England’s Quare Cancer – Morrissey and Nostalgia

Morrissey was born into an Irish Catholic family, grew up as part of the minority Irish Catholic community and lived between Dublin and Manchester. He talked about his struggles to belong and make sense of his Irish and English identity in light of Ireland’s colonisation by England/the British Empire. He comforted himself with the idea that even if he felt out of place, English people also had life hard. And he knew the pain of parting as family members moved abroad.

It was a constant confusion to me why I never really felt ‘This is my patch. This is my home. I know these people. I can do what I like, because this is mine.’ It never was. I could never walk easily. (Morrissey, Melody Maker, September 1986)

my sister and I growing up, never really felt we were Mancunians. My Irishness was never something I hid or camouflaged. I grew up in a strong Irish community. Of course, early on I’d be teased about it, I was called `Paddy’ from an early age… this was back in the 1960s when it was a bitter and malevolent slur. But that’s how Manchester people are – they’re extremely critical of everything and everybody… I used to come back to Dublin… the people seemed happier and more carefree and Crumlin seemed so open – certainly more so than the confines of Hulme. We were quite happy to ghettoise ourselves as the Irish community in Manchester, the Irish stuck rigidly together. (Morrissey, Irish Times, 20 November 1999) https://www.irishtimes.com/news/paddy-english-man-part-1-1.252576

Obviously the Irish feel resentment towards England because England has historically been so appalling to Ireland. So it was somewhat confusing for me growing up… England has been a bully and is a bully. (Morrissey, Mojo, June 2004)

We had waved goodbye to Mary at Manchester Airport, a US emigree in her nineteenth year, and to never again be a Manchester lass. We all cry uncontrollably as Mary’s flight is called – a much loved branch hacked away. (Morrissey, Autobiography, 2013)

In Viva Hate every protagonist is dislocated in some way, and they’re all harried. Bengali in Platforms is consistent with the album, his lived experience of not fitting in, & Ireland’s vein of wistful, bittersweet, cautionary songs about the ‘curse of emigration’.

There’s a graveyard in Tir Conaill,where the blossoms sadly grow, There’s a sorrow stricken mother,kneeling o’re that lonely grave. My Noreen,oh my Noreen its lonesome since you’ve gone, Twas the shame of emigration,laid you low my Noreen Bawn. (Neil McBride, folk song, from Donegal, Ireland, 1910) https://www.irishcentral.com/culture/entertainment/songs-of-irish-emigration-exile

The NME said it was a “convoluted diatribe against assimilation” (22 August 1992) and reprinted Q’s assessment from March 1988 that: In Morrissey’s mind, (‘Bengali In Platforms’) may be a profound statement about personal alienation, but unfortunately it would go down very well at a singalong after a National Front picnic.

David Stubbs, thought all black and Asian people were interchangeable, and hit on the Irish stereotype of the Thick Paddy.

The appalling Bengali In Platforms, quintessentially Morrissey, Morrissey the Diana Ross hating Morrissey… dumb… embarrassing… a caring call to the sartorially inept Asian… appallingly patronising… deals with an outmoded stereotype… [should be about] the snappily-dressed Punjabi…. [Morrissey is] our last idiot. (David Stubbs, Melody Maker, 19 March 1988)

Along with temper, aggressiveness, deceit and a natural penchant for alcohol, one of the oldest and most enduring putative characteristics of the Irishman was his atavistic ignorance or, at best, his inveterate illogicality. The Irishman’s intellectual deficit, characterised by bulls, blunders and malapropisms, made him a lamentable figure of fun. (James McCabe, Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2008) https://books.openedition.org/pufr/5076

A consensus formed that Morrissey was telling immigrants to get out of the country.

the lyrics to Bengali In Platforms (“It’s hard enough when you belong here” – implication: you don’t) had long rubbed liberals up the wrong way, even though he was simpy addressing what he’d seen around him in multicultural Manchester. (Andrew Collins, his blog, 28 November 2007)

And that he was nostalgic for “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” (Owen Hatherley, Verso, 31 March 2020).

