Saturday, 4 September 2010

Ringleader of the Tormentors

It's always difficult when you see a person or a country that you admire being attacked for just reasons.

And this time, it really does seem that Morrisey has said something truly awful.

However, I can't help feeling that Te Graun's coverage is exceedingly poor. A journalist, whose name seems to have been invented by Chris Morris, Alexandra Topping writes:

'But tomorrow he reignites a simmering row about his views on race in an interview in Guardian Weekend magazine, in which he describes Chinese people as a "subspecies" because of their treatment of animals.'

Don't know if you can write in the continuous tense about tomorrow, but then Te Graun didn't get its nickname name for nothing. However, surely if it's so offensive Te Graun can decide not to publish the interview? After all, they are getting on their high horse because Morrisey's trying to attract attention by being offensive. Surely they aren't going to do the same thing whilst adding cowardly disclaimers? If anything that would be even lower. Especially from a paper that published an editorial saying 'Justice and reason have finally prevailed after nine months of mass hysteria on both sides of the Atlantic, hysteria and moralistic prejudices' after a middle class director who raped a thirteen year old avoided being extradited.

And did they have the same banner when Martin Amis called for people to get rough with Muslim kids? Did this receive so many throat clearing condemnations? No, because no one has any idea what Martin Amis 'thinks'. It's just a group hallucination that he is any kind of intellectual. And anyway, he offered the disclaimer that it was a thought experiment, which I'm sure settled a few minds.

By contrast, their coverage of the Morrisey song Bengali in Platforms is also completely idiotic. One of Morrisey's gifts is for ambiguity. Is this song written from the point of view of the Bengali or from the point of view of Morrisey looking at the Bengali or the point of view of someone else looking at the Bengali? It's never stated. That's the beauty of Morrisey's songwriting.

Then there is the same thirty year retrospective of Morrisey's supposed racism. Firstly, I find it amusing that wrapping himself in a Union Jack is so controversial. How many British rockstars wear the Stars and Stripes? In truth despite or because the USA has oppressed so many nations, it is seen as the de facto flag of Britain by many. Secondly, he write another cryptic song called National Front Disco.

Lastly there are his comments on immigration into England, which is far from being a simple issue. I notice that no-one actually tried to refute his view that British identity is diluted by large scale immigration. Personally, I don't care that much, because so many British want to assume an identity that is more American than anything else. Yet I think that it is precisely because it goes without saying to our elite that Britain should be morphing into a little America that they found Morrisey's comments offensive.

Is there also an element of class hatred? This is difficult to tell because Morrisey's comments on the Chinese sadly were very offensive. Yet I can't help feeling rather negatively about other Graun comments:

'And then, let's not forget, there is the rest of a vast catalogue that has nothing to do with race. In the best of it – from There is a Light that Never Goes Out to I Know it's Gonna Happen Someday – the words mix with the music to speak to a human condition that defines people of every race. And that, I am sure, is what will be remembered long after this silly old man has finally got off the stage.'

There is little thought that Morrisey might apologise for his comments, or redeem himself in some way. But then, could this be a thought articulated before Morrisey even opened his big gob on the subject of the Chinese? Could it be that they really don't want a rock star of working class origin to continue on the stage? Maybe there is a paradox in Morrisey's career. On one hand, he could be seen as the ultimate working class boy made good. On the other his career path was so contrary to the simplistic path of neo-liberal dogma, writing his songs when on the dole, writing 'Margaret on the Guillotine' when he was getting rich.

Indeed, whilst the sight of our national flag can bring so many 'leftists' out in hives, the brutality shown towards the industrial poor is one area where they have little dispute with the neo-liberals. Many of the others who showed anger at Thatcher (whose views on privatisation, manufacturing and the industrial regions are pretty centrist by today's status quo) such as Roger Waters are now happier with the Countryside Alliance than any working class movement.

In this day of middle class boring musicians, meaningless music with no social awareness, idiotic lyrics which only use ambiguity for sub Carry On style entendres and abysmal melodies, I think Morrisey's achievements look greater by the day, even as the idea of an intellectual, individualistic rock star whose work thrives on irony and ambiguity is seen as a dated concept. I would be sorry if indeed he did 'leave the stage', though sadly I think if he did he would have to admit it was partially his own fault.


  1. I wouldn't necessarily romanticise Morrissey's economic views: in March 1988, just as his first solo album (which included "Margaret on the Guillotine") was being released, he informed Melody Maker that levels of taxation were *still* too high (in the very same month they went so low that the budget debate had to be suspended, such was many actual Labour MPs' revulsion) and that he got the sense it was "illegal to earn money in this country". Could have been Jimmy Page circa 1975.

    I found the most recent Morrissey racism controversy, in 2007, somewhat depressing because the man (whose contradictions are not merely a central part of his character, they *are* his character, but is that not the case with British pop itself?) did not acknowledge the role of American influence in eroding the England he remembers from childhood (an England he did not enjoy at the time, but that again is British pop's dilemma), which he most certainly did in the early 1990s.

    As you can see, I don't know *what* to think on this matter. A large part of me does wish Morrissey had, as he threatened in the early 90s, gone to live "in a crumbling cottage in Somerset", because artistically it was clear by then that his time was up; I think if there is a meaningful anti-Coldplay it is grime and bassline, sometimes even in their poppier forms. Have you ever read Mark Simpson's article 'The Man Who Murdered Pop' from the Graun in 1999 (which I think could apply even better to Jarvis Cocker, but that's another story)? That to me pretty much covers the multiple ironies of his life (along with Simon Reynolds' analyses, some of which have been reprinted in his anthology 'Bring the Noise').

