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
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
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
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.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone