Jonathan Meades writes early on in his memoir that ‘there have always been children. There has not always been childhood.’ After reflecting on the era when children were economic commodities, pushed out to work by their parents almost as soon as they could stand up, he observes that ‘modern western European childhood is a by-product of industrial revolutions, thus an invention of adults. It is protracted, an antechamber to longed-for adulthood, a mere waiting room before we achieve the real thing.’ An Encyclopaedia of Myself is concerned solely with Meades the child and adolescent; it ends as he is about to fly the nest. The life of the Meades we know – cultural arbiter, filmmaker, social observer, restaurant critic and architectural commentator – remains unwritten, we must hope only as yet.
The title of the book refers to its form. The narrative structure is as far from David Copperfield as you could wish. Meades does not begin with being born, or lead us on a day-by-day account of a life that started in the record-breaking cold and austerity of the winter of 1947 and passed into adulthood just as the Sixties were starting to swing. In (mostly) alphabetical order he lists events and people that shaped his upbringing. He evokes with great vividness the postwar world – as those of us old enough to remember know, any childhood that began between 1945 and about 1965 had ‘the last war’ or just ‘the war’ hanging over it. Meades’s father had been an army officer and brought back from his war service the camaraderie and social niceties of the officers’ mess, as well as tins of spiced curry mix that his army cook had made for him before he left the Middle East, sealed up with a soldering iron to be consumed throughout the early years of peace. It was only when in later life Meades tasted something identical in London that he realised, because of the nature of the restaurant he was in, that the cook must have been Afghan.
Meades père also brought back other souvenirs of the war with him and would for years after drive around with a gun in his car, waiting to shoot anything edible or sporting that crossed his path. In those days, before the police force became a police ‘service’, friendly coppers would occasionally turn up and invite him to give up his gun. The elder Meades would simply jest with them and they would leave with a shrug of the shoulders. That is but one of the numerous vignettes that show how different the world within living memory is from the world of today.
The alphabetical sequence starts with ‘Abuser, Sexual’, though Meades has to confess that he never had one: ‘I was not, in the brusque cant of the day, interfered with. I didn’t have what it takes.’ His parents loved him and, apart from a creepy prep-school master who used to thrash him and a demented shopkeeper who accused him falsely of shoplifting, life was a progress through a genial and secure childhood often reminiscent of the one Richmal Crompton devised for William Brown – to whom Meades bore some resemblance. School inevitably features greatly, and this is where the after-the-war flavour is most overpowering. It seems to have been natural for many demobbed army officers to become schoolmasters, despite so many of them lacking any obvious qualification to follow that profession. Meades is a cogent and acute observer of class, the gradations of which were perhaps more important in a world returning to civilian life, especially among conservative-minded people having to deal with Clement Attlee’s forced egalitarianism. And in a city such as Salisbury, in and around which Meades grew up, an apparently coherent, all-seeing community observed each other’s social movements with piercing toxicity. So it was that prep schools, those nurseries of aspiring gentlemen, came and went, with their rag, tag and bobtail staff. Meades recounts a story told by his father of an entire school that did a moonlight flit to avoid the bailiffs, without even notifying the parents in advance; such was the oddity of the times about which he writes that it might even have been true.
The Fifties were an age of formality: almost every adult is Mr or Mrs or Miss and, as quite a number of chapters testify, a disproportionate number are Major. He observes the passion to cling on to rank long after the war was over, partly because it helped secure recognition in society but also because for many of those concerned the title reflected an era when they were somebody, viewed from the platform of an afterlife in which they were nobody much at all. Meades has an endless curiosity about people and what becomes of them; his writing gives the everyday world of 1950s Britain a full-colour, respiring immediacy. For example, of his brief experience in the Scouts Meades writes that ‘a stringy, toothy, kink-haired myope instructed us that we should address her as Akela. She wore a faded green warehouse coat cinched with a belt plaited from fraying burlap which repulsed me.’ Or, of going into a pub with his father: ‘The room was lugubrious. The only light was behind the bar. A biscuit-coloured man stood there. His thin baby hair and bovine face and crumpled clothes were chromatically indistinguishable.’
This book is a riot of such perceptions. Those who know Jonathan Meades only from his television work will be familiar with his tone, but they may be surprised that he writes with such force and originality. To them I would commend his novel Pompey, brought back into print last year (and to which I contributed an introduction), which is one of the best and most underrated of its genre to be written in the last thirty or forty years. Meades is already a cult. This book will make him more so. It is a true literary achievement, and one’s only regret is that a sequel is not already at hand to be read straight away.