Dr Bruce Banner used to warn: “You won’t like me when I’m angry”, but the aficionado of Meades is always hoping for the inevitable transformation, the dandyish Hulk rampage. One of the foremost prose stylists of his age in any register, Meades has an especial ear for the brutal music of invective. He is surely one of the planet’s best haters. The present prime minister, unsurprisingly, has proved a potent inspiration. “Boris Johnson’s lovable maverick shtick has been to dissemble himself beneath a mantle of suet, to pretend to inarticulacy, to oik about as the People’s Primate, to wear a ten-year-old’s hairdo, to laugh it off – no matter what it is, no matter how grave it may be – and to display charm learned at a charm school with duff tutors,” he writes. “This construct is going on threadbare. If one devotes such energy to a simulacrum of oafishness one becomes an oaf.” Johnson is, he joyously adds, “a blubbery pink peculator” who is said to have enjoyed “an assisted siesta in Shoreditch”. In that phrase “assisted siesta” we witness the pure poetry of vituperation.
One of the things that makes Meades such a useful and important critic and commentator is that he quite clearly doesn’t give a damn what you think of him. But that is only half of the story: for, in a way, he is very much on the reader’s side, bringing his full wit to bear on every single thing he writes. There is not a sentence here that is not armoured with intelligence, and very few, if any, that are not, in their way, a delight to read. Le style c’est l’homme. I should add that this is a very handsomely produced book, insofar as its proofreading and indexing go.
Nabokov, Meades says, “sought to make books which were as perfectly shaped and self-contained as his beloved butterflies”, and Meades has sought to make a book shaped like his beloved Blenheim Palace: brutalist, arrogant; a moving finger. It is tempting for the critic to pile the insults high because that is what Meades does, too: each overloaded sentence becomes the pursuit of the perfect putdown. The British are “a pecuniarily divided, culturally impoverished, proudly philistine, socially dysfunctional, self-deluding country whose greatest collective gifts are for packaging, spin, PR, merchandising, rebranding, euphemism, and of course the keen gullibility that such forms of mendacity initially create and subsequently depend upon”.
Pedro and Ricky Come Again — the title no more meaningful than an earlier Meades collection, Peter Knows What Dick Likes — ought to become a classic. It is an enshrinement of his intense baroque and catholic cleverness, which is precisely what is being suppressed by the intolerance, denunciations and narrow ignorance of “woke” cultural commissars.