  2. Great post. I am friends with a lot of fellows from liberal upper-middle class backgrounds, and it always strikes me as odd that I can say horrible things about working-class people but I can't tell a racist or sexist joke around them.

    I had one tell me the other day that he is angry that the government is spending money to fix roads and sewers because it annoys him while driving and it was just a way to put lazy, underachieving construction workers to work, and, well, he didn't know any constructions workers! Sometimes I think I'd rather pal around with an out-and-out far-rightist because they are at least straightforward and honest about their prejudices.

  3. Thank you for your comment Robin, you are far more knowledgable about these things than I am. It is sad but not actually all that surprising to hear about Morrisey's anti-tax comments in the 80s; especially as he moved to America saying that Britain 'hates success' or something.

    A good point about British pop's dilemma. I believe that The Wall was composed before Thatcher came to power as well; and many songs like Eleanor Rigdy also protrayed post-war Britain as repressed and depressing. I suppose it is also true for wider British culture; it is actually quite rare for older leftists to speak well about the 70s; I think many hate Thatcherism for stopping Britain from reaching a hypothetical future than for destroying the past system in Britain.

    Also agree that it's ridiculous to attack immigrants for diluting British culture, when American culture is the primary force that overshadows our own (not that I blame Americans for this; but it does demonstrate how profoundly unpopular a lot of aspects of traditional British identity are). In a sense I think it's related to the coverage of Scottish independence. In fact I think that most Scots are more 'British' than a lot of English are. I'm sure many small-l liberal journalists would see no irony in condemning Scots nationalism for being anti-English whilst at the same time expressing disgust at the Union Jack.

    I found Simpson's article online. It's very good. Not sure I'd entirely agree, but a lot of good points. I liked the comparison of the poll tax with Morrisey's union jack moment.

    As for what to think on a deeper level than 'it was an awful thing to say': in some ways I think it emphasises that pop culture is more puritanical than it might like to think. Not 'puritanical' meaning wrong to condemn it, but in the journalist's having little idea that Morrisey is redeemable.

    I think that is why, whilst I think popular culture has contributed a lot of wonderful works and I'd be lying if I denied it had a big influence on my life, I do regard it as inferior to either classical culture or Christian culture.

    I think the very nature of popular culture is largely opposed to ethical ideals as complex as those in the Orestia (for example) and that the music cannot be uplifting as much Baroque hymnal music or works like the 9th Symphony. Instead 'Imagine' seems to me the archetypal pop song. Full of good intentions, but little beneath that (which isn't of course to say that Imagine is the best pop song, but rather that I think it sums up the spirit more than anything else).

  4. It would be dangerous to sentimentalise the old order. Many lived narrow, stunted lives - the way of existence described in "Eleanor Rigby" was the norm for millions well into the age of the welfare state. But I honestly believe that things were just starting to come right on all fronts in 1978, and it's significant that even the Telegraph acknowledged this at the start of 1979. Economic equality and overall living standards peaked *immediately before* Thatcher came to power: there is more than enough justification to suppose that a world without her could have been better both than the world we eventually had *and* the world we had had before, which had indeed been disfigured by lingering poverty and class divisions (it was a sign of how deep these were that it took governments a third of a century to reduce them meaningfully; the tragedy is that we never got the chance to see what this could have led to, because as soon as they had done so, a whole new set of social divisions and new forms of poverty were created).

    I think a lot of opposition to Scottish nationalism is really opposition to its supposed anti-Americanism, or at any rate having a cultural background that does not depend on American mass culture - in other words having everything that used to be taken for granted in England. This is the greatest problem England has; the nationalisms of Ireland, Scotland and Wales all, in their various ways, set out a cultural rejection of US hegemony which *cannot* be dismissed as "right-wing", "fogeyish", "backward", "insular", &c. In England, it is almost impossible to express such views without being smeared with those associations, not least because too many people have been brainwashed into thinking that imperialist wars abroad are somehow "progressive" because they supposedly fight "fundamentalism" (even though it is now, and not before 2003, that many Iraqi women feel forced to wear the veil), an opinion that the experience of conquest has taught the Scots, Welsh and Irish can never be correct. The position at the centre of an empire and the resultant sense of always having been the masters, leading to a lack of a perceived need for a popular, progressive nationalist movement, and the curse of multiple conquests (not least because they give people an excuse for saying "you can't criticise the changes brought on by Murdoch; they're what's always happened in England", as if the circumstances in the days of Romans or Normans or Huguenots, which importantly did not affect Scotland in the same way, were even remotely similar to what we have today) are making it impossible for people like me to be seen as what we truly are - there's always some shrill idiot to accuse us of wanting to send back the Jews or of wanting to stop mixed marriages. This is where having been a small nation at the margins can really work in your favour when everything crumbles; the Celtic experiences, of cultures kept going under immense pressure, has taught their peoples that this is a stupid connection to make, but the experience of defining everything by imperial trade leaves you with nowhere to turn when you are no longer the masters of that trade. I fear what might happen next.

    I would, again, not want to sentimentalise the very last statements against pop culture made by public figures immediately pre-Blair, such as those by Nick Tate (in charge of school curricula under Major), because they were wrong in a different way - far too Tory and quasi-feudal in their interpretation of history. But in the light of what has happened since, I cannot read Helen Wilkinson's February 1996 Independent riposte to Tate without a faint sense of nausea; what she is claiming is "democratic" is *exactly the same mechanism* that has put Old Etonians back in power. There has to be a halfway house. Not having been at the core of an empire makes it much easier to find it.