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Interview with Jonathan Meades

The television broadcasts of Jonathan Meades are marked by a surreal humour, a polymathic breadth of knowledge, and a truly caustic wit that’s alchemically concentrated to smoulder through the accumulated scum blockages of much contemporary televisual inanity. Sartorially brilliant, he appears to have been birthed by the same clandestine sect we have to thank for the dark-stain presences of Ian McCulloch, Roy Orbison and Harry Lime – although I’m unsure how he’d feel about those comparisons. If, as it happens, you’ve never caught a Meades film, then you’re yet to encounter how startling it can be to receive a dose of television presented by a critically lucid pontificator who simply refuses to remove his Ray-Bans, all the while affecting a kind of stolid, critical pedestrianism that’s perfectly calibrated to defamiliarise and make strange the overlooked and obfuscated elements of our built environments. In Meades’s own words, these are ‘free shows’, we need only look.

 

We met at Soho’s Quo Vadis restaurant to talk about Pedigree Mongrel, a forthcoming record commissioned by Jess Chandler and Will Shutes at Test Centre. Musically backed by the incomparably ominous Mordant Music, the LP offers readings from three of Meades’s published works; the memoir An Encyclopaedia of Myself (2014), the essay collection Museum Without Walls (2013), and a novel, Pompey (1993), alongside new material written and performed specifically for the project. It’s a strangely disquieting and ultimately rewarding listen, by turns didactic, charming and jolting. It is also, at times, soporific, bearing the lulling quality of a led-meditation. Meades’s relentless prose moves fluidly through genres whilst being subject to echoes and emphases, salivary sounds, coughs, splutters, amnesiac repetitions; audio-collaging techniques that bring simultaneously to the fore a very visceral sense of embodied enunciation and a cavernous perambulation of mind.

 

Due to the sheer thematic breadth of Jonathan’s output – twinned with my own personal interest in his architectural writings – I’d completely suppressed any acknowledgement of his gastronomic erudition, despite the fact that he’d maintained a role as restaurant critic for The Times for over fifteen years. This was brought sharply into relief upon arrival, when he requested a double espresso AND a cup of lapsang souchong. It was an order placed with such wonderfully artful precision that I’m still kicking myself for not mirroring it.

 

Q

The White Review

— The occasion for this interview is the rather enigmatic LP Pedigree Mongrel that you’re releasing with London based publisher Test Centre. How was the record conceptualised and initiated?

A

Jonathan Meades

— Jess Chandler and Will Shutes at Test Centre expressed interest in my work to Chris Petit, a very old friend of mine who’d done a similar vinyl with them. Chris said I might be up for it so they got in touch with me, and I thought, Well why the fuck not! It was born out of curiosity about doing something in a medium I hadn’t worked in. I’ve done television getting on for thirty years but I’ve done very, very little radio. Television is obviously an auditory medium as well as a visual one, and the films that I make frequently use auditory devices which are not naturalistic. I’ve done one or two shows where we’ve post-synched the whole lot so that I might be talking in a field and you hear the drone of very close traffic, or city traffic, and there are all sorts of things you can do. The preponderance of naturalism in radio, TV and film is something that greatly distresses me because I grew up watching Buñuel, and Godard, Robbe-Grillet and Melville, none of whom did anything remotely naturalistic. It’s why their stuff is so good. I don’t think you can say anything about the world if you just represent it literally – you have to be at an angle to it. To go back to this Pedigree Mongrel, I wanted to see how it altered my prose, and it obviously has had some effect: the whole thing’s been a very enjoyable collaboration.

Q

The White Review

— I was surprised to see in the liner notes that Mordant Music’s contribution to the recording had been described as a kind of ‘smearing’. Was the musical aspect of the project conceived in dialogue, or were you happy to subject the vocal recordings to Mordant’s interferences in post-production?

A

Jonathan Meades

— The word ‘smeared’ was Mordant’s. He used it and I think it’s very appropriate. It makes it sound slightly grubby and slightly sordid, like, ‘This is my skid-mark.’ He’s very much in tune with what I write, and the voice talking in an almost documentary way about Portsmouth and a child molester and so on – that is his father who once worked in the Portsmouth dockyard. It was odd that Mordant should have this very direct connection to the place. When I wrote Pompey, I had only been to that city twice: once as a child, inevitably to see HMS Victory and the fortresses on Portsdown Hill, and another time when I was about 18. I had some friends who had a house on Hayling Island, but it was a place I didn’t know despite the fact that I came from Salisbury, which is only forty miles away. My grandparents and all of my mother’s family lived in Southampton, which is only twenty miles from Portsmouth, but Portsmouth and Southampton are about as different as Glasgow and Edinburgh: there’s no congruence. Even when I was writing the book, I went a few times to check out little details, but Pompey is an invention, as is virtually everything which is on that disc. It comes from stuff which is invented rather than observed.

Q

The White Review

— Fiction, critical observation and memoir seem to bleed together on the record. How did you go about selecting those excerpts from your published material? What was it about those particular pieces that you thought could work well within the context of a spoken word recording?

A

Jonathan Meades

— The piece which starts off about the sounds of my teens is from a book that I’m writing at the moment. Part of it is set in Algiers in 1962, just before the great exodus of the pieds-noirs. It was something I wanted to try out, whereas the other stuff goes back a long time. The story is told in the first person by a Jewish teenager who becomes a sort of hit man. The other things on the record are not first person.

 

I don’t particularly differentiate between fiction and non-fiction save that in An Encyclopaedia of Myself, I didn’t invent anything. I changed a few names but again that was just courtesy to the living descendants of various people. I didn’t invent a single person. I didn’t invent a single incident. Obviously you can make it seem to various people that it was fiction. You can edit in such a way that you leave in the caricatural and the grotesque and the atypical and the super squalid.

Q

The White Review

— Do those different strands of your writing cross-pollinate, and is that an approach you’re eager to entertain?

A

Jonathan Meades

— They do cross-pollinate. Certain incidents which were in Pompey are from my childhood, although most of Pompey is both invention and collage. For instance, there is a character called Douglas Vallender who chokes to death on his own shit. He has a pipe going up his arse and he sucks on it and, anyway… When the book came out, it was denounced as being the work of some awful – I don’t know, ‘devil’ would be too dignified a word for it – creature from a sewer, which I completely own up to. But there was the assumption that all of this was invented. In actual fact, this instance of someone who chokes on their own shit was real.

 

A friend of mine, Duncan Fallowell, had heard about this in Herefordshire or Shropshire, somewhere on the Welsh Marches. This magistrate had killed himself in this way accidentally. This was his kick, how he got off. It must have been in the mid-eighties, and it’s a very specialised form of coprophagia. There’s an awful lot which is like that, which is picked up here and there. I have a very strong memory but it’s also incredibly indiscriminate. I’ll remember in five years’ time the shirt you’re wearing but will have no substantive memory of the questions you’ve asked. It’s also a very visual memory.

 

Invention, imagination and memory are so intertwined that it’s often very difficult to discern which has paramountcy in a particular thing that you’re writing. I’ve gone over a lot of material in many ways. I made a sort of autobiographical telly film called Father to the Man which is about going to places with my father, who was a rep for a biscuit company, and that gets re-worked in various ways. Having said which, I know nothing about Algiers in 1962 save from my memory of seeing people arrive in France, refugees. I’d never seen refugees before.

 

I want this book that I’m doing now to not be about myself in any way. It’s all invention, although invention includes stuff that you pick out of books and incidents that you hear about. At the same time, the next telly show I’m doing is about Mussolini’s architecture. I’ve done Hitler’s and I’ve done Stalin’s. And I do these not really by studying the architecture but by reading around the architecture, and reading about Mussolini, about the conditions people lived in in Italy during those twenty years and the broader Italian culture. It starts off from tangential stuff rather than going right into the core, because if you go right into the core you’re going to produce yet another history of Italian architecture during the fascist period, which, as it happens, is a very undersubscribed area to write about.

Q

The White Review

— It’s certainly an unusual record, much darker in tone than I was expecting. Not that I was anticipating John Betjeman’s Banana Blush (1973) or anything as jolly as that, but still. Were there any significant precedents from the sphere of spoken word recording that fed into your ideas for this LP?

A

Jonathan Meades

— I liked Christopher Logue’s Red Bird, that was good. I like things like Derek and Clive. In fact, my next collection of journalism is going to be called Pedro and Ricky Come Again, which is a nod to Derek and Clive. As a kid I liked Peter Sellers. Also Nabokov reading his verse. Even though he lived well into the period of sound recording, one of the great regrets is that there’s nothing by A. E. Housman. Housman reading Shropshire Lad would have been wonderfully interesting. I find Housman absolutely fascinating, and writers reading their own stuff provided the writer isn’t T. S. bloody Eliot…

Q

The White Review

— Or Ezra Pound…

A

Jonathan Meades

— …Or Ezra Pound! I don’t like either of them. I’ve never quite understood how reputations build.

