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‘A bridge between imagination and reality must be built . . .’: landscapes and politics in the films of Patrick Keiller

Simon Grimble

What does England look like to us now? What are the powerful contemporary works of art that inform our understanding of this overdescribed landscape? Or perhaps it’s like looking at something that nobody would want to describe anymore — buildings and fields and roads are just there, untouched or unglamourised by anything that could be called imagination. But, as Wallace Stevens said, ‘the absence of the imagination had/Itself to be imagined’. So, it is down to us, then: if we find this world blank and unresponsive, it is because — for whatever historical and psychological reasons — we imagined it that way. Could we imagine it differently if we took that blankness seriously, if we hunted the landscape down to make sure that there isn’t a key that would help us to see that landscape transformed? If we exhausted all the possibilities? The last ten years or so in England have seen some such attempts, attempts to stare at this world with ‘autistic steadiness’.[1] This essay will think about one such, that of the filmmaker Patrick Keiller, and will ask where he leaves his audience; in the same place, now viewed in all its stolidity, or somewhere else.

The focus is on Keiller’s two films of the mid-nineties, London and Robinson in Space, released, in turn, in 1994 and 1997. The films tell the story of a series of journeys undertaken by a man called Robinson and an unnamed companion who acts as the films’ narrator. This narrator is played with a sometimes camp, sometimes mordant irony, by Paul Schofield, the classical actor, perhaps best known for his portrayal of King Lear in Peter Brook’s absurdist film version of 1969. London is set in 1992, and opens with the return of the narrator to England after serving for the symbolic period of seven years as a photographer on a cruise ship. His friendship with Robinson is resumed and the film describes three walks, or rather ‘expeditions’, and other excursions taken by this pair (part Dante and Virgil, part Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, part Vladimir and Estragon), as Robinson, intellectual, autodidact, sometime continental flâneur and part-time lecturer in the School of Fine Art and Architecture at the University of Barking, decides that ‘we should get out more’, and re-establishes his investigations of ‘the problem of London.'[2] A problem, it emerges, like the city: vast, obscure, inscrutable. In passing the film documents the political history of 1992, beginning with IRA bombs in February, moving through the impossible but all too actual re-election of the Conservative Government in April, the march in support of the miners in October, before ending on Bonfire Night, where fire comes after the Day of the Dead. We move from a cold spring to a dead winter.

Robinson in Space continues their story in 1995: Robinson has been dismissed from his university position, fallen into a deep depression, and is now recuperating whilst living in Reading in Berkshire, where he teaches at a language school. His situation is still not a happy one, despite being drawn to Reading because of its connections with Rimbaud, who once taught French in the town: ‘Robinson was very excited by this and the other literary associations of the town, which he praised with a euphoria reminiscent of that of Nietzsche for Turin, so much so that that I was concerned for his well-being and the extent of his commitment to the derangement of the senses.'[3] But Robinson’s researches into London have been noted by an international advertising agency, and he is commissioned to ‘undertake a peripatetic study of the problem of England. He accepted the offer with alacrity and insisted that I join him as a researcher.’ They embark on seven journeys through England, in imitation of Daniel Defoe’s Tour Thro The Whole Island of Great Britain of 1724-7, which had been based on Defoe’s travels as a spy for the government minister, Robert Harley, during the reign of Queen Anne. Robinson, too, ‘had once told me that he wished to become a spy, but [he] was not sure who to approach’. Robinson, towards the end of their journeys, begins to act increasingly strangely, and, near Newcastle, ‘without warning, we were told, that our contracts had been terminated, and we heard on the car radio that a Tornado had crashed in the North Sea . . .’ The film ends: ‘I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his utopia’: as in, either the narrator doesn’t know, or he isn’t saying.

The formal aspects of the films are idiosyncratic. In both, the characters are never seen, and — apart from the exception of one scene — the camera (a lightweight Eclair Cameflex, used by the French New Wave) does not move during each shot; it is merely pointed at the view or vista which it is witnessing, and left; there are no panning or tracking shots, and so it is only the cut from that scene to the next which enables the audience to see something else. What is seen is both fractured and static: Robinson and the narrator undertake their expeditions but, in another sense, nobody is going anywhere. Most shots, especially in London are empty of people altogether, and so we feel the city to be strangely abandoned, vacated, evacuated. This is particularly because of the way in which sound is used in the films: there is no in-sync sound, Patrick Keiller and his assistant shot the film without any microphones, although some street sounds have been added during the editing process. Often, all we hear is the narrator and the charming, touching, ironic incidental music. Therefore, there is a dissociation between the voice of the narrator — and his reticent but expressive account of their thoughts, feelings and desires — and the world which we look at: that world is the occasion for their thoughts, feelings and desires, but, implicitly, it has no place for them. This is obviously important because it is sound in film which gives us the illusion of three-dimensions: the camera looks forward, but only sound can tell us or warn us what is happening out of shot. So, the question is: has London — the city, not the film — lost a dimension? Or perhaps it never had it. Or perhaps it has been misplaced. All of these possibilities are entertained.

A context

Richard Winnington recalls [Humphrey] Jennings telling him ‘firmly and passionately, that good films could only be made in times of disaster’.[4]

It is easy to imagine that few citizens of Britain have found their imaginative life deeply marked by the experience of Mr Major’s premiership.[5]

There are many possible contexts for these films, but it is important to say that Patrick Keiller’s films are explicitly political. It is clear that Keiller had some strong residual sympathies for the post-1945 political settlement and for the structure and the culture of the Welfare State. London is riven by a sense that the native decencies of the 1945-1979 period have been eroded by the years of Conservative rule since 1979, a time of governmental inviting of the discipline of mass unemployment, of growing divisions between the rich and poor, and of the reappearance of large scale homelessness. In the film, Britain is portrayed as a post-industrial country, where prosperity is instead increasingly based on the City of London and associated service industries, and it imagines that there is something conjured and insubstantial about these new sources of wealth. At the same time, there is a sense that the public realm — public transport, public services, life in collective spaces, street-life — is being degraded and depressed.

Keiller, like his primary apologist, the writer Iain Sinclair, gets out in the street, and tries to reclaim the everyday streets of London, and not, primarily, its famous and overfamiliar sights like the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge, as worthy of deliberation. Both artists are trying to reintroduce their viewers or readers to their native environment. As Keiller described it in an interview in the journal Architectural Design, ‘They [the films] offer subjective transformations of already existing spaces, sometimes rather neglected spaces, which attempt to show ‘how beautiful anything could be if only …,’ and they offer the viewer a collective, shared experience of sights or spaces that are conventionally experienced in isolation.'[6] However, this opens the question of how large the audience is for Keiller and Sinclair’s literary productions, and so there is the fear that their techniques of defamiliarisation, necessary for proper recognition to take place, might end with them talking to themselves, like one of Sinclair’s mad men gazing at London ‘with the abstracted longing of an out-patient at a discontinued bus-stop.'[7]

One of the consequences of this feeling is the co-existence in Keiller of feelings of great imaginative capacity, with feelings of powerlessness, of a certain kind of impotence that is both political and artistic, as it is not clear that Keiller is succeeding in either changing the country or making a work of art (one of the problems with documentaries, and even quasi-documentaries). And it is this problem of co-existence that introduces Robinson in Space. The films begins in a very characteristic ‘condition of England’, state of the nation mode, as the narrator sits on a train leaving Paddington station, and we seem to be referred to the distinctive literary-political world of such writings as George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier or Philip Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. Keiller’s narrator reads as the train pulls out, but rather than Thomas Carlyle he reads Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life, one of the key texts of the Situationist International and for May 1968 in France, whilst the camera shows us the view from the window.

Sitting comfortably, I opened my copy of The Revolution of Everyday Life:

“Reality, as it evolves, sweeps me with it. I am struck by everything and, though not everything strikes me in the same way, I am always struck by the same contradiction: although I can always see how beautiful anything could be if only I could change it, in practically every case there is nothing I can really do. Everything is changed into something else in my imagination, then the dead weight of things changes it back into what it was in the first place. A bridge between imagination and reality must be built . . .” (first lines of Robinson in Space)

