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Ten Songs

Sharp Suits And Sparkle: Jonathan Meades On Acid, Space And Place
John Doran , October 29th, 2012 05:03

John Doran plays ten songs to author, broadcaster and architectural critic Jonathan Meades in order to closer examine his unique perspective on life. All photographs courtesy of Martha Wailer

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I'm interviewing writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades in the Paramount Members Club Restaurant, 32 floors up London's Centre Point. Richard Seifert's inscrutable and looming 1960s skyscraper was chosen by Meades specifically because of the amazing 360 degree panoramic views of London it offers. (He acknowledges that Vertigo 42, at the top of the NatWest Tower, might afford slightly more elevated views of the capital but states that he can't be doing with the scores of "city boy berks drinking cheap champagne like it's ale" who litter its deck.) Despite having several titles (mainly fiction) already under his belt he has chosen to crowd fund his new book Museum Without Walls via the Unbound publishers, set up by the QI entrepreneur John Mitchinson for this very purpose.

It is curious that the sum total of his essays (and some TV scripts) on all of the places he has visited as part of his career as a broadcaster and writer on architecture have not been collected together in one place before. It becomes curiouser and curiouser to consider that no mainstream publisher would want to release such an enticing anthology but regardless, his fans have stepped into the breach and the book is out now. Later tonight he is holding a private party for his funders who (for a modest contribution) have their name printed inside the hardback edition, and get to meet the man himself.

If my two hour chat with him is anything to go by they'll get more than their money's worth. Meades is by far and away the most interesting person I've interviewed (with perhaps the noble exception of Alan Moore). I was discombobulated before meeting him… and perhaps not without good reason. (People who are usually extremely supportive of me and angst-dispelling in their reassurances, cautioned me against even meeting him, with one person even exclaiming excitedly: "Don't talk to him about anything he knows about! He'll make you look like a twat! Stick to stuff he knows nothing about and you might be ok!" Except he used a much stronger word than "twat".)

And to be fair, his TV persona - painstakingly crafted since the broadcast of The Victorian House by Channel 4 in 1986, but hammered immutably in place by the BBC series Abroad With Jonathan Meades in 1990 - is quite forbidding in terms of intellect and icy charisma.

In reality however, he is several degrees more user friendly and much funnier. He exerts this pull over certain people (the staff of the Quietus included) because he is a unique and insightful character who inhabits a completely individual, self-created aesthetic universe, where nothing has been left to chance and everything is seen though a bizarre prism of its maker's design.

He has a knack for turning the quotidian, the tiresome, the seemingly hackneyed, the played out stuff of urban and suburban Britain (and Europe) - the stuff that's been under our noses for as long as we can remember - into alchemical gold. He offers us a philosopher's stone of sorts in persuading us to see this dreary stuff as if we're looking at it for the first time; as well as also having a knack for finding the truly bizarre and glorious stuff that's hidden in plain sight.

Meades, the slowest strolling human being I've ever met, even manages to be a flâneur at 380 feet above Tottenham Court Road, pointing out buildings and an amazing sunset to me as we head at snail's pace from our table towards the lifts. Behind the sunglasses and hang dog expression obviously lurks no small amount of wonder, which he keeps hidden laconically from view.

If someone wanted an introduction to Meades' TV work, they could do much worse than starting with the MeadesShrine on YouTube... although why they didn't call themselves TempleMeades will always remain a mystery.

Talking Heads – 'This Must Be The Place'

In your new book Museums Without Walls you say there's no such thing as a boring place. Forgive the obvious joke, but this kind of suggests you've never been to St Helens, where I'm from.

Jonathan Meades: I've never been to St Helens, but I know what the Pilkington Glass Factory looks like. I have been to a lot of Liverpool satellites like Skem. I do make myself be interested in places in a way that I don't make myself be interested in people. I genuinely find it difficult to think of places that I'd never want to see again. It might be because part of my career has been concerned with writing about topography and so on. So if you're going to write about something it becomes a damn sight more interesting than if you're not going to write about it, because you engage with it actively in a way that you wouldn't if you were just passing through or if you were going to St Helens to visit family or if it was a place that made you resentful because you'd always wanted to escape from there. But if you have this slightly pathological interest in all the components of places, it forces you to engage with them in a way that perhaps otherwise you wouldn't, and that's the only way I can put it. It doesn't mean to say I'd like St Helens [laughs] but I really would be interested in it.

I am interested in places like, for example, Burnley… People say, "No!" But Burnley has this fascinating thing of terraces on slopes because it's built on hilly terrain. So you have terraces where the whole roof slopes instead of having the stepped effect. It's like someone thought that was a cheaper way of doing things. So everywhere [I go] there is some kind of local peculiarity which I find fascinating. I don't know why. It's like asking why are some people straight and why are some people gay. It's like asking why do some people like anal sex and why do some people like sorcery. I don't know why. You don't necessarily choose your tastes I don't think.

You say early on in Museum Without Walls that you've spent a large portion of your adult life writing about place. Could you outline for us how this came to be and what aptitudes one needs to write about place well?

JM: When I first started writing in my early 20s it was literary criticism for a very eccentric magazine called Books And Bookmen, which allowed me to write, more or less anything. I reviewed a show (or the catalogue of a show) at the V&A called Marble Halls [1973] which was about Victorian architecture. It was a very early attempt to bring Victorian architecture to a wide audience and I became absolutely fascinated by it and by the townscapes that it had created. I used to go on Red Rover trips all over London. These passes would allow you to go all over the city absolutely serendipitously on the buses. It was kind of like what the Situationists used to do but of course I didn't know who the Situationists were then. I would sit on a bus for exactly 20 minutes and then get off and then get on the next bus and stay on that for exactly 20 minutes and I'd find myself in places like Walthamstow or Southgate or Elmers End or Eaton Park or Southfields. So I got to know London in this random way and I developed this very big appetite for the built environment.

I mean, I like looking at the countryside as well as anyone… a little countryside goes a long way, but it's almost like the DNA of a civilisation is in its cities. And it's there to be deciphered. And it's there to be loved or to be deprecated and so on. As I say, you don't really elect these things, it kind of happens to you. I wrote on and off about it. When I started writing fiction it always seemed in retrospect (I didn't realise at the time) that it was always caused by environments rather than by incidents and characters. Characters and incidents came into it but they were very specifically located, even if later I would realise that it could have been located anywhere. This story does not need to take place in the New Forest, it could have taken place in the Cannock Chase or North Norfolk or on the Pennines. I found I would write about places that I knew to a degree but never places that I knew intimately. I would [only] know the broad brushstrokes so I could fill in the rest. The telly stuff I do is like that. It's very much my reinventions of what's actually there. I'm using what is there very much to my ends. So it's extremely artificial.

I guess this would be a good opportunity to ask you about process. Does your process, broadly speaking, stay the same from one project to another?

JM: No. It varies enormously. Sometimes I'll write the show without actually going to the place. Sometimes I'll research a show in extreme detail. And sometimes I'll do a show because I want to find out about the place. So there's no consistent process save that until I've got a script which is kind of more or less watertight, I can't do anything. Nothing is improvised during the making of the films. Partly this is because the BBC, in its wisdom, feels it needs to give large amounts of money to Harry Redknapp and Alan Hansen, and we get starved of cash so we need to just get the shot and go straight on to the next place.

Isn't the necessity to work quickly a healthy thing though?

JM: Yeah... I don't know… it's a very tiring thing. These series I did in the 90s, Abroad, Further Abroad, Even Further Abroad… we would generally have 12 days to shoot 30 minutes. We now have 10 days to shoot 60 minutes which means that you are extremely limited in what you can do with the camera. It means you can't use tracks, you can't use jibs, you can't use cranes… It has to all be done in the frame. You can do a lot, but working 10 to 12 hours a day for 10 to 12 days on the trot isn't a joke. It's like being on the road with a band when you're working 12 hours a day, even though the band is only playing a two hour gig at the end of the day. So it is arduous. I think I and most of the people I work with feel fairly resentful toward the BBC.

If we were to describe your job in brief as ‘writing about place', how does this differ from what you wanted to do when you were a child, no matter how fanciful that may have been?

JM: I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was a child. I did want to be a cartographer but that was partly because I liked Ordnance Survey maps and when I used to go to my grandparents' house from Southampton Station one went past the headquarters of the Ordnance Survey. But I didn't want to be an actor and I went to RADA. When I was about halfway through my time at RADA I had a pretty sure feeling that I wasn't going to be Albert Finney, so I started writing. But I don't think when you start writing you know what kind of writer you're going to be or what kind of writing you're going to end up doing.

Your writing about place has taken many forms. You've written for TV, you've written fiction, you've written non-fiction. Has there been a medium so far that has resisted your attempts?

