The Landscape of Cruelty

Patrick Keiller

England's countryside remains largely the preserve of a wealthy elite who have owned it for centuries. But what do they do with it?

Interview by
Richard King

The film-maker and writer Patrick Keiller shifted his focus from the urban and suburban landscapes of London and Robinson in Space to the British countryside, enclosure and agriculture in his Robinson in Ruins. Music writer Richard King’s new book The Lark Ascending traces the recent history of the same landscape from rural fascists and socialist trespassers in the thirties to  Greenham Common and the Battle of the Beanfield in the 1980s. Here, the two talk about land, who owns it, and what they do with it.


RK

The Establishment regularly leaves Parliament and heads off to its rural nerve centres in the Thames Valley, which seem to be more powerful than Westminster itself. I suppose Chequers, a 16th century Manor House in rural Buckinghamshire, is a good example…

PK

What I don’t really understand is how the landscape survives, frankly, to the extent that it does. And I mean, I suppose you could say it survives because of those people. Or, alternatively, survives because of the Town and Country Planning Act, post-war, it’s legislation, it’s not “Get off my land”. Why can’t you buy land and build a house? Why is self-building so difficult, or not even self-building, self-initiating. Why doesn’t land come on the market? The public sector used to buy land at agricultural prices and give itself planning permission, and could do so again. This is how the New Towns were built.’
Why can’t you go and buy a bit of land and build a house on it? I know that you can, but it’s just terribly difficult and it’s not like that in other countries, in Denmark you’re not allowed to own more than one farm. So there are all these questions about the lovely English countryside: how come it’s still the lovely English countryside, when it ought to be wasteland, really. Well, it is a kind of wasteland to some extent, but it doesn’t look like a wasteland.

RK

Robinson in Ruins finds a pointed balance between the inward and outward appearance of the English Countryside…

PK

One of the things that I noticed before I started making that film was that in the year before, I counted a very large number of television programmes which either were about or comprised footage of landscape. There’s Coast, there was Britain’s Favourite View, which I was especially fond of because it was on ITV and it was fronted by Trevor MacDonald. And you kind of think,  “What does all this mean? Why do people have this thing about landscape? Why does television have this thing?” in the end, I came to the conclusion that it was because of the advent of high-definition television. It wasn’t anything; it was kind of internal. But it isn’t just that. It’s because people like looking at views, and there’s a famous line in Kenneth Clark I can’t remember how he puts it, but it’s something about everybody likes a good view. 

And I thought, “I know why it is, it’s because it’s the only way we have of taking possession of the space we inhabit, because it’s already owned by someone else, since the 16th century, or longer”. Again, one doesn’t want to be too nostalgic about the 16th century, but the loss of land rights is not unconnected with the love of landscape, perhaps. 

With private ownership of agricultural land, you do have some access to quite a lot of it. And people have been – in recent decades, people have been extremely adept, you know, people who want to walk their dogs, you go past a field of beans or something, and there’s a gap where the footpath is. I’ve walked through these gaps, and you kind of think, “Oh, this is really good, how do they keep that going? How do they stop the guy from just blocking it?” And it’s – presumably – community pressures. You can’t block the public because of all the people, most people who live in villages, they’ve got dogs and they want to take their dogs for a walk, so you’re not going to be the farmer who gets everyone’s backs up. 

RK

Combine Harvesters are a presence in Robinson in Ruins, aren’t they?

PK

Yes, I looked into the economics of combine harvesters quite a bit. And… you kind of think, “Well, how did this work? Because they only use it for a week.” The year after I filmed the pictures, I did the sound, and I was trying to find a combine that made the right noises and I happened to turn up in a field where I’d got one the previous year, and I was looking to see whether it was ready, thinking I might catch it. I looked around, and there was this guy pissing in the field opposite and he turned out to be an agronomist. I got talking to him, and he said, “Oh, if you like, give me your phone number, I’ll tell them, they’ll ring you up when they’re going to do it”. 

