Four Lads Who Shook The Irwell
Andrew Stevens talks to Saint Morrissey author Mark Simpson about The Smiths and Northerness.
3:AM: Mark Simpson: discuss.
MS: I was born in York, England, a hum-drum provincial town several tea stops north of Newport Pagnell. I attended the same school as Guy Fawkes, though not in the same year. I’ve lived in London for the last couple of decades, but only because I haven’t been able to find the A1 and no one in London gives you directions.
3:AM: And how did that lead to a fascination with The Smiths?
MS: I was abducted by Morrissey on a hillside desolate, in 1983, when I was just 18. Bear in mind, back then the age of consent for that kind of thing was 21. My bicycle had a puncture and he stopped and offered me a lift — then he bundled me into his car and drove off at high speed before I could protest. Not that I was going to, mind.
OK, so it was actually my parents’ living room in North Yorkshire and I was watching him on a TV pop programme called The Tube while waiting for my tea. This emaciated James Dean double, clearly more in need of my fish fingers and chips than I was came on singing ‘This Charming Man’ — “will Nature make a man of me yet?” — in a pair of jeans and a woman’s blouse and a plastic necklace with petals raining everywhere. How was I supposed to resist?
3:AM: Did you have much contact with anyone else in or around the band while writing your book on them?
MS: No. Though I did get a nice email after the book was published from the guy who used to dance and shake a tambourine at early Smiths gigs. But then, this isn’t that kind of bio. Maybe it isn’t a bio at all — perhaps that’s why I call it a ‘psycho-bio’. Which sounds a bit frightening, and maybe that’s the way it should be. You see, I didn’t go rummaging around in Moz’s dustbin or interviewing nosey neighbours. Perhaps I was too lazy. Perhaps I was too unprofessional. I thought that the best way to write a biography of Morrissey was to simply listen to what he’s been telling us about himself over the last twenty years via that giant fax machine of his, otherwise known as Pop Music.
3:AM: How did you retain a distance and manage to not appear too ‘hagiographic’?
MS: Did I really? Well, obviously I’ll have to try harder next time to appear more hagiographic. ‘Hagiography’ of course is ‘lives of the saints’ and the book is called ‘Saint Morrissey’… I think the book is ambivalent rather than, shudder, ‘objective’ — that’s the nature of true passion isn’t it? Or at least, a certain resentment that someone could have such power over you. ‘Saint Morrissey’ is inevitably as much my revenge as my tribute. There’s also the Orwell quote at the beginning: ‘All saints should be considered guilty until proved innocent.’
3:AM: Well I don’t think it’s that hagiographic, the title aside, of course. Being a Northerner yourself, how did this relate to the band’s outlook do you think?
MS: Northerness was crucial to The Smiths. Crucial because it gave them and Morrissey their scorn, their humour, their heart, their unpretentious pretentiousness and also their chippiness. The Smiths saved Englishness from the South who had held it captive in the basement of a posh house in West London. Since the 1980s it’s become devastatingly clear that London and its outer ring-road, the Home Counties, have nothing to do with England any more and in fact is set against it. The South East is now Global and Euro and, at a pinch, when all else fails, British long before it’s English. England has been forgotten or buried by everyone who actually lives in England except northerners and London cabbies.
3:AM: But more recently he’s dabbled with East End symbolism and the like, don’t you think?
MS: Well, apart from his obvious, reckless fearlessness in pursuing his artistic interests regardless of the bourgeois niceties of political correctness, there’s his sheer oracular influence. In the early Eighties he anticipated ‘New Man’ with his naked male cover sleeves and androgyne politics and then at the end of the Eighties he pre-empted New Lad and it’s love-affair with gangsters with ‘Last of the Famous International Playboys’ (1989), a hoodlum’s love-letter to Reggie Kray. That’s two decades of British culture and masculine politics. Not bad for a librarian’s son from Stretford.
3:AM: How long did the book take to write? Did it take up much of your time as you’re a prolific writer, seemingly?
MS: About three months to write. And about 17 years to research. The book was completed at the end of 2000 and was due to be published in Spring 2001 but the after accepting the manuscript gleefully and crowing about what a splash it would make the original publisher got cold feet just before publication ‘for legal reasons’. It took me two years to find another outfit. As for organising my — well, difficult enough to listen to Morrissey and do something else at the same time, that man commands your full attention, let alone listen to him and write about him and do something else.
3:AM: How do you feel about entering the canon of Smiths biographers? Aren’t you worried that the great man himself will implore you to die in a hotel fire or something?
MS: It certainly is a risky vocation. But then, I certainly wouldn’t want to be seen as Morrissey’s earthly representative — and I expect he doesn’t either. Which reminds me of that Wilde quote: “All great men have their disciples these days; and it’s always Judas who writes the biography.”
3:AM: Out of interest, do you have a favourite London pub?
MS: The Grave Maurice.
3:AM: Finally, how did it feel to be described as the “gay anti-christ”?
MS: Heart warming. But slightly anxious that I might not be invited to many Rotarian dinner dances.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 2nd, 2004.