Notes on Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins

Robinson in Ruins Keiller

Flicking back through the large notebook on my desk which has a Casey Neistat sticker on the cover, I find the notes I made while watching Patrick Keiller’s film Robinson in Ruins at the beginning of last year.

I had seen the film at a special event at the National Film Theatre at the time of its release in 2010 but felt I needed to watch it again – I watched Keiller’s London so many times I wore out the VHS tape.

Here are the notes I made in their raw form:


“The wanderings it describes began on 22nd January 2008”
– this is the same time as the Silt Road journeys began. What was I doing in January 2008? Starting work on London Perambulator. 2008 the year of the financial crisis.

Robinson communicates with “non-human intelligences” living in marginal places – shot of a sign on an arterial road – roundabout – edgelands. They (and Robinson presumably) are concerned with human survival – are they insects rather than E.Ts?

Robinson drawn to London from Berlin in the mid-60’s by the ‘swinging sixties’ and presence of so many prehistoric structures in the landscape. Footpath that was once a Roman road leads Robinson to a gasometer (mirror of the standing stone he visits?) then on to Lidl on the site of the first Mini factory.

robinson in ruins

I stop the film to check my Twitter feed – tweet from London Port Authority: “2014 port trade 3% up at 44.5 million tones: tonnage up across cargo types”
A port statistics update while watching a Robinson film – how serendipitous.

Mention of IWCA in Oxford. Quotes 17th Century antiquarian in reference to a physick well. Then on to Plato and Epicurus in relation to climate then an update on the financial situation. Footage of a substation.
Robinson is a Prepper.
Returns constantly to boarded up house with scaffold first seen at start of film – a motif?

Sets out for Harrowdown Hill – April 10th – the death of Dr David Kelly – not far from Brize Norton – physical link to Iraq.
Spends the night in the enclosure of a mobile phone mast.

robinson in ruins
Military infrastructure gets mentioned a lot – the SOE wartime comms on a hill, railway line used by military.

Broad Street Oxford – the postbox set in the wall on the street corner another recurring motif. Robinson’s disappearance in the 1990’s and his companion’s publication (the narrator’s lover – this bloke had also been Robinson’s lover or have I got confused) of a report based on their work that led to him becoming a government advisor – “transformative potential” of “images of landscape” – linked to well-being. Back to shot of lichen on roadside – grows near nitrogen pollutants. Primroses in a lay-by. Note on UK climate and primrose seed transportation.

MayDay on the Ridgeway.

Horse Chestnut imported from Turkey in 17th Century.

robinson in ruins
Greenham Common nuclear warheads withdrawn – US Airforce base opposed on basis it infringed commoners rights. Now restored to Commons and open access by Newbury Council. Remains of US base stand in the fields where now cattle graze. Declared SSSI in 1985. Natural order restored.

Robinson moves on to Roman Silchester. He is now a marginal figure – semi-vagrant – bit of a weirdo.

The U.K Rocket industry embedded in the countryside near the Icknield Way (Blue Streak) and the Government military underground fuel pipe that possibly follows this Neolithic path.
Bright fields of poppies grown for medical diamorphine.

Robinson is a surrealist who has encounters with flowers – biophilia.

Very long shot of white foxgloves swaying in the breeze.
Long shot of butterfly on teasels briefly joined by a bee.
A great example of SLOW FILM

Watching the film I realize I am neglecting the book I am working on – carry on watching the film anyway.

Robinson in Ruins is set against the backdrop of the financial crisis of 2008. London takes places around Black Wednesday in 1992. Is this coincidence or does Keiller/Robinson have a nose for financial catastrophe?

At this point I stop making notes and just watch the rest of the film.

