Funny, sad, bitchy, frustrating: it’s Morrissey, all right
Despite the fanfare, this pacy autobiography reveals little about the Smiths singer
Morrissey’s fast-cut, cinematic writing style means much is unexplored. Photograph: Andy Earl/Photoshot/Getty Images
Autobiography was a phenomenon even before it was published, when no reviewer had seen a word or had any idea of its contents. Where were the review copies? There were none, not even under embargo. Was Penguin really publishing it as a mass-market paperback for less than £10? Yes. Instead of the anticipated £25 hardback, it was seemingly cutting its own throat by hitting the airport market, instantly.
First serial rights? None available. A handsome newspaper spread for a sizeable fee is the traditional way for publishers to recoup part of a large advance. Not this time. As for book signings on publication day, well, there was one in Sweden. The decision to issue Autobiography under the Penguin Classics imprint also prompted debate. Was Penguin compromising its own brand? In a spin worthy of a political party, it described the work as a classic in the making. Or, with luck (to use a popular oxymoron), an instant classic.
The sideshow threatened to spoil the main event, but Morrissey’s Autobiography is available in supermarkets and sitting proudly at number one in Amazon’s chart. Aspects of its production remain mysterious and unorthodox. It has no index (not even a short one), sections or chapters, and, oddly for the English-educated Morrissey, features US spellings throughout (even a couple of “rinky dinks”). Yet Penguin is a UK publisher and the book isn’t even available in the US. So far, so puzzling.
Autobiography is nevertheless a thoroughly addictive read, made more urgent by the author’s decision to write in the present tense. Funny, sad, bitchy, fan-worshipping, frustrating, iconoclastic, vindictive and vengeful, it covers pretty well all of the author’s paradoxical personality traits. Chief among these is Morrissey’s solipsism, punctuated time and again by an inability or unwillingness to see the other person’s point of view. This, combined with a penchant for hyperbole, makes him a spiky narrator, overly keen on settling scores, imaginary or otherwise.
The narrative style is cinematic in technique, typical of a writer who has always been an avid film fan. At its best, this works spectacularly well, enlivening the pace as scenes and vignettes flash by, frequently captured in snapshot.
Memories of Manchester during his childhood are often evocative. It’s a place where “birds abstain from song” and Dickensian gloom is leavened by a sense of community. How accurate Morrissey is as a social historian is debatable, as he always allows a grudge to get in the way of a good story. His primary school, St Wilfrid’s, is described as “a bleak mausoleum” whose children are “contaminated”, “many stragglers stink, and will faint due to lack of food”. The school, he concludes, “has the power to make you unhappy and this is the only message it is prepared to give”. Is this the same institution that several of his classmates cheerfully recalled in print as a happy place?