Saturday, November 16, 2013

Autobiography - Morrissey

Morrissey trying to conquer the world of literature and attempting to bring back the cream
denim jacket look; only one of these goals is hubristic...
I was half way through writing my review of Morrissey's Autobiography (which as you can see from a couple of posts ago (below) is already one of my favourite books of the year) when I read Terry Eagleton's review, here, in the Guardian and decided not to finish mine because his was so much better. Eagleton noticed many of things that struck me: the devastatingly brilliant evocation of 1960's Manchester, Moz's curious devotion to AE Housman (its hard to take Housman seriously after reading the classic essay Inside The Whale by George Orwell) the odd ad hominem attack on Julie Burchill, the 50 pages devoted to the contract dispute with The Smiths (about 40 pages too long)  etc. etc. Unlike all other Englishmen who were born in the 1950s and have written memoirs Morrissey - wonderfully - never mentions England's 1966 World Cup victory but he does recall fainting at the sight of George Best and watching every single Miss World contest with his mother. And he savages the sadistic dollards who seemed to be in charge of the British educational system from its beginnings right up until the 1980's. Anyway in lieu of a full review I'm giving you the first half of Eagleton's review instead. I've always liked Terry Eagleton, he was one of my philosophy tutors, and his course on literary theory at Oxford was the best series of lectures I've ever attended.
Terry on Moz: 

Not content with being voted the greatest northern male ever, the second greatest living British icon (he lost out to David Attenborough) and granted the freedom of the city of Tel Aviv, Morrissey is now out to demonstrate that he can write the kind of burnished prose no other singer on the planet could aspire to. There are, to be sure, a few painfully florid patches in this superb autobiography ("Headmaster Mr Coleman rumbles with grumpiness in a rambling stew of hate"), but it would be hard to imagine Ronnie Wood or Eric Clapton portraying the "Duchess of nothing" Sarah Ferguson as "a little bundle of orange crawling out of a frothy dress, the drone of Sloane, blessed with two daughters of Queen Victoria pot-dog pudginess". Morrissey despises most of the people he meets, often with excellent reason. 

He is scurrilous, withdrawn and disdainful, an odd mixture of shyness and vitriol. The dreamy, heart-throbbish photo on the cover of the book, the nose rakishly tilted above the Cupid's-bow lips, belies what a mean old bastard he is. He finds an image of himself in (of all people) the minor Georgian poet AE Housman, who preferred art to humanity and whose ascetic, spiritually tortured life seems to echo Morrissey's own. He admires wayward, bloody-minded types much like himself, and takes a sadistic delight in discomforting interviewers. "Why did you mention Battersea in that song?" a journalist asks him. "Because it rhymes with fatty," he replies. Taken by his father at the age of eight to watch George Best play at Old Trafford, he swoons at the sight of such artistry combined with such rebelliousness. Years later, others will swoon at his own mixing of the two.

Some of his bloody-mindedness springs from a damaged childhood. Born into a working-class Irish-Mancunian family, Steven Patrick Morrissey sang his way out of what struck him as a soulless environment, as other working-class Irish Mancunians have written or acted their way out. The vitriol started to flow early: his bleak mausoleum of a Catholic primary school was ruled by Mother Peter, "a bearded nun who beat children from dawn to dusk", and by the time he was 17 he was already emotionally exhausted. Manchester, still in its pre-cool days, was a "barbaric place where only savages can survive … There are no sexual guidelines, and I see myself naked only by appointment." His eloquent contempt for his fellow citizens is terrifying: "non-human sewer-rats with missing eyes; the loudly insane with indecipherable speech patterns; the mad poor of Manchester's armpit." The final indignity is to be turned down for a job as a postman at the local sorting office. At the hour of the birth of the Smiths, which gave him the exit from Manchester he craved, he felt himself dying of boredom, loneliness and disgust. "I would talk myself through each day," he writes, "as one would nurse a dying friend."

Not long afterwards, hordes of young people throughout the world are wearing his face on their chests. He returns to the streets where he grew up, now with a police escort, to sing to 17,000 fans from a stage overlooking an odious Inland Revenue office where he once worked. Having failed to find love from one man or woman, he can now find it from thousands. Mick Jagger and Elton John are eager to shake his hand. He enjoys his celebrity, but the sardonic self-irony of the book seeks to persuade us otherwise. There is a relish and energy about its prose that undercuts his misanthropy. Its lyrical quality suggests that beneath the hard-bitten scoffer there lurks a romantic softie, while beneath that again lies a hard-bitten scoffer. Implausibly, he claims to be "chilled" by road signs reading "Morrissey Concert, Next Left". It's true, however, that having spent years yearning to be seen, he now spends years longing to be invisible. Living in Hollywood is hardly the best place for that. He deals with his own egocentricity by being wryly amusing about it: his birth almost killed his mother, he comments, because even then his head was too big.

Even so, he remains for the most part icily unillusioned, like a monk passing through a whorehouse. His contempt for the music industry is visceral, and he prefers to spend his time reading Auden and James Baldwin. (Spotting Baldwin in a Barcelona hotel, he decides not to approach him, since even the mildest rejection would apparently mean he would have to go and hang himself.) The solution to all problems, he tells us, "is the goodness of privacy in a warm room with books". David Bowie tells him that he's had so much sex and drugs that he's surprised he is still alive, to which Morrissey replies that he's had so little of both that he feels much the same. Tom Hanks comes backstage to say hello, but Morrissey doesn't know who he is. The press lie that he is a racist, that he opened the door to a journalist wearing a tutu, that he hung around public toilets as a youth and that he would welcome the assassination of Margaret Thatcher. The Guardian runs a disapproving piece on him adorned with a photo of somebody else. When he discovers that a Smiths record released in Japan includes a track by Sandie Shaw, he begs the people around him to kill him. "Many rush forward," he adds.

You can read the rest of the excellent review, in the Guardian, here. I'd say that I was a little bit more criticial of the book than Terry who practically gushes towards the end of his piece. I mean there are flaws in Autobiography. Because of Morrissey's somewhat baroque style for example I'm still not clear what his dad for his living and whether his parents are still alive. Is he gay? Bisexual? Celibate? Moz thinks that's none of our business and maybe he's right but why not just tell us that instead of being so coy about it. I wonder too if the last 100 pages of the book couldn't have been a little more tightly edited. Yeah it can't be easy to edit Morrissey but that's why they pay you the big bucks at Penguin isn't it? And finally a book like this is crying out for an index, indexers don't charge that much so why Penguin Classics didn't pay for one is beyond me. Still, these are quibbles, I rated this an A in my books journal and it goes next to David Peace's Red or Dead as one of my favourites of the year.