Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

To Dispel a Great Malady: Robinson in Ruins , the Future of Landscape and the Moving Image Art & Environment

Patrick Keiller’s film Robinson in Ruins was made as part of an AHRC project, ‘The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image’, which also involved Doreen Massey and Patrick Wright as co-researchers. Stephen Daniels introduces the film, while Keiller, Massey and Wright reflect on the ideas that shaped their research.

Robinson in Ruins (2010) is the third in a series of exploratory films by Patrick Keiller charting the travels through England of a fictional Robinson, a character with a literary ancestry in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 castaway Robinson Crusoe and named after a drifter in Franz Kafka’s incomplete first novel Amerika (1927). After arriving from Berlin in the mid-1960s in search of a counter-cultural scene and prehistoric sites, Robinson remains in England to conduct wandering research in a range of locations. Following London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997), Robinson in Ruins is a visually arresting, semi-documentary travelogue, charting the condition of England through closely observed images of the landscape and views of sites encountered and discovered by Robinson on his journeys.1    

Robinson’s travels are told by a narrator who provides a good deal of information on the places visited in voice-overs that range from droll and sardonic (Paul Scofield played the part in the first two films) to emotive and world-weary (Vanessa Redgrave takes on the role in Robinson in Ruins). In each film, the narrator documents details of histories and geographies half-hidden from casual view or conventional opinion, including global networks of finance, corporate trading flows and military installations, particularly those that enclose valued, publicly accessible sites and space. Elusive features at the margins of familiar scenes or off the beaten track are discerned in long-held, highly detailed images. The camera is still but the images are dynamic, often dramatically so, with pulsating movements punctuated by sudden traffic. These movements, along with the travels of the films’ itineraries, are set in a matrix of time as well as space, both natural and social, seasonal and geological, with short moments of economic crisis and long periods of historical transformation.  

There is a prevailing climate of decline in the Robinson films: ‘It is a journey to the end of the world’ announces the narrator at the beginning of London. While the films engage with an established, often mordant sense of recession in English landscape art and writing, which contrasts destructive new development with an older, better world now lost, they put insular versions of this narrative into question.2 Malady and melancholia in the films are not grumpy old English pathologies but more classical, cosmopolitan sensibilities. Decline is charted as a geographical as well as a historical matter, recession in some places connected to progress elsewhere, indeed placed as part of the same cultural and economic process. Moreover decline is not unremitting or inevitable, for the films find redemptive or conciliatory sites in sometimes unexpected places: Ealing Road, Wembley in heavy traffic, Blackpool in a violent gale, orchids on a roadside verge. There are latent possibilities of recovery and renewal. ‘I had embarked on landscape filmmaking in 1981, early in the Thatcher era, after encountering a surrealist tradition in the UK and elsewhere, so that cinematography involved the pursuit of a transformation, radical or otherwise, of everyday reality’, Keiller wrote in 2009 as he was editing Robinson in Ruins. ‘I had forgotten that landscape photography is often motivated by utopian or ideological imperatives, both as a critique of the world, and to demonstrate the possibility of creating a better one.’3

Looking at landscape

The Robinson films stand in a rich tradition of art and literature in a range of media and genres, concerned with revealing and re-imagining the power of landscape. Including documentary writing and image-making, this tradition addresses the physical and social making of landscape, its structure and scenery, its poetics and politics. The films frequently make reference to this tradition, in pictorial and textual quotations and allusions, some of which are oblique. Viewed across traffic in London is a poster of Richard Long’s Watershed 1992 (Tate T12037), a work describing a walk from the River Avon to the River Thames, while in Robinson in Space the Wittenham Clumps – mentioned in the film to be ‘the magic landscape of the painter Paul Nash’ – provides the vantage point of a view of Didcot power station. Scenes in all three films, of Richmond Hill, Maidenhead Bridge and Oxford respectively, allude to the art of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851).    

The geographical axis of the Robinson films is the Thames Valley, the long-standing and continuing avenue of English power and prestige. The journeys in London (fig.1) explore the capital, across its major sites and scenes, in search of literary and artistic byways, notably an excursion across main roads, housing estates and recreation grounds down the River Brent, a tributary valley of the Thames on the unfashionable if cosmopolitan outskirts of the capital from Brent Cross to Brentford.4 In contrast, the itinerary of Robinson in Space begins with a trip downriver from Reading to the Thames estuary at Sheerness, before striking out on six journeys to other major ports, including Bristol, Liverpool, Portsmouth and Hull, taking in their extensive hinterlands of manufacture, distribution and storage (fig.2). Robinson in Ruins is more circumscribed in its itinerary, centring on Oxford and its surrounding countryside and the film is a more or less circular journey through landscapes. 

Each Robinson film occurs during a specific moment of economic and political crisis in Britain during the last two decades, and is set in a particular geographical region, while framing the implications of these times for longer landscape histories and wider cultural predicaments. Set during the banking ‘crash’ of 2008, Robinson in Ruins has some parallels with London set during the so called ‘slump’ of 1992; both events followed by narrow General Election victories for a Conservative Prime Minister. The third film, however, is a more explicit successor to Robinson in Space set during the large Conservative by-election losses of 1995 that heralded a Labour General Election landslide and a period of rising, consumer-driven prosperity. Robinson in Ruins is a more detailed investigation of one of the preceding film’s itineraries up the Thames to Oxford and there are some overlapping subjects – a clump of primroses, US airbases and West Green, a neo-classical National Trust house restored after its bombing by the IRA in 1990. In contrast to the rapid, extensive world of Robinson in Space, Robinson in Ruins is a slower paced, more locally focused film. The landscape of the film is a matter of the physical and social shape of particular sites as well as their wider routes and connections. With its perambulations to harvest fields and ancient sites, its combinations of natural history and social history, and conjunctions of remote and recent events, the film alludes to traditions of regional topography, landscape history, pastoral literature and picturesque art.

A crime committed on Robinson’s previous project (towards the end of Robinson in Space he is suspected of stealing some equipment from a war plane) leads to Robinson’s imprisonment and Robinson in Ruins begins with his release from an open prison heading for the nearest city. In contrast to his strong presence in the previous film, as reported by the male narrator (a fellow researcher, driving a Morris 1100 towards estuary England, spying out the economic condition of the country in the manner of Defoe), Robinson is a more fugitive, somewhat ghostly character in Robinson in Ruins. He has disappeared and the narrator, his former lover, has died. Robinson’s movements are reconstructed through the note book and rolls of film he left behind, this explained by a female narrator, also the lover of the deceased narrator. Hiding out in woods or in the outskirts of the city Robinson wanders down old tracks, coach roads and bridleways and comes across past episodes of struggle over land enclosure reaching back to the sixteenth century, but also encounters the grid of modern transport and communication beyond the motorway and railway, of oil pipelines and satellite communication, the geography of the hard, modern military-industrial state within the softer contours of the countryside. While the camera visits the scenes of historical events, the accompanying narration includes references to off-screen, contemporary events such as the war in Afghanistan, the deepening economic crisis and the government’s rediscovery of manufacturing industry, as well as general subjects including food and energy security, climate change and mass-extinction. Robinson in Ruins focuses on forms of ecological as well as economic degradation. Despite all this, the film reaches an optimistic conclusion. Among Robinson’s notes are plans for a new town, a site of recovery and transformation.   

If Robinson in Space traffics with the aesthetics of the Sublime by encompassing heavy industrial sites, sweeping moorland, surging sea and the shock of economic restructuring, Robinson in Ruins, with its focus on fields, wildflowers, historic sites and the ache of decline traffics with the Picturesque. From a nearby car park Robinson surveys ‘the centre of the island on which he was shipwrecked: “the location”, he wrote, “of a Great Malady that I shall dispel in the manner of Turner by making picturesque views on journeys to sites of scientific and historic interest”’. The prospect evokes the series of elevated views of Oxford made famous by Turner. The distinctive skyline of college domes and towers in the distance is still as recognisable as it was in the nineteenth century, even though the fields in the foreground have been fully built over with houses and the middle distance screened with trees.5 Closer inspection, however, reveals that the city’s dreaming spires are now flanked by two massive cranes, one towering high over the city (fig.3).

Patrick Keiller Oxford seen from Castle Car Park, Cowley in Robinson in Ruins 2010

Oxford seen from Castle Car Park, Cowley in Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins 2010
Courtesy Patrick Keiller

The documenting of current developments in an old, venerable landscape along with successive waves of change in the place’s history is indeed in the manner of Turner. It is particularly characteristic of Turner’s series Picturesque Views of England and Wales made between 1825 and 1838, which reformed the idea of picturesque landscape to document the dramatic changes of that period, including times of economic and political crisis. As with Turner’s picturesque views, the countryside is researched and envisaged in terms of wider and longer material and imaginative geographies, including its connection to urban, industrial and international interests.6

The ‘great malady’ Robinson seeks to dispel in the manner of Turner recalls the words of another cultural wanderer, Charles Baudelaire. In his journal Baudelaire spoke of ‘the great malady, horror of one’s home’, a leitmotif of modernist mobility, particularly for exploratory English writers.7 The maxim is the epigraph of London where it denotes horror of ‘home-made’ English pathologies, including racism, militarism, bad food, sexual repression, hatred of intellectuals and indolence. Another pathology has been added by the time of Robinson in Ruins, neo-liberalism.8

In London, living in the capital, Robinson tends to drift like a  flâneur, engaged in a form of ‘psychic landscaping’ intended to re-imagine London through the work of French modernist writers as a more cultured, cosmopolitan city as if it might have been Paris. This is counterpoised with a more formal, documentary itinerary, an archival-based exploratory research programme conscious of an English landscape tradition – a tradition framed by a prospect made famous by Turner, the view of the Thames Valley looking upstream from Richmond Hill. This Thameside region proved to be the site for a succession of artists and designers, the narrator informs us, to make ‘the first attempts to transform the world by looking at the landscape’.       

The abiding concern of the Robinson films is, as the character states, ‘the authorship of appearances’ by the land’s political and natural powers and by artists and writers travelling through it. The films mobilise a range of image genres, from wide-angled panoramas to focused close-ups, looking deeply into landscape, its detail and structure: ‘Robinson had once said he believed that, if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future.’9 A transformative sequence at the opening of Robinson in Ruins focuses on a roadside sign, in successive stages of magnification and metamorphosis, from its design and function directing traffic on a roundabout to its place as habitat for plant life, for as the words and lettering becomes illegible so can be seen the spread of lichen on the octagonal mesh of the sign’s physical structure. Living remarkably long and hospitable to other organisms, the lichen evokes the vegetal intelligence represented in some science-fiction films and folk art.10     

There are many forms and registers of ruin in the film: derelict caravan, deserted village, gutted mansion, slighted castle, disused quarry and the less picturesque ruinations of collapsing car sales and closed public spaces, all placed in terms of wider, uneven material changes in which ruin in one place may be an integral part of developments elsewhere. The film charts the duration of the natural world, the deep time of geological structures and the life span of humble plants such as primroses which can live up to fifty years, and lichens to five thousand. Plant and insect life is shown in its energetic beauty, a peacock butterfly fluttering on teasels, a force field of fox gloves swaying in the breeze. Over a shot of a spider spinning a web, the narrator tells of the unravelling of the global financial system. The previous Robinson films feature music, but the soundtrack to Robinson in Ruins includes only the sounds of the countryside: birdsong, rustling wind and the hum of car traffic punctuated by the roars of other machines, a combine harvester, a passing container train.

The writer Iain Sinclair has traced connections back to Keiller’s earlier career:

In the first phase of his career, when Patrick worked, as I did, as a part-time lecturer in Walthamstow, he explored out-of-the-way locales, searching for compositions suitable for a catalogue of surrealist architecture. The unfathomable mess of London, which might, if he had to evaluate it, drive him mad, was brought to book: a sewage cathedral alongside muddy Channalsea Creek in the Lower Lea Valley, a coal hopper in Nine Elms Lane, a concrete factory in Gravesend. Somewhere in the background of all these ghosted structures was a railway.

Keiller called his chosen sites ‘found’ architecture. A favoured technique involved spotting possibles from a train window, then making an expedition, by bicycle to bag the view. Like sticking a flag on the moon. Accidents of transit undescribed went into the captured photograph; a private archive that would, eventually, transform itself into a series of groundbreaking films. What Keiller didn’t appreciate, at the start, was that he was being shadowed by future phantoms: the rasping ironies of Paul Scofield, who would become his fictional avatar delivering scripted monologues, and the mysterious Robinson, a being brought into existence as a cultural ‘beard’, to take on adventures the filmmaker was too fastidious to experience at first hand.11

Sinclair also traced a connection with the novelist J.G. Ballard ‘who became so much in his latter days the official prophet of “Edgelands” and the Thames Valley Corridor’:

In Robinson in Ruins those moments of staring, that kind of seizure where everything stops and there is no music, no armature to hold you up, is a true challenge to conditioned cultural reflexes … you’re in there, and you’re staring at a tractor going up and down a field for quite a long time, you’re staring at spiders’ webs. And suddenly I realised that there was a connection here with J.G. Ballard who I’d been looking into, for Ghost Milk, a book I was finishing off. I was on a train, travelling out of London towards the northern rim beyond the M25 and I was reading The Kindness of Women, where I found this Keilleresque statement: ‘Time itself, bundling us headlong towards destinations of its own choice had begun to loosen its grip. A day would last as long as I chose. Leaving my typewriter, I could spend an hour watching a spider build its web. On my walks by the river I stood among the elms and waited for time to calm itself, listening to its measured breath as it settled itself over the forest. I recognised the mystery and beauty of a leaf, the kindness of trees, the wisdom of light.’12

Landscape research

Research is a central subject of the Robinson films, from the investigations of Robinson himself to the sites of research he comes across, including abandoned buildings of post-war weapons research and new privately-sponsored science parks. Robinson in Ruins frames the process and practice of research in manifold ways, as a fictional trope in the script as well as a factual dimension of its filmmaking, including the role of research in the historical reconstruction of episodes in the making and viewing of landscape. The film begins:  

A few years ago, while dismantling a derelict caravan in the corner of a field, a recycling worker found a box containing nineteen film cans and a notebook. Researchers have arranged some of this material as a film, narrated by their institution’s co-founder.

The narrator’s ‘late beloved’ was a co-researcher with Robinson on his previous project, who she met at a conference on documentary film and was latterly considering the public impact of his work: ‘We set up a small research team, with the aim of developing novel definitions of economic wellbeing, based on the transformative potential we attributed to images of landscape.’ The film itself, like the previous ones in the series, records Robinson’s field and library research, though there are fewer facts and figures than in Robinson in Space, with its battery of statistics on imports and exports, and fewer literary and theoretical quotations than London. Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944) was important in determining the film’s itinerary, while other texts are from social histories of the English countryside, particularly places or place names associated with traditions of agrarian unrest and rebellion.    

Robinson in Ruins was made as part of a three-year research project called ‘The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image’, funded by the AHRC Landscape Environment programme. Keiller’s fellow researchers included two authors who have influenced the conception and reception of his previous films, geographer Doreen Massey and historian Patrick Wright, who respectively undertook to write an essay and monograph related to the themes of the film.13   The project was influenced by their previous works: Wright’s On Living in an Old Country (1985), A Journey through Ruins (1991) and The Village that Died for England (1995), and Massey’s influential essay ‘A Global Sense of Place’ (1991) and her books For Space (2005) and World City (2007).14 The researchers’ collaboration dated from Keiller’s Robinson in Space, which was informed by Massey’s essay, and then expanded into a published book that included a conversation between Keiller and Wright.15 The team focused on the temporalities and reconciliatory aspects of landscape and images of landscape, how these figure in cinema and various alternative ways in which landscape can be conceptualised. These discussions were undertaken in meetings and other conversations and by exchanging images and texts, and have been developed further in a series of panel discussions following the release of Robinson in Ruins as a feature film and DVD.

What follows is a summary of the research behind the project, in its theoretical, historical and practical aspects, in the words of the researchers themselves drawn from new or previously published texts.

Patrick Keiller on landscape and cinematography

Patrick Keiller Donnington Castle in Robinson in Ruins 2010

Donnington Castle in Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins 2010
Courtesy BFI

The project set out to investigate received ideas about belonging and other, related subjects, by exploring part of a familiar though not always sympathetically viewed landscape – the southern English ‘countryside’ – equipped with a 35 mm ciné camera.16    

It was prompted by what appeared to be a discrepancy between, on one hand, the cultural and critical attention devoted to experience of mobility and displacement and, on the other, a tacit but seemingly widespread tendency to hold on to formulations of dwelling that derive from a more settled, agricultural past. While the former was extensive, it often seemed to involve regret for the loss or impossibility of the latter, and hence to reinforce, rather than rethink, some easily questionable ideas.

It was conceived as a successor to an earlier project for a similarly exploratory film, Robinson in Space (1997), and a book of the same name (1999), which had managed to dispel an initial, fairly widespread perception of the UK’s material economy, and the supposed decline of its manufacturing sector, in favour of a more accurate understanding. This outcome, it seemed to me (and, more importantly, to others), had confirmed the validity of such a mode of filmmaking as research.

In proposing the project, I referred to the identification of so-called Anglo-Saxon capitalist economies with a degree of cosmopolitanism exemplified by the cultural diversity of the cities of globalised finance, particularly London and New York. This, and an older association of laissez-faire with mobility – the idea that the possibility for industrial capitalism to develop first in England derived partly from the relative freedom of movement of the pre-industrial population – suggested that an exploration of English landscapes might discover something with significance beyond England.

I began the project’s cinematography in early 2008. The first camera subject was an unusually robust structure of plywood and scaffolding that had been erected around an empty Victorian gothic house, following an unsuccessful planning application to demolish and replace it. After several years, I was finally alerted to its photogenic potential when I noticed that it might offer an image to accompany a quotation from Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia: in the passage ‘Refuge for the Homeless’ (1944), Adorno writes that ‘dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible’.17 The footage was photographed on 22 January, the day after the first of many global stock market crashes during 2008. In the end, Adorno’s words were not included in the film, and in what might have been their place is a well-known passage from Fredric Jameson’s The Seeds of Time (1996): ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.’18 The cinematography progressed, its subjects following one from another in a similarly discursive manner so as to represent a journey by a wandering, cracked scholar.


Themes that emerged during the cinematography include oil, nuclear weapons, space exploration and, perhaps unsurprisingly, agriculture; I had been particularly keen to make some footage of the wheat harvest, which was slow, late and damp, continuing until the end of September, in the context of a high, if volatile, price inflated by increased demand and speculation in international markets.       

I had not worked with a ciné camera since photographing Robinson in Space in 1995, and to begin with found it quite difficult to identify camera subjects, wary of producing footage that too closely resembled that of the earlier film and because, while the latter’s subject had suggested many locations, most of them fairly easy to get a picture out of, the present project’s theme was much less obviously imageable. I recalled a sentence in the introduction to Frederic Jameson’s The Seeds of Time: ‘It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’. The most successful camera subjects seemed to offer the possibility of overcoming this weakness, either as clues to how the present, unsustainable economic reality had developed, or by suggesting alternatives, however unlikely.19 I noticed that many of what I considered successful images were of signs, markers, routes or views from high viewpoints, as if they might amount to a non-sedentary perception.

The choice of 35 mm as the originating format for the pictures was made despite knowing that the resulting work would be viewed most commonly in some reduced electronic format. Landscape photography has traditionally favoured large formats which successfully represent the detail characteristic of landscape subjects, such detail being one of several qualities that can combine to create the illusion of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional image.20 In comparison, even the largest moving-picture format, IMAX, is small and 35 mm, the largest practically portable format, offers an emulsion area of only 22 x 16 mm, of which only about 21 x 11.33 mm is seen when projecting in the now-conventional 1.85:1 widescreen ratio. Landscape and architectural photography is often further characterised by finely differentiated contrast and shadow, which also contribute to a mimicked stereoscopy.21 These latter qualities are often achieved with film, typically monochrome photographed in sunlight, but also colour, especially when this offers high levels of contrast and colour-saturation as in, for example, the legendary colour films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which utilised the three-strip technicolor process.22

The most likely electronic alternative to 35 mm would have been HDCam, a high-definition format used as a lower-cost alternative to 35 mm origination of feature films, with the results transferred to 35 mm negative from which prints are made for cinema distribution. I had originated an installation as HDCam in 2006, but its spatial qualities had never quite matched those of 35 mm, and the equipment would have been very expensive to hire for the period anticipated for the present project, purchase being out of the question.

The final decision rested not so much on these considerations as on the materiality of the photographic image. Digital images are, ultimately, data stored on a device in which their originality is not physically located, so that they require continual management, and electronic image and digital file formats are prone to rapid obsolescence. The last ‘film’ I had made was originated as Beta SX, a broadcast-quality digital video format introduced in 1996, for which cameras and editing equipment are no longer produced. In comparison, a photographically originated ciné frame is a reassuringly visible, physical original in a format that has survived for over 110 years and seems likely to continue, if only as a basis for successive electronic copies.

Compared with videotape, film stock is expensive to purchase and process, and the camera’s magazine holds only 122 metres of stock, just over 4 minutes at 25 fps. Film hence tends to involve a greater commitment to an image before starting to turn the camera, and there is pressure to stop as soon as possible, both to limit expenditure and to avoid running out of loaded film. Results are visible only after processing, which, in this case, was usually several days later, by which time some subjects were no longer available and others had changed, so as to rule out the possibility of a retake. I began to wonder why I had never noticed these difficulties before, or whether I had simply forgotten them. Another problem was that, with computer editing, it is no longer usual to make a print to edit. Instead, camera rolls are transferred to video after processing, so that the footage is never seen at its best until the end of the production process. This hybridity of photographic and digital media so emphasises the value of the material, mineral characteristics of film that one begins to reimagine cinematography as a variety of stone-carving.

Doreen Massey on landscape, displacement and belonging

Patrick Keiller Teasels with peacock butterfly, near Woodeaton in Robinson in Ruins

Teasels with peacock butterfly, near Woodeaton in Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins 2010
Courtesy Patrick Keiller

One of the things the film does is reverse the terms in which we often think about belonging.23 So that from asking ‘Do we belong to this place?’ or ‘What does it mean to belong to a place?’ comes a much more challenging question: ‘Does this place belong to us?’ I think one of the functions of the film is to take back the landscape, to provide a way to possess the landscape ourselves.

Robinson keeps running up against exclusion and a landscape shaped and used by wider forces, experienced as absent presences: big systems, huge infrastructural networks, the military, the financial crisis itself, closing in as the spider weaves its web. Central here is the presence of the USA. The question hovers: does this landscape belong even to the United Kingdom? Now this could be read in a ‘Little Englander’ way. There is certainly a persistent hostility to the UK’s abject obeisance to the United States of America, and its military strategy around the world. But this is a particular politics. So we find the detailing of the dispossession of the public through privatisation: that this piece of the landscape is now part-owned by a pension fund from Canada, for instance. By the second half of the film, the public is forced to rescue financial institutions from the disaster they and their markets have created. And people are taking their money ‘to the Post Office, and the Cooperative Bank’. This is not local protectionism but a critique of dispossession.

The brief moment of explicit contemplation upon a possible alternative future focuses on reforming landownership and democratic government, and the development of a form of industry and agriculture less based on oil. The location for these musings is the quarry at Shipton-on-Cherwell, geographically right by, and narratively intertwined with, the film’s preoccupation with enclosure – a crucial form of displacement and dispossession. The rising by Bartholomew Steer and his fellows had been provoked by facts and fears of enclosure, the effects exacerbated by the scarcity of grain. But again this is no story of a romanticised Heideggerian localism. Steer had hoped that people would join in from a wide area round about, and the historian John Walter documents the numerous routes by which in those days news and plans might travel. This was about connections not a bounded localness. Indeed the place that was chosen to be the centre of the rising was Bletchingdon, the focus of a ‘constellation of roads and ways … along which people and ideas could move’.24 It seems significant in relation to the structure of the film that these roads and ways ‘all fed into the main London road running through the parish, bringing news of the city and knowledge of the 1595 disorders and later discontent upon which Steer set such store’.25

This road is the B4027, a road which runs through the film. It is first encountered as ‘what had once been the coach road from London to Aberystwyth’, and Robinson spends a lot of time in its vicinity: ‘He was interested in the coach road. He sensed it might lead him to an important destination’. The first contemplation of wheat comes as Robinson lingers in the area, and the narrative voice speaks of a doubling in its price (‘There had been bread riots in Egypt, and several other countries’). And it is on this same road that Steer’s rising failed to travel that the film ends: ‘the last images he made were of a milestone on the Aberystwyth coach road, which measures 58 miles to London.’

The denial of belonging runs through the film. The historian E.P. Thompson, in his book The Making of the English Working Class, writes of enclosure that ‘The loss of the commons entailed, for the poor, a radical sense of displacement’.26 Feeling you belong to a place in no way necessarily entails that it belongs to you, nor that you have to move to be displaced. And the latter sense of belonging poses the bigger political question. Early on in the film, pondering Shelley’s expulsion from the University of Oxford, we are reminded of what he wrote in The Masque of Anarchy (1819) after the massacre at Peterloo: ‘All things have a home but one / Thou, oh Englishman, hast none!’

The very notion of ‘landscape’ seems to induce an effect of smoothing. The very fact of visual continuity implies a kind of present reconciliation.27 In this guise it resonates with that notion of space as a simple surface. Travelling across a landscape is travelling across space.28 This film could be seen as such a travelling. It could seem to be precisely that form of representation as spatialisation. It spaces out the landscape. The camera films from a constellation of locations from which it can piece the landscape together. But the form of the film itself declares that this is in no sense a simple surface. The camera does not film while moving. It films when it stops, and at each point when it does so, it dwells upon a story. It pauses at a horse chestnut tree, which has a history. These trees were brought to northern Europe, the viewer is told, from Turkey (around the time, as it happens, when Bartholomew Steer was trying to organise his uprising, proclaiming the politics of Cockayne). They are also bound up in a history that led to ‘British’ support for Jewish settlement in Palestine. Bound up, in other words, in a region with an unknown and certainly contested future, yet to be made. An ongoing story. It stops next at the Pelican Inn, site of the meeting at Speenhamland, a key moment in the contested emergence to dominance in the UK of capitalist market relations, and then it stops at Greenham Common, and at Aldermaston, at Silchester and West Green House whose story links back to St Augustine of Hippo, via Rabelais, and threads forward to Lord McAlpine of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party and neoliberalism. The camera stays still at each point; it concentrates; in some small measure it gives each its due. And at each point we are in the midst of an ongoing story.