In fact, South Asians arrived in the 1950s, and lived in the same immigrant slums as the Irish. And it was those immigrant slums that Morrissey was nostalgic for, never recovering from the trauma of the slum clearances, as communities were ripped apart by nice, well-meaning, middle-class people for their own good, and exiled into “ugly new houses”.

In a way it was like having one’s childhood wiped away. In Queen’s Square, my grandmother occupied the fourth house. We occupied the fifth house. And the sixth house was occupied by my mother’s sister and her family. So it was a very strong community and it was very tight. Very solid. And it was also quite happy. Well there’s nothing at Queen’s Square now… everything has just vanished. It’s just like the whole thing has been completely erased from the face of the earth. I feel great anger. I feel massive sadness. It’s like a complete loss of childhood. Because although I’ve always lived in Manchester, and I’ve always lived relatively close to here, to this part of Manchester, now… it’s just so foreign to me. And that’s quite sad, I think. (Morrissey, Oxford Road Show, BBC 2, 22 March 1985)

Morrissey’s lost England

In the Smiths his nostalgia was part of his oddity – because he was camp (the gay antiques dealer being a common stereotype) or because he was a nerd obsessively collecting pictures of old dead film stars, or a congenital idiot.

We afford [Morrissey] the sort of license that’s normally extended to children and idiots; sensing the presence of an innocence and simplicity that’s been civilised out of the rest of us. (Paul Du Noyer, NME, 16 February 1985)

The accusation that he’s nostalgic for a Green and Pleasant, white, Nationalist, Little England comes from the NME’s 1992 homophobic hit piece.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating England or Britain… but… once you start cavorting with the Union Jack, with all its ambiguities, and surrounding yourself with the paraphernalia and imagery of the skinhead cult, then that celebration has moved… into… dangerous territory. And that territory is not the green and pleasant land of Morrissey’s dreams... “Take me back to dear old Blighty…” So sang Cicely Courtneidge in The L-Shaped Room, as grafted onto the evocative intro to ‘The Queen Is Dead”s opening title track. The ’60s kitchen sink movie is one of Morrissey’s pet favourites; the use of the patriotic pub singalong a mere atmosphere-setting quirk on an album littered with ambiguous pro/anti-nationalist signals. But, as ever with the controversy-courting bard of Whalley Range, it conjures images of Old England, Dunkirk spirit, British bulldog nostalgia and — stop us if you’ve heard this one before… (NME, 22 August 1992)

Morrissey advocates a cricket green England, an England where we tolerate immigration in small numbers, an England where it’s exotic to have a ‘brown’ neighbour… ‘Shelve your Western plans’ is a synonym for ‘England for the English’. It’s ‘go home P***’ in more poetic language with a prettier tune. (Martin Rossiter, the Quietus, 26 May 2017)

After that any reference to England in his work was heavily policed and maligned.

We are, this time round, spared any dubious songs about Bengalis who don’t belong here or visits to fascist discos. (“I didn’t invent the Union Jack” he sulked to a journalist recently, adding that he “didn’t understand the fascist implications of it”. Morrissey didn’t invent being an issue-fudging twat either.) There are no ballads. The twinkling insouciance of ‘Kill Uncle’ and the razor glam of ‘Your Arsenal’ are absent. Instead, Moz and the gang give RCA what they want, which is a loud mess to sell to America… In the end, there’s no reason why anyone who already owns a record made by Morrissey – or, more particularly, The Smiths – should even want to hear this record, let alone buy it. Its maker should call himself The Morrissey Formerly Known As Artiste. (David Quantick, NME, August 1995)

Certainly, the paper-thin caricature Englishness of much of Maladjusted is likely to go down much better with Americans, for whom the title-track’s mentions of the Fulham Road and “a Stevenage overspill” might yet retain a little declasse glamour. (Andy Gill, the Independent, August 1997)

In an era when every other UK artist was dripping in Union Jacks he was disparaged for writing a gay love song set in a part of London where he had lived.

