Book Review: Autobiography by Morrissey - Droning narcissism and the whine of self-pity
Morrissey's reputation will survive this, but Penguin Classics won't
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Thursday 17 October 2013
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 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.
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