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Morrissey: lunatic seer of the modern world Immigration, wet markets, the plight of the working class: he's always ahead of the curve

Flying the flag: Morrissey performs at Finsbury Park, London in 1992 (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

Flying the flag: Morrissey performs at Finsbury Park, London in 1992 (Photo by Brian Rasic/Getty Images)


May 6, 2020   5 mins

“We would all do the same as you if ever we had the nerve to” sang Morrissey in 1991 on one of his lesser regarded hit singles, “Pregnant for the Last Time”. The subject of this No 25 semi-smash is a woman who gleefully gets herself with child every time she alights on a new man. But these words are, I think, very appropriate for the peculiar position occupied by Morrissey and his detractors in politics and culture.

Recent events have coughed up a particularly prime example of Morrissey hitting a nerve years before anybody else in the pop sphere, getting castigated for it, and being justified in saying he told us so when it became horribly relevant.

Ten years ago he described footage of the treatment of animals in Chinese markets as “absolutely horrific” and that anybody who had seen it “could not possibly argue in favour of China as a caring nation. There are no animal protection laws in China and this results in the worst animal abuse and cruelty on the planet. It is indefensible.”

This statement was Morrissey’s reaction to the hullabaloo after an interview in The Guardian with the poet Simon Armitage in which he said, hotly, after watching animals being skinned alive: “You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.” In Morrissey’s view cruel treatment of animals makes you less than human, but this wording, robbed of its context and intent, was a gift to his many enemies.

That’s because Morrissey annoys people, and unlike most purportedly outspoken pop stars he often annoys the people pop stars aren’t supposed to annoy. What I’ve found fascinating is how many of the opinions he has expressed in his long career have become hot topics on the table of late. Immigration, animal rights, free speech, the denigration and demoralisation of the working class, the unhealthy news media. And with universal basic income sliding its legs ever further over the sill of the Overton Window, his famous declaration in song from 1983 “England is mine, it owes me a living” feels more apposite by the day.

In his own strange way, for how could it be other than strange, Morrissey was a post-liberal before anybody else really cottoned on, and this from someone regarded commonly as stuck in 1954.

Morrissey’s mind is unschooled. One might even call it deschooled. (Anybody in favour of the return of selective education should have a read of the section of his autobiography dedicated to his gruesome years at a secondary modern and take pause.) He left school at 16 almost completely unqualified, and didn’t get tipped into the academic funnel that increasing percentages of us have been strained through. His intelligence and learning is of the scattergun, autodidactic variety that sometimes lights on obvious things that we have been accustomed to ignore or to look at without seeing.

It’s also interesting, and often very funny, to see the reactions of former disciples of the posher, ‘indie fan’ variety, when he says something outrageous but which they don’t like, to the point they get huffy and disown him. His advocacy of terrorism for animal rights and his repeated death wish for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s — “the sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Thatcher escaped unscathed” he said very soon after that happened — didn’t ruffle feathers because it coincided with their own bluff talk. But when Morrissey lamented in 2007 that “England is a memory now, the gates are flooded and anybody can join in” they fainted clean away over a stack of Belle & Sebastian CDs.

The double standard is gobsmacking. Fantasising in song about the public execution of the elected prime minister? Just a bit of harmless fun from a loveable old eccentric. Saying he was ‘excited’ by John Redwood? Burn him at the stake!

Why does Morrissey upset people so? His singing voice drives some instantly to distraction —my father couldn’t stomach more than ten seconds of it before shouting, in a broad Cardiff accent, “Oh, bloody hell, it’s the ghost of Jim Reeves” — but this is equally true of many other pop stars who merely get the occasional grumble for it.

A lot of the time it boils down to envy, and I’m as guilty of that as anybody else. Morrissey got to do things many millions of us dreamt of — mythologise our adolescence, inspire the adoration of perfect strangers in distant lands, say what we actually think — and it happened almost by accident. He can’t be accused of pandering, trend-chasing or compromising. He has the toxic combination of arrogance and self-pity that has fatally holed so many in a similar position, but he also possesses the humour and talent to leaven it. His lyrics are witty and smart, with an eye for life as it’s lived rather than the upbeat escapism and puppyish approval-seeking of most pop music. He keeps doing the same bloody thing and it keeps working, sailing over the heads and the power of critics. He has a ghastly habit of rising from the grave.

All this had to happen to somebody. But it’s a constant, maddening reminder that it didn’t happen to us.

There are things that drive me potty about him. He can’t do polemics — his most direct, unambiguous material (the songs “Meat Is Murder”, “America Is Not The World”, “World Peace Is None Of Your Business”) is his weakest. Fiction writing is not, let’s get this out of the way quick before the screaming starts, his strong suit. His horror of electronic instruments and any development in dance music after about October 1972 is just silly, like the ladies of Cranford boarding their first train.

But the problem with criticising Morrissey is that his entire schtick is criticising himself. People pointing out his faults seem not to realise that he got there 37 years before. Right from the off he has sung about his personal failings, of pushing people away, of being intense and unbearable. He knows exactly what he’s like and he’s not happy about it.

However, all this openness and honesty can lead to terrible, avoidable blunders if you haven’t thought everything through. The “now, I must be careful how I put this” reflex is not there in him. That lack is the source of his success, but also of his woes. Because if your thing is always saying what you think, people will take what you say seriously. Bashing in with his size nines with open support for Anne-Marie Waters’ For Britain party was serving himself up on a plate.

To Morrissey, it’s obvious that he’s not a racist. But to advocate a political party, and of the fringe right — in considered statements, not off-the-cuff interviews — was breathtakingly naive. What on earth did he think the reaction would be? Did he really think he was helping — himself or anyone else?

It was as daft as singing a song called “The National Front Disco”. Seen in the broad flow of his oeuvre the song is obviously about a rather sad loner in the 1970s who drifts into a hopeless cul de sac. The repeated phrase “England for the English” is delivered in weary and mournful quotation marks (by the republican child of Irish immigrants). But people often don’t have time to think beyond the obvious, and ambiguity can be a gift to those who want, for whatever reason, to destroy you.

Morrissey is more often, I think, right than he is wrong, and a sizeable chunk of the things he’s observed, some of it long ago, have reared up to bite us all on the bum. “The left has become right-wing and the right-wing has become left — a complete switch, and this is a very unhappy modern Britain,” he stated recently, which is a fair enough summary of where we find ourselves.

We are constantly being asked to view the most anodyne and conformist pop stars as challenging and controversial. But we’re not having this conversation about Ed Sheeran, and I suspect we probably never will. We should be grateful for, in our increasingly dull and frightened culture, this bizarre, awkward, contradictory, funny fellow.


Gareth Roberts is a screenwriter and novelist, best known for his work on Doctor Who.

OldRoberts953

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cjhartnett1
cjhartnett1
4 years ago

This is somewhat equivocal about England’s greatest current contrarian.
The man has always set out to annoy, and to muse aloud way above what a ” jumped up pantry boy, who never knew his place” , is supposed to say.
Witness his righteous contempt for Band Aid etc, despite the suckups in that band of his wanting to be part of it all, I’m sure.
Morrissey would not be with you re comprehensives either, he despises any trained conformity. So compulsory schooling would be included in that.
His support for Anne Marie Waters in fact cemented him into English hearts, just as his Irish blood allows him to go as and where, into our British culture as an immigrant, an autodidactic genius a(lyrics and chunks of his autobiography confirm )
He’s the real thing, honest, sharp and a righteous prophet in the culture wars we’re fighting. He annoys exactly the right people who need a bat up the nightie. Like Tommy, Nigel, Trump and AMW…he’ll be proud of being necessarily offensive to the Muzac Blobbies like , well you Gareth to some extent….but especially the likes of Coldplay, Stormzy and arch hypocrites like Weller, Simenon, Geldof and Bonio.
Morrissey is a true hero, his lyrics should be on any curriculum. But unlike Zephaniah, Armitage and Malala Thunberg, he never will be
Far too dangerous. So he’ ll be honoured to be so feared by all the right types like Sheeran and Arianna etc.

John McKenna
John McKenna
4 years ago
Reply to  cjhartnett1

Best album I’ve heard on contemporary English society is ‘ Working Mans Cafe ‘ by Ray Davies .

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Good article. Morrissey is the Trump/Farage of indie rock. Ahead of his time an right about almost everything.

I read his autobiography only recently and the passages covering his schooling are truly horrific. ‘Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools’ indeed. I attended a bog standard comp in the north-west only shortly afterwards but it nothing like as bad as that.

