"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 it's 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."
Andrew Stevens interviews Mark Simpson, author of Saint Morrissey, about Northerners, Top Gun and the 'metrosexual'.
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3AM: 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.
3AM: 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?
3AM: 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.
3AM: 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.'
3AM: 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 it's 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.
3AM: 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.
3AM: 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 seventeen 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.
3AM: 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."
3AM: Out of interest, do you have a favourite London pub? Don't worry, this seems to be appearing in more and more 3AM interviews these days!
MS: The Grave Maurice.
3AM: How did you end up as the basis for Quentin Tarantino's spiel about Top Gun?
MS: Oh, I wrote a chapter in my 1994 book Male Impersonators about how Top Gun was really a male love story between Iceman and Maverick, and how much of the film, particularly the locker scenes, was shot like gay porn. A few months later Quentin Tarantino appeared as himself at a party in a movie called Sleep With Me arguing a rather similar line to the bedazzlement of the other guests. I'm sure it was just a case of great nerdy minds thinking alike, but the timing was interesting.
3AM: How does it feel to invent a much-used term and often not be given credit for it?
MS: Relieved, in many cases. There have been a lot of very bad 'metrosexual' articles. In the US I've almost been credited too much, at least since the NYT fingered me as Patient MetroZero. In the UK however it appears as if most journalist writing about metrosexuals -- and there have been scores of them -- know how to use Google. Which does tend make you suddenly rather less easy-going about your own paternity. Maybe the dramatically different responses on opposite sides of the pond has something to do with American journalistic professionalism. Or maybe it's just that it's much easier to sue in the US.
3AM: 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 INTERVIEWEE
Mark Simpson's website can be found at www.marksimpson.com
"Absorbing... illuminating... touchingly fervent... With the arrival of this book Morrissey's beatification is surely complete."
- Fiona Sturges, Independent, 14 Nov 03
"Entertaining and perceptive... written with real flair."
- Steve Jelbert, The Times, 24 Nov 03.
"Simpson writes with enough panache to make most of his peers toss their laptops into the waste disposal and weep."
- Independent on Sunday, 16 Nov 03
"A superb rockumentary of Morrissey. Witty, adoring, stylish, intellectually watertight."
- Paul Flynn, Attitude
"A provocative and precocious read.... Smiths fans will love it, and even Morrissey himself might arch an eyebrow in appreciation."
- Peter Watts, Time Out
"Simpson is funny, clever, honest, irreverent and egotistical: quite the match for Morrissey. More biographies should be written this way."
- Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday 'Books of the Year'