JM: Theatre. I don't like the theatre. I like plays in which the audience is addressed by the actors. I don't like seeing people talking to each other on stage as if there isn't an audience. I've been offered radio but never done it, partly because the radio ideas that I've been asked to come up with, I've thought about them and then converted them to telly things. But I don't know what other media I could try because it all depends on writing. Having said all that, I don't believe in synergy. I believe that things have to be specific to the medium that they're in. It's the old thing of when someone writes a great novel and you can't make a film of it, but then you can make a great film out of a shit novel. I mean, what was Hollywood's source material for years? Dime store thrillers.

I'm in no rush to go downstairs to watch We Will Rock You: The Musical By Queen And Ben Elton.

JM: I don't think I'd be in a rush to go and watch Queen full stop.

Pink Floyd – Interstellar Overdrive

What was the psychedelic scene in the late 60s like when it was kicking off?

JM: You've got the wrong man. Syd Barrett shared a flat in Earls Court Square with a painter called Duggie Fields; the one with the striped floorboards photographed on the cover of The Madcap Laughs, and I'd met him previously at another flat. Duggie is a very nice and considerate person, and still is, and he shared another flat [with Barrett] in Kensington, Egerton Court, and I think he had a rough time there. They were a pretty far gone bunch of people. It seemed like they had no limits. I wasn't even a hanger on, as Aub Po [Aubrey ‘Po' Powell] who became part of Hipgnosis described me as. I was quite friendly with Po actually, I went to his wedding and used to go to his house. But really I was a hanger on to the hangers on, if you see what I mean. I was very much down the line and it was very much because when I first moved to London, apart from my fellow students at RADA, they were the only people that I knew. I knew these people that were matey with this bunch of people from Cambridge.

Did you know Peter Christopherson?

JM: Yes, I did. What did he call himself? Scrawny or something…

Sleazy.

JM: Yes, I did, but subsequently, later on, because he was part of Lumiere & Son Theatre Company which was run by David Gale who had been a great teenage friend of Syd's, and he described David Gilmour as the "former Adonis with the strong emphasis on the former". The only other contact I had with the psychedelic scene was that I shared a flat with a guy called David McTavish who was the singer in a band called Tintern Abbey who brought out one record. They were discouraged in a way from doing anything by being put on salary by a man called Nigel Samuel who backed UFO and various other things. He came from a very wealthy London Jewish family. He put them on a salary so they didn't do anything. They just sat round drinking cannabis tincture. It was vile stuff.

(Dependent on whether you've actually taken them), can you tell me to what extent narcotics have had a positive effect on your work or your outlook?

JM: I think the only remotely interesting drug was acid. I had a slightly peculiar attitude towards it I think. Just about everything about hippydom I hated. I liked the 60s up to about '65 or '66. I liked the mod clothes, I liked the look. I wasn't a keen taker of speed because I didn't like the comedown from it. Then everything changed and became looser, I didn't like the clothes at all. I felt rather out of step with it. The acid thing was interesting though. I come from Salisbury and from the age of 12 I had a friend who was 30 years older than I was who I saw regularly up until when he died a couple of years ago, whose obituary I wrote in The Times. This man was called Ken James and he was deputy head at the chemical warfare unit at Porton Down [the MOD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory]. He then became head of the scientific civil service; he was the man who introduced computing into the civil service and he had taken acid as early as 1950. This was long before Aldous Huxley.

So to a large extent my attitude towards LSD was coloured by his. He was fervently anti-religion. He was anti-mysticism and anti-transcendentalism. He thought that acid was potentially a really useful psychiatric tool but also an aesthetic tool… but this was an aesthetic that had nothing to do with any religion or religious experience. He saw it as a way of accessing a kind of a heightened aesthetic experience. I'm writing about this in my next book; about him and other scientists who were friends of my parents and at Porton at the same time. That's my attitude toward acid. The idea that it reveals the godhead to you is balls. I think it's balls partly because I'm stubbornly atheistic myself.

I only did it three times myself and found it very interesting. I thought it was moral. There were certain moral things that came up. I remember walking down past a block of flats just past Fulham and Chelsea football ground, called the Oswald Stoll Foundation Mansions, and I think it had that inscription on it: "Their name liveth forever more." And I remember thinking: "This is just fucking indecent. Their names do not liveth forever more. You don't even know what their names are. It's just the generalised piety of the "philanthropic" class which had sent people to death in the trenches but had avoided death themselves. They had sent the "donkeys" to their deaths. And I remember being very taken by very obvious things like sunsets and the silhouettes of buildings. But beyond that I wasn't very interested in the drug culture.

I could see that the drug culture did not need to be like that. It could have been sharp suits and LSD. As for psychedelic music, I thought very little of it was interesting and very little of it lasts. Whether it be the endless guitar solos or the bubble gum end like Tommy James and the Shondells. It's fairly flimsy. I mean, ‘A Day In The Life' is fantastic, but that's an exception. The worst thing the Stones ever did was Their Satanic Majesties Request. A lot of people got drawn into it. It was interesting because Ken James' slang for [acid] in 1951 was "sparkle" which I think is amazing, because I know you get things like "blue cheer" cropping up nearly two decades later and so on, but I've never heard anyone else call it that.

I found it really interesting that your definition of the word "space" was somewhere that allowed room for your personality or gave you room to think. Mainly I find it interesting because this is exactly my definition of good psychedelic music.

JM: Well, yeah, I think in space or music or art or literature of any kind there has to be some kind of void where the viewer or the spectator or the listener or the reader can insert themselves into it, and there is a certain kind of architectural space which is totalitarian, which does not allow you to do that. [By totalitarian I mean] this cup has to be like this, the table has to be positioned like this, that chair has to be exactly like that. It's OCD in a way. You can't escape the architecture and look at it, and with lots of music you can't escape it either. You just hear it and it assaults you. It doesn't bring anything out of you, it doesn't make you dream. It doesn't make you conjure images. The potency of cheap music, as Noel Coward said. And he was right, I think that cheap music often does make you dream more than more serious music, whether that's serious music by Beethoven or Miles Davis or Pink Floyd… if the Floyd ever did serious music, which I seriously doubt. I think they did good music on [Saucerful Of Secrets] but thereafter… I've mainly bypassed it. I can only identify one Led Zeppelin song, even though I have a feeling that I'd probably like them if I listened to them. But I can't be bothered. Late period Floyd I'm indifferent to. I like hummable tunes. I like ELO.

Psychedelia and bonkers-ness are things that are very often ascribed to your TV shows. Do people really mean surreal when they say those things?

JM: Well, maybe. I like irrational things. I like scenarios where I can think, ‘It would be great if at this point we could do x.' And there doesn't have to be a reason for ‘x'. One learns from Buñuel and from reading Carroll, who are two of my favourite artists. Or I learn from looking at Bosch's paintings. Yeah, sure he may have been warning us against Hell, but he had a hell of a time warning us against it. He really enjoyed himself! I like inconsequential things that have no meaning other than the fact that they happen to be there and I don't think things necessarily should have a meaning. If stuff has a meaning then why do [writing] about it? If you're trying to say, ‘Tall buildings are great' why not just leave it at that: "Tall buildings are great." You can buy the T-shirt [instead of making the documentary]. It's the process [that is interesting]. It's the text of the writing and texture of the film which are interesting. I don't think I have that much to say in a lot of the cases but it's not going to stop me from saying something.

The Fall – 'Eat Y'self Fitter'

The next song on the list is by the Mancunian rock group The Fall…

JM: [exasperated] I know nothing about The Fall!

That's ok, I only mention it because the song ‘Hit The North (Part One)' crops up in the first episode of Magnetic North and I was wondering how the music gets chosen.

JM: Frank Hanley chose it. He knows about music and I don't. I choose some of the songs. In that episode I chose ‘Les Corons' by Pierre Bachalet. He was a [Jacques] Brel imitator. Well, he looked a bit like Brel anyway.

I chose the song ‘Eat Y'self Fitter' in reference to your time as a restaurant critic for The Times. I must admit I've always had a prejudice against this job. It strikes me as an awful job to have. Hellish, in fact. Am I completely off mark with this assumption?

JM: Well, no. I thought it was great to begin with. I very much enjoyed it for a couple of years. Throughout the time that I did it I had extremely sympathetic editors, my stuff wasn't changed that much, they let me do pretty much what I wanted, provided I stuck in England. They had this idea that no one was interested in Belgium or France. I tried pointing out to them that if you live in Leicester you're far more likely to go on holiday in France than you are in Worksop, but they wanted to keep it British. It got boring. You always have to go somewhere different. You always have to find something to say about the subject and in seven cases out of ten there is nothing to say. The first time I said I was going to resign they doubled my fee… and they kept on giving me more money. So I got more and more money and I got fatter and fatter until stopped, went on a diet and now I don't think about restaurants any more.

