To begin with, the elephant in the room must be addressed, or to qualify, the penguin in the room. As most people are aware at this point, Autobiography by Morrissey has been released under the iconic imprint of Penguin Classics, taking its controversial place amongst the canonical representatives of Western literature. Penguin Classics state that, ‘Most pop stars have to be dead before they reach the iconic status that Morrissey has reached in his lifetime’; hence, Morrissey is an icon, a pop star of great importance, whose status is assured, and in his lifetime no less. Yet, can he write? Certainly most can accept his stature as a good, dare it be said, even a great lyricist of pop songs. But does this talent transcend writing formats? Are we now also to regard Manchester’s Steven Patrick Morrissey as a great prose writer, just because Penguin argues his first work is a ‘classic in the making’. For some this is too big a pill to swallow, so arguments have raged about apparent – and let’s face it probable – Morrissey insistence that his work be released under this superior banner of Western literature. Some have screamed of the death of Penguin Classics, demanding the head of Morrissey, while others cheered a new brave approach to canonical literature, with Morrissey eternally duking it out for the nation’s affection with Chaucer, Dickens and the like; and so and so on …
However, if examined in the cold light of day, the reason for the Penguin Classic imprint is almost certainly economic. In publishing terms, 2013 was a bad year financially, with only Sir Alex Ferguson and Helen Fielding putting a smile on booksellers’ faces. Then along came Morrissey and a Penguin, and smiles appeared again, as Waterstones and other high-streeters stacked tables high with copies of Autobiography, and a best seller was born; selling a record 20,000 sales on its first day of release, and to date, sales have surpassed 160,000 which has generated over a million pounds through the tills. So Penguin get a big payday, Morrissey descends to his righteous, or self-righteous, place in the nation’s heart, and we all move on to the next ‘controversy’. But in all this fun, has anyone actually read Autobiography? Does anyone dare to ask, is this work really a classic in the making, or a vanity project by the legendary egotistical Mr. Bigmouth? The reality, it seems, is the former, if only an indignant ‘I’ wasn’t ever-present throughout the narrative.
Towards the end of Autobiography, Morrissey recounts an encounter he had during the recording of You are the Quarry, with producer Jerry Finn:
‘Do you ever get tired of singing ‘‘I, I, I, I, I, I, I’’?’ Jerry asks me.
I? is my indignant reply.
It is this indignant ‘I’, that dominates the narrative in Autobiography, and as a consequence, makes the work a much weaker piece of prose. Admittedly, this is an autobiography, so the first person narrative is a given. Yet in Morrissey, this first person is somewhat of a difficult bed-fellow. In a passage from Autobiography about The Smiths’ biographer Johnny Rogan, author of Morrissey and Marr, Morrissey argues:
Rejection motivates many biographers because the writers (being ennobling moral exemplars themselves) gain public fascination due to their betrayal. Popular biography must demystify and destroy in order to have any practical value.
If this is the case, then what is the role of the autobiography? For Morrissey, it is to address the endless betrayal, and hardship, he seemingly has endured his entire career; while equally, basking in self-congratulations and re-mystifying himself. The betrayal and hardship part of the indignant ‘I’ narrative is what is expected, and an aspect of Autobiography that many fans of The Smiths and Morrissey will enjoy, especially as he lays into the NME, Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, Mike Joyce, and, of course, Johnny Marr. In fact, one of the most enjoyable passages of Autobiography, sees Morrissey take aim at the British legal system, and Judge John Weeks, as he recounts the now infamous 40–40–10–10 Smiths court case: ‘Weeks wringing his creased little hangman’s hands while resembling a pile of untouched sandwiches’. Yet as the narrative grinds on, and we are reminded again and again that Morrissey is, ‘the axis of all human endeavour’, it becomes a tiresome read. Added to the indignant ‘I’ narrative, are the sickening self-congratulations that dominate the latter part of Autobiography, as Morrissey reminds the reader of all the countries he is loved in, and all the people he has touched. A passage about a young blind girl being passed by the crowd into Morrissey’s waiting arms proclaiming ‘I cannot see you, but I love you’, is particularly vomit-inducing self-worth of Bono proportions. Furthermore, re-mystifying allusions to his sexuality – a topic covered in great detail by other journalists – gets equally tiresome. And yet, even with all this indignant ‘I’ narrative, with its tiresome poor me/hurray me/what me? motifs, Autobiography still is a work of prose of considerable merit, and, dare it be said, a classic in the making. The reason being, that when Morrissey loses the indignant ‘I’, and focuses on a distant collective past, Autobiography becomes a classic, and Morrissey becomes bearable.
‘My childhood is street upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway or highway’, with such rhythmic eloquence, Morrissey begins Autobiography; and it is with similar eloquence that he approaches the past of a young Steven Patrick Morrissey. Perhaps as a consequence of the distance of time, Morrissey’s rememberings of his own past are not saturated with the indignant ‘I’ narrative that shapes the latter part of Autobiography. Certainly his portrait of himself as a young man can be read as akin to later stories of adult hardship and endeavour, as he describes a series of sexually frustrated, cruel educators like St. Wilfred’s headmaster Mr. Colman and teacher Miss Dudley.
‘You touch me and my mum’ll be down,’ I warn Miss Dudley. Herself a sexual hoax, her lips thin and tighten as she drags me along the corridor of horror to drooled cruel face of Mr Colman
‘You!’ he shouts at me, as if, at nine years old, I had already scarred England.