And they did! Except I wasn’t here, I was on holiday. But when I got back, there was a message, and they said, “Oh, we’re cutting such and such a field this afternoon, do you want to come up?” So I went up there. And it was somebody Henman and I think it was like he was cutting his cousin’s field and there are a lot of Henmans. Tim Henman’s dad lives in Weston-on-the-Green, and was the prime mover in opposing the Eco Town of Weston Otmoor. 

Weston Otmoor was an Eco Town mooted, second round. Shipton Quarry, which is in that film, Shipton-on-Cherwell Cement Quarry was a round one Eco Town that didn’t get selected, but Weston Otmoor did. And Weston Otmoor had to be offed by the residents of Weston-on-the-Green and eventually they got it shoved up to Bicester, so now it’s Greater Bicester. But anyway, that’s who the Henmans are. 

RK

And that’s how the landscape stays the same. 

PK

Yes, that’s one of the reasons, absolutely. In the film the people who are cutting the maize, I think they’re owner-occupiers, but the other combine harvester, the one without the tractor, the one that kind of goes across, I think that belongs to Rectory Farm, which is where we go to pick asparagus in May. They’ve got a big Pick Your Own setup, massive, bouncy castle and farm shop, the whole business. And I thought they were the epitome of prosperous owner-occupier farmers, but they’re actually tenants of New College and have been for generations, so they’re not landed in that sense. I’ve never got to the bottom of this business about how much farmland Oxford and Cambridge colleges own. It’s meant to be a very great deal, but I did come across some figures about the wealth and it didn’t seem to tally. They didn’t actually seem to be as rich as they should be, if they did really own that much. But on the other hand, they do tend to pop up a lot. 

RK

And landowners, particularly rural landowners, tend to be very good at disguising their wealth.

PK

Yes, that’s true, it might not have been included in the figures, it might have been lessened, “Not the land, something else!” So that’s what you do with your combine harvester. The other thing is that a lot of them are second-hand, I don’t know what you have to be to get a new one.

RK

They cost a house. 

PK

They cost, yeah, a couple of million quid or something, something like that. But you can buy an old one, they advertise them in how many hours they’ve done, it’s like an aeroplane. The grain price, that’s the other mystery about it: if you don’t make any money, why do you do it? But they do claim that if they can get it for milling, then it’s profitable. 

RK

And you go into this quite a bit in Ruins. 

PK

Yes, but… there’s quite a lot of grain exported. The funny one, I thought, was beans. Because you kind of look at these beans and think, “Why are they growing that?” and you hear that they just plough it in, and I think some of it is ploughed in, but quite a bit of it’s combined, and it ends up being exported to Egypt for medames, where apparently English beans are considered almost, you know, it’s really the bottom of the market, it’s almost fake beans. Horse beans. 

Somebody’s now selling beans as a snack, I don’t know if you’ve noticed. Roast beans. Well, they’re fava beans, so this is, again, someone’s thought of a use for beans. We have some – they’re very nice. But the economics of it, when I was looking into it, seemed a bit perplexing. 

RK

It’s an almost pointless purpose to put land to, growing bottom of the market beans, although I don’t know what might be described as its best purpose, building something? 

PK

There is an idea that there’s something really unpleasant about dwelling, about the desire for settlement and rootedness and these sort of things, belonging, all things that people pretend not to like, but really always fall back on.

RK

Is that the same as wanting a home? 

PK

Partly, yeah, I think it probably is. Where do you feel at home? Well, I don’t know, on a bus! I mean, that’s silly, but you know what I mean. This philosophical critique of settlement was lying around, the idea that it’s based on agriculture, and that before that, people wandered about, is very strong, as is a kind of nostalgia, a sort of pseudo-nostalgia, for nomadic lifestyles, which is – I don’t know about you – but it’s a feature certainly of my generation, or certain members of it, and chimes with travelling and this, that and the other. 

And so one’s interested in tracks, because the landscape of mobility – ancient mobility – and this is where the rock carvings come in, because the Neolithic rock carvings are both sacred and art, allegedly, and topographic indicators, and they were always placed in particular locations, on rising ground overlooking panoramic views and all that kind of thing – I was thinking, “There’s something in this. This is a bit like making films”. So the landscape of pre-agricultural people has been described as one of markers, track ways, and something else, signs or something. 

