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

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era