Brutalism in London architecture broke out like an eruption on my skin. It was a shock and a curiosity. As it grew and spread, I was told it was benign. I would have to live with the unlovely stuff. It was 1968. I worked nights in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Her Majesty’s Government thought of me when it conceived the job. There were only occasional interruptions in my musing when work was called for. Our essential requirement was to be bodily in the vicinity overnight. Electronic gizmos were not yet in everyone’s hand and ear. We all had more serious things to do than work. Some dealt cards, turned paperback pages or slept with their eyes half open. Others slipped out for the sempiternal cup of tea. Coffee had not yet become a rival. This meant a walk to Fleet Street where the morning papers were being printed. The British Isles were still afloat in the newspaper era. Subjects of the Queen consumed a pile of them daily and the thick Sunday wad replaced churchgoing. My path through locked-tight London was dark until I reached a cafe—that rhymes with laugh—full of printers. They were a wry bunch touched with hilarity especially in the hours after Saturday midnight when their union had got them double the hourly wage. Coming back, I wandered. There was a narrow landing on the river, leftover from some improvement scheme. I sat and reviewed the lurid bilge I’d read about the Thames.
Charles Dickens was one culprit. As a journo he’d pestered the Thames River Police till they let him come aboard and ride along. Murders on the water were his delight. A suicide would do if nothing gorier floated along. The first scene in Our Mutual Friend set the tone. Readers in 1865 had a tear in one eye and a leer in the other. Gaffer Maxam and his daughter Lizzie make a living rifling the pockets of corpses they’ve fished from the river. One night Lizzie’s catch has a breath of life left. It’s Wrayburn the well-dunked “indolent lawyer”. A sodden spoiler here. She’s “a lovely girl with dark hair”, bright but calling out to be groomed, innocent as a chapel pew, zero backchat and pure despite all those deadmen’s pockets visited. In a word, Lizzie is an exemplar of the maiden that Dickens, limping his way into his fifties, liked to save from the nasty other guys who might prey on her.
The tide was changing. There were glimmers of dawn. The brown water hurried past. The odds were a hundred-years against one corpse floating by. London lore was over-spiced, too rich. Everything went back to something else that maybe never was. I scanned the horizon for something real. Far right, Westminster way, on the other shore, I could make out County Hall, a big grey sploge like a politician’s speech. Bright and flimsy before it stood the Royal Festival Hall. The nation had gifted it to itself after the War along with the young Queen, but unlike her it had never propagated. The cliff-face beside it belonged to the new and unwelcoming Hayward Gallery, much derided by the tabloids and their broadsheet betters. Brutalist, they called it, a wounding epithet for a building meant to house a display of fine art.
What happened next I can’t recall though I’m sure I would have gone back to my place of employment and punched out at breakfast time. Punching in and out was crucial to the day and night. Next would have come the long trek home by tube. London spread over six-hundred square miles and we were all commuters within its borders. Scuttlebutt among my co-workers was often about finding somewhere to live near the job. Just then they would have been talking about the apartments being built in Cripplegate, near-at-hand. In 1940, Luftwaffe bombs had lit a firestorm there that cleared the ground by levelling a whole ward down to cellar floors. Some of this Barbican Estate was ready, but my sleep-deprived colleagues were out of luck. They weren’t the middle-class professionals the rent would be set for.
When finished, the Barbican ensemble would be nothing less than a Brutalist village. The jail-house style would roughen the texture of London with buildings like a breed of square-shouldered apes, hairy, with slits for eyes. Newspaper tears were shed, curses rose, anathemas issued. However, Londoners soon tired of recalling the good old days of their workaday horizon unencumbered by brutality. They took to ignoring the big bowsers. The style prospered..
With the years, the blank, corrugated sky-high wall of the Hayward Gallery had metastasised. There were huge boxes of it everywhere. The South Bank by Waterloo Bridge had a cluster. Elsewhere they rose still higher going for broke. It was concrete showing off, summarily stirred and lumpy. You wanted to reach out and strike a match on it. The tiny windows weren’t made for looking out. Staring too long from the street, you began to see big carbuncles, but the square sort, the kind that might afflict a geometer. You wanted to go inside and see what kind of innards the concrete had. But doors were hard to find.
