This morning, I finished Museums Without Walls by Jonathan Meades. Meades is an astonishingly good writer; and this is an astonishingly good book – a book not so much about architects and architecture but of the wonder of the world around us.
I’ve always believed he’s the most innovative and compelling television essayist there’s ever been. I know – it’s a shamefully small field. But still… I’m a fan. I have a modest box set of his DVDs. I have more of his ouvre saved, with protected status, on the hard drive of my Sky Plus box.
And yet, when I was given this book for Christmas, I sort of assumed that his work on the page would be a pale reflection of his presence on the screen. (And indeed, the transcripts of his shows, three of which are included here, provide the book’s weakest moments.)
This prejudice was based perhaps on my knowledge of his novels, at least two of which I’ve read. Or struggled to read. Meades is a truly terrible novelist, largely because, as a writer of fiction, he feels compelled to show off in all the wrong ways, at all the wrong times.
If you fail to pack a punch as an unalloyed fabulist (school of Burroughs, Burgess, Carter, even, at a pinch Amis fils) then you have to make at least some concession to naturalism. The very best novelists, those who can comfortably be described as artists, instinctively hold to Keats’s dictum – that the artist has no personality. The art lying in concealing the artist.
The reverse, arguably, is true of the successful essayist – and, in Meades, a theatrical sensibility combines with a scathing intelligence to produce a gloriously combustible compound. And yet, as I’ve said, I somehow expected that, when set in Sabon, his words would pale.
All of which goes to show what an idiot I am. Meades is a writer out of the very top drawer. In fact it’s sobering to reflect on the extent to which he outshines his nearest rivals. Those who, I now realise, are not fit to lace his drinks.
Back in 1997 or thereabouts, I became infatuated with the essays of Iain Sinclair, a writer whose style was, famously, compared to de Quincey’s. Meaning, perhaps, that it was a style favourable to a renewed assault on the Twilight Zone. His imagination, as laid out for us particularly in Lights Out for the Territory, was deemed gothic in the sense that it was as outlandish and unsettling as it was dark and attuned to the supernatural. He was held, on the strength of this book and others, to be one of the greatest topographical writers ever.
Well, all I have to say about that assessment, now, is Poppycock.
I have perhaps grown out of Sinclair. To the extent, in fact, that I don’t feel any awkwardness in the slightest when Meades writes about “the ever-increasing battalions of soi-disant psychogeographers – who are distinguished from plain geographers by neglecting to take their Largactil before they release themselves into the edgelands of Sharpness or the boondocks of Sheppey”.
Does this sort of literary rough-and-tumble diminish Meades as a writer? Is it unworthy of genius? I’d argue not. One of the things I value most about his essays (both in print and on screen) is his Swiftian inability to compromise (in other words, maintain a tactful silence) when confronted by superstitious nonsense.
To reject mysticism and still find wonder in the world takes, I would argue, a special talent.
To cut a long story short, I heart Meades. I am, to repeat myself, a fan. Strange, then, to find myself discovering that I am from a different tribe. He’s a bit older than I am – but I think I always assumed that I’d quite easily fit into his gang, if he has one.
Having finished his book, I no longer believe this to be the case. It is a very perplexing discovery. Even more perplexingly (if that’s a word), I’ve run out of the space to explore this notion any further.
I think I started out to provide a list of things learned – and I have failed utterly in that mission. I’ve run out of time. Maybe I’ll try again in an hour or two. Because, as dear old Myles used to say, here’s me bus.
Yes. I’ll try again. Soon. I promise.