From the formal statues of its center to the supermarkets and bus stations at the outer reaches of the underground map, Patrick Keiller spent the year of 1992 training his camera, always static, on England’s capital. An architect turned filmmaker as flâneur, Keiller is keenly attuned to the fissures of history, whilst not immune to creating new mythologies. Throughout London, a playful sensibility meets sincere anger at the ravages inflicted on the city and its inhabitants through thirteen years of Tory rule.
The two protagonists of London remain unseen. Our narrator (Paul Scofield), a cruise ship photographer, is recalled to London following a seven year absence by his erstwhile lover Robinson, to join his “exercises in psychic landscaping, drifting, and free association.” Journeying by foot and by bus, the two delve into the “problem of London”, whilst searching for the roots of English romanticism. Robinson’s character is named for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, making the narrator his Man Friday, and the city itself an island. The exiled Russian socialist Alexander Herzen is quoted: “there is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude than London.” The narrator considers the city is “full of interesting people, most of whom, like Robinson, would rather be elsewhere.” On a series of walks across the capital, their meditation through literature, politics and the urban environment blurs the edges of narrative, documentary and essay filmmaking, making London an engaging cousin to the work of the Left bank directors, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Agnes Varda.
Through image and narration, the past and present rub together, but this is to be no nostalgic expedition into the city of the popular imagination, as this observation by the narrator quickly confirms: “Robinson is no conservationist, but he misses the smell of cigarette ash and urine that used to linger in the neo-Georgian phone boxes that appear on London postcards.” His taste is for the uncelebrated corners of the metropolis, its street markets and shopping malls. Reflecting this, Brent Cross Shopping Center is the only location privileged with something approximating a tracking shot, thanks to the camera’s placement on an escalator.
On two occasions the couple cross paths with a pair of Peruvian musicians, successors perhaps to the foreign visitors of the past whose travels are alighted on: the aforementioned Herzon, the romantic interludes of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Apollinaire. And Monet. Mischievously delaying a cut to the River Thames, Keiller discusses the view seen from his hotel window as the camera trains its attention on a huge billboard displaying a member of the male striptease troupe The Chippendales. Of such distant travelers to the city, the one perhaps most apposite to the project of London is Laurence Sterne, a regular visitor to the city following the success of Tristram Shandy in 1759. For Robinson, Sterne’s claim that “duration is the succession of ideas which follow and succeed each other in our minds like the images on the inside of a lantern turned round by the heat of a candle” marks him as the inventor of cinema. Tristram Shandy itself is a novel built on a series of comic digressions, much as the route of the flâneur consists of one digression after another.
London contains plenty of digressions, from an excursion to the trooping of the color ceremony that marks the Queen’s official birthday, to a lunch in IKEA. More seriously, the couple are repeatedly waylaid thanks to the regular planting of bombs by the Irish Republican Army. While the link isn’t made explicit, we are invited to consider the atrocities of the IRA next to the actions of the British State when couple witness the Queen Mother unveiling a statue commemorating Sir Arthur Harris. The statue today sits largely ignored in the Aldwych but, as documented in the film, it was highly controversial in 1992. ‘Bomber’ Harris was responsible for devastating attacks on German civilian centers, including Dresden, during World War Two, and protests against the monument came from both citizens of London and from German officials.
Contemporary politics give the film some of its most memorable monologues. The backdrop is an election year, the first after Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, and for Robinson, as for all of us living in London at that time, the stakes were high. He worries for his job, the libraries, public transport, and the city continuing without an elected local authority following Thatcher’s politically motivated abolition of the Greater London Authority. On election day itself, the couple observe a trio of confident young urban professionals exiting the polling station on Charing Cross Road, and late that night they stand out of place on the edge of Smith Square where re-elected Prime Minister John Major addresses the crowd. Robinson ruefully observes that “the middle class in England had continued to vote Conservative because in their miserable hearts they still believed it was in their interest to do so,” before predicting a series of horrendous consequences leading to his early demise. “For the old or anyone with children it would be much worse,” he continues.
Keiller has directed two sequels to London. While Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010) depart from the city to explore other parts of the country, twenty five years after Robinson and his Man Friday ventured across their island, I find myself wondering what a return to the capital might look like. Whilst I doubt Robinson would have admired New Labour (I have not seen Robinson in Ruins at the time of writing ), Blair did resolve two “problems of London,” reintroducing an elected body to the city and ushering in the Good Friday agreement, bringing an end to attacks by the IRA. Today, London faces a very different kind of terrorism. A fancy of Robinson’s, that the financial center of London might again become a destination for bohemians, was undoubtably unrealistic. In fact, the opposite is closer to the truth, the well heeled City workers having now settled into the then affordable, artist filled neighborhoods of Stoke Newington, Hackney, and even King’s Cross. The last, highly insalubrious in 1992, was one to which I myself was making regular pilgrimages at the time, my nascent interest in cinema drawing me repeatedly to the still much missed Scala Cinema.
From the children playing in the street by their council estate to the Notting Hill Carnival, Patrick Keiller focuses on a London defined by its diversity. This is a city that welcomes millions of incomers every day, be they commuters from the suburbs or stray musicians from another continent. It is a city that has welcomed those, like Alexander Herzen, forced to flee their own country, whilst colorful figures such as Rimbaud and Verlaine, and so many names unknown, have added their own patchwork to the metropolis. Viewing the film today, one of Robinson’s most poignant laments regards the Londoner’s fear of Europe. Brexit, and the weakened Conservative government seeking to usher it in, would surely loom over a new version of London. Robinson might get cold comfort from the knowledge that the closed vision of Britain which narrowly won the referendum was roundly rejected by the inhabitants of its capital.