Conrad Landin

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“Shooting yourself in the head three times is quite an achievement”

B&W COPYAn 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.”


Not just security

I’ve been covering the National Gallery privatisation dispute since last summer. A recent blog for the LRB on what’s going down:

Many of the rooms at the National Gallery were closed last week. More than 200 staff were on their second five-day strike over plans to outsource security and visitor services. In the rooms that were open, the remaining attendants were hovering awkwardly near their chairs. CIS, the private contractor brought in to staff the recent Rembrandt exhibition, bans its employees from sitting down. I asked one of them how he felt about the arrangement. ‘I honestly don’t know why they’ve put chairs here,’ he said. ‘But I like walking around, it means I can speak to people. If I was sat down nobody would speak to me.’

When CIS was drafted in last autumn, a gallery spokeswoman told me the exceptional circumstances of the show demanded a new approach: ‘Obviously Rembrandt is a major international exhibition and we wish to be able to ensure maximum access to the public.’ But they showed no signs of leaving when the show closed last month. The staff union, PCS, was concerned the company had been brought in to break resistance to the outsourcing plans. The union also fears that CIS is being lined up to step in when the full contract goes out to tender in May. One rep – speaking anonymously after the gallery threatened disciplinary action against staff members who speak out – said there was now a large surplus of gallery staff on shift at any given time.

Read more at the LRB

In Aberdeen

A blog for the LRB reporting on the North Sea oil industry

There was an emergency conference on North Sea oil in Aberdeen on Monday. More than a thousand jobs have been lost since the global oil price collapsed from $110 dollars a barrel to under $50. Two men I met in the lounge car of the Caledonian Sleeper on Sunday evening – strangers to each other – had both held senior positions at major oil companies. They had different axes to grind, but agreed that the North Sea was no longer a profitable option for the major firms, who would pull out altogether before long.

They also dismissed the upcoming summit as a grandstanding exercise. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this. One union rep called it ‘just more talking and no doing’ when I asked if he was going, though the organisers had said it ‘must not be a talking shop’.

Read more at the LRB

Labour’s “youth manifesto” totally ignores Young Labour members

Published at VICE, 17th April 2015.

This morning, Ed Miliband launched Labour’s first ever “youth manifesto”, with a raft of recent pledges aimed at first-time voters. He would, he promised, cut tuition fees to £6,000 a year, guarantee jobs for unemployed youngsters and crack down on rogue landlords, among other things.

This is hardly a surprising strategy: David Cameron is planning to ride to victory on an OAP’s shiny new mobility scooter, powered by the tears of a thousand young workers who can’t get housing benefits. And so it follows that Ed Miliband is getting the young on side by offering them some policies that make their future seem less bleak while reminding them that they hate Nick Clegg. The thing is, in launching this manifesto, Labour has ignored the relatively small number of young people who are really invested in the party – who knock on doors, send tweets and try to convince their mates to vote Labour. In its supposed attempt to give young people a voice, Labour has silenced its own young members.

In February, Miliband, along with Labour MPs Ivan Lewis and Lisa Nandy, launched a consultation called “#ShapeYourFuture”. They asked young people to come forward and offer ideas for the youth manifesto in an online free-for-all. When Lewis came to address members of Young Labour – the party’s youth wing – last August, he indicated there would be little room for spending commitments or anything that conflicted with existing party policy. That sort of makes you wonder what the point of the consultation really was and how we were really being allowed to “#ShapeOurFutures”.

Read more at VICE.

Striking for safety

An interview with striking oil workers from the US. Published in the Morning Star, 15th February 2015.

WHEREVER Steve Garey goes, he gets asked if oil has a future. “I’m not an economist, I’m a machinist,” he chuckles when I pose that very question. “Our strike action probably won’t affect the oil price.”

The strike in question is a 5,000-strong walkout of oil refinery workers across the United States which kicked off on February 1.

With the national agreement for conditions and safety standards up for renewal, discussions on a new three-year deal reached a stalemate. It’s the first time in 35 years that it’s come to this.

Top of their menu of grievances was fatigue — and bosses’ attempts to weasel out of contractual protections that put safety first where the law falls short.

Twelve-hour shifts have been regularly extended to 18 and workers are still expected to come back the next day and clock on as normal.

When you’re responsible for channelling an explosive substance, not to mention keeping the lights on, the consequences can be deadly.

Garey works in Anacortes in the state of Washington, for multibillion-dollar refiner and distributor Tesoro.

On Thursday night he was one of a four-strong delegation from the United Steelworkers (USW) union protesting outside the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane in London. 

Inside, petroleum industry bigwigs tucked into a four-course meal. The star speaker was Royal Dutch Shell chief exec Ben van Buerden — the man who United Steelworkers says holds the key to resolving the dispute as the largest operator in the field.

I met Garey before the evening’s festivities at British general union Unite’s London headquarters.

With him were Michael Rochon, an operator for Shell at Deer Park in Texas, Brandi Sanders, a maintenance worker with Marathon in Texas City and USW official Emil Ramirez.

