JONATHAN MEADES
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Museum Without Walls coverStrategy Safari (2003)

Woolwich is in London though not of London. It is patently displaced. The old notion that it is a Midlands garrison 150 miles too far south is appealing. But it might, equally, have intruded from the north Kent shore. It has the toughness and precipitous grimness of the Medway towns. That provenance is sustained by North Woolwich, a ferry ride away on the other side of the Thames: till just over a century ago it actually belonged to Kent. North Woolwich today is estuarial Essex on day release Up The Smoke.

The vertical horizon of Canary Wharf doesn’t reduce this illusion. This place is marginal, so marginal it’s off the page. The two most notable Victorian buildings, St Mark’s, Silvertown, and the Gallions Hotel are separated by a mere 20 years yet belong, stylistically, to different worlds. What they have in common now is that they are closed, wired off, heavy with security companies’ warnings. There are by-law streets of two-up two-downs, a sugar refinery towering over them, deserts of waste ground, burly weeds and sagging buddleia, big sheds, unreconstructed caffs, disused rail tracks, swarf alps, piled-up Portakabins.

Yet the dereliction is far from comprehensive. The flat landscape is constellated by pockets of gleaming newness: an immense pseudo-moderne cliff of white apartments beside the Thames Barrier; marinas in the former dock basins; countless exercises in ‘accessible’ synthetic modernism; the douce cylindrical buildings of the University of East London.

The message is clear. This is rich brownfield pasture where Regeneration’s Fresh Green Shoots can flourish: not only green but every other modish colour too. Like the Isle of Dogs in the Eighties it is an exhortation to entrepreneurship untrammelled by the obligations of infrastructure. It’s a kind of Klondike.

It must put a song in the heart of businesspeople heading for City Airport whose single runway occupies an isthmus between two former docks. And as they are lifted high above it all they must look down and muse on the endless opportunities it offers. Well, they should muse thus. A Scottish exec seated beside me a couple of years back summoned the stewardess five minutes into a Glasgow flight and complained that: ‘I appear not to have my in-flight magazine.’ This was worthy of H.M. Bateman. It also marked him down as a loser. I wonder what bleak, blanketed doorway he occupies today, that businessman who, suicidally, travelled without a laptop, without a spreadsheet, without a self-improvement book.

City Airport can hardly be described as charming. But its diminutive scale makes it much easier to negotiate than such virtual cities as Heathrow or Schiphol. It feels provincial. And despite the thorough mediocrity of its buildings, it enjoys other advantages. This is the airport for anyone who is offended by the sartorial infantilism of Vacationing Britbloke - you know, drawstring trousers that reach mid-calf, shiny polysomething soccer shirt, swollen trainers. Such clothes are notable by their merciful rarity at City Airport, where the uniform is suits for both sexes. Their mobile is grafted to their collar. They bring up new windows on their parlously perched laptop and speak into the phone, then repeat what they’ve said, then repeat it again with messianic emphasis. One recognises their words as English. Here a preposition, there an adjective, everywhere a plentiful supply of more or less familiar nouns. But there’s evidently been a run on verbs, they’re just about out of stock and when they are employed it’s with a disregard for the distinction between transitive and intransitive.

Further, the language has been subjected to a Germanic make-over. Not in sentence construction (which is in this context a hopelessly vague concept) but in the welter of portmanteau words. I observe this not in a spirit of proscription - the one thing we can be certain of about usage is that it is perennially mutable - but with reportorial wonder. How do people learn to speak thus? And are they monoglot? Can they understand the language that I speak and write?

A suit can browse at City as at any other small airport. Scent, drink, tobacco, shoes, ties, scarves, etc. But the shop called World News does not conform to the airport norm. Sure there is the usual array of papers, magazines, trashy bestsellers. However this is a shop that knows its customers. Its (very) sub-literary specialisation comprises shelf upon shelf of business books. I have to admit that this is a genre that was alien to me. No longer. I spent an afternoon leafing through Winning the Merger Endgame, The Performance Prism, A Genie’s Wisdom: a Fable of How a CEO Learned to Be a Marketing Genius, Corporate Longitude, Strategy Safari, Venture Catalyst.

I previously had no idea that within every suit there is a victim of New Age drivel, a sort of post-hippy dreaming of achieving untold wealth by adherence to this or that meaningless mantra. Business books are written by evangelical illiterates to convert the ambitiously gullible. Taking a helicopter view of these books I’d say that they were as bogus as most religious tracts, as full of empty promises, and as immodest: my way is the true way.


