Monday 28 January 2013

Pieties eviscerated

Museums Without Walls, by Jonathan Meades (Unbound, 2012)

‘Being self-taught is a form of bereavement. Discuss.’ This statement may or may not have found its way onto an examination paper for budding pedagogues, but it is the unspoken view which lurks in any professional organisation whose members regard themselves as forming a priestly caste, the role of which is to disseminate knowledge, that is, conventional views. Every so often, someone comes along to dispel this error, to show that being free of received opinions is a blessing, not a loss. The author of this book has done so every time he’s got behind a keyboard or in front of a TV camera. What new insights does he come up with here and, just as important, what conventional pieties does he eviscerate?

Jonathan Meades trained at RADA for the stage, but is a writer, broadcaster, novelist — and autodidact, so putting himself at the risk of attack from dispensers of approved views. His specialisations? The cover blurb for his volume of collected journalism, Peter Knows What Dick Likes (1989), hints at its author’s wide-ranging interests: ‘transsexuals, soldiers, meat on canvas, drugged hippies, lager and lads, anonymous letters, wrestling, French slang, Marienbad, AIDS, dog food, and much, much more.’ Now he’s back with another collection of writings, and has no false modesty about letting us know what motivates him. ‘These lectures, essays, polemics, squibs and telly scripts are intended to entertain, to instruct, to inform, and to question the orthodoxies of the architectural, heritage and construction industries, to draw attention to the rich oddness of what we take for granted. But before that that they are written because l want to read them, to watch them. If that sounds selfish and immodest, so be it.’

‘Why should a meditation on a city masquerading as a guidebook not be a greater work of literature than a novel.’ Meades poses this question when writing of Nairn’s London by architectural writer lain Nairn. Writers on architecture and psychogeography are ten-a- penny. But few-and-far-between are writers who cover those subjects without either lapsing into academic-speak (the surest way to kill-off interest in them) or turning their writings into a party-political broadcast (usually for some supposed golden age of activism of around, say, forty years ago). For Meades, architectural writing is effective, not just when it imparts information, but when it ‘transmutes into literature.’

Like his heroes Nairn and Betjeman, Meades himself takes an evocative approach to these subjects, bringing them alive. Thus, in considering Westbourne Grove, he writes of its ‘empty launderettes, iffy supermarkets, sparsely furnished letting agencies, unreconstructed Indian restaurants, beer halls, booths offering rock-bottom price international phone calls, money exchanges, cheap carpet shops and heavily defended mini cab offices.’ With a complete lack of socio-babble we’re straight back into the Notting Hill of Colin Maclnnes’s early yoof novel Absolute Beginners, or the film Performance, as if the superficial sleekness of Cameronian gentrification had never existed.

But this is not to say Meades confines himself to the street-feel of the architecture in wherever he finds himself. He looks at the implications of the bigger picture which that architecture illustrates. (This is where some readers may have a gripe with his book, feeling that it could do with photographs, especially of some of the more unfamiliar architectural work it mentions — possibly not everyone is immediately familiar with the output of architects such as Ricardo Legorreta and Rodney Gordon, to say nothing of the wonderfully- named Victorian, Sextus Dyball — and it would be good to have a few examples to hand without having to Google them.) He points-out that that the people who run cities live outside them but that this is changing because of regeneration. However, this is no effective answer to urban decay.

He rightly excoriates the regeneration industry for its combination of meretricious ’sightbite’ modernist buildings, jargon-laden false assumptions about the character-building qualities of ‘inclusive’ art, and endless, ultimately ineffective multi-agency partnerships. He sees a time when regeneration causes the urban dispossessed to move to the outer suburbs whilst the inner cities undergo embourgeoisement (although, post-2011 riots, one has to question this: will young hipsters ‘— especially those with the first kiddy on the way — head for the comparatively riot-free suburbs, where the price of a Hackney flat can get you a three-bed semi plus garden?).

Refreshingly in all this Meades, when looking at architecture, is concerned with what is stylistically good or bad: he is not rigidly for or against any particular architectural era: bad Georgian comes in for attack just as much as bad Modernism. But architectural writing is, for Meades, not simply a means by which he can take apart the built environment, the feelings it summons-up and the immediate social issues which it raises. Writing about architecture is a way of leading into larger topics. Thus, although l Meades is a devout atheist, this doesn’t blind him to the possibilities, qualities and meanings of church architecture. While he gives Durham cathedral top marks for being an ‘incomparable church’ he also looks at where modern Catholicism and Anglicanism have gone wrong in their theological modus operandi (effectively, a programme of secularisation to make faith supposedly more acceptable in a post-war world) — as shown in their recent, anti-numinous church architecture — and his spot-on analysis would get the ecclesiastical equivalent of a high-five from any traditionalist Anglican or Catholic. Incidentally, it is his coverage of religion that shows Meades to be a drily courageous writer. Contemporary Western Christianity is easy meat - the followers of Islam less so: ‘Muslims must be treated with a respect that is not accorded to other delusionists (who are less sensitive, less heavily armed)’.

Meades doesn’t lack interest in political criticism. lt’s not just the fat cats of the regeneration industry whom he lines up in his shooting gallery — everyone is scatter-gunned by his remorseless evaluations. In the script for his television programme about Stalin-era Russian architecture he reminds us that the dictator’s ‘genocidal zeal was different from Hitler’s the extent of its enormities was greater.’ He goes on to remind us of the ‘useful Western idiots’, such as HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who continued to defend the Soviet Union long after its murderous defects were known, and that support for Eastern Bloc socialism from figures such as James Callaghan ‘means that politicians in supposedly democratic states covet the licence of free-range tyrants.’

Holding views like this, it’s easy to see why Meades, like another of his heroes, the 1960s novelist Robin Cook (aka crime novelist Derek Raymond and, like his admirer, eventually domiciled in France), is not exactly a household name in his native land — he doesn’t easily fit into any establishment. He’s not clubbable. If his views make him unacceptable among the conventionally unconventional, the ease with which he delivers his put-downs doubtless only compounds his bien pensant critics’ distaste: this book’s one-liners include a reference to the architect Owen Luder not standing as a parliamentary candidate as ’he could not decide which party deserved him’, and the hope that, at some future Christmas, the Blairs will ‘magically mutate into the Ceaucescus of Connaught Square. (The house has a basement.).’

Pointing-out that yesterday’s rebels are today’s pillars of the establishment won’t win him top marks either. (‘Had the police horses in Grosvenor Square made a better job of trampling protest-kids in 1968 we’d have been spared such creatures as Jack Straw and Peter Hain.’) But such dislike is not only a short-sighted error for those who censure, or censor, Meades but also — tragically - a deprivation for those who need his way of seeing to enlarge their vision. He points-out that the English are in thrall to elsewhere, oblivious to the fact that they have the extraordinary, the remarkable, the thought-provoking, in their midst. He sees that there is character in the (seemingly) ordinary. For Meades, the everyday life which surrounds him —and us — is a playground where he can constantly spot new, thought-provoking wonders. This book encourages us to make it ours too.

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Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

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