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The English Fear of Cities and Europe: Patrick Keiller

By Andrew Stevens.

“Apart from his academic work, Robinson hardly ever leaves the flat except to go to the supermarket.”

The following took place as an email exchange with Patrick Keiller during lockdown in January 2021, having recently published his film London (1994) in essay-script format (FUEL, 2020).

3:AM: We discussed the narration for London as a possible book (given Robinson in Space) almost a decade or so ago now and also since, but where did the particular impetus come from in 2020?

PK: In March 2019, Damon Murray of FUEL got in touch, asking if I would be interested in adapting the film as a book. In 2010, I’d said that the main reason there’d never been a book based on London was that no one had ever asked me to produce one. One reason I’d never pursued it myself was because, at the time, it would have been quite difficult to obtain images from the film except as frames from the standard-definition telecine, which would have been only 720 x 576 pixels. The pictures in the book of Robinson in Space are similarly reduced, but one of the motives for that book had been to annotate the narration with a lot of factual and other material that there hadn’t been time for in the film, and I didn’t have that for London.

But in 2019, I was very pleased to receive FUEL’s invitation, as in 2017 the film’s 35mm negative had been scanned to make a 2K digital version for cinemas and streaming, after all the prints of the film had become too worn or damaged to remain in distribution. The BFI were interested too and provided me with a file from which I could extract individual HD frames. Scanned directly from the negative, these are perhaps even sharper than the original 35mm prints seen in cinemas. It’s always seemed to me that a large part of the film’s initial appeal for audiences, especially in London, was that it represented everyday surroundings in 35mm cinema. The book offers a way to expand this aspect of the film, as one can look at the images for longer, and hence in more detail.

I was also glad to have the opportunity to publish the narration, if only because it’s the fate of voice-over to be misheard or misremembered.

3:AM: In terms of the oft-misquoted narration, even Channel Four managed to blurb it incorrectly?

PK: I don’t think the narration has been quoted from all that often, but the sentence that most often has been quoted is probably: “Robinson believed that, if he looked at it hard enough, he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future.”

I had thought it might get a laugh, though if history can be considered in terms of physics, I should think it’ll be at a scale well below the molecular.

Anyway, I was alerted to a quote in which “the molecular basis of historical events” had become “the molecular basis of his own sorrowful events”, which is just awful! On enquiring, it turned out that the line had been copied from a web page Film Four had made for the film (Channel Four own or used to own the UK broadcast rights).

I was intrigued — a friend had once remarked that television is interested in emotion, not ideas and this seemed to prove the point.

I managed to get in touch with someone at Film Four who kindly corrected the mistake, and have been quoting the sentence myself ever since (hopefully correctly), most recently on a sort of website produced to accompany the publication of the book.

Another mishearing I’m aware of is in the English-language subtitles for the hard of hearing on the BFI’s DVD. When this was in preparation, I didn’t know that English subtitles would be included, but in any case, I imagine they’re produced by a skilled transcriber who types out the dialogue and some other details of the sound while listening to the film, so any offer of a script would probably have been just a nuisance. Towards the end of the film, Robinson is said to assert “that the failure of London was rooted in the English fear of cities, a Protestant fear of popery and socialism: the fear of Europe…” for which the subtitles offer instead “a Protestant fear of potpourri and socialism…” – which is perhaps an improvement. I’ve never checked the subtitles myself, but a few years ago someone referring to them while translating the narration into Japanese asked about the potpourri.

3:AM: I recall you’ve also said that there’s a mistaken belief on the part of some that Robinson’s sentiments in the film are that of your own, despite it being a work of fiction? For instance, when you spoke to Adam Scovell for his BFI interview a couple of years back, in response to such quoted lines (“the true identity of London is in its absence”) you state: “one of the possibilities offered by fiction is that fictional characters can make statements without their author knowing exactly what they mean.”

PK: I don’t know that there is such a belief, but I can imagine that there might be at least a suspicion. In the book, I’ve written that “the character Robinson was devised to enable the film to address ideas and thoughts one might entertain but would perhaps not wholeheartedly endorse”.

As for ‘absence’, I had a vague idea what he might mean, though on further reflection perhaps it can be inferred from his calling the City of London a “civic void” on the next-but-one page.

It might have been clearer if instead of ‘absence’, he had said ‘absences’ as when I wrote about the film later I managed to list quite a few: in addition to the “civic void”, there is the absence of the port – there’s a Port of London Authority, and London was then and is still the biggest port in the UK by tonnage of traffic, but where is it?* Then there are Herzen’s “absence of Continental diversions”; the absence of a credible London newspaper – it seemed to me that the Evening Standard was written for and read mostly by commuters on trains to dormitory towns and suburbs all over south-east England; the absence of metropolitan government, abolished in 1986; and, finally, that London was characterised by all this absence. When he said, in the next-but-one sentence, “London was the first metropolis to disappear”, I don’t suppose he meant that London was physically absent – that would be silly – but that it’s absent as an idea.

