Friday, May 9, 2014

Jonathan Meades: 'My book is the antithesis of the misery memoir'

by Stuart Jeffries)

What I write next will have nothing to do with my life' … Jonathan Meades. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

My parents didn't give me anything to rebel against," says Jonathan Meades. "I was denied pretty much all the normal adolescent rites. They didn't worry about how I dressed. They liked a lot of my friends. For the most part they couldn't be bothered to castigate my choices. They objected to bad grammar, bad handwriting and bad manners – they gave those more importance than the big things."

All this may make Meades's new memoir of his childhood sound unpromising. What makes An Encyclopedia of Me even less alluring is the fact that it details the early years of the only child of an ex-major father and a primary school-teacher mother who was a virtuoso cook with tripe and cheaper cuts of beef. Worse, the book takes place in seemingly the dullest time and place imaginable, 1950s Salisbury. And it stops years before Meades began on any of the ventures that have formed his eclectic career.

He is a novelist (though his last published novel came out more than a decade ago), a food critic (a job he gave up in 2001 after 15 years writing for The Times – and gaining what he estimated to be 5lbs for each of those years), but most of all an idiosyncratic presenter of architectural TV programmes such as his study of Nazi architecture Jerry Building – Unholy Relics of the Third Reich (1994) and Soviet architecture, Joe Building: The Soviet Memorial Lecture (2006) both for the BBC.

His on-screen persona is lettered, contrarian and vicious: in the final episode of Jonathan Meades on France (2009), for instance, he said of his adoptive homeland: "If France voted as it speaks it would be governed by a coalition of green Maoists and Khmer Rouge provisionals."

Yet, in a literary milieu where the most popular memoirs are those where psychic wounds are exposed, accounts settled, closure lucratively achieved, An Encyclopedia of Me is a corrective – an anti-misery memoir. "I don't know if I have read a misery memoir, but I know that they're around and the premise of this book is the antithesis of that genre." Not that he was especially happy as a boy (there were too many suicides, deaths and oddball relatives for that), but nor did he suffer much. The first entry is "Abuser, Sexual" and begins: "Not applicable. I have no sexual abuser to confront. There was no simpering gingivitic distant cousin with crinklecut hair who beseeched me to come and play with a special mauve toy." The last entry "Yuri" concludes with Meades, aged 18, heading to Rada in 1964.

Lynn Barber, reviewing the book in the Sunday Times, moaned: " If … like me, you suffer a vulgar craving for some narrative oomph and emotional engagement, then Meades is a frustrating, often maddening read." There's nothing here akin to Barber's memoir An Education, her oomphy tale of a liaison at 16 with an older man. The only sex I can recall is a grisly romp on a maggot-ridden sofa with a hotel owner's daughter in a room adjoining the restaurant where his parents were struggling over a bad Christmas lunch. I think my mother thought it was amusing. They weren't scandalised. Her parents were."

When we meet in London, Meades – suited, booted, 67 years old – has just arrived from his home of the last seven years, a flat in Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation in Marseille that he shares with his third wife, Colette. He has removed what interviewers rarely fail to call his "trademark sunglasses".

That Barber review clearly stung. "She said the book is filled with 'claustrophobic self-absorption'. I don't think so." There's no doubt she has a point about the absence of narrative drive. If you want to know about the disgraceful demolition of Burton upon Trent's Victorian brewery buildings or reflect on a British film director's shameful past directing TV ads for disgusting Cracker Barrel cheese, this is the book for you. But Barber is also wrong. The memoir breaks free from self-absorption. "I realised when I read the proofs it's about a world that has ceased to exist," says Meades. "I didn't set out to write a different version of the 50s." But he did. It turns out Salisbury was a thrilling place to grow up. It was dominated by two industries, God and war, the former typified by the cathedral Constable painted; the latter a military industrial complex in which much of the city's shifting population worked.

"Its transitoriness was extreme. Military personnel would come and go and, because my parents were promiscuously sociable, our home became a guest house for them. Salisbury was in the frontline of the cold war. Nearby there was Porton Down" – the top-secret Chemical Defence Establishment, where friends of the Meades's worked on the cold war applications of both sarin and LSD. Also close were "Boscombe Down, Tidworth, Fugglestone" – an aircraft testing site, a garrison town, the headquarters of the army's Southern Command – "and there were missile silos built into the chalk hills with their own narrow-gauge railway."

Reflecting on this cold war Britain in his memoir takes Meades to some interesting places. He reclaims and perhaps even defends the seemingly indefensible, Britain before the 60s started to swing, the postwar era we wrongly think of as, in Meades's phrase, "static and brown". He pits his war-forged parents generation against the entitled, offence-taking, rights-claiming Britain of today typified for him by the book's twin nemeses, Tony and Cherie Blair – even when it involves him justifying sometimes fatal chemical warfare experiments on his doorstep in the 50s.

Contempt for the Blairs and defence of germ warfare come together in an intriguing, characteristically caustic footnote. It concerns the death of Leading Aircraftman Ronald Maddison, who died in Salisbury Infirmary four hours after being exposed to 200mg of sarin at Porton Down: "Ronald Maddison died on 06/05/1953. Tony Blair was born the same day. His mother, unhappily, hadn't enjoyed the right to choose. Maddison came from County Durham, where Blair would live from the age of eight. The Ceausescus of Connaught Square died, hideously, on 23/9/2016." What does that last sentence mean? Are you plotting something? "I could have got the date wrong," says Meades evasively. He sips his tea.

