It would be dishonest to commence without an admission of probable bias: I was beaten by the problem of London.
In mid-2009, like many graduates from “up North” – a collection of concepts that extends beyond Birmingham – I moved to London. By the end of 2010, I had gone from four months of fortnightly visits to the job centre in Brixton, to spending evenings at the top of the Gherkin with City types who wanted to look as though they were engaged in the art world. Then, as rapidly as I’d entered, London spat me out, at which point I moved back to the North, unsure as to where I’d been or what exactly I had been doing, financially and spiritually ruined.
In hindsight the clues were as obvious as a broken fibula; London is weird. Anybody who takes more than a cursory glance at the capital city will note that it is a place of miraculous flux; a stroll down any street provides a view of the United Kingdom’s complete economic spectrum, as well as all the social, political and philosophical problems we’re able to name.
London is a place where opposites don’t simply co-exist in the same place; they have been hardwired into its fabric. It might even be the case that it is the actual fabric – the landscape – that causes the phenomena. The inhabitants are forced to either find a suitable rhythm or they are swallowed.
What, then, is the problem of London? Is it something specific like the cost of living, the number of tourists, the prices of tickets for the theatre, the overabundance of fried kitchen outlets from which you can acquire a junior spesh, the lack of parking and the over-zealousness of attendants? These topics are all relevant concerns, but they’re symptomatic – the problem is less tangible.
The diagnosis occurs in Patrick Keiller’s 1994 film, London. This eccentric documentary-cum-cinepoeme follows the wanderings of an unseen and unnamed narrator (Paul Scofield) and his similarly unseen companion, an academic called Robinson. London features no actors in the conventional sense; all of the footage is of actual events, which means that the only character we technically meet is the one played by London. It plays itself and no, it did not win a BAFTA.
Keiller’s narrator tells us that for seven years Robinson has been wrestling with what he calls “the problem of London”; we join the pair on three walks around the city as they investigate and unstitch the details.
In interviews, Keiller has described the film as a joke about a man who would be happier if London was more like Paris; at one point the BT Tower is imaginatively reconstructed as a monument to Rimbaud and Verlaine, and the narrator regularly relays Robinson’s observations about Parisian poets who’ve apparently left their mark on London. This is a nod to the tradition of French urban writing, which in recent years has received critical popularity as psychogeography*. All jokes, however, contain within them a nugget of truth, and in this instance it brings the problem into clearer light.
There is something weirdly familiar about the images and events of London, all from 1992. Cosmetically, the city looks the same; a shot of Lincoln’s Inn Field, for instance, – the swanky home of where I used to work – reveals what looks like the same group of homeless people who loiter around there this very day. But the familiarity goes deeper; there is a sort of grief in the zeitgeist (to steal a phrase from the French intellectual Lyotard). And it’s not just because John Major gets re-elected during the film.
Robinson informs us that London is a city under siege from a suburban government that uses “homelessness, overpopulation, crime” and an over-priced and defunct transport system as “weapons against Londoners”. He describes the City of London as the preserve of international finance, so sheltered and disconnected from the rest of the capital that it requires it’s own police force. Public space is under threat from commercial reconstruction, libraries and hospitals face closure due to cuts and so on; this omelette needn’t be over-egged.
The real trick in London, though, is that Keiller encourages the viewer to consider all of the above, not as topics discussed during Question Time, but in their direct relationship with the space and materiality of the city. It’s only when we do this that we will see that London is actually defined by what it no longer is or perhaps never was; as Robinson puts it, “[t]he true identity of London is in its absence. As a city, it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern: London was the first metropolis to disappear.” Instead of identity there is the cosmopolitan homogeneity; instead of public space, there are inexorable road works, no-go areas and trespassing signs; instead of an effective government and a visible economy, there is the dictatorship of the City and the service sector.
With the above in mind, it becomes clear that any film based in London automatically tackles the problem. Hollywood, for instance, gives us the hyperreality of Notting Hill and Love Actually in which the city’s sizeable non-white population has gone AWOL. And then there are actual films such as Mike Leigh’s breathtakingly underrated Naked from 1994, in which the thoroughly unpleasant (though alarmingly charming) Mancunian protagonist, Johnny, drifts around the streets of London encountering a series of its alienated characters, each one hollowed or shattered by the problem of London life. One in particular, a security guard, has the unenviable job of guarding, as he describes it himself, “empty space”. In one scene, London itself appears to consume Johnny, when it conspires to conjure up a gang of lads from thin air to batter him in an ally.
Another London-based film, Nil by Mouth, Gary Oldman’s 1997 writing and directorial debut, offers a dismal take on the problem, presenting the suffocated lives of working class South Londoners. Oldman depicts a modernist cacophony of crumbling council estates and graffitied playgrounds through claustrophobic camerawork, which paints with intense detail the mechanisms of social decay. The problem of London allows us to reconsider, for instance, the crack addiction of Billy, who spends most of the time moving from one place to another as though unable to dislodge himself from a conveyor belt. His addiction, in this case, appears more like the by-product of this rhythm, as opposed to the cause of it. And while the film attempts to conclude on a relatively positive note, we know from our 2011 vantage point that London remains the site of soaring levels of poverty as the wealth gap expands at a rate that confounds sense.
The recent news that a council in London has declared war on the homeless would not have surprised Robinson. I imagine he’d view it as just another episode in the problem; a reorganisation of the city’s fabric as the coalition embarks on its programme of supposedly necessary public sector cuts. Incidentally, in Keiller’s subsequent film, Robinson in Space, Robinson expands his study to take on the problem of England. But for the time being we should stay attuned to the fluctuations in London, as more protests occur, more people lose their jobs, and more (young) people inevitably find themselves being swallowed.
*Psychogeography is a term was first properly defined by Guy Debord, the famous radical intellectual, as: “The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals."