Guardian Review: JM on France 2 Feb 2012
Friday, 3 February 2012
This seemed rather positive to me, especially for the Guardian. My editor tells me Ms Mangan is a notable humourist.
An hour of Jonathan Meades leaves me feeling like a medieval monk who has just completed his self-flagellating stint for the day. It is almost unbearably painful but, oh!, the flush of pride after such a feat of endurance and the sweet relief when it stops.
In the final episode of Jonathan Meades on France (BBC4, 9pm), he delivered a treatise on the country's obsession with America. Or as he put it: "This captivation with the colossus of cultural imperialism … from the yé-yés' teenage earnestness to the gerontocratic frivolity of governance."
I know. I know. But you just have to go with it.
According to Meades, Charles de Gaulle gave up Algeria because decolonisation was fashionable in America. Undesirables were moved from city centres to outlying the suburbs, which are now left to rot by the bourgeoisie (who do not admit they are bourgeois, incidentally, because they have never forgotten their "cobble-loving [COBBLE-LOBBING IN MY SCRIPT - JM] soixante-huitard youth") because the French secretly long for their own Detroit, their own Los Angeles, their own South Bronx. And the Gauls borrow from America in general so they can avoid succumbing to the organised social lie they tell themselves and the outside world, that the nation is still the implacable, slow, civilised, beautiful place it used to be.
According to Meades, I said. You may agree wholeheartedly or violently disagree. I doubt he cares a jot.
The whole thing – which is just Meades talking in his trademark monotone to camera in different cafes, by different roadsides or outside places of architectural interest – is mesmerising. At times he comes across as a lettered, affectless Jeremy Clarkson (France's car dependency gives the lie to "that universally preached, seldom practised, utterly trite and entirely unrealistic doctrine of sustainability," says Meades, with as much feeling as if he were reading out a recipe for crêpes suzette. "If France voted as it speaks it would be governed by a coalition of green Maoists and Khmer Rouge provisionals.") At other times he is like a man trying to poo a dictionary, but in the main it works brilliantly. It is distinctly different and distinctly thrilling to be addressed by someone who isn't afraid of words, abstract thought or of yoking the two together and setting himself up as the last working homme serieux in the west.
It is impossible to tell if his shtick is needless belligerence, playful contrarianism, powder-dry wit or heavy flippancy, if he was endlessly bullied at school or not bullied nearly enough. As I say, you just have to go with it. Whatever he is doing and however he is doing it, he will make you think. And by the end you feel as bruised and exhilarated as if you had been battered by a rough sea but washed up safely on a slightly different shore from the one on which you started out.
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