It has become a trait of too many of us — and I plead as guilty as any of you might — to go about our daily business not just oblivious of much of what goes on around us, but making a conscious effort to be so. So much of our urban surroundings is, or appears to be, repellent. Most towns possess modern architecture that looks jerry-built, because it often is. Even mock-Georgian, an already hideously debased style, has become worse than it was, since glazing bars became, apparently, an unnecessary expense. Areas that used to produce fine red bricks, or Staffordshire blues, or fine greys, now build in a colour that can best be described as second-day diarrhoea. Modern architecture does not need to be ugly, and certainly does not need to be pastiche if it is to be interesting and uplifting; but no one seems to have told many of today’s third-rate builders that.
Yet perhaps we should look more closely at what is around us: for as the new collection of essays (with the odd television script thrown in), by the critic Jonathan Meades demonstrates, even as we think our built environment offers no comfort to the soul or to the intellect, it has the capacity to surprise us, engage us, and lift us up. Museum Without Walls (Unbound, £18.99) contains numerous reflections on what is around us, and reveals the closeness and acuity with which Mr Meades has not just examined, but read about, all that he has seen about him on his travels. No urban landscape is too ghastly that it cannot yield some fascination to him; and this is what he shares with us.
Not everyone will find Mr Meades’s style of writing, highly adjectival and allusive as it is, to his taste. It is a style that can only be carried off by someone of great verbal originality, which is why it works in his case. It is why his television films, of which there are too few and which it is criminal not to put on mass-circulation channels rather than the intellectual ghetto of BBC4, are so compelling and remarkable. Nor will everyone respond to his aggressively unsentimental attitude towards our environment, though only a dolt would say that his championship of, for example, the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth (a brutalist confection occasionally voted the ugliest building in Britain, and which he lobbied, unsuccessfully, to have reprieved from the demolition ball) does not at least cause one to think.
Mr Meades is impatient with and frustrated by those who find urbanism an offence in itself. He knows that urban areas can be sensitively and successfully regenerated when they have gone into decline — as so many in once-industrial Britain have. Though this can be done “not by preposterous gestures like damming the Tees to make a recreational lake for Middlesbrough or by the tokenism of public art”. He loathes much of what he sees as regeneration: “The ineffable estates of executive houses are not internal cancers or wens, they are, rather, external buboes and boils.”
One of the logical results of his anti-sentimentalism is his disgust at the “heritage” industry, described uncompromisingly in one of the most enjoyable and provocative essays in this book, “Fuck E**lish *erit*ge”. The starting point of this essay is also Portsmouth. Mr Meades rejoices that the two mast houses in the dockyard there survive in an era of mastless vessels, but he deplores the use to which they are put, selling souvenirs — or rather, selling “tawdry, insipid tat” — on the back of the Mary Rose. It is a “dismal, timid inventory of mediocrity. Bad taste is forgivable. It’s no taste which is so disheartening.” As he lists what he has inspected, the bile becomes more comprehensible. There is “a soft toy, very cuddly, and fun to have around” called “Mr Tudor Rat” — supplier at the time, as he points out, of the very buboes referred to earlier. There is a “collectable Mary Rose Henry Bear” and “Henry VIII and Elizabeth I pots. Take off their heads and store your treasures”. That is only the start of it, what Mr Meades describes as “a crock of olde shyte”. The offence this does to the sensibilities of people who might otherwise have had a genuine interest in history, before it was patronised out of them, is apparent, but Mr Meades has a more subtle point. The same English Heritage that is touting this rubbish — much of which, we must suppose, is destined to gather dust on the shelves of the grandparents and great-grandparents of Britain — also opposed the building of the Shard, “yet sanctions the debasement of marine archaeology, naval history and the magnificent dockyard itself” in the interests of being “accessible”. The trouble with “accessibility”, of course, is that it has become an end in itself. It is rarely designed to take people farther into a subject or to stimulate intellectual curiosity, but then, if it did, the whole bogusness of the heritage trade would be ruthlessly exposed.
One of the great revelations of Mr Meades’s writing is his ability not just to expose the tawdriness and cynicism of those who manage our landscape and our past, but also to find interest and beauty in what others, affording it a passing glance, would find drab and unremarkable. “When we look at, say, the centre of Leeds or innermost Manchester — and here we have to acknowledge the part played by such promoters of regeneration as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness — we see another future — the future of English urbanism,” he writes. “It is a future which has mercifully shunned sprawl.” He sees this, perceptively, as “an abandonment of the North American model and an espousal of the French model”, something that helps end the “profligacy” of our use of land, a scarce resource on a small island.
It is an unfortunate cliché to call any book an eye-opener, but this one unquestionably is. It forces us to think critically about the environment we live in: what works, what doesn’t, what insults the eye and what elevates the mind. We will find that too much of our country is in bad taste or of no taste at all but, following the Meades method, we shall also find much that, if examined closely, brings joy.