Filmmaking and the problem of London

Thoughts on the essays of architectural filmmaker Patrick Keiller and the restless creativity induced by the experience of living in London.

This year I decided to experiment with making London videos – specifically, the 6-second looping variety that people share on Vine. It’s a possibility opened up to me by the power of a new little computer I carry around in my back pocket – my phone. I can capture high-quality audio and visual footage, then adjust the colours, edit the sequence and overdub sound effects – all as I make my way through London on weekend strolls, lunchtime walkabouts and 15-minute train commutes.

Graffiti of an eye in a telescope

As a form, the 6-second Vine video loop is not really long enough for satisfying storytelling – at best, you might be able to achieve a kind of Hemingway 6-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” But it does offer something different from the frozen photographic moment.

Whether in continuous take or jump cut, the looping nature of Vine videos makes them feel like an audio-visual pattern. In keeping my eyes and ears open for suitable subjects around London to experiment with, I often find myself drawn to moving colours and shapes that suggest an inherent city rhythm.

London Vines

In this Vine, vivid streaks of light from a stationary police car have been transformed into strobes by the scissoring motion of commuters’ strides. It seemed inevitably to require a disco beat.

Some of the Vines I’ve made could be likened to moving photographs, like a gently nodding daffodil that frames a distant shot of Big Ben.

I like the opportunity this looping form presents for finding patterns of motion in the city: the wind riffling through the blossom of a street tree, the bright splash of raindrops on wet black tarmac, a stream of headlamps on a twilight arterial road, the blink of a faulty light in the porch of an apartment block.

The View from the Train

At the same time, I’ve been reading “The View from the Train”, a collection of essays by architectural cinematographer, Patrick Keiller. It’s interesting to see his evolution as a filmmaker concerned with urban space and the experience of being in London – and how he transformed the literary wandering of Baudelaire, Benjamin and Aragon in Paris into his own peculiarly British response to London.

Again and again in his essays, Keiller revisits the Surrealist conception of space: “To endow with a poetic value that which does not yet possess it, to wilfully restrict the field of view so as to intensify expression: these are two properties that help make cinematic décor the adequate setting of modern beauty.” (Louis Aragon, “On Décor”, 1918.)

In his 1994 film “London”, Keiller’s narrator recounts a series of journeys through the city with “his companion and ex-lover Robinson, a disenfranchised, would-be intellectual, petty bourgeois part-time lecturer”. Robinson is investigating the “problem of London”, which Keiller identifies as a resistance to the kind of urban daydreaming possible in European cities of homogenous architecture and endless avenues like Paris. On the other hand, through the pompous discourse of Robinson, Keiller is able to identify a different transformational quality particular to the space-impoverished jumble of London:

The 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 city to disappear.

Having lost its medieval centre, its mighty port and industry, its hills and rivers, its self image – London is a city of loss. Although Londoners may dream of a home in the counties and the countries beyond the M25, they continue to live in this city because it offers an opportunity for transformation – even in its architectural fabric.

A London state of mind

And yet how far does London allow its inhabitants to project a state of mind as opposed to forcing a state of mind upon them?

I like how Keiller ponders the ageing housing stock of London and suggests that this stasis in our places of dwelling, combined with rapid technological advances in the way we experience space (eg through smart phones), naturally inclines Londoners towards psychogeography. Our living space doesn’t change so we find imaginative ways to change it.

I’m also interested in the character of an architectural filmmaker who has rejected the numbing domesticity of a life in the provinces for the restless creativity of a life in London, who scours the city looking for out-of-time buildings and spaces, for ways to restrict the field of vision, so that light and movement can transform urban absences into places of poetry.

Read more: why we look for lost London…

Why we look for lost London

Some thoughts on a lost London street and how looking for the city’s past can become a search through your own archive.

Clock-face made in LondonA couple of years ago I wrote a story about a man who, as he recovers from a serious car accident, finds himself feeling detached from his family and haunted by dreams of a London street that no longer exists. He was dreaming of Holywell Street, which was a narrow thoroughfare of tall timber-framed houses that once lay between the churches of St Mary-le-Strand and St Clement Danes, parallel to the Strand in London.