And while there’s plenty stacked against the US oil workers, in one sense they’re starting from a far stronger place than their British counterparts — their national bargaining structures span across corporations.

Covering last week’s summit on the future of North Sea oil in Aberdeen, I was told by RMT officer Jake Molloy that the absence of such a structure for bargaining hindered British unions immeasurably.

And down in London, privateer bus companies are refusing to collectively negotiate with Unite, saying that would amount to “acting like a cartel.”

But not only have US oil workers done this for many years, Garey says the process is embedded in USW’s own internal structures. 

“Our rank-and-file members at each site are represented at our national conference, where we discuss what needs to be in the contract,” he says.

“Then it goes back to the sites, where it has to be approved by 75 per cent of the members.”

Alongside regional negotiations where site-specific issues are discussed, union reps then meet with an industry negotiator — usually Shell.

“Safety has played a prominent part in many oil negotiation cycles,” says Garey.

“It’s been felt that union members need to take safety into our own hands to get protections in contract terms that we don’t have in federal law.

“What’s changed is there’s recently been an arrogant and dismissive attitude on the part of the industry. It wasn’t that long ago that corporations had a more balanced view of their role in society, but that’s clearly gone.”

Oil is a dangerous business in the US, and no-one knows this more than Sanders.

In 2005 an explosion at the Galveston Bay refinery where she works — then operated by BP — killed 15 workers and injured 170.

Since Marathon took the plant over in 2013, more than 300 jobs have been cut by so-called natural wastage.

Speaking of the wider picture across the US, she says: “Their business practices are extremely sloppy.”

And a focus on immediate profits has led to a skills shortage and an increased risk of accidents.

“Everything’s operating in the now,” she says.

Rochon says understaffing is a problem seen across US refineries.

“When you look at staffing levels, you have the production side, and if it’s designed for 80 people to operate the process, you’d probably have 70 to 65 — with the other 10 to 15 going out and doing other jobs.”

And once again, you’re left with an exhausted workforce.

“We’ve had people at the control boards hitting the wrong keys as a result of fatigue,” he says.

Sanders agrees. Workers can “zone out” after long periods on duty.

“Your brain goes into safe mode,” she says. 

Rochon adds: “We’re paid to respond.” One wrong move can mean “in a couple of seconds you’ve got alarms ringing all over the place.”

Sanders suggests managers’ cavalier attitude to safety is exemplified by their attempts to keep plants going during the strike — in spite of the absence of most of the workforce.

“The supervisors are still manning the facilities — unskilled and untrained,” she says. 

She pulls out her phone and shows me a nighttime photo of a refinery taken since the strike began.

“The sky’s definitely not supposed to be lit up like that,” she says, deadpan.

The delegation won’t be drawn on the next steps, but walkouts at more sites — 11 of a potential 63 are currently out — is an option.

“Potentially 30,000 workers could be affected if we don’t get Shell to respond (with the current level of action),” says Garey.

But the strike also has a deeper importance to the US labour movement, the workers insist. “One of the most potentially positive outcomes will be the ability to teach an entire generation of workers how to stand up and fight back,” Garey says passionately.

Ramirez says press coverage has been “neutral” and often quite favourable, even from hostile newspapers. And communities realise their stake in this too, he says.

“Vendors are going to start putting pressure on Shell. They’re going to be standing with us — we know that.”

The 2012 fire at Chevron’s Richmond refinery on San Francisco Bay was a turning point.

After flames and black smoke drifted five miles into the sky, more than 15,000 were hospitalised with respiratory problems.

Thousands marched the following year to protest over safety issues at the site. Richmond’s city council then sued Chevron. “Communities are beginning to understand the risk,” Garey says.

USW members, he says, “inherently understand why they must do this” despite the hardship and financial sacrifice they must face.

“It’s never easy, it never will be easy. But they understand they have a better life because of the struggles of their parents and grandparents. Now it’s their turn.”

Lowry: crowds, class and purpose

The Pond, 1950, by L.S. Lowry

This article originally appeared on Left Futures, 18th July 2013

For at least five years, I’ve had a large LS Lowry print hanging on my wall. It’s mounted on a battered old bit of chipboard, and bought at a market, and the scene depicted is fairly typical: a snowy industrial landscape, a lake covered in ice-skaters.

When I was given the print, I had never consciously viewed the artist’s work, but the landscape was nonetheless familiar. It is not the case, as Brian Sewell argues, that Lowry painted a landscape which cannot be uncoupled from the 1920s. To some extent, this was the backdrop that shaped my mother’s childhood, vividly described again and again, its remnants and horizon still visible on numerous trips to visit family in Oldham. True, it was not the same without the crowds – on one trip I remember killing several hours in the completely deserted town centre filled with derelict buildings that had once been Oldham’s municipal pride. Watch Ken Russell’s Monitor on Shelagh Delaney’s Salford – incidentally the town, along with Pendlebury, that is the subject of most of Lowry’s paintings – and you’ll see the same spirit there too, even though this was 1960, not 1920.


Varsity review: NW by Zadie Smith

This review appears in this week’s (28th September 2012) edition of Varsity – on page 21.

Click here for PDF