his muse and first love, Mary, who had died, a fact which he does not seem to have accepted or understood.
He wrote a short poetic journal about his journey which inspired a book by Iain Sinclair, called The Edge of the Orison (the implied pun in this word is intentional), and the book and journal form part of the background for director Andrew Kotting’s film
Sinclair, who introduced the screening at Strode Theatre’s studio, also appears the film in various “roles” as an interviewer or an observer/actor with a sheep’s mask. (I told you it was strange!)
By Our Selves stars Toby Jones, retracing Clare’s four-day walk through Epsom Forest, but also, in the 21st century, along busy trunk roads. Toby Jones portrays the poet silently, often looking bewildered and melancholy, while his father, actor Freddie Jones, speaks Clare’s words.
Accompanied by Sinclair and the director himself disguised as a straw bear (an ancient figure from a traditional harvest dance in Northamptonshire), the poet encounters Dr Simon Kövesi of Oxford Brookes University, wizard Alan Moore, and a band of folk-revival performers.
There are also touching sequences on a beach with the director’s daughter and interviews with Freddie Jones, who portrayed Clare in a BBC Arena programme in 1970.
John Clare (1793-1864) was neglected for many years after his death, but is now considered an important poet of the countryside. He was an acute observer of wildlife and the passing seasons, and sought to preserve the age-old certainties of rural life which he saw disintegrate in the progress of the industrial revolution.
The audience for this screening, part of Strode’s Artists on Screen programme, all agreed that Iain Sinclair’s introduction had helped their understanding and appreciation of this extraordinary film.