Landscape and the transformation of reality

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

Patrick Keiller, Mark Fisher, W.G. Sebald and Will Self on the possibilities created by engagement with the landscape

I came across an edited extract of the following quote from Patrick Keiller in Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life. This is the full passage from Keiller’s essay Landscape and cinematography published in cultural geographies 16 in 2009:
“I had embarked on landscape film-making in 1981, early in the Thatcher era, after encountering a surrealist tradition in the UK and elsewhere, so that cinematography involved the pursuit of a transformation, radical or otherwise, of everyday reality. I recently came across a description, in Kitty Hauser’s Bloody old Britain, of O.G.S. Crawford’s photography: ‘Like photographers of the New Objectivity, clarity was his goal. Like them, he favoured stark contrasts, with no blurring or mistiness. His focus, like theirs, was on the object or the scene in front of him, which it was his aim to illuminate as clearly as he could. [. . .] It was commitment that lit up his photographs [. . .] Such photographs suggest a love of the world that was almost mystical in its intensity.’ I had forgotten that photography is often motivated by utopian or ideological imperatives, both as a critique of the world, and to demonstrate the possibility of creating a better one, even if only by improving the quality of the light.”

Patrick Keiller - The Possibility of Life's Survival on the Planet

Elsewhere in the essay, Keiller cites Fredric Jameson. ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the break-down of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.’ (The seeds of time, 1996). Mark Fisher also drew on Jameson’s statement for the animating thesis of his book Capitalist Realism, published in the same year as Keiller’s essay, 2009. Fisher identified Capitalist Realism as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” He argued that capitalist realism could only be overcome through the development of a new collective imagination, one that is capable of envisioning and creating alternatives to the current system. His proposed “politics of possibility” would open up new avenues for collective action and social transformation. Much like Keiller had seen the possibility of transforming reality through landscape film-making.

St George's Lutheran Church London E1
St George’s Lutheran Church

The Jameson quote was paraphrased by the author Will Self in a talk he gave the other night (20th December 2022) at St George’s German Lutheran Church in Whitechapel, entitled: The Ghost of Future Past – WG Sebald and the Trauma of Modernity. In his talk Self noted how Sebald was far more concerned with the looming ecological catastrophe and environmental breakdown than he is given credit for. He recounts a chance encounter he had with Sebald on Dunwich Heath in 1992 while he was living in the area writing his novel Great Apes. Self was ‘knuckle-walking’ like a chimp as research for the book when he came across Sebald’s path. Sebald was embarked on a walk along the Suffolk coast for his seminal work, The Rings of Saturn. Self did not know who Sebald was at this point, and it’s not clear if Sebald recognised Will Self who, although lauded for his excellent debut collection of stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991), hadn’t yet punctured the mainstream in the way he was shortly to do. Self recalled how their conversation had centred around the subject of ecocide. This encounter was retold in the early drafts of Rings of Saturn (with the Will Self character dressed in white silk pantaloons) and later edited out.

Greyfriars Friary Dunwich
Greyfriars Friary Dunwich

The fact that Patrick Keiller, Will Self and Mark Fisher are drawing from the same critique of late-capitalism should not be surprising given their shared interest in the changing nature of place and landscape. I’m not sure what Keiller made of Sebald’s writing but I found echoes of Keiller’s Robinson character in the eponymous central figure of Sebald’s novel Austerlitz. Stephen Watts, who’d guided Sebald through the East End on his research walks for Austerlitz, was in attendance at St George’s for the Will Self talk.

David Anderson links Keiller and Sebald (along with Iain Sinclair) in his book, Landscape and Subjectivity in the work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald, and Iain Sinclair. Anderson points out that all three draw from two principle lineages: the tradition of the ‘English Journey’, and the continental ideas generated by Surrealism and Situationism. Mark Fisher was a great admirer of both Sebald and Keiller and there are connections between their ideas of the landscape with Fisher’s promotion of hauntology. “Walking in ruins places us in a strange state of temporal dislocation, in which the past is simultaneously absent and present, for which Derrida coined the term ‘hauntology’ (in Spectres Of Marx, 1993)” – Frieze magazine, 2008.

Despite the pessimistic tone that emerges from all the writers mentioned here in their engagement with the landscape, Keiller does raise the possibility that a better world could be created – merely by looking at it.

Exploring the Liberty of Norton Folgate

A walking tour of the Liberty of Norton Folgate in Spitalfields, East London.

Located on the border between the City of London and the Borough of Tower Hamlets, this ancient area has a rich history dating back to Roman times.

What better reason for a walk than a title of a Madness album. This walk was suggested by one of the brilliant people over at Mad Chat, and filmed in July 2021. A liberty was a medieval unit of administration where the king had no rights and they were passed to the local lord. Located just beyond the walls of the Roman City, Norton Folgate sits beside the ancient Ermine Street. It’s said to originate land occupied by ‘the inner precinct of the Priory and Hospital of St Mary Spital’.

“Here are the worst paid jobs in the most overcrowded homes in London. Half a mile away from Brick Lane is the ancient boundary of the city of London, heart of Europe’s financial institutions. For 400 years the two have faced each other, first across the real walls of the city, and now across an imaginary line on a map which is no less formidable. The silk weavers avoided the restrictions of the City Guilds by living outside its gates – Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Folgate are still the boundaries today. Spitalfields has been described as London’s first industrial suburb. But now the city is moving outwards. It wants the land of the outcasts for itself.”  Spitalfields a battle for land by Charlie Foreman (1989).

