Morrissey autobiography: that joke is, now, actually rather funny

I can smile about it now...
I can smile about it now…

Miles Davis is at a dinner hosted by US President Ronald Reagan. He is sat next to a politician’s wife, who says to him:

“What have you done that is so important in your life? Why are you here?”

Miles, in his Autobiography, says:

Now, I just hate shit like this coming from someone who is ignorant but who wants to be hip and has forced you into a situation where you’re talking to them in this manner. She brought this on herself. So then I said, “Well I’ve changed music five or six times, so I guess that’s what I’ve done…Now, tell me what you have done of any importance other than be white, and that ain’t important to me, so tell me what your claim to fame is?”

You have to feel sorry for the poor woman. Invited to a presidential dinner, and forced to sit next to Miles Davis, a man who is not only a jazz musician, but who also believes that jazz music is important and his place within music of great importance. No doubt she went home and spoke with her politician husband and tut-tutted and used the word ‘uppity’ and perhaps some other less delicate words to describe the hurt that she felt at having to share a dinner table with such a hubristic and obnoxious man.

It is a similar hurt that many people, many esteemed people within the world of literature are feeling today with the publication of Morrissey’s Autobiography on the Penguin Classics imprint. This, let us not forget, is the hallowed place where all of the greatest works of literature are published: Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac and Wilde among them.
These writers are all happily dead, and have been, whilst they rest in peace, adjudged and analysed and welcomed into the canon.

And now, a songwriter, who is merely the greatest pop lyricist this country has produced, has the temerity to demand, yes demand, that his autobiography should be published, without anyone from the wider literary establishment reading it, within the realm of Penguin Classics.

Well, isn’t that just like sitting at a presidential dinner and having Miles Davis insult you to your face?

“This isn’t about the redefinition of ‘classic’, but abject surrender. Penguin has with breath-stopping cynicism flogged its crown jewel – a precious place on the roster of the world’s most enduring literary works – to the moody maverick.”

The sound Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor of the Independent, choking on his soup.

“To package as a classic a book that no one except Morrissey and a handful of fawning acolytes has read is to instantly reduce the worth of all classics”

said someone on the Telegraph who may as well, except to his mother, remain nameless.

Morrissey, just like Miles Davis all those years ago, should have kept quiet, known his place, and slunk off to the obscurity that his songwriting within the horribly besmirched and irrelevant world of pop music deserves.

Because we should listen to the literary editors and the politician’s wives. We should listen to the voices of those who contemporaneously would have said that Shakespeare was too bawdy, Dickens too populist, Beckett too repetitive, Austen too flippant, Proust too long-winded, and that Oscar Wilde deserved his prison term.

Morrissey, like Miles Davis, is revered in many countries across the globe, including England. The English establishment, perhaps taking into account his open and gleeful hatred of the royal family, still views him with disdain.

Those hundreds of thousands of us whose lives have been enriched – some would say saved – by Morrissey’s words, feel sorry for those suffering great hurt today. However, we do this with the archness and irony learnt from our hero as he marches triumphantly into the citadel known as Literary Establishment, and takes his rightful place among the greats.

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The poet wakes up and roams and comes home and writes this

The only thing you can aspire to growing up in Essex is to be the barrowboy or banker, trading, raking it in, fingerless gloves in Romford market, salmon shirts in the City, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got to be trading, raking it in, making a living, earning your keep, working and working and working away.

But what are you supposed to do if you are a dosser at heart, curtains drawn at seven a.m., George Osborne tutting on the street below, and all you are good at is words, constructing words into insubstantial sandcastles, how do you, as a poet, make a man of yourself?

You’ve got to sell your wares:

Six and ha’penny worth of sonnets, Mrs Springtime?
Do you want some limericks with that?
Will that be open or wrapped?

They say, I’m not sure who they are, but they definitely do say that the poet should not compromise his vision, and I believe that to be true but not true in my case because my vision is already compromised, it is necessarily compromised by my need to fulfil my erstwhile Essex desires. So when TFL came to me and said, Richard, we want you to do positive poems about TFL and etiquette

(Me who listens to dirty, dirty hip hop on tube trains, it’s seediness leaking into the ears of poor uncorrupted children who might otherwise be listening to pure pop sung by cynical teens with perfect hair and an eye on the till)

I said, yeah, alright.

