Book Review: Autobiography by Morrissey - Droning narcissism and the whine of self-pity

Morrissey's reputation will survive this, but Penguin Classics won't

A Penguin Classic? Not in a month of rainy Mancunian Sundays. Let's hope that Penguin's suicidally foolhardy executives wake up howling once they realise that the publisher's (until now) best-loved and most carefully curated brand sports a title stuffed with sentences such as "I appear to be more well known in Mexico than even in Sweden, Peru or Chile." This from an author whose idea of literary criticism is to sneer at "the swill-bucket of British poetry" and claim that the Poet Laureate is chosen "to loud yawns of national disinterest". Whatever Penguin's motives in debauching its list with this book, "disinterest" (in the correct sense of the word) certainly does not rank among them.

And yet… for 70 or 80 pages, perhaps for 150 (out of a patience-taxing 457), a properly disinterested observer could nurture the hope that Steven Patrick Morrissey will make good on the promise of 25 years of achingly melancholy lyrics with a memoir that might stand the test of time. For a while I wondered whether I would have to, gratefully, eat my previous words condemning Penguin – perhaps with curry sauce and mushy peas.

"My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you," in a perpetually dark Victorian Manchester, "the old fire wheezing its last." The dank, bruised world of The Smiths' songs, and of Morrissey's earlier solo albums, acquires depth of field, narrative momentum, the tenderly remembered loves and quirks of his Irish family. Anthony Burgess, another Mancunian Catholic, comes to mind. The "hidden injuries of class" (Richard Sennett's phrase); the consolations of pop, films, TV; the Gothic melodrama of school that explodes in "the topsy-turveydom of 1972", with Bowie, Bolan and the New York Dolls: for almost a quarter of Autobiography, I did sniff a potential Modern Classic in the making. Even the slightly pedantic interlude on his poetic idols – Oscar Wilde (naturally), also Housman, Auden, Betjeman – anchor his lyrical gift in a patchwork personal tradition that somehow comes together and makes sense.

With the arrival of Johnny Marr, the legendary descent of the Sex Pistols on the Free Trade Hall in 1976 and the first hits with The Smiths, a more conventional narrative of fame kicks in, with its few blessings and (inevitably, given the author) many curses. Worse, the predictable whine of self-pity and self-justification begins to rise in volume.

For a while, this can be fun: Wilde's fate prompts the first of many furious lunges at judges, courts and the British legal system. And when Morrissey stands back to consider what he has created, the skies darken, the rain lashes, but the heart warms: "It would be the ache of love sought, and not found; buttoning your overcoat as you stand before an ash-slag fire as you ponder years of wasted devotion… It would be the north of England."

There's more to life than books you know: Morrissey's Autobiography There's more to life than books you know: Morrissey's Autobiography Alas – and here Penguin's complete abdication of authority comes to the fore – such passages recede. An editor with nous and guts could probably carve a "classic" 200-page testimony of northern upbringing and early music-business days from this material. Look at Patti Smith's Just Kids to see how it could and should be done.

Sadly, here the superstar's puerile litany of grievances eventually takes centre-stage. It reaches its numbing culmination in 50 deadly pages on the 1996 court case over royalties allegedly owed to former band member Mike Joyce.

The droning narcissism of the later stages – enlivened by the occasional flick-knife twist of character sketch, or character assassination (watch out, Julie Burchill) – may harm his name a little. It ruins that of his publisher. For the stretches in which in his brooding, vulnerable, stricken voice uncoils, particularly across his Mancunian youth, Morrissey will survive his unearned elevation. I doubt that the reputation of Penguin Classics will.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz