Monday, 24 September 2012
How to be a critic
A very upbeat interview with A.A. Gill published in yesterday's Sunday Times (23rd September 2012)
Jonathan Meades remembers when we first met. I can’t. Even when he reminds me, I can’t remember. It was food-related, it was a long time ago, and every subsequent meeting and most conversations since have been food-related. But they could quite easily have been about architecture, art, society, fashion, politics, the environment, pop music. He is the consummate critic.
“You were slightly heavier then,” he says, giving me a lugubrious once-over. So was he — a great deal heavier. Meades wore the responsibilities and consequences of his job as a food critic with the gravid aplomb of a Bradford alderman. On being told he was morbidly obese, he lost a third of his body weight, mostly by cooking for himself.
We both simultaneously chose the same obscure restaurant for this interview. I was rather pleased. He was the food reviewer on The Times for 15 years and set the standard. Daquise, in South Kensington, is the oldest Polish restaurant in London: it once served Popski’s Private Army and the fighter pilots who really won the Battle of Britain. This is where Christine Keeler came for assignations with her Russian spy lover, Yevgeny Ivanov. It is both warm and outré, like an old fly in amber, caught in one of the lost and buried boroughs of London. Once, this burg was hopefully known as Albertopolis; I suggested it might make a good television programme. Meades looks out of the window at South Ken’s new post-Olympic road rationalisation, with its trendy merging of pedestrian and motor, and gives a sigh. “I’ve had very good food in Poland,” he says as we’re given the menus.
He always manages to make finding good food sound like bird-watching: something you need to travel purposeful distances for, only to find that it has flown away. I haven’t seen him for a year. He looks well, and, although none of the Candide-ish, Pollyanna-ish epithets of happy, contented, joyful, excited or hopeful could ever be applied to him without irony, he does seem to exude a guarded sense of optimistic serendipity. He has never been world-weary or cynical, though quite often he is exasperated. And, give or take a few stone, he looks as he has always looked. It comes as a surprise to realise he is now 65. But then not perhaps such a surprise, because he has always looked 65. It’s impossible to imagine Meades as a schoolboy or an awkward teenager, or dancing.
The look of suit and dark glasses is one of the most perfectly timeless personas on television. Meades has, for the past 20 years or so, presented us with singular and esoteric documentaries about the made world (1990’s Abroad in Britain, Further Abroad and so on) that have always been provoking, entertaining and thoroughly original. His look is déclassé, nonspecific regional, formal without being smarmy. He is part Blues Brother, part minicab driver. He might be the banjo player for Madness or the undersecretary for trade and industry having an illicit affair. It is a look that manages both to conform and to rebel, to be menacing and familiar. Viewers and readers may be surprised that Meades, with his prodigious and panoramic knowledge, never went to university — though I think his learning is a consequence of his being unclipped by academe. It might be a greater surprise that he went to Rada. The look is a costume. There is method in the Meades.
People who have worked with him on television shows say he is meticulous in preparation, Brechtian. He understands everybody else’s job, has a clear vision of what he wants. He has just been travelling around Scandinavia, lecturing on a cruise ship about the north and northernness. “Do you know Helsinki? Oh, you should go — very, very good food.” I order herring and a particularly fine sour rye soup, made with rye bread that has been steeped in water for days. He goes for pelmeni and we share a dish of new-season chanterelles cooked in cream. “This really is very good food, isn’t it?” He eats with practised concentration, like a man marking a theology exam. Also, with barely concealed greed.
What has always been amazing about him as a critic is how many subjects he is comfortable criticising. He finished with restaurants because he says he simply got to the end, couldn’t bear another new concept — an overhyped, overdecorated room for crass folk who didn’t care what they ate. His personal tastes were never hidden or in doubt: the further food got from the south of France, the less he was inclined to warm to it, though Spain has a special dispensation. “What I really like is vernacular, rooted, local food. What I don’t like is experimentation.”
Critics come in two types: the academic and the intuitive. Academic critics study a subject, collect information and, when they have enough to confidently call themselves experts, criticise. Mostly it’s compare and contrast, a long game of Pelmanism and insecurity. Intuitive critics are much rarer. There are perhaps only a handful in every generation. They can make profound emotional and intellectual observations about the culture from a standing start, without the plinth and buttress of other people’s learning. Meades is one of them. He is the prime explainer of the built environment, the man-made world — not with the flattening aesthetic of architects or the bogus empty language of modernism, nor the properly pretentious extensions and mansard roofs of makeovers. He understands building and cities, the spaces between them and how they relate to each other and to us. Meades can look at a town, a parade of shops, a caravan, a golf course or a dustbin and decode it like a human Enigma machine, rendering it not simply comprehensible, but funny, instructive and human. He has the enviable ability of being able to make you look at the blindingly familiar as if you had never really seen it before.
He is not a nostalgist, nor a modernist. He likes contemporary buildings and can mock national treasures. He can be surprisingly strict on pimples and forgiving on scars. His programmes include Jerry Building, about Nazi architecture, and Joe Building, about Soviet architecture. He says he’d like to complete the set and do one on Mussolini’s fascist architecture. I suggest he calls it Benito Boxes.
His most recent series, on France, was a lexicon of unlikely associations and surreal juxtapositions, made with both adoration and fury. France is now his adopted home. He moved to Marseilles to live in a Le Corbusier apartment, which I think is taking your aesthetics home with you. Le Corbusier didn’t like people messing up his grand fatalist vision.
Marseilles suits Meades. It’s France, but it’s apart from France, a city that has always been a stew of immigrants — Arabs, Jews, Corsicans, lascars, legionnaires, West Africans, everyone with a temper and a grievance — and, of course, some very good food. “I live in a nice part, rather like St John’s Wood, but I can get on a bus and see people stabbed and murdered within five minutes. The French do mass transit well.”
He rails against French politicians and French bureaucrats, using very French hand gestures; against the corrupt layers of local government; and, perversely for a former food critic, against the tyranny of French lunch. It is, he says, nearly impossible to get anything done because of lunch. It bisects the day like a religious observance. I suggest that France is plainly a nation in decline, clinging to the old perks and well-thumbed privileges of the past, and unwilling to pay for them, and that decline is quite an attractive way to live, if it’s not personal. “Yes,” he says, without conviction. Meades always half- agrees with everything, or occasionally he demi-disagrees. “Living in a place that’s inclining is quite nice, too.”
France may not be his final destination. He says he has a peripatetic gene. “There are lots of other places I’d like to live in that need to be lived in. I have no pressing or sentimental desire to live back in England.” France’s existentialism, itself indulgent, and its belief in excellence and pleasure and, despite what he says, lunch, suit him, even if the civilisation is collapsing into a pool of overblown provincialism. He has a delicate relationship with the commissioning editors who allow him to make his programmes. He rolls his eyes at their cultural timidity, their reasonable demands for inclusiveness and accessibility. He’s back in Blighty to make a programme on Essex. “I want to rehabilitate it,” he says. It’s not bling Essex, or twitcher’s Essex; not pretty villages, Holst and morris-men Essex. Rather, it’s going to be estuary porn, lots of loving shots of hulks, lingering over mud flats, that sort of thing. The estuaries are the nation’s cloacas.
There is also, out now, a selection of his articles, Museum Without Walls. On the flyleaf, a covey of his peers compare him to Chaucer, Rabelais, Swift and Kenneth Tynan. Very little journalism is worth collating and, by its nature, even less criticism. If anything, though, Meades’s writing has grown better, more insightful and deliciously iconoclastic, with time. I can say without hyperbole that Jonathan Meades is the Jonathan Meades of our generation.