One of the good things about being an expat is the chance to filter out all the toxic fluff your nation-of-origin clogs up its terrestrial airwaves with, yet somehow remain able (like an extraterrestrial watching The Twilight Zone) to keep in touch with the quality stuff, the stuff that seems meant for you. The UK is still capable of producing great television, and much of it is made by Jonathan Meades, the Dr Johnson of the acerbic television essay.
MeadesShrine has become a regular port of call for me on YouTube; it's a collection of all of the Raybanned one's investigations going back to the early 1990s. MeadesShrine became particularly indispensable this weekend when it posted, within hours of transmission, episode 1 of Off Kilter, the new Meades series about the architecture of Scotland, being shown on BBC 4. Meades begins in Aberdeen, a city I spent four years in, and recently revisited, an experience I found surprisingly powerful, partly for the reasons Meades details in Off Kilter: the fact that Aberdeen is so different from anywhere else in Britain, and that it's so suffused with the irreducible otherness of a vanished past.
My time in The Granite City was in the era of The Iron Lady, but my friends Emma and Joe were there much more recently -- right before they moved to Berlin earlier this year -- so I heard at first hand (Emma was employed by Peacock) all about the tussle between Peacock -- Aberdeen's most distinguished contemporary art space -- and oil magnate Sir Ian Wood. The sordid tale comes up 4.34 minutes into this chunk of Off Kilter:
It's worth quoting Meades' account: "There is currently a proposal to effect a wholesale transformation of Aberdeen's very core. A couple of years ago a discreet, elegant scheme was devised by Brisac Gonzalez architects to create on -- or rather in -- this slope a largely subterranean home for the Peacock visual arts centre.
"No sooner had it been granted planning permission than Sir Ian Wood, a billionaire oil tycoon with £50M to spare, countered with his grandiose vision: to cover this valley with a vast roof, and on that roof create a public space which would be a cross between "a mini Central Park and a grand Italian piazza". And beneath that roof? Wood's vision is excitingly 20th century. There'd be a car park. And a shopping mall."
Meades is not impressed: "Where does one start? With the fact that this intervention -- philanthropic or plutocratic, according to taste -- is, let us say, most unorthodox? With Peacock having lost part of its funding because its project has been put in abeyance? With the fawning of the city council and the Scottish government, and the intensely relaxed Alex Salmond's enthusiasm? With the catch in the small print -- Wood expects the rate-payers to stump up another £50M to achieve his glorious vision? Besides all this, the last thing Aberdeen needs is more shops. No, come to think of it, the last thing Aberdeen needs is an enormous car park that will merely increase the volume of traffic." (Peacock's page about the debacle is here.)
Later, Meades gives Donald Trump a deserved shafting too. The quiffed American hopes to build a "Trumptown-on-Sea" near Aberdeen (pity the poor town with oil; slicks and scum are sure to follow!), but Meades hopes that the financial crisis may have a silver lining: the stumping and stymieing of both these projects.
"Do not build," suggests Meades. Instead -- over images of the folksy Footdee -- he suggests we should "bodge, make-do and mend." It's a theme that came up in Zak Kyes' recent lecture in Berlin, in which he reported receiving a text message from Archigram guru David Greene which simply said "declare a moratorium on building". Sure, but not before we've completed our digital shrine to Meades.
It was a great programme wasn't it? The section on Footdee reminded me a great deal of Severn Heaven, a piece (what does one call his programmes? Films, essays, performances?) he made in the eary 90s. It is particularly depressing just how few people have heard of JM. I work at the BBC and it's doubly depressing - so few of my contemporaries there seem to know who he is...
I always liked Meades' take on things, reminds me of my late father being urbane. The notion of a Ballardian roof over the vally and an excess of car parks ( a thing Ballard said was a sure sign of a deranged mind.) Is just too absurd . And a mere snip at 50 million. Dear dear me, me thinks Hieronymo is mad again. P.S. Eyeliner is spiffy.
Funny. I spent yesterday evening watching his Magnetic North series. Brilliant of course, it included the observation that 'Germany without potatoes would be much like a serially offending suicide bomber.'
It was wonderful stuff, providing his usual astringent corrective to lazy thought. Meades managed to do for "sustainability" what he did for "regeneration" in a previous documentary ("The Brandwagon"?). I'll never think of the word in the same way again. Its bandied around everywhere, as if simply mentioning it in connection with whichever project that is under discussion will somehow save the planet, save the economy, or simply make us all better - more moral - people.