An Arbitrary Encyclopaedia

Jonathan Meades, Museum Without Walls

Unbound Books, 352pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781908717184

reviewed by David Anderson

Passing some time before a mis-scheduled appointment at St Bartholomew's hospital in Smithfield, I visited the plaque hanging in the attached museum. 'You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive’, runs the bronze-embossed motto, commemorating the first words spoken on this site over a century ago by the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, to his soon-to-be chronicler Dr John Watson MD. Enquiries reveal the plaque's position to be misleading: the meeting took place not here but up some stairs and around a corner, in an office now known as the Sherlock Holmes Room. A former hospital employee of an exegetical persuasion hung it there, whence it was removed to a more convenient location by virtue of the sheer volume of pilgrims it receives.

The absurdity of this practice would surely appeal to Jonathan Meades. In Museum Without Walls, an assortment of 'lectures, essays, polemics, squibs and telly scripts', Meades reaffirms his dictum that his work is 'not about places, but about ideas about places' - the interlay of fact and fiction through which our environment is filtered by the imagination. Meades' productions, both textual and televisual, are 'expressions of an incurable topophilia', often made after 'having paid only the most cursory visit to the places in question.'

A critical maverick, Meades is like a Jeremy Clarkson of the chattering classes, or, in his trademark black shades and suit, a peculiar blend of Nikolaus Pevsner and John Cooper Clarke. Verbose, precise, acerbic, daft; his idiosyncratic merger of the trivial and the profound sees him cut from a different cloth to most other commentators. Just as, presumably, the cloth of his suits, which expand and contract to improbable degrees across a 20-year span, whereby his wildly fluctuating body weight came as a result of an overindulgent stint as restaurant critic for The Times.

Meades' work is peppered with wry jibes at religion, 'a low-grade form of learnt imagination. [An imagination where someone else has done the imagining for you.] But imagination nonetheless.' Such humanist virulence is tempered and explained by his approach to the built environment, gauged with most clarity in a script not included here, the autobiographical Father to the Man: 'My antipathy to the God malarkey, and to such half-wittedly frivolous notions as intelligent design, may have their roots in this preoccupation with what was obviously made .... Most of what we see around us in England is creation. Our forebears' creation. It's their intelligent design. Rivers and fields no more just happen than do buildings. They're industrial sites.'

In this book he refers frequently to the 'floating meadows' of his native Wiltshire, facilitated by man-made waterways called 'leets'. The deployment of this obscure and elegant term is symptomatic of the exploitative pleasure Meades takes in language: his aside that 'God is famously over-housed' comes via the etymology of the word 'dome', just as Rayner Banham's coinage of 'brutalism' is clarified as a bilingual pun on 'beton brut'. Few other places will you hear 'sybaritic', 'bombastic' and 'bogus' used with quite such alacrity, but Meades sees himself as taking a scalpel to the 'esperantist pidgin' of architectural discourse, 'self-referential, inelegant, obfuscatingly exclusive'. His defence of Ian Nairn is mounted on the basis of 'a long tradition of journalists who do not write journalese', and Meades figures himself in the same line as Nairn; 'an anarchic pedagogue who lurched from drayman's mandarin to saloon-bar vernacular' and who 'was loyal only to his own sensibility, to his own intellect.'

This intellect is freewheeling and 'like nearly all writers, but unlike nearly all architects,' autodidactic. ‘Starchitects’ like Zaha Hadid are the counterpoint, bred on the 'lingua franca of intercontinental architecture' whose patina is reflected in the bizarre situation wherein Zaha 'still does not have a single building to her name in London despite having lived and worked here for three and a half decades' (though she does now, a Stirling Prize winner among them), and where Norman Foster will helicopter in to visit his creations like a descending deity.

In 'On the Brandwagon' this self-perpetuating architect-speak is linked to the insight that 'Regenerative cities replicate each other's buildings', a practice which 'is insulting - it omits all that is specific to a place.' Meades reserves the right to revel in non-placeness ('Canary Wharf proclaims the briefness of the history attached to it ... it might be anywhere ... This dislocation is precisely what makes it so satisfying.') but he is more usually a disciple of 'places' in a heterogeneous, unorthodox sense. In condemnation of Blairite 'quasi-modernism' - which wants only 'to be instantly and arrestingly memorable, and to be extraordinarily camera friendly' - he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the 'conservative Marxist' Owen Hatherley's criticisms of the 'pseudo-modernism' of 1990s Private Finance Initiative schemes, and the cult of the building-as-icon.

At one point in Museum Without Walls Meades does mention Hatherley, praising the 'suppleness and fluidity' of his prose. What the latter has called Britain's 'new ruins' are also Meades' focus: decay, residue, and the 'habitually ignored'. His understanding of England's suburban edgelands is persuasive, and parallels Patrick Keiller's 1994 observation that 'London is a city under siege from a suburban government.’ ‘The history of English urbanism', Meades writes, 'is equally the history of suburbanism .... Mistrust of urbanism and of cities themselves ... is very deeply embedded in the English psyche.' He is at pains to point out that 'of the western European countries it is only in England that the epithet inner city is synonymous with crime, destitution, social deprivation. Why? Because it is only in England that the people who run cities and who generate the wealth of cities, live in exurban dormitories and so have no personal stake in those cities.'

Glasgow's centripetally oriented suburbs are presented as a singular antidote, but Meades also highlights an urban/suburban shift more familiar to southerners, remarking that 'within a few decades inner-city Britain will come to resemble inner-city Europe’. Long-time resident of France, he seems tentatively enthusiastic about this, whilst remarking the hallucinatory 'impression of a virtual European city towards which London is unwillingly shoved', the danger of sanitised pseudo-public spaces and 'intravenous cappuccino'. Perhaps he has more to worry about: the supermodernity of monolithic structures pinned to euro-style 'quarters' threatens the type of criticism practiced by Meades (and Nairn, and Pevsner), a practice occasioned by the very multifariousness and unplanned variegations of England's aesthetic, its lack of stylistic consistency.

Privileging the oblique angle and revelling in unwitting cultural overlaps, Meades lists some seminal works by foreign writers and filmmakers in Britain and notes that the land they depict is 'like a photograph which has been reversed - which is possibly the way we see places we know in dreams, before they are corrected by the brain.' His example of Michel Butor's sponge cake in L'Emploi du Temps (2001) recalls WG Sebald's fascination with the 'Teas Maid' supplied by his landlady in The Emigrants (Vito von Eichborn, 1992), and it is in this spirit that 'The character of a place is to be found in the ordinary - the apparently ordinary.' Like the absent cosmopolitan voice of Chris Marker's 1983 film Sans Soleil ('I've been around the world several times, and now only banality still interests me'), for Meades 'the banal is a thing of joy', and his surrealist proclivities remind us of Jean Painlevé's liquid crystals when he adds that, 'Everything is fantastical if you look at it long enough'.

Meades writes that 'although it may be foolish to judge by appearances it is even more foolish not to judge by them', and though his stated intent might be to 'peel off the drab grey overcoat of preconception, to reveal the lime green posing pouch of reality beneath', his method is responsive to Wilde's aphorism that 'the true mystery of the world is the visible'. These preoccupations bring with them the ideals of an aesthete. 'We don't go to Dorset in search of Hardy's landscape and villages, or if we do we won't find them - because they exist only in the compact which the writer makes with his audience.' And yet it is precisely this interaction that underpins the words embossed in capitals on the book's cover: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A BORING PLACE. Visiting monuments might be absurd, but Meades' films benefit from necessarily having to show us something - to the same degree that the book suffers by its lack of images. One finds a singular hint of visual interest in the unassuming occurrence of the Mistral typeface, the creator of which, Roger Excoffon, is enchantingly hymned in the first episode of the France trilogy (script included). But without the films the texts feel incomplete, and this fact (alongside a clumsily repetitious structure) hampers the collection, creating a book that is essentially a frustratingly disorganised rag-bag of Meades' thought which lacks the economical lucidity that he achieves so readily on screen.