Some citizens stood their ground and said buildings were not supposed to look like that. They felt like the climate had been changed behind their backs. Being told it had a proper name, Brutalism, made them lower their voices. But they were still peeved. It was explained that the recipe had been concocted from Le Corbusier’s raw cement work in France in the late 1940s—hence “béton brut”. British architects ran with it from the 1950s through the 1970s.
By the 1980s the landscape was heavy with the blatant block forms. You hoped something less pugnacious was going on within them. There were more slits to look out of and measly windows overhung with lids of leftover concrete. The public now uttered execrations and hurrahs about other sins. The lumpish invasion became a subject for specialists, troublemakers, and romantic expatriates like myself. Looking around for fellow-feeling, I stumbled on a 1994, 85 minute film by Patrick Keiller called London.
The loser’s arrogance of director and screenwriter Keiller was just the thing to put in the scales to balance Brutalism. He tells a thoroughly personal story of an oddball trying to get a grip on London. His Robinson character is an intellectual dandy gone to seed, a rancid bohemian. He’s as wrong in his romantic way as those piles of concrete are in their overbearing engineering. Robinson wins us over because he’s not made of sand and cement. He’s so frailly human that the curious structure of the film keeps him invisible. It mimics a documentary in a report of Robinson’s fictive visit to a fragmented London very much his own. A voice-over of the actor Paul Scofield informs us of his antics and opinions. Robinson is a part-time teacher.
“His income is small, but he saves most of it. He isn’t poor because he lacks money, but because everything he wants is unavailable”.
It’s 1992 and the watchword is decline. The uninspiring election of John Major has brought no reassurance. IRA bombs are going off. Prince Charles and Princess Diana pout and separate. The pound has been devalued and the UK abruptly leaves the European Monetary System. All this prefigures the UK of today. Unhappy 2022 has known the Liz Truss fiasco, Scotland’s threat to the Union, the Windsor war between Diana’s two sons, and Brexit exacerbating a cost of living crisis.
Keiller’s 35 mm. camera is as hit-or-miss in trying to encompass the metropolitan sprawl as Robinson’s bookish challenges. He aligns clips of bittersweet urban beauty that any of us might see if we took the trouble to look from a bus window or from under an umbrella. It’s random, off-hand and desperately fragile. Watching raindrops patterning a puddle, we are reminded of an art house film of the 1930s, only to be brought up-to-date by the treasures of a garbage dump. Old buildings offer a last breath of dignity before disappearing beneath grime. Shoddily-built new ones are already ripe for the wreckers. Robinson confronts signals of decline with a regret something like pity. He can’t hide a hint of admiration for the vitality involved in the process of putrefaction and general downhill glide. But he’s nervous that London will weary of licking its wounds.
So what does Robinson want exactly? A solution to what he calls the problem of London, which he finds aptly summed up in this quote from the great Russian exile, Alexander Herzen:
“There is no town in the world which is more adapted for training one away from people and training one into solitude than London. The manner of life, the distances, the climate, the very multitude of the population in which personality vanishes, all this together with the absence of Continental diversions conduces to the same effect.”
Robinson’s wanderings across the metropolis are a search for kindred spirits. He can’t find any on this side of death and has to settle for intimacy with the immortals he cherishes. He seeks out the house where Guillaume Apollinaire’s proposal of marriage was turned down, the hotel room from which Claude Monet painted his views of Waterloo and Charing Cross bridges, the back kitchen where Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine had their ultimate lovers’s quarrel.
The writer Iain Sinclair said Robinson drifted in a “necropolis of fretful ghosts”, the cemetery that the free-and-easy market economy had made of London. His is another brilliant but partial description. They are legion. There will always be more verbal misses than hits on such a volatile target. Its nickname, after all, has long been “The Big Smoke”.