By far the funniest piece in Mortification, Robin Robertson's anthology of "writers' public shame", is Michael Bracewell's account of his attempt to interview Mark E Smith on stage at the ICA back in the bright and garish dawn of Britpop. Arriving backstage with a clanking carrier bag, the Fall frontman first demanded a bucket, into which he proceeded sedulously to urinate. Up on stage, staked out beneath the merciless light and the stares of the uncomprehending – or perhaps all too comprehending – audience, Bracewell, by his own admission, lost it big time. Did his guest remember, ah, those early gigs in the Manchester working men's clubs, he diffidently proposed? "Of course I do. I'm not bloody amnesiac," Smith confirmed. And was there anyone in his, ahem, family with musical interests? "Me uncle played the saw. It's a lovely instrument," Smith deadpanned back.
By chance, Renegade contains Mark's own memories of what went on during that storm-wracked night in the Mall. All misrepresentation, y'see. By them fucking journalists. "The hacks lay in wait on that one," he gallantly deposes. "I wasn't pissed. The first half of it went OK. Maybe some of the questions were overly academic, but that's what he is..." As for his panicking interlocutor, "I've nothing against him. I think he's good. But he's another casualty, he worries that he's over-pretentious. Compared to Paul Morley and most other writers, Bracewell's an artist." Quite a lot of the Smith persona, it turns out, is gathered up in this paragraph or two: half-defensive, half couldn't care less, quietly literary (note that "overly"), keen on the injurious comparison, the bête noire, the compliment with an insult lurking in its shadow. A little pretentiousness may be graciously excused, but what are we to make of the man who worries that he's over-pretentious?
An 80,000-word free-associative ramble, transcribed (presumably) from tape by an amanuensis named Austin Collings, and no doubt recorded throughout a succession of karaoke nights at the Prestwich Dog & Ferret, Mark's partial and partisan account of his half-century on the planet is unutterably funny. Some of the humour is deliberate, a matter of caustic one-liners ("I hope this book turns out like Mein Kampf for the Hollyoaks generation") or Pinter-esque out-takes from the daily round ("Primark have some alright stuff at a fair price... Bargain Booze is a particular favourite shop of mine. You get some good offers there.") Quite a lot more, though, is unconscious, a matter of the Smith stance, the Smith attitude, the braggart glare and the modest sidestep, constantly aggrandising itself, feeding off its tics and obsessions to produce a monologue of practically Beckett-style self-dramatisation and incidental menace.
It scarcely needs saying, perhaps, that the two starring qualities to emerge from this riot of aimings and blamings and score-settlings, lemur-eyed disparagements of the legion of ex-band members left behind in his scorching wake ("I think the quiet ones are always the worst... I've never met a guitarist I like, really") and vague accounts of how albums got made, are conservatism and contrarianism. In the former category, I was interested, but not very surprised, to hear that our man votes, or has voted, Tory, is a staunch supporter of wedlock ("You can say 'That's my wife' and blokes will leave her alone"), sharp dressing (see the Primark encomium above) and hard work, while scorning celebrity culture – all Madonna's fault, he maintains – and, among its symptoms, people who give their children silly names. ("Keegan... What sort of mentality is that?") In the second, there are rapt, iconoclastic slashes at the musicians, movements and sponsors to whom Mark owes his career. Punk rock? "They were all public schoolboys." John Lennon? "I think it's more important to be a man than an artist." The John Peel show, on which The Fall played two dozen sessions over 26 years? "I was never a huge fan of it myself."
In between the barmy aphorisms ("99.9 per cent of people on a healthy diet eventually die") and anatomies of the various Mrs Smiths, actual and protemporaneous, are the fragments of something interesting: a ground-down 1960s and 70s childhood, lived out in the North Manchester urban sprawl, where a grammar school education and two O-levels prompt only a desire to "get a flat, take drugs and not work". If Renegade has a place in literary, as opposed to musical, history, it is in the very final paragraph of the chapter devoted to the working-class auto-didact, the man with great intelligence and (occasionally) a burning sense of resentment who makes his own arrangements with the world of books and learning, who joins the Arthur Machen Society at 16 ("M R James is good, but Machen's fucking brilliant") and prefers George V Higgins to the blandishments of the English syllabus.
The immediate context, sadly, is the rock memoir, with its hectic uncoilings, its rapt defiance, its glacial recapitulations of 20-year-old slights. One day a survivor of that gnarled late-Seventies generation of post-punk shouters will write a proper autobiography rather than one of these relentless brain-dumps, in which the whole question of articulate, alienated teenage boys abandoned by the educational system who opt to forge some kind of career in music (Lydon, Weller, Morrissey et al) is given a precise cultural underpinning. In the meantime, Renegade works on two separate, but not in the end disassociated levels. Mysteriously, it is a book in which Smith manages both to have a right laff, and reveal himself as a figure of dazzling sociological import.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies