On Museums and Modernity

I’m not embarrassed to admit that as a kid I adored museums, much to the delight of my parents, who never had to coerce me too hard into exploring the latest exhibition, or participating in whatever mad summer activity the National Trust had dreamed up that year (I have a vague memory of water divining rods). Growing up in Norwich, I was constantly enthralled by the Castle Museum, where suits of armour stood shoulder to shoulder with Egyptian mummies, stuffed lions and (for a magical month in 1995) humungous dinosaurs. I was interested in everything, amazed by the smallest piece of trivia, and in love with the seemingly boundless world of the past.

      Though even then this film was too twee

When I read Toby Wilkinson’s recent article in the TLS, I think it was this kid in me who blew a huge raspberry at the man who bemoans ‘patronizing’ family trails at exhibitions, while also claiming museums don’t try to amaze and inspire in the same breath. He reviews two current exhibitions on Ancient Egypt: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries at the British Museum, and Discovering Tutankhamun at Oxford’s Ashmolean, ultimately criticising both for choosing the ‘crowd-pleasing’ topic of Tutankhamun, and the British Museum’s use of crowd-pleasing touch-screen technology. As far as I can tell, what really gets Wilkinson’s goat is the idea of style over substance, that museums are sacrificing stimulating intellectual enquiry to the gods of commercial success. He gives us a little manifesto for cultural institutions, which should all aim ‘to amaze and inspire, to extend the boundaries of knowledge, to present the world in new and challenging ways’. At this point, the academic in me hushed the raspberry-blowing kid and gave an unwavering salute.

Because let’s face it, for an Egyptologist like Wilkinson, wandering round exhibitions that ask ‘can you find his last meal?’ or ‘how can we tell his age?’ has got to be a fairly exasperating exercise. But his academic calibre makes him a fundamentally unsuitable reviewer of museums, whose main responsibility is to stimulate the curiosity of the general public, not necessarily provide a cutting-edge critique of a niche subject. Wilkinson complains that, in foregrounding CT scans and interactive, exploratory technology, the British Museum misses some of the more subtle truths about Ancient Egypt, but he himself misses the function of the exhibition: to engage children and adults in an ancient world they might otherwise stroll past, and showcase the impact that our own impressive technology can have on new discovery. This kind of summer holiday exhibition is a first step, a flint to strike the spark of inspiration and open the door to further enquiry through the museum’s impressive library and expert staff.

The thing is, Wilkinson’s world of Oxbridge academia actively pits itself against populism – it’s part of its job description – because the mainstream isn’t home to the ideals of research and innovation that the institutions stand for. Academics are a bunch of intellectual hipsters (hey, both are known for their amazing beards) which is a wonderful and inspiring part of their job, but it doesn’t put them in the best position to judge an exhibition whose purpose is to enthuse and inspire the general public. After visiting the permanent King Tut exhibition years ago in Dorchester, it’s not the subtle intellectual conclusions that have stuck with me, but the darkened chambers, the soundtrack of Carter’s pickaxes and the excited voices as each visitor discovered the tomb for themselves. The museum had used every resource at its disposal to bring to life an impression of Ancient Egypt, which let my imagination draw its own conclusions.

        Namely that this guy was the coolest

Since Dorchester’s Tutankhamun Exhibition, (and Norwich Museum’s fibreglass dinosaurs that I marvelled at nineteen years ago) technology has become vital to education, almost to the point where using a category as broad as ‘technology’ seems a bit meaningless. From mobile learning apps for infants to tablets in classrooms, digital media are seeping into curricular and extracurricular learning, and the reason for this is simple: children, teenagers and adults alike are enamoured with the latest technology, making it a perfect asset in any educator’s toolkit. Take a chapter from a grammar textbook, remake it as an app or interactive puzzle and the lesson becomes that much more effective.  Gone are the days when the classroom was walled off from pupils’ hobbies and interests; now, new technologies have enabled a much more holistic approach to learning. When embracing these new possibilities, we want to avoid homogenizing all our experience into one techy mush, but what we do have is a vast array of tools to engage, amaze and inspire.

While academics may sneer at the power of public engagement consultants in our museums, the responsibility to engage the public is increasingly important: to create an exhibition that can be challenging and exciting for all ages. Wilkinson puts it nicely when he says ‘intellectual adventurousness and popularity are not mutually exclusive, nor are they easy to combine’. At the end of the day, museums don’t exist to categorise ideas, but to create them, and whether you’re running round a dinosaur exhibition or marvelling at the nation’s history in the National Portrait Gallery, I see no reason why the wonders of technology can’t be a fantastic lens through which to explore the past.

Zola Scriptura, or why the text knows best: A review of Thérèse Raquin

          90338

Helen Edmundson’s brand new adaptation of Thérèse Raquin is very ostentatiously a child of Zola’s, from the stifling parlour room conversation to the screams of animal passion that run through the production. There are even a few nods to Zola’s naturalism as Thérèse muses on her parentage and Camille occasionally echoes his mother, but the question is how deep this literary heredity runs, and whether the production’s emphasis on theatricality can answer back to its father, a disciple of realism.

       Much like the novel – and others in Zola’s oeuvre – Edmundson’s rewrite charts the frustration of protagonists fighting the current of determinism, but who are ultimately drawn to a grisly and low-key end in the middle of fate’s whirlpool. The plot of two star-crossed lovers is by now quite a familiar one. The female lead Thérèse (Pippa Nixon) is forced into an unwanted marriage to her cousin Camille (Hugh Skinner), a sickly businessman who (credit to Skinner) tends towards the insufferable man-child. With Camille’s mother (Alison Steadman) they move to a grotty apartment in Paris and play host to a variety of myopic characters, while Thérèse tacitly loses her mind with boredom until Camille’s colleague Laurent (Kieran Bew) appears. Thérèse and Laurent fall for each other, kill Camille, and spend the second half wracked with guilt before finally (spoiler alert) committing suicide.

50a40d4a-1f1d-11e4-_747868c

            Err… You first

       Edmundson makes no bones about the familiar plot, suggesting that the USP (for want of a better term) of Thérèse Raquin is that the two protagonists go much further than the run-of-the-mill oppressed wife and toyboy by killing the husband, and Zola’s narrative then becomes an examination of how two characters spiral out of society’s norms. On this point, the staging was impeccable and the symbolism of the scene and costume changes was razor sharp. The action shifted between Thérèse’s bedroom and the family dining room, each change orchestrated in full view with flamboyant twirls, completely out of keeping with the dingy Parisian apartment, but highlighting the tawdry lives of Camille and his mother. As the play went on, the elaborate dressing and undressing of Thérèse became tiresome to watch, just as Camille’s social banality became tiresome for Thérèse, until she broke free of society’s norms. Shortly after, during her guilt-ridden mental collapse, the audience watched Thérèse struggle to dress herself and the stage – one woman’s fraught mission to keep up appearances.

therese

            Spot the difference

       Despite this, the sense of place was still not oppressive enough. The novel of Thérèse Raquin is dominated by the grimy, stinking alleyways of Paris, the putrid river the only means of escape. The setting acts as a reagent against which the characters’ joyful lack of aspiration creates a sickening frustration. This frustration, however, was traded in for a cheaply comic Michaud and Grivet who, though enjoyable to watch, turned what should have been claustrophobic and frightening into a sort of pantomime. In the first half, Thérèse came across as a moody bore who didn’t get the joke.   

       The second half was more hard-hitting (if only because the story contains more actual conflict). It was odd that Laurent’s ritual visits to the morgue (the tormented, gothic apex of the novel) were reduced to a throwaway sentence, but the foreboding tension of two people hiding a murder did not fail to permeate the drama. Nixon was given more room to stretch her wings in a disquieting, Lady-Macbethian performance of unconquerable grief, and when it counted she was definitely matched by Bew’s virile Laurent. It did, on occasion, feel like the actors were trying to shout over the tense, piano-driven soundtrack (which sounded suspiciously like it was from Silent Witness) but overall the conflict was brutal, visceral and unapologetic.

       This is what the production set out to achieve: breaking through the limitations of Zola’s nineteenth century adaptation by foregrounding the climactic action on stage, but in doing so it put unnecessary strain on the physical aspects of today’s theatre. It’s true that Thérèse and Laurent’s lovemaking, the drowning of Camille, the appearance of his ghost and the lovers’ final confrontation are the most powerful moments of the production, but the story just isn’t physical enough for those moments to support the whole thing. For an audience used to elaborate special effects and uncanny visual realism, seeing Camille lazily made up as a Scooby Doo corpse or watching an oddly hilarious boat on wheels just doesn’t cut it. The theatre can’t rely on being a physical spectacle any more – it has to be something more subtle. Unfortunately, the dialogue between these climactic moments was limp and undercooked; the characters became two-dimensional caricatures of themselves (the doting mother, the dark/handsome love interest) which left the actors little opportunity to shine.

       As a huge Zola fan, I think that his commitment to the novel as a science – rather than embracing his own immense talent for the theatrical – is one of literature’s great tragedies, so when I read that Edmundson’s Thérèse Raquin aimed to tease out the novel’s potent physicality on stage I was overjoyed. It seems though that the production, like me, failed to see the inevitable consequence: denying Zola’s surgical prerogative to capture life in art lobotomises the delicate, subtle humanity that makes his stories so powerful and so enduring.  

You can nag us all you like, Maccy’s will always be delicious

I didn’t get up early yesterday. I had some half-formed idea that I might go for a cycle and hit Sunday running, but 11am came and went and before I knew it I was frying an inordinate amount of bacon and eggs and assembling a truly majestic sandwich.

IMG_20140706_113757

Avocado, mozzarella and fresh tomato – thank me later

Cuppa in hand and the marvel of God’s creation laid before me in sandwich form, I flicked through The Observer. Beyond some depressing stuff about euthanasia, Ian Thorpe coming out and disastrously misread headlines about Kew Gardens, I had a little chortle when I saw Katy Perry dressed as Ronald McDonald’s wet dream.

IMAG0484_1

Those stupid c***s

Turns out that designer Jeremy Scott, working for Moschino, took it upon himself in February to showcase a range of clothes and accessories emblazoned with the ubiquitous golden arches of McDonald’s. The main thrust of Hannah Marriott’s Observer article (to tie in with the NHS’s plan to reduce the BMI threshold for weight-loss surgery) was that glorifying fast food during an obesity crisis is absurd and misguided. We should take a long, hard look at ourselves and jump on the healthy eating bandwagon. I looked guiltily at the beguiling bacon and egg yolk congealing on my plate.

But I realised that every time healthy living is mentioned, it provokes that same, automatic reaction of guilt. Falling short of actually making positive change, you’re always left feeling like you’ve misbehaved, so talking about obesity has developed a sort of nagging parent/sheepish child dynamic. Take Marriott’s Observer piece. The title is:

Fast-food fashion – is that such a good idea when we’re suffering an obesity crisis?

It’s like she sat the country down on her knee to gently remind everyone of their moral priorities and set them straight. ‘I’m not angry, just worried’.

Basically, the article is scared that people will start eating more Maccy’s because their favourite celebrities are wearing the logo, but there are more or less two reasons why this isn’t going to happen.

 

1. I enjoy McDonald’s and I don’t weigh 25 stone

Marriott’s article is a bit frivolous once you start looking at how much distance there is between golden arches on clothes and being obese. Let’s take a look at some fun diagrams I just drew:

IMAG0485_1

Marriott’s article

 

IMAG0486_1

A vague guess at what’s really happening 

I know you probably need to take into account that without thinking about it, most people wouldn’t make the distinction between McDonald’s and its branding, or unhealthy eating and obesity, but the point still stands. At sufficient distance, this article starts to look a bit like scaremongery, as the clothes of high fashion are far removed from the average consumer. Katy Perry wearing a happy meal box will not herald some awful (but delicious) burger apocalypse. Look at sports clothes too: since the advent of trackies on the mass market we haven’t been inundated with budding Olympians.

 

2. No one would ever consider McDonald’s classy

The article thinks Moschino will make McDonald’s cool and aspirational, transforming the restaurant into the new place to hang for today’s Gatsby and chums.

mcdonalds-main-counter

“Some chicken mcnuggets and an apple pie, old sport”

This sort of ignores the huge pile of awful publicity Maccy’s has garnered over the years, including the ‘McJob’ crisis – if the dictionary thinks you’re scummy, you aren’t doing too well. Granted, their delicious food has weathered the storm and they’re definitely on the upward swing, but I can’t help but think it’ll take a lot more than a tongue-in-cheek fashion line to make the chain anywhere near cool.

 

It seems pretty old fashioned to be demonising fast food anyway. By now everyone knows it’s unhealthy, the chips are down (ha ha) for places like McDonald’s, but people will buy it anyway because it’s just great. I’m frankly embarrassed how many miles I have gone out of my way for a Burger King.

