This is a transcript of a talk, ‘Composing the Past’, given by Jonathan Meades at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh on 26 August 2015, about writing An Encyclopaedia of Myself, which won the Spears Memoir Prize and was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley award
The most recent film I made was on the sculptural neo-expressionistic architecture of the late 50s, 60s and early 70s – known as brutalism after the French for raw concrete, beton brut or bru, depending on how costive with consonants the speaker is. This film has had bizarre and unintended consequences.
Forty years ago two fine comic actors, both now dead, John Fortune and John Wells, collaborated on a novel called A Melon For Ecstasy. The title comes from a Turkish proverb: ‘A woman for duty, a boy for pleasure, a melon for ecstasy’. The protagonist of this squib was a dendrophile: dendrophilia is the condition of being sexually aroused by trees. This party, who happily lives in the New Forest, seeks a consummation that is several steps beyond tree hugging.
It raises a question today which it didn’t when the book was published – can trees consent? Does an oak have rights? And if so do they match a wellingtonia’s?
Now, in the last few months a research team at Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory on Long Island – the base during the 1920s and 30s of the Eugenics Record Office – has identified a strange pathology which is akin to dendrophilia. It has been named ‘brutophilia’. Sufferers are sexually attracted to concrete. Not just the material but the very word. They are also keen to count me among their number. Since the film was transmitted, groups of brutophiles – entirely indistinguishable from people who are devotees of, say, steam trains or chocolate or rubber – have come to every talk and lecture that I’ve given. So can I ask you all to be on the qui vive and pay attention to your neighbours. Should you notice that he or she is sporting lacerations occasioned by brutophiliac acts or becomes uncontrollably excited at the mention of concrete – concrete! – please let the front of house staff know and they will provide the sufferer with man-size tissues and treble strength wipes. There is an ample supply of them.
It was proposed that this event should be billed as ‘intimate’: ‘An intimate encounter with…’ that sort of thing. I knocked it on the head; intimacy in such a context is a lie. I don’t do cosy. It recalled two instances of false intimacy.
The first was a telly advertisement of the 70s which was reprised in the 90s. A small-town Sacha Distel (who thinks he’s a small-town Alain Delon) attempts to seduce an archly smiling English slapper by repeating ‘Cointreau, Cointreau’ (which I had thitherto reckoned to be an excellent flavouring for soufflés). This was someone’s idea of sophistication. You could wince, you could cringe, you could watch it through your fingers shielding your eyes.
The second instance was this: he is lonely, old, pasty, grey. He has lost his looks and doesn’t know where to find them. He lives alone in a house of grime. All lino and stalactites of cooking grease. Then, she comes into his life. She’s a dish – curvy, glamorous, willing. And she loves housework, just loves it. The moving tale of their romance was recorded in a BMJ article by Dr N.D. Citron called ‘Penile Injuries from Vacuum Cleaners‘.
That piece was gleefully brought to my attention by the late Jeffrey Bernard, possibly the only man in Britain to have made a living out of being perpetually pissed. Jeff attempted to turn every day into a party. His 50th was remarkable. There was little to drink save cases of neat vodka. One’s elders and betters were misbehaving. Jo Grimond slid down a wall; Elizabeth Smart was passed out on the floor. Graham Mason fell over and was kicked in the head by Jeff who announced that ‘I… I don’t want drunks at my party’. Enoch Powell arrived, took one look and scampered off.
Among Jeff’s dicta were these:
Never more than three hours early for a party.
Never more than three months late with copy.
I like to think that Jeff’s shade is smiling approvingly and that’s he’s running his tongue round the inside of his mouth hoping to find some loose change like someone frisking a sofa between the cushions. He would delight in my tardiness. I was more than three months late with delivering An Encyclopaedia of Myself. Much more. More than three years. I was actually 17 years late, as my long suffering publisher Nicholas Pearson frequently likes to remind me. When he commissioned the book I was middle aged.
I began writing it; I made my usual list. In this case of people, places, things, pets, recollections, antagonisms, friendships, bogus majors, drunken majors, psychopathic majors, spinsters and horizontals, numerous incidents, prepubescent sexual experiences, and one post-pubertal experience – and pretty soon abandoned it. It took me some while to figure why I couldn’t write it or, rather, why I couldn’t write what I wanted to read. You are, after all, your first reader. But at the same time you write to an extent to find out what you’re thinking, not the other way round. I mean you don’t think, work it out, plan it then write as if filling in the colours in a writing-by-numbers way. It is essential to surprise oneself. You do not – or ought not – to know where you’re going, and if you do you know you should at least not know how you’re going to get there.
When you are young the world is an open labyrinth, a labyrinth without walls, and there’s no Ariadne with a clew. You don’t even realise that it’s a labyrinth, as you negotiate it in a state of almost perpetual bemusement. You don’t even know the word labyrinth and not knowing what the word was for this or that thing was the cause of galling frustration – to me, and to the adults whom I nagged wanting to be told and who dissembled their ignorance by telling me not to be so bothersome. But until I knew the word I could not make sense of the thing the word signified. Things remained mute. This lexical pathology was probably proto-literary, it certainly belonged to that cast of mind. It marked me as someone who would never have the essential gift of three-dimensional intuition required by an architect or a sculptor: a gift that has nothing to do with literary intelligence – which is no doubt why the more outstanding the architect the greater the catastrophe that will occur when he or she attempts to write. Judging by the house he designed for himself Thomas Hardy made the correct career decision.
I further antagonised my seniors by demanding explanations of, well, everything. Not just the words for whatever I saw. The words might come first:
– Rye House. When was Rye House?
– Elsan. So that’s what an ‘Elsan’ is. Why doesn’t Uncle Wangle’s caravan have its own Elsan?
– Bolters. Who is a ‘bolter’. Is Henry dead because honour is a bolter?
– Alice. How can she be in Wonderland if she’s buried in a New Forest church yard?
– Princes in the tower. Who murdered them?
– Why don’t flying boats sink when they land. Jonathan: they don’t land.
– Uncle Eric dimmed another cig. Are Kensitas better than Players?
– Why are there only men and women, boys and girls? What about gypsies?
– Why isn’t Auntie Kittie married?
– Where are the rheostats? Where are the transformers?
– What are tart shoes
– How is a double declutch?
– Does Aunt Doll drink anything apart from Mackeson stout?
I learnt the answer to that at a tender age. Yes she also drank Marsala, port and British cream sherry. ‘Oh go on. Fill it just to the brim woluld you, Jonathan, my tresshure. I like to see a hearty meniscus on moine.’
– Is it the bears or Boney that get you if you step on the cracks between the paving stones? Or both?
– How can the wild west be in America if America is where Chevrolet cars with fins and square Hamilton watches and hooded nib Sheaffer pens come from?
– What’s the difference between a nice piece of homework and a popsy?
– Why do long engagements play havoc with the urethral tract?
– Are trees pollarded as a punishment – like robbers whose hands are cut off?
– Why do the ladies in the dry-cleaner shop giggle so much?
– Do women go on heat like dogs?
– Did Jesus have a navel?
– If Jesus could rise from the dead he could have taken revenge – on Pilate, Judas’s family, the mockers, the bullying soldiers. Why didn’t he?
This sort of question made adults wince: ‘the little know-all is at it again’. But of course I wasn’t a know-all – yet. I wanted to be one which is why I was incessantly interrogative. As an adult I can answer my former self with this explanation: that Jesus was like the Sicilian who, when exhumed after 2,000 years, said, ‘Why did you wake me – I’m still planning my revenge.’
– Why is god such a nasty old man?
This was rather better put by the immunologist and Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, who had managed to endure an English public school and Oxford education without ever having read the bible. In his late 20s he found himself in an American hotel without a book. He sent a postcard to his wife. ‘Am reading the Old Testament… My dear, the people!’
– Did god forgot to take his medication the week he made the world?
– Why do churches smell of old women?
– Is suicide wicked?
– Where is Huntingtower?
– Why is Milady de Winter so evil?
The capability of distinguishing between the factual and fictional let alone the multitude of layers between those states escaped me.
– Why do hotels misspell menus in a French so illiterate that even a schoolboy can detect its deficiencies?
– What had the wan girls who lived as near prisoners in the grim St Michael’s Home School done that earned them the epithet ‘bad’?
And so on – a long litany of what, why, how, when. Now, in middle age, the age, as I say, that I was when I signed to do some sort of memoir or autobiography – not yet called an Encyclopaedia – at that age you suffer the delusion that you are on top of things. You know the words for many things. You reckon that you’ve more or less got it taped.
You belong to the generation that has the power, even if it exercises it crassly, the generation that determines the cultural complexion of the state, whose mores are the norm, whose beliefs, beliefs once reckoned outré or wishful, become statutorily enforceable. All the deeply cherished notions and practices of your pushiest coevals become governmental policy: the reckless invasion of distant counties whose rulers we demonise, the banning of fox hunting, the pursuit of relativism, the mandatory use of jargon and euphemism, the elite’s pretence that it is not the elite and is anti-elitist, the ascent of priggish authoritarianism, the fascism of anti-fascists, the rise and rise of mendacious PR, the false familiarity of addressing everyone by their given name, risk aversion, the employment of slaves called interns, the timid appeasement of hostile minorities. If all that sounds like an evasive description of smugness: bang on, that’s what it is. You are, without realising it, of the establishment whether you like it or not.
Middle age is, further, a state that is inimical to empathy, to recapturing the uncertainties and bewilderment and confusion of childhood and, above all, trying to sense through the brain and eyes (and nose and tongue) of the child you once were. In middle age I was not good casting as the former me. I wasn’t right for the part. The book I wanted to write – the book I wanted to read – demanded a degree of ventriloquy. And at that juncture I could only conjure my former self from the outside: the first person of the book would have been an invention and invention was a mode that I had resolved to shun. Which left me sort of stranded. I couldn’t find the key that would unlock the gate to the precocious burden I once had been. Maybe it was more a question that I was unwilling to find that key. The problem was: I did give a damn. I did care what people thought. I worried about what the living would think. I worried about what the friends and families of the dead would think. I worried about what my daughters would think even though they were perfectly acquainted with my fictional work and the self revelation and obsessions it contained: I once said to Holly the eldest when we were talking about sexual proclivities that I could understand most things but the impulse to commit incest was quite beyond my comprehension. She replied: ‘Well, that’s just as well, isn’t it, Dad.’ She and her sisters have my measure. But this book was not going to be fiction. Fiction is one sort of lie. Supposedly the lie that tells the truth, though that pat generalisation fails to mark the gulf between the fiction of say E.L. James and Henry James – who was seldom to be found chained in a dungeon wearing head to toe latex. The lies in the book I was not going to write were of a different sort, a different tenor; they would not be witting. But, rather, the unavoidable accidents of memory, some slight, some of them multiple pile-ups.
I worked hard to discover countless ways of disqualifying myself for this particular task. My capacities as a shirker were, I realised, boundless. And so it went on for more than a decade. Then, well, you can no doubt guess where I’m going. Then I started to receive intimations that I was no longer quite so middle aged as I reckoned myself to be.
Hair was being removed from the top of my head and rehomed in my ears and nostrils. These intimations were about as welcome as brown envelopes – which, incidentally, was what Jeff Bernard always thought of to stop himself coming too quickly. My solution used to be to picture Princess Anne but I’ve moved on – I find Nicola Sturgeon does the job nicely.
The realisation that I was closing in on death was hardly a surprise. There have been few days throughout my life where I have not thought about death: it was a preoccupation from childhood. What fascinated me, what I endlessly demanded to know was what happens when we die. It was the shift in physical states that was so scarily gripping.
This had nothing to do with the frivolous sideshow of religion which, despite going to a cathedral choir school, did not then touch me – save as a source of killing boredom. (My extended family had multiple faults but none of them ever set foot in a church.) The four last things are balls. The annunciation – god’s projectile ejaculation – is balls. Ok, an emptied scrotum. The ascension, the feeding of the 5,000, the book of Genesis, the apple in the garden, that wretched snake, the freakish supernaturalism, the cannibalism of the Eucharist, the parting of the sea, the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, the one who developed osteo-inertia and couldn’t be bothered to keep up so got written out of the preposterous tale – it’s all balls. But then a religion without mumbo-jumbo is like a dominatrix without a whip. The practice of worshipping a hackneyed fantasy which has no existence save in the minds of people of faith (those who require no proof) is degrading, it diminishes humankind, it diminishes our achievements in science, in philosophy, in art – to understand and explain the world. Religion, all religions are so lazy: they think – hardly the word – for you. Imams, nuns (the candle loving brides of Christ), priests (also the brides of Christ but with a Vatican sanctioned kiddy-fiddling app), ayatollahs, mullahs, scholars – scholars! – these are people who lack the paramount ability of our race, the ability to self invent. That is what the marauders at the gates – in Calais and beneath the Channel and no doubt tunnelling into this very building as I speak – are striving for: the chance to renew themselves, even if that means working for a gang master in a potato field in Lincolnshire. Though of course they may have no greater ambition than to join a minoritarian tribe that loathes the host country.
