PRINT February 2017


The most recent of three films that claim to document the projects of a fictional, unseen character called Robinson, Robinson in Ruins was photographed during ten months of 2008, supposedly by Robinson himself, and completed two years later, supposedly by “researchers” who had been given Robinson’s unedited footage and his notebook. The researchers are the Robinson Institute, a body conceived ten years earlier as a vehicle to continue Robinson’s work in his absence. An exhibition titled “The Robinson Institute” was displayed at Tate Britain, London, in 2012. The following paragraphs develop some further preoccupations.

ACCORDING TO THE FILM’S NARRATOR, when Robinson was released from prison at the end of January 2008, “he made his way to the nearest city and looked for somewhere to haunt.”

He believed that he could communicate with a network of nonhuman intelligences that had sought refuge in marginal and hidden locations. They were determined to preserve the possibility of life’s survival on the planet and enlisted him to work on their behalf.

A few weeks later:

From a nearby car park, he surveyed the center 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,1 by making picturesque views, on journeys to sites of scientific and historic interest.”

For Baudelaire, the Great Malady was “horror of home,” but Robinson’s horror is more specific to a view over Oxford and hence, perhaps, to the assumptions that dominate England’s governance and economy and their impact on the wider world.

In the autumn of 2008, when the world’s financial system appeared close to collapse, Robinson arrived at Hampton Gay, a deserted village in north Oxfordshire, where an agrarian rebellion known as the Oxfordshire Rising was attempted in 1596. The rising’s leading protagonist was a twenty-eight-year-old carpenter, Bartholomew Steer, who lived in the village. Local landlords had been enclosing common fields for decades; there had been three poor harvests, and the price of grain had doubled since the beginning of the year. According to statements extracted from suspected participants, after seeking support in nearby towns and villages Steer and his companions put out word that the rising would assemble at nine o’clock on the evening of Sunday, November 21, at a place called Enslow Hill. They planned to “knock down” enclosing landlords and distribute their grain, seize arms, and march to London to join with the London apprentices, who had rioted in June of the previous year. But their plan was betrayed to the county authorities: Only Steer and three other men turned up, and after waiting two hours they went home. Steer and others judged to have been leaders were imprisoned in London and interrogated under torture. Two that survived were convicted of treason and taken back to Oxfordshire, where they were hanged, drawn, and quartered on Enslow Hill.2

The last images in Robinson in Ruins are of a milestone alongside what was once the main road from London to Worcester and mid-Wales.

IN JOHN OGILBY’S Britannia, an atlas of England’s principal roads first published in 1675 and the basis for many later such atlases, the London–to–Mid Wales road is mapped in three parts as “The Road from London to Aberistwith” (Aberystwyth). The three parts are London to Islip, Islip to Bramyard (Bromyard), and Bramyard to Aberistwith.

The milestone is a short distance beyond Islip and measures fifty-eight miles from London. A few miles farther west, at Enslow, the road crosses a bridge over the River Cherwell, after which it ascends a steep bank above the river.

Enslow Hill has never been marked on any map: The name appears only in accounts of the Oxfordshire Rising. It is assumed to have been the steep bank to the north of Enslow Bridge, an ascent that would have been a challenge for any horse-drawn vehicle. At the top of the incline is a junction with a road from the nearby weaving town of Witney, from which a party of supporters was expected. Steer believed that an earlier rising had assembled on the hill, and it was perhaps a traditional meeting place, a pre-conquest Spelleburge, or “speech hill.” East of the road, much of the hill has been removed by quarrying. There is a commercial satellite-communications station in the former quarry.

Enslow Hill is the point at which the London-to-Aberystwyth road crosses the southeastern edge of the zone of Jurassic limestone that begins the transition between Britain’s southeastern, lowland landscape and its northwestern uplands.

This geological distinction has many historical and economic aspects, notably the centralization of political and financial power in London and South East England, especially during the Tudor period. The southeast/northwest distinction was particularly evident in the UK’s recent referendum on membership in the European Union: The great majority of the areas in which more than 60 percent of voters opted to leave are in the southeastern half of the island.

The sixteen-mile stretch of the London-to-Aberystwyth route that interested Robinson is now a relatively minor road between the main London-to-Oxford road and the former main road from Oxford to Birmingham. It leaves the road from London a few miles east of Oxford and joins the road to Birmingham near Ditchley, another deserted village. In the sixteenth century, Ditchley Park was the seat of Sir Henry Lee, Queen Elizabeth I’s “Champion” from about 1570 to 1590 and one of the enclosing landlords on Steer’s list of targets. Lee was notorious as a “great sheep-master” and for having profited by selling villeins their freedom.3 The queen visited him at Ditchley in 1592, and the “Ditchley portrait” is said to commemorate her visit. Ditchley Park is now the conference center of the Ditchley Foundation. In April 2000, at a conference there on privatizing military installations, operations, and services, Dick Cheney said, “My general impression is that our British colleagues are far ahead of us in the US in the extent to which they have adopted changes in culture, attitude, and style of operation that are required for successful privatization efforts.”

THE CULTURAL HISTORY of the name Robinson extends beyond the many strands that derive from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The poet Robert Graves, who from 1921 to 1926 lived at Islip in a cottage called World’s End, wrote in The White Goddess (1948) that Robinson was one of several surnames given to children conceived during the May Day revels and later repudiated by their fathers, Robin being Robin Hood or Robin Goodfellow (also Puck or Hobgoblin), both, according to Graves, derivations from the Saxon name for Merlin.

Robinson Crusoe repeatedly interpreted his misfortunes as punishment for having disobeyed his father, who had entreated him not to go to sea. Toward the end of his life, recalling a trip to Athens more than thirty years earlier, Sigmund Freud wrote, “I had long seen clearly that a great part of the pleasure of travel lies in the fulfillment of . . . early wishes—that it is rooted, that is, in dissatisfaction with home and family.” He described an accompanying sense of guilt: “It seems as though the essence of success was to have got further than one’s father, and as though to excel one’s father was still something forbidden.”

IN BRITANNIA and later publications based on it, the roads that radiate from London were measured from “The Standard in Cornhill,” a water pump at the corner of Gracechurch Street and Cornhill that provided London’s first mechanically pumped public water supply, recorded by a plaque above an optician’s.

Printed matter titled “Student’s Lamentation,” 1595. © Folger Shakespeare Library/ Creative Commons.

Ogilby’s “Road from London to Barwick” (Berwick) passed through Shoreditch, at that time an extramural suburb.

Shoreditch Parish map, 1745. Photo: British Library/ Granger, NYC.

Curtain Road owes its name to Curtain Close, a piece of ground outside the city wall—a curtain being a fortified wall between two towers—and to the Curtain, London’s second playhouse, built there in 1577.

In 2012, archaeologists from the Museum of London discovered this theater’s remains beneath a site now being redeveloped as the Stage—a thirty-seven-story tower of 412 apartments; more than four hundred thousand square feet of office, retail, and leisure space; and a “world-class heritage center.” The archaeological remains will be visible in a glass enclosure.

Farther north on Curtain Road, at the corner where a branch of the real estate agency Foxtons now stands, is the site of London’s first playhouse, the Theatre, where Shakespeare was a member of the company Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Theatre was built in 1576 by James Burbage, whose son, the actor Richard Burbage, first played the part of Hamlet.

Foxtons’s profits for the first six months of 2016 were 42 percent lower than in 2015. On the Monday after the EU referendum vote on June 23, the company issued a profit warning, and its share price fell by 25 percent.

According to Karl Marx, in his 1856 speech on the fourth anniversary of the British weekly the People’s Paper, “In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy, and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognize our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer—the Revolution.” Marx’s image conflates Puck (Robin Goodfellow, Hobgoblin) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—“I’ll put a girdle ’round about the earth in forty minutes” (act 2, scene 1)—with Hamlet’s remark to his father’s departing ghost: “Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the earth so fast? A worthy pioner!” (Hamlet, act 1, scene 5).

