In 1841, the poet John Clare (Toby Jones), having no money to speak of, embarked upon a journey he had to undertake on foot as he had no transport either other than Shanks’s pony. He had been held in a mental asylum for some time as his mind had deteriorated, but he felt the need to go to Northampton to meet with the love of his life, Mary Joyce, the problem with that being she had been dead for months. Undeterred, he began his trip in Epping Forest and took in the natural world as he could discern it in his confused state, recording his thoughts along the way as the sound of the trees and birds dominated his experiences…
By Our Selves was another example of the British avant garde filmmaker Andrew Kotting taking a subject that interested him by the scruff of the neck and shaking it until he had drawn everything he wanted from it out onto the screen. In this case it was a mixture of documentary and historical recreation, accompanied by a specifically English quality that dived into the mystical aspects of life in a way that is hinted we have left behind to some extent in the modern world, but remain in the background nevertheless. The BBC had dramatized Clare’s walk back in a programme in their arts strand Omnibus, and that had starred Toby Jones’ father Freddie Jones.
He appeared in this as well, reading from Clare’s observations about the journey almost as a mentor to his son, who was filmed trudging along the route which it really did look as if the actor undertook, though presumably Kotting allowed him a drive to the right locations. As well as Jones, there were a band of travelling players, or so it seemed, who popped up on the excursion, including a “straw bear”, that was a man dressed entirely in straw as some kind of pagan figure, and as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Kotting’s daughter Eden for reasons remaining somewhat obscure. She was a disabled woman first seen as a little girl in his nineties documentary Gallivant, and had become a sort of emblem in his work.
But quite what she was doing in the story of John Clare was not immediately apparent, though Kotting was very much having his own way with that historical account, along with Iain Sinclair who acted as a co-creator and interviewed people who entertained specialist knowledge of the subject, including inevitably when Northampton was discussed, the comics writing legend Alan Moore who had a strong connection to the region and believed it had spiritual and arcane qualities. The impression was the filmmakers agreed and were attempting to bring out that in their work, though Moore brought up a few nuggets of factual interest as he was wont to do, such as the asylum there once housed the likes of Dusty Springfield and Patrick McGoohan.
Also intereviewed was an academic whose area of interest was Clare’s writings and life, who was dressed as a boxer for no other reason than the poet thought one of his personalities was one such sportsman, and Freddie Jones was given a couple of minutes at the end to reflect on the matter, but quite a lot of this was simply abstract images of Toby Jones wandering around in a daze, contemplating the environment as the words of Clare’s poetry and record of his journey were read out over them. Although there was a sense of tapping into the mystery of the land and the outlook of someone who sees it though the filter of their insanity somehow discerning more than someone who was perfectly level-headed, there were occasions when By Our Selves came across as rather silly, as if the essential elements Kotting was grasping for were a little out of reach. On the other hand, you may agree that may he was perfectly fine with that, for there was intentional humour here too if you allowed it. It more or less succeeded in its obstinately off-kilter fashion. Music by Jem Finer.