Daniel Janes

An A-Z of Jonathan Meades

Pedro & Ricky Come Again: Selected Writing 1988-2020
, Jonathan Meades, Unbound, 2021, pp.983, £30.00 (hardback)

A-Z. In this tumour-sized collection of essays, reviews, speeches, prefaces, obituaries, adapted documentary scripts, self-interviews, jeux d’esprit, trifles and stray observations, two pieces have an A-Z format. This is typical Meades. He is rangy, compendious, engorged with the stuff of life, but believes, as he says of the strict design limits of the Laguiole knife, that ‘constraints are a trigger of imaginative ingenuity’. They are a spur. The collection itself is arranged alphabetically: Art and Artists, Buildings, Cities, Concrete, Death, England, Faith, Fads and Fashions… If it ain’t broke: Meades’s digressive memoir, An Encyclopaedia of Myself, used the same trick. Meades contains multitudes.

Brutalism. One of these A-Zs is about English food; the other is about brutalism. Concrete: Meades loves the stuff. Not as much, perhaps, as the brutophiliacs, with a sexual or near-sexual attraction to the hard stuff, who Meades says are constantly inviting him to their conventions; he is free of their perversely acquired lacerations. But they can count on his support: of Moshe Safdie’s thrillingly precarious Habitat 67 in Montreal; of the Owen Luder Partnership’s ill-fated centres, Tricorn in Portsmouth and Trident in Gateshead, both demolished, in his view heinously; of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseille, where he lives. This is a perfect fit between author and subject. Meades hates the saccharine, the mimsy. He does not seek to please. These buildings do not apologise: they inspire terror; they lord it over the Earth. The ethos they share is the same as Meades’s: ‘Sod you.’

Caravans. Welcome to Meades’s England. Not National Trust properties with souvenir tea towels; instead the forgotten, the forlorn. Shacks, prefabs, corrugated iron sheds. The jerry-built. He spurns decorum and bourgeois pieties: if you find him anywhere it will be at the end of the pier, scrawling some ribald verse in a Donald McGill postcard. Long before the Edgelands Industry turned into a bubble – it is to his eternal credit that the word ‘liminal’ never once graces this collection – Meades was in pursuit of the marginal, the terrains vagues. (A large part of his life has been spent on the road filming documentaries; it helps that he has had experience of the kind of hotels you stay in on BBC arts budgets.) His interest in caravans is exemplary. One of the most evocative pieces here is an address to the Caravan Club, where he discusses his 1997 film on the subject, Full Metal Carapace. They are liberating, cheerful, models of making-do; like many of his hobby-horses, they are maligned. As he says later on: ‘Utopia dons some unlikely guises, crops up in some odd places.’

Death. Death is omnipresent in Meades’s work. In Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball, the protagonist Anna is asked what she thinks about. Her answer: ‘Mozart, sex and death.’ Meades’s could be ‘brutalism, sex and death’. (Not Mozart, though: he’s a Beethoven man.) There are moving reflections here on the deaths of his father, his mother, his aunt Ann, wife of his Uncle Wangle; a compilation of obituaries of those he has known and lost (he once compiled an inventory of departed friends and colleagues from his generation – the grim tally exceeded thirty); meditations on the hypocrisy of constipated puritanical cultures that make death taboo. Reading this collection, I had my own morbid thought: that it is so comprehensive a statement of his opinions, it would provide an ample dataset for a holographic resurrection – Robert Kardashian-style. Of course, he would shudder at the idea. He would prefer to be taxidermied.

Essex. Or should that be Essexes in the plural. He is not interested in what he calls Essex™: the TOWIE country of spillover London (Brentwood, Chigwell, Loughton, Buckhurst Hill), so often used to stand in for the whole. No, he bats for ‘unheard Essex’: ‘The estuaries and saltings, creeks and secret inlets, and their rackety marine life; the elisions between water, land and the vast sky.’ Then there is its oddball history, its anti-history, of social utopianism, documented by Meades in his freewheeling BBC documentary The Joy of Essex: the Salvation Army’s improving colony at Hadleigh Farm; brewer Frederick Charrington’s temperance community in the Blackwater Estuary; ‘Bata-ville’, the modernist workers’ village set up by Czech shoemaker Tomáš Baťa in 1930s Tilbury. Forget what you know about Essex: it’s all cobblers.