Q

The White Review

— On the sleeve design for the vinyl, the gatefold bears this remarkable miasmatic, almost bacterial abstraction. I understand that it’s your original artwork?

A

Jonathan Meades

— I’m the kind of writer who, like Cyril Connolly, would starve to death of syphilis in a garret for the sake of an adverb. I’m very, very anal in the way I write, and I hate impressionistic writing. I like incredibly precise writing. And playing around with a digital camera like this (Editorial Note: Jonathan Meades removes an old digital compact camera from his coat pocket), I like the way it’s beaten up, I can pretend to have been a war correspondent. Playing around with this is very relaxing and very random and one doesn’t know what’s going to happen. I started going to car washes and taking photographs of their interiors, and then digitally manipulating them. I don’t even have Photoshop, I only have the programme that comes with the camera which is now about eight years old, and I play around with them. Someone said it’s like abstract expressionism but you’re not making a mess on the floor! You’re exploring a new medium which you’re making up and you aren’t following any kind of precedent because you don’t have the kind of skills to follow the precedent. I couldn’t go out and take a photograph like Tony Ray Jones or Martin Parr or Bill Brandt, but I do this. I’m probably going to have an exhibition at some point. I’ve been working down at Coriander and Curwen, the print studios, and we’re working out what size we can magnify these to. Some of them are going to be three metres by one and a half metres…

Q

The White Review

— Specifically the car wash images?

A

Jonathan Meades

— The car wash images and lots of other things, because I then started putting liquids of different densities in plastic bags: you get slightly marbled effects. I’ve been taking photographs of things like lichen and knapped flints very close up. I’ve been doing all sorts of stuff like that now for about six years and can recognise things which are going to be manipulable, or which I think will be manipulable. But I still do it very quickly and without caring about whether it works out or not because I want it to be the absolute methodical antithesis of writing and making films. Everything in films is completely scripted. There’s no spontaneity, we don’t actually have the money to do anything spontaneously, we get the shot and move on to the next one. Our budgets are so straitened now, we used to have a crew of fifteen, twenty people and now it’s me, Frank Hanley who directs and produces and does the camera, a sound recordist and one gofer and that’s it. As Frank said, we used to be a convoy and now we’re a smart car.

 

On the other hand, if you’re a convoy, you’ve always got two people in the convoy who can’t read a map, or can’t even read GPS, so you’ll be hanging around at a location waiting for people to turn up. The downside is that you’ve no longer got tracks, dollies, gibs, though we are going to use them on the Mussolini film. We’re going to use a drone, but we’re not going to use it for bird’s-eye views, we’re going to use it for POVs. So I’ll look at something and then we’ll do the shot which is the POV but it’s going to be a metre higher than I am. So we’ll establish me walking, looking at some buildings, but then it’ll appear that my eyes are those of someone who is nine feet tall. It’ll take some time until anyone susses what’s going on. It’s not announcing anything, it’s not dramatic, it’s a very marginal amendment, which I hope will work out. But it’s very much the kind of thing that they’re into at Test Centre: doing these tiny changes, just fiddling around with stuff but not in a dramatic. It’s much more subtle.

Q

The White Review

— On this issue of spontaneity: Pedigree Mongrel’s B-side seems to descend into a kind of amnesiac soundscape, a composite of errors, falterings, and hesitations that have occurred in the recording process but that appear to have led to the performance of anecdotes and quick quips. I just wondered, in terms of your history of broadcasting and working regularly with your own scripts, how errors or failures of enunciation could create spaces for improvisation, are you ever prone to a free-associative method?

A

Jonathan Meades

— I don’t think I would on one of the telly shows. Once you alter one bit, it’s a kind of domino effect, you start mucking around with the scripts and you’ve got a collapsing house of cards. Whereas with this, it was much more open ended, it wasn’t programmatic. We didn’t know where we were going. When I’m writing, I don’t know where I’m going. If you know where you’re going you may as well not bother writing it. My work on telly is basically finished when I’ve got the script exactly how I want it, at which point Frank Hanley takes over and I’m there as an actor really. I very seldom say to the director, I think it should be like this, or like that, or why are you using this lens. The creative part is the script.

 

The creative part on this record is completely different because we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t have a script. There was a script in the form of the texts, but in the non-text bits there was no script at all, so there is a degree of spontaneity. My line on spontaneity is that it’s only any good if it’s been rehearsed. It’s like when someone gets hold of the text of a politician’s speech and it’ll say ‘And we pledge to… (smile sweetly)’, where that sort of foolish Blairite insincerity comes through. On the other hand I think insincerity is probably better than sincerity, Hitler was very sincere at what he wanted to do! Stalin was pretty sincere, and come think of it Tony Blackburn’s rather sincere too!

Q

The White Review

— Whenever I discuss your films with friends, one of the most resonant images for a lot of people appears to have been the macabre monumentality of Prora, the coastal resort built by the Nazi Government along the north-east coast of Germany, which you documented in 1994’s Jerry Building. It made me wonder how a building might be made to perform, or enlisted as a co-conspirator. I re-read the original script for that film the other day and it’s startling how integrally the building figures as a participant. Both in terms of your perambulations through it, but also how it’s used as a platform through which dialogue may be delivered. It almost becomes a sort of sinister co-host. How do you accommodate those considerations – how buildings might influence a televisual delineation of space – into the writing process?

A

Jonathan Meades

— That’s not really how I think, that’s a much more critical way of thinking post-writing. I wanted to use Prora as something which is emblematic of the fact – and I think I say it more or less in these words – that there was no such thing as Nazi architecture stylistically, but there was such a thing as Nazi architecture from the point of view of size. Prora was a good place to start because it was so bloody enormous, and still is so bloody enormous. I’m not very interested in show and tell, and if you can get the building, as you say, doing the work for you, that’s good.

 

Sometimes it doesn’t come off. Looking back on the endless films, fifty-five, sixty films that I’ve done, I know which are the good ones and which are the poorest, and it wouldn’t necessarily coincide with anyone else’s idea, but one remembers lost opportunities and things which one could have done and especially could have done in the days when we had really large budgets. We could have made a feature of Jerry Building with the budget we had. It was all boiled down to forty minutes, but we had a huge amount of money. A month’s reccy and then a month’s filming, during which time I put on about two stone. That’s German food for you. I like German food, it’s great. Look at Angela Merkel, who Mr. Berlusconi described as ‘an un-fuckable lump of lard’. I think that’s a very charming expression.

 

(Editorial Note: We break for liquor steeped figs delivered to the table by Jeremy Lee. He’s unsure of the quality, but we tuck in nonetheless…)

 

I love figs. It’s one of the good things about living in Marseille, in fact anywhere in the southern third of France. There was a village we used to go to where there were fig trees everywhere. No one would ever pick them, they were just left to rot on the branch because they’re so common.

Q

The White Review

— Do you cook with them regularly?

A

Jonathan Meades

— I like them in salads, I like them roasted, and just sort of nature. The quality there is very high, not just of figs, but of fruit and veg in general. Much better than you get in Paris.

Q

The White Review

— How long have you been living in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, the Cité Radieuse?

A

Jonathan Meades

— Four years.

Q

The White Review

— How have you found it? Has there been any marked psychological impact?

A

Jonathan Meades

— It’s a great building, I’ve been fairly obsessed by it all my adult life. I first saw it in the very early eighties. A long time ago. We were living in a house in the French countryside near Bordeaux which we got fed up with. It was a lovely house, a mill house, and the whole of the interior had been designed by the architect of Bordeaux airport, very minimalist, with beautiful materials. But living in the country I found to be very alien. The people are perfectly friendly, but there are only so many conversations you can have about combine harvesters, and also, if you want a baguette you have to get in the car, whereas in Marseille you don’t.

Q

The White Review

— How does the building function as a community, is there still a communal infrastructure there?

A

Jonathan Meades

— To an extent, but it’s only the older hands, people who’ve been there for a long time who get involved in it, it’s very arty…

Q

The White Review

— Have most people moved there through a deliberate affiliation with Le Corbusier’s vision?