The twin churches, with their tapering octagonal spires, remain today as two peaceful islands amid the flow of buses and taxis along the Strand, but Holywell Street is no more – at the turn of the last century it was cleared away, along with a slum of alleys and courts around Clare Market, to widen the Strand to traffic and make way for the crescent of Aldwych and the prong of Kingsway.

I was interested in some of the ironies that had attached themselves to Holywell Street. The tall houses with their overhanging eaves were often reproduced by artists, but they were also dirty and dilapidated. The street’s name, Holywell, was derived from a curative spring for Canterbury-bound pilgrims, but the Victorian street had a reputation for housing booksellers of salacious prints and publications. The street was pretty and perverse in equal measure.

Holywell StreetThe desire associated with the images of this London street, and the images sold on this London street, seemed somehow to affix itself to the desire to know a place lost to the past and to the state of detachment and longing that arises from the wandering of city streets.

The story didn’t come alive, the wrong choice of character I think, and is lost to my notebooks. But the imaginative state that city-walking, particularly London-walking, induces is a source of continuing fascination.

Our city of ‘absences’ (Patrick Keiller) or ‘disappearances’ (Iain Sinclair) seems to encourage a melancholic wandering while reflecting on loss. This may be because London is visually characterised by destruction – its motley architecture formed from fire, from bombs and from the wrecking ball, as well as from the resistance of conservation movements. But it may also become more personal.

The art of getting lost

Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for a quite different schooling.

Walter Benjamin, ‘A Berlin Chronicle’ (1932, published 1970)

Despite its size, physically getting lost in London today is difficult: its dense signage and mesh of transport routes surely prevent all but the most blinkered wanderer from losing their way. And there are map apps aplenty for anyone carrying a smart phone with them.

But there is something desirable about getting lost in the place in which you live and work: a promise of self-discovery. As Rebecca Solnit notes in ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ (2006): “That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”

Perhaps this is why there is such a publishing industry around ‘lost London’, from hardback books of early photographs taken by image collectors like the 19th-century Society for Photographing Relics of Old London, to guides to forgotten areas of the city, such as ‘The London Nobody Knows’ (1962) and the newly published ‘Vanished London’, to anthologies of London-set prose and poetry.

I think the ‘lost’ of these lost Londons has a double, interlinked meaning: by contemplating what we have lost we wish to lose and find ourselves.

London melancholia

Bricked-up Victorian window in Peckham Rye that looks like a closed eyeUrban melancholy is not particular to London – Orhan Pamuk on Istanbul or Jan Morris on Trieste are two of my favourite European examples – but London has a particular urban melancholy. It might still be in the narrowness of the streets, or in their ancient of names, or in the closed eyes of bricked-up Victorian windows, or in the silent cranes of building sites at night, or in the dispersing vapour trails of aeroplanes flying over disused chimneys.

London’s Victorian legacy plays a strong part in this – and how once rural villages with their own identities have been amalgamated into the city mass, and how, on any particular walk, you seem to pass through various time zones. A few Saturdays ago I walked from the de-industrialised canal at Hackney Cut past the empty stadia of the Olympic Park to the artist-filled factories of Fish Island, across the six-lane A12 to the lakes and lawns of Victoria Park. In each planned and organic layer of the city are the traces of lost intentions.

Coming out of the fog

When you first move to a city as great as London, it can make you feel lost – dispossessed by your home town or your country of origin. A territory as large as London can never feel like home. That’s why you need to find your patch, whether it’s Peckham Rye or Finsbury Park.

There’s a wonderful chapter on city solitude in Jonathan Raban’s ‘Soft City’ (1974) that begins: “It is as easy to lose other people in a city as it is to mislay one’s umbrella. They are always being carried away by the crowd.” Raban describes how making personal connections in London, such as through computer dating (quite prescient for 1974), can be a means of “coming out of the fog”, and considers how this city-born(e) phenomena of London fog became a metaphor for isolation and disappearances in the works of London writers like Dickens.

Raban also writes of solitude as being the “prize and the penalty” of city living. To live in urban exile may be as liberating as it is imprisoning when you consider where or who you may have escaped from.

