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.

Meades – best known as an architectural critic and food writer – was born in 1947, the only child of gregarious lower-middle-class parents. It embarrassed him when they called each other by the shared nickname ‘Bobie and Bobie’. His father was a biscuit salesman and his mother a primary school teacher. He had the impression they were more interested in each other than in him and, at the age of nine, he asked them if they would like to send him away to be adopted. Although they laughed it off, he often felt that they were farming him out to ‘kennels’. Sometimes he was looked after by a cleaning lady called Mrs Bacon, a News of the World reader who gossiped about suicide and ‘cut brown bread so thinly that its fibres had to be bonded by slabs of butter’. In the school holidays he was sent to stay with various uncles and aunts (‘Uncle Hank and Uncle Wangle … Uncle Cecil, pharmacist. Wife: Auntie Rae. Uncle Edgar, dislikable optician. Wife: Auntie Cath’).

Left to his own devices, he made lists:

Why were people called Salmon, Pike, Gudgeon, Whiting, Chubb, Grayling, Roach, Haddock, Spratt, Bass? But not Tench, Minnow, Eel, Lamprey, Perch, Carp, Huss, Plaice.

Why were people called Hogg, Fox, Wolf, Bull, Lion, Lamb, Stoat? But not Horse, Donkey, Cow, Tiger, Weasel, Otter.

Why were people called Salisbury, Winchester, Chichester, Lichfield, Worcester, Lincoln? But not Gloucester, Canterbury, Exeter, Hereford, Peterborough, Ripon.

When he asked his relentless questions, adults accused him of ‘time-wasting’ and accumulating ‘useless knowledge’. The boy felt this was simply a defence against their own ignorance and ‘worse, their incuriosity’. For Meades, there is no such thing as useless knowledge. To the list-maker, every item matters.

Meades doesn’t pretend that everything he itemises was true and ‘actual’. A chapter called ‘Earliest Memory’ contains a series of first memories: one of being wheeled in a pram and throwing a rag doll into another pram as it passes; one of ‘lying supine’ watching swaying poplar trees; one of a ‘sloping street’ with grey houses and pollards and a churchyard yew tree. When he returns to verify the memory, he is able to identify the sloping street as the high street of ‘Hindon, ten miles west of Wilton’, but notes that there is no such churchyard there. It is the specifics that make our memories lodge so firmly, yet our brains are perfectly capable of conflating two lists or placing us in impossible landscapes. ‘My earliest memory is loitering in False Memory Lane, idling in blissful suspension on amniotic briny, constriction without fear, muffled voices, gradations of temperature, quotidian rhythms.’

Meades acknowledges that the details he has accumulated reflect ‘the laboratory of our imaginings’ as much as reality. Hypothetical lists are often the most interesting. ‘At the age of eight’, Meades writes, ‘I began to conjure up the future year by year … a series of acquired banalities which did not come to pass.’ At that age, he dreamed of being ten and going on long bike rides through ‘sandy terrain’ with ‘healthy, Aertex-clad coevals’. He was a ‘laughably incompetent cricketer’ but for a while he dreamed of ‘batting for an eminent if undefined cricket team’. Later, he changed the project in his head to swimming – he was slightly better at it. ‘My photograph would appear in the Eagle diary with my freestyle and butterfly records listed beneath.’ On the cusp of adolescence, he was the ‘fastest and flashiest’ swimmer in the school.

As a child, cataloguing was a way to pass time and a form of competitiveness. Without siblings to amuse him, Meades had to make his own entertainment. He depicts himself aimlessly wandering through town from chip shop to toyshop to W.H. Smith (where he was once falsely accused of shoplifting). Lists can keep you company. The young Meades liked pointing out mistakes in grammar and ‘factual inaccuracies’. He was beginning to cotton on to adults’ ‘dissemblance of their ignorance, their desperation not to be found out, not to lose face, their barely suppressed petulance when corrected by a dwarf know-all who was insouciant of the offence he gave and of his supposed precocity’. He got some of his pedantry from his father, who was also a stickler for ‘the minutiae of usage’, a subject he liked to address over meals. To record what’s correct and what isn’t is a form of moral superiority – a way to establish that other people are wrong, which can be a form of pleasure. Meades is shocked when he arrives in London and a girl he is trying to impress calls him a ‘bumpkin’ because of his accent. ‘Why had my parents, normally so punctilious in matters of speech and usage, not grimaced in shame?’

True to his earlier career as a restaurant critic – his column in the Times, which I still miss, ran from 1986 to 2001 – Meades writes brilliantly about the kinds of food that were and were not deemed acceptable in postwar Wiltshire. Take cheese. The list of cheese was short. There was basically just cheddar (always called ‘mousetrap’) and Gorgonzola, which his father called ‘gorgon’. At Christmas, there would ‘appear a stoneware crock of Stilton festering in grocer’s port, a sludge as repulsively pungent as an adult’s stool’. Danish blue made an occasional appearance too, which Jonathan liked but his father ‘took a dim view of because it didn’t taste of cow’. An altogether different list of cheese was supplied by the modern food industry, which Jonathan’s parents scorned while he ‘succumbed, shamefully, to Primula, Dairylea triangles, citric Philadelphia, Huntley and Palmers cheese footballs which tickled mucous membrane, Roka cheese crispies in their recyclable blue and yellow tin (pencils, dividers, erasers etc)’. But the child’s liking of junky cheeses had its limits. Depraved though his tastes might have been (he adored cheese and onion Golden Wonder crisps) he refused to countenance Kraft cheese slices or Cracker Barrel: ‘oblong, granular, fudge-like, a stinging palatal assault’.

Much of An Encyclopedia of Myself seems like an attempt to pin down what can be recollected of an obsolete way of life before it disappears entirely. The species of British people captured here are not exactly ornamental, but they are fascinating to watch, as Meades displays them in his cabinet of memories. One passage describes the way his parents’ generation approached drizzly holidays in Wales, and how far removed it seems from today’s Britain, where every other person on the high street is wearing a North Face weatherproof jacket, even out shopping. One fine morning in August 1956, the Meades family sets off to climb Snowdon. His mother sighs at their lack of waterproof coats but Jonathan and his father, along with many of the others out for a walk that day, only scoffed:

No one on that bleak mountain was dressed for mountain walking. This was due to a combination of national indigence and national fear of pretension. You walked up mountains in whatever you happened to be wearing that day, no matter how unsuitable; high heels, hats, drainpipes, threadbare blazers whose wire crests were frayed and tarnished, swirly skirts, cheap cotton blouses, flannels, Sunday best suits, pedal pushers, biker’s stiff tarpaulins, drape jackets, coiled coifs, oiled quiffs, collarless shirts, (relatively) gaudy holiday shirts whose collars stretched over jacket lapels in an access of informality and seaside fun, garments from war and National Service: combat jackets, blanco’d belts, once spooned boots, pullovers with pips, with stripes, with ARP badges, customised berets, perished Sam Brownes, crudely dyed battledress.

Sure enough, the rain starts to cannon down – the ‘worst storm anyone in north Wales could recall’. The Meades family enjoy wading in the wetness and reach safety in the cafeteria at the summit. But a 34-year-old man called John Mattinson who left the same café half an hour later was struck by lightning and died. When she read about it in the newspaper, Meades’s mother said: ‘Well, if you will stand on a cairn in a thunderstorm …’

True to his interest in architecture, Meades is preoccupied by landmarks, both universal and personal. A landscape, like a list, can bring together many lives that don’t apparently have anything to do with one another. In a series of episodic chapters, some accompanied by photos in the manner of W.G. Sebald, he juxtaposes the banal sites and events of his own Salisbury childhood – the barrel-vaulted cellar where he ate his first pizza, the shop where he bought his first windcheater – with the lives and deaths of others. He briefly mentions someone called ‘Mary N–’, one of his mother’s former pupils, who turned to prostitution in Bristol and was strangled by a pimp. His mother shrugged when she read about it, as if to say ‘that surprise was misplaced although sympathy wasn’t’. Meades returns to Mary N– quite unexpectedly a few pages later when describing the main sights of Bristol: ‘the sudden exhilarating glimpses of verdant hills outside the city; the sheer might of the tobacco warehouses; the streets of red sandstone Gothic villas; the terraced gardens of Clifton; the thrill of the gorge and the heartstopping suspension bridge and beyond them Leigh Woods where Mary N–’s body had been found’.

