:: Article

Like a Grunge Keiller

By John Rogers.

I first met Paul Kelly and Bob Stanley after a screening of their film Finisterre in 2005, recently released on a BFI DVD, A London Trilogy. I approached them in the foyer of the ICA enthusiastically thrusting forward my treasured copy of Gordon S. Maxwell’s 1925 ‘ramble book’, The Fringe of London. I’d been nurturing the theory that Maxwell’s lost classic was the missing link in the topographical tradition connecting the romantic walkers and flâneurs to the modern trend in neo-psychogeography, and had bothered all the usual suspects with my grand idea drawing a blank on each occasion. Paul and Bob similarly had never heard of Maxwell or the book and compensated by handing me a copy of the Finisterre DVD.

My hope that they had also discovered Maxwell was prompted by the unseen narrator of Finisterre declaring the nature of his project as we see Bob Stanley in a greasy spoon flicking through the pages of The London Nobody Knows and Nairn’s London, “to encourage an appreciation of the unlooked for pleasures. To create an enthusiasm for the neglected or undervalued.” A sentiment similar to that expressed some years before by Gordon S. Maxwell. It was with the idea of updating the London topographical tradition that I embarked on the journeys that became my book, This Other London – Adventures in the Overlooked City.

Saint Etienne’s album So Tough was recorded the same year that Patrick Keiller shot his seminal film London — 1992. The album and the film forever linked in my mind via navigating those painful final years of Tory misrule from a Hackney squat, So Tough spinning on the turntable. The album provided a sweet pop soundtrack to the Fletcher-esque world of rainy caffs on a ‘Kentish Town, Tuesday’ in Black Wednesday era London. The songs were interrupted with snatches of dialogue from post-war kitchen sink dramas set in a punch-drunk pre-swinging city. The coming together of a Saint Etienne soundtrack with Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans’ Keiller-inspired essay film was the perfect marriage, more of personal topography of London entered via a dawn train from Croydon than the ‘state of the city’ film essay that Keiller achieved. The film and music in Finisterre construct a palimpsest of the capital in 2003 much as Keiller’s film captured ’92.

I’d been documenting my walks round London with a cheap camcorder at the time of the Finisterre screening, and uploading them to a new site called YouTube. I’d sent a copy of crudely-edited footage of a walk I’d done with ‘deep topographer’ Nick Papadimitriou to Iain Sinclair, which Sinclair had flatteringly described as “grunge Keiller” in a letter that I have framed on my box room wall next to the One Inch Ordnance Survey map punctured with pins marking the 10 This Other London treks.

It’d struck me that Paul Kelly had shot the whole of Finisterre on a Sony PD150 (a factoid included at the back of the London Trilogy booklet) a camera as symbolic to indie doc-makers of the time as the AK47 is to armed revolutionaries. He’d squeezed more out that workhouse video camera than I’d seen most film-makers capture on 16mm film. It highlighted that you didn’t need a six-figure budget to make a film. Three years later I got my hands on a PD150, and inspired by both Kelly’s example and Sinclair’s ‘grunge Keiller’ tag-line set out to make my own London documentary – The London Perambulator.

However rewarding the experience, in a way film-making proved a distraction from the project I had bubbling away inside, rolling around in my walking boots like a stone — to write a 21st century ramble book — to perhaps unify the English topographical tradition. The road to This Other London took a final detour via a series of radio shows I made with Nick Papadimitriou for Resonance fm, ‘Ventures and Adventures in Topography’ that retraced the steps of Maxwell and various other topographical writers of the inter-war years such as SPB Mais, Pathfinder, and James Bone.

But even at the end of two series of the radio show I was able to flick through a 1975 Atlas of Greater London and fall on pages as exotic and foreign to me as imagined maps of pre-flood Atlantis. First I set out for Highwayman’s Heath in Hounslow — subject of one of Gordon S. Maxwell’s books and evocatively described in Walter George Bell’s Where London Sleeps. Next I embarked in search of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Bec Phu’, the name given to Beckton by the crew who served the equivalent of two Vietnam tours of duty filming Full Metal Jacket on the site of the condemned gasworks. Taking a brief hiatus along the way to Beckton on the pedestrian highway of the covered Southern Outfall sewer I’d caught a glimpse of the dark wooded ridge on Bostal Heath and departed for a Walden-like wilderness experience in Abbey Woods then continued on the road to Erith Pier and the Dartford Salt Marshes.

I deliberately turned away from the 2012 Olympics and slipped back through time to the 1948 Austerity Games at Herne Hill Velodrome approached after hill walking across the Norwood Ridge and Dawson’s Heights ending up in the dreamscapes of Walter Benjamin amongst Brixton’s arcades. Following an ancient trackway from Sudbury Hill to Hanwell I plunged into a land of legend and mystery and crossed paths with a thinly-fictionalized version of myself that had appeared in Will Self’s Walking to Hollywood in which he’d recounted the experience of being filmed by me walking with Nick Papadimitriou for the London Perambulator and described my ‘character’ walking away over Horsenden Hill.

The journeys ended serendipitously enough around the time of the release of A London Trilogy and as I find myself editing video from the walks, boiling the four hours of footage down to a Twitter-friendly 80 second package to accompany the publication of the book. Naturally as I do this I have to fight the impulse to hold the shot so the train can fully pass over the Warnecliffe Viaduct at sunset on Remembrance Sunday last year. Or allow the river barge to round Erith Rands to Anchor Bay. My footage hastily grabbed with a pocket camera on the hoof is completely at odds with the beautifully composed shots that charactise all of the London Trilogy films, Kelly’s stylish, languid long takes inviting the viewer to enter the frame. I look at my shot of the group of wassailers I’d joined on Twelfth Night walking along the edge of Leyton Marshes and think of how Kelly and Saint Etienne brilliantly and fortuitously documented the lower Lea Valley just before the point of its transition from a prized backwater to Olympic Circus in their follow-up to Finisterre, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, and an accompanying short Seven Summers.

Mervyn Day has a more poetic tilt than the other features on the disc – a eulogy for a hidden post-industrial wilderness. When I moved east to Leytonstone I bonded with my new home by organizing a screening in my local pub of Mervyn Day alongside Leytonstone film-maker John Smith’s The Black Tower and Blight, and fellow Leytonstonian Ian Bourn’s Black, White & Green – The Way of Pie – shot in the pie and mash shop at Harrow Green. In retrospect I should have included Paul Kelly’s ode to the classic caff, Today’s Special, an extra on the DVD and worth the purchase price on its own.

The journeys on A London Trilogy move from the outskirts of the city in Croydon around the central zone of Soho, Islington, Barbican drifting east through Shoreditch and Hackney, the Wick and Bow and back west to the South Bank. It’s a kind of reversal of my own journey in This Other London, only occasionally dropping back in on old stomping grounds around Saffron Hill, the Pen Ton, and Holloway, but ultimately continually being drawn out to fringes of London where inevitably there are traces of the urban ramblers who had been there before guiding the way.

John Rogers is director of the documentaries The London Perambulator (2009) and Make Your Own Damn Art (2012), and author of This Other London – Adventures in the Overlooked City (2013).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 10th, 2013.