For me, too (I’m quoting myself), “notions of absence had been implicit in the project from its beginning”. The film’s initial intention was to identify what made London feel so different from mainland European capitals. I was conscious that this could be just another aspect of ‘Horror of Home’ until, about ten years later, I came across Adrian Rifkin’s article ‘Benjamin’s Paris, Freud’s Rome: Whose London?’† which seemed to identify something similar.

The book ends: “the film had set out to address this as a deficiency, but perhaps one can see it as something to be valued”.

It sounds from the above as if I really did know what he meant, though at the time I was quite hesitant. In any case, my employers liked the line, so I kept it in.

3:AM: Arguably the film does have an engaged audience, adherents even, and certain segments have had lasting resonance, particularly Robinson’s “no mitigating circumstances” soliloquy on the 1992 General Election result.  As Owen Hatherley noted in the New Left Review last year, it was “repeatedly shared on social media by the young London left” as some kind of cathartic ritual in 2015, 2017 and 2019.  As you wrote the dialogue after filming, were you particularly fired up about it at the time?

PK: I didn’t write the text until over a year later, so perhaps not.

The hours and days after the election, on the other hand, were quite intense. By about 3:00 a.m. it was clear who’d won, and when the scene in Smith Square came on the television, I thought I’d better get down there. I soon ran out of fast film stock, and at Downing Street the footage was photographed on daylight stock, much slower. Fortunately, the television lights were bright enough that it didn’t matter. What I thought were the best places in the press stand were already ‘booked’, with photographers’ stepladders chained to railings, but when Jacqui Timberlake – the film’s production manager – arrived at 6:00, she pointed out that we’d be much better off high up at the back – so the footage is largely thanks to her. I managed not to run out of stock, and had the presence of mind to pan to keep John and Norma Major in the frame as they went inside.

The footage is unlike most of the film in that it’s of a performance, mostly a speech, which would conventionally be audible. Writing the voice-over was hence a bit of a challenge, especially so long after the event – I hoped that by pursuing Robinson’s dejection as far as “he would die sooner” it might get laughs, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard any. In retrospect, I’m not convinced he would have been as surprised by the result as the narration suggests, and I wasn’t sure it was entirely fair to hold “the middle class in England’” responsible for Labour’s defeat, but it’s preferable to blaming people in Basildon – though Basildon is mentioned. Before the election, the camera’s presence outside the FT print works, beside the A13, had prompted anti-Kinnock comment from men in passing vans. Robinson’s predictions weren’t especially hyperbolic – much of the misery he itemised did come about.

3:AM: To a similar extent, to paraphrase Ford Madox Ford on Londoners, we all take what we require from the film and it’s actually Robinson’s stringent critique of the Tory government’s 1983 Streamlining the Cities white paper which holds my attention all these years on: “London,’ he says, ‘is a city under siege from a suburban government, which uses homelessness, pollution, crime, and the most expensive and run-down public transport system of any metropolitan city in Europe, as weapons against Londoners’ lingering desire for the freedoms of city life.” Again, I see your fair hand in this rather than fiction?

PK: The narration is usually prompted by the – mostly unplanned – pictures, already photographed and edited at the time of writing. The passage you quote above accompanies the Burghers of Calais – hence ‘siege’ – followed by a view of a bus waiting under one of the railway bridges at Vauxhall – hence ‘expensive and run-down public transport’, etc. The bus was one of the buy-ins that were gradually displacing the Routemaster – OMO (‘one-man-operated’) types with doors that controlled where one could get on or off, given to shuddering and lurches – hazardous for the elderly and anyone on the stairs! There’s an image of homeless people a little earlier, and the air quality at Vauxhall is notoriously poor. The passage sometimes prompted laughter.

As for Streamlining the Cities, the film appears to me to mourn the LCC rather more than the GLC. And as for ‘sub-urban’ (as I wrote it, and Paul pronounced it), this perhaps had something to do with my experience in the 1970s as an architect with a GLC-backed housing association with an address in SW9, a combination that rang loud alarm bells for residents and planning officers in the London Borough of Bromley, where the association had bought several sites. This was the borough that did for Livingstone’s ‘Fares Fair’ policy in 1981.

I must admit that I didn’t see any of this supposed polemic as particularly controversial, assuming that the film’s most likely audiences would agree with it. For me, the project was primarily an attempt to make convincing images of a city in which I’d previously found that difficult, hence my enthusiasm for making the current book.