An extract from
FRAGMENTS OF AN ARBITRARY ENCYCLOPAEDIA
(MEADES IN FRANCE, PART 1, 2012)


STRIP ALONG BOTTOM OF SCREEN AT START OF SHOW:
No check tablecloths, no ‘Gallic’ shrugs, no strings of onions, no art of living in Provence, no dream homes, no boules, no ooh la la, no accordions, no Dordoink, no cricketing expats, no Piaf, no black polo-necks, no gnarled peasants, no picturesque bastides, no street markets, no vive la difference.
EXCEPT WHEN SPECIFIED THE ONSCREEN WRITTEN TITLES – LIKE CHAPTER HEADINGS – AT THE START OF EACH SECTION ARE IN ROGER EXCOFFON’S FONTS: BANCO, CALYPSO, CHOC, MISTRAL, ETC. SOMETIMES THESE TITLES ARE CENTRE SCREEN; SOMETIMES THEY EXPAND OR CONTRACT; SOMETIMES IN CORNER; SOMETIMES THEY REMAIN ON SCREEN, OTHER TIMES THEY DISAPPEAR. ALWAYS BRIGHTLY COLOURED, ALMOST DAY-GLO.
TITLE: VALISE

DAY. BRICK OR STONE WALL – MUST BE TEXTURED, ROUGH.
V/O, ECHOIC, AS THOUGH UNDER WATER, UNEARTHLY, NOT ENTIRELY CLEAR):

She told me this without rancour: it was merely what had happened to her. She hoped to die French. She did.
HOLD WALL – JUMP TO JM IN SHOT
Every man has two countries, his own and France. This is habitually misattributed to Thomas Jefferson. In fact it is a line put into the mouth of Charlemagne in a late nineteenth-century play by Henri de Bornier – who was French. So it’s a predictably chauvinistic boast, and not to be taken seriously...
Save that in my case it’s true. It became true. I frequently visited France as a child: Breton beach holidays, cheap hotels, roast horse, weird sojourns with my grandfather’s elderly business friends, supposedly scholastic exchanges in dusty provincial towns. I was forever hauling a huge suitcase. Une valise vaste.
DAY FOR NIGHT/LIGHT RAPIDLY CHANGES TO NIGHT. FILM PROJECTED ON TO FACE, BODY AND WALL. IMAGES CONTORTED BY CLOTHES AND ROUGH WALL.
LOOP: SLO-MO ALGERIA, OAS, FLN. ATROCITIES. METRO CHARONNE. HEADLINES. OCTOBER 17 BODIES IN SEINE. PAPON. EXPLOSIONS. GENERATORS WITH EXPOSED WIRES [LOOP TO USE THROUGHOUT IN DIFFERENT SIZES]
Then came 1962. That really was the year of la valise, the year France became my second country.
I was fifteen. Early in April, early one evening, between dog and wolf . . .
SUBTITLE: ENTRE CHIEN ET LOUP = LATE DUSK, WHEN A DOG AND A WOLF ARE SUPPOSEDLY INDISTINGUISHABLE
. . . I got on a ferry at Dover – and got off in a war zone.
It was the shameful thrill, of war’s omnipresence and its fearful randomness, that made France my second country. On paper the war was over. The Evian accords had been signed a fortnight previously. Algeria had got its independence. For the OAS the war was not over. The armed faction of the millions of French citizens who were betrayed at Evian continued to plant bombs and attempt assassinations.
TITLE: VALLIN, EUGÈNE (1856-1922) (ART NOUVEAU LETTERING)
NANCY, ART NOUVEAU BUILDINGS – RUE FELIX FAURÉ, NANCY

In the earliest years of the twentieth century the furniture maker Eugene Vallin made his first tentative steps in architecture. Nancy was a celebrated crafts centre: glassware, marquetry, cabinet making, ceramics, metal work. Nancy’s art nouveau was not really that new: much of it was revivalism of the rococo and the baroque: art nouveau mostly occurs in places touched by the baroque. It was covert revivalism. These artists heeded Montaigne’s counsel to the plagiarist:
HORSE WITH, PROGRESSIVELY, DAY-GLO LIME-GREEN TAIL, THEN DAY-GLO PINK MANE, THEN DARK GLASSES AND WHITE STICK. WHINNIES OF PAIN
‘Behave like a horse thief: dye the tail and the mane and sometimes put out the creature’s eyes’ – i.e. cover your tracks.
30 RUE SERGEANT BLANDIN
For all its whimsy, art nouveau was political. The strain that developed in Nancy was in deliberate opposition to Strasbourg, then a German city whose recent buildings were in the German jugendstil. Nancy defined itself with its own version of art nouveau just as many small countries and aspirantly autonomous regions and city states did: Riga, Catalonia, Liguria. The Nancy School took as its model the English arts and crafts movement.
INTERIOR. EXCELSIOR BRASSERIE NEAR STATION
Unlike the arts and crafts it was not opposed to industrial processes – but it shared the conviction that a well-turned door handle would make the world a better place: so it was the profusion of its enamel and the excellence of its stained glass that prevented the First World War and the bloodbath at Verdun. Needless to say it was the preferred style of the caviar left.
SUBTITLE: LA GAUCHE CAVIAR = CHAMPAGNE SOCIALISM


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