Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Jonathan Meades: Off Kilter in the Outer Hebrides

Jonathan Meades has been a favourite commentator of mine for some years. Despite his predilection for the tackling of esoteric and often unfamiliar subject matter, a combination of insightful criticism and beautiful cinematography make his television programmes a joy to watch. It was a delight to see the great man bring his rose-tinted spectacles and considerable vocabulary to bear on a subject close to my own heart in a programme entitled 'Off Kilter'

He started with a irreproachable but cutting demolition of all the twee and sentimental things that are commonly held to represent Scottishness: tartan and bagpipes; tribal patriotism; the roots racket with its attendant glorification of the 'good old days' of poverty, overcrowding and feudalism. The latter portion of his programme was spent on the Long Isle of Lewis and Harris where he was captivated by the elemental beauty of the landscape and was, I think, at his Meadsian best when describing its built environment.

 The Butt View Stores, so called because its position on the west coast of Lewis affords it a fine view of the equally amusingly named Butt of Lewis

Partly for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Meades, but mostly to satisfy my own curiosity, I have transcribed a passage below. Rendering his uniquely verbose rhetoric presented an amusing educational opportunity, liberally spattered as it was with words that I had not yet ushered into my own vocabulary. In some instances I had to make repeated attempts to convert an unfamiliar sound into aprocession of letter interpretable by Google. Rather than smugly parade my newfound knowledge I have elected to come clean about my recent ignorance by providing below the definitions I was forced to look up in the course of the transcription.

'This is perhaps the only place in the world whose townships and villagescapes, urbanism and landscapes, are wholly infected by the Calvinist mentality; that is by a blindness to prettification, by an aesthetic bereavement so absolute that it is a sort of insouciant anti-aesthetic. In a way the everyday buildings are the very contrary of Mathieson's (Stornoway Castle). They suggest that to complete with this most magnificent terrain would be both hubristic and certain failure, so they simply didn't bother to compete. The unsurpassible strangeness of the island resides in the chasmic gulf between the naturally evolved and the negligently created, between scarp and scrap, between the sublime and the substandard........... The island shackscape is the apogee of the Northern Hebridean anti-aesthetic. Members of the National Trust and of kindred bastions of insipid taste will no doubt fail to acknowledge the beauty of what is here; these scapes are beautiful in the way that a lupus is beautiful, or mould on fruit, or decaying meat or scar tissue, or amputations, or diseases of the skin, or anatomical freaks.'

insouciant – marked by blithe unconcern, nonchalant
apogee - highest point, culmination
lupus - any of several forms of ulcerative skin disease

This was one of very few gems that make paying for a TV license worthwhile. Why oh why was the first episode withdrawn prematurely from the iplayer before I was able to fertilise my mind with what was surely another rare counterstrike against the dumbed down populist drivel that makes up the majority of the contemporary televisual output?

The third and final part of 'Off Kilter' is broadcast on BBC4 tomorrow (Wednesday).

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Blogger Toby said...

Damn I missed that program, would have liked to have seen it.

Co-dhiu, it sounds all too fussy for a Leodhasach like me :o)

9 February 2010 at 20:55  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

It's still on iplayer. Even better, episode 1 is on youtube

9 February 2010 at 21:54  
Anonymous Donald said...

A colleague of mine saw this and most Leòdhasachs I know were a bit insulted by the London-centric small toan attitude.

9 February 2010 at 22:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Certainly thought provoking. Much of what he says is true. I particularly liked the visual gag with the tree branch. Though I did stuggle a bit with an Englishman referring to William Wallace as 'murderous', a rather dismissive and unfair description.

I'm only halfway through though, I'll finish watching tonight. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

10 February 2010 at 12:04  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

Did you watch it yourself Donald? I think that the quality of his observation is such that he always stops short of insult.

He made some observations on Gaelic. He was positive about the language and about its promotion while taking a playful swipe at those who co-ordinate such promotion from afar.

10 February 2010 at 21:32  
Blogger Stephen said...

I actually enjoyed his description of The Wallace as a 'murderous medieval terrorist' :)

The fact that our country (Scotland) was at one point championed by such an outlaw in the face of a powerful neighbour intent on controlling our affairs, allows me to empathise with other demonised groups, like the Taliban in Afghanistan.

As a nation I think we have a very unique history that defines how we view the world; such a shame we aren't permitted to interact in foreign affairs like a normal country - I think we'd have a very valuable contribution to make.

10 February 2010 at 21:36  
Anonymous Craig W said...

You can watch it (and other episodes) on Youtube.

No need for a TV license :)

12 February 2010 at 14:07  

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