I believe in what I see. The doctrinaire see what they believe in. The hardening of my antipathy to religion, my anger at its special pleading, the insolent presumption that those who have faith are morally superior to those who are not so diseased – this animus was forceful; it was an exaggeration of my previously passive derision. It was I realised a symptom of being old. And cussed. One symptom.
I clearly wasn’t taking the mellow route – how I hate that word – all soft rock, and goofy dopers with bad hair and Fry boots. Far from it: I felt the brakes were off. It occurred to me that I didn’t give a toss what anyone thought. I could become a monster of severity, abrasion, mordant laughter and mocking asperity.
It further occurred to me – were I a person of faith I’d say it was revealed to me – that the jabbering, slobbering, ranting face of Pampers that I had become could empathise with the child I once was. This empathy was conditional on my constant astonishment at the world around me. Without my noticing everything had changed. Just as in infancy the world had to be learnt, now it had to be relearnt. I’m not talking just about digitalisation, anti-social media, sit on my Facebook and so on. Rather about fundamental changes in mores, in behavioural patterns, social attitudes, which are only seldom occasioned by the ubiquity of the virtual. And the more I looked around me at what I had hardly bothered to notice, what I had torpidly taken for granted, the stranger it seemed and my childhood seemed even further distant. Yet, this polarity, this startling contrast with the present, brought the past into focus with an acuity I could not have dreamed of. Scales had been lifted. Having put off the composition of the book for 15 years I sat down and wrote it in as many months.
On New Year’s Eve a few years ago I went to get a haircut in what may have been Lyndhurst’s premier salon. The hairdresser, a young woman, was going to a party at a Southampton night club. Not that she really wanted to but that was what her two best friends were doing. They would all take a bus to the Hythe Ferry and then go across the estuary to the big city. The problem was getting back. The ferry stops at 11 p.m. A taxi from Southampton to Lyndhurst on New Year’s Eve would cost £100. More than £30 each. She was so preoccupied by this dilemma, not wanting to let her friends down and so on that she failed to notice the damage she was inflicting to my hair: an acquaintance would remark a couple of days later that I looked as though I was just out of chokey. Nonetheless I gave her a generous tip and wished her a happy New Year. As I put on my coat she said wistfully: ‘It must be great being so old that you don’t have to go to clubs.’
The club she was going to was Celebration Plaza, formerly owned by Matt Le Tissier, who, when called on as a witness to an assault in the club, prefaced his testimony with the words: ‘Your honour – you must realise that I had drunk at least thirteen Malibus…’ He belonged to the last generation of footballers I understood.
Now, once a week, a bespoke cast of gladiatorial yobs, gods and wags roasting Croesus kids descend in tattooed Lamborghinis from their Parnassian blingsteads to run around for 90 minutes of bravura vanity. When they score they no longer cuddle but commit ‘celebrations’, massively orchestrated displays of appreciative self-love and pathetic braggadocio – which are of course euphemistic. Why don’t they just masturbate?
And when they walk onto the pitch – ‘the park’ – they are hand-in-hand with small children. Why?
And have any of these children ever been seen again? If so, where?
How did we arrive at this state of affairs? At least when I was a child I had a plentiful supply of adults to bother with my questions. To whom ought I to address my enquires?
Given that every adult, myself apart, has been abused as a child and has duly turned into an abuser it is surely risky to subject children to this faintly sinister ritual? Isn’t it?
And how can I find out why every football manager has a philosophy? And every chef too, and reality TV thinker, and all comedians – who we know are hilarious because they laugh so relentlessly at their gags before they tell them.
And where do they get their philosophy from. Can you order a philosophy online?
The former midfield legend Wayne Clent, back now as ambassador for Tamworth City after suffering a perforated duodenum in the semi-final of the West Midlands Vindaloo Trophy Challenge, said that his recuperation was aided by having a ‘philosophy’.
What by the way is an ambassador?
Dr Johnson instructs us that we should give to beggars because if we don’t give to them they will not have the means to continue in their profession – which is begging. I was at the fancier end of Westbourne Grove when I saw a youngish man who was not so much etiolated as ghostly slumped in a shop doorway in rags smoking a roll up with his styrofoam begging cup beside him. I dutifully lobbed a pound coin in the cup and was about to walk on fortified by an aura of self satisfaction. I had hardly gone a pace when the young man yelled, ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’
In that instant I saw that what I had done was to ruin his skinny latte, and not just his skinny latte but his mid morning chill out. I had failed to read the sartorial signals: pre-shredded, pre-masticated, pre-digested Gucci jeans (£875), retro-converse all stars with integral vintage tinea pedis (£250), hair by trained rodent at Nicky Clarke (£300). Grunge? Neo-grunge? Neo-neo-grunge? Urban crusty?
Having had b all interest in youth tribes when I was a youth I have signally failed to keep up with the tribes that my juniors form. And just about everyone is my junior. And living in France – or rather Marseille, which is to France what Liverpool is to England – I can rejoice in my indifference towards not merely British popular culture and its denizens but towards France’s too. I feel doubly blessed in my deep-bed ignorance: it’s closer to clunch than to chalk.
The geriatric’s bemusement at the world differs from the child’s. The child seeks the answers, as a matter of urgency. The geriatric has no problem about reconciling himself to his incuriosity. I’m resigned to being likely never to visit a petting zoo or, though it promises to be more outré, a heavy petting zoo. I wasn’t particularly put out let alone embarrassed to discover recently that a video game I had never seen – I haven’t played a video game in my life – was actually a telly series I have never seen called Game of Thrones and, not as I had thitherto believed, Game of Thorns.
The very state of not knowing this and much else triggered a capacity to at least partially inhabit or maybe mimic the creature whom I have referred to elsewhere as a midget autodidact. Not knowing did not prove to be an impediment. Rather the opposite. I could delve into the past as though I was there.
The structure of An Encyclopaedia was designed to simulate the processes of memory. Well, of my memory. And when I say designed I am claiming a degree of control which was I hope absent. The shapes and shifts of my memory or memories determined the structure: I write before I think, I write to find out what I’m thinking. I have a very capacious memory. It is equally a very promiscuous memory. It doesn’t differentiate between what is deemed impotent and the allegedly trivial. Indeed it makes such classifications seem as footling as they are.
Further it is partial, as prone to head into a cul-de-sac as to trigger an associative chain. The abundance of these dead-ends is the result of resolving not to create one of these things called a narrative: one of these ubiquitous things. Narrative is a means of tidying actuality – which is resistant to being tidied – unless of course it is contorted, trimmed, squeezed, cut, tucked, and now and again bulked out in order to fit into the sausage skin of narrative. A narrative is a hackneyed device which the modernists rightly derided and despised but which their romper-suited successors have exhumed. A narrative is a lie. Well, nothing wrong with that but it a banal lie; it is the lie that is so pervasive it has become an ideé fixe. Narrative makes life easy for the consumer/the reader/the spectator, makes the life it purports to depict easy. It is a false representation – of everything. We do not live linear lives. A novel is meant to be novel – the very name. It seldom is. My intention was, as I say, to write a book, a novel if you like, in which nothing is invented – no person, no incident, no place, no smell, no taste, no conversation. There is hardly any reported speech. As I say in the epigraph, ‘Nothing wilfully invented. Memory invents unbidden.’ And doesn’t she just. She. Mnemosyne is female.
The movement of memory is akin to that of dream. It doesn’t so much defy the linearity of narrative as simply not know about it. What happens, happens without explanation, without cause. In dreams we often see places we sense are familiar but which we struggle to recognise. This is probably because the brain does not process the internal images. Which are consequently like flipped images, printed the wrong way round, so the characterful breast pocket handkerchief is on the right hand side of the jacket. Think of primitive cameras.