6125265206_be67a69d02_z

An audience with His Majesty

You can warn people not to eat fast food all you like, you can lobby companies to make their food healthier, but at the end of the day the basic principal of capitalism will win out: each person is responsible for themselves. To paraphrase/ misquote Voltaire, I don’t agree with what you buy, but I will defend to the death your right to buy it. The necessity of the voice of social conscience is dwindling in our society. The nagging parent rhetoric of ‘don’t drink/smoke/eat/shoot/poke/antagonise that’ is being replaced by the resounding message (for better or for worse) is that if you want to get fat, it’s up to you.

People will get fat, and some will get ill because they are fat, but demonising fast food won’t change that. Obesity is a far more complex sociological problem, and its roots reach into every aspect of our lives, not just what we eat. In her Observer column, as a lead on from Marriott’s piece, Barbara Ellen declares ‘The overweight deserve help, not sneers of malice’ and claims that obesity is our generation’s prime health problem, likening it to cholera, smallpox or typhus. The obvious problem with this is that obesity isn’t (in most cases) a straightforward disease, and it isn’t contagious. Cholera is not a psychological by-product, and obesity isn’t deliberate hedonism, and all pieces like Ellen’s do is polarise the debate and prevent productive discussion on how to manage obesity. I know it’s much bemoaned these days but the sheer number of fat kids is worrying. It shows how much we need to improve education on living healthily, not through guilt or through martyring obese people like they’re cholera victims but through reinforcing a positive image of health. Why anyone thinks this is the remit of the fashion industry, which hasn’t ever been a bastion of good health, is beyond me.

9 Excuses For Why I Haven’t Blogged In Forever

1. I spent the time designing and building Richard Branson in monster form as a hard-hitting indictment of our money-worshipping culture (before Virgin stole it as a PR stunt).

2. I bought a floor buffer and some garish emulsion from B&Q, faked a Damien Hirst painting and watched the American justice system overreact horribly.

3. I raised $20 to crowdfund a potato salad and receive a themed haiku.

4. I trawled the internet, searching for something permanent and meaningful in the vast, chaotic void of human experience, and stopped when I found this website.

5. I developed a drone/social network to scare you and your friends with a nightmarish vision of the future, and made a promotional animation straight from the Fallout games.

6. I discovered an old Spirograph set in the attic and spent months creating patterns of unfathomable complexity and beauty.

7. While working on the Department of Education website, I accidentally revealed Michael Gove’s master plan before The Independent was able to pass it off as a ‘spoof’.

8. I invented neknominations as the basis for a dystopian novel and everyone took it too seriously.

9. I couldn’t work out how to backdate my posts on WordPress.

“I Preferred the Book”: 12 Years a Slave and what it should have done

Image

When I started reading Lord of the Rings I was overjoyed at the news that The Fellowship of the Ring would be released in the same year. It was a giddy time before ‘One does not simply…’ and before my juvenile mind realised that the characters were pretty much just high all the time, and all I could think of was that if the book confused me, the film would just be plain awesome.

This was of course the same year that Daniel Radcliffe waved a gurning hello as Harry Potter, so for me 2001 has gone down as the dawn of ‘well, it wasn’t completely true to the book…’. A few years later, once my head was a bit more filled out with weighty preconceptions, I remember the next milestone of the book/film duel as I was outraged by Joe Penhall’s rewrite of Enduring Love. How dare they butcher my beloved A Level text? How dare they cram a trendy pair of glasses on Daniel Craig and call him Joe Rose? I think the exact words they used were ‘from the novel’ and I vowed to hate them forever.

Studying literature, I then realised that the whole argument about which adaptation is better is basically redundant because they’re all intertextual utterances in some sort of dialogue with something or other according to this bloke. Although I still like to imagine him sitting around with his mates arguing over the finer plot details of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s adaptation, and that Audrey Hepburn was completely miscast as Holly Golightly. Basically, the idea of a film ‘inspired by’ or ‘based on’ something becomes a lot more interesting when that something is reality, and very recently Hollywood has been dominated by these ‘true story’ films.  

Off the top of my head I can name about five of these showing right now (12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, The Railway Man and Mandela), we’ve had Captain Philips, Rush, The Butler and The Dallas Buyers’ Club is on the horizon. I wouldn’t claim it was the most ever but it certainly feels like it – these are the films that are filling up award shortlists and trundling around on the sides of buses.

There seem to be a couple of reasons for this. I’m quite fond of Occam’s Razor for this one (that film producers have run out of ideas) but I think the answer is closer to the fact that Hollywood has suffered a major attack from big-budget, filmic TV series and the Netflix brigade. In a world where ‘in a world…’ makes the public groan under the weight of cheesy blockbusters and CGI, producers like AMC and HBO tested the water with some weightier, more substantial projects. Now, the giant of feature-length is diving in.

And overall, it’s doing a pretty bang-up job. True story films have always worked because they have the limits of reality to work within. It’s a good excuse to avoid a happy ending, to leave some loose plot details untied, and generally to be taken seriously (because reality is a serious place, kids). I would argue, though, that it’s easy to go too far into reality with a feature film. For example, take Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as one end of the ‘true story’ scale, and Lincoln as the other. Something too real would be to dramatize Lincoln’s Wikipedia article. I think most films avoid this but for me, 12 Years a Slave was far too real to be a successful film.  

I agree with reviews that extol Ejiofor’s subtlety and those that praise its unflinching gaze at the horrors of slavery. I appreciate that here is a film that refuses to be crammed into the Hollywood mould, one that confronts its audience with the limits of human brutality and respects its audience enough not to spoon-feed them packaged emotion.

But to what end? Watching it, I was filled with so much hopelessness I practically lost interest, not because I didn’t appreciate the horrific nature of the acts but because it was too real. The London Film Review claimed that ‘at times the tensions and emotions [were] akin to a thriller’ but this is impossible. Northrup’s memoir and even the very title of the film, warn you of an unwavering slog through torment with a predictable and unsatisfying ending.

OK, even as I write this, the complaint that there was no swashbuckling Django Unchained ending seems a little unfair, but I repeat my question – to what end are we exposed to this ‘unflinching’ portrait? You can’t learn a lesson from a hopeless narrative or feel anything but a hollow sadness. Northrup published his tale to change the status quo by exposing its reality in the same way something like I am Malala does today. This potential is lost at such historical distance. As a hyper-real eulogy, the only conclusion to draw from 12 Years a Slave is ‘in the 1840s, slavery was abominable’.

So what should a ‘true story’ film be like? 12 Years is being universally praised for challenging its audience, but this does not make it inherently better or more intelligent. The London Film Review also said it ‘will restore your faith in the power of cinema’, but by being so real 12 years has no power. People don’t learn from history, people learn from fiction, because fiction manipulates emotions and distils reality into a neat, moral lesson. The fact that 12 Years refuses to do this doesn’t make it better, it makes it less of a film, because part of a fictive film’s responsibility (fictive in that it was acted) is to be distinct from reality. When McQueen put the story in this fictive framework, he was required to embellish Northrup’s truthfulness, and he didn’t.

Now, we could go one of two ways. We could say ‘isn’t all history just subjective opinion?’ and open that can of worms; or we could say ‘not every book, memoir or striking account is better as a film’. 12 Years a Slave, for example – better left on the shelf.  

“That’s a Bit Awkward” – Channel 4’s Turner Prize

Like the Middle East or (in my case) Friends, the art scene seems like something I really ought to know more about. Last night, in between old episodes of Peep Show and endless Homeland, I swung my 4ODing in the direction of the 2013 Turner Prize ceremony. I had watched the frankly seizure-inducing promo for months, and it promised an engaging and populist look at modern art – exactly what I needed.

Firstly, I was surprised that it only lasted half an hour. Award ceremonies tend to drag on but this took succinct to a new level – maybe it wasn’t the easily-digestible pill of art knowledge I was after. After a couple of minutes introducing her guests Willie Doherty (?) and Ana Matronic, Lauren Laverne turned to an awkward couple of words with Nicholas Serota, who looked as though he’d never seen a camera before. There were some artist VTs, a bit more lukewarm chat, a Gogglebox style look at some art, a fumbled announcement by Saoirse Ronan and a nutty French lady. I was left feeling pretty much as ignorant about art as before but, convinced that any award ceremony (let alone the Turner) could be as disappointing as this one, I did a bit of digging.

The fact is that Channel 4’s broadcast of the Turner only succeeded in showing their age. A bit like a 31 year old explaining a sub-genre of house music or spelling out ‘YOLO’, the half-hour of what felt like green room filler was tragic and hilarious in equal measure. Like C4’s ‘we’re still edgy’ manifesto video, the ideas that the Turner broadcast is based on are sound, and it is pretty much the only accessible glimpse of the art world. Unfortunately (like the manifesto) C4 relied on its rebellious younger self to speak for it in a kind of mid-life crisis. Ignoring the phenomenal contention over the prize itself, there was no debate during the half-hour broadcast as it watered down every idea it encountered into a runny porridge of platitudes. The programme failed to introduce the modern art scene to mainstream TV – it was if mainstream TV went in for a high-five and slapped art in the face.

Image

                             Just stop it.

The prize itself always stirs up a lot of debate. The furore of discussion around it implies that whatever you want to say about the prize, the only real injustice is to leave it unsaid. Yet somehow, Channel 4 managed to glaze over the disagreement with a sickly-smooth veneer. With no prior knowledge of the Turner’s history, the programme would have come across with as much cultural clout as the Teen Choice Awards. Occasionally, Lauren Laverne deferred ‘The Debate’ to the ineffectual babble of Twitter, but this only made more incongruous the fact that there was no debate whatsoever in the programme itself. Laverne was even able to utter ‘overall happy, that’s a good starting point’, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a children’s TV show.

OK, so no one expected a hard hitting back-and-forth about the implications of Tino Sehgal’s These Associations (which are actually pretty interesting) from a half-hour broadcast sandwiched between the news and A Great British Christmas With Sarah Beeny. But don’t we deserve one? Squeezing the culmination of a year of YBAs between John Snow’s indignant half hour and a good old British romp takes bathos to a whole new level. Channel 4’s ostensible mission was to make the current art scene accessible (at least in part) to those who wouldn’t normally engage with it. The problem is that, especially with nominees so conceptual, the process of accessibility has to engage with the ideas behind the art, not stop at the art’s surface.

Image

Like some sort of weird performance art, the programme contained a near-perfect analogue of itself. The random thoughts of the public as they wandered round the exhibition mirrored the incongruous vapidity of the broadcast as a whole. Like Gogglebox, the comments of the public like ‘that’s modern art’ or ‘I can’t stop looking at his ears’ were kind of endearing. What I didn’t expect was the same simplicity from Tate director Nicholas Serota, who observed only that two of the nominees were from Britain, two from abroad. To wrap up the exhibition VT, Laverne’s choice of ‘what an adorable little boy’ pretty much ignored the art completely.

That’s not to say that there was no discussion of the art at all, but what observations we did hear seemed to be at odds with the artists themselves. The Turner has been criticised as formulising young artistic talent, and all this year’s broadcast served to do was to highlight that. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye said her paintings could only hint at feelings, Laure Prouvost described her work as ‘inexpressible’ and David Shrigley felt uncomfortable having his art scrutinised. Not present, Tino Sehgal forbade his work from being recorded. The overall atmosphere was one of tacit introspection, and despite the range of media used the nominations all contained elements of personal truth that blinked awkwardly in the light of live broadcast.

Saoirse Ronan offering Laure Prouvost’s baby to her just as she won the prize is one of the most excruciating moments of TV I’ve seen. It was awful because – like Channel 4’s attempt to unite the public and the art world – we all wanted the union, it was just fundamentally incongruous in the ceremony. Next time C4, put your trendy past to good use. Give us a longer, more mature broadcast that gels at least a bit with what the artists are saying – trust me, the public can handle it.

Then again, maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe Ronan’s slip was revenge for Channel 4 misspelling her name. Maybe the blunt inadequacy of the programme was designed to make people, like me fuelled by ‘is that it?’ disbelief, to go out and research the Turner Prize. Touché Channel 4.

The Famous Man and The Greedy Penguin: Morrissey’s Autobiography

Eyes closed in some sort of sanguine orgasmic pleasure, the coif tickling the corner of the page like a tuft of hair wedged in an ill-kept charity shop paperback. The very worst thing about this cover is that it will dredge up Morrissey’s face for a number of years to tarnish a generation untouched by his insufferable posing bullshittery.

Image

                  Mmmmorrissey…

I freely admit to being someone who stops himself laughing at a joke if the teller is arrogant. I have an unappealing tendency to be contrary for no good reason. Hell, the only reason I’ve refused the advances of London is because every graduate moves there, and I don’t want to give it the satisfaction. In short, I don’t respond well to being told what to think, and I can’t shake the feeling that that is exactly what Morrissey is trying to do to us at every turn.

I don’t take issue with him being opinionated or chippy because we need people like that – they may be annoying in conversation but they’re probably the sort of people who end up changing the world (that’s not to say I sanction all you wannabe polemicists). But Morrissey is full of himself, and uniquely so. Most opinionated people attach themselves to existing ideas, their conversation a brickwork of conventions filled in by the mortar of their own rambunctiousness, but Morrissey’s opinions are full of him as if he prefixes his every utterance with ‘speaking as Morrissey…’. In some sort of narcissistic spasm the audiobook will also be read by a (mercifully different) Morrissey.

Regrettably, Penguin have handed the ultimate soapbox to this man. Rather than providing the icing on the cake, they’ve diligently baked the substance that now sits under Morrissey’s years of elaborate, posturing icing. It’s usually difficult to criticise a speaker without devaluing what they speak for but Morrissey makes it as easy as peeling Velcro by using that most insincere form of communication, the soundbite. I have never much gone in for Oscar Wilde’s brand of witticism (probably that contrariness again) but as a pioneer of the modern soundbite he set the bar pretty high when simmering wisdom down into an easily digestible pill. On the other hand, Morrissey calling Madonna ‘McDonna’ and more recently the Beckhams ‘the Peckhams’ is basically just playground graffiti.

This is partly why Morrissey’s ‘Penguin Classics’ autobiography is such a farce. At the risk of playing into Morrissey’s hands as they grasp for recognition, I will once more point to a comparison with Oscar Wilde. He was tolerable because his soundbites slotted into a larger intellectual jigsaw, but from what I can gather, in Morrissey’s longer prose, overstated ideological maxims hang loosely off the main theme of ‘fucking listen to me’ like wilting daffodils and an enormous shirt.

Image

                                                “I’m kind of a big deal”

But this is not a review. I flicked through a copy before I’d even had the chance to shake off my preconceptions, but there you go. I guess this is a bit of an indictment about the book as an act of publishing, about the fact it calls itself just Autobiography, about the fact that Morrissey is the only living author to be published as a Penguin classic etc. etc. I don’t want to start on an argument over ‘canon’ because it’s a basically redundant term, although it is a word Morrissey uses to describe his own ‘Smiths canon’ in the book. An assertion like that is pretty telling of the autobiography as a whole. Using the term ‘canon’ for his work and stubbornly holding out on publication, the autobiography straddles the ideological heritage and the commercial reality of publishing. On the one hand there’s the established idea that books should make the genius of the few accessible to the many (incidentally Penguin’s original philosophy), on the other the fact that what sells sells, and by fuck Morrissey will sell. A division of a hugely successful publisher of all sorts, Penguin Classics has always, rather awkwardly, had a foot in both camps: not quite as scholarly as the university presses, not quite as populist as its cousin imprints. What Autobiography does, in true Morrissey fashion, is to point out the incongruity, smash the two sides together and glue it with the man’s own enormous ego.

The argument that Morrissey is not significant enough to be a Penguin classic sort of falls on its arse when you look at the fact that it is a Penguin classic. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that Morrissey, somehow, had enough clout to worm his way into literary history. Personally, I think that it is overblown and self-promoted clout, but clout nonetheless. The Guardian, predictably, justifies the publication as ‘a high-end example of a genre’ that defines the publishing industry these days. The Daily Mail, predictably, dismisses its verbosity as ‘one great mush’ that was barely worth publishing. Both refuse to deal with the fact that Autobiography pisses on our cosy idea of publishing as an intellectual, bookish pursuit when it is in fact a business, much like everything else.

As a general rule of thumb though, something should only be published as a ‘classic’ if it has already been published by someone else. Although ‘canon’ has always been an unhelpful term, let’s pretend that these sort of categories still have a bit of meaning or we’ll never find anything in a bookshop ever again. Unfortunately, I feel Penguin’s obsequious commercialism was the final puff to Morrissey’s inflated ego, which has now burst over us all, much to his apparent satisfaction. Now we’re left with his sculpture of himself: a jabber of occasionally interesting verbosity behind a face, eyes closed, absorbed in its own interior.

BW3X75wCEAAP5gj