A

Jonathan Meades

— Yeah. There are twelve architectural practices in the building. Three or four design practices. A lot of shrinks. Academics. It was designed for blue collars and so on, but the working class of Marseille did not want to live in it. They took one look at it and decided it wasn’t for them. And so it’s always been lived in by people from the executive classes: functionaries, teachers, etc. Now I would have thought that the prices are such that it would probably be out of the range of many teachers. It’s a middle-class apartment block. Or at least that’s what it’s turned into, a very well designed one. Very well designed. Incredibly practical. And the idea of ‘a machine for living in’ makes it sound very cold, but it’s anything but. It’s very warm and welcoming and rather cosy, and unbelievably well worked out, with tiny details. Piers Gough, the pretty ubiquitous London architect, said that it’s actually not really a modernist building, it’s an Arts and Crafts building because so much of it was handmade.

Q

The White Review

— I was always struck by the sense of communality at High Points I and II, Berthold Lubetkin’s high-rise apartment blocks in Highgate Village, North London. I recently went to visit someone there and the tenant’s association appeared to be so active in managing the building’s interests. It was very evident that a certain brand of vertically partitioned ‘socialism’ had been bought into.

A

Jonathan Meades

— There is a tenant’s association in Marseille. We go to meetings occasionally, but there are lots of other activities, for example various clubs and so on, which are now almost destitute. The badminton club, the tennis ladder like you have at school for table tennis or something, and various film showings. The last few they had all happened to be the films we had on DVD so it wasn’t very ground-breaking. There’s an exhibition space in the former gymnasium on the top which is run by this guy called Ora-Ïto who’s a kind of all-purpose art-hustler, rather like Thomas Heatherwick, who seems to have fingers in thousands of pies. Some of the shows they’ve put on have been quite good, some have been dreadful because he uses the space outside. It’s one of the greatest sculptural sites of the twentieth century, and you don’t go and put other sculpture in there. But he does, and for three months at a time it’ll be absolutely ruined by all this stuff. There used to be lots of shops there too. There’s a restaurant I’d never dream of eating in, with lots of expensive foams, and a baker who’s one of the grumpiest people I’ve ever come across. Everything irritates him. There’s an architectural bookshop, which is alright, and there’s an estate agent which specialises in modern movement buildings. There used to be what the French called a ‘superette’, a sort of mini supermarket, and there was also a butcher. But those spaces are empty now.

Q

The White Review

— Do you consider your receptivity to place to be borne out of a natural curiosity, or is it a discipline of attention that you’ve had to hone? If so, I’m wondering if you’d consider yourself indebted to any particular strains of critical urbanism?

A

Jonathan Meades

— Place and places have interested me for a very long time, since childhood. The film Father to the Man was very much about the origins of that. We lived in Salisbury, and my Dad’s area for selling biscuits went from Marlborough in the north to the outskirts of Bournemouth in the south. Bournemouth is the most enormous sprawl. He didn’t do central Bournemouth but he did the edges and he’d do Blandford Forum, Shaftesbury, Sherbourne, all of the New Forest and Winchester. I used to go with him from a very tender age. He’d park the car and go off to the grocer’s before and tell me to be back there at midday, and I would go off and wander around these towns.

 

It was a means of alleviating boredom, but after a while I became genuinely interested in what I was looking at. All of this happened without my knowing that in the hierarchy of building types the cathedral was superior to a college, and a college was superior to a hotel, and a hotel was superior to a shop, etc. I didn’t know anything about this, I just looked at things. Some things fascinated me, other things didn’t, and that weirdly has remained. I never really set out to write about architecture.

 

The magazine where I cut my teeth, Books and Bookmen, was a highly eccentric magazine whose only equivalent today I suppose would be Literary Review, but even the Literary Review is much more orthodox. Books and Bookmen was very, very odd indeed. I’d been writing for it for about three years when Frank Granville Barker who edited it sent me the catalogue of what was a very important exhibition at the V&A called Marble Halls. It was the first really big popular exhibition on Victorian architecture, and Victorian architectural drawings and models and photographs. Something clicked. My journalism up to then had been literary journalism, but this was rather different because I knew an awful lot about what I was writing in literary journalism. I knew a lot about Borges or Robbe-Grillet or Kurt Vonnegut or Nabokov, but I didn’t really know a great deal about architecture save what I’d taken in.

