Morrissey: The Pleasures of Reaction May 1, 2008Posted by smiffy in Books, Culture, Media and Journalism, Music, racism.
There’s a country
You don’t live there
But someday you would like to
And if you show them what you’re made of
Oh, then you might do
Morrissey – “The National Front Disco”
Oh that Morrissey. He certainly doesn’t make it easy for a serious, conscientious lefty to like him, does he? Not content with displaying a rather venal – not to mention “devious, truculent and unreliable” – character during the court action over the distribution of royalties from The Smiths and a rather ambiguous attration towards the aesthetics of skinheads, he now intends to perform at a music festival in Tel Aviv. No doubt angry letters are already winging their way towards the NME.
Of course, the greater shadow hanging over him is the question of racism: is he or isn’t he? It’s dogged Morrissey since the demise of The Smiths over twenty years ago, with the questionable lyrics of songs like ‘Bengali in Platforms’ on his fist solo album, Viva Hate and his flirtation with National Front iconography at the Madness reunion concert in Finsbury Park in the early nineties. However, while many of his statements and lyrics over the years are rather ambiguous, allowing him the benefit of the doubt, his infamous interview with the NME late last year, where he expressed sentiments like “The gates of England are flooded. The country’s been thrown away” and “These days you won’t hear a British accent in Knightsbridge” when speaking about immigration into the UK are far more direct and, as a consequence, far more troubling.
Perhaps more damning than the sentiments themselves is Morrissey’s reaction to the accusations of racism. In the statement he released after the NME interview was published, and while also issuing writs against the magazine, he stated:
If Conor (McNicholas - NME editor) can provoke bureaucratic outrage with this Morrissey interview, then he can whip up support for his righteous position as the morally-bound and armoured editor of his protected readership – even though, by re-modelling my interview into a multiple horror, Conor has accidentally exposed himself as deceitful, malicious, intolerant and Morrissey-ist – all the ist’s and ism’s that he claims to oppose. Uniquely deprived of wisdom, Conor would be repulsed by my vast collection of World Cinema films, by my adoration of James Baldwin, my love of Middle-Eastern tunings, Kazem al-Saher, Lior Ashkenazi, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and he would be repulsed to recall a quote as printed in his magazine in or around August of this year wherein I said that my ambition was to play concerts in Iran.
Missing the point entirely, and failing to address the statements he made which raised concerns – he falls back on some of the most tired and well-worn clichés used when someone is accused of racism: the “Some of my best friends …” argument
Worse yet is his approach to far milder discussions of his attitudes towards race. In March, David Quantick wrote a review of Morrissey’s latest ‘Greatest Hits’ collection in Word. It’s scathing stuff, displaying a rather intense dislike on Quantick’s part for Morrissey’s recent output – both musical and political. However, with the possible exception of the suggestion that his views on immigration might be hypocritical given his provenance (to my mind, the child of an immigrant is just as entitled to a racist opinion as someone who can trace their ancestry to the Magna Carta, or to the Battle of Clontarf) it’s all fair comment. Morrissey’s reaction? Call in the solicitors and force Word to settle in court. Billy Bragg’s view of the legal action against the NME is worth recalling all the more in this context:
Had Morrissey claimed freedom of speech in his own defence, I would have supported his stance. Instead, we have the unedifying possibility that a man who once skilfully wielded his dazzling wit to confound his detractors and delight his audience has been reduced to relying on a writ in order to stifle his critics.
In my view, there’s no strong reason to think Morrissey is a racist, even if his support for anti-racism campaigns does seem a little pro forma. However, given the sentiments expressed in the NME interview, I think there’s little doubt that he’s anti-immigration and has a rather xenophobic streak. The only thing that surprises me is that anyone should be surprised by this.
The emotional landscape of Morrissey’s lyrics, from the earliest days of The Smiths, has always been characterised by an intense conservatism. The nostalgic obsession with 1960s icons like Sandy Shaw, Viv Nicholson, the Carry-On crew and the Krays suggests a yearning for a Golden Age of Britishness (which indeed the very act of nostalgic recollection helps to define). Quantick is right, to an extent, when he says that “once Morrissey made music that talked about the underdog, the victim and those in the minority”. However, it should be stressed that Morrissey only ever spoke to some underdogs, some victims and some minorities. Is it really that strange that such an Anglophile, and an Anglophile of such a particular type, should be less than welcoming to those he thinks are taking his England away from him? And should Morrissey really be given such an easy ride when he expresses views which – by any standard – are reactionary compared with the kind of reaction which one could envisage if, say, Boris Johnson and Simon Heffer made the same comments? Indeed, perhaps the greatest criticism that could be levelled at Morrissey is that the views themselves are pretty indistinguishable from what one might expect from Heffer or – worse – Richard Littlejohn (like Morrissey, a rich ex-pat who likes to talk about the decline of England).
Perhaps the real question that could be asked is whether any of this should make any difference to our appreciation of Morrissey’s music. If he really was a racist, would it mean that songs like “That Joke Isn’t Funny Any More”, “I Know It’s Over” or “Every Day is Like Sunday” are any the worst for it?
There’s nothing to suggest that progressive political opinions of the part of any artist necessarily translates into good art, or that reactionary views diminish the work. If one looks at some of the great writers of the twentieth century – Yeats, Proust, Stuart, Pound, Céline, Waugh, Larkin – you find anything from snobbery and racism to outright fascism. In each case, the reactionary politics are not incidental to the work. In fact, they’re integral to the writer’s entire outlook.
On a lighter note, I’m a big fan of the Flashman series of novels, by George McDonald Fraser who died earlier this year. However, much as I might admire the writing (in some of the books more than others, admittedly), and enjoy the satirical presentation of the British Empire, it must be conceded that there is a very questionable political undercurrent running through them, particularly in relation to the depiction of the natives of the lands Flashman visits.
By the same token, while it’s undeniable that Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philantrophists is a hugely important book both for its depicition of working-class life in the nineteenth century and for its pedagogical value, it’s also a rather turgid read, smacking in places of the worst kind of Dickensian senimentality and, aesthetically, doesn’t compare to work of Eliot, James or Conrad.
Morrissey’s action against the NME is unlikely to be heard for some time yet, and it may well prove to be his undoing. He didn’t come well out of his previous appearance in court and, like David Irving, he could find that he’s made a huge mistake in voluntarily putting his opinions under the microscope of judicial inquiry. Whatever the outcome, however, I don’t think it should make any difference to how we listen to his music in the future.