Boxing John Clare: Literature professor in new film about the poet

Thursday, 01 October 2015

By Our Selves

A film about England’s most significant poet of the natural world, John Clare (1793-1864), featuring an Oxford Brookes academic, is released in cinemas this week.

The 83 minute feature By Our Selves is the culmination of a collaborative art and performance project led by award-winning filmmaker and artist Andrew Kötting (Gallivant, This Filthy Earth, Ivul). It was filmed in part, on the University’s Headington Campus and features Oxford Brookes Professor of English Literature Simon Kövesi.

What Andrew has made out of all of this creative, collaborative chaos is magnificent. The way he folds Toby and Freddie Jones into one another as Clare – young and old – is incredibly moving.

Prof Simon Kovesi, Head of Department of English and Modern Languages, Oxford Brookes University

By Our Selves, which has been given a four-star rating by Time Out magazine, follows Clare’s desperate escape from an asylum in Epping Forest in the summer of 1841 to his home 80 miles away in Helpston, Cambridgeshire.

Simon, who has a long-standing research interest in Clare, appears in By Our Selves as an academic/boxer, fighting a straw bear. Simon explains how this came about: “Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair presented early rushes of their film at a conference I ran at Brookes last year. By way of thanks, I sent them some books and articles, all about Clare in 1841 and his obsession at that time with Byron and boxing. A few months after that, I ended up being filmed in a boxing gown, covered in plastic flowers, fighting a bear.

A scene from By Our Selves

“My bit aside, Andrew’s film conveys a rich sense of Clare’s tactile understanding of the natural world, and the brutal qualities of the countless intrusions of modernity into the landscape, against which Clare was the first poet to protest.

“The mysterious relationship Clare has with the straw bear – played by the director – is Beckettian in its absurdity yet somehow speaks to Clare’s persistent desire for community and love – with animals, nature, and women. The bear also embodies Clare’s blank loneliness in 1841. When the bear danced at Brookes, and sprayed straw all over our new lecture theatre, I thought Clare might want to punch it as a boxer. So that’s what I end up doing in the film. What Andrew has made out of all of this creative, collaborative chaos is magnificent. The way he folds Toby and Freddie Jones into one another as Clare – young and old – is incredibly moving.”

By Our Selves stars Toby Jones (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Berberian Sound Studio, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and his father Freddie Jones (The Elephant Man, Dune, Wild at Heart) as Clare at various stages of life; Freddie Jones last played Clare in a 1970 BBC TV drama-documentary about the poet.

Scene from By Our Selves

The poet’s long-lost love Mary Joyce is played by poet and performance artist MacGillivray and music is by sound artist Jem Finer (formerly of The Pogues), with the dancing and drumming of David Aylward (drummer in Blurt). The film features graphic novelist Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) and writer Iain Sinclair (London Orbital, Ghost Milk), whose book about Clare, Edge of the Orison (2005), was the inspiration for the film. All of these contributors have written pieces for a fully-illustrated book of the film, By Our Selves (badbloodsibyl, 2015), which is launched at the Bloomsbury Festival in London on 23 October.

At the FID documentary festival in Marseille in July, By Our Selves received the ‘Mention Speciale’ in the international documentary competition. It is officially released by Soda Pictures on Friday 2 October. Cinema listings can be found on the Soda Pictures website.

The trailer for the film can be viewed below.

Information about courses in English Literature, Drama, Languages and Postgraduate Creative Writing and English can be found on the Department of English and Modern Languages webpages.