Think too of an absence of scale. Scale as we have learnt to see it due to the triumph in the west of pictorial perspective – which is as conventionalised as narrative, little more than half a millennium old and pretty much peculiar to western, Christian and post-Christian societies. Perhaps the greatest achievement of modernist painting was to make us see afresh, to show us that our visual perception can shake off the dictates of perspective and the ethos associated with it. So when we recall, say, a street from childhood we do not see it hurrying away to a vanishing point. We are more liable to have scrambled its components, to have failed to correctly position them in relation to each other. Some elements are absent. Others seem improbably large or ridiculously small. Memory creates ellipses and collisions. It tricks us, it endows people with properties they didn’t possess. It is liable to attach the features of one place to another unrelated place.
I wrote of my father’s lifelong friend Osmund Edwards: Uncle Os lived far away beyond the Severn; he owned a pub surrounded by orchards and hop-yards. I have a very strong memory from the age of about three and a half of that place, of a bright day, of a line of trees – limes maybe – beside a dusty dappled road. That was, I believed, the first time I registered dapple.
My memory was indeed very strong – and entirely incorrect. Forty years later I returned to that pub between Tenbury Wells and the worryingly gothic St Michael’s College. No orchards, no hop-yards, and the surrounding fields were devoted to cereal crops. Lime trees? According to an old postcard I subsequently found, there never had been trees. I had no compunction about allowing reality, my mnemonic truth, to obliterate this boorish array of inconvenient facts. Memory’s strength prevailed. I was not writing a report. Robert Lowell said that I have every right to change spring to fall – it’s my poem. Alain Robbe-Grillet having observed seagulls on the Breton coast decided that they didn’t fly how he wanted them to: he duly described seagulls flying his way. That is poetry, that is fiction.
Not a report. Not a narrative. Not a confession – I am far too tricksy and sly for that. Not really an autobiography – the me of the book is, as one reviewer correctly pointed out, ‘a bugging device in boy form’, a pair of eyes and ears: I was and remain more interested in the people around me and the minute details of their lives than in myself. Not then a psychological investigation of a child that shared my name. Not – most certainly not – a misery memoir, a genre I deplore, not least because it is that very thing: a genre, generic, thus standardised.
What it is, is an exercise in memorious recreation, in retrieval, in description. My preoccupations are literary rather than sociological. As I say the personae and the places are not invented. The form or structure is invented. The intention again was to mimic memory, but not the process of memory but what is actually remembered – which may bewilder us by its randomness and will often exist in isolation with no precursors and no consequences. It is also in a state of perpetual mutation. Every time we remember, say, the feline shape of a shadow cast by a shrub or the expression of surprise on the face of a Ghanaian seeing snow for the first time, we remember them differently, adding features or diminishing them or amending the angle from which we witness this inner cinema – the peripheral may occupy centre stage. Borges’s character Funes could remember every time he had remembered remembering a face or a tea cup or a harrow. His memory is like a recessive machine. He obviously suffers a particular pathology: he has been thrown by a horse, suffered brain damage. Nonetheless his memory is different from the norm only by degree.
Collage is the antithesis of narrative. Pictorial collage, photomontage, is evidently experienced in a different and more immediate way from literary collage, which is necessarily sequential. The invariable message in the work of John Heartfield, Georg Grosz, Hannah Hoch, Georg Scholz – that Herr Hitler is not quite such a nice guy as he appears – doesn’t much interest me. Even in the best causes didacticism palls quickly. But the techniques that these great artists used and the effects they realised are beguiling and have literary analogues: distortion, perspectival chaos, a refusal to acknowledge size constancy, anomalies of scale, astonishing juxtapositions. This is thrilling stuff. And so is the energy. And so is the way that the workings are shown. The artifice is not occluded. In so far as there is any flow it is constantly broken up: even in the comparatively suave work of the late Tom Lubbock work you can see under the bonnet so to speak. Collage promises surprise. It delights in non-sequiters and avoiding the programmatic. I hoped to surprise myself and the reader. When you start writing a book you may know how it will end but you ought not to know how you’re going to get there. Hence alphabetic chapter headings which often bear little relation to what the chapter itself will turn out to contain and which scramble chronology. Hence, on a micro scale, the practice of beginning a sentence with no idea of where it is going to lead. Hence persistent changes of focus as though switching from a fish eye to a long lens.
I hope what I have said makes nothing clear.