Jonathan Meades: An Introduction

As part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s Jonathan Meades Retrospective, Picturehouse Central are screening Meades’ works on his adopted homeland of France.

These films scrutinise the 95 per cent of France that Brits drive through and don’t notice en route, to the 5 per cent that conforms to their expectations. The Whitechapel Gallery’s retrospective runs throughout June.

‘It became evident that this would be a landmark series from the moment Meades began to speak.‘ Clive James, The Daily Telegraph

Films: Fragments of an Arbitrary Encyclopaedia (BBC, 2012), A Biased Anthology of Parisian Peripheries (BBC, 2012), Just a Few Debts France Owes to America (BBC, 2012)

JONATHAN MEADES: An Introduction by Gavin Haynes, writer and presenter

My favourite explanation of the concept of Jonathan Meades comes from Clive James.

He says: “Jonathan Meades is a nightmare happening to the rotating corpse of Kenneth Clark. “

Meades On France is one of the best illustrations of the strength of this metaphor.

Here, the cadaver not only spins, it is on fire while it spins, and it plays scudding Detroit techno mid-rotation, like a fairground waltzer.

It also spews a constant stream of black bile, like one of those Alexander McQueen fashion shows from the early 90s.

And, like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Meades On France sees your host unafraid to tackle subjects so vast and fundamental they’re like trying to blowtorch an iceberg.

How does he manage to make sense of an entire civilisation?

By deliberately limiting himself. By finding the details in the devils.

In the First episode, An Arbitrary Encyclopaedia Beginning With V, he joins up the likes of vitrine – as in window, as in shopping, Verdun as in First World War, Verlaine as in tortured poet, and Vichy as in Second World War. To tie his hands further as he prestidigitates, most of these he situates in Alsace Lorraine – the point at which France merges with Germany, a contested not-quite-French patch of pine trees squabbled over for centuries.

In the Second – A Biased Anthology Of Parisian Peripheries – he tours the feral banlieus, the mythical countryside of La France Profonde, and the sullen brick-paved suburban sprawl.

In the Third – Just A Few Debts France Owes America – he gets serious on his demolition of an essentialist France by pointing out how far beyond the rhotic twang of Johnny Hallyday the bootprint of Uncle Sam on the tricolor goes.

Meades has lived in France for the last decade.

For a while, he had a white-walled converted barn in the French countryside outside Bordeaux, but in recent years he has moved to Le Corbusier’s masterpiece in Marseille, the ornately detailed concrete box L’Unité d’Habitation, where he has one of the larger flats, just below the rooftop sculpture garden, a unit originally conceived by its architect as a home for three separate generations of the same family.

Nice work, Jonathan.

This could be something to with the fact that, apparently every time he tried to quit his long-running Times restaurant column, Meades was simply offered yet more money to stay by editors salivating for his talents.

Right at the start Meades notes the 19th century saying: “Every man has two countries – his own and France”, well, for him that has become more true. While he may technically live within Provence, the picture he paints is a million miles from the lavender field visions of Peter Mayle.

No – this is the France of the ring-road Ibis, of choco-crunch cereals, of the Quick Burger and the out-of-town Grand Casino hypermarché, tucked right at the end of the tramline to keep the tweeness of the downtown chocolatiers preserved in aspic.

It’s the France that sheltered both the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini in turn, educated Pol Pot, and provided the world’s best medical care to African dictators without number.

It’s the France of vaulting modernist banlieus, at once architecturally magical and socially terrifying. Of bright orange TV hosts on TF1. Of the new agers and nudists that Houellebecq chronicles. Of French metalheads. And potheads. And huge agro-business farmers with cavalier attitudes to herbicides.

All still subjugated to the national memory of lavender fields and long rustic lunches.

“France claims to be what it yearns to be” as Meades puts it.

And nowhere is that gap more visible than in its politics, where the same lines of class as afflict us are so often hidden in the florid rhetoric of The Republic. “The gap between pious utterance and self-interested action is chasmic and comical,” as he puts it. “Were they to vote as they speak, France would be governed by a coalition of Green Maoists and Khmer Rouge provisionals.” 

Emmanuel Macron seems neither.

Perhaps part of the reason the French are never flip or cynical about politics – as we Brits so often are – is that theirs is so bloody. This is a nation with a history far more violent and contested and class-riven even than our own. 1815, 1830, 1871, 1914 and 1940 – the shockwaves from the Revolution lasted all the way up to de Gaulle. It reads as one eternal rupture between monarchists and revolutionaries, Bonapartists and counter-revolutionaries, Catholics and Protestants, the Gaullists and the Communists.

He shows how there’s often a darkness in France’s soul at odds with the moral clarity of its voice. When people say that every man has two countries – their own and France – the quotation is often misattributed to Thomas Jefferson, in part because France sees itself as The Country: the home of the Enlightenment, of human rights, torch-bearers of universalism.

As Meades points out, you also don’t have to look far to find bomb-planting Algerian loyalists., he rout at Dien Bien Phu, the buried national stain of Nazi collaboration and its concomitant national myth of The Resistance, exemplified by the dodgy duality of Francois Mitterand.

Meades is in a unique position to observe – to be sympathetic but on-point in this process of helping France to remember itself. He is its therapist, guiding it over this cognitive dissonance. Gently making sure it doesn’t forget. Closing the gap between what it claims to be and what it yearns to be.

Discover Tuesdays

Whether it’s a cult classic, an art-house gem or a riveting documentary, there will always be a chance to see something different and brilliant in our weekly slot.

Find Out More