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Meades has been compared, favourably, to Rabelais and, flatteringly, to Swift. The truth is that he outstrips both in the gaudiness of his imagination.
Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement

Empty Wigs

Jonathan Meades
Status: Being written
Publication date: TBC
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Meades has been compared, favourably, to Rabelais and, flatteringly, to Swift. The truth is that he outstrips both in the gaudiness of his imagination.
Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement

Empty Wigs is a hallucinatory ride through the twentieth century that will cement Jonathan Meades as one of the great literary writers of our age.

It moves from bloody Algiers in 1962 to the Marches in the late nineteenth century, from Lüneburg Heath to suburban southern England. Its characters are damned and doomed. They exert free will so make terrible choices. Their appetites are base. Their lives are without end. They lurch to extremes. From euthanasia to terrorism and political assassination, with secrets and betrayals, great gothic houses and pseudo-scientific experiments, Empty Wigs is a vast compendium of tales from the jungle of existence which show humankind at its most abject.

Many of its stories are bleak, perverse, harrowing. Many are tragically farcical. But the writing is neon-rich, gorgeous and baroque, funny and joyfully offensive. Told through frames within frames, mazes within mazes, colliding narratives and quick changing moods, Empty Wigs is a late modern masterpiece and a return to the novel’s origins.


‘Meades is brainy, scabrous, mischievous and a bugger to pigeonhole: a fizzing anomaly’ Tim Teeman, The Times

‘One of the foremost prose stylists of his age in any register . . . Probably we don’t deserve Meades, a man who apparently has never composed a dull paragraph’ Steven Poole, Guardian

‘The scope of his ideas, the force of his arguments, the sheer vitality of his sentences: these things come at you like negative ions after a storm’ Rachel Cooke, New Statesman

Image credits: Design by Mecob. Book designs, cover and other images are for illustrative purposes and may differ from final design.

Sir Geoffrey Shadoxhurst BT

I loved Sundays when I was a little chap. Waking up, sitting in bed impatiently gnawing at Raggedy Reggy Fitzroy till I heard the distant bell for matins. It rang out across the misty meadows and the deer park, never quite drowning out the racket of the rooks in the elms. Those bells were my signal. Time to get up and creep past Nanny Shadox’s room. Then I walk stealthy as a ghost down the backstairs to my parents’ part of the house. The corridor dado was tan lincrusta with a thistle pattern. All along it on the walls were those ancient framed photos of the family, the house, the lodges, the Redoubt, Home Marsh, Friary Field, the heady hothouses (peaches, figs, apricots, custard apples, persimmons), the staff. Whilst the park church (Henry Woodyer 1861) is extant, the village churchyard was desecrated in the name of progress: the word by-pass signifies rotting coffins exhumed and waiting to be removed and corpses too dead to make their escape. So much has gone. People, whatever their station, have their term. All but one of the Shadoxhursts who came and went and who, in their brief span, got, one after the other, the photography bug, have gone. Astonishing how much places change too.

All the elms, of course, killed off by a fungus, the only successful invasion our friends from the flatlands ever pulled off! And the post and rail fence round Friary Field. Seized by the government to be melted down for the ‘war effort’ - so it was probably unceremoniously buried in a top secret slag heap, most likely on the Mendips, what the oggies thereabouts call batches. But it’s more the accumulation of minuscule, almost invisible nips and cuts, which strikes one after so long. The entire surrounds of Faineant have been remade, over and over. Everything is different. The posture of men back from harvest, their tools, the weft of sheared grass, raked gravel's patterns, the gamut of specimens in a parterre.

That was England. There went England.

‘Daaarleenk Boy,’ Mama’s voice was husky (everyone said so. It was how they avoided mentioning her accent. Husky. It was some years before I sorted out the confusion with the dog breed, and by then it was too late). Her bedroom smelled of Jicky and toasty laundry.

