Fragments of an Arbitrary Encyclopaedia – Jonathan Meades on France

Jonathan Meades on France BBC 4 Web page imageEveryman has two countries – his own and France.

So proclaims Jonathan Meades in the opening of the opening episode of his new series.

The BBC web-page for this program describes this series as

Jonathan Meades scrutinizes 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 expectation

Its opening episode ‘Fragments of an Arbitrary Encyclopaedia’ explore one of France’s regions, Lorraine, where the episode page advises

Jonathan Meades travels through Lorraine and explains why, although close to its eastern border, it has become the symbolic, or even mystical, heart of France and a stronghold of a romantic nationalism that is also expressed by such diverse means as typography, music, engineering, exquisite urbanism and, above all, a sensitivity to Germany’s proximity.

Jonathan Meades on FranceThis program was broadcast without fanfare or farewell in January and February of this year.

Jonathan Meades is not well known, even in his home country of England, even in his own home county of Wiltshire. He is an unphotographed entry in the Internet Movie Database, but perhaps that just means he is barely known to North Americans. But he does at least have an entry, so he can be said at least to exist.

They describe him as a

Caustic journalist who writes on food and several other subjects, as well as presenting television documentaries

Though oddly despite this information being pride of place in his entry it comes under the section of trivia! Most of his listed TVCV is Television that broadcasts without much ado – fame is not going to seek out someone so little interested in it.

His most recent work prior to this ‘On France’ was Off Kilter which title describes his work well. His longest and perhaps most known or I should say least unknown series was Jonathan Meades Abroad in Britain exploring Britain from the outside looking in – its stop-offs were not usually the usual ones and whose episodic titles may give you an inkling of their content – The Case of the Disappearing Architect, On the Brandwagon and Heaven: Folkwoven In England – then again perhaps they give you no inkling of the content and Mr Meades might be disappointed if they did.

Meades is a literary presenter who is more writer than presenter. It is his words that make him telegenic.

And in this first episode Meades begins by listing what this episode is not about. It is not about

springs of onions, no Dourdogne, Boules, Piaf, ooh la la, Gallic shrugs, street markets, nor check-table cloths

And before I begin this review I own that my knowledge of France does not venture too much beyond the realm of cliché. Sadly France remains unvisited to me despite country-wise being on our Eastern borders save a Channel of water and if I did visit her it would probably be with those 95% seeking Paris though not at least to confirm any expectations I may have of it. I have at least got to know Serge Gainsbourg a little deeper than his carnal duet Je t’aime – though whether Gainsbourg is quintessentially French, or quintessentially Parisian or quintessentially anything I am not sure.

And what this opening episode will be about will be established and knitted via an alphabet soup but not starting at A ending at Z but beginning and finishing with V. Perhaps because we are going on a vacation, if of sorts. Or because we will be veering via his vertiginous vocabulary V to V. Well, you figure it out!

And so to the first V. Valise. To the strains of La Marselliase – some comforting familiarity. For now.

Valise as marker in his words for War and Death and for Statehood – a suitcase both literal and symbolic then – declaiming

Everyman has two countries – his own and France

Quoting a line put into the mouth of Charlemagne from a late 19th Century play La fille de Roland, by Henri De Beugnier, who has Meades note was French himself, so a predictably chauvinistic boast. And perhaps an unpredictably chauvinistic comment about chauvinism from Meades.

Jonathan Meades on France OASExcept Jonathan Meades tell us that in his case (that really was a very subconscious pun!) it is true, sharing with us that his childhood visits to France were many and various including ‘weird sojourns with his granddad’s elderly business friends’ and that he was forever hauling a giant suitcase. That 1962 (half-a-century old as of time of broadcast) in particular was the year that France became his second country, when he arrived in a war-zone – France being in the throes of a terrorist bombing campaign led by the OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrète), a secret military organization committed to keeping Algeria French. This being the year Algeria was to be granted its independence. Algeria was to become free from France if its people not free from its subsequent authoritarian government. The Arab Spring has only blown a little over this country…

When reviewing Meades it is very easy to just bask in his luxurious language and to merely repeat its mazey lines verbatim without comment save the occasional sigh of inhalation, sigh of exhalation. And perhaps that at times should be enough.

For him though the politics of Algerian Independence was of little import to his adolescent mind rather it was in his words the shameful thrill of its awful randomness…next V.

Jonathan Meades on France VallinVallin, Eugene – he was a furniture maker turned architect.

Nancy was we are advised a celebrated arts and crafts centre – Art Nouveau was favoured of Vallin’s time which genre depending on your disposition is at best reverentially revivalist at worst plagiarist.

Nancy though had its own version and took the English Arts and Craft movement as its model if a little less averse to utilizing emerging industrial technologies. This movement we are told is the  preferred style of the Caviar Left, translation Champagne Socialism.

By coincidence BBC 4 have a new series recently commenced Sex and Sensibility: The Art of  Nouveau presented by Stephen Smith who goes into much more detail, three one-hour episodes, as oppose to the several minutes that Meades passes over the subject. But Meades though voluble is nearly always concise. And has a lot of V’s to get through, here comes the next. And on to the next V.

Vaulan, Marquis de – economist and military engineer building battlements on Frances borders at a time when France was rapidly expanding – this V is not dwelt on long.

Jonathan Meades on France VaudemontOn to another V. Vaudémont – a small area of Lorraine and a place of worship or in his words

it has a tower that has a Mary on top of it!

He elaborates or continues in similar vein

A hill south of Lorraine is holy, or spiritual or mystical, one of those superstitious things anyway

He ends that it is the only hilly area for miles around which topographical prodigiousness is routinely claimed for God when in fact it actually belongs to the marvels of geological happenstance.

We spend some time with Maurice Barres one of Vaudémont’s inhabitants and politicians and described by Meades as ‘a clubbable bigot, a xenophobe steeped perhaps paradoxically in German literature’ and has ‘a Lorraine supremacist’

I am not free to think as I wish. I can live only in relation to the dead of my race. They, and my country’s soil, tell me how I should live

Meades thinks that much that he wrote was absolute tosh, but captivatingly written tosh. He notes that Barres influenced not just the gullible but an entire generation – and in him the hill was proclaimed the sacred hill of the nation.

We are advised that Joan of Arc also came from Lorraine, in nearby Domremy. And that Charles De Gaulles was a disciple of Barres too and chose to live on the border of Lorraine though on the other side of that border! Like loving the ideal of someone yet sensing even the briefest time in their presence would disappoint if not appall. Describing then from his border-vantage it has having

a melancholic emptiness where nothing changes, not the spirit, not the place

eulogizing a vapour…

Like Barres De Gaule was described as a solitary being who sought solace in the signals of nature leading Meades to conclude therefore that destiny here was a delusion prompted by

birds chatter, leaves gusting through forests naves, dappled, shafts of sunlight, raucous twigs, sprinting clouds and a multitude of furry animals scurrying nowhere in particular…

And then we look at the Lorraine Cross – a Christian Cross variant which we are reminded the Swastika was too. This Cross was a symbol for the Free French precisely because it defied this German Nationalist Imperialistic Invasion. This neighbourly violation.

This V comes to a close and next Vaugeois. Founder of ‘LAction Francais newspaper Meades lists that he is

anti-Semitic, anti-Corporatist, anti-Republican, anti-democratic, anti-Protestant, anti-Masonic, (pauses to add) goes without saying – it was Catholic and Monarchist

Meades muses on identity has a perennial concern of the far right

whose enemies are rootlessness, cosmopolitanism. A form of communitarianism which defines people by their race and inherited cultured rather than by their individuality, their aspirations, and their talents. It’s a kind of prison.

One of its street-hawkers Meades tell us was Jean Marie Le Pen subsequent leader of the French National Front and youngest ever member of the French Parliament who in turn was inspired by rabble-rouser Pierre Poujade – the deafening voice of the silent majority.

Meades proposes this eternal stance of victim is always with us, always impotent – like Philoctetes its wounds will never heal. Even those merely imagined, especially those merely imagined.

Jonathan Meades on France VedetteAnd on to Vedette -  that is the Simca Vedette – as any lover of mid 1950′s French cars needs no further explanation! Here used as a symbol of Les Trentes Glorieuses (Thirty Glorious Years)  - today an everyday phrase it was originally coined in the book of that name by economist Jean Fourastié from the late 1970′s – and described approximately the period from the liberation of France in the World War II through to the Liberation of French Women in the early 1970′s  - decades that experienced exponential industrial growth amid the rush towards modernization and va-va voom (had to get those V’s in – not a crowbar in sight!) both public and private.

We then see Meades statue-like in a French supermarket or hypermarket or megamarket you get the picture – as My Way in French or perhaps the French song it was based on Comme d’habitude, no matter, plays on its sound-system

For this economist glory relates to the spread of affluence, the triumph of consumerism, medical advances, education, improved working conditions, improved public services and so on.

I own, therefore I am.

Though ownership at least that includes and acknowledges taxation – a visceral verbal volley usually hissed from the individualists, the delusional individualists against taxes – there is no such thing as individuals – we are all social beings, inescapably so, and all the stronger and more diverse and, perhaps paradoxically, the freer for our endless interdependence.

I am happier and healthier now that I drive a Simca Vedette and have plenty of plenty, the state is no longer solely an ideal to which I bear quasi-religious fealty and adolescent resentment. It is also a supplier with which I enjoy a near commercial relationship in exchange for my taxes. My heavy taxes.

Glory then in an economic ideal not a nationalistic one of soil and pomp with vaunting exhortations to patriotism

Just as well Meades notes as this was a quite inglorious time for France.

Though as an side is this not the way of history? – it is that nostalgia thing again – we experience always our national life has anxious and disappointing and inglorious, it is only when it becomes past with the increasing distance of space and time that its ingloriousness sheds its first syllable -  embellished by unreliable memory and variously motivated cherry picking.

Back to Meades. France, both at home and its (colonial) abroad, specifically its military forays which as Meade succinctly calls it

France played 4 lost 4.

Surrender becoming habit forming and we are now given another language lesson this time a list of German words that have invaded and or been integrated into the French language.

Jonathan Meades on France VerdunAnd on to Verdun

Starting with  a song Verdun by Michel Sordou over footage of this World War One battle.

A battle in 1916 that claimed 300,000 lives. It is to France as to what the Somme is to Britain. But whereas the Edwin Lutyens Monument  to the Missing of the Battle of Somme remembers it in an architecturally appropriate way the architecture commemorating Verdun Meades thinks does not . This being the Douaumont ossuary. Not that it is frivolous but that it lacks solemnity, lacks gravity. It is the architecture of pleasure placed in a cemetery, inimical to meditative remembrance – the architects lacked the nerve to address the awful purpose of the monument , they made light of it, a 140 metre long betrayal of the dead.

They were also victims of the Modernist Century’s incapacity to devise a commemorative mode Meades adds and that no century ever needed one more.

Verlaine – Paul not Tom.  And his ode to Metz. Site of an earlier military surrender from 1870 – the invader again Germany and as before we looked at how language was invaded too this time we look at architectural invasion. Such as the Metz station – described by one critic memorably as an immense squat meat-pie!.

Further time is spend looking at renovations of existing buildings to rewrite history and render them Teutonic.

Jonathan Meades on France Metz VerlaineVersailles – and back to 1962 and Jean Bastien-Thiry who attempted to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle and which spawned a book The Day of The Jackal  in 1971 by Frederick Forsyth and a few years later a film by Fred Zinneman starring Edward Fox and we are going off track. Back again then to 1962 and the failed assassination attempt and as much of note was his trial (also for treason) was that the General to preside over it killed himself rather than sit in judgement and the firing squad tried to miss the target, that is Bastien-Thiry!, taking half an hour to eventually kill him – because perhaps he used to be one of them, the French Military Establishment that is, having served in their air-force. He was the last person to be killed by firing squad in France. And why Versailles? This was the location of the cemetery he was buried in which tombstone now has an annual ceremony and remembrance of sorts as attended by his fellow surviving outcasts and which routinely prompts protests. As heroes and villains are often the same person.

Jonathan Meades on France StrasbourgVexatious litigants – and Strasbourg  and the location of the European Court of Human Rights – its building is disparaged for its architecture and then for its purpose.

The latter explained away has a Court of Special Pleading and that we are showered at birth with the promise of potential entitlements and should those entitlements not be fulfilled we can come here and complain and so line the pockets of the pious shysters of the Human Rights Industry!

And the architecture is described as being indistinguishable from buildings on the Polish-Lithuanian border, a comment only helpful if you are familiar with the architecture of the Polish-Lithuanian border!

Multiculturalism in the name of diversity is the next to find itself under the sun-glassed gaze of Jonathan Meades – and this one is a vituperative verbal volley – brace yourselves!

the constant injunction to celebrate vibrant diversity is moronic. It is shared qualities that should be appreciated. To emphasize differences merely consigns people to their background, to where they’ve come from, to their tribe, their caste, their religion. It creates ghettos.

France’s regionalism is then addressed. He notes that it is exacerbated by its absorption of its many bordered countries – Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

What is noticeable he then observes is the absence of reciprocity – these countries do not absorb France as France absorbs them. Universalism in his words does not travel!

By way of example and a dig at German cuisine – what do you call good German cooking? You call it Alsacian cooking. Alsace enjoys a reputation as the most gastronomic region of France, arguably the most gastronomic country on earth. But noting the dishes themselves are all originally German but Francofied… Alsace though a border region with perhaps inevitable ambiguous loyalties to both France and its border boarder Germany.

And another French region, another V – Vichy.

Cue old British Empire-style war footage with a plummy English accent voiceover describing Pierre Laval, French Prime Minister during wartime, second world wartime, and who had to negotiate with Germany whilst his nation vanquished by them, and being described by said plummy voice as being in the habit of eating Frogs and thus making him technically a cannibal – casual cringing racist diplomatic humour!

Most French Meades advise were neither collaborator or resistance  rather at varying degrees between those two outer poles but the extremes having greater story value to history prevail. He notes though how its war criminals stealthily changed sides and suits and rose through the peacetime political ranks. And that though subsequent generations of Germans have expressed much shame for the culpability of their ancestors subsequent generations of France’s citizens have expressed no such shame for their collaborative role. Rather it was but another episode in France’s interminable civil war – right against left, monarchism against republicanism, catholic against an alliance of masons, protestants and secularists – the aforementioned AOS we are advised included both former collaborators and resistance fighters – men who had been deported to Dachau, men who had deported them.

Vienna! – the baguette is not French! You may have guessed then that it was introduced to Paris from Vienna in 1830.

Vietminh – not to be confused with Vietnam – though they were of that country and set up to establish independence from France – and during World War 2 against Japan too. And this Meades tale is about Georges Boudarel, a French teacher in Saigon who in 1950 defected to the Vietminh soon to become a war-criminal being responsible for the death of 300 or so of his compatriots. Reminding that the heart of darkness is not a geographical place but the darkness of the heart. He was sentenced to death in-absentia. And later recognized in Paris by one of his surviving victims was tried non absentia – in the interim he had been living in France having embarked on a university career as an  historian, revising his own history too, put on trials for crimes against humanity and now defended by his academic colleagues in the name of colonial revisionism. He was freed under the terms of an amnesty. This was a common French fate for colonial misadventurers. And veer off again to another v.

Visionary Visionaries - we see a ticker-tape pictorial parade of those so selected – Andre Godin, Le Corbusier,  Pascal Hausermann and Claude Nicolas Ledoux, to the sound of I Close the Door Upon Myself by Susumu Yokota.

He then elaborates a little or a lot as his fancy takes on each.

We first cut to Ledoux and his salt-works – a utopian salt works! Described memorably by Meades – though Meades has so much that is memorable that by virtue of its quantity it becomes unmemorable! – as exhilaratingly sullen.

He talks of the talking architecture – Architecure Parlante – giving Meades play to riff on model examples such as

a public toilet in the form of a syringe, a new house of commons in the form of a suitcase of money or cash dispenser, ‘that sort of thing’!

Jonathan Meades on France Le CorbusierOn to Le Corbusier described as a Swiss peasant who according to Meades wanted to be a French genius, a cultural colonialist and these the more flattering terms he has for him!. His works are treated more favorably – buildings that use machines but do not worship them. Described as

plastic, expressive with deliberately rough edges. Purity of form is suppressed, impurity of form is more interesting.  The meeting point of France and the Future.

In his second country Meade declares the future had already arrived. Or rather a future had already arrived. One that looked like it had suffered multiple amputations! But one at least that the French had a share in, not imposed from without. The future existed in the present.

Jonathan Meades on France HausermannOn to Hausermann – also Swiss – and Meades then reminds that many from Switzerland are mistaken for being French listing Rousseau, Godin and others before deliberately trailing off as a long list. Like many Scots who are thought by non-Brits as English but I veer. And what did Hausermann do? It was he that created the architecture of that French future now!

On to the next V.

Vitrine – the arrival of white Goods to France and seemingly endless household gadgets or rather appliances.

Jonathan Meades on France VitrineCar colours expanded – there was a time when every other colour was Cobalt Blue

somewhere between the colour of Gitanes and the colour of Gauloises! Two of the country’s predominant scents!, along with urine, sewers, two-stroke fuel!

Jonathan Meades on France MistralMeades then veers to typefaces and that they are as much logos charged with political regionalistic significance as functional fonts and we arrive at Roger Excoffon and Script Fonts. Script fonts are based on hand-writing and Excoffon devised a script font based  on his own handwriting – Mistral – the real inspiration being that each letter alongside any other letter appears joined up – any word comprising them appears legible yet any letter detached from the word can appear illegible – the letters work as words not as letters! Each part of each letter has a universal joint.

We then look at the Choc typeface which takes this legibility to the very limits of almost-scrawl!

Mistral is now a common place on shop-fronts and menus.

Voltaire – finally a V I have more than passing familiarity with! And back to Nancy – the city that most physically embodies the enlightenment.  Meades first reminds of Stanislovas Leščinskis, King of Poland, amongst other royal titles, and patron of many of these enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and also Montesquieu and Emile du Châtelet.

This king was described by Meadesas an epicurean philosopher and counseled happiness, optimism, virtuous hedonism, philanthropy, good fellowship, and self-regard.

Nancy was described as his greatest work – a Versailles for the people.

Jonathan Meades on France Voltaire

This statue of the Polish king is improved by the long-distance view. Up close you'll see a pigeon-poo tear-stain running down his cheek!

We spend time looking at his main commissioning architect Emmanuel Héré de Corny and his various creations described by Meades as ‘vectors of happiness’.

He notes his architecture was dated even before the final stone was laid – by at least half a century indeed – and, ‘so what’ – the worth of art he contends is not about novelty and being ahead of the game.

To the penultimate V - Vosges – a  vineyard rural area – this one included not so much for its place in French life and its history but in Meade’s own memory, charged childhood nostalgia – such as Nonagenarian great-grandmother and her seventy year old daughter who cooked a dinner of him of hare

telling him that this was the house that she had been born, and from which she had never moved, yet she had changed nationality four times, French, German, French, German, French. She told it to him without rancor it was merely what had happened to her. She hoped to die French. She did.

La Valise ou le cerceuil and we are back to that suitcase again.

This time, to the statement everyman has two countries, his own and France he answers ‘Wrong’.

Some men have no country – has in the aforesaid displaced Algerians – as this v fully translates as ‘The suitcase or the coffin, expatriation or death – hundreds of thousands left Algeria, hundreds of thousands were murdered. The authors of this overlooked genocide he advises were the terrorists of the FLN (National Liberation Front) and their new friend Charles De Galle.

The program now vanishes. This post vaporizes too.

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7 thoughts on “Fragments of an Arbitrary Encyclopaedia – Jonathan Meades on France

  1. You’re so interesting, Sam. You really are an interesting man.

    Great post, never seen the show, love the quotes, coffins/suitcases, and your mention of the displaced Algerians reminds me of Camus.

    I clicked on your ad., as promised. Always keep a promise though may take a while…

    Tried to catch your post of what you were doing V/Day 2 years ago – was just curious for a read – & sought ’14 February’ and discovered this post, though not posted on that day.

    You do such solid, well researched, intelligent articles and they ALWAYS enlighten me about the world, and the world of art, ALWAYS.

    Cheers to you, Sam.

  2. Well, I just can’t seem to come up with a clever comment for this one. Let’s meet in some tiny village in France and talk about Voltaire over some full plates and a bottle of something instead. I will show you my imaginary tattoo and you will identify the shapes of clouds for me.

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