‘The Sylvan Life’ by Jonathan Meades

The accumulation of telling detail that I so loved in ‘The Holly Tree’ is put to rather different use here. This is from Jonathan Meades first collection, Filthy English (1984), published when he was Features Editor at Tatler and before he’d established his television persona combining deadpan delivery of astonishing articulacy, backed up by the minatory combination of sunglasses and a dark suit. His air of menace, the curiosity bordering on voyeurism and the startling precision of language are all present in this phantasmagoric story of the rural working class in the New Forest in the 1950s. The open scene of a chicken being killed by the feral child Wendy sets the scene. Her grotesque brothers set up a livestock rustling business. Her father “his flat cap dark with hair cream” collects pigswill or “scrape”. The family terrorise a delusional lower middle-class couple who take over the local shop. Somehow this squalid brew of incest, violence and hallucinogenic mushrooms is transformed by Meades’ language something approaching the sublime. I first read it as a student, and knew I’d found the writer who understood my England: the terrifying, dirty, intoxicating one beyond the reach of Ordnance Survey tourist maps and brown heritage signs. I’ve published Jonathan for over twenty years now. It all started here, with a dead chicken and room full of meat flies.

First published in Harpers & Queen, November 1982 and in the collection Filthy English, Jonathan Cape, 1984 and Fourth Estate, 2003