Only the purified impetus of Meades can resurrect this otherwise moribund site.
It turns out that last-minute train ticketing optimisation decisions have their own repercussions. (More later).
With the afternoon off, I arrived in East Croydon, a staging post for Chichester. Having secured Private Eye and the New Yorker in the W H Smith, I was dully lingering by the newspapers, accidentally in front of the ‘i’ pile.
“There’s too much news”, a man informed me. “That one” – indicating ‘i’ – “just has the best bits. Try it.”
Pleasing though it was to receive this advice, I confess I did not take it. Instead I bought my ticket to Chichester, thinking well Oyster, zones, travelcard, yes it will all be fine. The machine appeared to be offering the same ticket for two different prices, so I thought I’d play a trick on it and choose the cheaper one. Take that, Invisible Hand.
Strange aspects of journeys in this region to my urban mind include trains that undergo mitosis, and lots of level crossings, which indicate bad planning.
The man at the Pallant House ticket office was very jolly, this extending to the loan of a special token, because I was such a metropolitan elitist that I lacked even a single coin for the lockers. It seems to be a place where people are keener than normal to discuss why they are there, and the gallery itself. Someone said that the modern extension to the original building had been very controversial in its time, largely treasured though it now is. The man in question lamented that the
“limited art syllabus in schools leads to a conservatism towards modern architecture”
that is very unfortunate. Later, in the central permanent collection gallery, a woman was prompted by the sight of a Peter Blake to complain that he had “airbrushed Jann Howarth out of history” and claimed all the credit for himself.
Sidney Nolan wasn’t particularly known to me. The best pieces were some of the Ned Kelly-related ones,
a couple of small ones painted on glass, and landscapes:
It was noteworthy that he seemingly felt the need to move to the UK to achieve greater prominence, which I doubt would be the case now. Later on I heard that some people had come specially for him, whereas Pasmore was the priority for me.
To me Pasmore is associated with his designs for Peterlee, and footage I remember of his engaging with the residents who were complaining about them. The show emphasises the series of stylistic changes from figuration to abstraction in his career, described by one critic as the most important in post-war British art, which are indeed quite startling, particularly if you go back to the beginning. In the first room, two women were discussing the patronage of Kenneth Clark that Pasmore enjoyed, and one of them was trying to remember the name of his infamous son. I was able to supply the name of Alan Clark, and she laughed at the way she had whispered her own description of the man whose name she couldn’t remember as a “womaniser”. There is something very satisfying about witnessing the playing out of these changing obsessions, the landscapes becoming more rarefied, the colour blocks, the spirals, the reliefs. Each stage in his evolution has at least one outstanding exemplar. A happy surprise to learn that he created a mural for the Renold building, an icon of childhood train journeys and later University-related visits. Very cleverly, the gallery has scheduled a small show of British Constructivist art from the Catherine Petitgas collection, to coincide with the Pasmore, including some scintillating pieces.
On top of these, there was a lovely single-room display of woodcut prints, including my favourites Albrecht Dürer,
plus Rebecca Salter and Vanessa Bell, both of whose work I’ve seen recently.
Very much worth the long and puzzling journey. As for the return, was needed to be timed for an event at RIBA, it was initially plagued by “signalling problems”, which led to train cancellations. While I waited on the station forecourt, several groups of what looked like wedding guests were gathering, including some lecking men who took turns to make expeditions into the station, returning for approbation and fist-related celebrations. While it was a bonanza for the man with his kiosk on the platform, the staff were dealing well with puzzled out-of-towners like me. Each time the train indicators changed (which was every few minutes), showing a “correction” notice, a strange sound was emitted, and the persisted in holding out hope for trains that hadn’t actually been cancelled, but whose appearance was very unlikely. Owing to my curious decision earlier, I had to buy an extra ticket to cover the escape from East Croydon to the warm embrace of Victoria. I think this was quite an obscure ticket, judging by the length of time it took the On Board Staff man to find it on his device.
With all the extra delays, I missed the first half of the On The Brandwagon screening at the Here Lies Jonathan Meades – Regeneration event. In the programme he dissects the Bilbao Effect, and its attempted implementation in places like Manchester, during the early New Labour period, lamenting the groupthink and the missing ambition. Hatherley asked Meades what he thought might be remembered well from the period. He replied that:
“It’s hard to tell what will endure, and when it does it’s never down to building quality”.
Meades lamented that the work of Rodney Gordon, Owen Luder and Claude Parent had nearly all disappeared, while an uncodified hierarchy of preservation meant that it was much harder to get rid of a dreadful church than a beautiful warehouse. The overall effect of urban regeneration in the ten years after 1997 was to produce “Modernism without meaning” and buildings that became “instantly unfashionable”. Part of the reason for this lay in the strangely plagiaristic approach of many architects, who ape each other in just the way that (for example) writers don’t. He referred to Adrian Tempany, who has written in his book about football, that there was a sense of shame about British cities in the Eighties, as compared with other European cities, with their San Siros and Nou Camps.
Audience members asked about London in the Sixties and Meades said that he enjoyed the messiness he found when he first visited then, and that
“Swinging London was completely atypical”
while more generally “tidiness kills cities”. This led on to the problems in regional cities, which used to be proud of their distinctiveness, whereas now they are subject to a relentless homogenisation.
In the programme he had a great time with litanies of newspeak
“Cultural springboard into the regional sector”
that he said he largely made up, though Hatherley claimed that he’d actually encountered
“Housing market renewal partnership”.
Further on language, he decried the vapidity of Executive language, which is
“(the) Language of the sycophant and the flunkey, used in hope of promotion”
and compared that unfavourably with Jonathan Green who celebrates the “slang poetry of the gutter”.
Asked again whether any of the regeneration projects could be considered successful, he thought that Bristol maybe performed better than the rest, owing to its peculiar topography, and that it effected regeneration without social clearance. On the latter point the “Class clearances” in cities were cited, and the terrible “decanting of the poor”. These social divisions “follow building patterns”, leading to social atomization and an almost total lack of “mixity”. A government with any spine should compulsorily purchase the thousands of unused buildings in cities like London.
Someone asked about a skit on the Village People’s YMCA, reworked as “INLA”, and the fact that on a programme scheduled in September 2001 this was fatuously censored by the BBC. A woman from Bilbao said that she wasn’t sure whether she supported him or hated him, because she claimed that contrary to his thesis, there had been genuine improvements since the arrival of the Guggenheim. He thought that those improvements would have happened anyway, and that the idea of the eponymous effect was a “faith without foundation”, the same as “dripdown, which we know doesn’t work”.
During these questions I was slightly mesmerised by my view of the on-stage monitors and the flashing red digits indicating that they were running over time, according to the schedule. The second screening of the evening was “Get High: the perilous attractions of vertigo” from 1994, a programme that he said
“addresses no weighty matters at all”.
He noted that he only suffers from it in buildings, not in nature, and that his hopes of the condition being cured by making the programme were not fulfilled.
Considering fairgrounds in the programme, he referred to the workers as “tattooed clerics of pain”. An inflatable Meades suffered on his behalf. Cablecars were described as unusual in being “both structures and modes of transport”. The mania for lifts in office buildings provided “workplace intoxication” and the “introduction of irreason” into the day. Footage of Canary Wharf was gilded by the theme from Where Eagles Dare, rather pleasingly.
An evening that more than justified the angst of trying to rush back from Chichester.
We shall return to the concept of “irreason” in part 2, which will also cover Field Day, Aphex Twin and more Meades.