"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." — Samuel Johnson

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

City of Absence

Many films have London as their location - few actually have London as the prime subject.  Patrick Keiller's melancholic film London captures the essence of the place like no other film. Paul Scofield's hypnotic voice narrates a series of forays across London made in the company of the unseen protagonist Robinson, as they follow in the footsteps of poets, exiles and visionaries such as Montaigne, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Poe and try to uncover 'the problem of London.'  Set in 1992 against a backdrop of political, economic and cultural decline, their wanderings take them from the heart of the City to the far reaches of suburbia, and portray a London which is crumbling, deeply divided and alienating but at the same time 'so exotic, so home-made.'

The film consists of a series of static shots of sometimes startling beauty and resonance, accompanied by Scofield's ironic voiceover and an elegiac soundtrack and evokes a London which has gone forever, even though the film was made a relatively short time ago in 1994.  There is a deeply melancholic and nostalgic feeling permeating the whole film, which stems from the perception of the void at the centre of modern urban life.  The narrator's voice muses "For Londoners, London is obscured, too thinly spread, too private for anyone to know, its social life invisible, its government abolished.... the true identity of London is in its absence."  Iain Sinclair describes this absence as a 'necropolis of fretful ghosts, a labyrinth of quotations: not so much the ruin of a great city as the surgical removal of its soul.' (1)

There is a quietness and stillness about the film which is mesmerising.  One of the most memorable sequences is a short scene showing a pair of young children playing in the dappled sunlight of Arnold Circus in Shoreditch, East London, the sounds of the children's cries ringing out against the intermittent distant traffic noise and rustling of pigeons' wings - an island of calm and tranquillity.

Still from London by Patrick Keiller
Still from London by Patrick Keiller
Still from London by Patrick Keiller

Arnold Circus is part of the Boundary Estate, the first example of social housing development built by the London County Council in 1897 to replace one of London's most notorious slum areas - The Old Nichol Street Rookery - and immortalised in Arthur Morrison's fictionalised account of the life of a slum child A Child of the Jago.  The rubble from the slum clearance was used to make a mound in the centre of the Circus, site of the bandstand which is still in existence.  In the film Robinson considers the estate to be 'a fragment of a golden age, a utopia.'

Little changed, the area still feels like a peaceful backwater that resonates with a sense of the past although only a stone's throw from the galleries, shops and cafes of rapidly changing Shoreditch. Walking around there recently it was relatively easy to visualise the scenes from the film and I understood what attracted Keiller to the place.....

Keiller's London documents a bygone era but the concerns of the film seem particularly relevant to the current political, economic and social situation.  Possibly a case of what goes around, comes around...... 

(1) Sinclair, Iain: London: Necropolis of fretful ghosts, essay in the booklet accompanying the DVD London and Robinson in Space 

Monday, 7 March 2011

Infinite City

Continuing on from my last post as I follow Janet Cardiff's mysterious tour of the Whitechapel area....

The voice on the disc guides you through the streets towards Brick Lane and the surrounding area of Spitalfields with its rich and many-layered history.  The area has witnessed waves of immigration over the centuries - Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Bangladeshis have all made their home here. As the sound of her footsteps echoes through the streets and in your brain, you realise that every step of the way you are treading in the paths of previous generations. "How can we just walk over the footsteps and not remember?" she asks, as she relates a story of a man who waited for 20 years for the woman he loved to return, all the while playing his violin in his room.

At every turn there is evidence of London's endless cycle of regeneration, the old cheek by jowl with the new. She wonders whether the construction workers are aware of their role as 'changers of the city, the men who cover up the old stories making room for new ones.'  The tapping of her footsteps on the paving stones seem to emphasise the unfathomable immensity of the city - not just in its spread but in its depth, its layers reaching back far into time and resurfacing at odd moments in an architectural detail or an obscure place name. She observes that "The city is infinite. No-one has ever found an end to the pattern of the streets. Eventually the buildings reproduce themselves - a cornice that mimics another, a door that is the same colour as hundreds of others; every possible permutation - unlimited but cyclical."

This is what Peter Ackroyd refers to when he describes London as 'echoic' - the idea of the city as constantly reinventing itself, yet retaining its basic identity: 
"It has been said that no stone ever leaves London but is reused and redeployed, adding to that great pile upon which the city rests.  The paradox here is of continual change and constant underlying identity; it is at the core of the antiquarian passion for a continually altering and expanding city which nevertheless remains an echo chamber for stray memories and unfulfilled desires." (1)
And as people pass through the labyrinth of streets, they leave traces of their presence behind them as they go....

"Keep walking past the newstand.  Dead Woman Identified." she whispers.

With my imagination fired by the tangled web of narratives and multiple layers of sounds, my perambulations end fittingly in a nearby railway station - a repository of countless unknown stories, criss-crossing briefly but rarely coinciding.  As she stands on the walkway looking down on the concourse, her voice muses "I like watching the people from here.  All of these lives heading off in different directions, one story overlapping with another....."

I follow her instructions, but as I stand there with my camera and survey the scene, I notice that I have been spotted .  I smile in a conciliatory way but three pairs of hostile eyes continue to return my gaze with such intensity, that I scuttle off and head for the tube.  It seems ironic that in these days of constant surveillance and ubiquitous digital camera footage, the mere sight of a photographer with a camera in a railway station can provoke such suspicion.

(1)  Ackroyd, Peter:  London The Biography