This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Kosher, a Hebrew term meaning acceptable according to the Jewish dietary laws, and thence slanged as honest, legitimate, pure and safe is blessed with an antonym: treyf, in Hebrew “flesh torn by beasts” and literally and figuratively, anything but kosher. The cultural critic Jonathan Meades, keen like many who master one gift to attempt another, has a sideline in art: and in a usage not prominent in the rabbinical lexis, he calls these pieces treyfs.
These texts, with or without visuals and to his and their unalloyed credit, are treyfs, too. Milk embraces meat, the raw and cooked run hand in hand, cud is left unchewed and hooves are resolutely uncloven. And blood: there is much blood and nary a shochet in view. Kosher? You should be so unlucky.
Meades’ first collection of essays, Peter Knows What Dick Likes, appeared in 1989. In the sequel, Peter and Dick seem to have gone south (due perhaps to their creator’s home in Marseilles) and return en-dagoed. The book runs to near 1,000 pages with each section containing a theme, however loosely. Sex, for instance. The first essay is a review of the biography of Henry Spenser Ashbee, aka “Pisanus Fraxi” and the probable author of pornography’s least exciting multi-volume memoir: My Secret Life. The second, primarily recalling Southampton, comes nearest to slap and tickle in its revelation that the man who sold Ken Russell his first packet of three was Benny Hill’s father (we also find that Anthony Burgess gave the eulogy at Hill’s funeral).
Still, le style est l’homme même and the essay is less a review than a vastly curtailed, necessarily ad hominem tour d’horizon. No time to debate all the points or follow his infinitely sophisticated progress. One cannot review a monster such as this. Plums must be picked, assessments made.
It is dedicated, by the way, to “the enemies of the people”, a term that need not only evoke Brexiteer slavering, but a confession: Meades is not the people’s friend. He has been compared to Rabelais (well, he likes a list, though nothing here echoes the master’s evocation of the 38 names of the infant Pantagruel’s penis, dandled by attendant nursemaids) and Swift, but a true predecessor is surely America’s H.L. Mencken. Essayist, lexicologist, cultural critic and satirist. Had Mencken not already determined that “democracy is the theory that the common people know what they like and deserve to get it good and hard”, Meades surely would. Like Mencken he judges widely and rarely removes the black cap.
Thus the English (“culturally impoverished, proudly philistine”), their soi-distant rulers (“this cabinet of all the sycophants”) and their boss (“the Prime Shit … the supercilious confidence, the hubris, the arrogance of the entitled and the languid bully’s barely suppressed cruelty”). Nor should we forget Blair, invariably nicknamed “Toni” perhaps hat-tipping TV’s Swiss Toni, the middle-aged, bouffant-haired, smooth-talking used car dealer.
Meades of course could not survive a day in politics. Its squalid self-aggrandisements, boosterous compromises or hardwired mendacity. People like him (Roy Jenkins — proposer of an achievable civilised society — was perhaps an exception) don’t go there.
Rather than taking the currently popular Goebbels route: “It is almost immaterial what we believe in so long as we believe in something”, he exists by virtue of that to which he refuses to pay lip service. His villains: “the joiner, the team player, the sycophant” (that he loves sport but eschews sportsmanship will come as no surprise: Meades likes the head-targeted bouncer, the raised studs, the hidden fist thumping in the scrum) and a healthy distaste for the willed stupidities — religion, patriotism, nationalism — that typify the tribe and its adherents. He dismisses identity politics like some Simla burra mem dealing with a sauce-spilling khitmatgar.
But politics is but a subset; the true villain is belief. Belief of any sort, whether spiritual or secular. So many essays bear out their author’s distaste for “fads, faiths and fashions”. Religion (“self-pitying, bullying, special pleading”) and its deity (“a jealously vindictive psychopath who has forgotten to attend his anger management classes and has left his Largactil in a halfway house”) tops the bill. He will not be enlisting in the jihad (though he remains, believers apart, a philo-semite).
There are times when he comes the traditional schoolmaster: “You’ve let the house down, you’ve let the school down, and worst of all you’ve let yourself down.” A sense in which he cannot bring himself to believe that England and its people are so enmired in stupidity, continuing so happily to get the same things wrong time and again. On the other hand there is a side that simultaneously tells us, please don’t even pretend to be surprised.
But even the sharpest words grow blunt if unheard. Do his targets read? It is the intelligent who squirm beneath his lash. Those who truly deserve it “good and hard” are too stupid or lost in their own lies and narcissism. One senses that he is all too well aware, and knows that the ultimate solution will be through brawn, preferably armed, and not brain, however well-tempered. He may eviscerate, they probably get a copy of the text to frame then hang it in the bog, a stimulus to masturbation.
After all, “Jonathan Meades” is a construct and we yearn for what the French term the coulisses: backstage
He must drive the Guardianisti mad. On the one hand he is exactly what they want: a fully-fledged intellectual. But the things he says … He has what they yearn for, not just the listed Corbusier apartment hard by the Med, but an escapee from Minuscule England, unfettered access to Auchan, Mammouth and the local market too. Amelie in subfusc and shades. But he despises, with such cutting, proficient fluency, all that they hold most dear.
Immersion in so much acerbity can succumb to repetition. Yesterday’s shock becomes today’s schtick. Nothing wrong with a well-rehearsed set piece but what was once épatant gets somewhat predictable. A precious only child he was mocked as a know-it-all and his critics would say little has changed.
After all, “Jonathan Meades” is a construct, especially via TV — black suits, black glasses, black looks — and we yearn for what the French term the coulisses: backstage. (Backstage, be told, is a man who has been seen in apricot trackie daks and a mismatched sweat shirt. Trust me, I’m a lexicographer). Pedro and Ricky offers a “First Person” section, which has some autobiography but for in-depth stuff, his memoir An Encyclopedia of Myself is better. Though this book is equally an encyclopedia: of himself and other animals, minerals, vegetables …
There are kindnesses, too, often when considering food, certain countries — his essay on “Magnetic North”, the Baltic states, being in every sense the centrepiece of the book — and fortunate individuals such as the architectural critic Ian Nairn and Anthony Burgess, a writer who in his essentially European consciousness is rendered another of Meades’ forbears. Like Burgess, he admires and understands slang: “what we truly think, not what we are enjoined to think.” Dennis Potter gets the thumbs up, and perhaps Meades sees himself in Potter’s style: “He gleefully bites the hand that feeds, then chews off the rest of the arm just to be sure.”
Mencken, after some new piece of perfectly weighted cruelty, was asked: if you hate it so much, why do you stay here? His reply: why do men go to zoos? Meades, sensibly, left long since, but he has lifetime admission to the menagerie and his eye and pen remain focussed. As the lights go out, he offers a glimmer we would all be well advised to enjoy.
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