An Encyclopaedia of Myself
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.