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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, and his wife, Colette, joins us to rifle through the Earl Greys and Lemon Gingers. The perfect diction, the British politeness, the tea and’s all in slight contradiction to the pared back French modernism of the building around them. We are in the original Charlotte Perriand kitchen, just beyond a dining room looking out towards the limestone cliffs and inlets of Marseille’s breathtaking calanques. On the fridge, an army of rolled-up aluminium sheet statues whisper of Meades’ recent foray into the art world.

We climb the stairs and duck into the couple’s shared office. Lined with books, pictures and postcards, some of which are prints of artworks by Meades himself, the office has two desks side by side, photos of children and grandchildren and a collection of glass Vallauris lanterns. “This room was two very long narrow rooms, you can see where the middle was,” Meades explains. “The flats were originally designed for three generations of the same family – parents, grandparents and four children – but ours was knocked into this configuration a long time ago by the previous owners.”

Passage to Marseille

The building, a Unesco-protected brutalist icon, is the very reason Meades finds himself here today, but his life in France started a little earlier. “I hadn’t lived anywhere but London since 1966,” he says. “That thing about ‘tired of London, tired of life’? When Johnson said that, London was the size that Bristol is today. Anyway we got sick of London, looked at other places and gradually excluded one place after another, mainly because of how bad the rail infrastructure was.”

The search slowly led the couple all the way to the bottom of the Charente, near Barbezieux. The place wasn’t foreign to Meades – he had spent a lot of his late teens in Bordeaux. “I signed on to do some course at the University, and never went,” he recalls. “It was pointless, because all of the other people there were English so you were never going to speak any French.” Instead he mingled with the locals, and spent his time exploring. “I used to spend so much time travelling in those days. My mother would send a postcard from somewhere like Le Puy and I’d think ‘my god, this sounds extraordinary’. Le Puy is a shocker to get to from the west cost, but it is worth going there, absolutely remarkable...”

Even this wasn’t his first foray into France. “I spoke French from very, very young,” Meades says, “because my grandfather worked for Southern Railways, in the department which ran the ferries from St Malo to Southhampton. We could go on these ferries for almost no fare. It was most unusual for a sort of petit bourgeois English family to go to France for the weekend in those days.”

So it was no leap of faith for Meades and his wife to consider France. The house that lured them down to the Charente, a mill house which had been completely gutted and rebuilt inside, was designed by a man called Alain Triaud, who also designed Bordeaux’s airport. Eventually they got sick of the isolation of the countryside, and their journey continued further south still, when they heard of their current apartment in Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse becoming available.

Le Corbusier, that “Swiss peasant who wanted to be a French genius” gets his own mention in On France, with a concluding argument that where “purity of form is suppressed – impurity of form is more interesting. It did prompt wonder and delight.” It’s an aesthetic that Meades was interested in way before living within it: “I was entranced by it the first time I saw it, which was in ‘79 or ’80,” Meades explains. “This building and the ones that came after are a reaction against the modernism that Le Corbusier had more or less invented. He rejected his own baby and started doing something which was absolutely contrary to it.”

Any mention of Marseille being a little dangerous is met with a swift shake of the head. “Marseille used to be very different,” says Meades. “It was the race war capital of Europe, which it isn’t now. There are shootings, but not like they are portraying it. Marseille is very ‘we’re all in this together’, very amiable. And anyway, the Canebière is like a demographic divider – the south is about as edgy as St John’s Wood.”

Now the couple spend the majority of their time here, especially since Meades went through a medical rough patch recently, fighting off a bout of pleurisy, a pulmonary embolism and fibrillation. “I would be dead if I was in England,” he affirms. “The doctor said: ‘you could die at any moment, but if you do exactly what I’m going to tell you, you won’t.’ And I liked him very much for that. There was something congenial and companionful about it.”

Now each of Meades’ days start in front of his mountain view, cycling for 15 minutes on an exercise bike while listening to either Beethoven or early Rolling Stones. “Nothing else will do. Especially the later piano sonatas,” he says. “It’s a bit like being brainwashed; if I’m walking, I can think, but doing this I can only hear one sort of music or another, which is a sort of solace. Initially I didn’t think to do it with music on and it became so boring that all I could think of is ‘oh god I’ve got to do this again tomorrow...’!”

Thankfully, no prohibitive diets have been prescribed, a lucky break for a man who spent 15 years of his life as a restaurant critic for The Times and whose latest book, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen, is a collection of recipes shamelessly stolen throughout a lifetime of being interested in cooking. Not that writing about food was something he had set out to do: “I was hired to do it in 1986, I’d hardly written anything about food. The guy doing it at The Times was called Stan Hey, who was the scriptwriter of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. He was a funny writer who knew nothing about food – for him, good food was a burger before you watch Liverpool win, and bad food was a burger before you watch Liverpool lose.” When Hey gave up, The Times offered Meades the job, not expecting him to know so much on the subject. “And then every time I said I was going to leave they offered me more money,” he recalls. “Which is a stupid thing to do because I’d done various TV programmes and even an entire series before that, but people still think because you’re doing it every week that that’s the only thing you do. It becomes a trap.”

One bow, hundreds of strings
Looking over the list of Meades’ work shows how reductionist a view this is. His writing career has spanned a gargantuan amount more than just his time at The Times, and over the years he has shaped himself into a specialist on the widest range of topics. He has been called “Britain’s most consistently surprising and informative writer on the built environment” by the London Review of Books, has made over 50 films and written hundreds of articles exploring everything from allotments to Zaha Hadid, with an obsession with what he calls the “rich oddness of what we take for granted”. This applies not only to his French environment, but to every detail of his life, with one common thread – place.

“I wrote a bit when I was studying acting at RADA,” he recalls. “The director said ‘I think you’re going to do really well as a character actor’. I said ‘That’s a relief’. And he said ‘Yeah, but not until you’re 40...’ So in the meantime I thought I’d write. I wrote for various magazines and newspapers, I edited a magazine for a time. Once I had a couple of books out, I got a very good advance for a novel, and have never worked in an office since.”

Now that his cookbook is out, he is working on another film, and an ambitious roman à tiroirs: “Characters who play small or indeed cameo roles in one part reappear with much bigger roles in the next. It’s like something Anthony Powell did in A Dance to the Music of Time, where a character will disappear for several books and then come back; except I’m doing it in one.”

Recently the writer has also tried his hand at being an artist, holding an exhibition in Shoreditch just before he became ill. “I scrunch up paper – froissage, you know – and I put liquids of different viscosities into plastic bags and so on... Then I take pictures and manipulate them with a very primitive program that came with my camera 10 years ago.

“I’ve done hundreds. I can never remember what I’ve taken a photograph of, it’s very deliberately random.”

As he rifles through his files to find good examples of his work, he becomes visibly excited. Far from just a casual dalliance, this has given the author a whole new outlet for his creativity. “I don’t really know what I’m thinking about something until I start doing it,” he explains. “I like doing this art, because it’s completely aleatory – everything is chance, you don’t know where you’re going. There are no rules. I try not to adhere to too many rules when I’m writing, but I mean basically there has to be some grammar, otherwise you end up with Finnegan’s Wake.”

As the conversation meanders on through other aspects of this French life, one thing is clear: Meades knows a lot about a lot, and has strong opinions about every bit of it. To borrow a French turn of phrase: here is a man who does not have his tongue in his pocket. Never more vehemently so than when he is mentioning food: “We always avoid any rubbish with bouillabaisse,” he says darkly, “which is an old provençal word for ‘we saw you coming mate’. It’s an absolute racket, with an ancient ‘charter’ that’s worth no more than the cheap leatherette it’s printed on.”

That young man who stared defiantly into the camera to reel off his extremely well researched and sober point of view has not disappeared. Has France changed him at all? “I don’t know!” smiles Meades. “I’m probably the last person who can answer that... If you want to know about charcuterie, don’t ask the pig!” Then, after a short pause:

“I work with a much greater fluency and energy here than I did in London. It may be something to do with the fact that my everyday intercourse with people is in French and my work is in English. I feel freer, in some way.”

Jonathan Meades is as mesmerising as his TV persona. And just as you would after watching him on screen, coming out of a conversation with him makes you feel a little more knowledgeable, and perhaps a little ashamed of how fawning and uninformed you might have been beforehand. There were no “ooh la la’s”, there was no accordion playing, but if anything, this is a man who seems to belong in France all the more for the absence of its clichés.

The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is out now.

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