Beyond Stonebridge Park

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Thoughts on The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes, by Patrick Keiller, Verso, 2013

Through his series of feature-length ‘Robinson’ films, Patrick Keiller has provided the gold standard for artists ‘subjectively’ interacting with the built environment for around the last 20 years since London went viral after a run at the ICA in 1994. Keiller had perfected an essayistic style of his own through a number of earlier shorts that juxtaposed a humour-tinged fictionalised voice-over against a sequence of static general views of landscapes. The essays in The View from the Train follow Keiller’s journey through film from 1980 to the most recent manifestation of his enigmatic character Robinson, charting the evolution of his practice and thinking. If you have watched his films, and in my case continuously re-watched, then it is impossible not to conflate the two. As you read, the fruity Shakespearean tones of Paul Scofield’s narration on his two best-known films, London and Robinson in Space, start to emanate from the page. But it soon becomes clear though, that Keiller’s voice is not so much the archly camp thesp but his friend and fellow flâneur Robinson, a more fastidious, intellectual character.

He embraced the Surrealists’ “feeling for nature” to be found in the street, the radical subjectivity of poeticising the world around you to bring about the changes that you desire to see.

In the introduction, which gives the book its title, Keiller writes about a project he embarked upon in 1977 documenting what he describes as “found architecture” in set of 35mm transparencies. These were buildings glimpsed on daily commutes that caught his eye but were not “the result of conventional architectural activity”. He goes on to describe how he linked similar projects by the Surrealists in 1920s Paris to his own work. This interest in the Surrealists reinvention of the urban realm into an imaginative space is a subject that he returns to throughout the book and one that appears to be close to the heart of his practice. He embraced the Surrealists’ “feeling for nature” to be found in the street, the radical subjectivity of poeticising the world around you to bring about the changes that you desire to see.

Not far into The View from the Train I started to even forget that Keiller is a film-maker, rather as he describes himself in one of the more scholarly essays, “as an architect diverted into making films”. He explains how he sought to “explore the spaces of films” and through capturing architecture on celluloid create new built environments without ever laying a single brick. Film as a medium he tells us, “might be thought at least as compelling as an actually existing architecture of heightened awareness – an ecstatic architecture”.

Although the prose style is lucid and thankfully largely free of academic jargon the thinking behind it is thorough and well researched. That this then manifested itself in films that achieved a degree of commercial success, escaping the arthouse ghetto to play in West End cinemas and screenings on Channel 4, is a further testament to his skill as both thinker and film-maker.

Keiller_Robinson_Nosac
Keiller is often lumped into the psychogeography camp but here he reminds us that “the dérive is not an end in itself”, something often overlooked as urban walking has become synonymous with psychogeography as if it would merely be enough to go for a wander round the East End to shatter the Spectacle. He points out, “In London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification”, and relates the way the Surrealists appropriated buildings and areas to the mechanics of modern property development as estate agents dream up new names and narratives for run-down districts to boost prices and draw in house-hunters looking for the new up-and-coming investment opportunity.

“In London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification”

There is a gentle politics at work throughout difficult to locate on the contemporary Centre-right-Right spectrum, probably residing somewhere in the area vacated by the moderate rump of the Labour Party. The detailed analysis of UK Port Statistics that provided the theoretical spine of Robinson in Space makes fascinating and essential reading. The paradox of high unemployment vs. a healthy UK economic bank balance gets to the root of the problem of measuring success by focusing on GDP alone. And there are insightful analyses on the nature of inequality and even a Robinson-esque comment on the sexuality of Conservatism.

He consistently returns to a preoccupation with housing, particularly its dilapidated state. It was the subject of Keiller’s follow-up film to Robinson in Space, The Dilapidated Dwelling that comes across better in written form, for me, than it did on the screen. It demonstrates how the book is more than a companion piece to his films, the essays extending the scope of the “subjective transformation” of urban space achieved through the lens of a camera. Whereas Keiller states that his films “set out to criticize architectural space rather than simply depict it”, The View from the Train provides a detailed topography of the terrain on which his poetic realm is built.
Originally published in 3:Am magazine 21/12/13

Cities Under Siege

In the pub last night I was reading Nicholas Lezard’s illuminating review  of Cities Under Siege by Stephen Graham. I’ve chalked this up on my ‘books to read (but probably will just read about)’ list.

from http://blog.ltmuseum.co.uk

The book is provocatively subtitled ‘The New Miltary Urbanism’ and aims to be an “exposé of how political violence operates through the spaces of urban life”. On the most basic level this is expressed by the intense surveillance that urban populations are placed under – and Londoner’s are some of the most watched over of any city dwellers in the world.
Lezard mentions the London Transport poster ‘Secure beneath watchful eyes’ that he ponders may have employed a 1940’s design style to invoke memories of Orwell and Big Brother.

That poster first appeared in 2003 when people were still in the grip of post-9/11 paranoia. But the increased level of CCTV did little to prevent the 7/7 bombers bringing carnage to London’s bus and tube network 2 years later. And it was noticeable that after the attack next to no CCTV images of any of the suspected bombers appeared even though they had passed along thoroughfares covered every inch by surveillance cameras. So who are the cameras really there to reassure?

Lezard’s review highlights Graham’s point that, “the powerful, particularly those in the Republican party in America, do not like cities. For a start, they’re ethnically diverse places full of liberals who don’t vote for them.”
As the recent UK riots demonstrated, cities are places of insurrection and dissent that can spread quickly and uncontrollably. It put me in mind (again) of a line from Patrick Keiller’s London where Robinson argues that:

“That the failure of London was rooted in the English fear of cities, a protestant fear of Popery and socialism, the fear of Europe, that had disenfranchised Londoners and undermined their society.
Like the idea in Graham’s book that the provincial Repulicans fear the inner city, Robinson/Keiller sees London as, “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.”

The other recent manifestation of urban disquiet that has given the ruling elite a rude awakening has been the Occupy movement, seeming to randomly spring out of the asphalt to reclaim prime strategic locations to assert the case of the “99%”.  Over the weekend I ‘stumbledupon’ two articles exploring the links between Situationism and the Occupy movement.

I suppose people were always going to see the parallels with Situationist-inspired events of 1968 and here on The Bureau of Public Secrets those theories are further drawn out.
On Cryptoforestry, Wilfried Hou Je Bek writes about ‘Occupy as psychogeographic urbanism’, “Psychogeographically speaking the idea of a tent Potemkin village has great appeal.”

I have to confess that when I headed down to Occupy LSX at St. Paul’s I was partly inspired by the significance of a tented village emerging on the ancient and significant site of Ludgate Hill. Of all the places in London to occupy, the protestors had claimed a geographic node point in the city’s history. A feature of the landscape that had been noted from the first Roman incursions right up to the building of the church on a site of great pagan ceremonial importance.

By the time I had left the encampment I could see the psychogeographical resonance would have to emerge at a later date. For now it is still about economic injustice and corporate greed.

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Does London Exist?

the precincts of central London

Among the mountain of topographical books that I found in Hay last weekend the one that I bought was A Guide to the Structure of London (1972) by Maurice Ash. I was hooked by a glance at these amazing maps and the chapter titles:
1. In search of London’s identity  2. The skin of an onion?  3. The geography of conflict  4. Journeys and sojourns  5. A strategy for identifying London  6. Town trails

types of housing tenure, 1966

Ash opens by asking the question of whether London exists, “There is just one question to be asked before one begins a book on the structure of London: Does London exist?”
Due to the diversity between Deptford High Street and Hampstead Heath and lack of common interest he wonders if “the entity of London is a fiction”.