I didn’t have the foggiest at the time – I had nothing to compare it with - but I was born to the best. That’s all I knew. I took the exquisite for granted. Menton. Les Baux. The Villa Bleu. The Villa Jana. Molinard. Worth. Petrossian. Fauchard. Cotton from Egypt, native land of the traitor Hess. A squash court of one’s own. White gold. Books bound in white buckskin to match the library shelves and walls. Petrus. Shad roe for the Shadoxhursts. Jujurieux. Randersacker. The Hispanio Suisa. The only Phantom Corsair ever produced. The cobalt blue Stutz Bearcat. Above all the unique Mercedes (Neubauer, Dick Seaman, the Führer). With tastes like mine I should have been as queer as Dada but I was not so blessed.

Mama would pat the bed. I’d snuggle up beside her. A putto beside a voluptuous goddess. I’d tell her my dreams and invent adventures for Raggedy Reggy Fitzroy. He always escaped the werewolves whose howls were as bloodcurdling as I could muster. ‘My Daaarleenk Verecub. One day you’ll be my Verewolf.’ For her there could be nothing better than a lycanthropic son. ‘Howl my leettle Verecub!’

One such morning when I was twelve – old habits! - I was cosy beside her eating warm bread, soft butter and honey from her breakfast tray when Dada marched into her bedroom. He was drying his golden hair.

‘Darlink Freddie you 'ave shave soap like you are Fuzza Chrissmas.’

He repeated what he had said a few minutes earlier when we were listening to the wireless.

‘What – what! - has ruddy Poland ever done for us? Poland! All I know of the damned place is that it's so flat it's an invitation to take your tanks for a whirl... an invitation it would be discourteous to decline.’

His astrakhan-collared pewter and navy dressing gown lent him the air of the swell boxer he once had been – Public Schools bantamweight champion 1917 and 1918, quite an achievement notwithstanders that the older chaps had already gone off to war.

‘Just let the Führer get on with it. He knows what he’s doing. Which is more than can be said of that man Chamberlain. God what a drivelling sniveller the man is. What is he?’

‘A drivelling sniveller and a yellow streak down his spine to boot Dada.’

‘That’s it. Ruddy pact with Poland... Poland!... it’s just spite towards the Führer, all out of spite. You can be sure that our friends in International Finance are at the helm. And the ineffable Horeb El Isha. God almighty – where does it leave one? It’s so... compromising.’

Why was our government itching to fight another war? Had not the last one been enough? The tragic mistake to end all tragic mistakes? The English may be bellicose. The Germans may be martial. But we are brothers.

‘Kin folk tongued even as we are.’ Dada often quoted Hardy, 'the hetero Housman'. What he wrote in 1915 was still spot-on twenty-four years later. I knew The Pity of It by heart. Only a few weeks before, Dada had even read out, with a grudging hear-hear, what Rolf Gardiner[1], another Dorset man, had rued in New Pioneer: ‘Those who should be friends and kinsmen are in open emnity.’ Grudging because, although Dada was on speakers with Gardiner and considered him basically sound (on sylviculture, agriculture, race, breeding), he was browned off by his twittish scoutmaster tendency. All that airy-fairy, arty-farty, singing-whilst-we-whittle-round-the campfire was just so much kidney pee. Required: less hey-nonny-no, more iron will. Dada's work camps for The Offspring Of The Urban Misfortunate were more like it. They were foundries of discipline and bodies hard as flint. Harry Umberson-Dogg wrote a splendid paean to the camps in The Nordic.

Dada announced, as he did every Sunday, ‘I’m going to canter over to Roddie’s. Luncheon one thirty? Who’ve we got coming?’

A few minutes later we could hear the jolly pizzicato clipclipclopclipclipclop of gaited hooves on the cobbles this side of the tack room.

I went to the window. Marengo was being led by Davy Skitch.

