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An Incurable Topophilia

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When I was a boy in the early 1980s the most thrilling place on earth was the local shopping centre car park.

Picture me, all agog in the back seat as my father fearlessly pilots our Ford Cortina into a mind-bending maze of grey concrete, up through weird spiralling tunnels and geometric caves which become darker and danker the higher we go, giving the curious sensation of ascending into a pit. This place is from the future, yet it is decaying. Litter rustles in cold corners. Stalactites drip from ledges. Damp oozes from the concrete’s very pores. And then suddenly we emerge into a sunlit Dan Dare roofscape of giant corkscrew-shaped ramps, cubist columns and obscurely hostile watchtowers.

This was the Tricorn Centre, Portsmouth. I was much puzzled by it. Why was it so disorienting, so ungraspable in its geography? Why was it so jarringly different from all the other places I was taken to? It frightened and fascinated me. But it never occurred to me to despise it. Only much later did I learn that that was what you were supposed to do, that the Tricorn was the ultimate 1960s Concrete Monstrosity, abhorred by all decent folk and derided by Prince Charles as ‘a mildewed lump of elephant droppings’.

When the city council ordered it to be torn down in 2004 crowds gathered to cheer. But I didn’t, and neither did Jonathan Meades. He said: ‘You don’t go knocking down Stonehenge or Lincoln Cathedral. Buildings like the Tricorn were as good as that. They were great monuments of an age.’ And that is just one among many reasons why I think Meades is the most outrageously interesting writer about British places alive today and possibly ever.

Jonathan Turner Meades (born 1947) is perhaps best known for his television programmes in which he ambles around sheds, dockyards and concrete monstrosities making gnomic, swallowed-a-thesaurus pronouncements while dressed like one of the Blues Brothers. He has somehow managed to make over fift

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When I was a boy in the early 1980s the most thrilling place on earth was the local shopping centre car park.

Picture me, all agog in the back seat as my father fearlessly pilots our Ford Cortina into a mind-bending maze of grey concrete, up through weird spiralling tunnels and geometric caves which become darker and danker the higher we go, giving the curious sensation of ascending into a pit. This place is from the future, yet it is decaying. Litter rustles in cold corners. Stalactites drip from ledges. Damp oozes from the concrete’s very pores. And then suddenly we emerge into a sunlit Dan Dare roofscape of giant corkscrew-shaped ramps, cubist columns and obscurely hostile watchtowers.

