Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before: A Study in the Politics and Aesthetics of English Misery

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The first record I played after the December 2019 election was The Smiths. I’m not entirely sure why – something about the particular misery of that event, and the sense that we would now have to suffer through a long, deep slog without an obvious endpoint, and the feeling that England and Englishness had won some sort of decisive victory. It always seemed improbable, the notion that Britain – by now, with the non-participation of Scotland – was about to embark on an experiment in multicultural radical social democracy, and if you want to luxuriate in the awfulness of England, that’s what the entire sound and aesthetic of The Smiths was all about. Nostalgia, guilt, repression, a scab-pulling adolescence dragged well into pension age.

The other reason was to try and understand something of what had just happened, because the political trajectory of Steven Morrissey seemed to mirror that of large swathes of the North of England – from a kind of anti-Thatcherite left to a proudly racist, little-Englander right. Here perhaps was the location of a key to the events, more useful than George Orwell or any “condition of England” novel – an awful meeting of the pop culture of affluence, the refusal of maturity, legislated nostalgia, endemic racism and aestheticised bleakness.

It is conventional to use the nostalgia for the Second World War as an explanation for the particular kind of nationalism that has gripped England and Wales in the last decade or more. And the tropes of WWII, some of them wholly invented, have indeed been dominant in post-New Labour Britain-without-Scotland, from Boris Johnson’s conscious modelling of his persona on Winston Churchill – who now has an entire section of books to himself in the main high street bookstore, Waterstone’s – to the revival of the unproduced Keep Calm and Carry On poster.

Yet, the actual generation that fought the Second World War – and subsequently built some kind of welfare state – is mostly dead. The overwhelming generational politics of the referendum and the 2017 and 2019 elections, with their supermajorities for the left among the under 40s and absolute hegemony for the right among the over-60s, is a matter of a profound political shift among people born between 1945 and 1965; as Susan Watkins points out, even Johnson is Churchill with a “Beatles mop”.[1]

The importation of the American term “boomers” removes the “baby boom” from the original terminology and just shortens it to those that were born into the boom – into an era of full employment, abundant cheap housing and free education, in the war’s aftermath. But if you spend your time scouring the many Facebook groups where those of this cohort discuss their disdain for the young, there is no sense whatsoever that they feel in any way privileged, or the beneficiaries of historical good fortune. We had it shit, so should they. And who better to explain this scenario than Morrissey?

Morrissey is an extreme example of a common type from the period. Born into a working class Manchester household of Irish immigrants in 1959, was brought up in council housing in Hulme and Stretford, and failed his 11-plus exam – but he then rather spectacularly rose out of the proletariat through the mass media, first as a jobbing music journalist,[2] in which capacity he wrote a book about the New York Dolls and another about James Dean, and then as a peculiar kind of pop idol, arguably the founding figure of English indie.

The Smiths, the band he formed in 1982 with Johnny Marr[3], mounted a deliberate stand against the modernism of pop culture in Britain at the time, and particularly, in Manchester, where their melodic, nostalgic approach was designed to stand out both from the Bauhaus-derived aesthetic and electronic sounds of Factory records and the abrasive neo-Vorticism of The Fall.

After a lengthy and largely undistinguished solo career, Morrissey has been best known recently for becoming explicit about his far-right political sympathies, something which had long been suspected but came out in the open when he started wearing, at public appearances in 2018, a badge for the fascist groupuscule For Britain. This sect were founded a year earlier by a politician thrown out of UKIP for being too close to the street-fighting wing of fascism, Anne-Marie Waters – this is niche nationalism.

Going back to The Smiths, what you can hear in it now is a total refusal to get over and move on from a series of childhood wounds. Sometimes these are Morrissey’s own – several songs are about, or appear to be about, gay relationships, frequently with a stark power differential, in the brutal awakenings of “Reel Around the Fountain”, for instance. Sometimes they linger on murder, in vivid depictions that stand somewhere between a Tony Harrison poem and a News of the World headline. In “Suffer Little Children”, the closing song, over chiming, pretty but eerily looping guitars, the murders of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who took children Morrissey’s age and killed them on the wild moors around Greater Manchester, are interspersed with the landscape:

fresh lilaced moorland fields

cannot hide the stolid stench of death.

The way the song’s cadences recur and recur, murmured with grim pleasure, doesn’t suggest rage or empathy so much as a tasteful version of tabloid prurience, fascinated by horror. The best known songs on the record are either depictions of miserable bedsit life (“what do we get for our trouble and pain? Just a rented room in Whalley Range”) or statements of both identification and opposition to “England” – which is “mine”, and “it owes me a living – but ask me why and I'll spit in your eye”. In this song, “Still Ill”, the poignancy of the nostalgia, and its identification with the particular environment of a depressed, damp, formerly industrial city is unrivalled, all the more for its total vagueness, the indistinct focus for its longing:

But we cannot cling

to the old dreams anymore

No we cannot cling

to those dreams

Under the iron bridge we kissed

and although I ended up with sore lips

it just wasn’t like the old days anymore

No it wasn’t like those days.

So sings a man who was 23 at the time. It would have seemed odd in 1983, when that record came out, to see it as some sort of incipient statement of English nationalism, particularly given that the group seemed in some way identified, albeit in a complex fashion, with the left, playing benefit concerts for Liverpool Council, being proudly queer (although never “out”) in the era of Section 28, and particularly, in their strange but fervent Republicanism, outlined in the surreal imagined encounters with Prince Charles and final regicide in the kaleidoscopic fantasy of “The Queen is Dead”, a song whose dream of insurgency is brought back to reality by a citation of the wartime music hall number “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty”.

It’s only gradually that the cruelty of Morrissey’s vision would become apparent. On the contrary, many of their songs were about suffering from cruelty, about being victimised by a Victorian industrial master class that somehow managed to endure right into the secondary modern schools of the 1960s. In “The Headmaster Ritual”, sung in the present tense but clearly about an experience unlikely to be found in any local authority school in a large city in the 1980s, we have:

Belligerent ghouls

run Manchester schools

spineless bastards all

Sir leads the troops

jealous of youth

same old jokes since 1902

Or in “Barbarism Begins at Home”, from the same album, the same scenario, but domestic – pointless and arbitrary violence, casual and random, and again with a sense of endless repetition and inevitability:

And a crack on the head

is what you get for asking

And a crack on the head

is what you get for not asking

These songs, and the inextricably linked covers of the albums and singles, usually designed or directed by Morrissey himself, along with Derek Jarman’s videos for the group, exist in an enclosed world that ends in roughly 1964, at some sort of point just before large-scale migration from the cotton districts of south Asia into the cotton districts of the North West of England, before Harold Wilson’s election victory, before the Beatles went weird, before inner Manchester districts like Hulme were subjected to modernist “comprehensive redevelopment”, before the textile industry collapsed, and after the introduction of television but certainly before colour TV, with pop music a matter of Joe Meek, Billy Fury and Lulu rather than psychedelia or soul.

This creation and evocation of such a totally pickled environment is remarkably complete, and is done with such longing and lingering attention to detail that it can only be seen as an attempt at reconstructing it, complete, in the mind.

In this, they were remarkably successful – though I was born a year before The Smiths were formed, if I hear “Rusholme Ruffians” I immediately relate it to the casual violence and the wet red Victorian streets of the southern port where I grew up. The thoroughness of the evocation seems to make the pettiness and misery of the memories evoked forgivable.

In a Melody Maker interview/feature on Morrissey from 1988 to coincide with the release of Viva Hate, his first, and by far his best, solo record, Simon Reynolds tried to corner the singer about this. “Viva Hate . . . returns again and again to the Englishness which obsesses Morrissey . . . [he] seems to cherish the very constraints and despondency of a now disappearing England, [fetishizing] the lost limits.” He asks him about this: “on ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’, you say ‘I never stole a happy hour around here’ – but the whole effect of the song, the way your murmured reveries drift in and out of Vini [Reilly]’s entranced playing, just makes the whole time and place seem magical, otherwordly, and incredibly precious.” Admitting the charge, he replied “it’s a trick of memory”, “looking back and thinking maybe things weren’t that bad but of course, they were”.[4]

It first became clear when The Smiths released “Panic” in 1986 that this all had a certain vicious underside, with its attack not so much on chart pop per se, but upon any and all kind of black dance music; around the time of its release, he replied to an NME questionnaire that had the question “favourite reggae record” with “reggae is vile”, something he justified later by claiming the genre was a form of “black nationalism”. In “Panic”, the two sides go together, the detailed picture of miserable British (and in this case, also Irish) urbanism and the lack of consolation in the countryside – and the arrival of an alien force, inescapable, that comes in and poisons that environment.

