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Cover of Pompey

The 20th anniversary edition of Meades' postwar masterpiece

At first glance, Jonathan Meades’s 1993 masterpiece Pompey is a post-war family saga set in and around the city of Portsmouth. This doesn’t come close to communicating the scabrous magnificence of Meades’s vision. He writes like Martin Amis on acid, creating an obscene, suppurating vision of an England in terminal decline.

The story begins with Guy Vallender, a fireworks manufacturer from Portsmouth (Pompey), who has four children by different four different women. There’s Poor Eddie, a feeble geek with a gift for healing; 'Mad Bantu', the son of a black prostitute, who was hopelessly damaged in the womb by an attempted abortion; Bonnie, who is born beautiful but becomes a junkie and a porn star, and finally Jean-Marie, a leather-wearing gay gerontophiliac conceived on a one-night stand in Belgium. The narrator is 'Jonathan Meades', cousin to Poor Eddie and Bonnie, who tells the story of how their strange and poisonous destinies intersect. And although there is no richer stew of perversity, voyeurism, corruption, religious extremism and curdled celebrity in all of English literature, there is also an underlying compassion and a jet-black humour which makes Pompey an important and strangely satisfying work of art.

Prepare to enter the English novel’s darkest ride...

"He has done for Portsmouth (Portsmouth, for heaven's sake) what Baudelaire did for Paris, Joyce for Dublin and Paul Bowles for Tangier... One of the very best and most absurdly underrated novels of the nineties."
STEPHEN FRY, from his preface to the new edition

"Why read Pompey? It is a work of genius. It is one of the outstanding works of English fiction of the last half-century… It is as well that no serious person measures literary merit by Booker prizes and the like, for if it were so then Pompey would have had to win scores of them. It is one of the last truly great novels of the 20th century, and for it not to be better known is perhaps not least because of the way in which it cocks its leg, and then squats, over what passes for literary sensibilities in our culture."
SIMON HEFFER, from his introduction to the new edition

‘It is a stunning performance, and places Meades in the upper echelon of 20th century prose stylists. His use of language is relentlessly inventive, violent, fresh, precise. He shares with the great stylists – Dickens, Joyce, Nabokov, Bellow – the ability to make the world appear alien while rendering it a more intense version of itself.’
MATTHEW ADAMS, Independent

‘A James Joyce-John Osborne mash-up with occasional nods to BS Johnson, Grimms’ fairytales and Thomas Harris, Pompey is a post-war family saga set in Portsmouth… it had me marveling at his mind, so gross in some respects and so exquisite in others.’

"Disgusting and brilliant – should earn Meades justifiable comparison to Joyce, Celine, Pynchon."

"There is no doubt that Pompey is the product of a brilliant mind: one would not, however, wish to dine with its author."

"The English novel needs its senses to be violently deranged, and this piledriver of a book... might just provide a kick-start."
ELIZABETH YOUNG, Independent on Sunday

Jonathan Meades is the author of Filthy English, Peter Knows What Dick Likes, The Fowler Family Business, and Pompey. His films for the BBC include Abroad in Britain, Joebuilding, Meades on France and, most recently, The Joy of Essex. An Encyclopaedia Of Myself, a memoir of childhood, will be published by Fourth Estate later in 2014. He lives in Marseille.

I know more than anyone about the firework maker’s children, about their antic lives and special deaths.

The night is shrill with colour. It’s bright enough to blind. Rubies change to white cascades. The man I saw becomes a bird. The man I saw becomes a bird. All the sky is filled with fountains. My head falls back so far it hurts. Their little mittened hands clutch mine. They gasp to see the flowers go dancing. Loud saltpetre fills our noses. Mineral light beats out the black. Darkness is defeated. That’s when I remember that I know more than anyone about Bonny and Donald Tod (as they were from that day forward, for better surely and for richer, yes, till death did) and about Poor Eddie and his fearful gift, and about Jean-Marie’s troubles with his work permit, and about Mrs Butt – all about her and her Daph and her Ray and her Ray’s big boy Jonjon, who had double the muscles too. And there’s nothing I can’t tell you about the Old Man Dod who used to work in the print and whose hearing got so sharp with blindness. I can tell you about the teeth and diet of a six-year-old crocodile, and about the way that cancer does its stuff, how it moves like fires beneath the ground. I’ll make you feel the noise of a skull being broken. I’ll make you listen to the motor of obsession. I’ll make you listen to another motor, the one that screeched at night in the dunes to free the wheels – there’s the gun beside him, there’s the panic in his eyes, there’s his forehead slapping against the steering wheel (they found blood on it: AO–1, not much, but enough). I can show you the flaw in the stone in the ring on a stiff finger and you’ll never want to eat another soggy biscuit the rest of your days. You’ll never take the kiddies to see the fleet or to picnic in a wood. Here’s a palm that bleeds to order. Here’s another that bleeds because the bolt went through the line of life and two arteries and a delta of tendons and through the median nerve and right into the wood.

I know these people. I lived around them. I’ve felt their breath and read their brains.

‘Snooping?’ Bonny’s mother used to ask when she found me gaping into the fridge.

You bet.

I’ve looked on this lot as I did on the lactic profusion and dead animals that littered the racks of that humming coffin all those years ago: I can still inventory the stacked oblongs from the Commonwealth and the fatty fists of beef and the brand-new plastic tubs whose lids were the colour of surgical rubber, what I liked, what I sought when I sidled off to that kitchen was the icy balm, the cold gust when the light came on. There was the excitement. It was the defiance of summer and the certain eternity of electric midwinter that pulled me to it. The chill was all artifice, sure. But it stabbed for real. Did I think thus then?
I didn’t. I didn’t think of the plays that could be made on frozen. I didn’t know the milestones to eternity were quarterly bills – and bankruptcy was a distant state of disgrace, akin to tuberculosis and divorce.

After using this book please wash your hands. Thank you.


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