How did you lose the weight?

JM: [laughs] I went on a very, very severe diet… which consisted of eating protein and citrus and nothing else.

So sort of like a proto Atkins?

JM: Yeah.

Why are chefs so bad tempered? It's not like they work for the bomb squad or are employed taking gas samples from volcanic vents.

JM: I don't know if they actually are bad tempered or if they think that's what you're supposed to be…

…in order to get work on TV?

JM: Actually some of them are bad tempered, some of them are really nasty pieces of work and would do well in really heavy duty psychiatric nursing in somewhere like Broadmoor. Or in the army I suppose. Kitchens are like the army in that respect; it's very hierarchical and there is a lot of bullying which is not necessary. Kitchens don't need to be run like that.

Slayer – 'South Of Heaven'

Do you think the idea of Europe being divided along a notional line controlled by climate and soil, could that be applied to other continents?

JM: I don't know because I don't know other continents at all. I think the idea that there is a divide between the lands of grape and the lands of grain… [thinks] …yeah, I think it's true.

I think it's a great idea to be honest. I genuinely wish it was drummed into people. Speaking as a Northerner I don't really like the idea of the North and the South of England too much. I think the differences are ephemeral by and large and they're disadvantageous. Especially to people from the North.

JM: Well, there are two Norths. There is the compass point North and the North as an idea. Take the North of France for example, Lille and that big industrialized area for example. It's the only place in France where they eat horse meat, and it's the part of France where beer is consumed in bigger quantities than wine. That feels much more Northern than the South of England. But where the Midlands stop and the North begins I don't really know, I always assume it's North of Birmingham, around Stoke. You have a very different sensibility in Birmingham. It has a very peculiar sense of humour and Birmingham talks against itself the whole time. Brummies run themselves down, they're very self-deprecating. Whereas Yorkshire people certainly aren't. I don't know about Lancs.

Well, speaking as someone who has lived in St Helens, Liverpool, Manchester and Hull before moving down south to Welwyn Garden City and then on to Harlow and then on to Leytonstone at the age of 26, I wasn't really impressed by the paradise of the South too much.

JM: Oh, I don't think the South is a paradise, that's a complete nonsense. I have a friend who grew up in Liverpool 8 above a pub and he went to university in Southampton and he said that Liverpool will kick you but then say, ‘Sorry wack.' But Southampton will just kick you. We're talking about places that are hard, without any doubt; especially port towns, Plymouth and Portsmouth as well. But I do think there's a different sensibility between the North and the South, even if I don't quite know what it is. Say if you go to the Medway towns, they're very hard and rough places.

Apart from accent, I'd find it hard to tell the difference at first glance between St Helens and Gillingham to be honest.

JM: Yeah. As for Europe, I do think there's a difference. You only have to look at the difference in the buildings between north and south Europe. The buildings from Flanders, Lille, Arras, Ghent right up to the North of the Baltic States, they're incredibly similar buildings for a thousand miles but go one hundred miles south of Arras and the buildings are totally different, they're French or even ultra-French and they have nothing to do with that stuff up North. And there is a divide, a linguistic divide, because above that divide they speak Flemish and there's a very powerful and vociferous Flemish linguistic constituency. The art is very different - very detailed unlike it is in the South. The food is very different, the people look very different. There are also very, very different attitudes towards incomers. They don't resist incomers [in the South] but they want all incomers to be like them. Whereas that really isn't really the case in the Northern countries. For better or worse, people are allowed to adhere to their own cultures, whereas in France they are expected to sign up to Republican values and this goes equally in Italy and Spain. In both places things can work out pretty badly, but it's a different kind of status. In France the Republic is the religion of the country… there are incredibly low turn-outs for church.

Pete Seeger – 'Little Boxes'

I wanted to ask you about the Barrett Homification of the UK. I guess I'd be correct in saying that you're against the building of large identikit estates…

JM: Yeah, I think it's ghastly. I mean, the thing is, you have the same thing in France, in the Pavilions which you get all over France which are even less regulated than they are in Britain, so in that respect Britain is slightly ahead at the moment. But with the deregulation of the green belt one is going to find Britain is going to be even more fucked by volume builders. And it wouldn't be so bad if it was well fucked, but it's badly fucked. Every flat is an executive flat and every home is a luxury home and the design of them is disgraceful. You only have to go to Spain or Holland to see what can be done on the same budget and is being done all the time all over with those budgets, with design which is grown up, well made and which people like living in.