Your leg came to rest against mine
Then you lounged with knees up and apart
And me and my heart, we knew
We just knew
For evermore
Where taxi drivers never stop talking
Under slate grey Victorian sky
Here you’ll find, my heart and I
And still we say come back
Come back to Camden
And I’ll be good, I’ll be good, I’ll be good, I’ll be good (Morrissey, lyrics Come Back to Camden, from the album You Are The Quarry, 2004)

The Smiths currently cast a longer shadow over British alt-rock than at any time since their 1987 split. You can hear their echoes in Franz Ferdinand and British Sea Power, while the Libertines appear to have been formed specifically to appeal to Morrissey: songs about a lost Albion and an on-stage penchant for gorblimey shirts-off male-bonding that frequently leaves them looking less like a rock band than something invented by Joe Orton… the lyrics seem trapped in the past: not the mythic pre-Beatles England that Morrissey’s songs usually evoke, but the less romantic environs of the mid-1990s… Irish Blood, English Heart makes a fuss about “standing by the flag not feeling shameful, racist or partial”, unaware that everyone else worked that one out around the time Geri Halliwell turned up at the Brits wearing a union flag miniskirt. Come Back to Camden offers a vision of Englishness so caricatured it would have caused the lowliest Britpopper to scoff: cockney cabbies, bad weather, tea. The urge to hit fast-forward before he mentions bowler hats, Yorkshire pudding or lovable chimney sweeps is quelled only by the song’s enrapturing melody. (Alex Petridis, the Guardian, May 2004)

A song about his clashing Irish-English identity had the Irish erased.

There’s a perfectly good anti-racist argument for allowing English ethnicity to speak its name, after all. The assumptions (expressed sotto voice, but unmistakably there) behind so much multi-culturalism weirdly duplicate those of imperialism: other people have ‘cultures’; we are normal. (Mark Fisher, K-Punk, July 2004) http://k-punk.org/slate-grey-victorian-sky/

This is the sort of ambiguous comment which seems to invite an assenting nod of the head but could easily have been uttered by Nigel Farage. Similarly, ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, in which he sang, I’ve been dreaming of a time when/ To be English is not to be baneful /To be standing by the flag not feeling shameful/ Racist or partial/ Irish blood, English heart, this I’m made of /There is no one on earth I’m afraid of/ And I will die with both of my hands untied.” Ever since then, dog whistle by increasingly unsubtle dog whistle, living in splendid isolation from his home country and the consequences of his remarks, Morrissey has put himself beyond, and further beyond the pale. (David Stubbs, the Quietus, 4 July 2019)

Aptly the pale was a fence around English controlled areas of Ireland – beyond it was the savage Irish.

Morrissey was both cast out of & made to represent everything evil and wrong about England & the British Empire.

Morrissey is now, of course, almost a stateless person, although his seven years in Los Angeles don’t appear to have brought any great insight into either his new homeland or his old one. (Andy Gill, the Independent, 14 May 2004)

Morrissey has long since ceased to be worthy of cultural assessment; he no longer deserves to be part of that conversation. He has come to represent… something nasty, reactionary and dangerous in our culture, a poisonous voice at this critical point in Britain’s island history. Something has hardened like a tumour inside him over the years; what was once whimsical, amusing, pop-culturally apposite, is now the stuff of disease. (David Stubbs, the Quietus, 4 July 2019)

