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The Future of Landscape: Patrick Wright

Interview by Andrew Stevens.

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3:AM: A Journey Through Ruins: the Last Days of London was published in the early 1990s and takes as its vista the effects of Thatcherism on East London, with some commonality as you allude to with Iain Sinclair‘s Downriver. However, with what’s happened under New Labour having a more mixed effect on East London since, do you need feel compelled to perhaps update or revisit it somehow?

PW: A Journey Through Ruins was written, in a rather fragmented way, between 1985 and 1991. The book was, I suppose, concerned with measuring the ‘effects’ of Thatcherism on East London, but I was also using the often apparently ephemeral details of the locality in which I then lived as a prism through which to view wider developments in the national culture, and also to probe the ways in which the so-called post-war settlement and the welfare state were being undone. I was writing half a century after the blitz, and the various commemorations going on at that time encouraged me to adopt that half-century as the vertical span of the book. That came out in 1991, at a time when the idea of a book sourced in London experience seemed far from enticing – not least in parts of the country where ‘London’ was seen as the epicentre of Thatcherism. Nevertheless, when I came to prepare the new edition, published last year, there was no question of reopening the text or of revising it to address more recent transformations or developments. The book belonged in its time, and I was concerned to leave it there. It was OK to write an introduction, and to append a few of the pieces that I had gone on to write in the following few years. But that was it. The only piece of unfinished business that I have completed more recently, is my essay about Emanuel Litvinoff. I wrote the first version of this while still living in Dalston, but I only finalised it a couple of years ago when Emanuel asked me if I would write an introduction for the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Journey Through a Small Planet, his book about the Jewish East End, which came out in 2008. I had that book in mind when writing A Journey Through Ruins, although I still had no idea of Litvinoff’s wider trajectory. But it is a long time ago, and I moved out of London shortly after it was published.

3:AM: Your first collaboration with Patrick Keiller, if I am correct, was in the book of Robinson in Space, where you sit in conversation with him.

PW: I guess Patrick first came my way because we shared some interests – heritage as a rising theme, the street as a source of investigation rather than just a thoroughfare, the use of architecture to project or disguise various political and economic agendas, the idea of ‘ruin’ as a present dynamic within cities rather than a picturesque clutter of old castles et cetera. So we had the ‘conversation’ you mention, taped as I recall by Michael Leaman in the office of Reaktion Books, and then edited and probably over-written too. I recall our discussion of Issigoni, the Mini and the Morris Metro, and the fact that Tony Blair drove into Downing Street in a Montego Estate with a missing hubcap. That, surely, was our charming moment. I remember seeing Blair a few days before his triumph in 1997. I walked past his house late one evening in Islington, and glanced in through a basement window to see him sitting forward on the edge of a chair, chin in hand, staring at a television screen on which, I assume, Newsnight was playing… I couldn’t see the screen, but I think he must have been watching election coverage, perhaps even reportage of his own performance that day. His concentration seemed a little scary… I guess he already knew that the image was going to be the main reality.

3:AM: You mention Blair in Islington, his mark being stamped firmly on the branded politics of that borough during the New Labour ascendancy, as if to somehow distinguish it from the malaise of Hackney of that era, Trottergate and the contamination of the Labour brand (as he saw it) through the antics of the “loony left”. With A Journey Through Ruins, did you have a determined zone of enquiry for the book or did it just unfold as you embarked on that particular journey?

PW: I was trying to understand the present. I was writing about the current cultural and political fix, and trying to understand it in its recent historical context. Figuring out what the Thatcher governments were doing meant coming to terms with the shape of things in Britain since 1945, and in particular with the ways in which the failure of the so-called post-war settlement had remained to shape the present. I was also doing this with certain themes in mind – not the least of which was the ways in which ideas of history and nationhood were working in the present. To begin with, I thought that the story of the expropriated and militarised landscape at Tyneham, which became the subject of my later book The Village that Died for England, would serve to introduce some of the material I was finding in East London: I thought the Tyneham story was largely a matter of the post-war period – a story of Churchill’s promise of national restitution betrayed by the Labour government of 1945. That was indeed part of it, but I soon realised that the Dorset material demanded a fuller exploration. So I ended up with two territories and two different books, although both are focused around minor stretches of road, and they also have a lot of thematic material in common. The method in both cases was pretty happenstance. I was working in other fields at the time, so tended to proceed by adopting a limited site or phenomenom and exploring it in whatever time I could find. I also used various journalistic commissions as a way of opening up investigations I would then take further or return to. As for the idea of organising it around a small stretch of Dalston Lane, that actually came late. The first chapters, in which that street figures largely, were the last to be written.

3:AM: Similarly, I saw you speak alongside Iain Sinclair at the LSE last year, about his Hackney book. To what extent has to the fiction of the East End, to this present day, had any bearing on your own work?

PW: Iain and I worked together – or at least walked together – during the months when I was writing A Journey Through Ruins and he was writing Downriver. We shared a series of locations, and also an impatience with the way London was configured in the prevailing literary outlook of that time. I was not all that aware of the older literature of the East End before I started. I knew some of the classic 19th century stuff, but I was only beginning to read the writing of the Jewish East End, which is why my account of Emanuel Litvinoff and his project remained unfinished when I left Hackney in 1992.

I was amused by your description of me as a ‘solid historian’, in one of your questions to Patrick Keiller. I don’t feel very ‘solid’ at all. I don’t have any formal qualifications as a ‘historian’, not even an ancient ‘O level’, and my engagement with historical materials arose out of a different necessity. My student years were all (mis)spent in literature departments, and I’ve gone on to try to write a critical prose that finds its shape and emphasis in response to the realities it engages. When I was writing A Journey Through Ruins, I thought of this as a kind of applied ‘poetics’. Living in Vancouver in the 1970s I had studied with the poet Robin Blaser, and I identify closely with Brian Fawcett’s description of what was to be learned from that source: “I learned”, he writes in a recent memoir, “that real thinking and writing is more about orchestration of materials than creativity. Your task, whether as a poet or novelist or scholar or union researcher or urban planner, is to integrate your own intelligence with the active intelligence around you to enhance articulation. You are not here to impose your signature on a set of materials, raw or cooked, human or inanimate. You are here to discover both their essential and detailed truth, and to then put both into action politically and personally”. Poetics then, but not as a matter of individualised lyricism, and not as the hermetically guarded preserve of a tiny circle of literary narcissists either. That, I hope, is also the way in which I became engaged with questions of memory, causality, continuity and discontinuity. I’m interested in what François Hartog (who really is, I guess, a pretty solid historian) has called ‘historicity’ – the way the past is inscribed in the present, and also the changing ways in which people in various times and situations think of their own participation in the historical process. I use archives a lot, but I don’t go to them only as a source of evidence: sometimes, indeed, they seem to work best as surreal alienation devices – a way of thickening things up a bit and of reintroducing confusion and complexity to an oversimplified if not entirely depleted and amnesiac public culture. I start investigations without knowing where they will lead, and because I have identified something in the present that seems to demand excavation and a new contextualisation. I get a hunch something needs to be understood differently, and try to set off not in search of proof for already established ideas, or even in pursuit of confirmation and certainty, but with the aim of reconfiguring my own presently inadequate understanding. It is fine by me if the books that follow are more like exposed quarries than drive-through summaries of the kind to which some trade publishers and media-minded historians might aspire. I suspect archaeology is a more appropriate model for this kind of work than history. I was interested to see how similar this is to the way Patrick Keiller works. Rather than preparing a script and then going out and shooting it, he went out and shot the film, and then came back to discover the story in the images he had made.

(Stan Persky & Brian Fawcett, Robin Blaser, Vancouver: New Star Books, 2010, 78.)

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3:AM: During the 1990s you wrote extensively on British military history, such your books on Tyneham (The Village that Died for England, 1995) and Tank: the Progress of a Monstrous War Machine (2000). Were these, as you say, simply of that time, as you’ve not written about it much since?

