Here’s a scenario I’d like to share. You are an aspiring writer of nineteen years old with one or two key influences and a lot of big ideas, but not much in the way of discipline or self awareness. One day the phone rings. It’s the commissioning editor at Penguin. ‘How’s it going? Just to let you know, we’d like to publish a manuscript by you. Could you get something across as soon as? Don’t worry about editing, we’ll just whomp out whatever you send us, indeed to great fanfare, and it’ll even be on the Penguin Classics label, along with Dante, Balzac, Seneca, Cicero and Alexis de Tocqueville. Sound like a deal?’
The resultant book, I think, would read a lot like Morrissey’s Autobiography. It’s like the awful 200,000-word trunk novel of middle-youth angst that hides on every writer’s hard drive. This is not just bad writing. It sets a new standard in bad writing. In his way Morrissey has done a service to the study and teaching of prose. Lecturers in creative writing could use this book as the ‘do not do’ model. Sometimes Morrissey writes like an undergraduate after two pints, testing out the cadences of wit (an A and R man has ‘the Nigel Patrick touch of British raffish elegance, being six parts Etienne Dumont champagne, the rest a checkered career in rock management (which is not the management of rocks, as such)’ sometimes like an early Martin Amis derivative (‘It is explained to me that Mike had shared his bed last night and that the unlucky dalliance left him with an outbreak of Lebanese warts’) sometimes like a real ale bore (‘there will never be one instance in the Smiths’ history with Rough Trade when Geoff would treat the band to a lavish none-too-cheap dinner or salutary clink of earthenware’). There’s a great piece by Giles Coren that illustrates what I mean:
Then there’s circumlocution, or what EM Forster called ‘elegant variation’…. This is the worst. The failure to say a simple thing. The insistence on using ‘more interesting’ words… When I started as editor of The Times diary (diaries are always the worst for cliché, because they are staffed by overeducated public schoolboys desperately trying to be noticed), I wrote up a list of words and sentences that I would not stand for (or ‘up with which I would not put’, as I would write if I were a young diarist who thought that was a wittier way of phrasing it). At the top was, ‘Diminutive Antipodean chanteuse’, which used to feature practically weekly in the diary of my predecessor. What Kylie Minogue is, I told my dribbling, pink-faced underlings, is a short Australian singer. If you think people need to be told that, tell them that.
Professional reviewers, confronted by the Autobiography, end up reaching for sitcom analogies. Craig Brown described Morrissey as ‘Alan Partridge with daffs in one hand and a Roget’s Thesaurus in the other’ and quoted a BuzzFeed article that lists unattributed lines from Morrissey’s and Partridge’s autobiographies, inviting readers to guess who said what. Andrew Harrison, in the NS, said that ‘At times, one is put in mind of Father Ted Crilly’s lengthy scoresettling acceptance speech for the Priest of the Year award.’ A great running joke on the Alan Partridge chat show series was that Alan was obsessed with technical, financial and legal issues over content. It is the same with Morrissey. The Autobiography has nothing to say about musicianship or songwriting but Morrissey includes reams of material about royalties, chart positions, cover design, sleeve text and advertising campaigns. At one point he shrieks: ‘Nothing could equal the shoddy clanger of [solo album] Your Arsenal, which had ‘Track 1 taken from the forthcoming album Your Arsenal’ printed on the label!’ Was this how Joan of Arc felt?
The relentless processology, and focus on business detail (which will be of limited interest to Morrissey’s readers, most of whom will have only a passing familiarity with the industry) reaches its upper limit in the passages concerning Morrissey’s civil trial. He was sued by former bandmate Mike Joyce for back income in 1996. Joyce claimed he had never been told he would receive only ten per cent of the band’s profits and demanded a 25% share of profits back from 1987. The judge agreed and ordered Morrissey to pay up. Morrissey’s account of this trial is a scream of frustrated rage stretching from pages 303-324 of the Autobiography. His line-by-line rebuttal of Judge John Weeks’s summing up goes on from 324-342. In a spluttering quasi-prosecutorial tirade (and by now the man’s writing in the third person, like Caesar) Morrissey claims that ‘Weeks does not consider how Joyce or Rourke responded to their not being consulted, and he does not ask them why they allowed such a switch ‘without their consultation’, and Weeks does not consider how possible it would have been for Joyce and Rourke to initiate the switch from Arthur Young to Ross Bennet-Smith without the compliance of Morrissey and Marr!’
There you have it. Earlier on, Morrissey writes about the Oscar Wilde case: ‘Tellingly, a disfigured barrister and a half-wit in a wig destroyed Wilde in the end… Out of sheer envy of Wilde’s genius, [Mr Justice] Wills got at that genius as best he could, for judges in high-profile cases want to be remembered somewhere (anywhere!) in history’s grubby footnotes.’ It takes a beat to realise that Morrissey is not comparing himself to Wilde: he is damning Wills for being a member of the same profession that would, 101 years later, deprive Morrissey of around £1m and change. At this point Morrissey sounds less like a teenage bedsit scribbler than a middle-aged golf club bore telling resentful tales of family court or botched insurance claims to anyone misfortunate enough to be listening. This micromanagerial monomania is his driving force. Where other artists have demons, Morrissey has a scorecard. The oh-so-sensitive soul is powered by a ticking abacus.
How the big dream was wasted. The striking thing about this book is how unobservant Morrissey is, how little he is touched by places and people. He’s travelled the world but never seen it. Musicians, writers and actors, fascinating people in their own right, jerk through Morrissey’s narrative like awkward ghosts. (‘My neighbour is the very famous Johnny Depp, who looks away should I ever appear.’) Where Morrissey does have impressions, they’re unpleasant: Julie Burchill ‘will one day be found dead – probably in Bedford Square, a paragon of Cadbury’s, having been burned and hanged and stuffed on the legitimate grounds of being an irritable woman, so loaded with secrets and folds and folds of H & M outer garments, having never been anybody, yet having understood the glacial power of the written word to its greatest disadvantage. I shall be honoured to attend her funeral, and I might even jump into the grave.’
But maybe I’m missing something here. Surely no one can be this pompous and stupid. Maybe this is some kind of elaborate joke and I just don’t get the irony. Not that any of this will make a difference anyway. Not to the hordes of Morrissey fanboys who continue to venerate not only the music but the man. My home city of Manchester has made not so much a cottage industry as an Urban Splash cultural theme park on the back of Morrissey, Mark E Smith, Peter Hook and other middle aged men who have long outlived their talents. In 2006 the city hosted a ‘Passion Play’ recreation of Jesus’s last days using music from Joy Division, Oasis and the Smiths. That’s the thing about Manchester. We actually deify our heroes, at the expense of the great unknown bands and artists you can hear in every third bar. There is so much going on in the North, so much creativity, talent, passion and excess, but here we are, still gazing into the navels of Great Men. Morrissey’s autobiography is a testament to this uncritical fan-love. It is also a cautionary tale. Maybe there’s a danger in getting exactly what you want.