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.