Book Review: Peter Knows What Dick Likes (1989) by Jonathan Meades

A 600-page collection of Meades’ eighties journalism (essays, features, portraits and reviews), with a screenplay and two short stories bundled in.

There are an exact 100 articles on a vast array of subject matter, written mainly between 1982-1988 (although there are some pieces from the early seventies) for themed periodicals and newspapers. The running order follows a general thematic route, which I’ll attempt to describe:

First up is a memorable study of the transsexual prostitutes of Paris, which leads into portraits of first Amanda Lear and then April Ashley, part of a small cluster of similar items about the elite members of several professions (hairdressing, window-dressing, interior dressing).

Next there are twenty-five articles on Meades’ familiar subject of architecture, topography and townscape (covered in greater depth in his much-later collection Museum Without Walls). Subjects include Vanbrugh, Garden Cities, Pevsner, Ian Nairn, Lutyens, Barcelona, Glasgow and the follies and his contempt for post-modern architects and critics.

After this, a group of early (71-74’) modern lit essays and reviews on Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Tournier and others. In these early pieces Meades’ authorial voice is fully formed, although his grip is marginally looser than his later pieces (in his vocab and the tightness of his prose).

We get to the centrepiece, the screenplay Millie’s Problem. A fantasy about a working-class Poole girl’s abortion, it is, as Meades notes in his introduction, the missing piece from his short story collection Filthy English. Apparently Channel 4 commissioned it as new drama and then got cold feet (a pity); ‘too harrowing’ even for early Channel 4 (what would they have made of The Hoody Brute).

After two short stories from 70/71’ (Perfect Portrait is very good, demonstrating Meades’ talents in presenting scenarios and his characters: normally detached individuals much given to immoral reflection), there is one more literary piece on Hesse, then two excellent pieces on Meades old-stomping ground of the environs of Salisbury, on the very different worlds of new-age travellers and the army.

A bunch of further portraits are next, about slightly edgy figures familiar to the world (Robert Elms, Richard Branson, Michael Heath). By now we’re into the last quarter of the book and a run of reportages of the fates of popular entertainments: wrestling, greyhound racing, end of the pier shows. Then a couple of TV reviews (which are more like essays on our failings as a civilisation – an archaeologist called John Romer gets a glorious kicking for the sin of blokishness). Then pieces on child stars (Meades visits HTV in Bristol and sits in on a recording of Aled Jones’ Chatterbox), country matters (hunting for foxes, rabbits, oysters, truffles and mushrooms) and alcohol (its consumption and presentation).

The last four articles are about Exchange & Mart, the painter James Tissot, the photographer David Bailey and Jane Gatz (an enigmatic piece to finish with).

Meades interest (curiosity doesn’t feel like the right word) takes him all over. And from quite a young age he appears to have been a monolith of erudition (he wrote Perfect Portrait and the series of review/essays on Borges at the age of 23/24, shortly after finishing training at RADA). Besides being spectacularly well-informed, his writing is acute in applying his intelligence (he manages to be both grim and joyful in dissecting his subject and dismantling his targets). He is also not an armchair critic; he goes to a huge amount of trouble (to judge from the physical range of his subject material) to visit, experience and encounter the people, places and works he describes.

My favourites from this collection? Well, the reportage about the gender re-assigned Bois de Boulogne sex workers, the good bits of Glasgow still left, the peace convoy, army life on Salisbury Plain and the essays on anonymous letters and Exchange and Mart are particularly good.  

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