One of the logical results of his anti-sentimentalism is his disgust at the "heritage" industry, described uncompromisingly in one of the most enjoyable and provocative essays in this book, "Fuck E**lish *erit*ge". The starting point of this essay is also Portsmouth. Mr Meades rejoices that the two mast houses in the dockyard there survive in an era of mastless vessels, but he deplores the use to which they are put, selling souvenirs — or rather, selling "tawdry, insipid tat" — on the back of the Mary Rose. It is a "dismal, timid inventory of mediocrity. Bad taste is forgivable. It's no taste which is so disheartening." As he lists what he has inspected, the bile becomes more comprehensible. There is "a soft toy, very cuddly, and fun to have around" called "Mr Tudor Rat" — supplier at the time, as he points out, of the very buboes referred to earlier. There is a "collectable Mary Rose Henry Bear" and "Henry VIII and Elizabeth I pots. Take off their heads and store your treasures". That is only the start of it, what Mr Meades describes as "a crock of olde shyte". The offence this does to the sensibilities of people who might otherwise have had a genuine interest in history, before it was patronised out of them, is apparent, but Mr Meades has a more subtle point. The same English Heritage that is touting this rubbish — much of which, we must suppose, is destined to gather dust on the shelves of the grandparents and great-grandparents of Britain — also opposed the building of the Shard, "yet sanctions the debasement of marine archaeology, naval history and the magnificent dockyard itself" in the interests of being "accessible". The trouble with "accessibility", of course, is that it has become an end in itself. It is rarely designed to take people farther into a subject or to stimulate intellectual curiosity, but then, if it did, the whole bogusness of the heritage trade would be ruthlessly exposed.
One of the great revelations of Mr Meades's writing is his ability not just to expose the tawdriness and cynicism of those who manage our landscape and our past, but also to find interest and beauty in what others, affording it a passing glance, would find drab and unremarkable. "When we look at, say, the centre of Leeds or innermost Manchester — and here we have to acknowledge the part played by such promoters of regeneration as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness — we see another future — the future of English urbanism," he writes. "It is a future which has mercifully shunned sprawl." He sees this, perceptively, as "an abandonment of the North American model and an espousal of the French model", something that helps end the "profligacy" of our use of land, a scarce resource on a small island.
It is an unfortunate cliché to call any book an eye-opener, but this one unquestionably is. It forces us to think critically about the environment we live in: what works, what doesn't, what insults the eye and what elevates the mind. We will find that too much of our country is in bad taste or of no taste at all but, following the Meades method, we shall also find much that, if examined closely, brings joy.