Robinson in Space

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by Patrick Keiller, 1997

Film

The film of Robinson in Space (1997), which this article discusses, is a supposed study of England's economic and cultural geography suggested by Daniel Defoe's Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, in which the unseen researcher, psychogeographer and dilletante Robinson is commissioned to undertake a study of the 'problem' of England.

In the film there are images of English countryside and institutions (such as Eton, Oxford and Cambridge) many ports and factories, especially car factories and power stations.

Robinson in Space is narrated by an unnamed character (voiced by Paul Scofield) who accompanies his friend and onetime lover, the unseen Robinson, in a series of excursions around England. They search for utopia, and seem to find madness, isolation and an economy in the process of shifting from a national to a global scale.

They set out on seven trips around England; to the west and east of London; Oxford and Bristol; the West Midlands; Birmingham and Liverpool; Manchester and Hull; Scarborough and Whitby; Blackpool and Sellafield.

Release

Robinson in Space was released in the UK on 10 January 1997, in Canada on 5 September 1997 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and in France on 17 October 1997 at Cherbourg-Octeville Festival of Irish and British Film.

Premise

Robinson has been dismissed from his university teaching post due to the general release of his obviously either scandalous or worthless previous study of London, presumably London by Patrick Keiller and has moved to Reading where he is teaching English. Robinson is paid little, knows nobody, but finds solace in the literary heritage of Reading, and from watching a fleet of 18 Routemaster buses which have been put into service thanks to the privatisation of the local transport network.

In the company of the narrator, Robinson visits sites of psychogeographical interest such as the Martian-created crater from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, commenting on the large number of government research establishments in the M4 corridor. The film crew visit St George’s Hill where The Diggers set up camp in 1649, and five days later protestors at the site occupy the golf course at St George’s Hill, now a private estate.

Robinson is employed by a well-known international advertising agency to make a peripatetic study of the problem of England, a project consisting of seven journeys. The narrative of Britain since Defoe’s time is the consequence of a particularly English kind of Capitalism.

First Journey

At least one Derek Jarman feature and promo video was shot at Beckton

The journey begins at Henley on Thames and initially follows the Thames to the sea; a particularly English form of psychogeography that brings Robinson and the narrator into the orbit of the Shelleys (Revolt of Islam and Frankenstein prepared at Albion House in Marlowe, where they moved in 1817.

There is no rational, scientific or otherwise, for the subsequent statements and no connection sought between this, for example, and the fact that Marlow is also the British home of Saab and Volvo, and the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

They pass Windsor, where the riverside path is blocked by the Crown Estate, and move on to Heathrow, but after this, Robinosn does not want to continue through London, fearing reprisals for his earlier study, and so the narrator and he make many Underground journeys, become lost in tunnels, and resurface at the site chosen for the Millennium Exhibition, and rush from thence to Beckton, much loved of Derek Jarman.

The path becomes more vague at Teddington, and Tilbury, and here there is a house where Defoe, key to the film, wrote a part of Robinson Crusoe. From thence it is Thurrock to Dartford, and at the latter, the birthplace of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, they visit a landfill.

They then reach Gravesend where Heart of Darkness is predictably mentioned but that is all — and from there it is to the Isle of Sheppey.

This whole first journey swings between literature and industry, with no special aim. The journey ends in Sheerness with some vague comments intended to criticise privatisation and the erosion of union rights. They are merely comments — as a flaneur and a socialist, Robinson has no understanding of actual work, far less labour issues, but he makes these asides nonetheless.

Second Journey

Robinson’s second journey begins at Reading and takes the pack-horse road towards Oxford. Continuing to Didcot, the rigmarole and roster includes a prep school, a coal powered power station, and a new gas powered power station, both featured with director Patrick Keiller’s favoured sound effect — that of the cuckoo. They follow The Thames upstream now, into the interior of England, until they reach Oxford, which we are reminded would have been Hitler’s preferred capital city, had he occupied England.

The economic litany continues to little effect, with Robinson mentioning the state, value and ownership of various companies based in the area. In Oxford, the narrator purchases a Morris 1100 while Robinson continues to play the dilettante, visiting the Bodlean Library.

Robert Burton, Democritus Junior, is discussed, and as ‘deeply disillusioned people’, Robinson and the narrator feel a bond with Burton — and the memorials of Robert Burton are the happiest and highest points of all their journeys. This we hear while viewing the exterior of St Thomas the Martyr Church, Oxford.

From here the couple pass a detention centre asylum seekers’ — Campsfield House, the factory of Aston Martin, and a British and an American defence establishment, finally after Bletchley Park and Stowe House, reaching that psychogeographer’s dream — Milton Keynes, where they stay for two weeks.

Robinson and the narrator stay in various places, including spending one night in a hedge, citing ‘the problem of hotels in England’ — waking up next to another landfill site.

In this portion they also enjoy the airship hangers in Bedford, and before they reach Cambridge they attempt to trade the 1100 for an old Volvo full of second hand books. Patrick Keiller manages to squeeze in some barbed comments only of interest to the miniscule English elite who enjoy the so-called Oxford-Cambridge rivalry.

Robinson and the narrator next reach Felixstowe; they are lways careful to mention who owns each port they visit, and at Felixstowe they study the deep-sea container traffic. From Felixstowe, they travel to Zeebrugge, where they split, the narrator walking to Calais while Robinson meets his fictional employers. Returning to Dover, we hear more statistics on freight and industry, and we are to believe that Robinson and the narrator are ‘expected in Brighton’. It is for this reason doubtless that they head to Portsmouth. Here we hear the narrator describe himself as an ‘aesthete who views the passing of the visible industrial economy with regret’ who has come to view English culture as a bizarre and damaging anachronism.

From thence it is to Southampton, the M3 at Twford Down and Newbury, towards Dorchester. Referencing the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Enclosure Acts, further uncertain commentary is made on labour rights — all inconclusive, and as ever entirely passive. Now the two fantasists are comfortable describing themselves, presumably after a romantic notion inspired by Defoe, as ‘provincial spies’ — perhaps this can be read as their being urban flaneurs, exhibiting a prurient curiosity in the other regions of the country, and feelings so out of place as to hope themselves invisible, in the mode of ‘spies’. For spies, the narrator says, there is really no practical alternative other than eating in supermarkets such as Tesco.

Our heroes continue their ponderous meander with a visit toi Poundbury, Yeovil, and the Westland helicopter factory, commenting on Jane Austen screen and television adaptations, reaching Glastonbury, and on the 14th July arriving at the Bristol Channel, and Portbury, where further statistics on import export and labour are issued in Paul Scofield’s chilling and aged tone.

Third Journey

Journey Number 3 begins at this point, and with no warning, in and around Bristol, and Richard Jefferies is cited, although Robinson has not read After London, but instead he and the narrator have heard it read on the radio one night; they had mistaken it for a documentary.

The employer it appears has given Robinson a copy of a book by William Rubinstein, an academic who charts the rise of the 'super rich', a class he sees as expanding exponentially

The name Rubinstein is weirdly similar to the name Robinson.

Rubinstein is known for his research on the wealth-holding classes in modern Britain, making use of probate and other taxation records, in such works as Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain Since the Industrial Revolution (1981) and Capitalism, Culture and Decline in Britain, 1750–1990 (1991). More recently he has co-authored (with Philip Beresford) The Richest of the Rich (2007), an account of the 250 richest-ever people in British history since the Norman Conquest. This is in keeping with the tone of the narration which makes oblique reference to economy, and the theme of the film which is the once greatness of England — great insofar as the criminality of its commercial and military power — and the current industrial and capitalistic state. It is a selective walk, focusing on the interests of Robinson, defence and industrial establishments, coupled with literary and otherwise historical visit.

Near Dudley they pass what was at least at the time of release, the largest shopping centre in Europe, Merry Hill Shopping Centre. Here in the West Midlands, Robinson imagines the entire landscape being occupied with manufacturing goods for export to the Middle East. At West Bromwich, they come to see the headquarters of Hyundai UK, although as with every other appointment in the film, this is a fiction, and nothing is offered bar the quoting of ownership, an exterior shot, and a random factoid concerning the plant, or its economy. Here they quote geographer Doreen Massey.

Strangely, the manager of a chemical firm called Robinson Brothers Ltd. looks after the pair for two weeks while they recover from the bad food and accommodation that has made them ill during their first two journeys.

Journey Four

Journey four begins in a bus shelter with shopping, waiting for a bus that never comes. Apparently at this bus stop, Robinson uses the Internet to contact a stranger for a sexual liaison. He does this using a notebook computer and a mobile phone, so it is quite impressive work for 1997, but disappointing that even its absolute nascence, the internet is used for sex, as Robinson can see no other purpose for it.

Passing beneath Spaghetti Junction, they reach castle Bromwich in Birmingham and another car plant; they cross the Trent at Burton, hunting down the Toyota car plant at Derby, in time enough to hear the announcement of Rolls Royce’s half year profits. They also visit the only company in the world which makes latex suitable for fetish-wear, which is in Derby. They follow the Derwent valley towards Liverpool, where the rise of TESCO is briefly commented.

As interlude, Robinson in Space occasionally features photography of motor traffic, coupled with whimsical, almost circus like music from Kuhle Wampe by Hanns Eisler. When the duo reach Liverpool in September, Liverpool dock is discussed as briefly as any of the others previous. Fascinating comments such as ‘in the last 30 years Liverpool’s traffic has fluctuated more than that of any other port’ and ‘Liverpool is one of the biggest ports in England’ dull the senses yet further. There is interest, but no context; although the context intended is ‘England’ the subject is too broad, and the film never narrows it further than the motor plants, natural and literary asides, and docks it methodically covers. ‘The biggest shareholder in the Mersey Dock and harbour Company is the Treasury.’ So what?

In Warrington Robinson visits a US-style young offenders’ ‘boot camp’ and a KinderCare Nursery, hoping to draw some parallels, although both are covered in less than three seconds of film time. Nonetheless with its new Whitbread Travel Inn (near Wigan), Warrington is revealed as the heartless dead-centre of the hellish and impersonal miracle that has with the complicity of world capital and the summary execution of the mining industry, reduced England to a nothingness that is unbearable to behold, a place of machine driven private economy that has smashed history and anything of any value. They have lunch in a brand new Marks and Spencer shop on the edge of Warrington.

Fifth Journey

Journey Five, commencing in Warrington, begins by commemorating the emigration of previous generations, from the canal locks at Latchford from where they could sail to the Great Lakes on board on of the so-named ‘Manchester liners’.

Arriving in Manchester, the couple make comment on Alan Turing, in a sequence which features possibly the only camera-panning motion in the film, a sight so unusual that it is in context, enough to be shocking. They pass the world’s oldest steam-driven mill which as such is described by scholars as the first factory; and in Ancoats they reminisce on visits made to the area by Engels. They stay at the John Milne Travel Inn, and they ascend the Pennines by the route of Daniel Defoe. The land and cityscapes of Robinson in Space, when they feature people, tend to show humans as small, distant, unfeatured and always subject to their machines or commercial edifices.

In West Yorkshire the men survey a water leak near Halifax before visiting a wind farm at Oxenhope Moor. Robinson and the narrator have another ‘appointment’ here but we hear nothing of it; the novelty of their being visiting dignitaries of some sort (which clashes with their other adopted role as spies) is thin and exceptionally dull by this stage. In Bradford there is a new police station. In Leeds the Department of Social Security. In Wakefield somebody tells Robinson that Henri Bergson’s mother came from Doncaster.

Deeper discussion of the 1980s miners’ strike arrives after 60 minutes of watching, with comment on Stella Rimmington’s MI5 advancement based (the narrator alleges) on the back of her sabotage of the miners’ protests. On the north bank of the Humber, the duo pass white telephone boxes, so noteworthy that one of them features on the sleeve of the DVD release of Robinson in Space. When white telephone kiosks appear in Robinson in Space, Paul Scofield as the narrator sometimes says ‘Kingston Communications’.

They travel to Hull, from where Robinson Crusoe sailed on September 1st 1651. At Immingham, we see a dock with no seafarers, and few dockworkers, as the bulk imports here, in Britain’s second largest port, are materials like coal which require little manual labour.

Sixth Journey

Noone is asked to defend socialism when Tony Blair is around.

By the time Robinson in Space comes to its coverage of the sixth journey, all hope appears to have been lost, the narrator is silent, the camera watches an endless coal train haul past, and the viewers are presumably depressed to their boots and comatose with regret.

Journey number six commences from Hull to Scarborough, and from thence to Whitby, and some further Dracula-based reminiscences (see also Purfleet in the First Journey).

Next is Redcar and Wilton, where we watch exterior shots of steel and chemical plants. Then there is The Tees, the UK’s biggest single port, and Middlesbrough, including Wynyard Park, where 58 million of British government pounds were invested in a Samsung plant.

Here, the narrator scathingly observes, they employ 500 people to make microwave ovens and computer monitors. Nearby, there is a small protest from the Committee to Defend Socialism in South Korea.

Journey six concludes with Shandy Hall, home of Laurence Sterne, and from there the narrator and Robinson pass near Harrogate.

Seventh Journey

Blackpool is the fictional home of Robinson and the actual home of Keiller, if 'home' be permitted as a relevant term.

‘Robinson is beginning to act strangely’ says the narrator in opening the seventh journey of Robinson in Space, a claim exampled by Robinson’s attempt to bypass security at a British Aerospace plant.

In Blackpool we are treated to biographical detail on Robinson, first that it is his home town and secondly, that his parents once had a nursery there which specialised in strains of giant vegetables.

It is in Blackpool that Robinson explains that life on earth evolved from the arrival of Buckminsterfullerenes in meteorites. He also says ‘that Blackpool holds the key to his utopia’, and continuing the military technology theme, they cross the Irish Sea to Barrow to view a Trident nuclear submarine.

They then view a depository where nuclear waste is held, and another site where it is proposed plutonium and other high level waste be stored.

They conclude at Sellafield where the 1963 reactor is in the process of being dismantled, and they discover that the plutonium aftermath of the nuclear industry will remain lethal for 250,000 years.

They visit Wordsworth’s birthplace, where it appears that Robinson wishes to issue a complaint, and then their contracts are suddenly terminated on the 30th October, without warning.

What is the nature of Robinson's complaint at Wordsworth's birthplace? Is it a symptom of his disappontment, the imminent breakdown evidenced by his behaviour at the defence contractor's, or is it connected to 'the problem of England'?

This is the first indication we have that the narrator has a contract, as well as Robinson.

The film concludes with the mysterious words: ‘I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his utopia.’

Watch

It is now time to watch Robinson in Space by Patrick Keiller:

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Robinson in Space (d. Patrick Keiller, 1996) begins with Robinson's unseen narrator quoting the 1960s French radical Situationist Raoul Vaneigem demanding that "a bridge between imagination and reality must be built." It ends with Robinson's disappearance and the narrator declaring that "I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his utopia." In between is the search for that utopia in the industrial landscape of England.

This upload warns that 'Viewer Discretion is Advised' although why is unclear.

Comment

In critical essence, we are usually asked to accept that Patrick Keiller weaves the surreal, philosophy, architecture, the arts, science, politics, history and agriculture in this exploration of the natural world, but there is in reality little or no weaving, but merely a presentation of landcsapes, voiced over with a commentary that is weary, arch and pseudo-intellectual.

Like the earlier film London, Robinson in Space intends to make a point about the British Conservative Party, which has been somewhat dated since the Labour Party demised and bheaved just as badly. Although the Robinson films would have been nothing without the work of Chris Marker to inspire them, this one is nonetheless visually charming, and makes an effort to say something about England. Robinson in Space however relies on sarcasm when it should be either inciting popular riot, or at least deconstructing its subjects.

The general structure of the film involves showing maybe three or four camera shots of a place in England, voiced-over with an industrial, economic, literary or historical fact or observation. It can’t be called a philosophical journey, and the so-called ‘Problem of England’ is never explicated, discussed, discovered and certainly never answered.

The book Robinson in Space by Patrick Keiller is a more worthy although equally aimless dissection of the same procedures, and demonstrates reasonable research into the many subjects, and is probably a more rewarding experience.

Conclusion

While London was a subject Robinson and the Robinson film format could handle in terms of scope, interest and comment, the entirety of England was simply in the case of Robinson in Space, biting off more than anyone, viewers included, could chew. Social and political aspects of the current global predicament are to be found in the UK's landscapes, and it is to the film’s credit that it highlights these, but the canopy under which Robinson in Space arrives — the mysterious international advertising firm and the fact of Robinson and the narrator playing spies, are not filmic, standing as they do for metaphors of the men’s alienation.

Robinson in Space looks at political economy, but does not understand it, nor make any effort to explain it. Crucial to the project is Paul Scofield’s dry and often sarcastic tone, which stands in for any trenchant assessment that a real political thinker or filmmaker could make. Industrialisation shapes the countryside, it is true, and the film is equally attentive to the built environment, and these factors make Robinson a standout film.

Robinson in Space is a work of psychogeography as it seeks to show how earlier historical and spatial formations inform the commercial and industrial present, with a frightening sense of discontinuity. It is a search for hope, but does not offer any. There appears to be little in the way of public space and no virtue of any sort in the constructions and industries covered. The film makes a curious virtue out of visiting ports, and does not follow Defoe’s letters entirely, as it omits the Scottish letters (11 – 13) and many others, such as those in Devon and Cornwall.

Finally Robinson does not seem to realise that globalisation is taking place, such is the insular view he takes of England. Robinson's England is awash with international business, and observes global trade, but sees it as symptomatic of an English decline rather than as the rise of globalisation.

Links

A thorough praising of Robinson in Space may be found at the website of Andrew Burke, Department of English, University of Winnipeg.