It's one of several jibes against Blair, whom Meades in the book labels "God's Own Bomber, the most religious and thus most delusional prime minister since Gladstone and the most bellicose since Palmerston". But what initially looks like gratuitous Blair baiting actually goes to the heart of what An Encyclopedia of Myself is about. Why such animus for the Blairs? Because they personify what, for Meades, has gone wrong with Britain since the 50s. "That they are both lawyers is, I think, key."

This is where his memoir comes petulantly alive, reminding us of why Meades is beloved by the likes of Stephen Fry ("No one understands England better than Meades") and Iain Sinclair ("If Meades was a racehorse you'd be calling for a steward's inquiry. There's something in his feed which definitely gives him the lot"). Here the perspective is as anti-zeitgeisty and mordant as in those TV shows where he has eulogised the joys of Birmingham and stood up for the splendour of brutalism.

In 2004, Meades writes, there was a second inquest into the death of Maddison. The first, 51 years earlier, had recorded a verdict of death by misadventure. "To the doubtless smug delight of Attorney General Goldsmith and DPPs Calvert-Smith, brown-nosed cretins of the New Labour establishment," writes Meades, "it returned the altogether predictable verdict of unlawful killing". And then he clinches his autre temps, autre moeurs point: this "verdict was the presumptuous judgment of the present on the past. Here was the Age of Apology or Rights or Compensation or Complaint castigating the Age of – what? Duty? Exploitation? Service? Moral Quackery? Such retrospective perdition is cooked up in a whiggish void. With confidently 20/20 hindsight it overlooks the threats of nuclear devastation, Soviet aggression and world war which were omnipresent at Porton half a century previously."

Meades adds: "Of the 30,000 men who underwent experiments at Porton less than 2%, about 500, claim to have suffered from its effects." These statistics, to be sure, won't mollify the families of those volunteers who died or were injured during experiments, but his approach to that suffering is akin to that of his parents' generation. The only time during the book in which little Jonathan appears in that generation's crosshairs is when he confesses fondness for skiffle bad-boy Tommy Steele, only to be confronted with a passing army major's incredulity. Writing at half a century's remove, Meades sounds an emollient note: "Those who had been through the war had known fear and horrors and the proximnity of mortality … They had every right to behave as they did and expect more of their pampered children."

Meades also writes about Porton's postwar experiments with LSD at the behest of the Secret Intelligence Service, precursor of MI6. "Aldous Huxley was irrelevant. They were taking it in 49 not thinking about transcendence, not to find the godhead, but as a psychiatric tool." The SIS halted LSD tests after concluding (Meades contends "peremptorily and wrongly") that its uses in both conflict and interrogation were few because its effects were unpredictable. "The great regret about LSD was that it was hijacked by the camper-van mystics." The unspoken corollary of Meades's argument is that the hallucinogen could have been used to fight the Soviet menace.

Meades was less taken with Salisbury's other industry, God, even though – or perhaps because – his parents sent him to the cathedral school. Why did they do that – they weren't religious? "They wanted to be middle class. They weren't godly and took no interest in the church. They were quite sceptical of any grand narrative – be it Christianity or socialism. I can't say I hated going to cathedral school. I was bored. It seemed a chore like doing the washing up." He recalls the ad jingle for Fairy washing up liquid: "Hands that wash dishes can be as soft as your face." That's essentially what he thinks about religion. "It's a bubbly fiction." So unsuccessful was Meades's Christian education that he supports both the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society.

Meades has deferred writing this book for a long time "I couldn't have written it were my parents still alive with any candour. My father died 30 years ago; my mother died 22 years ago. If you're writing when your parents are still alive, it's very difficult. Writing abut sex for instance? Unimaginable. It's a very peculiar inhibition which one is liable to suffer. So many writers are less evasive than I am."

The year after his father died, Meades published his first fiction, the short story collection Filthy English (1984), which featured murder, addiction, incest and bestial pornography. "My mother was much more interested in what I wrote than my father. When I wrote in Filthy English about the sylvan life of proto-hippies in the New Forest, she remembered the stories that were the source material and said: 'Darling, you've left out the bit about catching syphilis from a towel.' I could have kicked myself. That was all she said about the book. I think she thought it was unremittingly sleazy." So she probably wouldn't have liked Pompey, his 1993 novel which described enemas, sexual abuse, quasi-necrophilia, bestiality and incest along with the authorial injunction: "After using this book please wash your hands. Thank you." His mother "preferred my telly to the fiction – her friends watched it, you see".

What happens to Jonathan from 1964 onwards, when he trains as an actor, reinvents himself as a critic of food and architecture and anatomises Britain? Meades says he doesn't want to write that book. "I'm sick of myself with this [book] so what I write next will have nothing to do with my life." He is writing a novel, his first since 2002's The Fowler Family Business. "The thing that I have started now is set in Britain, deliberately not about me. It is to do with England and the Germans." He wants to write in different authorial voices, like Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, whom he admires.

Another project is to write about failure. "I've been thinking about exact contemporaries of mine who have died. There are 40 of them. Writing a book about failure might be a goer."