Quick on the draw: Jonathan Meades (right) in 1955
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A bugging device in boy form: Jonathan Meades, the early years

Little Jonathan records every stain on his mother’s apron, every item of rubbish in the stream where his father went fishing.

An Encyclopaedia of Myself
Jonathan Meades
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £18.99

Among the loyal army of Meadesites – whose ranks I joined relatively late in life but for whom I have been a passionate recruiter ever since – there is a sizeable minority who argue that the film-maker’s multi­farious talents have been wasted on TV. Back in the 1990s, Meades was allowed to front expansive five-part documentaries for BBC2: wonderfully rambling explorations of anything from fast food to Stalinist architecture, from surrealism to the cultural kinship between Holland and the Fens. As unashamedly highbrow in their language as they were unashamedly buffoonish in their presentation, these programmes set a new benchmark for the TV essay.

Nowadays, he is frequently palmed off with the graveyard slot on BBC4. Meades’s admirers claim that had he concentrated solely on his novelistic output, such as 1993’s Pompey – showcasing his Sterne-esque imagination and lexical dexterity – he would be revered as one of his generation’s greats. They will be cheered to find that An Encyclopaedia of Myself, a “petit-point memoir” of his childhood in 1950s Wiltshire, has been published by Fourth Estate, the kind of big-gun house that has previously lacked the guts to publish his more eccentric offerings (a recent collection of his essays had to be crowdfunded).

Memoirs are tricky undertakings, however, especially to someone with an ear as finely tuned to the bum note of cliché as Meades. “What’s this obsession with roots?” he asked in a 2009 programme about Scotland, Off-Kilter, complaining that the internet had made amateur genealogists of us all, obsessed with tracing our bloodline back to “your grandmother’s father’s father’s father’s Christmas mug, with the dent from the Big Bang”.

An Encyclopaedia of Myself, too, starts with a list of what kind of memoir this is not. Not a sentimental evocation of innocent days skipping over Wiltshire meadows, because, in modern western Europe “childhood is a by-product of industrial revolutions, thus an invention of adults”. A rummage around a cupboard full of childhood toys and Eagle annuals triggers no Proustian rush. No misery memoir, for there was no abuse, no “lissom-fingered groin-pirate” to point the finger at. And no tale of a faith aborted, because Meades, now an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, says he was born without the requisite talent for religion: “Faith demands a gene, a credulous gene, that was not passed to me.”

Even the title is a bit of a red herring, for the book is more of an encyclopaedia of postwar rural Britain than of Mr Meades. Born in Salisbury in 1947, he attended a public school in Taunton which spoke “multiple idioms of Anglican joylessness” and provided resistance for a pre-teen to rebel against: the author did so by projectile-vomiting half a pound of melted butter in class and deliberately trailing dog shit through the school corridor.

But one of the paradoxes of Meades’s essays is that even though they are caustically opinionated, you never get the impression that he finds himself unduly interesting. More effort is invested here in exploring the drama – or non-drama – of his parents’ emotional lives. John Meades Sr was a sales rep for a biscuit company who had once been a British army major stationed in Basra and forever remained what his son calls “an undertaker of emotions”: “The names of the dead were dropped from conversation, as one might drop that of a disloyal friend.”

Yet death waited at every corner in the Wiltshire of Meades’s youth: small children succumbing to pneumonia, people falling off bikes and ponies, capsizing in their skiffs and drowning in the sea. Rural Britain is recast as a bleak landscape pockmarked by tragedy, even more horrific because it is never talked about, though it remains unclear whether Meades ultimately admires or frowns on the stiff upper lip of his parents’ contemporaries. (He certainly has inherited a distaste for “special pleading”: that generation, he writes, “had every right to behave as they did and to expect more of their pampered children, every right to despise the minoritarian tyrannies of PC, anti-racism, the compensation culture”.)

The memoir, organised alphabetically and non-chronologically, leaves the reader trapped in murderous Wiltshire and cuts short just as its author moves to London. In all this, Little Jonathan is the perfect bugging device, recording every stain on his mother’s apron, every item of rubbish in the stream where his father went fishing, like Funes the Memorious in Borges’s story, the man who remembers everything including every time he remembers it.

“Memorious”, incidentally, is a classic Meades-ism: what makes programmes such as Abroad in Britain still so remarkable is the way they threw words like that at the viewer in a way broadcasters normally wouldn’t dare to do. It worked because they were often appropriately complicated words to express complicated ideas, and because TV can offset prolix narration with visual tomfoolery.

In An Encyclopaedia of Myself, where he often isn’t pursuing an argument but merely describing the world of his childhood, the Meades sound can grate. Occasionally, as in the short chapter about a culinary experiment with whale meat, it spins out of control, like an electric coffee grinder whirring into delirium as it runs out of beans: “It was a scuddy billowy day when I ate the whale. Not the whole whale – I was only four – but enough whale to get the idea of the whale’s quiddity, to get a mnemonic fix, which persists down the years and is ocular and palatal and olfactory and haptic.”

Meades is too original for this to matter much, his achievements already too great for failed experiments to cause much damage among his fans. But for anyone interested in joining his admirers, television remains the place to start.

Philip Oltermann is the author of "Keeping Up With the Germans: a History of Anglo-German Encounters"

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism