No Beats, No Bloomsburys: Jonathan Meades Talks Blair, Brutalism & Benny Hill

Owen Hatherley interviews Jonathan Meades about his new book *Pedro and Ricky Come Again*, a massive collection of his writing from 1988 to 2021 – and on why he’s no longer making television

Photo by Pablosievert. CC BY-SA 4.0

The last time I saw Jonathan Meades was in May 2018, in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. In a flat surrounded with books, paintings, pictures, and postcards he’d made himself, and as we got through several bottles of rosé, he said he wasn’t fit enough to come up to the building’s famously sculptural roof terrace, with its running track, its kindergarten, and its view across the city, the mountains and the Mediterranean. Although he wasn’t able to leave his flat at the time, he was still planning another film in his informal series for the BBC on the architecture of 20th century dictatorships – Franco-Building, which was shown in 2019, and covers the buildings of Spanish Fascism. After over an hour of disgust at the grim austerity and grotesque kitsch favoured by the Caudillo, Meades comes to rest in Benidorm, a miniature skyscraper city of stylistically impure modernist towers facing the Med, inhabited for a week or so at a time by British people drunk on sun and sangria. It was obvious he loved it.

In March 2021, neither of us were able to leave our flats, and this interview – about his new book Pedro and Ricky Come Again, a follow-up to his 1988 anthology Peter Knows What Dick Likes, covering over thirty years of writing – was conducted over email.

Although you allude to inconsistency being a virtue in the introduction, when faced with thirty-three years worth of your work in one book it’s most clear how consistent the obsessions and prose actually is. On some subjects, like the Tricorn Centre and Brutalism in general, received opinion is starting to come round to you; on others, such as Belgium or realist painting, it’s still taking a while. So my first question is: is there anything in the period covered by this book that you’ve changed your mind about? If so, what and why?

If only in comparison with what has come since – Tony Blair, the Christian Bomber and Idolator of GW Bush. A ghastly man but not so ghastly as Johnson and not as dangerous (unless you’re Iraqi).

With the passage of time the consequences on non-existent society of Thatcher’s long reign seem not to fade. Rather they grow stronger as the Tory doxa from which no craven backbencher dare deviate. A model was established which has become more and more exaggerated down the years. No subsequent government has tried to correct the multiple torts of the free market, the abhorrence of dirigisme, the sanctioning of governmental war against sections of the country. Add in her contempt for environmental control, the wretched jingoism, her Christmas parties with fun loving Augusto Pinochet and Jimmy Savile who fucked her corpse in the coffin. Add in too the intolerance of ‘those people one steps over after coming out of the opera’ (Lord Young, an arsehole). That’s the country which I am glad to have escaped from.

As for Brutalism: my film Remember The Future was made in the summer of 1995 and transmitted in February 1997. It was generally regarded as an act of deliberate perversity which, for once, it wasn’t. Of the films I made in the 90s, it was the most difficult to persuade the BBC to give me the money for. There was still a vehement antipathy to modernism and especially to the sort of Big-Tech modernism I was interested in. Much of it is not strictly architectural. Twenty-five years later it is widely appreciated – but by a generation that has regrettably not yet the power to save it from the wreckers of the demolition community. We all know what has been lost. The situation is analogous with that which high Victorian architecture suffered in the thirty years after the war (when Brutalism was in the ascendant).

The prose style is also pretty much there from early on – this lurid, deliberately muscular style of juxtapositions and vulgarity mixed with verbosity, lists and references and gags. It’s quite an unusual style for any period, especially now, with this tedious cult of coolness and the ‘well-turned sentence’ from bores like Brian Dillon. So am wondering how you came to it; who your models were (obviously some of them, like Nabokov and Burgess, are mentioned in the book) and linked to this, who writing now do you rate specifically for their style?