Well: that bridge must be built, but is this film going to build it, as we enter into it through the pages of Vaneigem’s manifesto of the subjective? Or is everything going to be changed into the beautiful and then changed back, into the ‘dead weight of things’? But there’s something almost coy about it all: ‘are we sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’. Meanwhile, what we see on the screen is what we would see from a train pulling out from Paddington station, and what we hear is both the station announcer doing his announcing of the stations that this train (we presume) will pass through on the way from London to Exeter St. David’s, and some music: the eerie approaching menace of Allan Gray’s ‘Prelude’ to Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. But what is revealed through the twin frames and gateways of the camera lens and the window of the train is a characteristic landscape of modern Britain: late nineteenth-century brick walls, graffiti, overpasses with cars. It is not clear where the approaching menace is, other than all around you, and soon we arrive in Reading, and the music stops, and the menace and suspense disperses, and is replaced by the everyday wash of traffic noise. This is a film which sees that the paranoia which the beginning seems to gesture towards is not necessarily justified: you have to think you’re a pretty important person in order to think that everybody is out to get you, and Keiller thinks that Robinson and his companion are not important enough, either to anybody else or to themselves, to warrant those kinds of delusions of grandeur.

But if this piece of film is not quite about paranoia, then is it about another condition, depression? People with depression often say that their main symptom is a feeling of powerlessness, and think that if they had the power that they lack, then their world, the landscape that they look upon, would be transformed. In this sequence, it’s imagined, through the quotation from Vaneigem, that the landscape can only be changed in imagination, before being changed back into its real physical existence; it’s a landscape possessed by a really tedious obduracy. It just can’t be both rethought and recast, at least not by Keiller or his characters.[8] As such, the film may also tell a representative tale of the British left-wing intelligentsia in the period, as it reflects on the intellectual’s lack of power, and associates those thoughts with the experience of rail travel. Intellectuals in Britain take trains because (a) they want to support public transport, (b) because their timetables are sometimes comparatively loose and they don’t always have to endure the rush-hour and other forms of transport horror and they don’t always have to be on time and, most importantly (c), because they want to be able to read, or mark essays, or stare out of the window. Keiller explicitly linked politics and its failure to correspond with our desires with the view from the train when he remarked, in an interview with Patrick Wright:

I was on a train about three days before the [1997] election, looking out of the window thinking, ‘These people aren’t going to vote Labour.’ I thought I could hear people bottling out — ‘Oh, I’m not sure, I don’t think I’m going to change my vote after all.’ But it was a complete fantasy. They won, beyond anyone’s expectations.[9]

This is what psychoanalysts call projection: the electorate of Britain (although it was probably somewhere southern and suburban in this case), who can’t actually be seen from this train (probably nobody was actually seen by Keiller at this moment), are imagined as a single, conservative, possibly reactionary, certainly fearful, block or mass, getting in the way of the fulfilment of Keiller’s desires. Such projections are inescapable when talking about politics, but Keiller goes on to admit feeling undone by Labour’s victory, and the fulfilment of his desire: ‘I still haven’t recovered from that.’ It is as if the bottom has fallen out of his mental landscape, as if the end of his thoroughgoing oppositional status has led to a strange loss of identity. The Marxist author Edward Upward called one of his books No Home But The Struggle, but one of the consequences of the struggle becoming less clearly defined is that you may lose your sense of ‘home’. It does seem that Keiller is identifiably within this scheme, even as he tries to reconfigure or transcend it by playing images off against each other, so that the everyday becomes the enigmatic: we are shown footage of a lorry with the words ‘Brain Haulage’ inscribed on its side and signs towards the Toyota car factory, implying that Toyota is now just a place in middle England.

Paul Julian Smith has said, in a review of Robinson in Space in Sight and Sound, that ‘Rarely can superstores, landfills, and container ports have looked so pregnant with meaning as here’.[10] And we can see what he means, partly, it feels, because these things, examples of what Keiller has called the new spaces of contemporary England, have never been looked at before, or certainly not with this kind of intensity. However, I’m not sure if ‘pregnant with meaning’ is quite right, because unlike with pregnant mothers, we do not know and cannot tell what is inside these containers (and Keiller is obsessed with containers — container ships, container lorries, warehouses — in Robinson in Space): they don’t seem to be pregnant with new life, a new birth. Instead they are full of plasterboard: ‘The fully automated plant at Ridham produces 120 square metres of plasterboard per minute, the fastest-running production line in Europe’. Well, Captain Ahab in Moby Dick did want to get through ‘the paste-board mask of the universe’, but he did hope that there would be something other than more plasterboard on the other side. There is obviously something defeating about this process, in that the investigations of Robinson and the narrator into ‘the problem of England’ seem to run up against the sense that the landscape of post-industrial Britain, which has lost its immediately recognisable iconography of pit-heads, smoking chimneys and mill towns, has become seriously inscrutable, so much so that it might have become . . . boring.