France. As Essex, so with France: Meades’s adoptive homeland. This is how Meades introduces his 2012 three-part series, Jonathan Meades on France: ‘No strings of onions. No “Dordoink”. No boules. No Piaf. No “ooh la la”. No Gallic shrugs. No street markets. No checked tablecloths.’ Again, the untypical, the secret, the – a favourite Meades word, this – ‘occluded’. Here are some of the topics to which he brings his point de vue étranger: the curious phenomenon of French cricket clubs; a Géant Casino hypermarket in Rodez, whose bewildering stock Meades exhaustively catalogues; Carcassonne’s vision of a fantasy Middle Ages; the ‘compositionally unsatisfying’ Versailles, which he calls ‘small in thought’ and ‘grandiloquent with nothing to say’. About France’s leaders, myths and delusions he is merciless, scornful of received opinion and taste. Tant pis. Just wait until you hear what he says about England’s.

Gastronomy. Is a fat man’s prose different from a thin man’s? My formative image of Meades is that of his late ’00s documentaries: slim and suited with tinted National Health spectacles; austere and Germanic with something of the automaton. I forget that many of these pieces were written by someone much wider. For nearly sixteen years, Meades was the Times’s restaurant critic. Fourteen years in, he had ballooned from 131⁄2 stone to 191⁄2 stone – only to lose seven stone in a year thanks to the counsel of Harley Street psychiatrist Jeffrey Fine. However heavy on the scales, Meades is a man of appetite: profane and Falstaffian, even if no longer ‘surfeit-swelled’. He skewers sacred cows until they’re as tender as Aubrac beef: gastroculture, with its vapid, impoverished lexicon (‘sourced’, ‘forage’, ‘artisanal’); the Eucharist (‘Christ’s body is the most commonly eaten meal in the world’); the British sausage (‘condoms packed with abattoir slurry’). Meades, with his penchant for the visceral, would not object to the more graphic labels Prince Hal applies to Falstaff: ‘that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness… that stuffed cloak bag of guts’. But he is not a ‘roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly’. Meades’s belly contains saucisson.

Hanseatic League. A loose confederation of northern European trading guilds, which emerged in the thirteenth century and dominated Baltic commerce for over three hundred years. Meades is in thrall to its civic might, its seafaring pragmatism which ‘made cities not war’. And what cities: Lübeck, Hamburg, Ghent, Riga, Tallinn… In his 2008 documentary Magnetic North – the script of which is adapted here into a forty-seven-page essay – Meades worked them into a wider thesis about how we deny our northernness and look to the Mediterranean instead: ‘Who’d eat cabbage when they could eat aubergine?’

Iconic. Martin Amis declared the war against cliché; Jonathan Meades is one of its bloodiest commanders. His own tanks are arrayed against journalese, the empty buzzwords favoured by arts PRs and the journalists who are PRs in disguise. Among the nouns: ‘culture’, ‘national treasure’, ‘tipping-point’. Among the adjectives: ‘edgy’, ‘diverse’, ‘sustainable’, ‘vibrant’. Among the verbs: ‘to grow’ ‘to impact’, ‘to source’. (‘Verbing weirds language,’ as the Calvin and Hobbes strip says.) Then there’s the greatest offender of them all: ‘iconic’. It encapsulates our age of incontinent hyperbole.

Jargon. This is jargon, which Meades is at pains to contrast with slang. Slang is alive, vital; jargon is dead, deadening. Slang is freewheeling invention; jargon is sterile banality. Slang is the lingo of the delinquent; jargon that of the forelock-tugger. Meades doesn’t just preach in favour of linguistic exuberance: he embodies it. He is an incorrigible stylist, baroque, even exhibitionist; extravagant, sesquipedalian digressions jostle with short, declarative, sometimes coarse provocations. He is a hoot. More than once, Meades alludes to the Victorian concept of ‘Go!’: their equivalent of gumption, of spunk. Meades has ‘Go!’ in… in… not ‘spades’, that would be too much of a cliché… Hell, scratch the ‘in’. Take two: his orifices are oozing ‘Go!’.

Kitsch. Nothing strikes fear into Meades like the idea of being ‘right-on’. He is an iconoclast: too bad the word ‘iconic’ is debased currency. He doesn’t just mean right-on politics; he means right-on taste. Good Taste is conventionalised, familiar; Betjeman’s ‘ghastly good taste’. Meades prefers Bad Taste. ‘Were the canons composed of works in Good Taste there would be no place for Ballard, Beethoven, Borowczyk, Bron, Buñuel, Burgess, Burra, Burroughs.’ At one point, he produces a list of items that express ‘the zip and Go! of bad taste’:

Cecil Beaton, of course, zoot suits, Dr Sir Leslie Colin Patterson, Googie drive-ins, the entire oeuvre of Martin Rowson and Steve Bell, public readings from Rabelais with enactments, Dick Emery, heavy drinking and knee-tremblers (the two generally exclusive of each other), the Tiger Balm Gardens, 1950s Cadillacs, hobble skirts, bad company, dodgy clubs, dodgy clubs in the afternoon, lions on gateposts, Derek and Clive, funfairs, Marty Feldman, footballers’ hairdos, Black Country accents, J. Mayer H., more dodgy clubs, the Rubettes, neon, two-tone anything, floating gin palaces, Springtime for Hitler, Mr Freedom, Chris Morris, Biggins, another coked- up politician nailed down in an S&M dungeon, Yamoussoukro’s basilica, Roy Wood, candy floss, Thom Mayne, zoomorphic topiary, royal weddings, leaving the bottom button of a waistcoat fawningly undone, misspelled tattoos, Ernest Trobridge’s houses in Kingsbury, hot lunches, Le Jardin des Supplices, Nicky Haslam…

Lists. Did I mention that Meades likes lists? Here are some other lists in this collection: his favourite cheeses; items meaninglessly described as ‘iconic’; false memories associated with 1967 Haight-Ashbury; the charge list drawn up by the detractors of High Victorian architecture; a personal canon of surrealists avant la lettre; treatments offered by the former hydrotherapy centre at Druskininkai on the Lithuanian-Byelorussian border; big retail sheds called ‘World Of’; the various commercial and governmental corruptions visited upon London; British foodstuffs named after place names but which are actually produced at an industrial estate in Corby.

Marty Feldman. The funniest man, in Meades’s opinion. And why not? A Meadesian comic if there ever was one: fiendish physicality, bulging eyes, a taste for mischief. The convergence of the joyful and the grotesque.

New Labour. Bien pensant luvvies with smiling good taste; the political arm of a language-mangling managerial caste; bankrupt peddlers of PFIs and quangos. Meades bestows Blair with merciless nicknames – Our Lord Toni, Bomber Blair, the Ceaucescu of Connaught Square – and deplores the bland monuments of his regime: ‘synthetic modern “luxury” apartments and consequent class clearances, vibrant dockside chain restaurants, pointless pedestrian bridges, loud public structures.’ New Labour are hardly the sole objects of his scorn: Meades is a scurrilous polemicist, derisive of power. Thatcher is Blair’s precursor in sanctioning corruption and misgovernment; David Cameron is ‘wretched’, ‘a poltroon’; Boris Johnson is ‘the Prime Shit’, ‘the People’s Primate’, ‘the back-end of Caligula’s horse’, who left a ‘faecal legacy’ as Mayor of London. Only John Major receives a surprising respite. In a strangely moving open letter, Meades praises his peculiar Englishness:

You will come to be seen as the last Prime Minister who had about him the Tommy spirit of the conscript army which won the war: there was something bolshie and obdurate about you and a sense of eccentricity suppressed – beneath your middle manager’s disguise there was a true son of the circus.

Offal. Of course Meades loves offal. His entire schtick is to look for the overlooked cuts; if they offend British sensibilities, all the better. (His ‘anti-cookbook’, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, contains four recipes for tripe.) More than that, ‘rubbing offal’ – a recurring phrase in this collection – is one of Meades’s favourite terms for sexual intercourse. Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf II was made up of fruit and vegetables; Meades’s would be made up of offal.

Pevsner, Nikolaus. The great architectural taxonomist, whose colossal county-by-county inventory, Buildings of England, opened the country’s eyes to architecture. One of Meades’s secular saints. In style – to say nothing of opinions – they are very different. Pevsner was drily scientific, revealing his (often caustic) opinions only when he let his guard down. Meades has no guard; he is Pevsner let loose. (See also: Nairn, Ian.)

Quotations. This is a repetitive collection. Meades’s most cherished dicta recur from essay to essay. Jean-François Revel’s observation that ‘there are no genres – there are only talents’ (p.62, p.377, p.634); Edgar Morin’s that ‘the kernel of every culture is gastronomic’ (pp.248-49, p.933); Comte de Buffon’s that ‘le style, c’est l’homme même’ (p.227, p. 925). There is self-quotation too: that timid 1760s terraces are considered inviolable while superior 1960s buildings are not (p.89, p.124); that fish and chips is of Sephardic origin (pp.203-204, p.247); that Christ hasn’t returned to Earth because he knows his devotees will eat him (p.202, p.234). But so what? We all have our repertoires, our mental commonplace books; better Meades’s than most. This is a repetitive collection.

