Winklepickers, Tinned Salmon, Hair Cream

Bee Wilson

  • An Encyclopedia of Myself by Jonathan Meades
    Fourth Estate, 341 pp, £9.99, February 2015, ISBN 978 1 85702 905 5

Lists make us feel better. They take the uncertainty and messiness of life and spray it with a sense of purpose. On low days, I sometimes write to-do lists of tasks I have already done and put ticks next to them, just to give myself the illusion of resolve. We cross days off a calendar, and imagine that July was something we positively achieved, rather than an unstoppable wave of time that scooped us up and spat us out into the next month. We portion our lives into guest lists and blacklists, lists of friends and followers. We make shopping lists and bucket lists and reading lists; wishlists of DVDs we may one day watch or seeds we hope to plant and catalogues of countries we have visited or books we have read. To go to a shop armed with a scrap of paper that says ‘eggs, milk, pears’ is to believe that you have a script and are the one in charge, even if you end up getting apples instead because the pears look bad.

Jonathan Meades is a writer who understands the power of lists. In An Encyclopedia of Myself, he has written not so much an autobiography as a series of detailed inventories of English provincial life in the 1950s – a world of sadistic army majors and ‘disgusting pork sausages’, anxious politeness and Tudorbethan houses, the Cold War and cathedral spires. Meades lists the chemist’s shops and dowdy hotels of Salisbury, where he grew up: the Old George Inn (‘delightful’), The Crown (with ‘a swirly carpet’, owned by a fraudster called Cyril), The White Hart, The King’s Arms (‘lobster thermidor’). He lists the secret vices of this world – ‘winklepickers, illegitimacy, tinned salmon, canals, hair cream’ – and its characteristic foods: ‘towers of biscuits, Camp Coffee, Shippam’s Paste, Sandwich Spread, Sun-Pat peanut butter (smooth/crunchy was still far in the future)’. He lists the habits of manhood: tobacco, sandalwood cologne, coal-tar soap, wet shaves, cold showers, watch-chains (he had an uncle Hank who swallowed a watch-chain and never knowingly passed it). And he lists children’s hobbies: Cubs, Bob-a-Job, Cowboys and Indians, Sunday School and prepubescent sex (‘mucky behaviour’ but ‘it didn’t involve anyone who wasn’t our age’). To list something is to own it.

Many have written their lives as confession – the Rousseau approach – but Meades is too ironic for that. He doesn’t worry about exposing his vulnerabilities (‘I had learned early that I prompted laughter without intending to’), but he would rather floor us with his virtuoso knowledge of Salisbury’s environs (‘Knaps Barrow, Grans Barrow, the Giant’s Grave, the Duck’s Nest’) than make friends with us. He also rejects the ‘J’accuse’ or misery memoir and starts by lamenting the fact that he has ‘no sexual abuser to confront’ and therefore lacks ‘the paramount qualification of the auto-encyclopedist’. Instead he lists all the kinds of abuser he might have had and failed to attract: a ‘failed oboist’ perhaps, or a ‘wispily moustached … friend-of-the-family’ or a ‘gingivitic distant cousin’ or a ‘doddering nonagenarian former “magician”’. ‘Bereft’ of abuse and the pity it generates, he has to find another way to anatomise his own childhood. Nostalgia, a form of ‘delusory’ and pathetic ‘infantilism’ (‘look at moron executives bonding through paintballing … look at them unabashedly reading J.K. Rowling’), isn’t an option, and yet he accepts that childhood ‘tugs at our sleeve all our life’ and is therefore a worthy subject. The approach he settled on is neither misery nor nostalgia but ‘the recall of childhood from a distance – as though peering into a glass cabinet whilst wearing a sterilised mask and surgically scrubbed gloves’. He has chosen a life in lists. In this remarkable book, rich with evocations of an almost forgotten England, Meades makes himself a collector of his own past. Anyone who grew up in Britain between the 1940s and the 1980s is likely to find something of their own past here too.

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