3:AM: We discussed the seeming ubiquity of ‘psychogeography’ and your views on that last time, which has since given way to ‘edgelands’ writing preoccupying certain minds and keyboards. Your comments then managed to end up in the LRB and you later spoke of Guy Debord’s “techniques of urban wandering” as a direct influence on the film. At the same time, you’ve said that the film overlapped with the publication of the Richard Rogers and Labour MP and shadow arts minister Mark Fisher’s overlong Fabian pamphlet on what would now be termed ‘placemaking’, A New London?

PK: Like many others, in the 1970s I’d read The Society of the Spectacle and Christopher Gray’s anthology of SI writing Leaving the 20th Century, in which he describes the dérive and ‘psychogeography’, but the Situationist text that I identified with most enthusiastically was a brief passage from Gray’s translation of Chapter 23 of Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (originally Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations), that I’ve quoted repeatedly ever since. Knowing of the dérive certainly encouraged my earliest activities, but the cinematography for London didn’t involve very much spontaneous perambulation, and an identification with 1920s Surrealism was much more direct. I had been photographing examples of what I later came to call ‘found’ architecture for some time when I learned of the Surrealists’ co-option of comparably eccentric structures, at the time of the 1978 Hayward Gallery exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed. As I’ve written in the book, the working title of London was London, or A Feeling for Nature, the latter alternative borrowed from the second part of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant (Le Paysan de Paris), ‘A Feeling for Nature at the Buttes-Chaumont’.

I didn’t see Rogers and Fisher’s A New London until quite recently, just the BBC television programme they made at the time of its publication.

I see from the archived record that the programme was broadcast on 6 March 1992 – the general election was on 9 April – and that it was called Open Space: London – a Call for Action. Open Space was a ‘platform’ spot offered to community groups and others.

We were then in the early weeks of cinematography. As far as I can remember, it was hard to disagree with what they said. I must admit I was mainly concerned that the intervention of such prominent persons would render our film out-of-date before we’d finished it. Though I needn’t have worried, as it took us so long.

I must have read about the book in the architectural press, but had forgotten all about it when in 2017 I noticed it on a library shelf, and had a look.

The passage you quote from the back cover – “It no longer has a cohesive sense of identity. Its infrastructure has drastically declined. It is dirty, overcrowded, increasingly polarised between rich and poor, north and south” – is quite like opinions stated in our film. Rogers and Fisher also argue that London neglects the river, something one might infer from London. The difference is that they put forward proposals for what to do. Reading Rogers’s contribution now – it’s quite short, like an introduction (I haven’t read Fisher’s, which is longer and more detailed) – I found it easy to think that, with his unquestioning devotion to the spaces and values of European cities, he underestimated the scale of the ‘problem’. As Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote:

“Today’s urban landscape in Britain – the undistinguished modern architecture, the neglect of public services and amenities from the arts to transportation, the general seediness – is not an invention of Thatcherism alone but belongs to a longer pattern of capitalist development and the commodification of all social goods, just as the civic pride of Continental capitals owes as much to the traditions of burgher luxury and absolutist ostentation as to the values of modern urbanism and advanced welfare capitalism.”

On the other hand, it’s quite likely that much of the spatial amelioration – if one can put it like that – of London since 1992 – the recovery of the riverbank, the addition of a major gallery of contemporary art within sight of St Paul’s Cathedral, the redesign of Trafalgar Square, the Jubilee Line stations, etc., and the establishment of the mayor and the GLA – most of which was undertaken during the period of Labour government, was the result of a shift in attitudes in which Rogers and Fisher’s polemic was important.

Shortly before the 1997 general election, Rogers, then recently ennobled, presented an episode of BBC2’s Building Sights for which he’d selected the LCC’s landmark housing at Roehampton. Sadly, when Labour won, despite his efforts with the Urban Task Force and its Towards an Urban Renaissance, Labour conspicuously avoided reviving public sector housing.

In architectural history, by the way, it’s not such a long way from the Situationists’ ‘architectural interlude’ (see Tom McDonagh – mainly Constant’s New Babylon), via Archigram and Cedric Price, to Richard Rogers (the Centre Pompidou), nor even from the Situationist critique of the ‘modernist’ city to Towards an Urban Renaissance, with its quotation of Jane Jacobs.

Architecture does have a kind of autonomy, so that while buildings are nearly always commissioned by powerful institutions or individuals, they’re not necessarily determined by that forever (see, for example, the now-demolished Elephant and Castle shopping centre). Similarly, an architectural form proposed with radical experiential and political intent can be realised by those in power for quite different purposes (Fuller’s geodesic domes, for instance). If New Babylon can be said to resemble any then-existing building type, it’s probably an airport. Constant was very interested in airports. In a lecture at the time of the opening of new buildings at Schiphol, he argued “that the transitory spaces of airports were a precursor of the nomadic society of the near future” (Mark Wigley). Rogers’s practice has designed a lot of airports.