Oh, the splendour of that massive Stralsunder stallion! What delicacy, what barbarous strength! Black body and head, black so black it was almost blue, silver mane and tail. A creature of the finest breeding. And what is breeding if not willed reincarnation, the determination that the genes of the parents should be repeated, visited on generation after generation. It was never my wish to breed for posterity. Seed-release for my pleasure and their profit is a different matter. Should one fertilise the eggs of a mare of inferior caste the progeny must be admitted to a furlough of abrogation.

Dada wore chamois breeches. His black boots, gloves and crop were as glossy as Marengo’s coat. He was shirtless, his torso was tanned, lean, muscular, his abundant pelt caught the sun. He was, then, still a blond god to me. But there was something amiss. That day Marengo did not canter. They walked as one, tiptoeing elegantly, across the park towards the cedars of Lebanon and the slope beyond. They took the sandy track which climbed through the bracken to Botanical Wood, The Hermitage and up Slope Hide where the vase and swags and viewing platform railings at the top of the Doric monument rise mightily over the wooded brow. Out of sight of the house he would, as he did every Sunday, dismount and stand by the monument in contemplation and remembrance of a day he couldn't remember, a day he couldn't let go of.

Loyal Pippin was beside them, snuffling about the grass. Davy’s little boy The Pathetic Mite Ned limped behind them with a trowel and trug peering through his immensely thick specs to gather Marengo’s precious manure, a task he prosecuted with eager gratitude. You never see staunch leg braces like The Pathetic Mite Ned’s today. Calipers and leather are so alter hut. Altmodischen. More's the pity. A question of the poor just not getting the right diseases anymore. I dare say diet plays its part too. Had Germany invaded, under NSDAP rule The Pathetic Mite Ned would unquestionably have been culled. No one went so far as to say so but it was the silent consensus. The admonition to cultivate our garden includes the duty of weeding it. Had it fallen to me to carry out the sentence in the name of racial hygiene I’d have done my duty without, I hope, any animosity on either of our parts.

A plume of smoke rose from beyond the wood. The two Berts, Lugsden and Twibill, would be burning a scarecrow every day for a week to give thanks for the harvest. Like the rest of the mentally enfeebled they’d have been culled too, no matter how fierce their loyalty to their master.

How many more such scenes would I see?

The beginning of war was the end of something else which was not going to be recuperable. The end of the possibility of England conjoined with Germany on equal terms.

The day itself wasn’t all doom and gloom. It wasn’t chucking it down or anything. It was muggy, slightly hazy. No breeze, High Lake was still. No ominous clouds, indeed hardly a cloud in the milky blue sky. Beyond the lake and the gunnera the splendid southdowns grazed on, happily ignorant of the affairs of man. Now, they actually were like clouds, plump as cumuli and as English as fladge. How English it all was. How green it all was.

The slowness of Dada’s progress was disquieting. It was saddening because unprecedented. Ponderous, no joie de vivre or derring-do. That wasn't his way. He was solemnly drinking in all that he could see as though he knew that this great domaine would soon no longer be his. Impossible to believe then that sixty years later a kindredly black-booted, black-gloved Stafford Prance would one day grace Faineant Park.

That tense summer. Rollo Gammans:

‘a term pregnant with foreboding

no draught of tansy shall make an angel of.’

In early May Davy had hurried into Dada’s den to tell him that two men had driven to the end of the avenue, left their car there, and were now sauntering about the park. One seemed to be photographing the park and jotting down notes. The other had ‘this seeing machine thing’ over by Friary Field. When challenged they had the impudence to appear affronted. They introduced themselves as Southern Command land agents compiling an inventory of properties which might be requisitioned for military purposes. Without so much as by your leave they were assessing the potential of the Faineant estate, and of the park. With a theodolite, they were working out whether parts of the park were level enough for prefabricated buildings, Nissen huts and kindred blots; the naked eye would have resoundingly told them yes, without all the fuss of the theodolite. When Dada observed that they were trespassing they insolently told him that a ‘new disposal’ had been sanctioned. He said he felt like wiping the smug smiles from their chops. One of them had Judath-red hair and a lithp.

Now, on the third of September, that malign future they presaged four months before, which had been subsequently emphasised by further visits and some menacing manila, had very nearly arrived.

Mama was in tears. That beautiful face was contorted, flushed. ‘Vhat eez going to happen? Vhat eez going to happen? My sveetingpie.’ Her breath was hot and lovely. I cuddled her. Sobbing jerkily, heaving with grief she repetitively chanted ‘Zeese Aimergency Powus Act’. I didn’t really have the foggiest about it, I was in the dark about what effect it would have on us, how a government’s cruel whims could barge into private lives.

‘You get me leettle dreenk and breenk me een bath.’

Mama was not immune to the pleasures of the grape, nor of grain for that matter. I went to her dressing room, took the ingredients from the refrigerator. The Formula - which I had by heart and shall never forget: sugar cube, big splash angosturas, two fingers Asbach brandy, two fingers Jagermeister (‘Göring Schnapps’), half bottle Anheuser blanc de noir Spatburgunder. The enamel and silver stein was hardly a lady’s vessel. But then she often wore Pour Un Homme and a man’s watch, and had always refused to leave the table after dinner.

She lay in the dolphin-flanked, shell-shaped bath sipping, then swigging, smoking New Epochs listening to Ruth Etting on the gramophone, her solution to being down in the mouth. Sandalwood oil marbled the surface. I never got in before she uttered the invitation: ‘Soaptime Darleenk!’ She rarely used anything other than Amalfitano’s Bois de Cedre, an ivory cake inset with a delicious cedilla of minge hair. Its unmistakable scent summons her to this day. We’d lather each other, her smooth body, and mine ever more masculine, newly hirsute: how proud I was of the changes that were occurring, and with speed. We were joyful cherubs, pretending we were in a rock pool or a pond in a woodland glade. This was the closest to heaven I ever came. For years I hoped to replicate that soapy bliss. Spent a fortune, hundreds of thousands, yearning to recreate that maternal love. Not that I regret it; the foothills of bliss are pleasurable too. But, well... the way her body tautened in response to my sudsy hands was unique, never to be found elsewhere and my God I’ve searched high and low. Lifelong quest. You can lather an aperture till the proverbial cows come home but you cannot conjure up that sensation of the exquisite and the forbidden. No matter how many lovers we may have, we have only one mother. Only one mother whispering and nuzzling and teaching my hand to touch her crimson bud. Only one mother buffing my now mature Tiger till the big cat explodes in pain and pleasure and my bodily spasms displaced a wave of water from the bath (again! Call the builders!). Motherly love was never so motherly.

‘Naughty Mama,’ she giggled ‘naughty.’ Maybe her self-reproach was more real than she pretended.

The gramophone needle repetitively scraped the centre of the last record on the autochanger; water that won’t go down the plughole. A dutiful son, I turned it off.

She took a draught from the stein. As ever she warned: ‘Not a word to Dada. Special secrets - not for Dada.’

I didn’t let on that I didn’t buy the idea that Dada was ignorant. Indifferent was more like it. He wasn’t fooled for a moment. Nor was I.

A thing of beauty is a boy forever. Most Englishmen are queers. Maybe more than most. I regret that I am an exception to our proud tradition. Our island tradition. Our unique ancestral mix determines our sexual complexion. Viking, Saxon, Celt, Norman. Quite unlike that of other European countries. It does not preclude procreation, obviously. A woman is for duty. She bears the queers of the future who keep the name alive, who will in their turn spawn heirs born bent as a nine bob note with genetic bias acquired in the womb. Custom and practice are pre-programmed. Atavism's irresistible pull. There's no escape. Why should anyone want to escape? It comes from the top. The kings - show me a straight king and I'll show you a usurper. That's the nature taken care of.

Here's the nurture. What does it tell us?

The Anglican communion, single sex 'education', boy scouts, the armed forces, police section houses, the Masters of the Determinant, theatre and ballet 'communities', masonic lodges, communal toilets without doors, communal showers, prison, ordinands' dormitories, 'Turkish' baths, flight crews' overnighters, the fire service, inns of court, the Idyllic Brotherhood, wrestling, 'gentlemen's' clubs, the Garrick, the Travellers, White's and so on.

What it tells us is this. Even when sodomitical high jinks were punished by spiteful laws the whole caboodle in The Green and Pleasant was, if you cared to take a shufti, a prod to Attic companionship, the lavender life, love of comrades. Newbolt was a sly one. Fais ce que voudras - so long as you don't get nabbed doing it, whatever it is. Rough stubble will speak to rough stubble. Bachelor to bachelor. Sod, sod, sod anyone who tries to stop you. The pleasure of the moment is the only possible motive for action. I'm all for action. Have even been known to enjoy an occasional ride on the mount that comes from behind - but it's never been my natural berth. I suppose that makes me not much of an Englishman.

Masochism was standard issue. The more vindictive the attack on inversion the more inverted the attacker, the greater the depths of his self-loathing. The victim of 'justice' is a proxy for the hypocrite dispensing 'justice' whilst longing for chastisement, the stroke of the bullwhip, the glans nailed to a plank, the back garden crucifixion. The risk of being caught boosted the thrill. So did punishment. Many queers would just adore to retrofit the rite of coming-up-before-the-bench, getting a talking to from the stipe who, as soon as he has delivered the savage sentence (more in sorrow than anger, of course), is off to a nearby cottage bent on meeting a good sport. Here's hoping there isn't a very special constable in the rafters.

It was all swept under the carpet wasn't it. But not very far under and anyway the carpet was so threadbare it could be seen through, which doesn't necessarily make it valuable - but don't throw it out. Little Dominic Rose advises that: 'Shabby chic comes round every few years. Shabby chic will be so now before you've even fetched it back from the dedicated dry cleaner (the carpet, that is).'

As a young man my Dada Freddie Shadoxhurst may possibly have shopped on both sides of the street. Well why not? Why restrict yourself? But he pretty soon opted for the lavender side. Even before I was ten or so it was pretty damn obvious to me that he was as queer as a carp in a surplice: as if to confirm it in his dressing room hung a large canvas by the notorious Linsel Murly, a blond rapacious-looking fellow, evil extra-wide lipless crocodile mouth. Youth depicted naked boys in a sandy pool splashing each other and fondling each other’s Tiger Cubs. Notably less coy than the Roseland School of Everard Bunce, Tingay and Petherick ( who, nonetheless, got five years hard labour and theosophy). I kept my eyes open, I had a taste for eavesdropping, I had an unerring gift for barging into rooms at what I can only call the precise moment. He had that predatory underbite which is a sure sign. I lacked that just as I lacked the queer gene. It had somehow passed me by. Not, as I say, that I was averse to cottage cruising when I was young - but not for the abundant offal quivering in the half light with a droplet of preseminal magic at the tip. No, it was the thrill of it all, the danger, the promise of Bobby The Plod's clumsy arrival, the panic, the besmirching of the family name. Dada knew it all. He had lived it.

Most of my muckers at preppers had dadas who were just as queer as Dada, even queerer, some of them, real Daddy Queffs. No names, no pack-drill. The poor sods didn’t have gorgeous Mamas as a solace though. So I didn’t get picked on. At least not because of Dada. My precociously early pubescence - I could projectile ejaculate a massive load by the time I was eleven and four months - and lustrous pelt of bodily hair were a different k of f.

They were jealous!

So, strangely, was Dada who was hardly smooth all over but not nearly so abundantly fleeced as I am. He used to slyly glance at my shiny coat.

In those days, even when the mechanics of reproduction were off-putting, continuing the line was a gentleman’s duty to the future of the race.

It was a chap's obligation to the shades of the ancestors who had caused him to exist. Good stock should breed, has to breed. Had I been of that generation my reluctance to spawn an heir would have marked me as a traitor to my kin, my clan, my class. As it is, no one gives a bumper that the baronetcy dies with me. Should I die...

One has to face up to it. The world has changed. The war changed it. Seems only yesterday. Prigs, class traitors like Cripps changed it. I’d have served. I was brought up to the idea that I must serve. It is, however, well over half a century since there was, virtually by right, a public post for a Shadoxhurst. We are no longer invested with responsibilities. Should we seek them we are denied them because of the ancestral millstone of our name, because of Faineant, our park, our education, our accent, our very tradition of service, our ancient title and, very likely, our cars, livestock and clubs. We belong to a class that is envied, mocked, derided. The one minority that is fair game. No point in denying it. No point in regretting it.

We enjoy the consolation of being able to revert – as I many years ago had no hesitation in doing – to private vices and irresponsibility, to the unqualified hedonism of bewigged libertines and yoretime Cyrenaics. What the aristocracy was before it became a Christian militia piously charging itself with holy-rolling and spraying moralistic continence hither and thither.

I can’t pretend that the mild insult of not being invited to serve has been injurious. Being relieved of all forms of noblesse oblige has not been the least hardship, being spared committees of dullards and the burdens of leadership has hardly impaired the quality of my long life. I’ve adapted with ease. Despite never having found another Mama, I’ve never met anyone happier than I am. I have pursued happiness through uninhibited, egotistical immersion in my dominant appetites. No one is spared, not Valentina, not Clara: they enjoy it, they were brought up to enjoy it. They have been tutored in a new kind of normal. I have denied myself nothing. Satiety is bliss. It takes will, concentration, dedication to achieve it. And buckets of dosh.

In a fit of inverse snobbery England turned its back on us. Us - whose ancestors had evolved earlier than the rest. No wonder, for we were first down from the trees to rule the earth. By the time your hoi polloi had tardily stumbled out of its nit-infested ape costume we had fixed things to our own liking.

It’s all envy of course. The proletarianisation of everything, absolutely everything, in the name of egalitarianism has given poor stock free rein to multiply, to flourish. It has opened the floodgates to the feeble-minded, the lowbrowed, the neckless, the chronically dependent: all those whom a more enlightened society would have culled. The eugenic urge towards improvement has been destroyed, deliberately discredited by the very same promoters of proletarianisation. The race will resultantly degrade. And I don’t give a bumper. I leave it to future generations to discover that egalitarianism is a chimera.

For the present generation, here’s a cracking example.

Take kerb crawling. It is, as they say, a lifestyle choice. I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t have a good image. It’s badly in need of what Young Peter Wallis calls rebranding, a jolly thorough makeover. Let us call it ‘sourcing companionship’.

But before we go that far consider this: if you source company (fka kerb crawl) in a perfectly maintained 1950 Park Ward Bentley with grey and black livery (not unlike a jackdaw!) you have, I’d argue, rather more chance of both enhancing the activity’s reputation and making new friends than if you’re putt-puttering along the streets where every gaunt villa is a language school in some common little Vauxhall Astra ghetto-blasting aural toxins into the environment and discouraging the leggy cosmo-popsies from mulling over one’s offer.

Not fair, not fair, you squeal. Of course it isn’t - some company-sourcers are manifestly more equal than others and all that. There is hierarchy everywhere. So ist das Leben, chum. Brace up!

[1]He wrote that the Ostjuden ‘have the smell of Asia fresh in their beards’.

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Audio Extract 2

The second in a regular series of exclusiove excerpts from Empty Wigs, read by Jonathan himself. This is taken from the novel's fourth section – narrated by the aristocrat Sir Geoffrey Shadoxhurst. He...

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