Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson
For several decades, Jonathan Meades has been a well-established writer, cultural critic of primarily food & architecture and broadcaster in Britain. He has such a distinct clear-cut voice in his writing that makes his personality come vibrantly alive. The experience of reading his autobiography was akin to meeting a man in a pub and listening to the story of his life while he wildly gesticulates with a pint in his hand and breathes tangy alcohol-infused fumes directly in my face. That is to say, he is very blunt in his opinions.
He alternates between giving hilariously entertaining and somewhat tedious accounts of his past. There is also a certain devil-may-care forthrightness in his writing when recounting his life without the slightest hesitancy over whether he might be causing offense. For instance, in the opening sections he muses upon his early childhood and bemoans the fact that he was never sexually abused. Later in the book when he recounts some physical abuse he received in his adolescence while under the instruction of a sadistic Major he writes dismissingly, “Long-term damage? No… Rather, a valuable lesson.” Flying fearlessly in the face of social and political correctness, it’s refreshing to have such modern assumptions about childhood, sex, religion and politics challenged even if some readers won’t necessarily agree with him. Far from being a soporific or melancholy account of youth, Meades uses the form of autobiography as a platform for reinforcing the certitude of his opinions with examples from his life. Whether you are sympathetic with his views or not, the courage of his conviction is admirable.
Meades’ account of (roughly) the first two decades of his life is meticulously informed and provocative. In short, pithy, themed chapters arranged in alphabetical order the author criss-crosses his past growing up in 1950s Wiltshire, the people who have had the most impact upon his life and experiences which have left indelible marks upon his consciousness. His adolescence is filled with messy sexual encounters, overbearing adults and a frustrated desire for independence.
Almost everything has a sexual tinge, not least when he goes to visit a marketplace: “The seed of grass smells like the seed of man.” One could question if the warm glow of memory for the far-reaching past is what gives so many objects an erotic charm. What is particularly innovative is how he challenges the way adults like to keep children in a state of infantilism so they can project their own longing for their lost childhood upon them. To be sure, Meades does not believe childhood is charmed with innocence. His frustration at having to cede to the will of less intelligent adults when he was still only a precocious youngster is typical of someone who is so overwhelmingly certain and righteous in his opinions.
As with much memoirist writing, the author’s ability to separate what will be interesting to an anonymous reader and what’s interesting to the author himself because he experienced it himself can be shaky. There are sections of family life, encounters with childhood acquaintances and neighbourhood gossip which can border on the tedious side with large heapings of superfluous detail. More interesting are his vociferous opinions about the ridiculously tired class system, the “daft” spiritual connection some rural people feel to the land and the transformation of Britain’s culinary landscape over the decades. With typical aplomb he cuts down the grandiosity of inherited luxury and status: “We enjoyed the privilege of standing on ground granted to his ancestors four centuries previously by Henry VIII as a reward for their loyal services to the royal rectum.”
Meades has a special way of inverting the meaning of customs which most take for granted so they can be examined wholly anew. When discussing his fascination with the hush-hush suicide of someone he muses upon the self-annihilating act: “Suicide was the most special death because it was chosen, as one might choose a Lagonda over an Allard. It was a peculiar luxury.” He makes things which should be sordid have a pernicious veneer of glamour. In another section, he charges the rationing of food for years during and after the war as being the reason why the English lost the ability to cook well: “One generation forgets. A second never knows.” His celebratory description of the reintroduction of taste to the British palate is a thing of joy.
It’s fitting that Jonathan Meades has arranged his autobiography like an encyclopaedia because he seems to have a voluminous greedy-man’s knowledge for a fantastic array of subjects. By mining his past he evokes an era of British life that has disappeared. The true pleasure of reading it comes more from his commentary more than the details themselves. Meades’ combative point of view is a valuable counterpoint in a culture which can at times be too hesitant about challenging popular assumptions.
Eric blogs at LonesomeReader. As an American immigrant in London he is grateful to have missed the boiled vegetable years of England’s culinary history.
Jonathan Meades, An Encyclopaedia of Myself (Fourth Estate: London, 2014). 185702849X, 353 pp., hardback.