There’s more on most of this in The View from the Train (2013), particularly an essay ‘London in the Early 1990s’.

3:AM: You’ve since referred to “urban self-congratulation as a symptom of underlying problems” and London was certainly prone to that between 2000 (the year of the GLA’s first elections) and the Brexit vote, for instance, Boris and Cameron’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ and the like.  We’re also now seeing council bankruptcies, the likely demise of the City of London at the behest of other European banking centres (“the fear of redundancy in the air” on Bishopsgate again) and skyrocketing rents in the suburbs as inner London empties out.  Do you think “the problem of London” is returning or that it never really went away?

PK: We don’t know for sure what Robinson’s “problem of London” was, unless it was that he didn’t know either, so that when he managed to identify it as ‘absence’, it might have diminished. If it was merely that London didn’t feel like Paris or Berlin, then I don’t suppose it has diminished. In any case, he was soon exiled to Reading and the “problem of England”. For those who remained, London did become less provincial, though not always in a good way. And most of the real problems – London’s capture by ‘finance’, its housing predicament and many other physical inadequacies – have become much worse. As for the City, I don’t know how seriously its dominance in Europe is threatened – that seems too much to hope for.

3:AM: There’s a quote from an academic of the real-life University of Barking on how Robinson celebrates prefab council housing as much as he does Vaneigem. As well as the touching segment on the elderly couple in Elephant and Castle, they’re something you returned to in The Dilapidated Dwelling. As a housing form they were already unfashionable inside town halls by the time of London but since then they’ve been all but eradicated from our social housing stock?

PK: As the narrator of The Dilapidated Dwelling says: “Prefabs were popular, but they didn’t catch on” – popular, that is, with tenants, or at least with tenants who liked a small detached house with a garden enough to continue living in them, sometimes for several decades. If they didn’t catch on in town halls (although I read that ARCONs were still being delivered in 1964), I imagine this was because the original intention was that they’d be temporary, and perhaps because they were a fairly low-density form of housing. Meanwhile, in the UK’s private sector, as Martin Pawley pointed out in the film, volume housebuilders have had little or no interest in producing houses faster and more cheaply – “We only build them as fast as we can sell them,” as one put it to me – or in improving their performance. They mainly compete, not with each other, but with the much greater stock of already-existing houses, and – as Toby Lloyd has set out very clearly – what they do is determined largely by how much they have to pay, or have already paid, for land (see also here).

The LCC ‘mobile homes’ produced in the 1960s – like the one in London – and the post-war prefabs, with their more glamorous aeronautical connotation – some were made in former aircraft factories with material salvaged from warplanes – were just two attempts to modernise house production. The Dilapidated Dwelling cites several others, and some antecedents – 15th-century timber-frame farmhouses; a timber-frame house prefabricated in a Hampshire boatyard in 1795, erected on its site in sixteen hours; a 1920s Boulton & Paul timber bungalow; Buckminster Fuller’s 1929 Dymaxion proposal; AIROH and ARCON prefabs; Fuller’s post-war Wichita House; the Eames Case Study house; Walter Segal’s timber framing method; Toyota and other factory-built houses. Some of these – the prefabs, Toyota – involve the assembly of large factory-built sections, already fitted out, brought to site by road; others are on-site assemblies of readily available components – Eames – or, better still, linear and sheet materials in stock sizes – as by Segal, who designed his first house of this kind to live in while his family’s permanent house was being rebuilt, after which the ’temporary’ house was to be dismantled and the materials reused.

These technologies all avoid or minimise the ‘wet trades’ (pouring concrete, bricklaying, plastering, etc.) that make building such a messy, expensive ordeal, with materials that can only be dismantled as rubble. Many raise the house slightly off the ground, and some avoid the need for excavated foundations – the frame of Segal’s ‘temporary’ house rested on paving slabs laid on the soil.

3:AM: How aware are you of the film’s influence on others? I’m thinking here the ‘London Trilogy’ of the band Saint Etienne, who have acknowledged it on many occasions, though they also claim to have eschewed your “capital P” political slant.

PK: Yes – I heard about that, and about twenty years ago, gallery curators kept telling me about Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, and that they’d been ‘influenced’ by London. I didn’t really know what to say.

* According to the Department of Transport, in 2019, London’s total traffic was 54.0 million tonnes, slightly less than the combined traffic of Grimsby and Immingham (treated as a single port for statistical purposes), 54.1 million tonnes.
† Art History 22.4, November 1999, 619-632, reprinted in Communards and Other Cultural Histories: Essays by Adrian Rifkin (2017).

Images: Patrick Keiller’s film London is released on DVD (together with Robinson in Space) by the BFI and is available from the BFI Shop.  The book London (FUEL, 2020) is also available.

Andrew Stevens is an associate editor of 3:AM and lives in East London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 28th, 2021.