Patrick Keiller at Housman’s Bookshop (1)

I love the smell of hobby horses in the evening so naturally I went to hear Patrick Keiller, architect-turned-filmmaker and psychogeographer extraordinaire give a talk at Housman’s bookshop a couple of weeks ago. Not that Keiller is a tubthumper at all, in fact in person he is even more considered and gradualist than his films, whose political and economic messages hit you only cumulatively. But left-wing gatherings of any kind redound with wooden neighs and this was no exception, or maybe mumble years of political blogging has just left me impatient with any kind of conversation that isn’t practically all allusive and ultimately deeply civilised. I’m not sure when this happened, maybe I got older, maybe I stopped doing party political blogging, or maybe I just made friends with most of the people who ought to be my enemies, but most of my internet conversations with other politicos these days go something like this:

I’m sort of.”

“Yeah but.”

“Ok.”

“But on the other hand.”

“Oh totally.”

“But I still.”

“Of course.”

“Wanna get a snowcone?”

“Sure.

So it’s always a shock to get out into this Real World I keep hearing so much about and find Others whose idea of a political conversation is asking questions that go on for seven minutes and make compulsory reference to the miners. And I say this with the greatest of affection. We’ve all been there. But I digress: the upshot was that there really wasn’t enough time to explore all the themes we could have done – psychogeography got short shrift which as an armchair archaeologist with a secret longing for woo I found disappointing. What follows are just some randomly spewed out thoughts – there was a lot to the evening and I might return to it.

From an archaeologist’s perspective London the film is essentially a phenomenological record of one man’s experience. Phenomenology has a high-falutin existence as a philosophical concept but has been purloined by archaeologists to mean, essentially, the exploration of how people used and experienced space. Attention is paid to things like access routes, lines of sight, the interplay of light, dark and sound, and the experience of space by different demographics, for example, men, women and children. London is a sort of non-linear journey round town in the company of the narrator Robinson (pretty much a proxy for Keiller, as he owned) who explores the personal and political implications of footage that ranges over ordinary high streets, abandoned industry and buildings at the various seats of economic and political power. At the outset the chair introducing Keiller reflected on how there were different ways of living in and experiencing cities, mentioning the psychogeographical/mystical approach and personal memories. Interestingly I think these elide. Psychogeography can be a deeply personal thing and this is essentially what Robinson’s narrative is about. When I walk around the City, on the face of it an unpromising and largely architecturally modern creation deserted every weekend, I can feel the medieval facades just behind the sheer glass walls, and I am grateful every time that London wasn’t rebuilt after the fire in the manner of Paris. You might say this was a bit woolike and psychogeographical; it is also personal, because I studied medieval buildings and it is my particular understanding of the built environment that prompts this response – I am making a whole raft of personal associations that you won’t. And yes, I am odd, but probably no odder than you are in how you experience the space around you.

Of course, individual memories and associations are not generally something the archaeologist is able to uncover. One of the most insightful questions reflected on the fact that there were very few individuals in Keiller’s films. This is probably surprising from an arts perspective but from the archaeological perspective perfectly natural – we don’t tend to identify individuals in the archaeological record, only classes of people. It left me wondering whether archaeologists might usefully produce similar fictionalised narratives of experiencing space.

I also wondered (and I really should have asked) how the film (which is twenty years old) would differ if it was made now. Obviously twenty more years of history exists to inform the narration, both in the political and economic life of the city and in Keiller’s own life. Would this amount to a completely different sort of phenomenological experience, if an archaeologist compared it to the 1994 film? Logically it must, because we presumably all agree that the experience of living in the first Sumerian cities must have been vastly different to the experience of living in a Roman, medieval or modern city. A city – whether we’re talking about a given individual city or some sort of Platonic ideal – does not stay still. There must be some kind of incremental change in experience as the architectural, political and technological layers accrete, and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be very evident over twenty years. That might give prehistoric archaeologists used to dealing in “blocks” of centuries at a time pause for thought.

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