An Encyclopedia of Myself

By the end of this month I’ll be deep into a reading list for my MSc (Urban Studies at UCL’s Urban Lab, since you ask) so am enjoying my last days of literary freedom. After that it’s all gentrification, co-housing and Jane Jacobs.

Anyway, the summer draws to a close and I’ve just finished Jonathan Meades’ An Encyclopedia of Myself, the author’s (aided) memoir of his childhood. The book immerses us in an England far away from London, and temporally a foreign country: Salisbury of the 1950s.

The text immerses us in the foodstuffs and ephemera of the age. Meades describes a hotel restaurant belonging to an acquaintance of his parents as a “culinary morgue, […] proof that the English attitude to food was founded in masochistic stoicism rather than the disease called pleasure. The walls were a riot of insipidity, all smeared beiges and fawns. The swirly carpet contained the well-trodden gristle of immemorial meals. The food included imperfectly defrosted, fishmeal-fed fowl from the cash and carry at West Harnham and bottom-of-the-range tinned veg from the Amesbury NAAFI.”

As ever, Meades’ dextrous way with language and prodigious recall is entertaining in itself (I can’t remember what I did last Tuesday, and I suffer only half-glimpsed memories of my teens – how on earth does he recall biographical knowledge of a neighbour’s long-dead relative?). But I found myself yearning for more of Meades The Shouty Man Off The Telly, explaining to us how mistaken we are about everything. The book is at its best when he digs deeper: he is scathingly offhand on the social mores of 1950s England, on antisemitism, on a culinary world yet to escape from rationing, and on modern architecture that to the young Meades appeared, confusingly, to be already a part of the past. Yet he all too often alights briefly on a subject – for instance T.E.Lawrence’s ridiculous aggrandizing of Arab warlords – before suddenly we’re off again, left wanting more.

If you’re not already a fan, I’d suggest reading Museum Without Walls, and perhaps some of Meades’ other writing (and telly) before you start on this one. Fascinating in parts, but possibly ‘one for the fans’.




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