Unfortunate travellers

Robinson in Space

Patrick Keiller <em>Reaktion Books,</em> <em>240pp, £16.95</em>

In the work of Patrick Keiller, the internationalist and yet distinctly English architect-cum-film-maker, we find some of the most intriguing meditations on the state of the nation available today. Robinson in Space is the revisited, annotated and profusely illustrated script of his 1997 film of the same name. Since his early formal experiments in the short film, eccentric ruminations on place and personal histories, through to Robinson's precursor, the psycho-geographical essay piece London (1994), Keiller has developed a particular documentary style underpinned by gently paced fictions (and owing a debt of influence to the great "camera-poems" of Humphrey Jennings). These comprise arcane and cultural reference, analysis and topical reportage, and Robinson in Space maintains the tone of its urbane, metrocentric predecessor, as well as the same characters - Paul Scofield's off-screen narrator and his investigator friend, Robinson, who is neither seen nor heard. But this time he throws them on the mercy of the "countryside" as they embark on a commission to investigate the so-called "problem of England".

Taking their cue from Daniel Defoe's Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, they freely exercise their right to roam as they attempt to locate the source of the post-Thatcherite economy, perhaps now most likely to be found outside or on the edges of cities. Shot during 1995, the project unnervingly prefigured the Blairite branding visions to come. As Keiller says, however, in a revealing appendixed interview with the cultural critic Patrick Wright, the search is as much an investigation into the new forms of space produced by rural commercialisation and "heritage" developments as it is about the shifts in the material base of British manufacturing industry.

What is offered up here is no less than a reading of a landscape made strange by the buildings and capital of transnational corporations. Robinson is a dweller on the threshold of constant (and increasingly paranoid) revelations, and the film and book are naturally pieces concerned with jetties, bridges, satellite dishes, fences - points of purchase, resistance and transition.

As self-styled spies on the lookout for clues (for evidence), Robinson and the narrator construct a free-ranging argument about transformations in geography as a result of 1980s policy excess. The fixed camera operation in the film, always outside, favours a proscenium framing and orders the signs and effects it finds in a way that is reiterated by the page. Both constrain movement and yet, perhaps surprisingly, convey a real and distinctive dynamic to the unfolding sequence.

Both texts map, at heart, a mental landscape, filing location reports from a terrain of constant, subtle realignments, and charting the effects that a certain kind of recently built environment has on the national consciousness. While Keiller undoubtedly attempts an archaeology of the present, his meditations range from the dubious quality of coffee in a Travelodge to the sinister implications of nuclear waste storage. It is this kind of disconcertingly humorous juxtaposition, coupled with a running account of Robinson's sexual enquiries, that offers the film its distinctly humane texture and appeal.

Keiller's theses mesh at moments with the ideas of Martin Pawley - a fellow Reaktion author whose compelling book Terminal Architecture documents the shifts in the very meaning of building itself - as well as with those of fellow essay film-makers Chris Petit and John Sargeant. But seldom have the arguments been delivered with such wit and implication. The journey towards a contemporary understanding of the English landscape is a democratic and open one, and Keiller's melancholy protagonists are a poignant Holmes and Watson for the post-industrial age.

Gareth Evans is editor of "Entropy" magazine

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote