Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Not boring

 Christmas books: 2

This next in my series of December books is the work of a writer and broadcaster I've admired for years. I watch out for his pieces in the press, which are not infrequent, although a book by him is a rare event. The man in the dark suit: Jonathan Meades...

Jonathan Meades, Museum Without Walls
Published by Unbound

It's not like London buses. You wait for years for a book by Jonathan Meades and then just one arrives. Museum Without Walls.† It's a collection of pieces – essays, TV scripts – some of which the dedicated follower will have encountered before. A grab-bag then,  containing 54 bits of journalism and six  scripts. What unifies them is a preoccupation with places, which Meades calls the "greatest free show on earth". Peel off the jacket of this book and you will see embossed into the cloth of the binding a guiding maxim: "There is no such thing as a boring place." The book richly embodies this notion. A grab-bag? It's the commodious valise of a thoroughgoing topophile.

They're not the usual guidebook places and they are not, for the most part, the places seen or valued by architects. A lot of what interests Meades lies at what some writers call "marginal" places and spaces: asbestos dumps, collapsing Nissen huts, stretches of tidal mud, flaking Portakabins, allotments, "a petrol pump pitted and crisp as an overcooked biscuit". To many of course this kind of thing is far from marginal, it's just marginal to "heritage", to architectural commentary, to curatorial neatness. Such places need a keen eye to notice them and a bracing prose style to conjure them up in our mind's eye, our mind's nose, and the rest. Like Iain Sinclair (and like Richard Mabey in such books as The Unofficial Countryside) Meades has what it takes.

A lot of the familiar Meades themes are here: the centrifugal quality of London, the similarities between the 1860s and 1960s, the ignorance of the countryside that lies behind the Picturesque movement and the corrosive effect of that movement, the deleterious consequences of our love affair with the suburbs, the delusions of the religious, the scandal of regeneration disguised as atrocious government-funded sub-architecture, the tiresomeness of lowest-common-denominator postmodernism ("oafish pediments"), the blinkers through which we see building materials (why is stone better than concrete or corrugated iron?), the delusive hierarchy of building types (why are churches better than factories or sheds?), the glories of shacks and bricolage, the fascination of terrain vague, and so on. And all of this is described, discussed and dissected in prose that is assertive, bracing, in-your-face, logophilic, and sometimes very funny. There are also some tender passages in which Meades writes about his boyhood – First Love, First Shack – and places that played a special part in his young life – pub car parks near Evesham, the confluence of the Wiltshire Avon and the Nadder, Salisbury, Portsmouth, the New Forest, a valley that the young Meades identified as the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Many of Meades's interests are interests of my own – Victorian rogue-architects such as Samuel Sanders Teulon, the beauties of Birmingham and Bristol, corrugated iron, the work and sad decline of that great architectural writer Ian Nairn. But there is persuasive writing about unfamiliar territory too – Buenos Aires, the architecture of Rodney Gordon. Fascinating places and spaces and true to the maxim on the cover: never boring. I learned plenty while enjoying myself reading this book, and I think many others will too.§

* * *

†Is this title derived from The Voices of Silence, the vast theory of art by French writer and politician André Malraux, which has a section called "Museum Without Walls"? Maybe. It's a long time since I read Malraux, but "Museum Without Walls" is his term for the illustrated art book, and he shows (amongst other things – Malraux's is a long and complex and, some would say, windy book) how it liberated us from the confines of the art museum, allowing us to put art in new contexts and to see it free from the blinkers of convention. Meades, on television and in his journalism, does something similar. But to write about buildings and call your collection Museum Without Walls is of course to play both on words and on walls.

§Museum Without Walls is published by Unbound, the crowd-funded publisher. I must declare an interest in that I was a member of the large crowd who helped fund the publication.


Hels said...

It may be humorous, but some of the questions are quite provocative eg the delusive hierarchy of building types (why are churches better than factories or sheds? why is knowledge of the countryside limited to the picturesque? This suggests an author tilting against 500 years of received wisdom. Just my type of bloke :)

Have a peaceful, wonderful holiday!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Oh yes, Helen, he's certainly provocative. But he shows that you see different and interesting things when, as it were, you change the view by standing in a different place.

A good and peaceful holiday to you too!

Peter Ashley said...

On receiving this magnificent book I barely got out of bed until I'd finished it. And then felt that I'd been booted out into the world to look at things anew with Meadesian Optrex-ed eyes. One of the most original and thought provoking books for years.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Well, Peter, I'd say you were not at all bad at looking at things differently anyway. But I know what you mean - he makes you look, and keeps you looking.

Stephen Barker said...

Thanks for the blog, this solves a christmas present problem for a friend. I used to enjoy Jonathan Meades writing in The Times where he would produce acerbic resaurant reviews and columns on the less fashionable parts of London. I would like to see tose articles collected into one book. I don't if it is just me but he always looks like he is a character from The Blues Brothers.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stephen: I think a collection of restaurant reviews was published a long while ago. Also there is another collection of various Meades writings called Peter Knows What Dick Likes (1989) which is sometimes available secondhand.