Hopes may rise on the Grasmere

But Honey Pie, you’re not safe here

So you run down

to the safety of the town

But there's Panic on the streets of Carlisle

Dublin, Dundee, Humberside

I wonder to myself

Burn down the disco

hang the blessed DJ

Because the music that they constantly play

IT SAYS NOTHING TO ME ABOUT MY LIFE

On Viva Hate, there was the first of what would be several Morrissey solo songs that had uncomfortable depictions of British Asians – in “Bengali in Platforms”, the eager to please, out-of-place protagonist, trying to fit in with Anglo-American pop culture, is patronisingly told “life is hard enough when you belong here”. This became creepier still with “Asian Rut”, a dispassionate anecdote of a racist attack, and “National Front Disco”, an anthemic portrayal of English 1970s fascists with “England for the English!” as a warbled refrain. When supporting Madness in 1992, Morrissey wrapped himself in a Union Jack, widely seen as a gesture towards the group’s large skinhead fanbase, at least by the music press, at a time when public display of the flag was largely the preserve of the far-right.

This has passed well beyond plausible deniability in the last couple of years. In a recent interview on his own website he reaffirmed his support for Anne-Marie Walters (elsewhere, he has added his enthusiasm for “Tommy Robinson”), added that he’d like to see Nigel Farage become Prime Minister, reiterated his disdain for “Islam”, and commented on accusations of racism that “everyone ultimately prefers their own race – does this make everyone racist?” On his own Facebook fan page last year he denounced “Soviet Britain”. These are all fairly standard statements of contemporary British conservatism, made strange only by the fact that it’s a queer 1980s pop star who hasn’t lived in the UK in decades saying them rather than a retired Trafford Park engineer.

The most notable achievement of Morrissey’s career since 1988 has been getting his 2013 autobiography published from day one by Penguin Classics. Reading it is an equally bizarre experience. It begins with a hundred pages on 1960s Manchester, written with the same obsessive longing that pervades the songs of The Smiths, with the same flair and precision, the same impression of an attempt to completely recreate in all its misery and violence a complete society, a world in microcosm – followed by three hundred interminable, tedious and self-important pages about celebrities, record companies and court cases, notable for their breathtaking self-pity.

It’s too easy to just separate out these two, much as it is to separate out The Smiths and the 61 year old suburban fascist who fronted them. This is because the two are completely linked. It can be difficult to work out quite what exactly it is about the past that so many in Morrissey’s generation long for. It certainly isn’t council housing, full employment, free education, public ownership or social mobility, because if these are noted at all, it’s in the context of decrying the Labour Party’s foolish utopianism in trying to resurrect them.

What it is, is a nostalgia for misery, a longing for boredom, a relocation of poverty from economics to aesthetics.[5] The belligerent ghouls. The spineless bastards. The beatings. The ignorance. The pollution and the soot. The gay-bashing and the paki-bashing. The murders on the Moors. The young are not only resented for not having suffered these, the obsessive recall of them is a way of constantly re-living an experience of personal struggle and uprooting, an origin story for home ownership and bored affluence, whether that’s the pettier example of the paid-off mortgage or the purchased council house, or in Morrissey’s case, the villa in the hills of LA. And who stands in the way of this self-aggrandisement through re-enactment? The Asians, especially the Muslims. The young. The left. The “woke”. And here, Morrissey is truly the voice of a generation.

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books including The Ministry of Nostalgia and and A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. He is the Culture Editor of Tribune.

This essay is part of a series of excerpts from Futures of Socialism: Into the Post-Corbyn Era, edited by Grace Blakeley. Read all the essays, as they are published through March, here. Until April 8 (23:59 EST), we have 80% off all our ebooks, and 40% off all our print books.

[1] Susan Watkins, “Beyond Brexit”, New Left Review 121, January–February 2020. One could also note the way that the Express and Mail's “Big Ben Must Bong for Brexit” campaign sounds like one of Marc Bolan’s gleeful nonsense lyrics.

[2] On the near-universally right-wing politics of ex-music journalists, see MT Page, “The Psychedelic Left”, Tribune, 8 November 2019.

[3] As a long-term enthusiast for modern music, a socialist and a patron of the Manchester Modernist Society, Marr is guiltless of most of Morrissey’s specific crimes.

[4] Simon Reynolds, “Miserablism”, in Blissed Out – The Raptures of Rock (Serpents Tail, 1990), pp. 16-17.

[5] Should anyone doubt this, I would recommend reading this thread on the Facebook group “Memory Lane UK”.