John Clare and a straw bear (and Iain Sinclair)
Photo: Andrew Kötting
By MICHAEL CAINES
"on the third day I satisfied my hunger by eating the grass by the road side which seemed to taste something like bread . . . I remember passing through Buckden and going a length of road afterwards but I dont reccolect the name of any place untill I came to Stilton where I was compleatly foot foundered and broken down . . ."
John Clare, when he wrote these words, was recalling a time when he had been between ayslums. That was in the summer of 1841. Escaping from High Beach, the private asylum in Epping Forest to which he had gone voluntarily a few years earlier, he had headed north, in the belief that Mary Joyce – his "phantom bride", Iain Sinclair has called her, "already buried in Glinton churchyard" – was waiting for him.
In Edge of the Orison, a book set in the "traces" of Clare's great journey, Sinclair described the poet as a man walking the "cusp of a final exile", between identities (the "Peasant Poet" lionized in London) as well as asylums. Bewildered as anyone would be who had, for some time, believed themselves to be Lord Byron, Clare wandered lonely roads, slept in ditches, lost his way ("the road very often looked as stupid as myself") and depended on strangers to throw him a penny so he could buy half a pint of beer.
When he eventually located Mary's parents, they had to tell him she had died in a fire. When he returned to his real wife and children, it quickly became clear that he needed help. Back to an asylum, then, this time in Northampton, where he would die twenty-three years later, in 1864.
It's just a little bit too late to do something good for John Clare, but some are treading in his comfortless path at the moment, and they need another kind of assistance: the actor Toby Jones, Iain Sinclair and the filmmaker Andrew Kötting, who has described Sinclair as an "immaculate geographer-confabulator" and is possibly, right now, for all I know, one step behind Jones, dressed as a straw bear that is also a "metaphor for 'otherness'".
To mark the sesquicentenary of Clare's death (a meaninglessly neat half-century before the birth of another, more luck-graced English poet of the road, Laurie Lee), Kötting & co are making By Our Selves, a film that promises to recreate, in its own brilliant, quizzed way, Clare's long walk, what he called his "Journey Out of Essex", in an eighty-mile journey of their own between Epping Forest and Helpston, where Clare was born. The production is well under way, but funds are needed – by the date on which the journey began, July 18 – so that By Our Selves can be "fully realized as an independent film". Donations are acceptable the Kickstarter way. And, in fact, even you're not in the penny- or pound-giving mood, follow that link just in order to watch the trailer, which features the three figures in the still reproduced above.
Many years ago, before my career in misfiling e-mails and hoarding too many books really took off, I worked in that part of the world, on the edge of Peterborough, in occupational therapy. Plenty of people passed through the hospital where I worked (I only worked in the day centre, and fairly ineffectually at that) in poor mental and physical health; I imagine barely any of them could have walked across town unassisted, let alone made it eighty miles north.
Despite having plenty of spare time, however, I never made it to Helpston. But it was around then that I learnt to agree with Edward Thomas (at least, I hope it's true), who said of Clare that "no one reads him but loves him", and quotes, towards the end of the relevant chapter in A Literary Pilgrim in England, a list of place names from one of the Asylum Poems: "Round Oak", "Sneap Green", "Puddock's Nook". These "were music to him", Thomas thought, "and become so to us".
And can become so still, apparently: a new study, Clare's Lyric by Stephanie Kuduk Weiner, suggests that certain later poets have turned to Clare to assist them in their own writing at significant moments in their writing lives. (A TLS review is forthcoming; for some reason, the thesis reminds me of Richard Ellmann's Eminent Domain, about Yeats and his influence on later writers, although I'm sure that there are actually plenty of differences between the two.) Here's hoping that others will turn to Clare in the future, and discover how, as he himself put it, "to cheat the sway / Of winter" in a "pleasant book". Or in a film, maybe. One that walks the cusp of a final exile.