However, in London more than in Robinson in Space, there is this strong sense of the isolation of the travellers but there is also a sense of intimacy between the speaker and his audience: we have made the trek to the arts cinema, we have bought the video, we are amongst the saved. And it is the intimacy of loss that we come to understand: London is an elegy, but it doesn’t know what it is an elegy for. This is to do with a sense that the history of London, like the history of England, is extremely long and varied, and you can get lost in all the dates (1066 and all that), especially because English society has not endured either of the two political events that are taken to project a society into modernity: either revolution or invasion. So, we can’t say that 1789 or 1848 or 1917 is when it all went wrong, or went right. But something has been lost, and Robinson speculates on whether it was the pre-maturity of the Civil War, or the conservative English reaction to the French Revolution, or just the nineteenth century as a whole that messed things up. But Robinson is also haunted by a more personal loss:

He was searching for the location of a memory, a vivid recollection of a street of small factories backing onto a canal. But they no longer exist, and he has adopted the neighbourhood as a site for exercises in psychic landscaping, drifting and free association. He appeared to be attempting to travel through time. (London)

And that street can never come back, and the lostness of that street (a version of England both industrial and intimate, strangely domestic, that of the small-scale industries of post-war London), produces this need for drifting, for reverie. The pair’s wanderings are in search of this lost centre, this lost past, but the fear is that what will be achieved is the end of Robinson’s namesake, the Robinson of Robinson Crusoe: ‘shipwreck’. What will be found is not community but the islanded isolation of Protestant individualism, ‘the English melancholy’. Or does this seem to be mere nostalgia? But nostalgia needs a referent, something to feel sentimentally exiled from. The problem here is that the failed search for the location of memory has produced a kind of instability, a need for drifting, and with that the solidity of sentiment has also been lost. Robinson is exiled from his feelings, and the landscape stands as the block between himself and his feelings. Of course, when he diagnoses Robinson, Keiller also diagnoses himself, another teacher of art (but perhaps it’s also about long-established Scottish jam producers, Keiller’s of Dundee being the double of Robinsons of Paisley), and the whole project can seem blocked, can seem a filmic version of recidivism, where the director comes coming back and coming back to these landscapes that can never tell him the answer. In the meantime we see more of London and England than was ever dreamt of in anybody’s philosophy, but it seems that we await the proper chronicler of these scenes and these times, the one who can put some flesh on these bones, the one who can take this material and make something more than Keiller’s beautiful and elegiac ironies.


[1] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out For The Territory, London, Granta, 1997, p302.

[2] London (1994), written and directed by Patrick Keiller.

[3] Robinson in Space (1997), written and directed by Patrick Keiller.

[4] Alan Lovell and Jim Hillier, Studies in Documentary, London, Secker and Warburg, 1972, p110

[5] John Dunn, The Cunning of Unreason, London, HarperCollins, 2000, p70.

[6] ‘To change life, however, we must first change space: Patrick Keiller interviewed by Joe Kerr’, Architectural Design, 70:1 (2000), p85.

[7] Sinclair, p302.

[8] It should be noted that the two things Patrick Keiller has trained to do, to be an architect and to be a film-maker, are two professions where it is notoriously difficult to get to do the thing you want to do, especially in England. It’s very difficult to get to make a building or a film, especially idiosyncratic buildings or films, and this is perhaps a good reason for feeling that things are liable to be experienced as dead weights.

[9] Keiller, ‘A Conversation with Patrick Wright’, in Robinson in Space, London, Reaktion Books, 1999, p234.

[10] Sight and Sound, 7 :1 (1997), p44.

To Cite This Article:

Simon Grimble, ‘’A bridge between imagination and reality must be built . . .’: landscapes and politics in the films of Patrick Keiller’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 1 (March 2005). Online at Accessed on [date of access].