Robinson's Wake

Originally published in The Wells Street Journal, Issue 12, Winter 2019.

A response to Patrick Keiller’s 1994 film London, in which Robinson and his companion drift around the city in search of the mysterious ‘problem of London’. Here, Calderón and his companion take up the mantle 25 years on, not aiming to find the solution, but the precise nature of the problem. You can enjoy this piece without seeing the film, but if you’d like to see the film, you can do so here.

(Images use stills from London, 1994)

London, March 29th 2019

Calderón is disaffected. When I tell him again that some of the railings south of the river are made from stretchers used in the war, he repeats that he knows. He discovered it watching Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) yesterday, as I probably had years before. He was struck by a line in which the narrator notes that he and his companion Robinson ‘seem to be attempting to travel through time’ (London, 1994). Calderón’s depression has built following the narrow Tory victory in the 2017 elections and as Britain prepares to leave the European Union following the referendum of 2016. Brexit is supposed to happen today, but the government’s position is weak and it seems unlikely. Calderón is yet to decide if he is a Brexiteer or a Remoaner, but he knows that indecisiveness is the cause of both his and his nation’s maladies. He should very much like to travel through time.

He declared to me last night that the problem Robinson sought to uncover in England was still unsolved, so we met early this morning at Vauxhall station under a light London fog to try again. Our expedition begins, as did Robinson’s, in a corner of Vauxhall Park, at the confluence where Fentiman Road and Miles Street trickle into South Lambeth Road. Robinson stood here and listened to the gateposts, hearing faintly Dickens, but also Holmes, who travelled here on the number 2 from Baker Street. He worried about the future of this bus:

London, he [Robinson] says, is a city under siege from a sub-urban government, which uses homelessness, pollution, crime and the most expensive and run-down public transport system of any metropolitan city in Europe as weapons against Londoners’ lingering desire for the freedoms of city life.

(London, 1994)

Twenty-seven years on and the number 2 is still running, so I tell Calderón that this could not have been the problem with England. I am sceptical about Robinson’s process.

Keiller’s Robinson undertook his personal investigation into the problem of London in 1992, during the most devastating year of attacks by the IRA on the English capital. Later, this time paid, Robinson delved into the problem of England in Robinson in Space (1997) and, more recently still, into the problem of Earth in Robinson in Ruins (2010). All three attempts failed and Robinson was left more damaged by each expedition. I worry for Calderón because he mirrors Robinson in so many ways and this problematising seems quixotic.

Although Calderón plotted our expedition to the birthplace of English Romanticism on his phone, he refuses to look at it. This is where he wishes to best Robinson, through the practice of Debord’s dérive, in which the French thinker encourages the situationist[1] to ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’ (Debord, 1956). Calderón hopes to drift through the psychogeographical[2] contours of the city as dictated by his interpretation of Debord: he will turn when he finds a street aesthetically pleasing or when encountering a vortex which encourages entry, safe in the knowledge that he will reach Strawberry Hill. He carries a spinner ripped from a game of Twister, reborn in the shape of a tadpole, which he will spin to determine his direction, should aesthetics and vortexes fail him.

As usual, Calderón has not read Debord’s theory thoroughly, becoming distracted late at night by the prospect of crafting an amphibious spinner. For Debord, the spinner is an imbecility. It represents the limitations of chance which ‘condemned to a dismal failure the famous aimless wandering attempted in 1923 by four surrealists’ (Debord, 1956). I won’t tell Calderón, because I don’t want to add to his malady and because I am more interested in Keiller’s psychogeography than Debord’s. Debord is French and theoretical where Keiller is practical, raised in the hard English North, like Defoe’s half-German Robinson Crusoe. He walks through the architectural currents of the city, bringing Robinson and his narrator along to use as punctuation for his thoughts. Robinson is Keiller’s capital letter, pulling him into debate and partiality, and the narrator is his full stop, drawing his arguments to a close and leaving space for mulling-over in the lassitude of the softly lapping Thames.

