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

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage