The other week I took Geoff Lloyd for an urban ramble round Soho for his show on Absolute Radio and chatted about psychogeography, topography, old maps, and the fate of Madame Jo Jo’s.
Iain Sinclair was launching his latest book, 70×70 – Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked In 70 Films so I got the opportunity to interview the great London magus in the basement of the London Review Bookshop. This was the second time I’d interviewed Sinclair, the first was for my documentary, The London Perambulator in his Hackney home 6 years ago almost to the day.
On that occasion we’d talked off camera about Iain’s elusive film collaborations with Chris Petit that had been originally broadcast on Channel 4 – The Cardinal and the Corpse and The Falconer, now impossible to find on DVD or YouTube and Iain had invited me to watch them with him there and then on VHS. But I’d had to pass up this golden opportunity as the strong painkillers I was taking following knee surgery were making me dizzy and nauseous and it had been a massive effort to get through the interview without passing out on his floor.
Those Petit collaborations had eventually been screened in the 70×70 season put together by King Mob to celebrate Iain’s 70th birthday – a year of 70 films which had been mentioned in Sinclair’s books, and screened in venues both obscure and grand, some of them joining the ranks of the disappeared before the season had been completed.
The 70 x 70 book is more than just a record of this filmic dérive around London, it is a repertory cinema season on paper, the SCALA brought back to life in print; a revival of the world of wall-charts peppered with classics by Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Godard, unheralded oddities, all-nighters interrupted at 4am by a punk band to keep you awake. But it is also a form of autobiography, weaving a path through Sinclair’s life and work as he discusses the background to each selection, or “an accidental novel”, as he describes it.
So we chatted not just about the book. We spoke about Iain’s early years in London as a film student and eager cineaste, the Paul Tickell film for BBC’s Late Show that captured the world of Downriver when it was still provisionally titled Vessels of Wrath. This rare 20-minute gem included memorable scenes of Sinclair reading aloud in the still semi-derelict Princelet Street Synagogue and the notorious bookdealer Driffield scavenging for rare tomes in Gravesend and Tilbury.
He discussed his collaborations with Chris Petit and Andrew Kotting. It led us to the subject of John Clare and the idea of ‘fugue’ walking, “… to do it purposefully, if that’s not a contradiction, seems quite an important way of dealing with a city that is a series of defended grids and official permeable ways that you can drift through that lead you to the next supermarket”. Walking, Sinclair told me is “absolute”; “The silence of just moving, hearing your own footfall, listening to the city, watching the city, drinking it through your pores”.
The interview came to a natural conclusion as the camera battery ran out just after Sinclair had recounted a pavement confrontation in Hollywood with a Warren Oates lookalike. The event organiser seized their moment and moved in as went to my bag for a spare. I could have kept asking him questions all night and Iain is so amiable and tolerant you sense he’d sit there patiently answering, but upstairs Chris Petit, Gareth Evans and Susan Stenger were waiting sat before a packed audience for the 70×70 launch event.
This article was originally published on 3:AM magazine
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 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
‘What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spectators.’
The works of two fellow travelers deserve a shout-out here.
Firstly ‘Counter-Tourism‘ by Crab Man aka Phil Smith. I haven’t read the book yet, because it’s probably brilliant and I’m writing my own book at the moment and I don’t want to be unduly influenced by Smith’s usually creative slant on the re-imagining of ‘traditional’ heritage locations and the standard notion of sight-seeing.
When I was working on the Remapping High Wycombe project I read his brilliant essay ‘Dread, Route and Time: An Autobiographical Walking of Everything Else’, and ended up somehow mangling and misremembering his cogent notions as ‘autotopobiography’ (follow the tag at the bottom).
But an alternative to the often useless Rough Guides and Lonely Planets is long overdue – why buy a guide to each country and city when you could just buy the Counter-Tourism Handbook and use it everywhere you go.
If you want to read deeper into the broader culture that Smith and other cultural walkers inhabit then Merlin Coverley’s ‘The Art of Wandering – the writer as walker’ is a must read. This is another long overdue book, Coverley having written two other key publications on a similar theme with his Pocket Essentials on ‘Psychogeography’ and ‘Occult London’.
The book takes us on a ramble from the Walker as Philosopher through to the Experimental Walking practised by Smith and his cohorts in Wrights and Sights, charting the excursions of the Dadaists, Surrealists and Situationists.
It not only covers the visionary walking of William Blake and Werner Herzog, the Walker as Philosopher, Pilgrim and Vagrant; but also links James Bone’s The London Perambulator (1925) to my old walking companion Nick Papadimitriou through the title of the film about him that I borrowed from the book (we’re going out for a walk on Saturday – you can read about it next year).
There’s an interesting section on a book by Jeff Nicholson, ‘Bleeding London’ from 1997 where the central character secretly carries out one of my fantasies – to walk every street in London, chalking each one off in the index of an A-Z as he goes.