PW: While I make no claims to any status as a military historian, I don’t know how you can understand contemporary realities without coming up against military considerations. As you suggest, I first thought about the tank when writing about the collision between State and Nation that took place on those contested acres in Dorset. I was already looking into that story when Tiananmen Square went up in 1989 – a convulsion that coincided, more or less, with the appearance of a First World War tank in front of the British Museum in London: a restored metal box named ‘Flirt 2’, as I recall, and displayed by the National Heritage Memorial Committee under the arresting slogan ‘Treasures for the Nation’. Seeing that instantly globalized footage of a man standing in front of a column of tanks in Beijing persuaded me that there were things to be said about the tank that I was not going to be able to deal with in a book whose explorations were confined to a few thousand acres in Dorset. So the tank book unfolded from The Village that Died for England. I opened it with the famous Tiananmen Square image, which served as the basis for the entire enquiry. What is the compact between symbolism and technology in that machine? That was the question on my mind. It was obviously active in 1989, but I was interested to find that the cultural components of the tank could be traced back to the very beginning, when the earliest such machines were constructed for use on the Western Front. I don’t regret writing that book, or pissing off either the military historians – primarily John Keegan – who thought the ‘cultural’ dimension quite irrelevant to the real history of the tank (sweeping arrows on battlefield maps etc.), or the sprocket-counting hardware freaks who, not unreasonably, perceived the book as a work of vandalism. At the same time, however, I had nothing to offer the American publisher who thought I might like to spend the rest of my days proceeding from Tank to Plane to Submarine.

3:AM: You’re currently working on the ‘The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image’ with Patrick Keiller and Doreen Massey. Keiller was once an architecture lecturer, Massey a geography professor, while you teach history. Was the project assembled as an interesting academic coalition of architecture, geography and history?

PW: I don’t think Patrick was anything like so tidy, and the disciplines are surely all falling apart, or merging into one another, anyway. I think Patrick pulled together some people he thought he could work with, and which might perhaps also draw funding. We are different, but have a certain background in common. We were also aware of each other’s projects, and intrigued by the idea of having a more systematic conversation. So that is what the four of us did. Nobody suggested that we should collaborate on a single outcome, even less try to lean over Patrick’s shoulder and tell him what to do in his film. I think we played with the idea of sharing some locations, but that didn’t really happen as things went ahead – certainly, we never conducted anything resembling a collective site visit while the film was being made. What we did do, in the end, is explore a number of common preoccupations. We had a lot of discussions, many of them prompted by viewing sequences of film…

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In late 2009, I was in a position to pursue some of our preoccupations further with a group of students at the Architectural Association in London, so I can recall them from that context too. We talked about space, and particularly the way in which ideas of the horizontal and vertical have been articulated in various cultural and political contexts during the modern period. This was partly about rootedness as distinct from mobility, and also about the modern state and its often military encroachment on the old supposedly ‘organic’ geography of the nation. For me this was to revisit the territory of the early Iron Curtain, which was brought down on the world not in 1946, as the Churchillian legend has it, but in 1919/20: in that context, the horizontal was associated with international progressivism, and the vertical (the ‘curtain’) with the State and its technologically boosted habits of warfare, censorship, propaganda etc. We discussed locality, and the extent to which grounded models of life are being challenged by horizontally aligned ideas of mobility and cultural diversity. We considered British examples, but we also looked at the recent use of horizontalism as a metaphor of grass-roots activism in Argentina. We talked about Melancholia, and its ongoing rebirth: an archaic mental/spiritual condition which has become a modern mode of thought: a matter of things ‘disaffected’ and seen out of their customary context (Victor Hugo via Rancière), and a critical perspective much used in contemporary urban environments – not least in Patrick Keiller’s earlier films. We talked about Potemkinism, the traditions of facadism and the disappearance of the outside in media perceptions.

Some of the issues that are addressed in Patrick’s film also turn up in my new book Passport to Peking, albeit as found in the perception of British visitors to China in the 1950s. Others, including Speenhamland and the consequences of the old Poor Law, are taken up in things I’m still writing about England. So it has been a very interesting project, and I hope only the start of a conversation that we will all finds ways to continue.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 9th, 2010.