I am keen to see the model boats on the Long Pond at Clapham Common, but Calderón is becoming steadily more agitated, so we continue. He seems to regret bringing me along. He told me, when he called last night, that Debord says ‘the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness’ (Debord, 1956). On Clapham Common, however, it is painfully clear that we are not two people who have reached the same level of awareness and when I look at his disappointed expression, I find myself disappointed in my own failure to understand him.

Calderón shows me a photo of the bust of Charles I over the door to Banqueting House and quotes from London:

The failure of the English Revolution, said Robinson, is all around us: in the Westminster constitution; in Ireland; and poisoning English attitudes to Europe.

(London, 1994)

When Keiller was filming in January 1992, he encountered the royalist commemoration of the 343rd anniversary of the king’s execution. This year, the 370th anniversary passed us by with no lasting resonance, but the poisonous failure of the English Revolution permeates still, and the rot is deepening. Robinson was a committed Marxist and Europhile; I am a committed Europhile and Calderón is a Marxist. I tell him that Brexit represents a total lack of respect for a century of political progress and he tells me that progress is a false, Victorian doctrine. He scowls because we are both members of a Middle Class, but he dislikes me more than he does himself for my grandfather’s claims to bourgeois nobility.

Like Robinson, Calderón sees his purpose through the lens of his truth, which is work. Defoe’s eponymous Robinson Crusoe was self-reliant and self-regulatory; his life on the island was managed by periods of work. The Robinson of Michel Tournier’s Friday worked even when the work was purposeless. Keiller’s Robinson worked part-time to support his research projects, which themselves became work (Robinson, 2017, pp. 74-75). Calderón hates me because, as he attests, I have never worked. I was born with a silver spoon which has been replaced by a fountain pen. He tells me there is no truth in art anymore, but I have read Apollinaire and I know that art is now another name for work, which is truth. Calderón knows his work here is vital in some way, but he does not understand that the psychogeographic method through which he completes his work is art, just as the stones for Amphion’s wall around the Cadmea were compelled into place by his lyre (Pausanius, 1918, 6.20.18). I quote Apollinaire to him: “Vous fiasiez l’amphionie sans le savoir” (Apollinaire, 1910, p. 235). Calderón does not speak French, so instead he scowls again, and we continue to Wandsworth Common.

On the Common we finally encounter Keiller’s palimpsest. At nine minutes past seven on the morning of 10th March 1992, a small explosive device was set off beside the railway line which bisects the common. It came just weeks after a larger device exploded at London Bridge Station, injuring 29 people (HC Deb, 1996). Nobody was injured during this attack, largely due to a coded warning received by Westminster Hospital at half past six (LBC/IRN, 1992). After 10th March, there were 36 further terrorist incidents in London attributed to the IRA (HC Deb, 1996). Today, a woman walks her dog over the bridge and an elderly couple sit on a bench. Today, Calderón and I stand on the bridge Robinson and his companion could not cross on 10th March 1992, and all we know of the IRA is what the letters stand for. Just beyond the Northside Field is the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building. Initially, it was an asylum for orphaned girls of servicemen who died during the Crimean War and it’s said to be haunted still by the ghost of one such orphan. In the First World War it became the South Western General Hospital, where a temporary railway line brought thousands of wounded soldiers for treatment. During the Second World War, it was the London Reception Centre, a cruel euphemism for an alien processing station run by MI6 and Colonel Pinto, where European refugees would be interrogated (RVPB, n.d.).

Here is a place where ‘events might take place’; a historical palimpsest and a place of contemporary mythology (Keiller, 2013, p. 11). If cities have ‘psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones’ (Debord, 1956), if one can feel, as Aragon felt, ‘the great power that certain places, certain sights exercised’ (Aragon, 1980), then that power must come through history, or perhaps history which, through art, has become mythology.

I should like to visit the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, but Calderón worries that I will distract him from his purpose by ranting again about English attitudes towards Europe and the post-war foundations of the Union. Instead, we stand on the bridge which halted Robinson, and Calderón spins his tadpole, which sends us south west toward the cemetery. Calderón believes the problem of England might be found between here and Twickenham, since Keiller skipped over this leg of the expedition. He believes there is some secret Keiller did not wish to be revealed, something that Robinson could not comprehend.

Because of his purpose, Calderón likes to see parallels. Rather than seeing the text scraped from the parchment and replaced by other events as Keiller does, he likes to see the text gone over with a ballpoint pen again and again until the page is rife with thick, black figures and occasional tears. History, he says, will repeat itself until the problem is solved and the wheel broken. He likens this, occasionally, to the perpetual oppression of the proletariat and their promised revolution. In London, our narrator is shocked to find such an increase in people sleeping rough in London while he has been away. Calderón carries statistics which say that homelessness in London has increased by 173% over the last decade (Homeless Link, 2017). I suggest to him that this perhaps is the problem with London, but he responds that it is merely one of many symptoms.

He also mentions a sequence in the film during which the narrator comments on the miners’ strike following the newly re-elected Tory government’s plan to close a third of Britain’s deep coal mines in October 1992. I’m keen to point out that the coal industry has contributed significantly to the climate crisis, but Calderón will have none of it. He marvels at the will of the working people, but was overcome with grief when Keiller showed the crowds departing from Speaker’s Corner: dispersed, individual, powerless. Last weekend, a vast host gathered on Park Lane to call for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. After the rally, the crowds departed: dispersed, individual, powerless. A strong and stable government which has always been clear in its intentions, deaf to the will of its people. Tinker, Tailor, Major, May. That’s not the whole problem, Calderón tells me. It’s another symptom of the rot.

We don’t find the problem in Keiller’s hidden leg; the cut is simply practical cinematography. In Ham, though, Calderón finds what he perceives to be a target for Robinson’s crusade:

He argued that the failure of London was rooted in the English fear of cities, a Protestant fear of Popery and socialism, a fear of Europe that had disenfranchised Londoners and undermined their society. He denounced the anachronisms of the city and its constitutional privileges

(London, 1994)

In Ham Common we find an English village green, surrounded by actual Georgian mansions. Calderón looks ready to spit. The goal of the Londoner is to get out, but the money lives in London. The richest live in villages protected from developers by a high wall of cash and the local councillors sitting on top. These people dislike the city and the people who live there, but they commute to the civic void daily. It’s where they earn, where they drink, where they argue and where they see their mistresses. They are blind to the psychogeographical contours and vortexes of unitary urbanism.

Calderón is already down in the dumps when we stop for a few hours to watch the river at Teddington Lock. Unless the key to the problem lies in Twickenham, he will not find it today. Keiller talks of a place ‘inextricably bound up with the state of mind of the characters who inhabit or observe them’ (Keiller, 2013, p. 11), but this place is calm and easy. The lock-keeper laughs with the skipper of a canal boat and a seagull laughs along with them. I am calm, but Calderón is a brooding storm.

The fog has not lifted by the time we reach Walpole’s castle. Calderón can’t decide here whether he agrees with Robinson on the essence of a Romantic life. He thinks Robinson too self-centred. He will continue his work tomorrow at the library of St Mary’s University and in Poe’s grotto, so we stay the night in Twickenham. The next morning, I wake at five thirty in Europe.

[1] The situationists, including Guy Debord, were a group of intellectuals and artists who attempted to marry anti-authoritarian Marxism and early 20th century avant-garde art movements with a modern critique of mid-20th century advanced capitalism. The Situationist International, an organisation of situationists, was initially focused on artistic expressions, through concepts like unitary urbanism and psychogeography, but later developed to be more theoretically and politically conscious. They believed that art was fundamentally political, and rejected any art which attempted to separate itself from politics.

[2] Psychogeography is the practice of exploring urban space, with an emphasis on playfulness and the concept of drifting, where the boundaries between art and life (and occasionally politics) are dissolved. Debord defined psychogeography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions or behaviour of individuals’ (Debord, 1981).


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