17 February, 2014Issue 24.3AutobiographyLiteratureMusicThe Arts

Email This Article Print This Article

Second Greatest Living Briton?

Andrew Flather

Penguin Classics, 2013
480 pages
ISBN 978-0141394817

Stephen Patrick Morrissey—Morrissey, as he is ubiquitously known—was born towards the end of the 1950s in sprawling Greater Manchester with a dual national heritage which led him to describe himself in 2004 as having “Irish Blood” but an “English Heart”. The son of a librarian and a hospital porter, and blessed with an uncanny ability to appeal to the disaffections of the youthful masses, he became an icon of the 1980s as a lyricist and singer with The Smiths. But more than this, Morrissey’s iconicity itself became a central feature of his cultural impact: as Rolling Stone put it, “Morrissey [became] his own icon. Morrissey’s self-created persona as an effete but acid-tongued champion of outcasts, losers and misunderstood mopers is as important a part of his art as his actual music.” His recently published Autobiography makes a further attempt to depict him as a star on a Walk of Fame for which he wrote his own admission requirements. The sleeve lists his non-musical achievements with a hint of tired exhibitionism as it proclaims Morrissey the “second greatest living Briton after David Attenborough”, “the greatest northern male”, and an owner of the “Keys to the City of Tel-Aviv”.

Although the debate surrounding Autobiography’s investiture into the canon of Penguin Classics has been a significant part of its media coverage, it is almost certainly a concern that will fade over time. The book was published under this label at Morrissey’s insistence, but whatever that may say about its publisher’s principles, it has little bearing on how the book reads as a piece of non-fiction. Within the space of the opening pages, it becomes increasingly impossible to ignore the scale and ambition of the quasi-Miltonian style in which Morrissey frames his life. Though presented as prose, Morrissey’s writing maintains a lyrical lilt that will be recognizable to any avid fan of The Smiths or Morrissey. Take this sentence, for example:

My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you with no sign of motorway, freeway or highway.

The opening paragraph initiates a rich and meandering stream of consciousness that persists for some four-and-a-half pages, exhibits a command of language which must undoubtedly confound those who have previously dismissed his lyrics as the wailings of a mere ‘Manc miserablist’ or characterised his writing style by recalling ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’—the flagship lyric of a band supposedly mired in languid disaffection and not much else.

It is apparent from the outset that any editorial intervention in Morrissey’s work would have been powerless in its attempts to attenuate his indulgence in thick description or his weakness for moments of simultaneous self-effacement and self-glorification—a trait that perforates almost every passage. The realism with which Morrissey is able to render the Manchester of his youth, and the subsequent places of personal and professional significance that shaped his career and that of The Smiths, is impressive in its richness and detail. But it is also excessive in its luxuriance; so much so that the urban landscapes and scenes that he attempts to articulate become bogged down in an excess of descriptive language. This occurs at the expense of any overarching sense of narrative that would otherwise unite every flourish of wit and vitriol, and the perpetual and overwhelming sense of displeasure. That being said, the need for a comprehensive sense of narrative is nullified to an extent by Morrissey’s skilful scene-setting. His description of “trudging to school ankle-deep in slush, half-thawed and half-frozen, musing on ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small”, and gradually approaching the “tall, merciless, bleak mausoleum called St Wilfred’s school”, paints such a vivid yet generic picture of schoolboy ritual that the reader is more or less at liberty to situate it within a timeframe which makes most sense to them. This readerly approach gives further assurance of Morrissey’s competence in his graduation from lyricist to author, and displays an admiral sense of confidence that his work will not be misinterpreted.

Reflecting the tendencies of his lyrical composition, Morrissey’s text relies heavily upon the kind of everyday truisms and kitchen-sink anti-romance that won him such popularity as a musician. What elevates his autobiography to more than simply a catalogue of lyrical endeavours—which nevertheless stand as familiar signposts in the sometimes convoluted narrative—is the way in which the text guides the reader toward considering the reality that informed his art. His recollections convey the sense of simultaneous savagery and banality of 1960s Manchester to the heady heights of The Smiths at their most prolific. Morrissey’s reaffirmation of his working-class roots sit well with his recent incarnation as a muscular, rough cut, gold chain-wearing everyman, a persona that is reinforced by his passive, cursory, almost scornful treatment of every seemingly vital, compelling, or unusual event. His recollection of a gig in Los Angeles during which he was joined onstage by David Bowie—the man whose crooning of ‘Starman’ had provided the 12-year-old Steven Morrissey with just enough volition to face going to school—is summed up by the older Morrissey within two brief sentences and laid to rest with a weary “but there it is.”

For all the accolades which Morrissey’s work has received for its verbosity and fascinating, if occasionally trying, narrative style, the strongest string to Autobiography’s bow is undoubtedly its sense of honesty. Morrissey does not simply provide us with his own subjective view of his life. He contradicts himself and unashamedly displays his hypocrisies in a way that demonstrates and articulates his humanity in a far more unadulterated way than if he had attempted simply to describe it. There is a sense of This is my Truth in this stylised laying-bare of his inadequacies. This sometimes brutal honesty forms a sub-narrative which shows the reader, quite self-consciously, that, beneath the snarling exterior that conflates meat eating with paedophilia and abattoirs with Auschwitz, there is a fallible and conflicted voice with which the reader may more readily identify. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that the juxtaposition of these two opposing approaches somewhat counterintuitively reinforces the text’s sense of authenticity rather than undermines it.

Taken at face-value, Autobiography reads like a press statement aimed at the commercial promotion of itself rather than an actual autobiography. But a closer examination reveals that Morrissey has laid more of himself bare between these lines of prose than in the melancholy lyrics that brought him those legions of adoring fans. One suspects that being narrowly beaten by Sir David Attenborough to the crown of “Greatest Living Briton”, rather than being emblematic of the failure in which he may have once revelled as a lyricist, would have been a genuine disappointment to him. There are those who have suggested that Autobiography may be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. If only in recognition of the boldness of the author’s approach, I may join them.

Andrew Flather completed an MA in Cultural History at the University of Liverpool and now works for Selwyn College, Cambridge, in Alumni Relations and Development.