Jonathan Meades: ‘I find everything fascinating and that is a gift’
Jonathan Meades, author, broadcaster and architecture critic, has three books and a new TV series in the offing, yet the man known for his mordant on-screen presence is beset by worries that his style of film-making is being marginalised
Somewhat predictably, my taxi driver pulls a face as we arrive at the great concrete hive-come-cliff that is Le Corbusier‘s Cité Radieuse in Marseille. “Unbelievable!” he says, shrugging dementedly. “Who would want to live here? Impossible to imagine.” Naturally, I try to tell him, in my best O-level French, that many people consider the Cité Radieuse, the first Unité d’Habitation, to be the apogee of chic modern living. But I’m wasting my breath: he’s heard it all before, not least from those peculiar tourists for whom the Cité Radieuse is more beguiling than the pyramids, more beautiful than the Parthenon, more sacred than the cathedral at Chartres. In fact, here come a couple now, cameras swinging jauntily, Prada trainers squeaking with excitement. “Regardez!” he says, with another grimace. “They come, they look. Mais à quoi?”
I’ve come to look, too, not only at the building, but at one of its inhabitants: the film-maker, critic and novelist Jonathan Meades, who bought an apartment in the Cité Radieuse when the more rural part of France in which he previously lived (near Bordeaux) threatened to bore him half to death. Those who have seen his singular documentaries will know that Meades isn’t your average architectural fanboy: his enthusiasms are inevitably tempered by his crushing beadiness, and his tastes are eclectic and contrarian. But he’ll admit to more than a passing fondness for Le Corbusier, “sculptor, catastrophic theorist, collagist, aphorist, totalitarian toady, collaborator, monk, socialite”.
Long before he moved here, he described the roof of the Cité, with its huge, mushroom-like ventilation stacks, as a “transcendent” work. “It is as though Odysseus is beside you,” he wrote, in a 2008 essay called “Hamas & Kibbutz”. “In a few gestures it summons the entirety of the Mediterranean’s mythic history. It is exhilarating and humbling, it occasions aesthetic bliss. It demonstrates the beatific power of great art, great architecture.” His passion extends even to the work of some of Le Corbusier’s followers – not a very fashionable position these days. His next BBC4 series, Concrete Poetry: Bunkers, Brutalism, Bloodymindedness, will be devoted to brutalism, the architectural movement whose leading lights were almost paralysingly in thrall to Corb. To Meades, never wholly convinced by steel and glass and Mies van der Rohe, brutalism’s finest monuments are as moving as “some high Victorian stuff”. He likes their “broodingness”.
To get to his flat, I follow his instructions, taking the lift, then tramping in the Stygian gloom along a corridor that has the somewhat Orwellian name Interior Street. Finally, I reach a door, which I give – again as instructed – a “sturdy thump” and he is before me: vague, charming, slightly tufty, impossibly erudite from the off.
He is not, so far as I can tell, in a state of aesthetic bliss – doubtless the effect wears off after a while – but he is keen to show me his apartment’s more or less wraparound balconies. From one, you can see the sea; from the other, a huge, gated community that according to Meades is inhabited mostly by nervous pieds-noirs keen to hide from their north African neighbours. “So much of the Algerian war is ingrained here,” he says. “It’s palpable. One meets people who were involved, people whom one feels absolutely disgusted by, on both sides.”
Like all the apartments in the Cité, the Meades residence – he shares it with his third wife, Colette Forder, who used to be a journalist at the Times (his four daughters are grown up) – is on two levels. His, though, is on a corner, with the result that it is flooded with light – and oh my goodness, it’s gorgeous, its 50s remnants (parquet floors, original cupboards, parts of the original kitchen) combining with the lovely things Meades has collected down the years (Le Corbusier chairs, books, pictures, several shelves’ worth of Technicolor Vallauris children’s fish nightlights) to full interiors magazine effect. For a moment, I am shot through with purest envy. You can’t get this on eBay.
These days, Meades is best known for his work on television. His most recent film, The Joy of Essex, a triumphant counterblast to the ghastly world of Towie and all who sail in it, was screened on BBC4 earlier this year. As I’ve said more than once before, plonk Meades in his shades and his suit, immobile as a mahogany tallboy, in front of a prefab, a pebbledashed semi or some stuccoed exercise in 19th-century bad taste, and you have a recipe for total happiness. No one – absolutely no one – is able to animate a building the way he does.
But he’s also a writer and those who love his writing have a bumper month ahead. Next week, his famously scabrous novel, Pompey, will be republished to mark its 20th birthday, with a foreword by Stephen Fry (“I will cry out and admire it”) and a new introduction by Simon Heffer (“a work of genius”); his fantastic essay collection, Museum Without Walls, will be published in paperback; and he will release Pidgin Snaps, a “boxette” of 100 postcards of his own photographs, each of which he has captioned in the style of his TV shows. They’re rather beautiful, these postcards. But they’re also blackly funny. Expect them to become the literati’s stocking filler of choice this holiday season.
