John Clare and the remnants of the fairy days
By MICHAEL CAINES
Here's a gladdening thought: By Our Selves, Andrew Kötting's "abstract documentary" about the poet John Clare and his "Journey out of Essex", is out today. I blogged about this film last year, when it was in production but also in need of crowd-funding. Quite rightly, the crowd helped out – so here it is . . . .
By Our Selves has shifted in shape over the past year – I saw a mesmerizing live version at the Battersea Arts Centre, some time before the great fire that consumed that particular part of the building, with a wild dance courtesy of that straw bear, and the woods somersaulting deliriously on screen.
Yet the film is what it promised to be last summer: a quietly humorous, sometimes disquietingly giddy memorial in monochrome to that uncertain post-asylum progress of July 1841, with a befuddled soundtrack and an equally befuddled Toby Jones as Clare (a part also played by Jones's father Freddie, in a more conventional Omnibus documentary in 1970). We watch as Clare meanders softly through the woods, patched at the elbows, gypsy-abandoned hat in hand. He stops near roaring roads. A merry and thoroughly modern band tread the same path. The straw bear bemuses passers-by in Peterborough.
Interspersed interviews, with Moore and others, suggest how that hapless journey home continues to fire people's imaginations, not least because it was so evocatively recorded by Clare himself. "I thought as I awoke somebody said 'Mary' but nobody was near", he recalled. "I lay down with my head towards the north to show myself the steering point in the morning." Hunger and confusion take over:
"I sat down half an hour and made a good many wishes for breakfast but wishes was no hearty meal so I got up as hungry as I sat down – I forget here the names of the villages I passed through . . . ."
As the filmmakers candidly admit, By Our Selves might be around, on limited release, for a week only – so catch it while you can. This may be your only chance, as pictured above, to see a film starring Alan Moore, a straw bear, the singer MacGillivray (ghosting the part of Clare's dead lover Mary) and a sometime TLS contributor, Iain Sinclair, in a goat mask.
The poetry, meanwhile, will wait for you. Is he still an underrated writer? Surely not . . . but as a modest beginning, if you've not read Clare before, here are fourteen lines that John Fuller thought fit to stand opposite Shelley's "Ozymandias" in the Oxford Book of Sonnets. And for another conjuration of Clare's wandering spirit, see Anthony Hecht's "Coming Home", another creative response to the "Journey out of Essex", first published in the TLS in 1976.
What wonder strikes the curious while he views
The black ants' city by a rotten tree
Or woodland bank. In ignorance we muse,
Pausing, amazed. We know not what we see,
Such government and order there to be:
Some looking on and urging some to toil,
Dragging their loads of bent stalks slavishly,
And what's more wonderful, big loads that foil
One ant or two to carry quickly; then
A swarm flocks round to help their fellow men.
Surely they speak a language whisperingly,
Too fine for us to hear, and sure their ways
Prove they have kings and laws, and them to be
Deformѐd remnants of the fairy days.