The ending of Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) saw the fictional academic Robinson and his loyal but un-named narrator (voiced by Paul Scofield) drowning in a sea of absence. Having criss-crossed the city of London in a desperate search for its hidden nature, the pair eventually collapse. Exhausted, deflated and defeated. London, they announce, is a city without essence. Devoid of any underlying meaning or fundamental essence, Britain’s capital is a hermeneutic desert. A space in which no meaning can grow and into which visitors are forced to carry any truths they may need in order to keep themselves alive.
Robinson in Space marks the return of London’s intrepid duo. This time the pair are hired by an un-named international advertising agency to produce a similar report on the unspecified ‘problem of England’. However, despite travelling further and further across the country, Robinson’s initial romanticism about England proves to be just as deluded as his romanticism about London. Indeed, neither an enchanted kingdom full of art and fellowship nor a gothic landscape full of dread and oppression, England reveals itself as a land of facts. Tedious, maddening, preposterous facts.
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It is difficult enough to try and capture the meaning of a book or a film, but how about attempting to distill the essence of a particular time or a particular place? How about an entire city? Travel writing is an attempt to do exactly this. To take the experience of a particular place at a particular time and distill it down into the collection of sounds and symbols that make up the written word. Thought of in these terms, the task seems onerous. After all… books are creatures of words. Even films are beings of language once you bear in mind their scripts, their budget meetings and the attempts by directors to tell actors and technicians alike exactly what they want from a particular scene. To write about the meaning of words is one thing but to write about something bigger than language is another. Something like the city of London.
Patrick Keiller’s London is a combination of documentary film and extended essay. Its un-named narrator (voiced by Paul Scofield) tells of his cross-London walks and expeditions in the company of a quixotic academic known only as Robinson. Robinson has a very particular vision of London. A vision he desperately wants to be true, and if it cannot be true then it must be about to come true. But as the pair cross and re-cross the city of London along with its suburbs, financial districts, parks and run-down estates, it soon becomes clear that London will not conform to any single vision and that this refusal to conform is the very essence of the Mother of All Cities.
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