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A feeling for Nature: Patrick Keiller's The View From The Train

This compelling collection of Keiller’s writings from 1982 to 2010 reveals the film-maker’s particular approach to and perceptive comments on Britain’s built environment, as Tom Wilkinson’s laudatory review demonstrates

Walter Benjamin once described his friend, the trained architect and journalist Siegfried Kracauer, as a rag-picker at the break of dawn − the dump in question being the Weimar Republic and the coming day that of revolution. We all know how that turned out. Fast forward 80 years and the midden of modern Britain − its half-light more readily associated with the setting sun − swarms with so many snappers-up of unconsidered trifles that one sometimes wonders that there are any trifles left, considered or otherwise. Bodysnatchers Ackroyd and Sinclair chant their necromantic babble in by-now-all-too-familiar forgotten byways, while hordes of photographers and bloggers, suffused with the comforting warmth of left-wing melancholy, squat among the ruins of the welfare state like so many Richard IIs: for God’s sake let us sit upon the ground. And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

Patrick Keiller is buoyed above this rabble of ruin-addicts by both style and substance. His cult films are composed of motionless and depopulated shots of the manmade environment, accompanied by narratives related by fictional characters. The best known of these, 1994’s London, has a voiceover by the mellifluous Paul Schofield which tells of the narrator’s friend and former lover Robinson, a slightly pooterish academic railing against Thatcherite despoliation as they perambulate the capital together (‘London was the first metropolis to disappear’). Schofield could make the telephone book sound pregnant with meaning, but Keiller’s prose stands up by itself − as is revealed by this collection of his essays from 1982 to the present. It has a cadence that imbues his unpretentious language with a poetic elegance of its own.

His structures too are stylish, as well as being multifarious and delightfully wayward, so that the kind of repetition that is inevitable in a collection such as this does not elicit frustration but curiosity as to how he will approach his quarry next. A case in point is the essay ‘Atmosphere, Palimpsest and Other Interpretations of Landscape’ (first published in 1983). My heart sank when I saw the title − by the time I got to art school the description of landscape as a palimpsest was feeling worn out − but Keiller’s technique and magpie eye gives the trope special significance. He opens the piece with a reminiscence of watching gritty British cop show Z Cars, then moves in rapid succession through the Dee Valley, the classicising paintings of Richard Wilson, the romanticism of de Quincey and Poe, and finishes with a novel reading of Night of the Living Dead. The zombie-filled landscape, he says, is ‘elegantly photographed in sylvan black and white − not at all noir − it presents a poetic if melancholy scene.’ But after the shocking denouement, the ‘camera ceases to flatter: the sky is bleached, the composition blunt.’ ‘As always,’ he concludes, ‘the meaning of the landscape resides only in the imagination of whoever looks on it.’


Patrick Keiller’s haunting photographs illustrate his book The View from the Train

Elsewhere Keiller turns his eye on port statistics, the disastrous state of British housing, Dickens’ chalet (which he visits with Cedric Price), early film, and what he calls ‘electronic flânerie’. If this sounds like it could be a tiresomely fidget-arsed approach to writing, it should be noted that there is a serious critical intent to Keiller’s montage technique. This is set out in the first essay, ‘The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape’. Here Keiller explains that before he began making films, he would narrate slide shows of his architectural photography. This is an enlightening revelation of the genesis of his practice; apparently he continues to work by assembling a series of images first, only then writing a narrative to accompany them. The pictures themselves are taken with an eye to what Aragon called the ‘feeling for nature’: a frisson by which an object or place conveys an idea materially. This, Keiller says, is the essence of photography and film, and has a revolutionary potential: ‘transformations of everyday space are … glimpses of what could happen, and indeed does happen at moments of intense collectivity, during demonstrations, revolutions and wars.’ This optimistic judgement of photography disregards his own misgiving that ‘indiscriminate transformations of the ordinary into the miraculous now form one of the mainstays of advertising’, but the piece was written in 1982, and since then things have changed somewhat.

Keiller ends the book with a sobering assessment of the flocks of flâneurs who have swept London in the intervening 30 years: if the dérive and psychogeography were intended by the Situationists to be preliminaries to the creation of revolutionary spaces, ‘in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and … to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods’. Walking with more assurance than many do today the tightrope between the admiration of the revolutionary potential of the fragment, and the aestheticisation of poverty, Keiller offers a salutary reminder not to get too dewy eyed when gazing upon ruins.

The View from the Train: Cities and other Landscapes

Author: Patrick Keiller
Editor: Verso
Price: £14.99

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