So one of the answers to where do you feel at home might be “On a road,” and I suppose that’s why one’s attracted to something like the Ridgeway, although, of course, the present-day Ridgeway is nothing like the Ridgeway before Enclosure, because it kind of moved around, because of the mud and everything. 

RK

West Green House, which hosted Lord McAlpine as a tenant, features in the Robinson films. It’s in Hampshire so not part of the Thames Valley country house power structure, but highly significant…

PK

It’s the National Trust’s house. It was Hangman Hawley’s house and Hangman Hawley had – well, I assume it was him, actually, I don’t know, it might have been someone else. I think it was probably him – had a stone in the back of the house over the door on which it says Fay ce que vouldras. 

RK

Do as thou wilt.

PK

It’s a phrase which is often associated with the Hellfire Club, and also, I subsequently discovered, with Aleister Crowley, which I didn’t then know (when making Robinson in Space). So I was saluting this connection between the house and the Hellfire Club as part of that kind of Tory gestalt, if you like, which I elsewhere allege can’t be put down solely to the influence of the public schools. And the idea that Thatcherism was some sort of sado-masochistic plot to inflict pain, rather than anything of benefit to anyone! 

But I think, in the end, I thought, “This is a bit unfair on McAlpine,” because he was a jolly fellow, by all accounts. The first I ever heard of Alistair McAlpine, a friend of mine who taught at the Architectural Association told me that some of the students had been commissioned by McAlpine to build a large and very expensive bird cage, and I thought, “This sounds a bit iffy, this bird cage, what’s he up to?” then forgot all about it. And then when I was at the RCA, the Head of Department encouraged us to invite McAlpine to our show, having met him somewhere. I then discovered he lived in this house and that it had this interesting kind of libertarian sentiment carved on the back wall. And I tried to get to see it, because he wasn’t living there then, it was empty, I think, because he’d moved out; after the fire and the bomb and everything (In 1990 the IRA bombed West House, causing considerable fire damage, McAlpine who knew of his presence on IRA target lists had already relocated to Italy).

By this time, I think I’d discovered about Crowley and Fait ce que voudra, but I didn’t know about Saint Augustine, I didn’t know where it really came from, and I didn’t know about Rabelais – I don’t think I did. I hadn’t got to the bottom of it. I was still perplexed by what it meant. 

RK

Some people think it means: ‘Do what you’re good at.’ 

PK

Well, it means all sorts of things, because apparently it comes from Saint Augustine of Hippo: “What should I do, Lord?” “Love God and do as thou wilt”. But some versions say it’s not “Love God and do as thou wilt,” it’s “Love, and do as thou wilt,” which is even more sympathetic. So at some point, it’s been seized on by these nasty men and turned into something else. 

RK

In Robinson in Space footage of the house is immediately followed by a quote from Conan-Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches: “It is my belief, Watson,” said Holmes, “founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” 

PK

Yeah, the Holmes quote was just handy, because in the story I figured out he and Dr Watson must have been somewhere near Hartley Wintney, and that’s where West Green is, West Green is three miles or something north of Hartley Wintney. So it seemed like I could just pop it in there, on top of the primroses, which is what it accompanies. And there’s an ant on the primroses, it turned out, I think. So that’s why it’s there. 

There’s this business about the landscape of cruelty, or the idea of the fences and spiky things, the mobile phone aerials and all this sort of agribusiness and all this nasty stuff that is in the rural landscape, are seemingly much worse than in the urban landscape. And I used to go round saying, “Well, the thing is, if you live in a city, there’s a slight chance that it might get better, whereas if you live in the country, it’s quite probable that it’ll get worse.” 

About the Author

Patrick Keiller's films include London, Robinson in Space and Robinson in Ruins, and he is the author of The View from the Train.

About the Interviewer

Richard King is the author of three books, How Soon is Now, Original Rockers and The Lark Ascending.