Le style c’est l’homme meme. Buffon. Style is the man himself, the very essence of the man. Or it’s an accumulation of tics and habits, of borrowings which one forgets to return and makes one’s own. If you set out to write like, say, Raymond Chandler you’ll end up with a sub-Chandleresque dilution. If however you set out to write like Chandler and at the same time like Marty Feldman you might be onto something, the collision might be felicitous. There is no worthwhile art without mongrelism.

I own a cross generational kinship with Peter Nichols and Mike Hodges. Their fathers were provincial sales reps like my father – who was a friend of Mike’s father. They were always striving to get from the ranks of the lower middle class onto the bottom of the middle middle class ladder. Nichols’s TV films The Gorge and Hearts and Flowers are peerless. We all have – or had, Peter has died – a taste for low comedy, high wit, end-of-pier vulgarity (as you mention), a sort of absolutely non-u polychromatic aestheticism bricolaged out of components not usually associable with aestheticism: slapstick, farce, what Roger Lewis calls my ‘cloacal satire’.

I might as well mention here Ken Russell and Benny Hill. My mother’s family and Russell’s family were near neighbours in terraced Edwardian Portswood, Hill lived just the other side of the Avenue near Southampton Common. This is what I grew up with, what, I suppose, I absorbed without thinking about it. There was a lack of squeamishness which comes from the recognition that gentility and formalised good manners are a pathetic mask. Few people loved life, gorged on life, as much as my Great Aunt Doll who was the first woman in Southampton to own a car and led a life of Mackeson, British Cream Sherry, and shamelessly lavish promiscuity.

If that milieu and conglomeration of idioms is one source of my ‘style’, the other belongs to a particular strain of late modernism, a modernism which is mostly maximalist. Mark Foster Gage rather than Norman Foster if you like.

My self appointed tutors were, in the order I discovered them, Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Nabokov, and Burgess. All of them associable in one way or another with labyrinths, all practitioners of non-linearity, all happy not to explain, all precursors of Godard’s celebrated and liberating “a beginning a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.” Burgess, of course, also came from the provincial lower middle class, and gave the address at Benny Hill’s funeral.

In my second term at Rada I went to a double bill at The Paris Pullman in South Kensington. Franju’s Judex was a delight and I have watched it many times since. Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle was different. It changed my way of seeing and thinking about how art can create a world rather than reproduce it. Diurnal reality, dream, memory, representation are all on the same level. I should point out, as I do in Pedro, that I saw and read and was thrilled by a lot of Robbe-Grillet before I came across his ‘theoretical’ guff which is little more than self-advertisement. But it was because of that guff that I first read Borges.

Whether those two writers and Nabokov have had longterm effect I have no idea. I’d have hoped that half a century on the virus has dissipated and that I have nicked from many other sources (Hardy, Housman, Kleist, Cobb, Wells, etc. – but no Beats, no Bloomsburys). I sometimes hear Burgess, a non-commissioned Nabokov, barking in my ear as if I’m an out of step squaddie who’s liable to get jankers for having wrought this or that miserable sentence – you take that roller and get them fucking curls out of that fucking corrugated iron lad double quick.

Most of all – and you know this as well as I do – you feed off yourself, despite Picasso’s dictum: ‘copy anyone but don’t copy yourself’. A dictum he ignored in his own work.

I read Borges in translation (Kerrigan, Yates, Reid – all of them more baroque than di Giovanni) and quite a lot of Nabokov in his translations of his Russian work – I speak only English and French.

Today I mainly read the dead. I don’t like talking about people writing now. Of those of my generation who are dead I most admired Snoo Wilson and Gordon Burn. Their work was not similar save that it was brilliantly clever and original and stopped too soon. Borges famously said that every writer creates his own precursors. I am creating my own contemporaries.

Obviously politically you don’t like to pin yourself down, but it’s notable that most of the fandom you have, particularly among people under forty in the UK, is very firmly on the left, while early on a lot of the people you’ve written for were very much of the British establishment. You’re surely the only person since the 1930s golden age of aristo Communists who has gone from working for The Tatler to contributing to the Morning Star. How do you think this happened?

The Tatler: during the time I worked there as a part-time commissioning editor and occasional writer it was a very different magazine from the cravenly anilingual, toff-frotting publication of today. That might be unfair because I haven’t seen a copy in thirty-five years. During the time I was semi-detached to it, it was edited by Tina Brown and Mark Boxer. The contributors included George Melly, Lindsay Anderson, Vicky Woods, Robert Harris, Gavin Stamp, Amanda Craig, Derek Raymond (fka Robin Cook), Tony Rivers, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Craig Brown, David Bailey, Francis Wyndham, Peter Conrad, Jeff Bernard, Lucretia Stewart, et al. None of them notably party political, with the exception of Robert Harris who would become a big time New Labour figure. It belonged to a world of north London champagne socialism (though Melly, no hypocrite, drank only whisky). I don’t consider it to have been part of the Establishment. My debut in the Morning Star was at the invitation of Conrad Landin who knew that I couldn’t get a particular piece published anywhere else. I’m grateful to him and rather proud.

I have written for publications of many complexions and persuasions. I have often written against the prevailing tenor of publications which employed me. I’d like to believe that my own agnosticism derives from Yeats’s ‘the best lack all conviction’ – but of course Yeats himself had convictions. And I have too, despite myself.

I am keen on punitive taxes for the disgustingly rich, the destruction of tax havens, nationalisation of public transport, the separation of state and religious cults and, as I’ve mentioned, dirigisme, the provision of houses for those who cannot afford shelter. I prefer to live in a secular republic than a god-appointed monarchy, which ought to be moved on: it does make a difference. Liberté, égalité, fraternité is more than a slogan.

Despite its increasing decline from secularism into religion I am a supporter of Israel: they may be bastards but they’re our bastards. That cannot be said of Iran which funds Israel’s antagonists. The reporting of that part of the Middle East is less parti pris in France than in the UK. France takes anti-semitism more seriously. In the UK, Israel is a target, the softest, easiest target: I hold its vilifiers in contempt.

I should add that I am not opposed to political assassination. In fact I can’t understand why any sentient person would decline to crowdfund A Gibbet For Johnson.

Linked to the above: a lot of the writing on food in the book is very scornful of ideas of ‘authenticity’ as being boring and false, and celebrates things like drive-thru balti houses in Birmingham and so on. Am wondering if you read the Vittles newsletter? It was interesting seeing a similar argument about ‘cultural appropriation’ being good rather than bad come to be made from the multicultural left…

I haven’t seen the Vittles piece. Without cultural appropriation there is only stagnation. The subject is essentially frivolous. In the case of literature or subliterature it’s an order to shut down the imagination. If say you suffered like Joë Bousquet who was rendered paraplegic by a sniper’s bullet in the First World War and spent the rest of his life in a single darkened room you would have to write about that room and nothing else. As it was that room, even though it was a prison of sorts, was escaped with every word he wrote. If you do not suffer paraplegia you are unfit to write about Joë Bousquet.

A cassoulet made in London ought not to worry the guardians of authenticity because it is attempting the impossible. The authentic cassoulet is made in Auch. No, it’s made in Toulouse. No, it comes from Carcassonne (where Bousquet lived). Hang on, it comes from Le Trou Gascon in the 12ème arrondissement of Paris. And what about Chez Philippe near the Canal St Martin? Excellence is worth pursuing. Authenticity is a chimera.

Appropriation – can blue men play the whites? – only gets serious when it is tied to identity, when your identity is determined entirely by your parents. A child born to Christian parents is not a Christian: it has yet to be indoctrinated. The same goes for a Muslim child. The child is brought up not knowing choice or free will. To appropriate a different thought system is apostasy. Thus cultures survive, indeed thrive, through maledictions of rival beliefs, through the dissemination of customs and habits which are unamended from one blinkered generation to the next, which are unrelieved by external influence. The problem of multiculturalism is not moral but practical. There are no consensual standards when every person is a special-pleading minoritarian of one who has declared independence for its end of the sofa.