In Helen Macfarlane’s 1850 translation of The Communist Manifesto, the first in English, Marx and Engels’s opening sentence, “Ein Gespenst geht um in Europa—das Gespenst des Kommunismus,” appears as “A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe. We are haunted by a ghost, the ghost of Communism.” In the more often encountered 1888 translation, the sentence is “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.” Like Marx, Macfarlane seems to conflate Robin Goodfellow with a ghost. In the (Oxford) dictionary, a hobgoblin is “a mischievous imp or sprite,” and Hob, a “pet form of Rob, short for Robin or Robert, often referring specifically to Robin Goodfellow.” But in Nigel Kneale’s 1958–59 BBC television series Quatermass and the Pit—in which the “pit” is a building site in “Hobbs Lane” (formerly “Hob’s Lane”) off Knightsbridge—Hob is the devil.

Between the sites of the two theaters, where Curtain Road crosses London’s inner ring road, there is another car park.

Steer’s attempted rising prompted Elizabeth’s government to prosecute enclosers, and to legislate. In 1597, Francis Bacon introduced two bills, An Acte Againste the Decayinge of Townes and Howses of Husbandrye and An Acte for the Maintenance of Husbandrie & Tillage, that became law in 1598.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the artisans who rehearse their play within the play agree to meet “a mile without the town, by moonlight.” They resemble Steer and his companions but are anxious to avoid the rebels’ fate. Steer had threatened violence against individual enclosers, saying of Vincent Barry, his landlord at Hampton Gay, that he would “spoill him and Cutt of his heade.” Shakespeare’s artisans worry they might scare their aristocratic audience with their lion and swords—“that were enough to hang us all” (Peter Quince); “I believe we must leave the killing out, when all is done” (Robin Starveling).

According to an article by Henry Schnitzler published in 1954, “‘Gay Vienna’—Myth and Reality,” Karl Kraus is supposed to have said, “In Berlin, things are serious but not hopeless; in Vienna, they are hopeless but not serious.”4 Terry Eagleton, in Hope Without Optimism (2015), attributes more or less the same remark to Emperor Franz Josef (1830–1916). More recently, attitudes in the United States and England have been similarly compared. Few things in England epitomize hopelessness more starkly than the country’s housing market, especially its impact on the young: In London, it’s now common to spend more than half one’s income on a barely adequate rented room, and less than 50 percent of households are owner-occupiers.

As far as I know, no one has yet written an article titled “‘Gay London’—Myth and Reality,” but if anyone does, it will probably mention the London Apprentice, a large pub at 333 Old Street, opposite the north end of Curtain Road, famous in the 1970s and ’80s for its “secret” basement parties. The Terrence Higgins Trust (now the largest voluntary-sector provider of HIV health services in the UK) held its second public meeting there in August 1983.

The London Apprentice was already established on Old Street by 1756. There are several pubs in England with the name, but only one in central London. In the sixteenth century, London’s apprentices formed a distinct adolescent subculture. It has been estimated that by 1600 there were as many as thirty thousand in the city, 15 percent of its population.5 Typically between seventeen and twenty-four years old, they were socially diverse: some the younger sons of gentry and most from elsewhere in the country. In June 1595, there were at least twelve disturbances in the City and its suburbs. On June 12 at Billingsgate, a crowd of apprentices enforced the regulated price of mackerel, set by City authorities, on traders who intended asking more, and on June 13 at Southwark Market, three hundred apprentices enforced the official price of butter. Some were arrested. On June 15 crowds attacked the Counter jail and rescued prisoners taken there. The convicted butter rioters were whipped and pilloried on June 27, which set off another riot. A report took evidence from witnesses:

Examinations of Rich. Edey, porter of the Marshalsea, Henry Robinson, girdler, and Garret Saxton, shoemaker, all of Southwark. Edw. Flower, husbandman of Knightsbridge, being at Robinson’s shop door, said there was a great stir in London with the apprentices for the good of the Commonwealth; that 1,800 of them had pulled down the pillories in Cheapside and Leadenhall, and set up a gallows against the door of the Lord Mayor, whom they would hang if he dared come out, but he dared not; and that 3,000 were lying in the fields, with bills and clubs, to rescue the apprentices, if anything were done to them.

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 29, a crowd of about one thousand gathered on Tower Hill, between the City’s boundary and the Tower of London. According to the subsequent Crown prosecution, they intended to break open the city armories, rescue prisoners, and kill the lord mayor. Warders sent to break up the riot were stoned and driven back into the City. At seven o’clock, the lord mayor arrived at Tower Hill, with a party of servants and his sword of justice, to oversee the rereading of an order that the crowd disperse. The Lieutenant of the Tower, who had refused to assist the City’s officers in quelling the disturbance, objected to the mayor’s encroaching on the Tower’s jurisdiction. Members of the Tower garrison assaulted the mayor’s sword-bearer and rescued rioters who had been arrested by City officers. The riot’s aftermath lasted several days, with the Queen imposing martial law on July 4. On July 22, five of the rioters were convicted of treason. Two days later, they were hanged, drawn, and quartered on Tower Hill.6

The Tower of London is a former royal palace centered around the White Tower, a castle built by William I in 1078 as part of his effort to secure the conquest of England. Although one of the UK’s leading tourist attractions, it is perhaps not much visited by Londoners. Once a place of torture, imprisonment, and execution, particularly during the sixteenth century, it was last used as a prison in 1952. It lies just outside the eastern boundary of the City of London, the constitutional anomaly that is London’s historic center.7

In 2008, the US State Department signed an agreement with real estate developer Ballymore to acquire a site for the construction of a new London embassy at Nine Elms, a previously industrial area on the south bank of the Thames, west of the city’s center. When the result of an architectural competition was announced in 2010, critics noted the winning design’s resemblance to a medieval castle keep. Martin Filler described it as a “twenty-first-century avatar of the Tower of London.”8 James Timberlake, of winning Philadelphia architecture firm KieranTimberlake, was reported to have said that the building’s defensive strategy was inspired by the design of European castles, in that it would be achieved by shaping the surrounding landscape.

Geological Map of the British Islands, 2002. British Geological Survey materials © NERC.

The embassy is surrounded by Ballymore’s “Embassy Gardens”: 1,750 luxury apartments and 345,000 square feet of commercial and retail space under construction in the 480-acre Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area,9 of which The Economist noted that “the last time so large and so central an area of London was redeveloped was after the Great Fire in 1666.” A total of twenty thousand dwellings are planned, of which a large proportion either have been or probably will be bought by overseas buyers, and many will be left empty.

According to an article in The Guardian in February 2010, the two British members of the seven-strong embassy competition jury—architect Richard, Lord Rogers and architectural patron Peter, Lord Palumbo—dissented from the jury’s decision. In a letter to the State Department, they argued that Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne’s short-listed design should rather have been selected. Rogers’s practice—Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners—designed another residential project on the Nine Elms waterfront: “Riverlight,” 806 apartments in six towers. Nine Elms was last redeveloped in the 1980s. During the two previous decades, it had been cleared of railway yards and an enormous gasworks. Riverlight occupies what was once the site of the gasworks’ coal hopper, demolished during the winter of 1979–80.

Rogers Stirk Harbour are also the architects of One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, a development of eighty apartments and three retail units by Project Grande (Guernsey) Limited, a joint venture between London developer Christian Candy’s CPC Group and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the former prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar. When the building was completed in December 2010, it was supposedly one of the most expensive residential addresses in the world. In April 2013, it was reported that the majority of flats were owned anonymously through companies in tax havens. The building is, famously, largely unlit at night, and there has been much speculation about who, if anyone, really lives there: In June 2011, the Daily Telegraph asked, “Is One Hyde Park merely a ‘ghost block,’ a repository for wealth, a safe place to park some money in an uncertain world?” The site was previously that of Bowater House, a headquarters office building constructed in the 1950s. The excavations for its basements would have been among the models for Hobbs Lane in Quatermass and the Pit. Kneale later remarked in an interview that he located the “pit” in Knightsbridge “because it was being rebuilt at a great speed, and again had great holes and people digging down and down and down, a hundred feet.”