Landscape here is not allowed its smoothing effect, its subtle operation of reconciliation. The conventional continuity of landscape, and of the founding conception of space upon which it rests, is punctuated by a multiplicity of stories. This, for me, is the significance of the spatial assembling of these pieces of film, and of the fact that while filming the camera is still. It brings us the simultaneity of stories-so-far that really is that slice through time that is space. Not a stasis, but a dynamic simultaneity.

This aspect of the construction of the film in itself bears witness to a way of understanding landscape that coincides with this conceptualisation of space as imbued with temporality. First, this is a temporal narrative in the obvious sense that it is a journey, and the sequence of the film reflects the sequence of the journey (indeed the film has ‘chapters’ following the sequence of months). Secondly, this journey does not follow a linear route in a spatial sense. The different forays Robinson makes cross-cut each other, turn back, revisit, set locations in different contexts. What we are given is not a spatial forward march to match the framing temporal one. Rather this is a constellation of locations within a larger landscape, which are cumulatively constructed. Thirdly, what the camera comes across is only rarely a wide picture of a ‘landscape’ but rather lots of distinct, though sometimes related, specific histories. Multiple temporalities. The structure of the overarching narrative of the journeys, in other words, is actually the fact of intersecting with a multiplicity of other stories. The temporality of the month-by-month exploration is not a classic ‘plot’ but a process of discovery. The landscape too is a simultaneity of stories-so-far. Finally, this discovery of stories, and what they tell us, allows us to build a political argument.

Patrick Wright on encroachment and the symbolic legacies of English country life

Road sign on approach to the Kennington Roundabout, Abingdon Road, Oxford, in Robinson in Ruins 2010

Road sign on approach to the Kennington Roundabout, Abingdon Road, Oxford, in Robinson in Ruins 2010
Courtesy Patrick Keiller

During the three years of the project, Patrick Keiller remained consistently wary of the parochialism that has defined so many invocations of ‘Englishness’. Yet, in its own oblique way, his film opens a critical perspective on the countryside as it has been used over many years to articulate this cause too. This is the issue of encroachment, narratives of cultural and physical encroachment, which is the subject of my contribution to the project.

Consider Keiller’s treatment of the road sign found at the approach to the Kennington roundabout on Oxford’s Abingdon Road. Lingering, as Keiller obliges his viewer to do, over the sight of that expanding patch of lichen, I found myself directed to different correspondence, not to the Speenhamland magistrates described in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation (1944) and not to Bruno Latour , the modern philosopher whose arguments about the ‘non-human’ were in Keiller’s thoughts as he filmed the lichen. Instead, I remembered three lines from G.K. Chesterton’s long poem about Alfred’s England, ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ (1911), in which another white wayside sign finds its outline threatened by organic presences creeping in from its edges.

The turf crawled and the fungus crept,
And the little sorrel, while all men slept,
Unwrought the work of man.29  

It is a matter not of modern letters this time, but of an ancient white horse – ‘the White Horse of the White Horse Vale’ – carved in the chalk of a southern English hillside. Though portrayed as an immemorial presence as old as human history, this emblem of England will only survive for as long as people care sufficiently to keep it scoured white and to pluck out encroaching plants. The passage comes towards the end of the poem, when Chesterton describes the neglect that occurs when Alfred is away fighting his last battle against the Danes.

Chesterton’s archaic white horse is not presented merely as an ‘icon’ that might be added to a tourist board’s inventory of established English avatars. Instead, it is presented as the positive term in a martial narrative that values its chosen embodiment of the nation by projecting it against a host of negative forces threatening to obliterate it. Though strongly polarised, the two terms also become vital to each other’s definition. The valued nation tends to be thrust back into the past by the contrast, closed-off and represented as an endangered ‘heritage’. The present, meanwhile, is stripped of its open-ended potentiality and reduced to a more or less overwhelming threat of obliteration.

Such is the charge of which these encroachment narratives are capable that a single leaf can suggest an ever-expanding host of looming catastrophes. ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ finds its tension in a chalky contest between culture and nature, but in other writings Chesterton discovers equivalents to the sorrel, fungus and crawling turf within human society – and not just in the distant shape of the Vikings who kept King Alfred from his native husbandry.

