Monday, October 17, 2011

Touched by bombast

Jonathan Meades, Saturday 15th October, 6.30pm, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

Words by Nick Garrard.

It’s a cool Manchester evening and Jonathan Meades takes to the stage dressed in a smart black suit, a shirt the colour of bruised salmon and a tie which looks to have been decorated with line upon line of dancing chillies. Fitting stuff, as his appearance tonight is peppered (apols) with so many piquant facts that the margins of my notepad are soon swamped with names and references, saved for dragging up later. The evening is to be neatly split in two: the first half is given over to Meades’ personal reminiscences of Anthony Burgess, while the latter delivers an extended reading from his latest book, a mish-mash of memoir and cultural history.
But first to Burgess.

Meades knew him a little and talks of the man with a mixture of reverence and the fondest of ribbing. Chatting to Burgess, he says, was like spending a few hours with an encyclopaedia. He was a proud autodictat and he knew the word for everything. This, however, wasn’t his only remarkable feature - when first dispatched to meet him, Meades’ commissioning editor’s parting words were, "Be sure to describe his smell." The aroma in question was that of Burma cheroots, a brand of smokes so potent they left deep orange stains on the tips of their bearers’ fingers. Burgess probably wouldn’t have noticed these as he was deeply colour blind. Nor, apparently, did he pay much heed to the eye-bleeding ensembles he often wore in public (dig up his appearance on the Dick Cavett show for a suitably vomitous example).

Burgess was a blessing to the comically inclined. Those who have seen Jonathan Meades’ travelogues will know that he has always excelled at the pithy summary, and he litters his description of Manchester’s most prolific literary son with a gamut of excellent one-liners. Indeed, it seems that every part of his outward appearance served a punchline well, from the curious, asymmetrical sweep of hair ("the combover’s combover") to his mangled accent ("he went for Received Pronunciation but ended up sounding almost exactly like Denis Law"). It is only in describing the work itself that Meades strikes a serious note. He praises Burgess’ broad range of interests and desire to avoid the well-turned paths of the modern literary novel ("endless rounds of north London adultery"). Here, he says, is a world influenced by the roughhouse tradition, as libidinal as a Donald McGill postcard yet as polyglot as Joyce in his highest modernist finery. It’s a loving portrait tenderly drawn, and I leave with a renewed urge to keep reading Burgess. There’s much left to plough through.

Next, it’s a thrill to hear Meades read from his current work in progress. I’ve not come across his print persona before and am pleased to hear it is no less weighted with odd digressions than his television work. He reads for maybe half an hour and, in this time, the range of topics covered is bewildering: he explores the legacy of the Comanche, the work of LSD pioneer Albert Hoffman, and clandestine chemical experiments at the Porten Down facility, all framed within a stirringly evoked episode from his childhood. The writing is sharp and zippy and as we file out into the night, our brains are buzzing with new connections. It’s Saturday night and the world seems alive with possibility.

Nick Garrard lives and works in Manchester. You can follow him on Twitter @havershambler.

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