Thursday, 16 April 2020

On Jonathan Meades

Here is a 2014 review I wrote on spec and (for some reason) never got around to submitting. 

Looking at it today I feel I was a bit hard on Meades, who is a writer and commentator I have always admired and still do. I think I must have been more annoyed by the opening essay in the collection than I realised at the time. Picking up the book again yesterday and landing randomly on various essays I was immediately gripped. Sometimes he's not just a great writer or even a good writer but the right writer.

Jonathan Meades


Fourth Estate

‘The title is grossly inaccurate,' the author assures us. 'The book is, rather, a portrait of a disappeared provincial England, a time and place unpeeled with gruesome relish.’

Gruesome relish has been a Meades trademark since Filthy English (2003), a spectacularly nasty collection of short stories featuring no end of squalid transgressions - incest, addiction, zoophilia, murder, the lot. But for earlier evidence of this guignol tendency we have to go back to 1979, and this little-known debut publication:

This is Their Life - An Insight into the Unseen Lives of Your Favourite T.V. Personalities "including details of their hobbies, habits, and home lives". Sharing the bright red and orange cover are Max Boyce, Leonard Rossiter, Benny Hill, Noel Gordon, Yootha Joyce and the comedy impersonator Mike Yarwood, who provides the foreword. Not simply a hack's cut and paste job, the volume anticipates to a quite terrifying degree the inanity of today's gormless celebrity culture.

If a sequel were commissioned today would Meades's mugshot be on the jacket, alongside (say) Jeremy Clarkson, Sandi Toksvig, Piers Morgan and the stars of Eastenders? Unlikely, because while he is  now an established broadcaster, and even a distinguished one, he's never been a prime-time family favourite, never a crowd-pleaser. Surrounded by anodyne telly peers who are personalities, Meades has a personality: he's too bright, too trenchant, too much his own man. But the tellyman Meades, the bastard offspring of Ian Nairn and Anthony Burgess, in Ray-bans, baggy black suit and moth-eaten pompadour, chronically loquacious, is an artful performative construct which we should be wary of mistaking for the real thing, 

An Encyclopaedia of Myself is, I think, his twelfth book and ostensibly a memoir of a 1950s childhood in Salisbury and the form - essays arranged alphabetically and deranged chronologically  - suits Meades's strengths as a writer: short (or shortish) riffs with an autobiographical theme, many of them both candid and moving. The first entry can stand for the rest. Under the heading ABUSER, SEXUAL, the author confesses to, and appears to lament the absence of, any personal history of childhood abuse.

Paedophilia is, he says, a misnomer (as it means simply 'love of children') but he surprisingly doesn't go the distance and offer 'paedomania' as the proper term for the sexual abuse of minors. It may be too late in the day for such humdrum lexical pedantry (although Meades is the lexical pedant's lexical pedant) and he has other words up his sleeve. Within the first ten pages of this first entry we get gingivitic, naugahyde, mnemonic (twice), endogamy and albinism (the congenital disorder also known as achromia, achromasia or achromatosis, terms which one imagines Meades omitted only after much soul-searching).

Admirers of Meades' prose (and I hasten to include myself in their number) will be as happy as pigs in clover, although others may feel there's a stink of the lamp. Vocabulary aside, his argument is that lacking any experience of childhood abuse, he has no commercially-exploitable trauma to proffer his readers; that, further, genuine victims of such abuse are (a) complicit in their victimhood and (b) at a commercial advantage in the marketplace for miserabilist memoirs. He then, in a haphazard series of digressions and circumlocutions, manages to alienate the few readers left in the room. I suppose he only does it to annoy because he knows it teases, but I found myself wishing to skip ahead to something less excruciating. 

What works best, in this entry and elsewhere, are those moments when he ditches the thesaurus and speaks clearly and plainly: 'There were children before there was childhood' is a promising opener but this leads into an airless and unfocussed monologue on the corruption of the innocent under industrial capitalism. The first paragraph soon collapses under its own weight when he deploys in rapid succession the words 'telluric' (a low frequency subterranean or subacquatic current) and 'anthropocene' (a term referring to human activities that have had a significant impact on the Earth's ecosystems) [which has been in greater circulation since Meades used it in 2014, and for obvious reasons - DC]. The author confidently attributes its coinage to the Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen. He's wrong. It was the late Eugene F. Stoermer. 

If I settle on this opening entry it's because it is entirely representative of this marvellous yet frustrating book as a whole - a mixture of show-off virtuoso prose, unreliable factoids and occasional moments of candour and insight.

If Meades can sometimes strike the non-fan as clever-clever (i.e. half-clever, not double clever, as Gilbert Adair neatly observed), he is nevertheless essential in our gormless age of tattooed celebrities, 'conscious uncoupling' and Top Gear because, for all the crushing hauteur, the connoisseurial sneer and the hectoring public manner, he is an outstanding writer on three important subjects - food, buildings and himself. 

As a Francophile gourmet Meades will know all about gavage, the French term for  the delivery of food by means of a tube passed through the nose or mouth into the stomach, be it of suffragette or farmyard fowl. In the case of Périgord geese, gavage is performed between two and five times a day for anything between two and five weeks, depending on the size of the bird. A funnel attached to a thin tube is employed to force an enriched grain mash containing fats and vitamin supplements directly into the bird's crop. It's an unattractive practice but the results are sublime - the grotesquely distended and fatty liver of the slaughtered animal is known to the world, and favoured by depraved trenchermen, as foie gras.

You can see where I'm heading with this, so I'll stop. 

A Meades sentence can feel lexically steroidal, pumped-up, glistening, fit to burst like a Walls' pork sausage, but in a culture dominated by Clarksons and Cowells he offers an essential corrective.

He now lives, enviably, in a real architectural masterpiece: le Corbusier's Cité radieuse in Marseilles, a serene proto-brutalist epic with rooftop nursery and pool, running track and views of the Mediterranean. Built as workers' housing but now the haunt of the affluent middle classes, its generously proportioned apartments offer the best views imaginable, and there's a gourmet restaurant called (with a nod to Peter Greenaway) The Belly of the Architect. It's known locally as La Maison du fada (Provençal for 'The Nutters' House) and construction began in 1947, the year Meades was born. I was once loitering outside this building when I saw perhaps the most attractive couple in all Europe leave pass through the entrance, wearing pastel leisure gear and carrying tennis rackets. They got into an immaculate bottle green Citroën DS and purred away. I fell into a mild trance of envy.

Cité radieuse

Meades has to date written two novels - Pompey and Fowler Family Business - both (to my mind) rather overwrought, in the gavage sense. If, like me, you find Meades hard going over a distance  then you will enjoy the fragments here gathered because Meades is at his dazzling best at short essay length event hough, at times, his prose can be so dense, so bludegoningly erudite, his tone so consistently de haut en bas that one struggles after a few pages to keep up - the surface dazzle doesn't have a purchase on the underlying - often very simple - thesis.

But I want to pull back from my wobbly position because this is what we expect from Meades, and what we genuinely admire - whether in front of the camera, exploring the built environment as heir to the great Ian Nairn or, in print, rogering the thesaurus, writing and re-writing the world The author deploys a colossally rich and dense vocabulary, and can use it to drive home propositions which, on dazed reflection, are perfectly unexceptionable under the blare and dazzle of his prose. We admire the barnstorming erudition, the carnival barker's resistance to empirical fact, the unabashed bilious intelligence and engagement with the subject. As Henry James said, we value as qualities in our favourite writers and friends what others will tend to regard as flaws.

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