Spitalfields in East London

Our walk begins at Liverpool Street Station, where we cross Bishopsgate and take a look at the Bishopsgate Institute, a cultural hub known for its lectures, exhibitions, and library. From here, we head down Brushfield Street to Spitalfields Market, established in 1682. Next, we admire the grand Christ Church Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in 1729. This impressive building is a testament to the creativity and skill of Hawksmoor. We head to the Ten Bells pub with its associations with Jack the Ripper and continue on to Fournier Street, Wilkes Street, and Princelet Street, where we see some of the most beautiful and historic houses in the Liberty of Norton Folgate. These streets are technically outside the Liberty but can’t be excluded from a stroll around the area. Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) wrote that in his childhood (1660s) the ‘lanes were deep, dirty and unfrequented, the part now called Spitalfields Market was a field of grass with cows feeding on it’. Brick Lane was a deep dirty road carry brick carts from the Whitechapel brick fields.

Norton Folgate, Spitalfields in East London
Georgian house in Spitalfields East London

Recrossing Commercial Street we go into Folgate Street. Ed Gilnert says these are the best preserved Georgian houses in Spitalfields, Dennis Sever’s House is at no.18. Elder Street was centre of the 1970s campaign to save Georgian Spitalfields from plans to demolish the historic houses in the area as incredible as that sounds today. Our walking tour recrosses Norton Folgate visiting Worship Street and ending in Clifton Street.

Big Audio Dynamite – The Bottom Line video

The YouTube algorithm threw up this quite incredible video by Big Audio Dynamite for The Bottom Line taken from their 1985 album This Is Big Audio Dynamite. Having recently shot a YouTube video around Trafalgar Square it was amazing to see Mick Jones, Don Letts et al rocking out at the foot of Nelson’s Column with the band’s name emblazoned in gold across this most famous of London landmarks while Roman soldiers and Brittonic tribes people raced past the band and into the crowd who bopped along on Trafalgar Square. This was the power of pop music in 1985 and the height of the music video. It also makes me think of Mark Fisher’s idea of Hauntology and how our idea of the future in the 1980s was informed by culture such as that produced by Big Audio Dynamite. They particularly captured my idea of the coming future with their cutting edge use of sampling, hybridisation of music and cut-up video, and what seemed like futuristic instruments (Mick Jones’ digital guitar, snippets of David Bowie in Nick Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth). I certainly have never been the same since I read a Record Mirror article about the launch of the band that talked of their use of sampling, digital instruments, movie dialogue and partnership with then obscure skate brand, Stussey. It certainly triggers my idea of what is perhaps not such a ‘lost future’.

Walking the Secret Alignments of London

A walk linking together Bunhill Fields, Bunhill Row, Old Street, St Luke’s, and City Road. Taking in the burial places of William Blake, Daniel Defoe and Hawksmoor’s obelisk on St Luke’s Church.

Why do I always end up around the edge of the city in December and January? I associate this area with being freezing cold and it being a kind of gloomy cloudy day like the day I shot this video just before Christmas 2021. It was the perfect weather for this particular walk linking together series of really intriguing locations with great stories to tell. This is really the best type of walk in many ways. Obviously I love my river walks, I love all walks really, but there’s something about unlocking the secrets of the city which is just magical. There’s something about the city fringe, the nature of it, the stories it contains which is really potent and really resonant because of the things that were pushed outside the city walls. I headed north of Liverpool Street into once what would have been fenland and marshland where the River Walbrook rises, a place of dissenters and outlaws and outcasts, a place of pleasure and play. These are all things encountered on the walk.

psychogeographic alignments of London map from Lud Heat by Iain Sinclair
psychogeographic alignments of London from Lud Heat by Iain Sinclair
Grave of William Blake in Bunhill Fields, London
Bunhill Fields

The Route:
This walk starts near Liverpool Street on the edge of the City of London and heads along Worship Street to Finsbury Barracks, home of the Honourable Artillery Company. Next to the Barracks we find Bunhill Fields an old burial ground were numerous religious dissenters were buried including Daniel Defoe and William Blake. We walk along Bunhill Row where John Milton lived and wrote both Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.The secret alignments of the City lead us to Old Street believed to have been a Roman road between Silchester and Colchester built along an even older trackway. Here we find St Luke’s Church designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.
Our route takes us past Ironmonger Row Baths to Peerless Street once the site of a notorious pool that became a Ducking Pond and later a bath house with a library. We then emerge on City Road and our walk ends at The Eagle pub in Shepherdess Walk which is mentioned in the nursery rhyme, Pop Goes the Weasel.

Bunhill Fields

Read – Secrets of the City with Iain Sinclair

Exploring Jane Austen’s Worthing with Travis Elborough

Blustery old Worthing. A town overly associated with pensioners escaping risqué Brighton with its lurid temptations. Worthing is decent. But I doubt it had that reputation when Jane Austen stayed there for a few months at the back end of 1805 and used it as the setting for her unfinished novel, Sanditon. Author Travis Elborough covers Austen’s sojourn on the West Sussex coast in one of the chapters of his latest book, The Writer’s Journey. I accompanied Travis on a fantastic stroll around his hometown a couple of weeks ago to shoot a video for my YouTube channel. We looked at The Connaught Theatre, Stanford Cottage (where Jane Austen stayed in 1805), The Dome Cinema as featured in the 1987 film Wish You Were Here starring Emily Lloyd and Tom Bell, Harold Pinter’s place by the sea, The Royal Arcade, Shelley House, Worthing Pier and many more locations. It was a great day. The fish and chips were huge and the batter crispy. The wind nearly blew my beard off.

Travis Elborough at the Dome Cinema, Worthing November 2022 - photo by John Rogers
Travis Elborough at the Dome Cinema, Worthing

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