A James Joyce-John Osborne mash-up with occasional nods to BS Johnson, Grimms’ fairy tales and Thomas Harris, Pompey is a postwar family saga set in Portsmouth (and later, Brussels, Germany and the Congo). Except this isn’t the Portsmouth that you or I or anyone else knows, for it has come straight out of a nightmare: a ghastly, seething, deranged and utterly corrupt kind of place where nothing good ever happens.
Its hero is the priapic Guy Vallender, a fireworks manufacturer who has four children by four different women, each one of whom is more deformed – morally and sometimes physically – than the last, and in Portsmouth their various destinies darkly collide. It is a book replete with violent death, incest and all manner of perversions and belligerence and I do not advise that you read it, or even a part of it, after your dinner. Then again, it also has its own, weird ethical code; why else would Simon Heffer, of the Daily Mail, have agreed to write an introduction to it? (Heffer admires its unpretentious provincialism and striking way with adjectives and insists that Meades is only showing us aspects of ourselves.)
Did he reread the novel ahead of the new edition? “I read a bit of it.” And? “I was pleased once to have been the person who wrote it. A lot of its preoccupations are still my preoccupations: European colonies, wars of independence in Africa, a preoccupation with the grubbier side of provincial England. But I was at a distance from it even when I wrote it.
“I was living in London and only went to Portsmouth three times, a city I didn’t know even though I come from Salisbury and my grandparents lived in Southampton. I chose it because I wanted to write about a place I could invent. You can’t go to Dorchester because of Hardy and you can’t go to Stoke because of Bennett and who would dare write about Shropshire? And it had to be the south because I don’t understand the north of England.”
Unlike most people, Meades is not convinced that one part of Britain is now much like another. “Everywhere isn’t the same,” he says, slightly plaintively. “The sensibility of people is different and a kind of extreme localisation has reasserted itself. There was a point when you ceased to hear strong regional accents, but they’re back now, as a badge of belonging.”
So the engine of Pompey is still thrumming away? “Yeah, it thrums on. The thing I’m writing now has certain affinities with it.” A novel? “Yes.” Why did he stop writing novels (his last was The Fowler Family Business in 2002)? “I didn’t stop. I lost confidence. I don’t know why. I just did. You think: the world is full of wonderful writing, why add to it with something less than wonderful? And then I found myself doing more and more complicated TV and I don’t think the less of that writing just because it’s done for television.”
I tell him that I’d forgotten just how disgusting Pompey is and that this had me marvelling at his mind, so gross in some respects and so exquisite in others. “Yes. It’s like some sort of cerebral sewer that has to be lanced, if that’s what you do to cerebral sewers. It’s not something I particularly work up. It just comes out like that. Louis Aragon said, ‘I write to find out what I’m thinking, not the other way round’ and that’s certainly the case for me. But I do have this fascination with the lower depths.” Isn’t it a little odd that Simon Heffer likes the book? “Not really. He has what Anthony Burgess would have called an Augustinian view of the world, expecting dystopia to turn up on the doorstep at any moment, not utopia. I don’t think he has any more a benificent view of humankind than I do.” He and Heffer, whom he met when they were interviewed for a film about religion, like to visit churches together, Philip Larkin-style. (And oh, how I’d love to be a gargoyle on the wall then.)
You get the exquisite side of Meades’s brain on television, his mordant, deadpan delivery never quite disguising his delight in a flinty West Country wall, a shiny set of Crittall windows or the crenellations of some particularly deluded architect. Does the BBC treasure him? Does it understand the talent it has in its possession? “I don’t really think so, no. They don’t always say yes. If I say I want to do four hours about brutalism, they’ll give me two. The last film we had to do in just 19 days. You can’t do any fancy set-ups: no cranes, no dollies. It’s not slavery, obviously, but it’s much more difficult than it used to be. My subjects are regarded as minoritarian and that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. On BBC2, I used to get 2.5 million to 3 million viewers; now I get a tenth of that on BBC4.”
Well, anecdotal evidence suggests that those people who do watch truly revere him. “I’m aware of that and I’m grateful people like the films so much. But, it’s force majeure: there is nothing else on. Twenty years ago, there was lots of stuff that was individualistic and entertaining. But not now. The people they get to front these documentaries can’t write! They’re cobbled together by a producer and a researcher and the “expert” reads the lines, which have often been plagiarised.”
Where does he think his bewitching ability to delineate houses and factories and caravan parks comes from? “Well, I love looking at buildings. I’ve never been able to get from A to B without diverting because I am extremely interested in architecture. But that came first of all from the need to alleviate boredom when I was out with my father as a boy [Meades’s father was a travelling biscuit salesman who used to leave his son to occupy himself in the towns in his “area”, while he went off to meet his grocer customers]. So much that I do is to alleviate boredom.”
That’s not quite it, though, is it? “Yeah, OK.” A pause. “Buildings are part of a much greater thing, that’s what fascinates me: the totality of things. I find everything fascinating and that is a gift. It’s that Flaubertian thing: everything looks fantastic if you look at it long enough. That chimes with me entirely.” Crikey, though, he’s bad at taking praise. “Yes, I am. The late Snoo Wilson said he’d never met anyone worse at taking praise than me.” This is rather unusual for a writer, of whom I have interviewed lots, and it makes me like him. I can feel my admiration, which is great, shading embarrassingly into something approaching fondness.
Meades, who was born in 1947, was an only child. His mother was 35 when she had him, which was old in those days, and all her friends had had their children before the war. “So that was a condition propitious to a kind of isolation,” he says. “I was in my own bubble, no doubt about it. I had to mix with [older] children who didn’t want anything to do with me. The impetus was there to stop oneself being bored rigid.” Did he grasp that a good deal of this boredom with which he is so obsessed probably stemmed from the fact that he was clever? “No, because I wasn’t clever at school. I’m better when I think up my own subject. I have a tangled imagination and a definite lack of formal education.”
He loathed the Taunton public school to which his parents managed to send him, a “philistine place” he has described as “hell”. It took him, or so he says, 27 years to return to the town, and when he did, he got his revenge by sending it up in one of his restaurant reviews (he was then the offal-scoffing and somewhat porcine restaurant critic of the Times). The locals and its liberal democrat MP went nuts.
After school, he went to Rada. Why did he want to be actor? “I don’t know! I couldn’t think what else to do and I met Charles Collingwood [Brian Aldridge in The Archers] on a train, and I rather liked him, so I thought, I’ll do that.” His audition pieces for Rada were Prospero’s speech from the beginning of The Tempest and a section from the chorus in Anouilh’s Antigone. “They should have sussed me from that. I don’t like being in the theatre, listening to actors talking to one another. I prefer monologues, talking to the audience.” Did he find acting embarrassing? “No, it’s just that I didn’t think I was that good at it. I could perform, but that’s different.”
He was also bemused by the ability of some students not to mind how bad their lines were. “They had no literary interest whatsoever. They could deliver lines, but they often couldn’t understand them. I found it bizarre. Some of their lines were so shittily written! That’s the thing: if you’re going to make a living, you can’t afford to be fussy.” This is true and I can’t really see it: Downton Abbey starring Jonathan Meades as Bates the Butler. “Oh,” he replies, quick as a flash. “Do you think I’d be below stairs?”
Hugh Cruttwell, the principal of Rada, told Meades he’d make for a fine character actor once he turned 40 and, in a way, he was right. The pugnacious, sardonic and seemingly super-confident character Meades plays in his documentaries, which he began making in 1990, is not the real Jonathan Meades, who is an altogether more diffident and shy character in reality (except when drunk). But what to do in the meantime? Was he in a panic? “Yeah.”
He started writing for the now defunct Books & Bookmen and a career as a journalist followed: at Event, a magazine owned by Richard Branson, at the Observer and at Tatler, where Tina Brown hired him as features editor. In 1986, he became the restaurant critic of the Times, a job he did for the next 15 years, during which time he became very fat (he weighed 19 stone in the end, bulk he subsequently lost following some kind of protein-citrus diet). “It was a mistake to do that job for so many years,” he says. “It became a millstone.” He doesn’t read the efforts of his successor, or any other food critic, so far as I can tell and he remains unconvinced by the so-called British restaurant revolution. “The food in most of Britain remains absolutely terrible.”
Speaking of food, it’s time for lunch. Meades has got us some caillettes from his local butcher: a faggot-style delicacy of the Drôme made from offcuts of pork (fat, heart, a little liver), which are then wrapped in a caul. Is this a test? If so, I’m going to pass it with flying colours. We eat them with rocket, and as we do, we talk: about his memoir of his 50s childhood, An Encyclopaedia of Myself, which will be published next year (“It’s like petit point; I just had all this stuff knocking about in my head”); about brutalism (“I would have liked to film in Sheffield, but then we found… Skopje!”); and about our mutual obsession with David Van Day of Dollar (“He has a burger van in Brighton, and when we filmed there, we were always trying to find it.”) Result: when I leave, it’s with real (and rare) reluctance. I would quite like to stay for dinner, a glass of vin rouge and a good, long lounge in one of his swanky Corb chairs.
A few days later, I email him; I’m starting on my piece and I might have queries. He writes back, warning me that I should call rather than email; he’s going to be on Lewis, where he is to show The Isle of Rust – his 2009 film about the preponderance of old cars in bogs on Lewis and Harris – at Faclan, the Hebridean book festival. The screening will be followed, he goes on, by “hostile questions” from the audience. “And then I get a deep tissue black pudding spa and single malt wellness inspiration karma cleanse.”
Attached to the email is one of his pidgin snaps, in which a bright blue Ford transit van can be seen slowly sinking into the deep brown of the machair. It’s a strange sight, though not quite so odd as the idea of Meades in a towelling bathrobe, surrounded by scented candles, giving the nearest massage table the full benefit of his penetrating and slightly comical stare.