Peter White
Peter White
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Indeed. I occasionally worked with pupils at the school when M. would have been there aged around 11. There were issues!

kevinquinner72
kevinquinner72
4 years ago

An excellent rejoinder to the numerous numbskull commentaries that conveniently overlook his propensity for ambiguity and mischief.

All too often the same arguments are trotted out. This is a salve.

MIKE HOULDING
MIKE HOULDING
4 years ago

Appreciate your sentiments, but there is of course also this opinion from the late A A Gill “…Morrissey is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whingeing, self-martyred human being who ever drew breath. And those are just his good qualities.”

Helen Barbara Doyle
Helen Barbara Doyle
4 years ago

Very few people who were sentenced to a second/third class education at a Secondary Modern, when they yearned to be taught maths, English and science and take ‘O’ Levels, would advocate bringing back the 11+, streaming yes, 11+ never.

It is only parents who assume their child would pass the exam who are keen on it.

Sounds like Morrissey is yet another clever young boy wrongly denied a proper education.

earthwar1930572
earthwar1930572
4 years ago

Morrissey is smarter then the know nothing know it all with a exaggerated sense of self intellect Gareth Roberts . Morrissey has enough common sense to want to preserve his boarders, language and cultural embraces that have made his country the advanced place it was, and prevent it from toppling over completely. Morrissey, keep fighting against these sellouts.

plynamno1
plynamno1
4 years ago

Offhand I can hum only a few songs from the days of The Smiths and Morrissey, so am no expert on him. I think he has had a few nutty ideas in among the good ones, and as the article suggests sometimes he’s probably been his own worst enemy, but I’ve always found him interesting to read and been appalled at the prejudice some people show towards him. Quite a few people need to air out their old ideas and let the breeze get at them. Learn to listen to people more.

Fiona E
Fiona E
4 years ago

Not a fan of his music but admire his integrity and moral courage. Hardly any public figures these days have the courage to say what they think – they just trot out what’s ‘acceptable’ or keep quiet which is pathetic but especially pathetic when it comes to the arts. Since when was the arts about conformity? Anyone who thinks Morrissey is ‘racist’ or Boy George is ‘transphobic’ should get off Twitter for 5 minutes and talk to some real people. I don’t care if I agree with their views, I’m just glad they’re expressing them!

Ian Thorpe
Ian Thorpe
4 years ago

“He left school at 16 almost completely unqualified,” So did my brother, the millionaire. Really. I won a scholarship to an elite grammar school, was designated as “University material” but left at 16, having decided education is overrated.
Both of us know that while Morrisey’s celebrity gives him a platform from which to broadcast his opinions, the things he says, and power to him for being brave enough to speak them aloud knowing the media are listening.
And the things he says resonate in the minds of working class people who resent constantly being told by the university brainwashed wankerati what they should and shoulld not think.

aaronfaulls
aaronfaulls
4 years ago

Nail on the head, Gareth. Fair play to you.

“Any pop journalist who wishes to do a savage critique of anything I’ve done is wasting their time because I get there before they do.” – Morrissey, 1992

Ish Ot Jr.
Ish Ot Jr.
4 years ago

Thank you for your thoughtful article – it’s striking among the mostly reactionary “cancel culture” posts that litter my feed.

earthwar1930572
earthwar1930572
4 years ago

This opinion page is heavily censored and oppressive to free speech. You will never know the patriotism of your people because the monitors will not allow anything except pandering, sniveling and bootlicking to the fake oppressed and grievance oriented.

M C
M C
4 years ago

In Morrissey’s view cruel treatment of animals makes you less than human, but this wording, robbed of its context and intent, was a gift to his many enemies.

In this case, you’ve fallen into the trap of reading more context than there was in order to fit your narrative.

His view is that cruel treatment by a section of the Chinese population makes the entire Chinese population seem less than human. This is the classic generalisation fallacy.

It’s fine if and when he speaks with nuance, but in this case, he’s not doing so. He’s doing what many people have done before – something like watching a few youtube videos and then making huge generalised comment without nuance.

Does this make him a racist? Well, it all depends on your definition of the word. But racism, of the undisputable sort, usually starts from simplifying the ‘other’. In this, we can all equally fall into. And in this case, Morrissey, and making incredibly generalised and simplistic comments on an entire population (regardless of which subsection is doing the objectionable thing he opposes) is almost certainly not doing himself or anyone any favours.

And I would also presume you are not responsible for the sub-heading – wet markets are another issue entirely.