London: Why Is It so Hard to Enjoy?

By Mark Fisher

In Godard’s Pierrot le fou, Jean-Paul Belmondo telephones Paris from the Riviera to say farewell to his family before killing himself. In his absence the names of the telephone exchanges have been changed to digits. He asks for a Balzac number, only to be told by the operator, ‘Balzac n’existe pas’. He stands there, struck with incredulity, and repeats softly, ‘Balzac n’existe pas?

It is somewhat less easy to delete a capital city but in recent years people in Britain have done their best to disregard London. For the Scots, Irish and Welsh, London is an English city to be descended upon for football matches and viewed with suspicion as the seat of imposed UK government. People in the English regions have long resented what they perceive as the soft richness and privilege of the southern capital. The Thatcher government did its best to destroy London’s coherence, abolishing the GLC and abandoning its future to a collection of independent boroughs, kept in check by a financial stranglehold. The Major government’s attention to a few national symbols, such as the restoration of the Albert Memorial, only aggravates the sense of alienation felt by non-Londoners.

In short, people in Britain seem to have lost any sense of identifying with their capital. As a result one of the world’s greatest cities languishes. While the futures of Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and other European cities have been the subject of intense debate, planning and investment, London’s has been left to the vagaries of market forces.

So, a film which sets out to look at the present condition of London is welcome and overdue, particularly when the film-maker demonstrates that he cares about the city; understands its rivers, public spaces, architecture; seeks out its corners and curiosities, its alleyways and antiquities; knows its history in extraordinary detail.

He takes a refreshingly European view of the city, the one-time home of Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Monet and Apollinaire, and has a good sense of its moods, its multiculturalism and the relationship between its past and its future. His film is observant, well-researched and knowledgeable. Why then, with all these virtues is it so hard to enjoy? Why does it drag along, one-paced, displaying neither energy nor passion, when its intentions are so honourable?

Part of the problem lies in its artificial structure. It is viewed through the eyes of two (unseen) characters, a narrator (the voice of Paul Scofield) returning to London after seven years, and his friend, Robinson, with whom he used to live. Their resumed relationship is played out against a discourse on London which takes the form of a series of walks around the city.

I found it impossible to engage with this half-hearted story device. Scofield’s mournful voice failed to provoke curiosity about either of these two highly intelligent depressives. The crucial requirement of all drama – the desire to know more, to know why, to know what will happen next – was totally absent.

The walks, intended presumably to be formal, measured 18th-century peregrinations, limped. The string music laid over many scenes was funereal rather than elegiac. Typical of the film’s virtues and defects was the camerawork. Each frame was carefully and elegantly composed, to observe a building or a view. But so too was the next and the next. The symmetrical elegance became dull, a series of sustained stills, well matched to the narration and the music but edited with monotonous uniformity and finally numbing.

When people threatened to break into this architectural ramble, they were kept at arm’s length. The Waterloo rush-hour was shot on a long lens, with little movement and almost no sound. The Notting Hill Carnival was covered in a sequence of four stately long shots, so lacking in life it might have been Trooping the Colour.

The London Patrick Keiller shows is a distantly observed city, with no sense of life or anger or danger or struggle. For him London is an abstract, it’s not a city where people live, or work, make money, build things, knock things down, commit crimes, bring up children, play. It’s a place to wonder at, reflect upon, contemplate.

And that is an inadequate response to the scale of the economic, social and political problems which confront London. The urgency of its situation and the waste of its human and historic richness make you long for someone to throw away the morose and artificial narration, snatch back the camera and make a film which engages with the people and politics of London, head on, with passion and anger. Sadly, Patrick Keiller has given us a film which walks elegantly round the edge of these issues. It isn’t enough.

Mark Fisher is MP for Stoke on Trent, Shadow Minister for the Arts and co-author, with Richard Rogers, of A New London.