The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes

9781781687765-e406078c7d60b6e833cbb24f8c19c712Patrick Keiller (2013) Verso

I loved The View From the Train, my only critique is that it’s a bit repetitive…but with a collection of essays I suppose that’s par for the course. I’m a big fan of the Robinson films, and it is so so cool to get some of the thinking behind them and the process of making them — narrated in much the same fashion. They also start in a very different place, and hold very different assumptions than I do, though our side is the same as is our love of wandering and obsession with the city.

Both London and Robinson in Space had set out with a perception of economic failure, the result of a backward, specifically English capitalism; but in the second film, this gave way to an understanding that the UK’s social and physical impoverishment was not a consequence of some inevitable ‘decline’, but of the successful operation of a particular economic system in the interests of those who own it. The ‘problem’ that the film had set out to examine was revealed as the result of political decisions that could be challenged’ (6).

It is unique and more theoretical (Lefebvre is used in wholly new ways), and at the same time in the same vein of other London writers and ‘psychogeographers’ (Sinclair especially), which in itself I find fascinating. But they all pull from much the same canon (which I love, but there area few others I might just love more). Two quotes:

–from Benjamin’s essay on surrealism, ‘where he identifies the revolutionary potential of “everything we have experienced on mournful railway journeys…on godforsaken Sunday afternoon” (4).

–Bernard Tschumi writes that for Bataille ‘architecture covers the scene of the crime with monuments’ (18).

The rest of the cannon includes De Qincey, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Aragon. Among them, as Keiller writes:

The desire to transform the world is not uncommon, and there are a number of ways of fulfilling it. On of these is by adopting a certain subjectivity, aggressive or passive, deliberately sought or simply the result of mood, which alters experience of the world, and so transforms it (9).

This formulation of the revolutionary nature of the writers, surrealists, situationists so often cited is an interesting one. I never knew that the surrealists tried to organise a ‘tourist’ event, on 14 April, 1921. Organised by Breton, it was to bring their insights gained from brothel and suburb exploration to the public, to ‘put in unison the unconscious of the city with the unconscious of men’ (14). But it rained, no tourists arrived, the rest of the tours were cancelled.

I also love some of the ideas behind the photography:

This visual material deliberately depicts places that are nearly or altogether devoid of human presence and activity, but which because of this absence are suggestive of what could happen, or what might have happened…. The aim is to depict the place as some sort of historical palimpsest, and/or the corollary of this, an exposition of a state of mind (11).

I loved the insights into decline, from ‘Port Statistics’, a wonderful examination of the docks and in 2001, an interesting foreshadowing of what was to come:

In the UK, wealth is not confined to a conservative nomenklatura, but the condition of, say, public transport or state-sector secondary schools indicates that the governing class does not have a great deal of use for them. People whose everyday experience is of decayed surroundings, pollution, cash-starved public services, job insecurity, part-time employment or freelancing tend to forget about the UK’s wealth. We have been inclined to think that we are living at a time of economic decline, to regret the loss of the visible manufacturing economy, and to lower our expectations. We dismiss the government’s claims that the UK is ‘the most successful enterprise economy in Europe’, but are more inclined to accept that there might b less money for schools and hospitals, if only because of the cost of financing mass unemployment (46)

From ‘The Dilapidated Dwelling’:

…under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling. This is especially odd given that dwellings constitute the greater part of the built environment, that they are the spaces where most people spend most of their time, and where arguably the real ‘work’ of society is done. Modernity, it seems, I exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling (54)

Interestingly though, we differ greatly in the meaning of home and the meaning of dwelling. I myself love these old houses, these Victorian and Georgian rows. I dream of a city where the are neither dilapidated nor obsessively maintained to historic code by the wealthy. But I would welcome genuinely new architectural designs for homes and common living, and agree that none have been forthcoming, at least not here. Written in 1998,this comes before the majority of the ‘loft’ and ‘luxury flat’ development for wealthy young professionals emerging from regeneration. Part of me thinks they deserve those boxy and unimaginative and shoddily-constructed status symbols, if only the rest of us didn’t have to look at them. If only to build them, they didn’t first have to destroy. For myself, and perhaps from the vantage point of the next generation, it is hard to imagine this:

The volume of new construction is now less than it used to be, and western cities have not change anything like as much as was expected in, say, the early 1960s (70).

But gentrification is in here:

in London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification
…. The great irony of the UK’s psychogeography phenomenon is that its invocation of the flaneur only narrowly preceded an almost immediate commodification of cafĂ© culture (71).

The same idea in relation to psychogeography’s surrealist and situationist antecedents:

At the time [1990s], I suggested that their purpose had been overlooked: the derive and psychogeography were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods (186).

This brings us to the urban and capitalism:

Capitalism both destroys and creates places, but the places it creates seem always, at least to begin with, less substantial, less rich, than the places it destroys…On the other hand, modern capitalism also gives place high value–partly by making its sought-after qualities scarce, partly by concentrating power in the global system in particular places: New York, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Paris, London, and so on. In the interstices of all this–in more or less dilapidated domestic spaces, as ‘consumers’ (neither passive nor docile)–we live our lives (73)

And finally just the voice:

–‘The UKs production of desirable artefacts is certainly lamentable (and confirms the stereotype of a nation run by Phillistines with unattractive attitudes to sexuality’ (45).

–repression and S&M hunt the Conservatives in a way that cannot be put down simply to the influence of the public schools (48).

This is just an odd collection of thoughts to do with what I am working on now, but there is so much more here on film and SF and an entertaining narrative of a trip to Rochester and some modern pictures inset with old pictures matched perfectly to the streetscape in ways that destabilize our sense of reality — the strength of film and photography perhaps as he argues.

Save

Leave a Reply