Yet, fortunately these early rememberings lack the tiresome indignant narrative of later memories. The reason being that firstly as a narrative about a child, we, as readers, can relate and find compassion, something difficult to do when reading about a fifty-something year old millionaire and his troubles. And secondly, in the early part of Autobiography, Morrissey writes more of a collective experience, rather than an individual one. In this way, young Steven Patrick Morrissey becomes an emblematic construct of a bleak 1960s’ Britain, a representative of a place where, ‘murder and sex and self-destruction seep from cracks of local stone and shifting brickwork where aborted babies found deadly peace instead of unforgiving life’. It is in this collective narrative that the strength of Morrissey’s writings lies, as he explores his generation’s places within this bleak society.
As an extension of this collective narrative, Morrissey’s Irish diaspora upbringing is ever-present, forming an almost formulaic story of an Irish childhood with loving mother, distant father, matriarch grandmother, and lingering Catholicism. However, it is through his engagement with his Irish parents, uncle and grandmother that Morrissey finds the hearth of his writing and gives Autobiography its most moving passages. A particularly moving passage sees young Steven Patrick join his Grandmother, Nannie, as she leaves her home in the soon-to-be demolished Trafalgar Square, leaving behind her neighbour, the small and shrunken Minnie, a beautiful passage with both women representing the hardship of migration. In fact, migration is an underlining current throughout much of the early part of Autobiography, with reference to various members of the extended Irish family tree passing through Nannie’s Manchester home. Morrissey’s sister Mary even becomes a US émigré in her nineteenth year, an event he beautifully describes as ‘a loved branch hacked away’; a line as good as any written in Diaspora writings. Ultimately it is Nannie, or Bridget McInerny of Cashel (Co. Meath Ireland) with her ‘usual Irish companions of shame, guilt, persecution and accusation’, who anchors the early narrative, and who you feel shaped much of young Steven Patrick’s understanding of his inherited bleak society. This is almost certainly the case with his engagement with Myra Hindley, Ian Brady and the infamous Moors murders, which we are told Nannie ‘railed against’ and which have fascinated Morrissey for some time. Also, this influence is evident in his fear of post-war Manchester ‘Tramps’ and there apparent depraved sexual needs; these almost Beckettian tramps Morrissey regarded as ‘no longer required as World War Two cannon fodder, they have survived the eccentricities of Churchill and Hitler and are now untreated sewage of the urban dark’. It is Nannie, and her Irish guilt – ‘we Irish Catholics know very well how raucous happiness displeases God, so there is much evidence of guilt in all we say and do, but nonetheless it is said and done’ – who forms much of young Steven Patrick, and this is relayed with great skill by Morrissey in Autobiography. Yet this is but a part of the story, as Morrissey also recounts an almost existentialist search for more than simply being, and an escape from what he regarded as the Northern aura of making-do.
Sean Campbell in his chapter on Morrissey and The Smiths, ‘Oscillate Wildly: Ambivalence, Elusiveness and The Smiths’, taken from his brilliant book Irish Blood, English Hearth: Second Generation Irish Musicians in England, writes that the music of The Smiths is not constrained by either Irish essentialism or English assimilation, yet it is of both, with both strands running through it. Hence, it is of both, but, comes directly from neither, so belongs in neither. This could also be said for Morrissey, who proclaims in his song ‘Irish blood, English heart’
Irish blood, English heart, this I’m made of
There is no-one on earth I’m afraid of
And no regime can buy or sell me.
Thus, liminality defines Morrissey, and it is his engagement with this liminality that shapes his prose, as he recounts his lack of belonging and his generation’s search for definition. In Morrissey’s case this search began in television shows like Skippy and Champion the Wonder Horse: ‘Where are there such boys who are fully and entirely content with simply being? Not in Manchester by-streets, which are exactly what they sound like’. This existentialist search for being, he recounts as he notes the poets – like W. H. Auden and Patrick Kavanagh – TV shows, and films he sought definition through. Yet, unsurprisingly, it is music that was his ultimate passion, and in particular the work of David Bowie, The New York Dolls, and Marc Bolan: ‘As David Bowie appears, the child dies. The vision is profound – a sanity heralding the coming of consciousness from someone else who – at last! – transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence’.
Thus, as Morrissey describes it, existence came through music. In traditional autobiography format, Morrissey then recounts a rise to stardom with a standard narrative of ups and downs. Yet, underlining this narrative is still the liminal voice in search of more, and it this voice – with its close allying with the post-war migrant collective narrative – that makes Autobiography special.
In Autobiography’s key passage, Morrissey recounts his ‘true nature’ when The Smiths began, remarking that he had become so despondent and difficult an individual that only his mother could handle him, and how he, ‘the suicidilist’, had to shut it down in order to save face. He later expands on this when he writes of his beloved grandmother’s death: ‘Nannie is the central idea and notion of family, and as she loses hold so too does the family unity. It is all over’. His true nature then is an individual in search of belonging, a figure akin to the migratory one he describes with such beauty. With the shutting down of his suicidal voice, coupled with his dislocation in the wake of his family unity breaking down, Morrissey fails to confront his search for definition; thus, he maintains a liminality that troubles him. In light of this, the indignant ‘I’ narrative of the later part of Autobiography makes sense as Morrissey, like most of those who feel they don’t belong, needs to emphasise his constant struggle while also point to his success; a dualism born out of existentialist musings.
All of this, and the standard rise to stardom narrative, make Morrissey’s Autobiography a great work, and dare it be said, a classic worthy of Penguin Classics iconic imprint. The self-indulgence of the latter part of the work does certainly weaken it – an issue addressed by most critics who unfairly put blame on editor Helen Conford, who you feel had a hell of a job trying to edit Morrissey’s work – yet the work as a whole survives this when examined as a complete prose. There is no escaping the fact the Steven Patrick Morrissey is a writer, and not just a writer of great pop lyrics, but a writer of engaging, moving prose. One hopes that Morrissey will continue to be a writer, yet hopefully paying less attention to the indignant ‘I’, so that if he returns again to prose, his undeniable skill will ring through.