An Englishness at Home and Abroad


Tony Fletcher/Tom Hingley
26 November 2012
Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester

Just around the corner from this evening's Manchester proceedings, I once saw an elderly British actor make an early afternoon appearance in the hallowed arena known as the Royal Exchange Theatre. The thespian in question was Dirk Bogarde, who was promoting one of his self-seeking, closeted novels, with which he interspersed his equally closeted and self seeking volumes of autobiography. Bogarde wasn't averse to selling himself, although he was very particular about the parts he chose to throw into the marketplace.

Bogarde admitted that in his days as a matinee idol in the 1950s he had to resort to sewing up the button flies of his sharp suits with dark cotton. In the ensuing scrum of over-heated ladies, whose varnished fingernails immediately went for the area they weren't supposed to access, this was his only means of preventing over-exposure, although it didn't save his assets from being rather rudely explored. He also bemoaned the business of signing books. Once in Harrods, after an initial rush, he was seated at a table, alone and awaiting customers. An elderly lady strolled by, did a double-take, and then realizing that he was indeed who she had originally thought, turned to her friend and whispered loudly, "It's a shame when they come to that!" These two events, and the youthful handsomeness of their subject, have a sense of the ridiculous, an air of Britishness, that would rest well with the lyrics of one Steven Morrissey, who surprisingly never got round to using Sir Dirk, as he then had become, as a cover star on one of the singles by his band The Smiths.

Waterstones Deansgate was, in years gone by, a hive of literary events. A shadow of its former self, it now hosts as many signings in a year as it once hosted in a fortnight. Window displays and posters used to trumpet forthcoming authors, everyone from Norman Mailer and Anthony Burgess to Salman Rushdie at the height of the fatwa, and Adam West, who turned up expecting to sign a few books only to discover a crowd of almost two hundred on the ground floor. The former cloaked crusader immediately fled, where a friend of mine had to minister to him, as he was sick with nerves. She later remarked to me, "I never thought I'd end up helping Batman throw up in the staff toilet!'" West, when he did grace his audience was a seamless, charming performer. Tonight, in the store's readings room, about thirty people have braved the Manchester rain. Two authors are promoting new works. One is a rock biographer whose subjects encompass the likes of The Clash, R.E.M., and Keith Moon, whilst the other is a former frontman of a Mancunian band, an appropriate pairing both in subject and geography.

Tony Fletcher has turned his attention to Manchester's finest maverick export in A Light That Never Goes Out, the long overdue appraisal of the brief but staggeringly successful career of The Smiths. Although considered regional heroes, the band played London more often than on the stages of their home city. They were decidedly British in their subject matter and demeanor, but translated into a world-recognized brand. Fletcher remarks that although their nuances might have been missed by their overseas fans, the themes of the perpetual outsider developed and explored in Morrissey's lyrics shone through and struck at the heart of any disenchanted youth. The band in America, he explains, was perceived in a different light, and ranked alongside the likes of Depeche Mode, Yazoo, and Simple Minds, a category that their British fans would have scorned and derided, but in the States they were lumped together with other British imports by the burgeoning college radio stations. He is also gracious when questioned about the only other serious consideration of The Smiths' career, Johnny Rogan's Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, presenting his luxury of twenty years' worth of hindsight to clarify things with, and unlike Rogan, he has used a more democratic approach, focusing on the four individuals who made up the band, and not simply the songwriting partnership. Rogan's book was, and remains, a tribute to lumpen prose, whereas Fletcher writes with informed concision and manages to reference the bands' Irish roots without numbing the reader with a pointless Irish stew of a history lesson, as Rogan did, and still does. His tome has been revised and updated.

Fletcher also points out that The Smiths arrived as the vacuum left by The Jam was longing to be filled, and although he admits that it is a cul de sac he refuses to enter, is all too aware that there was something almost pre-destined in the swiftness and ease with which the band ascended the ladder of success. It is also easy to forget that Morrissey was an astutely controversial interviewee. He referenced, in his first American interview, the need for a Sirhan Sirhan (Bobby Kennedy's assassin) to rid Britain of Margaret Thatcher, which immediately put his parochial dislike into a context which his new audience could grasp. His years of bedroom contemplation had perfectly honed his ability to utilize the moment of gifted limelight when it arrived. Fletcher's book is a diligent and unhurried summary of a band whose influence is still resonating, because they broke the mold while referencing traditions: Morrissey by his lyrical borrowings, inspirations, swathes of naked emotional honesty, and his masculine effeteness and sexual ambiguity; Marr by his knowing nods and winks to the history of rock music, and his personal genius as a tunesmith and musician.

Tom Hingley has written a memoir of his life as frontman of post-Smiths baggy merchants The Inspiral Carpets. The sections he reads evoke their collaboration with legendary Fall curmudgeon Mark E. Smith, a law unto himself via his barbed wit and capacity to process any liquid or chemical he can. When, accidentally on purpose, he trips up the brat of a soap actress, he snarls, when she demands an apology, that he has some razor blades in his hotel room that might finish off her offspring properly. Hingley also reads a telling vignette about Basil Clarke, vocalist of neglected Manc funksters Yargo. When giving Clarke a lift to the studio, Hingley remarks that some kids are finger-pointing pretend guns at them; his passenger dives into a ball into shape on the passenger's seat. Hingley neglected to mention the pretend aspect, and realizes he has terrified his fellow musician, whilst gleaning an insight into the weight on his shoulders. Hingley has an eye for detail that is evidenced by the brevity of his book. He has astutely left more out than he has included, a rare talent in a world over-long with anecdotes.

And so the evening dwindles in a clattering of casually pushed aside chairs. Books are inscribed, and an Inspiral fan has brought some albums to be signed. He is accompanied by his teenage son, an indication of the new democracy of rock, which evokes a certain sadness in me at the loss of music as rebellion, and a means of inter-generational antagonism. Something Morrissey would doubtless acknowledge, but just as he refused to be involved directly in the labors of Mr. Fletcher, he also was equally apparent by his absence, and there lies the true nature and power of artistic influence.