An Encyclopedia of Myself, by Jonathan Meades, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99, 352 pages
Despite the ego trip implied by the title, quite who Jonathan Meades is, and what he is really about, are not issues that are going to be addressed in these pages – not directly. Readers expecting the fundamental facts and figures of a conventional autobiography will be frustrated, because Meades doesn’t want to be observed. But this ought to have been anticipated. In his mannered television documentaries, he is famous for always wearing dark glasses.
Meades likes to be thought of as laconic and lugubrious. Throughout An Encyclopaedia of Myself, he never expresses praise or pleasure, let alone warmth. He is drawn to the dank and the dour and he cultivates being unsmiling. He grew up in Salisbury. Where others might want to describe the cathedral or the nice countryside, Meades sees only “grey wood smoke, black skeletal trees, brown hillocks”. He remembers the women for their “fat bottoms, bloated bosoms”, and OAPs for their particular smells “as they relinquished life”.
It would be easy to dismiss Rada-trained Meades as an affected misery-guts, or as a telly personality trying to acquire literary status. His vocabulary, for example, bristles with the arcane: a hot stew is a “buccal inferno”. But if this book is thought of less as a memoir than as a symphonic poem about postwar England and Englishness – well, then it is a masterpiece.
In his excellent architectural documentaries, Meades is a sort of apocalyptic John Betjeman, and the descriptions here rank with the late poet laureate’s eye for detail and nose for nostalgia: the glass-fronted compartments in village stores displaying cotton-reels, decorative combs, Izal lavatory paper and fruit gums, or the image of his mother simmering “pressed beef tongue” in the scullery, while outside is “a world of horse trams, coal gas and hurdy-gurdies”.
Meades’ “stroll down False Memory Lane at dusk” could be an updating of Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells, his verse autobiography. Like Betjeman, Meades was an unhappy only child. His parents are ghostly presences. When they die, all he says is, “I picked through tins of broken pens and perished erasers” in the drawers of the family home he was about to sell.
He’d always been sent to stay with relatives during the school holidays, because “most likely they didn’t want me around”. (Who can blame them? Meades would have made Maria von Trapp depressed.) Evesham, where he was despatched, was unwelcoming, too. His uncle was a miser for whom “a half-raw potato half-baked in the embers of a campfire was a peerless treat”.
Cold-heartedness is something of a theme. Of a neighbouring child who drowns: “There was little sympathy for his negligent parents who had left him in the garden.” Meades recalls being physically assaulted by a teacher, who caned him “till my bottom bled”. This left him with an abiding hatred of men who wear bow ties, “the badge of the sadistic bastard and the fraud”.
Meades met a lot of the latter. Salisbury was awash with freakish “brass-button-blazered” ex-officers, still styling themselves major-this or captain-that, men who were adjusting uneasily to peace time and who dealt in second-hand cars or (like Meades’ father) worked as biscuit salesmen.
The cold war, we are told, “was Salisbury’s defining industry and its true faith”. Everything was hush-hush and camouflaged, with sentry posts and “red flags flying to warn of deafening gunnery practice on the ranges”. Meades particularly liked hearing about Porton Down, the chemical defence experimental establishment where scientists “monitored marmosets on atropine, observed rats breathing kerosene fumes and pigs hooked to ethanol drips”.
Those who recall the author’s stint as a restaurant critic will be amused to discover that the most exciting gastronomic experience in his life was his first taste of Golden Wonder cheese and onion crisps, a snack which “by the end of the sixties had become market leader”. Unless Meades is kidding? Like Betjeman, he deflects the arrows of attention with bleak jokes.
Roger Lewis is author of ‘What Am I Still Doing Here?’ (Coronet)