 

Around then, a friend of mine inherited a house in Charmouth, near Lyme Regis. We drove there in my car with our respective partners, and when we got to Charmouth she said, ‘It normally takes two and half hours, but this has taken five hours.’ That was because I kept diverting us to go look at something, or to show them something. On that road there’s Milton Abbas, a kind of perfect, planned village of the eighteenth century, and Blandford, which is an extraordinary place. The whole town burned down in 1731 and these two brothers called the Bastards rebuilt it. They took their cue from two grand houses that had been built very recently, one by John Vanbrugh, the other by Thomas Archer. They thought, ‘That’ll be what the fancy people like up in London, and we’ll do that here!’, and they did, and it’s great. I hadn’t realised what an ingrained habit this was, just diverting all the time to look at things.

 

I did have some architectural books that my mother had had from the thirties, because she started to train as an architect, and then gave up, which is just as well for the fabric of Britain. She designed two houses, one for her sister and one for herself and my father.

Q

The White Review

— Do they still stand?

A

Jonathan Meades

— The one for her sister in Southampton is virtually unchanged, and the one in Salisbury, which I sold four years after she died, has been hugely expanded. It’s a hideous building to start with, but it’s been made worse. Anyhow, I didn’t know the names of architects, but then I started reading pretty voraciously. I knew a bit from these books I had from my mother, which were published by the Architectural Press or Country Life in the late thirties.

 

But my interest in places comes from a different area. Iain Sinclair, Geoff Dyer, Will Self – it isn’t the same sort of writing that I do. I have much more in common with someone like Owen Hatherley, who’s half my age. What he does is absolutely brilliant. Also with Iain Nairn, obviously. You know, a psychogeographer is just a geographer who’s forgotten to take his medication.

Q

The White Review

— I remember Richard Mabey getting frazzled a few years back with what he termed the ‘personal crises’ that were at the heart of so much psychogeographical work, which  he’d come to find just too indulgent.

A

Jonathan Meades

— Well, the psychogeographers write about themselves, and I write about myself but for the most part in a very deflected way. An Encyclopaedia of Myself is no such thing. It’s about my parents and my parents’ generation, and I come into it obviously, but it’s not really about me. I’m too covert and too shifty to reveal myself in a very obvious way.

Q

The White Review

— There’s a lyrical motif you use quite frequently which reads like a litany or a list of objects that can be relayed in order to produce a certain portrait of place. It occurs regularly in Encyclopaedia but the first time I encountered it was in your essay, ‘Hamas and Kibbutz’ (2008), which you happen to read from on Pedigree Mongrel. You talk about the poverty, or the limitations of the term ‘wasteland’, and then use this series of suggestive nouns to cultivate an evocation of a specific locale. It called to my mind the writings of the artist Robert Smithson, whose critical engagement of environmental entropy dovetailed neatly with his understanding of language. He’d create these wonderful descriptions of place that were literally heaps of words, almost with the appearance of geological strata.

A

Jonathan Meades

— I don’t know much about land art. Victor Pasmore did early land art although he’s dead now I would imagine. The land art that most interests me is chalk works. Frank Hanley and I decided there weren’t enough pornographic chalk works so we got Martin Rowson to design one which shows a bishop buggering a donkey, and we showed the preliminary work of digging it and then just faked it. It was a very good image.

Q

The White Review

— Perhaps we could talk about the role that lists play in your writing?

A

Jonathan Meades

— Owen Hatherley said to me that it’s about time I quit doing lists and I think he’s probably right, because I don’t notice I’m doing it half the time. Well, I do notice I’m doing it but I think, oh well, one more time. But one doesn’t want to have signatures. Better to fight that Picasso thing, ‘Copy anyone but never copy yourself.’

 

I went to a lecture last night by Ricardo Bofill, a Catalan architect who was saying more or less the same thing, that his stuff has changed so much that every few years he decides to become a different architect. I think it’s quite an interesting strategy, the opposite of Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, or Norman Foster, who basically have a signature building. The worst is Santiago Calatrava. Every Calatrava building is like the last Calatrava building, whereas people like Bofill or Rem Koolhaas vary, they don’t stick to the same, which I think is a more interesting way of proceeding. In certain creative endeavours it’s probably not a good idea to do this. If you’re writing a detective story you don’t want your detective to change sex or something midway through, you always turn out the same thing time and time again. It’s like what Iain Sinclair said about Martin Amis, every couple of years this man sits down and retypes the same book. I don’t think it’s true, actually, but it’s a good line.

Q

The White Review

— People say the same about Ballard, but it’s usually taken as a positive criticism.

A

Jonathan Meades

— I find with Ballard that the ideas are fascinating, but the prose is…

Q

The White Review

— A trudge?

A

Jonathan Meades

— Grim. There’s no poetry, it’s just dull. But the ideas are interesting. Anthony Burgess once said there are two kinds of literature, the really important one, ‘Class A’, is only any good if you can turn it into a film and make any money out of it. Whereas ‘Class B’ is interesting to read, the prose is fascinating and the actual medium is used. But I like the way that Class A is kind of trash, and Ballard was pretty much Class A. He’s a literary writer but there’s no joy in reading it, you read it for the information and the extremely interesting and often very disturbing ideas. But that was very common with the sci-fi of that era, people like Keith Roberts and so on. You do get people like M. John Harrison who weren’t like that, or Michael Moorcock, but the majority were heavy going.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think there are some places that could be resistant to writerly interpretation? I’m thinking of your account of Harnham, the site of your upbringing, in An Encyclopaedia of Myself, which seemed to be tempered by a distracting nostalgia. Are there certain areas that critical lucidity can’t broach?

A

Jonathan Meades

— If there were places I wanted to write about, I would write about what I remember. Places on which my memory is either frail or non-existent or inaccurate I just wouldn’t write about. But you don’t determine the places that you remember – they choose you. Obviously Harnham is one of them, I lived in the same house from the age of nought to fifteen, then moved three hundred yards away. I know every paving stone, just about. Had I been writing fiction I would have invented those, made up the places. Equally, in that book you get things which come to a dead end, where memory will prompt a second memory, a third, a fourth, and they’ll be spreading outwards as well, and then you’ll get to a point where it kind of dries up. The form was to an extent dictated by the fact that there were so many cul-de-sacs, not just to do with place but to do with people and so on. A lot of it is deliberately unresolved because I don’t know the resolution, and I wasn’t going to create a resolution to make it a neat thing.

 

I’ve got a real antipathy to the way that everything today is reduced to narrative, partly because I don’t see the great value of narratives: they don’t interest me. I fail constantly to follow things on the telly, like The Wire for example – it takes me months to get into it. I liked it eventually even though I had misgivings about the main actor. I’m much more interested in poetry than I am anecdotal prose, and the method I prefer, which I use in virtually everything I do, is not narrative, it’s collage. I like the juxtapositions that are more or less collisions. I like the randomness and I like to be able to start a sentence which looks like it’s going to be about a particularly pleasant experience and turns into something dreadful. There’s no rule which says you can’t do that, but that collage mentality infected that book a lot, and infects this record too. You can’t really say that there’s an overriding theme, cos there ain’t. The overriding theme comes back to this idea that if you can sum it up, or you know what you’re going to write, then don’t bother to do it.

Q

The White Review

— I was watching your programme on surrealism the other day. Someone had uploaded it to YouTube. Almost fifteen years on it’s still so visually anarchic and disruptive. More of a critical intervention than a straight documentary.

A

Jonathan Meades

— Yes, a lot of my stuff gets put on YouTube and I don’t know who it is that does it. The guy who runs Unbound tried to find him, but it’s probably someone who works at the BBC who’s not meant to do it. I’m very grateful that they do get put up there. There are certain films that people have picked up on down the years since they’ve been online, some that are noted and others that are completely ignored, which I suppose is some way of working out which are good and which aren’t. I have a pretty good idea of which are the more interesting ones, but the film Victoria Died in 1901 (2001) is never mentioned at all, whereas the film on Belgium is very popular. And the film on Stalin is much better than the film on Hitler’s architecture, but then again, anything which has got a swastika on it is going to sell. If you wanted to sell wine you could just put a swastika on it.

 

There was a very curious pub near Euston in the late sixties, early seventies, which was sort of Stalag-themed, and lights would come flashing on, and sirens would go off, and there was barbed wire around the top of the walls. It was really bizarre. There were quite a lot of themed pubs at that time actually. There was one in Chalk Farm – Regents Park Road – called Pub Lotus, and there were glass cases with exciting rally driver string gloves and puffers and things. The tables were made out of magnesium alloy wheels. It was really mind-blowing stuff.

Q

The White Review

— There’s a great account in your essay ‘London Transport’ of you driving the architect Richard Rogers home. I remember wondering at the time whether or not Rogers would feel comfortable in the conversational company of a critic. What do you perceive the purpose of your architectural criticism to be? Is it addressed to architects, or used as a measure to shift policy?

A

Jonathan Meades

— I have no pedagogic intent whatsoever. My favourite French writer of the moment is a guy called Régis Jauffret who I think is tremendous, but why he hasn’t been translated I don’t know. There’s a very good discussion programme called Bibliothèque Médicis where six or seven people stand at these desks within the Bibliothèque Médicis. There’s a mediator, a very clued up gent who’s now probably in his late seventies, and they will talk about a particular theme. One week they might talk about the effects of decolonisation, the next about whether it would have been a good idea to have Khomeini assassinated – which is a cause very close to my heart.

 

On one of these programmes they were talking about the responsibility of a writer to his audience, and Jauffret said, ‘Writers who think about their audiences make me vomit.’ I think he’s quite right, because if you start thinking about your audience you’re trying to second guess what a particular person might think. Write for pleasure, publish for profit.

 

This is one of the reasons that TV is so terrible because they are thinking about the audience. Everything has got to be accessible, which means that it’s got to appeal to a very kind of LCD audience. It’s fairly clear from my stuff, stuff which is on more mainstream channels, like Michael Cockerell’s, that there is an audience for programmes that are not moronic, but they’re very, very reluctant to acknowledge it. The last thing Adam Curtis did went straight to iPlayer, which is rather like sending Citizen Kane straight to video.

 

A guy who was into music and arts about five or eight years ago called Adam Kemp was in charge of finding out which documentaries and which presenters had the widest appeal in terms of age range. I came out top in this. The BBC promptly buried it, because they didn’t want me to be the face of absolutely anything because they regard me as unreliable. I don’t adhere to the sacred values of the BBC, which are a cross between Dave Spart (Private Eye) and the Guardian. I wasn’t shocked by it, but I thought it was absolutely typical of how they conduct themselves. The thing that’s preposterous is that a public service broadcaster is based on ratings. Perhaps BBC1 should be, but the rest should not. Overturning that ethos is, I would have thought, impossible.

Q

The White Review

— Have you had to contend with any editorial intervention with the new film?
A

Jonathan Meades

— One of the advantages of being small fry is that no one takes much notice. When you write a script, you tend to put in one or two things that you know are going to get cut, and once they’ve done that they’re satisfied. In one script I wrote that Norman Fowler, one of Thatcher’s ministers, was ‘the loveliest man who would never let another man come in his mouth’. And so they see this, and think, Oh God, but of course there’s nothing libellous about it because I’m not saying he would let another man come in his mouth. I put in a few of those, but then some of them actually get through, which is quite extraordinary.

 

To go back to that thing that you asked about, whether I want to affect architects and so on – no, I don’t. I think I’m incapable of doing so because architects seem to be the people who absolutely fail to understand these films, and you get comments like, ‘This is unhelpful to the profession.’ It’s an attitude which was pretty prevalent when I worked with the Architectural Press which publishes Architect’s Journal and Architectural Review. I started in the winter of 1979 and was sacked in February 1980. They’d talk about people who weren’t architects as the lay public, and argue that the layman’s point of view was invalid because they hadn’t trained as an architect. Which was shocking. It might be okay if you’re talking about paperclips or something, but architecture affects absolutely everyone. Piers Gough and the former president of the RIBA Angela Brady put me up to become an honorary fellow, and I did become an honorary fellow, but there was quite considerable opposition because I was seen not to be on the side of architects, whatever that means. As though architects are some homogenous mass.

 

At the AA last night, everyone talked in architectural jargon. which is rather like the jargon that you get with conceptual art, a very bizarre language which comes out of American academia, partly. I don’t know where it comes from, this practice of using a certain vocabulary which presumably indicates a certain kind of thought. I found it very worrying. I wrote a piece about Zaha Hadid and her studio – they all speak this kind of pidgin English. They don’t realise it’s pidgin English, but they’re talking about a ‘haptic surface’, and ‘paradigmatic’ this and that, a ‘performative’ such and such. Where the fuck are they getting these words from?

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Jonathan Meades is a writer, journalist, essayist and film-maker. His spoken-word vinyl Pedigree Mongrel is published by Test Centre. 

Jamie Sutcliffe is a London-based writer, artist and publisher with Strange Attractor Press. He is co-editor of Ian Breakwell’s Diary, forthcoming with Occasional Papers, and comprises one half of the Pond Scum Light Show.


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