From A to B to A to Z

A pool of sunlight and a painted arrow on Lyndhurst Grove, Peckham RyeThe process of becoming a Londoner is the finding of your neighbourhood, and the establishing of the A to B of your commute. And, from time to time, for reasons of expediency, whether love life or rising rents, you may find other A to Bs, sometimes making great switches of allegiances from north to south, east to west.

This process also involves the joining up of places, knowing your Tube map or your bus routes, walking from one area to another, and looking out beyond the condensation of the bus window.

And perhaps the process of belonging to London is finally realised when you find yourself walking along a street or through a square, by the canal or by the river, remembering the times you’ve been there before – and you discover that how you felt then, and how you feel now, is reflected in the look of the city.

Read about early archive field recordings of London…

Sounds of lost London: early field recordings, and memories of the city

An evening of archive field recordings by the London Sound Survey inspires a remembrance of lost time.

London's most recognized sound, the marking out of time by Big Ben
London’s most recognized sound, the chiming of Big Ben, is one that marks time

I’ve recently been working in Westminster and, as I’ve shuffled down Victoria Street with the other commuters, I’ve heard a beggar tooting out tunes through a traffic cone, actors advertising lunch-break performances of Shakespeare and, of course, Big Ben sounding out 9am – all above the engines of endless cars, cabs, coaches and buses, and even horses and carriages.

I’m sure I’ll never forgot this period where I’ve marked out my working day with London’s mightiest clock, but even the city’s more humble sounds can evoke memories of past routines and phases of life, like the high-pitch electric whirr of Jubilee Line trains that brings to mind an old commute from Willesden Green, or the low drone of planes descending to Heathrow that accompanied a time I lived in Twickenham.

But can you feel nostalgic for the sounds of London you weren’t alive to hear?

This question came up during a wonderful audio tour of archived BBC actuality recordings given by Ian Rawes of the London Sound Survey last month. These included street cries from the 1950s: a coal seller on a misty December morning, a loquacious jellied eel seller in Cambridge Circus, a violet seller, a muffin seller, a chair mender… all long since disappeared from the streets of our city.

You can find many of these atmospheric audio clips curated on the London Sound Survey website (along with contemporary field recordings plotted on various London maps old and new), but it was a treat to be talked through the stories and personalities attached to each of these snippets.

Horses and carriage in rush hour traffic on Victoria Street
Horses and carriage in rush hour traffic on Victoria Street

Each time we went further back in time with the clips, Ian pointed out the ratio of people still alive from that era, until we left living memory all together for the final recording: Handel’s ‘Messiah’ performed by a choir at the Crystal Palace in 1888 and captured on a wax cylinder. Hearing the frail quality of the recording and thinking about its relative antiquity brought something like a wave of sadness over me – was I feeling nostalgia for a forgotten time?

Even though chance has saved this fragment of audio from disposal or destruction, its partial nature evoked in me a longing for something lost to return. Indeed, the place where the singing was recorded has also disappeared, the Crystal Palace having burnt down in 1936, but if, like me, you’ve lived in that neighbourhood, then even now you can sense the poignancy of its absence on the skyline and may wish for its return.

The evening’s other particularly memorable recording for me was the song of a Battersea-dwelling lavender seller from 1938. Again there was something strikingly melancholy about the sound and the way it had been recorded. I found myself solemnly whistling the tune the next day – and so a lost sound lives on!

Vaughn Williams incorporated the cry of the violet seller into his ‘London Symphony’ and, serendipitously, I just found out that a new London Symphony is being created as a film for silent cinema. I’ll be interested to see how the makers renew this retro format, interpreting the angles, movements and sounds of London’s buildings, transport and inhabitants with cinematic visuals and an orchestral score to inspire an emotional or aesthetic response to the city.

As I consider how to use sound in my own story writing, I wonder if it is the incidental field recordings in the heads of Londoners, how they fuse with our habitual and transitory routes through the city, and the chance re-encounters we have with those sounds, that together have a power to induce feelings and memories. Could a particular city sound – the chime of a bell, the cry of a trader, the shudder of a cab’s motor – be akin to Proust’s biting of a madeleine, a sudden sensory input that brings back the past with irrepressible force?