England seems absolutely incapable of doing this partly because, at the moment, even with regulations, there is a laxism which other countries have realised that you can't allow to go on, because you end up with no country at all. England is more densely populated than France and it's a smaller country than France so it is a problem. Nonetheless there's a lot of England to build over and a lot of it is of no distinction whatsoever, so maybe they should just go for it. But the question is where? I mean, what they've done to the Thames gateway is disastrous. They're building on floodplains and anyone bar Mr John Prescott would have realised that this was not a great idea. Sorry, Lord Prescott. Of Hull.

What would the powers that be, be advised to do to alleviate housing shortfalls?

JM: Re-use. I mean, Terry Farrell, who is one of the most intelligent architects around, has carried out surveys at his own expense to show what could be done within the M25, and Britain's housing problems could be alleviated very, very easily by building on top of extant buildings, which is very easy to do, by using lots of pre-fabrication and by converting buildings. Oh sure, we have designer warehouse loft conversions in Docklands, but there are still thousands of buildings around which could be used. This would require fairly draconian compulsory purchase orders, but if they're purchased at the market rate, so what?

People just can't go on sitting on this property, like the fucking Candy Brothers who have destroyed Middlesex Hospital. [Points out of window] Have you seen that? That hole in the ground? It's disgraceful. My wife thinks they ought to be in prison, and she's not a cab driver. If she was a cab driver, she would probably think that hanging was too good for them. I think they're grotesque these people.

No, we need to re-use. But why doesn't it happen? Because the construction industry doesn't like it. The construction industry likes nothing more than a blank canvas onto which they can impose a brand new building, because that way they can make more money. And they have cruder skills [than the ones needed]. Conversion requires a subtler mind. Architects don't like it, architects want to create their own landmark buildings so that people a few years hence will say, ‘Oh, that building there is being knocked down, who did that one?' Ha ha ha! They want to be able to say, in the words of Abel Evans in his epitaph to Sir John Vanbrugh, that they laid their heavy loads, which is an apt fecal simile. And you look around at all this big bling, not much of it is that great,3 and an awful lot of it is not even in use.

Do you think architects could do well to think in less utopian terms?

JM: Well, yeah, absolutely. In creating a building, architects do think they're making the world a better place. And then they hope to make the world an even better place by making another thing which will be even bigger than the last thing… and it is part of the pathology of being an architect to believe thus, and they do believe it, despite all the evidence to the contrary. It strikes me as a fairly dubious point. It's unclear if we can make the world a better place at all, but what seems to have more potential is looking at how people interact with what architects have made. And to go back to a previous point of yours, they can't interact with them if the architect's vision is such that it doesn't allow for any compact between people and building.

Primal Scream – 'Higher Than The Sun'

I met Gary Numan in the Windows restaurant, which is on the 18th floor of the St. George's hotel in the West End. Despite being a stunt pilot at the time, he had to edge his way along the wall to our table and was too terrified to look out of the window.

JM: Vertigo doesn't apply in planes for some reason. You think it's some kind of magic and you don't know how it's keeping you up, but when you're on a cliff top it's a different matter. There's a pass between Marseilles and Cassis which I try to drive over but I just can't.

I was quite surprised when I heard I'd be meeting you on the top floor of Centre Point. What is a man with a fear of heights doing up here?

JM: I don't have a fear of heights up here actually. [Motions toward window ledge] It comes up high enough for it not to be a problem. In the Lloyds Building, for example, it has plate glass going down to the floor and I find it quite scary. But if there's something like that, it creates an illusory fence which creates all the difference.

In 1992 I remember going to the top of the World Trade Center, well, the observation deck which was a few floors below the roof. And that had floor to ceiling windows, and if you leant with your head on the glass you could see the pavement below, which was the best part of half a mile down. I'm taking it you wouldn't have enjoyed that?

JM: I remember going up there and not being able to see down because of the clouds - we were above the cloud level. But then it cleared and you could see traffic moving alongside the river and you were so high that you might as well have been in a plane, and it didn't really scare me. I think it's quite site-specific vertigo. Aquaducts are the worst. Water very high up above ground does it.

