To the Watershed cinema and ‘digital creativity centre’, to hear Jonathan Meades talk about his new book. The event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, and my escort was the combative Islington-based journalist Pippa Tregaskis, who two years ago interviewed Meades for The Dabbler ahead of his bewildering BBC Four series on France.
Pippa made no effort to conceal her sneer at my 2001 Ford Focus Zetec when I picked her up outside Temple Meads station, and though as a rule I couldn’t give two hoots about car fashion, I found myself flushing with sudden shame at the unpeeling seals and rusting flanges and decrepit upholstery, and the crumb-encrusted child seats and the shoebox full of Bruce Springsteen CDs around which Pippa was forced to arrange her Samurai stilettos. To my further humiliation it became apparent as we drove off that John Denver’s Greatest Hits was still in the stereo. With Annie’s Song warbling away I tried to pass the thing off as ironic, asking Pippa if she’d ever considered the deep strangeness of Denver’s oeuvre, being a mixture of good ol’ country cowboy-ism and absolute Green Party ecodrivel. “Where George Bush meets George Monbiot, a ha ha,’ I quipped weakly. Pippa did not laugh.
Changing tack as we passed St Mary Redcliffe, I tried trumpeting the architectural merit of the city, which Jonathan Meades described in Museums Without Walls as ‘benign anarchy’, and I listed some of its icons and ‘magnificent set pieces’: Clifton, King Street, the Wills Tower, Corn Street. With a sniffy wrist-flick Pippa dismissed the lot, stating that she’d lived in Bristol for three years in the noughties and had seen quite enough of the place (she had edited Epigram, the University’s student newspaper, a dreary but necessary step on her inexorable career path: St Willoughby’s School for Girls just outside Ludlow; gap year in Vietnam and Cuba; university stardom; gig reviewer for NME; Deputy Editor of The New Statesman; Features Editor of the Sunday Telegraph magazine).
As she tottered irritably along the cobbles of Queen’s Square I offered my arm, which she refused. For sure, my wife need not have had any concerns about my squiring this high-profile bombshell about town, because (1) as Rod Lidl put it in his usual crude way, ‘although physically Pippa Tregaskis boasts both the creamy voluptuousness of Camilla Long and the delicious pointiness of Marina Hyde, she also combines their venom and cruelty, and the only job likely to be on offer at the end of a date with her is of the hatchet kind'; and (2) she is of course entirely fictitious. It has occurred to me that when I am sufficiently far gone to have a delusional alter ego it will probably be a vicious female newspaper hack. It has taken a long time, but it seems I’ve finally got in touch with my feminine side.
The book about which Jonathan Meades was speaking was An Encyclopaedia of Myself, a new volume of childhood memoir in which he actually tells us very little of himself but a great deal about the weirdo friends and enemies of his parents (you learn far more about the formativeness of his early years in the film Father to the Man, which recalls his days driving round with his travelling salesman father, and the time it afforded him to develop ‘a love of place’).
The publishers sent The Dabbler a proof copy of An Encyclopaedia of Myself and I have to say that reading it was something like entering a personal literary heaven, as Meades conjures up one glorious Technicolor nutjob after another. As the blurb puts it, he gives us a population of “embittered grotesques, bogus majors, vicious spinsters, reckless bohos, pompous boors, drunks [and] suicides”). Which is just the sort of thing I like. So dense and relentless is the cast of loons, and so vivid the stage upon which they stalk – a vanished, 1950s Salisbury – that at times I experienced an ecstatic psycho/sensory overload, like a night in a forest, like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain. One twisting tale in particular, that of Major Christian – a sado-masochistic schoolmaster – is so perfect in its balance of hilarity, horror, charm and pathos that when I got to the end I had to immediately read it again, which is very rare.
The great thing about Jonathan Meades is that he is a formidably intelligent man who hasn’t chucked his talents into the cul-de-sac of idiot savants, failures, cowards, agoraphobics, commies and mini-Machiavellis that is Academia. Also, he is a very funny man who doesn’t do panel shows. And an expert who isn’t an Expert. The only uninteresting thing about him is his anti-religionism, cited quite often in An Encyclopaedia of Myself, which is alas of the plonkingly literal Dawkins variety. But he’s easily the best thing on television, and this is quite possibly the most enjoyable memoir I’ve ever read. And there’s no sodding architecture.
At the Watershed, after a screening of choice Meades clips (including the world premiere of a gleefully tasteless Beeb-banned sketch in which men in balaclavas sing an INLA recruitment song to the tune of ‘YMCA’) and an entertaining interview with The Observer’s Rachel Cooke, the audience was invited to ask questions. Pippa Tregaskis and I both put up our hands. I wanted to ask a nice sycophantic patsy question about what the maestro made of the Bristol harbourside regeneration, but razor-elbowed Pippa got to the microphone first. “Following my interview with you about France,” she squawked, “one of the commenters on The Dabbler described your work as deracinated. Given your love of place, do you think this is a fair description? Well?”
Meades, in the flesh an unexpectedly large and suave man, blinked hard twice, sipped some water, and leaned forward to answer.
A list of questions I would have asked Jonathan Meades if I’d had the chance:
1) In an essay from 2005, included in Museums without Walls, you write that “Bristol’s genius resides in its benign anarchy”. I wonder what you think of the redeveloped harbourside, with its giant mirrorball (the Planetarium), Millennium Square, monstrous stag beetle statue, full-scale Matthew replica, working steam engines and squishy rubber Jack Russell dogs?”(PS. I love it!!)
2) I grew up in Portsmouth and although every adult seemed to hate the Tricorn Centre, as a child I accepted it as a Thing, and if I thought anything about it I found it pleasingly disorienting. Do you think that if we just left brutalist buildings alone until Price Charles’ generation died out, nobody would much mind them anymore? (PS. I’ve no idea!!!)
3) How on earth do your programmes make it past television’s Intelligence Filter, which requires the same point to be made at least six times in any half-hour documentary in such a way as to fall within the ken of the least intelligent conceivable viewer? And why are there no other programmes that slip the net?
A list of questions that Pippa Tregaskis would have asked:
1) Can you really remember all this detailed stuff about adults in your childhood or have you just made it all up?
2) Isn’t there’s a fine line between ‘making the shows that I’d like to watch’ and ‘disappearing up my own rear end’?
3) You complain about the Tricorn and other brutalist buildings being pulled down, but when you praise a building for its ‘up yours’ attitude, what right do you have to complain when the locals say ‘up yours’ back?
4) If religious faith is so moronic, how come there are so many interesting and good religious people, and so many dim and nasty atheists?
Meades, leaning forward, answered assertively that he was quite happy to be labelled ‘deracinated’, and that the logical end of rootedness was ‘blood and soil’. He didn’t address the possibility that the tension between his love of Place and his alien’s eye view of places (like Salisbury) is what makes his work so unusual and compelling. But is it really possible to be truly rootless? Only if you grow up in a fishtank. Even if, like me, you’re not quite sure what your accent should sound like, there’s Englishness – England’s language, literature (especially children’s literature), myths, phobias, tolerances and creaking systems, and its idea of a joke. Also your roots in what Meades (brilliantly) identified as The North.
Two other noteworthy things about Meades. First, he is under no illusions about the nature of Nature. He is unashamedly anthropocentric and doesn’t see why we need to be ‘polite to the Earth’. Talking of which, I quote from a recent Nige post about ‘Springwatch':
Last night’s show offered an especially edifying vignette from nature. The Springwatch cameras have been trained round the clock on a bitterns’ nest, where three chicks were successfully hatched – but alas, early yesterday morning one of the chicks was dead in the nest. Mother bittern tenderly took her late offspring in her beak, tilted her head back and painstakingly swallowed it. This was not easy – it was a well-grown chick – but mother bittern persevered until she had swallowed it entirely. But that was not an end of it: next mealtime, there she was again, regurgitating the semi-digested chick as food for her remaining brood, who tackled their sibling with gusto, but did not get very far with it. So the mother scooped up the remains and subjected them to further digestion. A second regurgitation proved successful and popular, and very little remained of the unfortunate chick.
Second, Meades is ‘interested in everything’, a skill he developed to counter boredom as a child. The plain truth is that I don’t really ‘get’ architecture as a cultural study – its aesthetic is elusive, its references confusing and its lingo always slightly beyond my grasp – but I like listening to Meades on architecture because everything is interesting when someone speaks or writes well about it.
On Bank Holiday Monday we crossed again the bridge into that land of glum magic and simmering resentment known as Wales, and for once it was warm and sunny. My old schoolfriend Martin was hosting a family barbecue. The children ran wild in the garden while the grown-ups sat around drinking expensive bottled lager and eating Waitrose sausages.
Cardiff, like Bristol, is full of deracinated middle-class graduates from dull English towns and villages, who stay on in their university city to have families because it’s got just enough culture going on and isn’t London. These are my people; I generally avoid them. We skewered olives with toothpicks and discussed the European elections. Or at least the left-wingers did: being able to express strong political certainties in a sanctimonious tone is the prerogative of the middle-class left. Centre-right dissidents alas can’t play that game without Spoiling The Whole Day. Oh well, we all have our cross to bear.
So when one chap described Michael Gove as an ‘odious individual’, and when another chap explained that UKIP had done well because the working man is at bottom a racist fool who gets tricked into voting wrongly, I let it all wash over and passed round the plate of Waitrose sausages, which were quite delicious.
Pippa Tregaskis, on the other hand, would have laid in to them, perhaps in her diary column in the Sunday Telegraph magazine. But then she’s a poison-tongued harridan. Indeed, she’s my poison-tongued harridan; I stole her from Jonathan Meades.