In Chesterton’s novel The Flying Inn (1914), the symbolic English hero (a genial and commonsensical village publican named Humphrey Pump) is challenged by an exotic host of alienating forces ranging from modernist artists, whose pictures could be hung sideways or upside-down without making any difference to pretentious viewers at a thinly disguised Tate Gallery, to cranky, teetotalling, and almost certainly Fabian intellectuals, who drink cocoa rather than beer, adopt alien creeds and, when they finally become ministers of their beloved reforming state, cannot wait to impose a Muslim ban on alcohol consumption in England. As for the nation’s roads, Chesterton had found them baleful long before the 1960s when public officials got around to imposing the system of signage designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert. In his imagination straight roads were a Roman imposition: the design of a centralised authority that was quite alien to the benign wanderings of the ‘rolling English drunkard’ who had originally made the ‘Rolling English Road’.30  

Chesterton was a comic writer, and yet this counterpoising of purity and danger, the latter embodied in the thought of a threatening ‘other’, is also characteristic of the ‘principle of nationalism’ described by the anthropologist Ernest Gellner (1925–1995) among other unmistakably serious analysts.31 Certainly, in the English case a suspicion of modern ‘encroachment’ remained a defining feature of the countryside as people rallied to its defence through the twentieth century, and by no means only for country people accustomed to worrying about weeds and vermin. 

As Chesterton knew, ‘encroachment’ stood alongside ‘enclosure’ in the destruction of many of England’s commons in the early modern period.32 It was an actual form of expropriation and displacement, which combined with desperate poverty to motivate protestors such as Bartholomew Steer of the planned ‘Oxfordshire Rising’ of 1596  – an event that, as Keiller shows, failed to take place somewhere in the vicinity of the satellite dishes nowadays crowning Enslow Hill. The forces of ruin had achieved a new and multiple form by the early nineteenth century, when William Cobbett, much admired by Chesterton, fulminated against the agrarian and industrial revolutions and the taxing consequences of the Napoleonic wars, and he too made extravagant use of the symbolism of encroachment in his defence of the traditional countryside.

By reviewing this history, I do not mean to suggest that the imagined autarchy of ‘little England’ is adequate to the world surveyed in Robinson in Ruins. Neither the film nor our associated researches inclined us to mistake the future for a lost English past. This is not to say that concerns which may earlier have been expressed that way cannot still be found in English experience and brought  into a more open relation to contemporary reality.

In our discussions throughout the project, we have doubted the more or less exclusive emphasis that recent theorists such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have been inclined to place on the migrant, as if the only authentic subject of our time is the one whose life tells of horizontal movement between cultures.33 We have also been interested in the experience of more situated and vertically integrated peoples and classes, and in the different ways in which ‘placed’ cultures may be affected by the same economic and political currents compelling the migrant’s journey. Also we have talked about the common, and not just to read it back into English history as the site of virtuous popular struggles extending from Bartholomew Steer, through the seventeenth-century Diggers to Cobbett and beyond. Just as ‘encroachment’ remains an abiding problem for those still using common lands in substantial areas of the world – including India and much of Africa – so does the common, considered as a working principle rather than simply a patch of land, continue to suggest a way of organising resources different from both private property and collectivised state ownership. It has currency as a system in which users have differentiated rights, all of them premised on the understanding that their usage must exist in balance with that of others. Potentialities such as these may perhaps justify the choice of the phrase ‘the future of landscape’ in the title of this research project.

A story-so-far

As the above contributions to this paper by the research team show, the project may have formally ended, with much of the work, including and especially the film, now complete, but it is still developing in various forms and displays a robust afterlife. The project is, in Doreen Massey’s phrase on the history it describes, a ‘story-so-far’. And it was always so, as Patrick Keiller describes how once camera work began, and with the original theme of dwelling in mind, he responded to the most dramatic tale of the unexpected in recent times, the financial crisis of 2008, to incorporate it in the narrative of the film. An abiding theme of all three Robinson films, the historical erosion of a benevolent public sector, including its cultural patronage, seems even more telling in the period since the release of Robinson in Ruins in a climate of concern about the scale and distribution of public funding for the arts and humanities. The continuing economic recession, and its various narratives of ruin and possible renewal, have combined and competed with the narratives of the natural world explored in the film. Viewing Robinson in Ruins provokes us to think again of the environment as a cultural as well as ecological medium, as a support system for the formulation, interpretation and exploration of ideas, including the making and meaning of works like Keiller’s film and the wider research project and programme of which it is a part.


See also