A list can be an elegy, and particularly when writing about his mother’s cooking, Meades’s recollections are hymns to lost traditions. They are so rich and resonant that it’s tempting to quote them in full, but half a paragraph will give you an idea:

She made steak and kidney pie and steak and kidney pudding. The pastry and the suet crust were her own, ready-made were not yet available: ‘homemade’ was a banal statement of fact not a Luddite boast. Tripe and onions simmered in peppery milk was a dish Grandma Hogg often served when we had Saturday lunch in Shakespeare Avenue; my mother’s version avoided the creamy excess which Grandma, a devotee of all things lactic, including near rancid farm butter, strove for. Faggots and brawn came from Pritchett’s, they were perhaps beyond Sid the Butcher’s capabilities. Brown trout were fried in butter till their skin was crisp yet their white flesh still moist. Herring roes on toast were sprinkled with paprika (apparently its only use). Crab was a treat. Lobster was a treat for the highest of high days; the gratinated combination of Gruyère, cream, mustard and white wine outdid the flesh. We would eat salmon at suppertime for days on end after my father had caught one: grilled with herb butter or hollandaise, in salad, incorporated in a pie with hard-boiled eggs, mashed and fried as ‘cakes’. Plaice was fried in butter. Battered fish and chips were deep-fried in beef dripping. So were eggs: in seconds slithery viscosity was magically transformed into a frilly rococo gewgaw.

In this profusion of dishes, the homely cooking of 1950s England is redolent of a whole culture. Meades argues that its ‘inadequacies’ have been exaggerated. ‘One generation forgets. A second never knows.’ Supposedly, we only learned how to eat well as a nation when Elizabeth David travelled to the Mediterranean and brought back news of olives, apricots and taramasalata. (Mediterranean Food was published in 1950.) But Meades recalls how his own mother’s cooking changed in the late 1950s, and not necessarily for the better. For the first time since 1939, cooks had ‘the notion of fashion, of choice’, of foreign dishes. In place of cauliflower cheese and macaroni cheese and pork chops with ‘an ear of kidney attached’, his mother started to experiment: ‘Paella! Paella of a sort. Smørrebrød! Daube! Pasta!’

Despite the title, this is not an encyclopedia of Meades himself so much as of a particular people and its strange and complicated value system. It is an England of barrel knots and copperplate handwriting, of verse by Walter de la Mare and dip pens, in which using a Bic or Biro could be seen as an act of reckless modernity that would forever ruin a child’s handwriting. It is a world of decorum and sanctimony where being a major (as his father was) or a bishop still inspired deference. Within this larger set of customs, Meades marks out the manners distinctive to his own parents: his father’s fondness for nicknames and shared jokes (‘Eggy Baba!’ was pronounced whenever someone dropped food because he once overheard some parents shouting ‘Eggy Baba!’ at their baby) and his dislike of people who joined clubs; his mother’s belief in grammar schools ‘as democratic instruments of improvement’. Meades absorbed their contempt for light entertainment (‘Bruce Forsyth, Dickie Henderson, Norman Vaughan’) and their loathing of churchiness. As a pupil at the cathedral school in Salisbury, he realised his family was poorer than average: ‘They had parquet floors where we had stone or splintering boards.’

Even though Meades isn’t the main subject, we catch little glimpses of his personality, such as the time he strips naked except for a Lone Ranger mask and an ‘improvised breechcloth’ to impress a girl called Diana. We learn that he was self-conscious around girls; that he was freckled and bookish and that he hated baked Alaska. Before we can get too close, though, there is another strange uncle or fruity ex-army officer to tell us about (‘I was suspicious of majors who didn’t smoke a pipe’). As a teenager, he moves to London to study at a crammer and becomes friends with someone called Yuri, a grandson of Augustus John, who later dies of a heroin overdose. This last chapter about his own life blossoming in London seems sketchier than the earlier ones about Salisbury. The details aren’t as dense, as if Meades feels uncomfortable with the idea of coming into focus, of becoming a singular person in a big city rather than one small freckled landmark in the topography of postwar Wiltshire. Lists are good places to hide in.