Book Review: Museum Without Walls by Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades – who gave an exclusive interview to The Dabbler earlier this year – has a new book out via Unbound – here, Jonathan Green reviews it…

The gathering together of US farming families for the purpose of rolling newly cut logs, so heavy that a single family could not achieve the feat, has presumably vanished. The noun log-rolling, first defined as the ‘combination for mutual assistance in political or other action’, and attributed to the proverb ‘you roll my log and I’ll roll yours’, emerged around 1820 and remains available. It would appear that it is, under a variety of euphemistic or obfuscatory synonyms, among the foundations of modern democracy. There is another meaning and the OED keeps it short if not sweet: ‘mutual puffing in literary publications.’ Puffing, in case there are those who have missed it, is ‘the giving of extravagant or unwarranted praise or commendation.’  As for literary publications, they are in ever shorter supply, and we must take refuge where we may.

When young one admires those who, better versed, better knowledgeable, above all better articulate, put into words what you can only, and because one is young, inchoately think. Thus my sole hero remains Lenny Bruce who had, so it seems to me, the ability to place in context the entire universe. The dicta that I heard from Bruce at age fifteen remain the principles by which I assess the world, even if, to my frustration, I may not always manage to use them in the way I conduct my life within it. Bruce also has the qualification that permits his heroic status: he is dead.

At last encounter Jonathan Meades was far from dead. This encounter was in the flesh because we are old friends, and, since what follows concerns his latest book, Museum Without Walls, published by the crowd-sourced Unbound, I had better use the term log-rolling before anyone else takes the opportunity. He has reviewed me, fulsomely (though not invariably so); this is not a quid pro quo – I have little doubt that he needs my encomium far less than do I his – but one must declare one’s interest and that is mine.

It is not unalloyed admiration. The world who watch TV see Mr Meades in suits, and maybe wonder, before passing to the enjoyment of his scripts, if he pays his tailor. I have seen Mr Meades in a stained purple track suit. It was not a pretty sight and had I grandchildren I could undoubtedly use the photos to frighten them into good behaviour. Fortunately it was a short-lived one. But let it never be said that my adulation is unmediated by the cold light of truth.

It has been said that in his TV series, Mr Meades is the BBC’s great excuse: the get-out clause that permits the corporation’s foisting upon an all-too-eager public the endless varieties of an otherwise unremitting flood of dross. An intellectual who can be exhibited to critics as the antithesis of ‘reality TV’. (And am I alone in finding it amusing that the UK’s founder of such circuses was a direct descendant of the man who built London’s sewers?)  This  may be true at B.H., but not elsewhere. For what Mr Meades offers both on TV and in print, is a far more ‘real’ picture of the world than the caperings of what he terms ‘the cretinocracy’. Like Bruce, and other, older satirists, he has the ability to state with eviscerative  clarity what most of us merely struggle to think. He has been compared to Rabelais, but other than in his love of words I am not sure. A parallel evocation of Swift seems spot-on.

Museum Without Walls is a collection of ‘lectures, essays  polemics, squibs and telly scripts’ and since, as he notes, ‘the product of an obsessive preoccupation with places […] with their ingredients, with how and why they were made’, there is much of the same architectural discussion that runs through the TV series. But the pieces are equally concerned with other aspects of places: ‘their power over us, their capacities to illumine the societies that inhabit them and, above all, with the ideas that they foment’. Places, says Meades, represent ‘the greatest of free shows’ and that given, ‘everything is fantastical if you stare at it for long enough… there is no such thing as a boring place.’

If I happen to outlive him I shall allow him hero-worship; for now I shall merely applaud. Not least because, as we say down here chez slang, he don’t take no shit. He writes first and foremost for himself, because that is the single individual whose ‘peccadilloes and limitations’ he knows best; referencing, as ever, the French intellectual tradition, he notes the author Regis Jauffret who is ‘disgusted by writers who think of their readers’. As I say: he says what lesser mortals merely think.

If his is a ‘real’ world then its reality is reinforced by the rendering his opinions as statements of the obvious. There is undoubtedly a choir to whom he preaches; whether he also gains converts, I cannot say. He does not, other than rhetorically, argue. He has no time for sensibilities, especially those represented by the delusions and superstitions of true belief whether secular or spiritual. He does not turn the other cheek, merely gives a well-deserved slap to the mealy-mouthed ignoramus who proffers it. He admits to hate; he admits to teaching it to himself. I imagine that he appreciates revenge.

Is there anything positive within what the smug and self-righteous of the Guardian’s CiF would shy from as an edifice of elitist disdain? Of course. As readers we benefit from Mr Meades’ intelligence and widely-ranging knowledge. He gives excellence – of all sorts – its due. Perhaps most important of all: he has wit. Yes, humour, but beyond that, the original definition: ‘The faculty of thinking and reasoning in general; mental capacity, understanding, intellect, reason.’ And while CiF may not understand, it is not mandatory to agree; one can still appreciate. With the material on display it is hard, perhaps impossible, not to think, to add in one’s own opinions, voiced or otherwise. Ideologies splinter, turn topsy-turvy, vanish. What matters is ‘creativity, resourcefulness, the impetus to make.’ The problem, implies Jonathan Meades, proving it in his every evocation of the true ‘reality’, is the creator.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Museum Without Walls by Jonathan Meades

  1. Worm
    August 23, 2012 at 10:19

    Blimey, two of my favourite things combined, Mr Slang and Jonathan Meades!! I have been after this book since I found out i’d missed the boat on crowd-funding it through Unbound. It’s still not out yet on amazon but you can pre-order it

    The best bit about Mr. Meades I think is the fact that in an hour long programme he fits in a stream of entirely new stuff all the way through – unlike most TV shows these days, that have one vaguely interesting bit and then spend the rest of the hour filling in and teasing you with the build up to the one interesting bit. Besides wishing to see more of J.Meades on the telly, I reckon he’d make a great controller of BBC4…

    August 23, 2012 at 11:25

    Undoubtedly a hero of our time, AJP Taylorish in his delivery, deadpan, deadly, ever at the jugular and importantly, adds poetic insight, shows us more reality than the rest of the BBC lumped together.

    Shame about the picture, looks a tad Jaggerish.

    Seventh heaven would be JM doing a series…on the BBC, would never happen, skeletons / cupboard.

    August 23, 2012 at 15:40

    It’s a terrific book. A lot of the familiar Meades themes are there (the similarities between the 1860s and 1960s, the ignorance of the countryside that lies behind the Picturesque movement, the deleterious effects of our love affair with the suburbs, the glories of shacks and bricolage, the fascination of terrain vague, the delusions of the religious, and so on). There are also some more tender (it’s all relative, mind) passages in which he writes about his boyhood – First Love, First Shack – and some winning appreciations of unregarded architects. Plus some scripts with the occasional censored bit left in. It can be annoying. But that’s the point. It’s assertive (in the sense that it asserts rather than argues). But that’s the point. I like the comparison with Swift. And the idea of Mr Meades in a stained purple tracksuit will haunt my nightmares.

      August 23, 2012 at 17:23

      I did advise JG that the information about the purple tracksuit should never become public knowledge, but he was adamant.

      I’ve just bought a copy, and suggest that all Dabblers do likewise.

        Hey Skipper
        August 23, 2012 at 21:16

        Since your recommendations are always literary gold, I’d be more than happy to.

        Except I’m betting it won’t be available in the colonies.

        Which, perplexingly, has happened more than once when attempting to get electronic versions of UK titles; as a travelin’ man, I loath hauling dead trees all over the place.

          August 23, 2012 at 21:44

          I suppose it’s down to the prohibitive costs of translating texts from the original English into American?

          August 24, 2012 at 13:30

          Hey ‘Hey Skipper’,

          You can pick up a region independent version of the book via Unbound – just purchase the digital edition level and you’ll get unfettered access to Kindle, iBooks and PDF versions of the book instantaneously.

          You can also purchase the paper edition there but as you rightly surmised – this is not a book to travel with, heavy as it is with the weight of both Meades’ words and over 400 glorious pages.

            Jeff Guinn
            August 24, 2012 at 23:38

            Thanks for the advice — I’ll give it a try.

  4. Worm
    August 23, 2012 at 15:56

    “the similarities between the 1860s and 1960s, the ignorance of the countryside that lies behind the Picturesque movement, the deleterious effects of our love affair with the suburbs, the glories of shacks and bricolage, the fascination of terrain vague, the delusions of the religious, and so on”

    I just imagined that read in a Meades voice

      August 23, 2012 at 21:25

      After 400 pages or so, one picks up the vocabulary…

    August 24, 2012 at 12:17

    Woo hoo!! Best news I’ve had for a while.

    It’s such a pity that apart from the odd DVD collection and a book or two there’s so little to savour of Mr Meades’ journalistic output.

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