There followed the usual trawls through his cuttings file, where plenty of material awaited. From 1986: “To get on Top Of The Pops these days one has to be, by law, black.” Circa 1992: “I don’t really think … black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other.” And what about this peach, uttered three years ago? “The higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears.” As ugly as they seem – and to be more generous than he perhaps deserves – his views are not a matter of vicious, programmatic racism, but the same thinking that lies behind the more hard-bitten calls to Radio 4’s Any Answers: achingly conservative, terrified of difference, and in mourning for a lost country even the angriest white man might not actually like to live in...
Unlike plenty of other genres, its practitioners tend to pride themselves on an inclusive, liberal outlook, seen in an admirable campaign called Love Music Hate Racism (to which Morrissey made a donation in 2008, after the hoo-ha about his views on “British identity”). Indie’s home turf is urban bohemia, where diversity and difference are taken as read. But in his own gruesome way Morrissey embodies its contradictory collective id: a bundle of conservatism, parochialism and generic navel-gazing... In keeping with his catholic tastes, Albarn – a passionate fan of the music of west Africa – was performing alongside Bobby Womack, the rap trio De La Soul, and Snoop Dogg, but swarms of people soon departed the main arena in search of something more comforting. Presumably they were after some of the plodding, conservative fare that defines most of the rock aristocracy, and is an obligatory part of the outdoor ritual.
Morrissey, it’s fair to say, would have gone down a storm. (John Harris, the Guardian, Thu 9 Sep 2010)
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/sep/09/morrissey-race-indie-back-yard

Morrissey is an extreme example of a common type [Fascista proudly racist Little-Englander… with] a nostalgia for misery, a longing for boredom… The ignorance. The pollution and the soot. The gay-bashing and the paki-bashing. The murders on the Moors… 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, Verso, 31 March 2019)

And his work was stolen for the enrichment of the culture he was excluded from.

… you might have realised that our traditional national identity is crumbling around us. Any sense of imperialist superiority is disintegrating with every export barred or expat shipped home. Start a conversation with anyone with a Union Jack in their Twitter handle and you might be surprised at how little grace, discernment and gallantry ensues. Divided, exploited and at each other’s throats, we’ve so lost sight of who we are as a nation that we’re in danger of winning an international footballing semi-final on penalties. Which is why we should be protecting our prime cultural treasures at all costs. Exhibit one: The Smiths. Misery, isolation, melodic moaning, idolising American film stars and mainlining Coronation Street – could there be a more quintessentially British band? Yet over the years their legacy has been tainted by Morrissey’s support for far-right politics (among other pronouncements) and one of our greatest musical achievements has been at risk of being tipped into the ‘consequence culture’ canal. (Mark Beaumont, NME, April 2021) https://www.nme.com/features/opinion/the-smiths-morrissey-the-simpsons-2923272

Much of it driven by nostalgia. By branding Morrissey a racist they de-gay the Smiths, avoiding the discomfort of identifying with One Of Them, relegating him to an asexual ghost, rebounding on to the heterosexual axeman, replacing him with Brandon Flowers & Rick Astley.

The Smiths manifesto of vengeance on the world through disability, withdrawal and asexuality (it was impossible to imagine that Morrissey actually had a penis) was immensely attractive. (Simon Price, Melody Maker, 15 August 1992)

a lifetime of world-weary bitterness has soured the soul of Morrissey. This makes me sad, especially when one of his songs genuinely shook my self-centred 16-year-old self. In 1986 I was deeply affected by ‘I Know It’s Over’ from The Queen Is Dead and the lines “It’s so easy to laugh/ It’s so easy to hate/ It takes guts to be gentle and kind.” It would appear that, for Stephen Morrissey, hate will always be very much alive. (John Freeman, the Quietus, 13 March 2013)

… it’s time for an intervention. Johnny Marr, protector of all that is right and good about the Smiths, we need you like never before. If you can banish Cameron to the wastelands, forcing him to salvage whatever meagre delights he can from the Mighty Lemon Drops, surely you can do the same to Morrissey. Just one tweet, that’s all it would take. “I forbid Morrissey from liking the Smiths.” That’s it. Then we can band together, Samwell Tarly and all, and breathe a sigh of relief knowing that our enjoyment of a perfectly good band won’t once again be tainted by the lunk-headed ravings of a professional irritant like Morrissey. (Stuart Heritage, the Guardian, 3 October 2017)

Morrissey embodied a more sensitive form of masculinity for the young me – but was I just kidding myself?… The Smiths are okay, as they predate their singer’s consistent insensitivity, but solo Morrissey isn’t. (Jordan Bassett, NME, 7 August 2019)

yeah that’s the thing. ‘reggae is vile,’ panic, bengali…it was always right there. (J Edgar Noothgrush, ilxor, 24 January 2022)

Asian Rut

Asian Rut regularly turns up in the list of Moz crimes, though no one explains why.

Maybe they think the word Asian in the title is racist.

Or that Rut makes it racist. Rut can mean aggressive male sexual excitement, so could be connected to the idea that violence is a form of sexual rivalry. It might even make you wonder how very was the best friend. Or he’s stuck in a rut, a cycle of retribution that will lead to nothing but destruction.

The album it comes from, Kill Uncle, has an air of sardonic ennui, so as with Mute Witness, you could suspect that he was mocking the distress of the song’s protagonist, in this case the boy trying & failing to get revenge. But in context it’s more about the way fate mocks us.

The Asian boy is the hero so he gets the title.

& we don’t know if the narrator will get home, or if, having witnessed the crime, the English boys will get him next, or if he’s somewhere safe repeating a story he heard about that violent place that no one does anything about.

Another objection could be that the Asian boy is English too, but it’s a fight centred around group identity & it’s a drama, not a lecture.

Morrissey has described himself as both English & Irish Catholic, so he knows the way labels move around regardless of citizenship.

The family is young and amused and all Irish-born but for my sister and I… we Irish Catholics know very well how raucous happiness displeases God, so there is much evidence of guilt in all we say and do, but nonetheless it is said and done… The Irish banter is lyrical against the Manchester blank astonishment. (Morrissey, Autobiography, 2013)

Or they could demand that art should be morally clear and respectable when dealing with a sensitive subject – but Morrissey felt he was battling against the class system, and heteronormativity to become a writer and a singer. He had no reason to credit society with making the right things taboo.

I pin so much prestige on James Baldwin that to risk approach places my life on the line: I’d hang myself at any glimmer of a rejection. History books overlook James Baldwin because he presented an unvarnished view of the American essence – as blunt and rousing as print would allow… His liking for male flesh gave the world a perfect excuse to brush him aside as a social danger, and he was erased away as someone who used his blackness as an excuse for everything. In fact, his purity scared them off, and his honesty ignited irrational fear in an America where men were draped in medals for killing other men yet imprisoned for loving one another. (Morrissey, Autobiography, 2013)

The essence of… (Moz Art)… came from an idea I had to take images that were the opposite of glamour and to pump enough heart and desire into them to show ordinaryness as a instrument of power – or possibly, glamour… to present cheerless and cluttered bed-sitter art in a beautiful and proudly frank way… Rules in all things, are simply laid down so that someone might break them. I had learned to guard my secrets carefully…. it would be the ache of love sought, but not found; buttoning your overcoat as you stand before an ash-slag fire as you ponder years of wasted devotion amid the endless complaint of boredom. (Morrissey, Autobiography, 2013)

He was also a punk fan, with its ironic subversion of pop culture – The Ramones singing a teenage tragedy song about the KKK, exposing the bad taste behind the clean-cut beehives.

https://www.legacyrecordings.co.uk/news/death-disc-phenomenon

But then Morrissey tends to put more agony into a song, life is ridiculous AND painful.

I am shocked, but then I fold into convulsive laughter. Some terrible moments are funny. (Morrissey, Autobiography, 2013)

Lyrics:

Day oh so late
Strangely the sun still shone
Ooh Asian boy
What are you on?
Day oh so late
Strangely the sun still shone
Oh Asian boy
What are drugs are you on?Oh… strange
Tooled-up Asian boy
Has come to take revenge
For the cruel, cold killing
Of his very best friend
Tooled-up Asian boy
Has come to avenge
The cruel, cold killing
Of his only friend

There’s peace through our school
It’s so quiet in the hall
It’s a strange sign for one
Of what’s to come
Tough and cold and pale
Oh, they may just impale you on railings
Oh, English boys
It must be wrong
Three against one

Oh …
Brakes slammed and
His gun jammed
And as far as I could tell
Brave Asian boy
Was dealt a blow and fell
I’m just passing through here
On my way to somewhere civilized
And maybe I’ll even arrive
Maybe I’ll even arrive