Arthur Rimbaud's shimmering poetry collection, Illuminations, was partly inspired by his visit to London in 1872. Brocaded with a dizzy-making imagery of subways, viaducts, raised canals, bridges and steam engines, the poems are thrillingly metropolitan. Accompanied by his lover Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud noted down all he heard and saw. In some ways, Illuminations can be read as a poetic gloss on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital: the London masses as seen by the 19th-century French poet are alienated by “economic horrors” and “feel no need to know one another”.
In 1994, the British film-maker Patrick Keiller released his now-legendary documentary, London, in which a Rimbaud-like collage of shopfronts, roofscapes and urban dereliction in general was overlaid by the voice of a nameless, highly educated narrator. In world-weary tones, the narrator (Paul Scofield) told of a series of literary pilgrimages undertaken into the boondocks of London in the company of his one-time lover Robinson, a disaffected intellectual and occasional lecturer at the “University of Barking”.
Their homosexual relationship (one of “uneasy bickering”) is intended to recall that of Rimbaud with the older Verlaine. Shadowed by Scotland Yard, the disreputable French couple had boozed in Soho taverns and taken up in a sordid Fitzrovia hotel.(The hotel, the narrator typically tells us, was demolished in 1969 in order to make way for the phallic-looking General Post Office tower.
Unfolding as a Daniel Defoe-like chronicle of the times, Keiller's film offered caustic reflections on John Major’s re-election in 1992 and the wounds inflicted that year on London by the IRA. Elements of urban surrealism were interwoven, brilliantly, with pavement-pounding politics. A sign for the Magritte Exhibition was juxtaposed with a long shot of the M16 building; the exterior of a shabby-looking spiritualist centre prompted the narrator to discourse on the spook-dabbling of Conan Doyle. London was followed by the films Robinson in Spaceand Robinson in Ruins, which together reflected on the industrial sumplands and collapsed industries of drab, post-Major Britain.
In this collection of essays, Keiller continues his exploration of British cities and their landscapes. In the manner of Iain Sinclair and other London “psycho-geographers”, he finds a beauty in urban hinterlands. Among the detergent-tainted waterways and disused factories of contemporary Britain is an overlooked realm of vanished industrial splendours, whose historical significance should not be forgotten. Along the way, Keiller dilates knowledgeably on such literary urbanites as Edgar Allan Poe (who went to boarding school in north London), De Quincey and Apollinaire, all of whom conjured surreal images of industrial London. Though Keiller’s own writing smells strong of the lamp and things intellectual, it often delights with its sly, impish wit and observation.
Especially good are his essays on the 1960s police television series Z Cars, and on Charles Dickens’s imitation Swiss chalet house in Rochester (sent over from Switzerland in flat-packed sections, IKEA-style). Again like Sinclair, Keiller sees London as a city of “absences”: London began life as a port, but now the port is absent.
By a combination of neglect and indifference, Thatcher reduced Britain’s manufacturing capability to assembling foreign-designed cars and aeroplanes in foreign-owned factories. The financial services were supposed to redeem the economy, but in the post-Concorde 21st century the financial services are no longer seen to work.
British landscapes are accordingly filled with old “spiky mobile phone aerials”, ailing “commuter villages” and a proliferation of boundary fences, some of them rusted. The threadbareness of British manufacturing seems equally to grieve and fascinate Keiller: few can forget the image in London of Concorde rising like a prehistoric bird over wretched-looking Heathrow housing.
City dilapidation holds a dark if oddly attractive allure for Keiller. “The public lavatories are in a terrible state,” he typically writes of his Oxford neighbourhood, “but they are very photogenic”. Many of the drosscapes chronicled in these pages, with their sinister-looking police training centres, security businesses and new prisons, are disconcerting enough, though the meaning of a landscape “resides only in the imagination of whoever looks at it”, Keiller writes. The View from the Train, by turns earnest and entertaining, opens a window onto Britain’s uncharted, off-piste lands and their haunted past.