So I was going to ask you, when you did the film which had you on Clifton Suspension Bridge on your hands and knees. Was that terror real?

JM: Yes, it was real. One of the things I thought before I did that film was, "This will cure me of my vertigo." But it didn't. It just exacerbated it. It made it so much worse. I confidently thought, "Clifton Suspension Bridge. No problem there." But the vertigo was much worse than I remember it ever being before. I've known the bridge since I was a kid and I didn't have vertigo when I was a kid. I think I know when it developed. It was when I was about 20 and I was with a French friend of mine who is now dead, and we were driving in his ancient Panhard across the bridge [Pont d'Aquitaine] which goes across the Garonne in Bordeaux and his car broke down in the middle of it. And I remember while we were waiting for help I looked over the edge of the bridge and saw these vessels that looked like matchboxes passing underneath. [laughs] I think that was a crucial stage in the development of that particular phobia, which like most phobias has very little to do with reason.

Isn't it true that you also dislike any dog that comes above the height of your shin?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. I like extremely effeminate dogs like terriers or schnauzers. I make an exception for giant schnauzers and big poodles.

Unthreatening dogs basically.

JM: Really unthreatening dogs. Basically, I like dogs which can be dyed day-glo colours.

Other than the scene on Clifton Suspension Bridge, have you done anything else that's threatened your mental well-being in search of televisual art?

JM: Oh I don't. I'm very belt and braces. Going on things like rollercoasters is not really up my street I guess. I don't feel like I need to do stunts. I'm too scared and I don't think it's my job. I'm a very, very unreckless person. I mean, I look left, I look right, I look left, I look right, then I repeat the process and then I decide not to cross the road at the last minute. As a driver I have come to believe that the person just in front of me and the person just behind me are always just about to do something really stupid. Tense is not the right word, but I am very hyper-aware of such things.

British Sea Power – 'Waving Flags'

You've spoken a lot about the English character and English identity a lot today. How easy is it to do this without seeming like or being painted as either a BNP wing nut or a John Major style fantasist? Is it hard to lament the decline in architecture in this country, for example?

JM: No, because I'm not against architecture per se, I'm just against bad architecture. At any point in the world's history most architecture is going to be bad but I think there's been a collective mentality since the late Conservative years - the end of Thatcher/start of Major and certainly continued throughout New Labour and continuing now - that new is necessarily better, so there is this neophilia which isn't the vanguard of progress, it's just the vanguard of the construction industry enjoying itself. The proportion of bad building at the moment is higher than the proportion of bad building 30 or 40 years ago, partly because of this laxism and because people are allowed to get away with murder. And it is going to continue and we are going to be on the receiving end of even more bad architecture with the deregulation of the green belt. I think to bemoan this doesn't put me in bed with Nick Griffin – a fairly horrible thought – or in bed with John Major – an equally horrible thought.

I think what I was driving at more was what people accuse you of or paint you as when you discuss things like this, rather than the actuality of the situation.

JM: Yeah but what one is accused of and what one is… Look I really don't care… One doesn't want to shut up because of the way one might be [misinterpreted/misrepresented] in what one says. You become inured to adverse criticism. In fact one doesn't mind adverse criticism so long as it isn't stupid.

PiL - 'Radio 4'

I'm not alone in being of the opinion that most of your programmes bear up to repeated viewing. However, do you feel there's something a bit weird or perverse about putting so much depth into what is seen as a very transient and shallow medium?

JM: Why not make a good three minute pop single instead of a bad one? Also, it doesn't need to be ephemeral. And what is ephemeral anyway? Fifty years ago The Rolling Stones were an overnight pop sensation and now they're still here. Admittedly they haven't done much that's very good since Mick Taylor left… But what is judged ephemeral at the time needn't be ephemeral. And I think with television the idea of ephemerality is vanquished by the fact it was Dennis Potter's medium, and the medium of David Mercer, Peter Nichols, Kenneth Clark and Robert Hughes. There is a tradition of television which isn't dross and stands up. Betjeman's programmes, which were made for 2/6d with one man and a cine camera, were amazing to watch because he was such a great talker. People like Alan Whicker… I don't know if they'll stand up in years to come but also Trevor Philpott, James Mossman, that great series in the 70s called Yesterday's Witness. People who would talk about the influenza epidemic of 1917 first-hand who were still alive. I think television is a medium which has the potential to do great things but has been traduced by these… terrible people who rise through the ranks.