For someone that hates fanaticism or intense belief of any kind, you seem constantly drawn to it, whether it’s the architecture of Fascism and Stalinism, Vatican II churches, the harsh Protestant culture and townscape of the Low Countries, the Baltic and Northern Germany, and so forth. What is this attraction/repulsion all about? Is there a sense in which you admire the energies produced by these apparently myopic ways of thinking or would you argue that one can separate out the idea and its expression (as you try to, with, eg Le Corbusier as a wonderful architect and terrible ‘urbanist’)? Do you think you might be at risk of a deathbed conversion? And if so, to what would you prefer to be converted?

The architectural expression of power – whether religious, martial, commercial or tyrannical – is fascinating. How is stone made to serve an often terrible cause? How do we know what cause it is serving if we haven’t got the guidebook? Can we distinguish that hecatomb’s brick from a very similar one laid by builder in a democracy? Why are dictators attracted by classicism? Why by sheer size? Order and literalism are the answers. But those qualities apart, the twentieth-century dictators were architecturally disparate. Mussolini’s modernism might belong to any western European country. Hitler’s too: it did exist, but not for ‘representative’ buildings or domestic use.

It is easy for me as a moderately tolerant atheist to propose that the great architects and craftsmen who built, say, the cathedrals of Chartres and Lincoln or the charterhouses of Pavia and Granada knew very well that they were building to their own glory rather than that of god – but the moderately tolerant atheist would be lapsing into a sort of lazy Whiggishness and making our ancestors behave in a way that pleases him. Autre temps autre moeurs. Which is why the destruction of statues is silly – it’s like lynching the long dead. Given the standard of most public statuary it can hardly be deemed an aesthetic crime.

I use the word ‘sacred’ as a convenience. Christian brick is no more special than halal meat. Having a ‘holy’ man touch an inanimate object (or baby for that matter) is supernatural drivel, especially when the ‘holy’ toucher is liable to be a kiddy fiddler. Once we get over that we can re-use the sacred: churches, synagogues, chapels, cathedrals, mosques, temples can be put to proper, material purposes. I have no problems with a new dissolution of monasteries.

Le Corbusier’s architecture, in its several periods, was remarkably inventive. His grandiose and boorish plan for Paris might almost derive from the absolutely relentless grid plan of La Chaux-de-Fonds where he grew up. It was a work of nostalgia. Deathbed conversions are surely ecclesiastical propaganda. I hope to match Norman Douglas whose final words were “Get those fucking nuns out of here.”

There’s an interesting relation to popularity, ‘accessibility’ and ‘populism’ in these pieces. Their sources are almost all as mass-market as you can get: magazines and newspapers and TV, rather than academia, the art gallery and the arthouse. In one of the essays on Pevsner you draw a distinction between great informal educators like Tony Godwin (‘for the people’) and the turn by Channel 4 and BBC programmers like Greg Dyke towards churning out allegedly popular rubbish (‘of the people’); Penguin replacing Pevsners with the fucking Rough Guides being the cause of this particular point. Do you consider what you do to be deliberately educational? So much of it is about telling people interesting things they don’t already know about, providing what Mark Sinker calls ‘portals’.

Accessibility means comprehensible by morons. Greg Dyke was uniquely well placed in this regard. My films are merely the kind of TV that someone like me would like to watch. I make them for myself just as I write for myself. I hope to educate and fascinate, equally I hope to amuse and entertain. But the truth is that I don’t take into account the taste of the audience, a mass of individuals with all sorts of opposing whims: to think of these people as some sort of unified entity is patronising.

I should have put all that in the preterite. There will be no more films. BBC 4 has stopped commissioning and I can’t be bothered to importune other outlets. And even before that curtailment I was thinking about quitting. I’ve been at it for thirty-five years, I’ve had two heart operations, and my appetite for third rate hotels has diminished. I realised that I didn’t care about making shows. And I enjoy writing.

If I’m unlucky in a future life I shall have my brain removed and become a TV executive.

Pedro and Ricky Come Again by Jonathan Meades is published by Unbound

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