So, I went down to Croydon, well turned out in my blue suit, and I sidled up to the old ladies – they love me, old ladies, and I love them – and delivered my lines about all the evils that other people do and the old ladies nod, and they say, you are quite right, Richard

and it proves that if you rhyme nicely and throw a few puns in along the way, people will believe what you say

and the young people who would like to think they are immune, they are also susceptible, because poetry makes people realise

it makes them realise that life is all right. You can moan and caterwaul all you like, but in our much criticised social democracy where nothing is good enough, if Transport for London have enough courage to pay a few poets some money, some honest cash money, to roam over London spreading goodness, and allow the poet, for a week only, to pretend he is a real life worker, with dignity and all the rest, then it would be churlish to argue too stridently and unrelentingly about our imperfect state of affairs.

Living life to the full: a poem

Yesterday, I was walking through the car park
on my way to Morrisons when I said to myself
“I think I’d rather go bowling instead. I’ll go bowling
and eat fries out of one of those little paper bags,
and Coke from a Coke bottle, drinking it
without the bottle touching my lips,
like in the adverts.”

I go bowling and play a two-player game against myself.
It’s an interesting battle. Player one has a lovely technique,
spinning his medium-weight ball into the pack of pins
accurately but without great force.

Player two is the fans’ favourite. A showman.
They love the way he looks up and says a not-quite-silent prayer
before heaving the ball down the lane, brutishly,
fist-pumping in his opponent’s direction.

Afterwards, I go to the Counting House for a pint
and read a story in the Mercury
about a Mr Jez Wilkinson of Kibworth Harcourt
and his prize-winning courgette.

Later, I indulge in some light graffiti,
drawing a magic mushroom smoking a spliff
on the rear wall of the pub, before
making my way to Morrisons.

I’m doing fine living on my own.
How are you?

Is higher education a waste of time?

Suli Breaks
Suli Breaks

It is rare that a spoken word video is viewed by 10,000 people; rarer still when viewed by 100,000.

It is therefore surprising to find a video on the subject of higher education that has amassed two million views in four months – a viral sensation that many pop stars would be happy with.

The video http://youtu.be/y_ZmM7zPLyI  called Why I Hate School but Love Education, by Suli Breaks, makes the provocative suggestion that much of what goes on in university education is a waste of time, and more valuable learning might be gained informally.

Those of us who have been to university know there is some truth in this. There can barely be an undergraduate who has not sat in a lecture theatre wondering: why am I here? Or, perhaps: what have I done to deserve this?

It is also true that many people leave university with the rather depressing attitude that they are done with education, as if the learning part of their life is over.

So, I am sympathetic with the overall line of argument. But the way in which Suli delivers his message is so skewed and misleading, that instead of agreeing with him I found myself alarmed.

He begins by reminding us that society suggests higher education might well be a good thing, and that your family may agree with that sentiment.

He then asks us to look at the statistics. Here the trouble starts. Instead of quoting statistics, he provides examples of the net wealth of seven entrepreneurs, including Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.

The connection is that these people did not complete higher education. The point being that they didn’t bother wasting their time with such trivialities as gaining a degree, and got on with becoming hugely successful, and fabulously wealthy, instead.

At least one of these people would be deeply offended with their life story being misused in this way. Oprah Winfrey initially left college just one credit short, because she had secured a job. As a woman who grew up in extreme poverty that was understandable, and the fact that she later graduated shows the value she placed on her own higher education. That she has since built an academy for underprivileged girls in South Africa underlines her belief in the power of higher education.

Another of his statistics, Mark Zuckerberg, was at Harvard when he came up with the idea for Facebook. He trialed his business model there, using his fellow students as guinea pigs. It is unlikely that Facebook would exist in the way that it does if Zuckerberg had not gone to an elite university.

However, the deeper problem here is that these people are outliers, who bear little or no relation to what most people gain from going to university.

Then came the part which I found not just wrong, but odious. Suli says:

Some of you will protest,
money is only the medium by which one measures worldly success
and some of you will even have the nerve to say:
I don’t do it for the money.
So what are you studying for?
To work for a charity?

This I found offensive because he suggests university is only about earning lots of money. About the destination, not the journey. Should a person, when beginning an English Literature degree, really be thinking about the job at the end, not the deeper understanding of the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare? This ‘money over love’ argument is deeply distasteful to myself, and also, I suspect, to the majority of our fellow spoken word artists.

His talking derisively about working for a charity reveals a lack of awareness of what that type of work can mean. For myself, over the past four years, it has meant working for a charity that I care about, and doing a job that gave me personal satisfaction way beyond the pay packet.

All that I have outlined would be clear to most people who watch the video. So, why, you might ask, has it gained so many views?

It is because he provides a seductive message that higher education is not the key to success. That it is boring. That it encourages limited thinking. That it won’t get you that dream job.

This can be partially true. At a time when university education is relatively expensive in the UK (although not compared with the US) and graduate jobs are hard to find, some young people might like a video which encourages them to at least question it, or, judging by the comments on YouTube, dismiss it. What he makes no mention of are the positive benefits of university: the opportunity to study a subject you might be fascinated by, to develop your critical thinking, while also meeting people from different backgrounds and having the time to develop your extracurricular interests.

It is potentially inspiring to say that lacking a university education is no barrier to greatness.

The more prosaic truth is that you are more likely to get a satisfying, well paid job with a degree than without one. That is the argument the UK government gave when introducing tuition fees.

Social mobility in the UK is very low in comparison to other rich countries http://gu.com/p/37mev/tw. There are many reasons for this. One of them is that for middle-class children going to university is a fact of life. For many working-class children university remains an unlikely dream, or perhaps not even that.

I can understand why Suli Breaks became disillusioned at university. He may have chosen the wrong degree for him and was not inspired by it. He may have had an idealistic view of university life which was not fulfilled. He may have found that the people around him were no more intelligent than those from home. But if he were, in 10 years’ time, compare which people were doing better – those who went to university and those who did not – he might produce a video which encourages people from BME and working-class backgrounds to take the life-changing opportunity that is university education. It wouldn’t be such an easy message to get across, but it would be a lot more useful.

The poet Tshaka Campbell and a joke about integrity

Tshaka Campbell
Tshaka Campbell

“I’m big into integrity,” said the poet Tshaka Campbell. “I’m not going to write about something like an abortion from a woman’s perspective because there is no way I could know what that is like.

“I don’t like poets who write a break-up poem and you say, ‘have you ever broken up with someone?’ and they say, ‘no!'”

Tshaka shrugged, and smiled, as if to say, “how ridiculous is that – to even think to do something like that?” And many of the crowd at Bang Said The Gun, a popular spoken word night in south London, laughed with him.

I didn’t laugh. I didn’t laugh because I was too busy wondering exactly how dangerous a joke like that is. He was effectively saying, in a flippant, light-hearted way, that if you haven’t directly experienced it, don’t write about it.

Which set me thinking: would he have told Hubert Selby Jnr to not write the rape scene in Last Exit to Brooklyn because he was not rape victim nor rapist? Would he have told Patricia Highsmith not to write The Talented Mr Ripley because she had no direct experience of murder? Would he have stopped Shakespeare from writing anything but the occasional poem about his early years in Stratford-upon-Avon?

I suspect not, because he would see that these were serious writers and would do what he could to encourage them. So I do not believe that he meant this joke to be taken as a general truth.

However, even if we look at the specific example he sets – that of the poet writing a break-up poem without having experienced a break-up – we can see that even this is wrong. For example, we know that Morrissey was famously celibate and had no boyfriends or girlfriends during his songwriting heyday in the 1980s.

That didn’t stop him writing one of the greatest love songs of all time, There is a Light That Never Goes Out. He was able to write this song, not because of a love that he had directly experienced, but because of his unique sensitivity to the human condition.

To give Tshaka the benefit of the doubt, he might have meant that if a writer writes about a difficult subject – a break-up; an abortion – and does not fully think through the subject, then poor quality writing is almost certainly the result. But that could equally be the case whether someone has experienced something or not – anyone who has been to a few open mic nights knows that.

Tshaka Campbell has been writing poetry for 20 years. The crowd was full of people there to see him, the headline act. Many were no doubt writers or aspiring writers, likely to be influenced by this charismatic performer and therefore take his ill-judged joke seriously.

I would be really sad if an aspiring writer came away from that night and decided to steer clear from daring, imaginative work, and write only from their own experience, because they believed it more artistically credible to do so.

The present glut of poets, and Campbell is not one of them, who seem to only write in the first person, suggests that the ‘only write from your own experience’ philosophy has its adherents. What I would like to see is more poets bravely experimenting with different styles and techniques – developing characters, writing from unusual perspectives, using satire and irony – before hitting upon a style which suits them.

As the songwriter Conor O’Brien, from the band Villagers, said in a recent interview:

“It was Dylan who made me realise that you could just lose your mind a little bit, and sometimes when you’re adventurous and you have that spirit in you something quite fundamental comes out.”

Which seems like a much better piece of advice for a writer than telling them what is off limits.

So perhaps Tshaka Campbell should impose a small limitation upon himself: stick to performing his often brilliant poetry, and leave the jokes to the comedians.

Michael Beard: a poem

Michael Beard
Mike Beard
Michael Beard
Mike Beard
Michael Beard
Mike Beard
Michael Beard
Mick Beard
Don’t call him that

Mike Beard
wears cuff-links and tie-clips
Mike Beard
runs the tightest of tight ships
Mike Beard
is not having any
‘this story can’t be written the way that I imagined it’
bullshit

Michael Beard
a local newspaper editor as he lives and breathes
if you sliced Mike Beard open
he would bleed the finest newsprint ink
the kind reserved only for front page leads

Mike Beard
newspaper executives are impressed by his boundless
enthusiasm for sacking staff and driving down expenses
just as hairdressers are by his insistence
that he still has need of their services

Mike Beard
hates the needless use of long words and phrases.
Why, he asks, with an uncomprehending shake of the head,
would a reporter use the word dictatorial,
when they could use decisive
multicultural, when they could use foreign
or person affected by Down’s Syndrome
when they could simply say mong?

Like a particularly excitable pyromaniac
Mike Beard is delighted every time he hears
reports of arson. He marches into the heart
of the newsroom and demands to know who
will be covering. The reporters, all of a sudden,
become obsessed with the carpet; apart,
on this occasion, from me. Without the slightest
awareness of personal space he gets up in my face
and demands to know the questions I’ll be asking.

Before I have a chance to answer, he’s reeling
off questions like an insane hostage-taker
makes demands. He wants to know the precise
height of the flames, the top temperature of the blaze,
the true nature and scale of the victim family’s pain.
While I frantically make notes I know
his main interest is not in me accurately
reporting this petty tragedy, but in ensuring
every success I have looks like I have failed.
And I wish, instead of smiling compliantly,
I had the guts to say

Mike

Mike

Mike

I can feel the great, frightening vacuity
of your existence. In every blundering
assertion of your authority, lies a desperate,
haunted fear of redundancy. That day which you
picture so clearly,  when you are forced out
of your high-backed black leather editor’s chair,
pack up your framed motivational quote
by Steve Redgrave, hand back the keys to your
executive saloon, so you have to take a cab back
to your four-bedroom home in Cooden
in which you will live out your days, on your own,
sitting on your leather recliner, incandescent
with rage at the shoddy quality of TV journalism,
which you would never, have never put up with
before switching off, to take solace in Bruce
Springsteen’s tales of hardbitten working men,
blubbing like a child as you listen to Born To Run’s
saxophone solo, wishing that you’d had, just once,
a pretty young secretary you could fuck.

michael Beard