Patrick Keiller interview: London the book

Patrick Keiller London book

Patrick Keiller’s film London was released in 1994 and made an instant impact among viewers and critics alike, becoming enormously influential over the years. Filmed in 1992 and composed of 356 moving images of scenes around the city shot on 35mm film, it has now been published in book form with over two hundred high-definition digital scans of the original frames along with ‘the narration, an afterword, and a list of camera subjects and endnotes.’

This publication by FUEL, gave me a wonderful opportunity to ask Patrick Keiller a few questions via email about London, both book and film.


John Rogers: I’ve watched the film London countless times and yet I still found the book a new experience. Certain things took on a significance on the page in a way they didn’t in the film for me – such as the laying of the wreaths on the statue of Charles I which appear to be a marker of time. And also the linking of Brent Cross and covered Brixton Market with the reference to the Russian Formalists with Sterne and Apollinaire. Did creating the book make you see the film in a new light after all these years?

Patrick Keiller: The book led me to pay more attention to some of the pictures, as they can be looked at for longer, and hence in more detail, than when watching the film. By 2017 all the 35mm prints had become too worn or damaged to remain in distribution, and the negative was scanned to make a 2K digital version for cinemas and streaming. In 1993, a few publicity images had been copied from 35mm print trims, but otherwise we’d only been able to look at individual frames on a Steenbeck [editing table], which displays a relatively dim, low-resolution image, especially when paused, and although the prints were very sharp and were sometimes projected on very big screens, none of the images are on screen for very long.

After the scan, it was relatively easy to extract high definition frames for publication, and I was very pleased when FUEL asked me if I’d be interested in a book. There’s much more detail in the pictures than I’d expected, and some of them stand out in a way they hadn’t before – the view along the south side of Spitalfields Market, for example, with a man who looks as if he’s just arrived from 1848, and Christ Church at the end (pp. 146-147). I’d almost forgotten about this image, perhaps because in the film it only lasts for five seconds, and follows the slightly longer, closer view of the church. The book’s cover image – which was FUEL’s suggestion – is a portrait-format detail of the landscape-format view along Cannon Street towards St Paul’s (p. 140), with a No. 15 bus. I’d never noticed this image’s potential for reframing, and until the scan, a detail from it wouldn’t have been sharp enough to publish.

In the past, I’ve tended to talk or write about the film in terms of its subject, but it was primarily an attempt to make convincing images.

Patrick Keiller London book

view along the south side of Spitalfields Market – from London by Patrick Keiller (pub, FUEL)

JR: In the introduction to the book you write that the script and story was written after filming. So can you tell me about the process – did you start with a map and walk the routes first? What informed those journeys? As a film-maker I’m interested in the production process and how it contrasts with how you approach production in the digital age.

Would it be possible to attract funding for such a film now?

PK: The film was commissioned from a document with two parts, each a kind of recipe for half the film: the first a series of brief sections in each of which was a group of possible camera subjects and some sample narration; the second outlining sixteen journeys or trips to specific places. Both the cinematography and the narrative of each part were to last about six months. The narrative was to begin in late September, but I reasoned that we could begin the cinematography whenever we were ready, as long as we ended up with twelve months of footage. As it turned out, we started shortly before what would have been the period of the second part. All that survives from the document in the finished film are a few brief passages of narration, two journeys (two of the film’s three ‘expeditions’) and some of the one-off visits. Otherwise the film made itself up as it went along, as a kind of diary of 1992.

I don’t think it would be impossible to work like this now, but in the current climate it might be difficult for an institution to commission a work that begins by describing someone’s return to London as ‘a journey to the end of the world’.

Patrick Keiller London book

gateposts at Vauxhall Park matching a shot from London – John Rogers 2018

JR: Is there a difficulty in capturing a journey on foot in a film unlike the established genre of the road movie by car. When I walked the route of the first walk in the film – from Vauxhall to Richmond (I didn’t make it to Strawberry Hill due to lack of light) I realised how much terrain sits between Clapham Common and Strawberry Hill. How did you negotiate this in the writing and filming?

PK: The first ‘expedition’ is narrated as a walk along the Thames, downstream from Teddington Lock, supposedly embarked on spontaneously after a visit to Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. The protagonists ‘set out for Strawberry Hill’ on 10 March, ‘but were distracted by events on Wandsworth Common’  – an IRA bomb beside the railway tracks. I don’t think we’d planned to go to Strawberry Hill on that day, but Wandsworth Common was near the likely route, so we went to have a look. On 12 March, they ‘set off again, crossing Clapham Common in the rush hour’, the latter phrase accommodating an unplanned image photographed on Clapham Common on 15 March. On 12 March, we drove straight to Strawberry Hill, where we had an appointment, going on to Teddington Lock in the afternoon. The ‘walk’ downstream, on the other hand, occupied us for weeks, as I wanted to be able to choose from views of every bridge to accompany Rimbaud’s Les Ponts, and we broke off to cover the general election and its aftermath, returning to the river later.

The second and third ‘expeditions’ were a little more straightforward, but even so the cinematography for each was undertaken over several weeks (there are dates and other details at the end of the book). Making the film involved plenty of walking, but I don’t think I ever walked more than a mile from the car – the equipment was quite heavy. The journeys narrated in the film are not always the same as the journeys involved in making it.


JR: How do you feel about the way that the stylistic form of film – the locked off shot and narration – gave birth to a genre – Keilleresque ?

PK: I don’t think I’ve ever heard it called that. When people ask about the lack of camera movement, I still don’t know quite what to say – except that London was hardly the first film in which the camera doesn’t move much.


JR: Robinson is an Art Teacher at the University of Barking – was this based on your own experiences of teaching in Walthamstow?

PK: I taught in the school of architecture at the North East London Poly at Walthamstow from autumn 1974 until summer 1982, for two-and-a-half hours a week, then for two days a week from autumn 1983 – after the school had moved to a site in Plaistow – until summer 1988, returning in 1990, by which time it had become the Polytechnic of East London, until early 1992, when we began the cinematography for London. I also taught at Middlesex Polytechnic, later University, in the fine art department (the former Hornsey College of Art), from 1983 until about 1999, though by then I was only working there for about six days a year. I never visited NELP/PEL/UEL’s site at Barking, but liked the idea of a University of Barking.

Patrick Keiller London book

Abbey Creek West Ham, London p.10-11 – near where Patrick Keiller taught at North East London Polytechnic 1983-92

JR: Could the character of Robinson exist today?

PK: Definitely – they’re everywhere.


JR: There was a particular mood in London during 1992 which is brilliantly captured in the film. Was it intentional to shoot in an election year and how would a Labour victory have changed the film?

PK: We hadn’t intended to coincide with an election, though I knew there was going to be one – it couldn’t have been put off any longer – but I don’t remember wondering how to deal with the result – either way – until afterwards.

If Labour had won, perhaps the film would have stuck more closely to its initial intention, which was to identify what made London feel so different from mainland European capitals. Or perhaps it could have looked forward to a future that would be at least less unattractive than that envisaged under the Tories (risking pale imitation of Humphrey Jennings’s A Diary for Timothy). It would have lost some of its sense of alienation, probably many of its crowd scenes, and one of its stars, John Major.


JR: Parts of Robinson’s Vauxhall are unrecognisable from the time of his expeditions. Has the ‘problem of London’ changed since the early 90’s?

PK: For Robinson in 1992, the ‘problem’ seems to have been an overall sense of absence, including what Herzen described as ‘the absence of Continental diversions’, but for more practical people the problem of London, then as now, was housing, except that now, as everybody knows, it’s much worse.

In 1992, however, Robinson ‘argued that the failure of London was rooted in the English fear of cities […] the fear of Europe’. I doubt that he would say that in 2021, when the city’s political, economic and cultural differences from most of the rest of England have become more marked.


JR: Do you think there was something about the Thatcher era that inspired a revival of interest in the idea and practice of psychogeography. In the film Robinson engages in exercises of psychic landscaping and free association. What is your idea of the term?

PK: I did write something like that in 1999, suggesting that by then ‘the transformation of everyday surroundings [was] achieved much less by physical rebuilding than by other means’, that ‘perhaps the impulse to poeticise landscape in this way always coincides with periods of heightened political tension’, and that it might be a response to an absence of radical new architecture. But even I was surprised when Pasqual Maragall, former mayor of Barcelona, in London to receive the RIBA’s 1999 Royal Gold Medal on behalf of the city, compared London’s stasis under Thatcher with Spain’s under Franco.

My understanding of the term is from Guy Debord: ‘Psychogeography will aim to study the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic milieu, consciously planned or not, acting directly on the affective comportment of individuals’. He added that ‘it is not forbidden to think that a future urbanism will apply itself to structures, no less utilitarian, taking into the largest account psychogeographic possibilities’, and it’s always seemed to me that the practice was conceived as preliminary to the creation of spaces that were in some way revolutionary – ‘the hacienda must be built’. For this reason, I used to see it as much too ambitious to apply to what I was doing. But now it’s on the back of the book, so there’s no avoiding it.

Patrick Keiller London book

JR: The film and book seem more prescient with each passing year – how do you feel about the political direction of the country since 1992?

PK: It’s very generous of you to say that! Though I don’t think how I feel about it is much use to anyone, least of all me.

Preparing the book, I was reminded how peculiar the Tory ‘eurosceptics’ seemed in 1992. In the 1990s, the UK’s – or at least England’s – ‘identity’, if any, seemed to derive from its supposed diversity and openness to incoming cultures. As I remember, ‘Britishness’ only began to crop up in the mid-2000s.

It’s always seemed to me that there’s a longstanding discrepancy, much greater than those in comparable European countries, between the UK’s claimed economic performance, measured by GDP etc., and its visible poverty and dilapidation. I think a lot of what I notice results from the increased dominance of the economy by services, particularly finance, which has led to the UK’s current vulnerability.


JR: What are you currently working on – many people are eagerly awaiting your next work?

PK: Just recently I’ve written a brief text to accompany some images that I made last summer of the flight of a pipistrelle bat above the gardens behind the house I live in. Before that, I was devoting a lot of time to preparing the text and pictures for the book, and made a sort of website to accompany its publication.

Meanwhile, and for longer than I care to remember, I’ve been attempting a ‘novel perception’ of the UK’s material economy. I’m trying to find out how 65-million-plus people manage to live here, many of us in relative prosperity.


You can buy the book directly from FUEL here