Rabelais, François. Rabelais is not the foremost of Meades’s literary tutors. He’s not even the most obvious beginning with ‘R’: that would be Alain Robbe-Grillet, who Meades praises for his evocation of dreams, nightmares and moods. But Rabelais feels more apt. Meades is a bawd. He celebrates scatology and squalor, gleefully spraying effluent from his hose: see his priapic novel 1993 Pompey, a riot of cannibalism, crotch-rot and colostomy bags. And like Meades, Rabelais loves a list: Gargantua’s catalogue of buttock-wiping methods is Meadesian avant la lettre.

Salisbury. Meades’s hometown. Officially a city, but really a market town. His Encyclopaedia of Myself is the best account of his upbringing. Its twin industries, he notes, were ‘God and war’. Both of these were thrust into the public eye in 2018. As Putin’s assassins reminded us, its cathedral has the tallest spire in Britain; as every conspiracy theorist has reminded us, it is only a few miles from Porton Down.

Totalitarianism. Specifically, the cultural imagination thereof: another of Meades’s hobby-horses. Subject of his quartet of films, Jerry Building, Joe Building, Ben Building and Franco Building. Albert Speer crops up a lot: ‘less an architect than a Busby Berkeley with a penchant for Black Mass.’ Meades condemns the fiction of ‘Dictator’s Architecture’, based on syllogistic logic: the stylistic idioms of twentieth-century tyrannies have little in common.

Unity by inclusion. Another fixture of Meades’s lexicon: the compositional method favoured by Edwardian church architect Ninian Comper. ‘Which means, I believe, ignore the classical unities, shove anything in, hope for the best, only connect and, if there’s sufficient energy, it’ll come off.’ It comes up five times in Pedro & Ricky. Sometimes it’s good, e.g. with reference to the ‘furious energy’ of Earthly Powers, Michael Burleigh’s history of religion and politics in modern Europe. Sometimes it’s bad, e.g. with reference to Tony Blair’s both/and policy platform, a ‘salad of mutually exclusive endeavours’. Pedro & Ricky is the former.

Vatican. Meades is a disdainer of dogma, of ‘irreason’, of ‘credulous irrationality’. Of all creeds, he gives Catholicism the roughest ride. He explains: ‘To be a sentient atheist you’ve got to have at least toyed with Catholicism. It’s the most potent – the Capstan Full Strength of Christianity.’

Wine. Not the blood of Christ.

Xenophilia. The kneejerk default of English gastronomy: a lack of confidence in our traditional cuisine; the myopic pursuit of the next national craze. An Encyclopaedia of Myself evokes the thrifty but varied cooking of Meades’s Wiltshire childhood, not all that dissimilar from the Mediterranean recipes collected by Elizabeth David. The forgotten richness of the English kitchen.

Yentob, Alan. In the late 1980s, Yentob – then the BBC’s Head of Music and Arts – gave Meades his start at the Corporation. Who today would take a punt on these profoundly idiosyncratic, teasing documentaries, full of visual gags, elaborate punning and surrealistic tableaux? Not the BBC, if Meades is anything to go by: he recently said BBC Four have stopped commissioning and that he’s giving up TV for good. In a piece on Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Meades recalls an era of televisual invention, populated by directors like Ken Russell and Mike Hodges and presences – ‘presenters’ is too banal – like John Betjeman and Ian Nairn. Now presenters nod in cutaways like bulldog ornaments and gesticulate in front of stately homes to announce the fact that they are there.

Zeitgeist. ‘Heaven help us, the zeitgeist.’ A buzzword beloved of arts administrators, copywriters, PRs, nodding dogs. Meades scorns fads. He will never be flavour of the month, and would never want to be: he’d rather eliminate the concept. He is sui generis, a law unto himself. We must celebrate him while we can.

Daniel Marc Janes is deputy editor of Review 31. He was previously arts editor of Litro. He has contributed to publications including 3:AM Magazine, the LA Review of Books and The London Magazine. His essay on Nicola Barker’s Wide Open appeared in Nicola Barker: Critical Essays (Gylphi Contemporary Writers). In 2020 he was selected as a London Library Emerging Writer.

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