“MUCH Madness is divinest Sense To a discerning Eye.” Emily Dickinson’s lines could well serve as fitting appreciation of the observations that the poet John Clare (1793-1864) continues to offer us. This under-appreciated, demented son of a farm labourer is the subject of a new film By Our Selves (Cert. 15).
Its director, Andrew Kötting, intriguingly chronicles Clare’s walk back to his Northamptonshire roots in 1841, starting from Epping Forest. The film is based on Iain Sinclair’s book Edge of the Orison, which followed Clare’s route. Both the writer and the director have, over the years, been drawn to what journeying and a sense of place do for us. A previous collaboration of theirs — Swandown (2012) — involved navigating a swan-shaped pedalo from Hastings to Hackney.
By Our Selves does not re-enact a Victorian journey. Instead, Kötting has Toby Jones as Clare encountering the places as they now are. Birdsong gives way to the hum of wind turbines, and country lanes have become overcrowded highways, while, on the soundtrack, Freddie Jones, father of Toby, recites: “I long for scenes where man has never trod. . . there to abide with my creator God.”
Fat chance of that today. Even the trees in the film have CCTV cameras fixed to them. This is a modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress, where it is little wonder that the sensitive go mad. As Clare’s route passes through Bedford, Bunyan’s Celestial City gets name-checked, but one suspects that it requires a supremely spiritual outlook to discern, in the manner of 2 Corinthians 4.18, not the things that are seen, but those that are unseen and eternal.
Sinclair features prominently in the film, shadowing Clare, who is oblivious of him, just as he is of the movie’s crew, who are often in shot. Toby Jones never utters a word, but brings to this part all the pathos and wisdom of the simple-minded which he displayed in such roles as Neil Baldwin in last year’s Marvellous.
It is left to Sinclair to do much of the talking. He converses with Alan Moore, a visionary, who says that Clare saw the world as a sensory-deprivation tank from which he needed to escape.
In the film, many of the characters on the journey wear masks reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman: only the pure in heart, like Clare, have no need of disguise. Sinclair also interviews Simon Kövesi, a Clare specialist, who speaks of the poet’s fixation on having the same initials as Jesus Christ, and with “Mary” and “Martha”, two women he loved, one of whom he married and the other he didn’t. The outcome of Clare’s journey was, of course, incarceration in a lunatic asylum for the rest of his years.
This is a film unlikely to make it to the multiplexes, which is a pity; for it scrutinises provocatively the way we live now, neither idolising the past (Clare certainly didn’t do that) nor condemning contemporary society. It takes a filmmaker as gloriously eccentric as Kötting to assert the importance of Clare’s discerning eye. Though this be madness, yet there is method in it, even divinity.