At the Robinson Institute, we have been wondering how to interpret these and other recent developments. In 2015, the UK’s current account deficit was £100.3 billion, or 5.4 percent of GDP, the highest percentage since 1948 and the highest in the G7. The UK has recorded a deficit in its current account every year since 1983, the amount almost doubling since 2008. These annual deficits are balanced by flows of capital from abroad: loans and receipts from selling assets. To some extent, the UK is paying for imports of consumer goods by selling land and property to buyers overseas. Unoccupied luxury apartments do not represent a large proportion of asset sales, but they are very visible evidence of the phenomenon.

Another striking feature of the UK’s economy is its large international balance sheet: In 2012, the UK recorded external assets of £10.6 trillion, 6.4 times GDP, and external liabilities of £10.8 trillion, 6.55 times GDP. In comparison, the US recorded external assets of 1.24 times and external liabilities of 1.5 times GDP, and the Euro area, external assets of 1.78 times and external liabilities of 1.93 times GDP. According to the Bank of England, the UK can sustain large deficits in its current account because capital gains on its overseas assets have historically been greater than gains on assets in the UK owned by foreigners. When commentators describe the UK economy as “an enormous hedge fund,” as some do, this is what they mean—though they exaggerate: It would be more accurate to say that the UK is an underperforming industrial economy propped up by an enormous hedge fund. The priorities of the financial sector disadvantage the rest of the economy, especially production, but the finance industry retains an influence out of all proportion to its contribution to GDP, which is only about 8 percent. The City of London does not create much wealth, but it is very effective in extracting it from people in other places.

City institutions have often opposed the EU’s attempts to increase financial regulation—the “Robin Hood” transaction tax, for example—but most voiced support for remaining in the EU in the recent referendum. Although largely the result of 1980s deregulation, the revival of London’s role as a global financial center occurred during the UK’s EU membership. When a majority of the English voted to leave the European Union, many probably did so at least partly because they identify the EU with the City and, hence, with the impoverishment of much of the UK outside London. But while leaving the EU may damage the City, it seems unlikely that this alone will benefit provincial England. As George Orwell wrote in August 1945, “the chief danger of the situation lies in the fact that English people have never been made to grasp that the sources of their prosperity lie outside England.”10

Patrick Keiller is a UK-based filmmaker and writer.


1. See, for example, Elizabeth Helsinger, “Turner and the Representation of England,” in Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 119: “Turner’s drawings [remind] us that in fact the notions of possession and circulation to which picturesque landscapes refer—those of the spectator as landowner or tourist—are contradicted by new meanings of the same terms.”

2. See John Walter, Crowds and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2006), 73–123.

3. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a villein as “a feudal tenant entirely subject to a lord or manor to whom he paid dues and services in return for land.”

4. Henry Schnitzler, “‘Gay Vienna’—Myth and Reality,” Journal of the History of Ideas 15, no. 1 (January 1954): 100.

5. Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509–1640 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1988), 191, 193.

6. Manning, Village Revolts, 187–219.

7. The City differs from the thirty-two boroughs with which it constitutes Greater London in that its local government is elected by roughly twenty-four thousand businesses and other bodies, as well as by members of its resident population, which numbers about eight thousand. It is both a city and a county and has its own police force, separate from London’s Metropolitan Police.

8. Martin Filler, “The New Tower of London,” NYR Daily (blog), New York Review of Books, March 8, 2010, (accessed January 11, 2017).

9. In the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area, “Vauxhall” is the site for a collection of new towers at the south end of Vauxhall Bridge, to the east, and “Battersea” refers to the conservation-listed Battersea power station and its immediate surroundings, to the west. The power station was decommissioned in 1983; since then, successive owners have attempted to realize developments involving reuse of the building. Construction eventually began in 2013.

10. In Orwell’s penultimate “London Letter,” Partisan Review 12, no. 4 (Fall 1945): 468.