Art de vivre that freed Meades

Jessica Knipe leaves no cultural box unticked with writer Jonathan Meades in Marseille

No check tablecloths. No Gallic shrugs. No strings of onions. No art of living in Provence... begins polymathic writer Jonathan Meades in each of his triptych of films On France. Unapologetically not your average travel guide, the series explores instead the lesser known, or perhaps less touristic, facts of French architectural, cultural and political history.

From a personal interpretation of the expression “entre chien et loup” (that ambiguous time of day when the light can make a dog look indistinguishable from a wolf), to an introduction to la gauche caviar and a tour of the Nancy of King Stanislas (“when happiness was owning your own dwarf”), here is Meades telling all the French truths, but telling them at a slant. In fact each shot of On France is filmed askew – this is France filmed from a new, grittier and probably much more authentic angle. “The truth is never simple,” as Meades says in the series’ first offering, in which he reveals that the baguette is not in fact French, but came to France from Vienna in 1830.

Drawing on a lifetime of wanderings and research by its dry yet erudite host, the films provide a much deeper, and indeed more complete perspective than usual. Every detail has a story to tell – to the point that the on-screen captions use Roger Excoffon’s iconic Mistral font, and the soundtrack includes the brass and woodwind music of La Farigoule, from Marseille.

It’s there, in Marseille, that Meades spends all of his time these days. Down a windowless corridor in Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, past the primary reds, blues and yellows of the Unités d’Habitation, a door opens into one of the largest of the original apartments. Into the darkness pours the dazzling light from the two-storey high window inside, where I am met by a man much more welcoming than I had expected him to be given his dead-pan, almost gangster-like gait in the On France films.

With a calm, poised voice, he asks which tea I would like, ...

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