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Jonathan Meades: a one-man awkward squad

There is no writer more spiky than Jonathan Meades but no single word can sum up the sui generis blend of rage, sarcasm, common sense and virtue that characterises his pronouncements on life, the universe and everything.

Sean Sheehan

 

Being a prose stylist, he can be unforgiving when encountering the poor prose of other writers, noting of one art critic that ‘according to the author note she graduated from Oxford with a degree in modern languages: one must assume that English was not among them’.

Sometimes, as when castigating the poncy pretentiousness of Country life magazine – ‘the ‘o’ in the diphthong is there for decency’ –   he exhibits the splenetic ire of Luther railing against corruption and nailing his theses to a church door. He is frequently funny when commenting on what he doesn’t like, saying of a health-food shop which turns out to sell pet food that it an easy mistake to make.

Many of his descriptions are memorable, as when he refers to ‘those condoms packed with abattoir slurry called English sausages’. His exuberant use of the English language is a joy to read and his vocabulary is truly unlimited given that words can be made up to suit a particular occasion, as when he dismisses ‘academic verrucadom’ or notes a fashion for ‘retrophilia’.

Given his acid tongue, Meades is not someone you would like to annoy but he is also capable of lavishing praise, often on an unlikely topic. Belgium, for instance, is complimented for its ‘multiple identities, its sublime painters, its eccentric writers, its formidable gastronomy, its thrilling urbanism ….a country without a label, without an identifying cliché’ and he is capable of justifying his admiration for the country with detailed examples.

“Pedzo and Ricky come again” is a stupendous collection of selected writing by Meades over the last thirty years. The book is arranged thematically, not chronologically and this allows the reader to dip in and out of any of the twenty seven topics.

These range from art, buildings and cities to death, politics, sex and obituaries and it is impossible not to find something that will strike a chord of empathy.

He is acutely aware of what is phony, particularly in the world of art, and warms to the ‘secular blasphemy’ of Martin Bell’s cartoons in The Guardian as an art form that is undervalued because it actually says something.

By contrast, the of the art world aren’t about anything but itself and filthy lucre, which is why he ridicules Duchamp (who ‘changed for ever the face of urinals’) for philistine frivolity.

A term Meades uses to describe the artist Kenneth Wood, a one-man awkward squad, fits his own writing like a glove and this wonderful collection has something worth reading, from a turn of phrase to a philosophy of life, on virtually every one of its nearly 1000 pages.

“Pedzo and Ricky come again: selected writing 1988-2020”, by Jonathan Meades, is published by unbound.

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