Review of ‘By Our Selves’: Film Screening at BARS 2015

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We continue our Romantic Imprints retrospective with a review of the special screening of By Our Selves held at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff during the conference. Many thanks to Erin Lafford of the University of Oxford for these thoughts on the film!

‘John Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad’. This statement, uttered in a crisp RP accent, is one of the most memorable soundbites from By Our Selves, a recent film release by Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair that re-traces the steps of John Clare’s escape from High Beech asylum in Epping Forest in 1841, back to his home in Northborough. An 80 mile walk reduced to ten words, which in one sense sum up the story that Kötting and Sinclair are trying to tell as much as they only begin to scratch the surface of the film’s affective and revisionary power. They become a refrain that recurs throughout the film, its frosty enunciation emerging starkly from a sonic patchwork of birdsong, muttered snatches of Clare’s poetry, letters, and journal entries, folk music, the haunting strains of Mary Joyce (played eerily by performance artist and poet MacGillivray), traffic noise, the whir of wind farms, telephone conversations, ominous murmurs of ‘doctors’, and the rustle of a dancing straw bear.

It is the soundscape, mixed and edited by Philippe Ciompi with music provided by Jem Finer (of The Pogues fame) and David Aylward, which is most immediately arresting in By Our Selves. With the skeleton of Clare’s journey from Essex there as a loose structure for each scene, sound becomes one of the most prominent tools for capturing the disorientation and delusion suffered by the poet and subsequently offered out to the audience. One scene close to the opening of the film shows Clare, played here by Toby Jones, in a clearing within Epping Forest. He stumbles across the forest floor and gazes about him as snippets of sound fade in and out – voices, snatches of music, the crackle and fuzz of reverb, some fleeting lines from ‘I Am’, are all blended into each other with the effect that poetry, language and meaning become a messy background noise at the same time as every snap and twang calls out for attention. Kötting seems to want to retrain our ears in these opening scenes, overturning the precise diction of ‘John Clare was a minor nature poet who went mad’ with a more anarchic wash of noise that resists such a neat narrative and therefore tests the boundaries of what this madness might have been, and how we might receive it now.



Ever since Harold Bloom dubbed Clare the ‘Wordsworthian Shadow’ in The Visionary Company (1962), there has sometimes been a critical tendency to hold the two poets up as each other’s antithesis. It seemed fitting, therefore, that on Saturday 18th July the biennial BARS conference held at Cardiff University offered two afternoon excursions – one to the Romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey, the other to Chapter Arts Centre for a screening of By Our Selves. This year’s conference theme, ‘Romantic Imprints’, resonated with the motives behind the film. Clare’s journey from Essex to Northborough has become its own kind of imprint on the landscape it covered, traced and re-traced by those who wish to experience the route he trod first-hand. Sinclair’s psychogeographical memoir, The Edge of the Orison (2005), takes up Clare’s walk and, along with the poet’s own account, is the main textual influence behind the film. By Our Selves is constantly alive to the relationship between image, place, and text; this is no straightforward dramatization of one of the most notorious episodes in Clare’s biography, but a self-conscious attempt to recycle and rework the written material through sound and image. Sinclair appears periodically as a goat-masked figure, haunting Clare by reading excerpts from By Himself, an edition of the poet’s autobiographical prose. Alan Moore reads ‘I Am’ from a selected works and also comments on his own graphic novel, Voice of the Fire (1996), in which Clare is a prominent figure. Simon Kövesi, a prominent Clare scholar at Oxford Brookes University who Kötting has dressed in a boxing robe and gloves (a reference to Clare’s own boxing obsession), is interviewed about his own critical essay on Don Juan and, in the midst of conversation, points out a mis-transcription in the edition of poems Sinclair is holding (Matthew Allen has been cleaned up as ‘Dr Bottle Imp who deals in wine’ rather than the original, and more derogatory, ‘urine’). Clare does not just wander silently, but on occasion sits at an anachronistic typewriter or is engrossed in a modern-day boxing magazine.

Such layering of textual responses to and editions of Clare’s work within the film has the effect of destabilizing any idea of textual authority on his journey, even his own. Indeed, the film’s title, By Our Selves, is, as Kövesi also discusses in his essay in the accompanying book, a pluralistic extension of By Himself, the title given to the edition of Clare’s autobiographical prose edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell. Kövesi suggests that this play on the original title evidences Kötting’s inherently collaborative approach to film-making, which is an ideal match for the various identities that make up Clare’s poetic sensibility, a ‘rural plural’ of influences and a fraught need for sociability.[1] The title also contains a nod to the collective process by which the film made it to production, being crowd-funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Yet the collective ‘ourselves’ can also be extended to include the layering of media that Kötting weaves together in order to bring the viewer into his hallucinatory and communal world that Clare is both at the centre and the edges of. The various interviews, textual references and vocal interjections resist offering the viewer a single, authoritative account of the Journey Out of Essex to offer instead a work-in-progress that might continue to grow and change.

Kötting’s directorial risks and innovations make this film in particular a rich site for undercutting and re-presenting that which we thought we knew and understood about Clare’s oft-cited narrative. The camera work in particular, directed by Nick Gordon Smith and operated by Anonymous Bosch, creates some wonderful moments and effects that involve the audience in experiences of delusion and disorientation. Some of the forest scenes are shot through a pin-hole camera, and their rounded, unfocussed and blurry edges echo visually a particular soundbite from Sinclair that floats amidst other noises: ‘They call this a paraphrensic delusion. There’s nothing there […] You find your eyeballs are turning into milk, completely white, no pupils at all’. In another scene, the camera has been attached to a kind of pivot so that it swings, in increasingly longer motions, between sky and forest floor, confusing the distinction between the two. We don’t know what is up and what is down, and one gets the sense that Kötting has an instinct for teasing out the more uncomfortable experiences that lie within Clare’s lines. Readings from ‘I Am’ recur throughout the film, but it is in this scene in particular that the poem’s last lines take on a feeling of bodily displacement and perceptual bewilderment: ‘Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie, / The grass below – above the vaulted sky’.

Another way that Kötting pulls us in, or perhaps pulls Clare out, towards a collective experience in By Our Selves is through the tug of family ties. He interweaves scenes of the journey with scenes of his daughter, Eden, walking on the beach and dressed to look, presumably, like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Towards the end of the film she is met by the straw bear (played by Kötting) that, until this point, has been chained to Clare as he drags it through the countryside, a disobedient attendant that could symbolize the burden of his ‘peasant poet’ status. These scenes recall Kötting’s early film, Gallivant (1996), in which he travels round the coast of Britain with a younger Eden and his grandmother Gladys, so that they might spend some time with each other in the face of their respective life-expectancies: Eden has Joubert Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder, and Gladys, at 85, is coming to the end of her own life. The elegiac mixing of footage of British landscape and family interactions in Gallivant carries over into By Ourselves. Kötting has stated elsewhere that ‘my work and Eden are always linked […] she is the very fabric of my life’.[2] It seems natural, therefore, that he should use family connections in turn to explore the fabric of Clare’s. Whilst Toby Jones is cast as the silent Clare who trudges through the changing landscapes from Essex to Northborough, it is his father, Freddie Jones (also cast as Clare in the 1970 BBC production I Am) who becomes his voice, reading and stumbling over excerpts from the Journey, letters, poems, and journal entries. This temporal collapse, where two Clares inhabit the same places, is one of the most effective ways in which Kötting and Sinclair bring the old and the new together, making Clare both past and present. Another memorable line from the film’s vocal soundscape declares that ‘Clare’s asylum foretells our need for asylum. His deprivation foretells our deprivation’. This cuts to the heart of the communal impulses at work in By Our Selves, and what makes it such an arresting and intriguing piece of film-making. The collective serves also to highlight the lonely. The film makes no attempts to rehabilitate Clare’s madness and isolation, but perhaps redistribute them across different times and places so that they might be received as part of our own experience of the world.

As Sinclair suggests in the film, ‘Clare’s fantastically modern, in the sense that he adapts everything’. If we take By Our Selves not as a dramatization, nor as a reconstruction, but as an adaptation of Journey Out of Essex, then we can become immersed in the fantastic and the avant-garde element of Clare’s works that Kötting and Sinclair draw out so effectively. By Our Selves is a must-see for anyone unconvinced that Clare was just a ‘minor nature poet who went mad’.

By Our Selves will be released in cinemas throughout the UK in October 2015.

– Erin Lafford (University of Oxford)


[1] Simon Kövesi, ‘The Rural Plural: Andrew Kötting, Iain Sinclair and John Clare’, By Ourselves, ed. Andrew Kötting (Badbloodandsibyl and Andrew Kötting, 2015), pp. 184-187.

[2] Sophie Radice, ‘Cultureshock’, Guardian, 21 October (2006).