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Morrissey: The Pleasures of Reaction May 1, 2008

Posted 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.

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1. Phil - May 1, 2008

Is it really that strange

YM so strange. HTH.

I don’t think it should make any difference to how we listen to his music in the future

I agree, but I think there is a correlation between this stuff coming to the fore in Morrissey’s writing and the decline in quality of said writing. I mean, I thought the Smiths went off the boil even before they split up, and never liked more than a couple of Morrissey’s solo songs (“”Suedehead” and, er…) – but no way in Hell was I going to own an album with a track called “Bengali in platforms” or “The National Front Disco”. Which sounds incredibly PC, written down, but there are just some lines you don’t cross. It feels to me as if Moz has got lazy and self-indulgent, basically, and that old 70s anti-immigrant racism is one of the things he indulges.

2. Phil - May 1, 2008

Can you switch off this smiley generator, WbS? Please? Please??? ;-) ;-) :-) :-o

3. Starkadder - May 1, 2008

“I’m a big fan of the Flashman series of novels, by George McDonald Fraser who died earlier this year.”

If you like that kind of adventure story, WBS, you should
try Talbot Mundy, an adventure writer who was nevertheless
critical of British rule in places like India-think
Rider Haggard with E.M. Forster’s politics.
His novel “Tros of Samothrace”, for instance, is
probably the most anti-Roman Empire book
apart from Howard Fast’s “Spartacus”.

4. WorldbyStorm - May 1, 2008

No no, I didn’t write this post, it was smiffy who did! I’m not in much a position to say much about Morrissey having always been a semi-detached listener to the Smiths but I tend to agree with smiffy about the necessity to think hard about how we respond to art produced by artists who are flawed.

I always think in these cases of Expressionist painter Emil Nolde in Germany prior to the war who was an early member of the NSDAP, but was eventually banned by them. How do we interpret that work. Is it good despite his membership, or good in part due to his banning? There’s a duality there that I find very uncomfortable (as it happens I’m no huge fan of his work). I’m not suggesting Morrissey is Nolde, or even equivalent, but his work invites certain responses.

5. Starkadder - May 1, 2008

Sorry, WBS. But I’d still recommend people give Talbot Mundy
a try if they like historical novels.

I suspect the race thing is something Morrissey might be
doing to keep himself in the public eye-have you heard
anything about his contemporaries Robert Smith (the Cure),
Bernard Sumner (New Order) or Ian McCulloch (Echo and
the Bunnymen) recently ?

6. WorldbyStorm - May 1, 2008

I should add that I think the ‘sensitivity’ card on the part of his audience and himself has given him a freer pass than otherwise might be the case. I wonder if Noel Gallagher, had he made the same sort of comments or written the same lyrics (and consider his recent pronouncements on the lineup at Glastonbury which were guitarist at least) would he have been afforded that space? Working class lads from Manchester mouthing off in such a fashion would perhaps be considered less ambiguous than the rather more elegant Mr. Morrissey, whatever about his putative second-generation English status. Maybe not though.

Will do Starkadder. BTW, New Order don’t need to say anything to keep in the public eye – near Godlike genius ;)

7. Starkadder - May 1, 2008

Just out of curiosity, does anyone here known of a good
writer that they believe has been unjustly forgotten, like

8. Phil - May 1, 2008

Rex Warner’s been revived a couple of times, but it’s never really stuck. My copies of The Professor and Why was I killed? are both contemporary editions; I don’t know if they were ever reprinted. The Professor certainly deserves to be, although its subject-matter (how liberals who are squeamish about Communism end up capitulating to Fascism) is probably less fashionable now than ever before. The Wild Goose Chase is wonderful, but a bit wearing – it’s a kind of surreal political fantasy, but with the plot driven by the surrealism rather than the politics; the kind of thing Edward Upward was always promising to write but never quite did. But The Aerodrome is his masterpiece, and a must-read for anyone who’s interested in English Fascism. He’s quite your go-to guy on the whole fascism thing, is Warner.

9. smiffy - May 1, 2008

Cheers Starkadder. I – smiffy! – will look them up.

10. Starkadder - May 1, 2008

Heard about Rex Warner, Phil-he used to write novels for
young adults about Ancient Greece. I must read “The Aerodrome”
if I ever get the chance.

11. Shane - May 2, 2008

Not my cup of tea at all but was interested that UL held a conference on him last week. Apparently they had hundreds at it!. A new promising development for Limerick tourism..:-)
Lyric have a report here (requires Real player)

12. ejh - May 2, 2008

I have his translation of Thucydides.

13. Phil - May 2, 2008

He was a classicist, & his later work reflects that rather than his political radicalism (assuming he still was radical later on); I think his great work all comes from a 4-5 year period. Interesting writer, though.

14. Starkadder - May 2, 2008

I remember that after Morrisey had released “Bengali
in Platforms” that the band Cornershop burned
a picture of him in protest, claiming the song was racist.

Actually, Robert Smith got into trouble over The Cure’s
Camus-inspired “Killing an Arab”-recently the band has
re-recorded the song as the less problematic “Killing Another”.

On a lighter note, I remember me and my father watching
an old episode of “Top of the Pops 2″. When Morrisey
came on,Dad said he was a “crap whinger”. When Depeche
Mode came on, he said they were “souless”. And then
when Phil Collins came on, he said Collins was a
“musical genius”.

I told him “Well, that’s the end of your street cred, Dad!”.

15. Pax - May 2, 2008

“Billy Bragg’s view of the legal action against the NME is worth recalling all the more in this context:”

Bragg has an interesting article on English and Scottish patriotism and the left on CIF,

A different strand of socialism

He makes a very good point about leaving the field of national identity (Englishness here) open to the likes of the BNP and the right as it “leav[es] them free to define who does and who doesn’t belong on their own terms.”

Also, his example of a “fellow leftist’s ” letter on not being comfortable with being at an English match (what with the typical chants of Dambusters or whatever), and on how this again leaves the left bereft of a counter is a point I’d agree with. Take a usual community, college campus, town, whatever, if most of the people are watching a sports game, shouldn’t you go there too, and participate, if you really want to reach out? And if you don’t then, who will?

The most important point though, is that, in practice, the SNP are further to the left than New Labour, even though they’re not from an, in any way, socialist tradition.

“As socialists, we are all too familiar with the tactic of opponents who are quick to portray those who question the free-market system as supporters of the worse excesses of Stalinism. It’s a blinkered mindset that refuses to accept that there are different strands within socialism, preferring instead to dismiss as a commie anyone who argues for a more compassionate society. Such simplistic attempts at stifling debate are mirrored by those on the left who fail to recognise that there are different types of patriotism, some adamantly opposed to that voiced by the xenophobic minority.”

On Morrisey, I like the humour in his songs more than anything else. But then again, Bill Bailey is the new Morrisey.

16. Eamonn McDonagh - May 2, 2008

Patrick O’Brien beats Mc Donald Fraser anyday though similar reservation about some of the politics apply

17. smiffy - May 3, 2008


I’d agree that O’Brien’s novels are far superior as historical novels. However, I think I probably enjoy the Flashman series more than I do the Aubrey-Maturin. O’Brien’s not very forgiving of those who aren’t too well acquainted with early 19th Century nautical jargon. And there’s more sex in the Flashman books.

18. eamonnmcdonagh - May 3, 2008

Part of the fun is not understanding alll the terminology :=)) same with telly series like ER

as far as I can recall, there’s no sex *at all* in any of the aubrey-maturin books

19. Claire - May 4, 2008

I’m working my way through Flashman too and they are great. I think the earlier ones are written with less of a desire to rebut criticism of the Empire. By the 1990s, Fraser is much more fed up with what he evidently considers lefty anti-imperial revisionism.

On the other hand, the later books do a much better job at fleshing out Flashman’s enemies/’victims’. His wife Elspeth in particular becomes more of a match for him. The various women he encounters get bigger personalities. (I’m thinking particularly of the difference in Mrs Mandeville from Flash for Freedom and Flashman and the Angel of the Lord. She becomes FAR more interesting, and sympathetic. Fraser gets better at maintaining sympathy for Flash without undermining the various people he doublecrosses).

That said, by far my favourite book so far has been the one on the Indian Mutiny, and it does have some glaring inaccuracies. The sepoys really aren’t anything more than animals. Given that the Mutiny is commonly known in India as the ‘First War of Independence’, Fraser could have, and should have, done a lot more to recognise that perspective.

20. Starkadder - May 4, 2008

On the subject of British Empire adventures, anyone
read Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels? I didn’t,but I
did see the TV series (which Eoghan Harris wrote for, but
don’t hold that against it…).

21. smiffy - May 4, 2008


Funny you should mention it, but when I wrote about the problematic (to say the least) depiction of subject peoples in the Flashman books, it was precisely the portrayal of the Sepoys in Flashman in the Great Game I was thinking of.

I agree with you about the way the series changes as it progresses. While I think you’re right about some of the women being more fleshed out in the later novels, I also think that the character of Flashman tends to change a bit as well, as if McDonald Fraser tries to make him rather less venal and less cowardly in the later works, which rather diminishes the enjoyment for me.

22. eamonnmcdonagh - May 4, 2008

As we’re on the topic; for those partial to a bit of swashbuckling the Alatriste novels of Arturo Pérez Reverte take some beating for the quality of the action

23. Phil - May 4, 2008

Shane #11 – Rex Warner? Talbot Mundy? Morrissey? The RTE link you provide isn’t much help, as it links to a 57-minute broadcast.

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