Architectural and culinary critic, Jonathan Meades, is famous for his programmes on fascist architecture and understanding of the progress of fascism in Europe in the first half of the last century. He has a new target – a man he recently described as ‘the full Heydrich.’ None other than Boris Johnson! Is the witty and articulate polymath just another casualty of Brexit Derangement Syndrome? His latest, Squalid Optimist, in our rival magazine, The Critic, might suggest that this is the case.
Meades assaults Boris from the towering pinnacle of his considerable intellect and one might suspect that the prime minister’s (Meades calls him the “Prime Shit”) real offence is his considerable education. Meades is really positioning himself by locating himself higher in the intellectual hierarchy than an evident mountebank. Johnson, with his credentials as ex-President of the Oxford Union, ex-Editor of The Spectator, fluent reciter of the Iliad in Greek and now Prime Minister is a kind of intellectual threat to Meades’ articles of faith perhaps. He tries to ‘own’ Boris with his wit. The hostility is white hot. I think there’s a bit of class hatred in there too.
As the title of the piece suggests Meades sees pessimism as sane and healthy, a view wisely subscribed to by eminently respected pundits like Bryan Appleyard, and by others cited by Meades such as Dean Inge, Thomas Hardy and Billy Wilder. Of course optimism is foolish. Just before the Terror the French Revolutionaries were optimistic as were the Russian Revolutionaries and the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. It is insane to think that a New Heaven and Earth can be brought about in the sublunary world. However one can over-correct. One can become the post-imperial, neurotically paralysed, self-loathing polity, incapable of exerting its agency without the advice of a gallery of mutually disagreeing technocratic ‘experts’ so comprehensively showcased by Theresa May’s administration and the dead Parliament of pre-election times. A well-educated and gently and healthily optimistic Prime Minister not afraid of being blown up by the odd tyrannising mine in the intersectional minefield and capable of exercising real agency seems an admirable antidote to all of that.
The Meades article, full as it is with coruscating prose (“…the collapse of the Red Wall, which is just about contiguous with the Irony Curtain.’ etc), is like a grandiose Zeppelin of style and casually wielded erudition supposedly soaring over Downing Street. Unfortunately I fear it will burst and descend in a chaos of blazing hydrogen and torn linen brought down by the weight of its hyperbole and the falsity of its comparisons. The most obviously ludicrous comparison is that of Boris with Fascists. Meades actually quotes “It’s beginning to feel to me/ Like January thirty-three”. Clearly demented by a tertiary case of Brexit Derangement Syndrome Meades can’t tell the difference between the amiable Prime Minister and Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler. This is an appalling case of historical illiteracy, in one who prides himself on his grasp of European history, which discounts, all on its own, all of his other claims to wisdom. His intellectual instruments are surely calibrated way out and seriously on the blink. Comments like “(Johnson’s) mendacity about, say, the sunlit uplands of New Model Britain in Year Zero of (his) mandate is psychotic” just confirm this. Psychotic! One wonders who is really losing his marbles here; on Meades’ terms the Victorians would have been ‘psychotic’ in their optimism too. Can a very clever person (who knows extremely well just how clever he is) also be very stupid? Picture credit: Commons:Licensing., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37975383