This was the Tricorn Centre, Portsmouth. I was much puzzled by it. Why was it so disorienting, so ungraspable in its geography? Why was it so jarringly different from all the other places I was taken to? It frightened and fascinated me. But it never occurred to me to despise it. Only much later did I learn that that was what you were supposed to do, that the Tricorn was the ultimate 1960s Concrete Monstrosity, abhorred by all decent folk and derided by Prince Charles as ‘a mildewed lump of elephant droppings’. When the city council ordered it to be torn down in 2004 crowds gathered to cheer. But I didn’t, and neither did Jonathan Meades. He said: ‘You don’t go knocking down Stonehenge or Lincoln Cathedral. Buildings like the Tricorn were as good as that. They were great monuments of an age.’ And that is just one among many reasons why I think Meades is the most outrageously interesting writer about British places alive today and possibly ever. Jonathan Turner Meades (born 1947) is perhaps best known for his television programmes in which he ambles around sheds, dockyards and concrete monstrosities making gnomic, swallowed-a-thesaurus pronouncements while dressed like one of the Blues Brothers. He has somehow managed to make over fifty such programmes for the BBC, despite paying no attention whatsoever to the accepted rules of mainstream broadcasting. His modus operandi is to craft the scripts first, then report to the director on filming day and simply act them out. The words always take precedence, which is why the likes of Abroad in Britain (1990) and Magnetic North (2008) are funny and intellectually invigorating but so uncompromisingly wordy that they can only be understood after multiple rewatchings with a good dictionary to hand. For Meades is not a ‘television presenter’ at all, but rather an author who occasionally makes television programmes. His considerable written oeuvre includes fiction, memoir, reportage, cultural history, literary criticism and even a highly idiosyncratic cookbook. His specialist subject, however, is place. ‘Place’ isn’t architecture, though Meades is certainly expert on that. Place includes buildings but also the gaps between them and the B-roads that lead to them. It encompasses ‘deserted streets, seething boulevards, teeming beaches, empty steppes, black reservoirs, fields of agricultural scrap, cute villages and disappearing points which have an unparalleled capacity to promote hope’. Place surrounds us and is, he claims, the greatest free show on earth – hence the title of the book that collects his best writing on the topic: Museum without Walls (2012). Its dust jacket carries his credo in capital letters: ‘THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A BORING PLACE’. Inside are erudite musings and unpredictable polemics on everything from St Paul’s Cathedral to Birmingham’s multi-storey car parks. Like Flaubert or Andy Warhol, Meades believes that everything is interesting if you bother to look at it for long enough, that ‘the banal is a thing of joy’. Not that he is uncritically appreciative of all he surveys. Goodness me, no – a more scathing, vituperative critic of architecture or indeed anything else you will struggle to find. In fact his capacity for hatred is legendary. But to properly hate something you have to be interested in it, and Meades is interested in bad architecture, and in what makes it bad (‘the catastrophic cock-ups of grandiloquent visionaries are as grimly appealing as the imaginatively bereft efforts of volume builders’). He is particularly contemptuous of the ‘aesthetic tyranny’ of the National Trust and English Heritage, who hold that only the naturally picturesque is worthy of contemplation. Meades observes that the fields, woods and waterways of the British countryside are no more ‘natural’ than skyscrapers or scrapyards. All are products of man’s intervention, all carry a story or foment an idea in the viewer if only he has eyes to see. Everything that’s been put somewhere tells you something about the people who did the putting. So he extends the courtesy of close attention and appreciation to the ‘ugly and dreary’ bits of the great Museum without Walls, to ‘heaths, chance conjunctions, field systems, wide verges, sunken lanes, hidden alleys, high roads and the nameless bits between them all. Especially those bits.’ Meades contracted his ‘incurable topophilia’ in childhood. His father ‘travelled in biscuits’: he was a sales rep for Crawfords and would take his son along in the company Morris 8 on his rounds in Wiltshire and neighbouring counties. While Meades senior sold custard creams to corner shops, Meades junior was free to wander the streets of Winchester or Shaftesbury unaccompanied, observing and absorbing. He peered through hedges, read billboards, noticed things. He taught himself odd tricks, like how to tell where he was by the composition of the roadside walls (south of Salisbury Plain they’re chequered patterns of flint and stone, whereas in Hampshire the flint is laid in alternating rows with brick, apparently). He diligently made maps of his voyages: naïve and inaccurate, of course, but reflective of the child’s attempt to make sense of the world. This self-education formed him. He learnt about buildings without the filter of received wisdom and so remained ignorant of ‘aesthetic hierarchies’. No adult taught him that ‘stone is nobler than brick, that brick is nobler than pebbledash, that pebbledash is nobler than breezeblock, that breezeblock is nobler than corrugated iron’. He wasn’t told that churches are axiomatically superior to pubs, nor that original Tudor houses must be better than the 1920s mock variety. He did have architectural epiphanies. A school cricket match took him to Marsh Court, a deliriously complex building by Edwin Lutyens which he experienced as a ‘dream house’, meaning that it seemed to transform itself as he walked around it and had the ‘logic and movement and seamless metamorphoses that characterize dreams’. But for the most part he just ambled slowly about in ordinary places, staring upwards, mouth open, making his own judgements. He’s been doing more or less the same thing ever since. The formative places and people of Meades’s provincial 1950s childhood are depicted in glorious technicolour in An Encyclopaedia of Myself (2014). This disordered memoir – brimful of bogus Majors, grasping relatives and other top-notch English eccentrics – is his warmest and most purely enjoyable book. Otherwise, ‘warm enjoyment’ is not quite the typical Jonathan Meades reading experience. His style is bracing, abrasive, combative. His prose fizzes like acid added to a test tube of chalk. He is master of both the pithy one-line put-down and the extended digression that yanks you out of a thought, whizzes you through a bewildering Tricorn Centre of surprise analogies and uncomfortable truths, then dumps you back down again with preconceptions shattered and a disconcerting sense of the scale of your own ignorance. By refusing to talk down to the reader while disdainfully denigrating all the things you happen to believe, Meades has a rare way of making you feel clever and stupid at the same time. And he is a self-described prose maximalist – after all, why merely skewer a misconception when you can bury it under an avalanche of difficult synonyms? Meades sharpened his critical skills during a fifteen-year stint as The Times’s restaurant critic, where he was noted for proffering very strong, very well-informed opinions on everything, sometimes even the food. Absolute creative freedom is a given for Meades. He is one of those fortunate Baby Boomers who seemed to be in the right place (London) at the right time (the late 1960s) to carve out a career in following successive whims. His first writing job was for Books and Bookmen, a now-defunct literary magazine which gave him licence to report on whatever took his fancy – thus, discourses on topics ran-ging from Parisian transsexuals to Jorge Luis Borges can be found in the superb compilation Peter Knows What Dick Likes (1989). His fiction, meanwhile, is designed to shock. The short stories in Filthy English (1984) apply highfalutin’ linguistic virtuosity to scabrous subject-matter, including incest and worse. The wilfully repellent novel Pompey (1993) has been described as a masterpiece by some – eliciting comparisons with Joyce, Swift and Sterne – and dismissed as unreadable by others. I suppose I have a foot in both camps: I think it’s a virtually unreadable masterpiece. As a writer on place he is even harder to pigeonhole. Perhaps if he were French he would seem less of an eccentric outlier. Indeed, the country that gave the world such concepts as the flâneur and the lieu de mémoire is his adopted home. But he is also an extremely English writer, who returns again and again to dig under the skin of his homeland. Stephen Fry claimed that ‘no one understands England better’ and I suspect that Meades’s obsession with English urban decay and rural squalor is actually a perverse form of patriotism. He admires John Betjeman and the largely forgotten architectural critic Ian Nairn, both of whom urged us to notice the ordinary, the suburban, the industrial. But Meades has taken the idea that there is no such thing as a boring place so much further than they did, and –along with his more poetically minded contemporary Iain Sinclair – has in turn inspired a generation of rather self-conscious ‘psycho-geographers’ who can’t pass a rusty shed or shopping trolley-filled canal without penning a woozy meditation. Yet there is nothing affected about Meades’s extreme topophilia. That’s why it’s contagious, why reading him has changed how I try to look at the world. He really does love B-road laybys and naval drydock facilities and, yes, certain brutalist concrete buildings. So when he described the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth as one of ‘the most thrilling works to have been made in Britain’ and ‘a great monument to an age’ like Lincoln Cathedral, he wasn’t merely being provocative or contrarian, he meant it. The Tricorn was designed by a prodigiously talented British architect named Rodney Gordon. Gordon’s work wasn’t pretty or easy on the eye but it was striking, original, clever and challenging. It was difficult. But then so is Hamlet, so is Ulysses, so is Picasso’s Guernica. As Jonathan Meades himself asks, why shouldn’t our buildings sometimes be a bit difficult – like the best novels or plays or paintings? Or, indeed, like the best critics.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 62 © Andrew Nixon 2019


About the contributor

Andrew Nixon is a writer and co-founder of The Dabbler blog. He has met Meades several times and found him to be an absolute pussycat – honestly.

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