An interview with writer, documentary maker and all-round iconoclast Jonathan Meades, after the release of his LP Pedigree Mongrel. Published in the Morning Star, 23rd May 2015
DAYS before interviewing Jonathan Meades, he’d come up in conversation with an acquaintance desperate to know why one of his many documentaries had been recut for its second airing on the BBC.
But Meades is befuddled when I put this to him over coffee. “I don’t think they’d bother,” he sighs.
“I’m very small fry in their great scheme of things. I’m not some great thinker like Simon Cowell or Bruce Forsyth.”
Meades has been a staple on TV since 1986, when he presented The Victorian House. But it was four years later, with Abroad in Britain, that his distinctive style came to the fore.
One episode, in which he visited the various settlements known as Bohemia, ended with an unsuccessful attempt at scaling garden walls in Hastings to escape a recital from poet Fiona Pitt-Kethley.
Since then there have been numerous hours of presenting to camera in his trademark sunglasses, standing awkwardly on the edge of the frame, enunciating long words “so people have to buy dictionaries,” and chucking in throwaway remarks with magnanimous or worrying ramifications.
So much so, the first time I watched a Meades film I had to take a break after 25 minutes from sheer dizziness. His latest offering, Bunkers, Brutalism, Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry concluded with Handel’s Sarabande and Meades’s voiceover sneering: “Georgian. Georgian. Georgian. Barry Lyndon.”
Having lived in Marseilles for eight years, I met him in Soho shortly before the general election — when he was over to launch Pedigree Mongrel, a spoken-word vinyl LP. On it he performs his written work, with soundscapes from Mordant Music, “plus growls and sighs.”
Sometimes the sirens and distortion in Pedigree Mongrel are so loud that the words are drowned out but for Meades — rare among presenters in writing his own scripts — the biggest challenge was relinquishing jurisdiction.
“In telly I work with the same directors most of the time and their input is considerable but editorially what happens is determined by the script,” he tells me. “We don’t film till the script is absolutely dead right and once the script is dead right we don’t improvise anything, it’s all set in stone.
“But this was different, even though one was working from the texts which were all extant, what happened to them during the process was completely out of my control.”
His own performance, of course, was rehearsed to the last growl. “I don’t like spontaneity. Spontaneity’s okay if you’ve rehearsed it. If
you haven’t you come out with cliches.”
The readings on the disc are taken from An Encyclopedia of Myself along with his novel Pompey, his essay collection Museum Without Walls and a new book still in the works.
As with his films, none of these texts are purely fact or fiction. Meades’s prose can be blunt or flowery and often both simultaneously. In this, there is a conscious echo of a predecessor in his tradition, the architectural critic Ian Nairn, best known for Nairn’s London, “a record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham.”
“[Nairn] was extremely nuanced,” Meades says. “It wasn’t just black and white, there were hundreds of shades in between.
“The paramount point about [Nairn’s London] is that the writing is often much more interesting than what it describes. If you take it with you and go and look at a particular building, you think this building’s main purpose in life has been to give Nairn something to write about.”
Perhaps neoliberalism’s takeover of both public and private space would have given Nairn something else to think about. It certainly has Meades.
“I think there’s a very telling thing recently. In Knightsbridge there was a restaurant that was there for about 20 years and the guy who owned it has closed it because there’s no trade. All of the apartments round there are empty — they’re bought by people for investments.
“I think they should be compulsorily purchased, you shouldn’t be able to buy somewhere and not live in it. I can’t see any party having the wit or the nerve to do such a thing, to take such a draconian measure.”
The rich have traditionally lived outside the city, he says, “since cities became toxic and noxious.”
But gentrification is turning the tide and Meades blasts the “doughnut effect” pushing the poor out of the city.
“The bourgeoisie move back into the city and push out the people in the service industries. It becomes more like France where all the social problems are outside the ring road.”
But that’s not to let off the planners of yesteryear. “I think the garden city movement was also disastrous — Letchworth is like a kind of living death. There’s something incredibly dead about the place, Welwyn as well. Interestingly, Welwyn was the first small town in Britain to develop a serious smack habit and I imagine it did so because they were bored out of their skull.”
Meades’s frustrations with contemporary politics are not confined to housing policy. Yet his political interventions are varied. Despite calling for measures that are undoubtedly more radical — and to the left — of anything major parties in Britain would offer, his positioning can appear contrarian and sometimes downright troubling.
And reading An Encyclopedia of Myself, where he attributes a number of aspects of political positioning and social attitudes to “taste,” I found myself wondering if he was somewhat disconnected from the realities of hardship faced by many. Taste is surely a luxury, all too often dwarfed by the realities of class division. Doesn’t it, I ask, come down to simple, old-fashioned politics?
But Meades is unwavering. “Politics is taste,” he barks. “One has a taste for Mister Cameron or for Mister Miliband, I don’t have a taste for either of the fuckers.”
Still, he says, anything is preferable to Tony Blair. “He thought he was answerable to God or someone, God being a kind of fiction. Rather than answerable to the people who put him in power.
“I do think that he should be on trial and so should Alastair fucking Campbell.”
Is there any hope for Britain? “I’m not familiar enough with the generation of politicians after little George and Dave, I don’t know who they are,” he groans.
“I hope that fucking buffoon Boris Johnson never gets anywhere because he isn’t just a buffoon, he’s a calculating bastard.”
No wonder he crossed the channel. “I find French politics much more interesting,” he says. With disdain for both Nicholas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, the only politician he seems to respect is Alain Juppe, a prime minister under Jacques Chirac whose achievements as mayor of Bordeaux Meades admires.
Juppe is an obscure figure for most outside of France — but Meades’s documentaries are full of references that take homework to understand.
They can also take a willingness to accept a difference in attitudes to the narrative position. Perhaps the word documentary should indeed be placed in inverted commas, for their most striking elements are the way they are constructed and the fact the BBC continues to fund them — albeit on a reduced budget.
Until there are others willing to stand up against the trend, those seeking innovation and thoughtful analysis have little choice but to pay attention to this iconoclast — no matter how much they disagree with his perspective.
French politics, he continues, also has “a great tradition of politician assassination.”
“When [former Prime Minister] Beregovoy was found dead beside a canal in Nevers, he’d managed to commit suicide three times.
“Shooting yourself in the head three times is quite an achievement.”