the central spaces of importance for conservation

I would love to imagine Ash in conversation with Patrick Keiller’s character  Robinson in a grubby formica-tabled worker’s cafe, or perhaps at Brent Cross Regional Shopping Centre. In Keiller’s film, London, Robinson posits that “the true identity of London is its absence, as a city it no longer exists … London was the first metropolis to disappear” (you can watch this part of the film here at 3.44)

plan for the South East, 1967

Ash suggests that we should think of London as a region rather than a city, a region that has consumed the Green Belt and moved beyond. He identifies this new area of London the “Outer Metropolitan Area (the OMA), which for statistical purposes at least is bow taken to extend from beyond the Green Belt to about 40 miles from the centre of London”.

strategic plan for the South East, 1970

The book ends with six journeys through London that illustrate the thesis within the book: walking circuits in South London around Elephant and Castle, inner East London from Stepney Green, and inner West London from Earl’s Court; and then wider sweeps by car north and south and the outer metropolitan areas.
I wonder what following the same journeys today would tell us about whether London actually exists or is merely a fiction?

maps reprinted by Ash from Research Paper SRI, September 1966

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Westminster – day after the election

College Green Westminster day after the Election from fugueur on Vimeo.

Last night I had been filming Bob and Roberta Smith reading from his journals at Tate Britain and decided to walk along Millbank to Westminster to get the tube home. As I reached College Green, outside the the Houses of Parliament I came across the encampment of news crews still trying to untangle the mess of the General Election. It was 8.30pm, and there were only a few teams still broadcasting.
The was a strange feeling of tranquility hanging in the Westminster air, it was all very calm and quiet. Inside nearby rooms men, educated at the most expensive private schools in the country were working out who was going to be in charge. Earlier Bob and Roberta Smith had shown the audience at Tate a postcard from his recent show called ‘I Should Be In Charge’ – his painting of this declaration is on display in the windows of the Hayward Gallery just over the river from Westminster. Bob would make a brilliant Prime Minister
I contemplated whether I should get my camera out and film, and it was then that I recalled the scene in Patrick Keiller’s brilliant film, London, shot on the day after the election of the Conservation government in 1992. I have none of Keiller’s finesse nor a 16mm Bolex but felt I had had a duty to run off a couple of minutes of tape as an homage to Keiller’s opus.

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Old Father Thames on Film


I haven’t been listening to my audiobook of Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Thames’. It was sitting down to watch the ‘Fantastic 4’ (2007) with my kids that prompted me to think our glorious river. There is an incredible (or should that be ‘fantastic’) scene where the Silver Surfer drains the Thames dry. One of the finest apocalyptic visions of London I’ve seen on film and actually one of the finest visions of London.
The Thames is a key image for establishing London as the setting of a film so pretty much any London-set movie will have its ‘Thames shot’.

I started to have a quick rummage amongst my dvds for other key images of the river that gave us the city, shots that show us a how its representation has evolved.


This scene from the Lavender Hill Mob (1951) really struck me when I first saw it (along with Blitzed views from Holborn Viaduct) just for how accessible the working river of the 1950’s was. I’m guessing that this scene was shot somewhere between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges, judging from the city spires in the background, now a moribund stretch of managed footpath.

 The Sandwich Man (1966) surely has one of the best sequences ever shot on the Thames starting with lead actor Michael Bentine joining a queue for the river taxi (somewhere up west past Westminster) and then witnessing as a fashionable party set out on a punt which is set into a vortex by a careering water-skier sending them into the path of a practising rowing team coxed by Eric Idle who are then sunk, which causes the team’s coach to fling himself off a bridge with a life-belt around his waist resulting on the water-skier being splayed across the front of a pleasure cruiser. It is rounded off by Bentine cadging a lift in a car that converts to a boat and carries him home along the river to a pre-yuppified docklands.

The stills from The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980) are not so much in for the distinctiveness but the fact that they are the views from a time-travelling flying saucer – the only such scenario I can think of involving an aerial view of the Thames.

And Keiller’s opening image of Tower Bridge from London (1994) with Paul Schofield’s dryly camp narration is one of the river’s definitive cinematic appearances.
That was as far as I got as I then got drawn into re-watching ‘The Flipside of Dominick Hide’.

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