Quick on the draw: Jonathan Meades (right) in 1955
Show Hide image

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

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

0800 7318496