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Successive Spurts of Sapient Seed

By Nicky Charlish.

Jonathan Meades, Pedro and Ricky Come Again (Unbound, 2021)

‘The lady’s not for turning’. Mrs Thatcher famously rejected U-turns but the 1980s — the decade with which she is, arguably, most associated — was a riot of reversals. Out went the cosy consensus economic policies of the 1950s, in came market forces. The New Romantics upended pop’s political pretensions (cf. John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’) with a no-holds-barred celebration of money, sex and glamour. Another contemporary feast of joyously upsetting a whole row of bien pensant apple carts was initiated by Jonathan Meades. The former RADA student, then journalist, first came to fame in 1984 with a collection of short stories, Filthy English (‘enticingly repellent’, The Observer). Five years later, Peter Knows What Dick Likes gave a collection of his journalism, (its strapline: ‘transsexuals, soldiers, meat on canvas, drugged hippies, lager and lads, anonymous letters, wrestling, French slang, Marienbad, aids, dog food, and much, much more’). Novels, an alphabetically-structured autobiography, and a series of consistently constructively iconoclastic television programmes followed. And now here is his latest offering, Pedro and Ricky Come Again, a selection of his writings from 1988 to 2020.

In the introduction, Meades writes that the book ‘is to be dipped into’. He also states that his ‘opinions contradict their precursors’. What does he mean?

Let’s take the second quote first. Has Meades become a recycler of received opinions; a follower of the well-worn trail whereby a radical youth morphs into a carpet-slippered pundit spouting clichés? No. He’s just as capacious in subject matter, clear in evaluation — and cutting when necessary — as ever.

We discover this when we return to Meades’s first quote and plunge randomly into this collection. Societal Issues? He has no problem with upsetting accepted pieties; with saying the supposedly unsayable. He pinpoints France’s running sore that is the aftermath of Algerian independence following the savage war which preceded it. He quotes the Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal on the state of this post-colonial country: ‘militarisation . . . a predisposition to victimisation . . . racism and anti-Semitism dignified as dogmas . . . ubiquitous police and informers. . .’ Writing about British pride in diversity with reference to certain London boroughs where more than sixty languages are spoken, Meades notes that it ‘apparently neglects to notice that ‘“vibrant diversity”’ is merely a euphemism for an elective apartheid which is duly pandered to. Language is the glue of a society, its paramount means of communication. It is, or should be, only secondly a badge of identity belonging and exclusivity’. So much for identity politics.

If this makes Meades sound like some sort of nascent propagandist for a far-right party, such an erroneous evaluation is quashed by his merciless views of the Conservative party’s policies over the past three decades. Speaking in Bristol about regeneration, he excoriates Conservative Chancellor Nigel Lawson for having asserted that a debt is a credit, and points out that ‘economic forecasting belongs more to secular shamanism than it does to any branch of science’. Meads has no faith in the infallibility of the market economy, describing the then-current (2008) dire economic situation as a ‘soufflé economy and the oven door has been opened. Will we acknowledge that the thing within is a pancake or delude ourselves that it will rise again?’ Conservative Chancellor George Osborne’s vision of a Northern Powerhouse is described as ‘chimerical’ — doubtless a true evaluation. He also sees through the current Conservative Levelling-Up agenda. Financial reality militates against it: ‘chances of The Levelling being effected by fiscal devices are non-existent’. Writing of towns in the East Midlands which it’s proposed to link with London via the HS2 railway, he writes that ‘those towns will gain little. . . . They will mutate into dormitories’. As for the hope that people will willingly migrate from the metropolis he says, apropos of a plan to return the Guardian newspaper to Manchester, its place of origin, that ‘whether its [the Guardian’s] armies of minoritarian agitators and protest kids could bear to forsake Shoreditch is questionable’.

Meades, when discussing writing, offers perfect patterns for its putative practitioners. He describes Sir John Betjeman’s journalism as ‘passionate, informed, bolshie and immune to received opinion’. So was architectural writer, the late lamented Gavin Stamp. He was ‘above all [a] historian, scholar, campaigner, journalist, researcher, traveller, dragoman, draftsman, a trustee of this society [the Twentieth Century Society] and its sometime chair . . . in all these roles he exhibited a scrupulous integrity’. He objected to the ‘shrill manifestos, pious bombast and ludicrously pretentious claims’ which emanated from certain sections of the modern movement. ‘Gavin believed in what he saw. The dogmatic and the doctrinaire saw what they believed in.’

Meades is well-known for his writing on architecture. However, he does not have an uncritical enthusiasm for architects per se: ‘The cult of architecture talks about itself as if it’s disconnected from all other endeavours, as an autonomous discipline which is an end in itself and which is understood only by architects and their acolytes’. But this writing is, for Meades, not simply a means by which he can take apart the built environment, the feelings it summons up and the immediate social issues which it raises. It’s a way of leading into larger topics. Discussing international modernism’s programmes, he points out that ‘Social science is not a science. It is a kind of scientism — it mimics science, pilfers its procedures, wears its clothes’.

Although Meades is a devout atheist, this doesn’t blind him to the possibilities, qualities and meanings of ecclesiastical design. He also looks at where modern Catholicism and Anglicanism have gone wrong in their theological modus operandi (effectively, a programme of secularization to make faith supposedly more acceptable in a post-war world) — as shown in their recent, anti-numinous church architecture and its effects on churchgoers (‘It has most evidently touched them by turning them into non-worshippers. . .’) — and his spot-on analysis would get the ecclesiastical equivalent of a high-five from any traditionalist Anglican or Catholic.

Along the way, Meades peppers his prose with good one-liners: he points-out that the ‘notion of the Dark Ages’ barbarism is quashed by the sheer invention and disparity of the great cathedrals.’ Here he is on a famous interwar also-ran aesthete: ‘Had Stephen Tennant been born a girl he might have married well and ended up a duchess; as it was, he was fated to remain forever a queen’. He describes the Stanley knife as the ‘the soccer fan’s tool of choice’.

Meades, recalling an interview with Anthony Burgess, gives us a quote with which it is appropriate to end our random reconnaissance. He describes him as an ‘ambulatory encyclopaedia’, who suffered from the ‘all-too-English disease of being too clever by half’ and reminds us that this is ‘rather better than being moronic, but there is this English prejudice against cleverness’. It exemplifies why Meades, like another in his pantheon of heroes, the Sixties novelist Robin Cook (aka noir novelist Derek Raymond who would, like his admirer, eventually leave Britain and become domiciled in France), is not a popular pundit or household name in his native land — he doesn’t easily fit into any establishment. He’s not clubbable. He’s too perceptive. And, as this anthology shows, he’s still fired-up, on form, and as fertile as ever.

Nicky Charlish is a freelance journalist and writer. The noir crime novel Gender Justice is their first book.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 7th, 2021.