Do you see any hope for the BBC?

JM: I don't know. I don't know anything about George Entwistle, I've talked to him twice in my life and don't know anything about him, but if the BBC just goes on chasing ratings then I think not. I don't see any point in having a public service broadcaster which attempts to compete with the commercial sector. Obviously part of its remit is to entertain, but entertainment doesn't necessarily mean scraping the bottom of the barrel and appealing to the very lowest common denominator. I don't know... without any doubt there could be a kind of revolution in the way that people who run television view it as an art form, but there's no sign of that at the moment.

I don't want you to shoot yourself in the foot…

JM: I'm adept at it.

Succinctly, how much more difficult is it for you now to get a programme off the ground now than when you first started in TV?

JM: Oh, much more difficult. I don't know how you measure difficulty [laughs] or what kind of device you'd have for measuring it but, yes, much, much more difficult.

Was there an entrenched marketing/focus group culture already at the BBC when you started there?

JM: No. That comes and goes. There was a period of that, but equally there was a period of them trying to find out who appealed to the under 16 group, the 16 to 21 group, the 21 to 30 group etc etc, to see if they could find out if there was someone who appealed right across the board, and they found that person in me. This was a guy called Adam Kent who commissioned this research and when they found it was me, it was promptly quashed. They wanted it to be someone who was cuddly or lovely. They wanted… I don't know who these people are or what they're called… Fiona Bruce, someone like that. I don't feel part of this great television community of ours, I'm some snotty nosed pariah on the outside.

Bill Wyman – 'Je Suis Un Rock Star'

I feel like the TV, the radio and the papers are always telling me how much ‘we' hate the French, yet I never really see it myself.

JM: I don't see it either.

Are we more similar than we're given credit for?

JM: Yes. People have the same sort of worries and the same prejudices and fears. I think the French agonise more about being French, I don't think English think about being English that much. I think the Scottish think about being Scottish and the Welsh think about being Welsh, but the English don't really care. But the French think about it all the time, it's an absolute preoccupation. And while I'm sure people in Britain have money worries, they don't have them like the French do. The French, however much money they have, are worried. They're a very stressed people. It seems to be a very essential component of the national psyche.

The Wu Tang Clan – 'C.R.E.A.M.'

Do you want to tell me a bit about how you found the experience of crowd sourcing, from the point of view of an author who had been published many times before.

JM: I didn't understand what crowd sourcing was until it was pointed out to me it was like a late C18th, early C19th system of funding books, which I know about. So it seemed like a good, original idea which was already two centuries old. It came about because I knew John Mitchinson [of crowd sourcing publishers Unbound] from way back. My agent had told me that no one was interested in this [book]. I mentioned it to John and he said let's do it. Why my agent thought no one was interested in this book, I don't know… I think what she actually meant was she wasn't interested in it.

Museum Without Walls is out now

Andy Parsons
Oct 29, 2012 10:00am

Actual lol at "Temple Meades"

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MP
Oct 29, 2012 10:11am

Great piece.

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Will
Oct 29, 2012 1:12pm

"The only other contact I had with the psychedelic scene was that I shared a flat with a guy called David McTavish who was the singer in a band called Tintern Abbey who brought out one record."

How brilliantly understated. Phenomenal band (on the strength of that one single)

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aaron.
Oct 29, 2012 6:24pm

Fucking excellent, John. I salute you for bringing this to the world.

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Oct 30, 2012 7:43pm

Brilliant article. Aqueduct.

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the rube
Oct 30, 2012 9:19pm

excellent

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Geraint Williams
Nov 8, 2012 1:10pm

Many thanks to The Quietus

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OJ
Nov 12, 2012 11:32pm

In reply to :

More than aqueduct.

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Lenore Greensides
Nov 15, 2012 11:28am

JM, please change your agent! You make the viewer/reader think, about what we see, and what we think we see. It's like being taken by the scruff of the neck and shaken. Brilliant stuff- good interview, too.

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John
Nov 28, 2012 5:35pm

I dug his show on caravan parks years ago. Remember to ask him about caravan parks next time.

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Brian Trevelyan
Feb 17, 2014 10:42am

An excellent interview. His comments on the BBC, from the point of view of an insider, to an extent, echo my own misgivings about the way it is headed/being pushed by political and financial pressures. I'm happy to pay the licence fee if it can carry on producing programmes such as his, but they are becoming scarcer than unpunchable Tories.

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