Morrissey, the former lead singer of the British alternative-rock band The Smiths, is one of the most beguiling and misunderstood pop singers of the last quarter-century; his ninth solo album, Years of Refusal, has just hit stores. A little over a year ago, he let slip the following in an interview with the New Musical Express:
Britain’s a terribly negative place. And it hammers people down and it pulls you back and it prevents you. Also, with the issue of immigration, it’s very difficult because although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England the more the British identity disappears. If you travel to Germany, it’s still absolutely Germany. If you travel to Sweden, it still has a Swedish identity. But travel to England and you have no idea where you are. . . . If you walk through Knightsbridge you’ll hear every accent apart from an English accent.
That was more than enough to incite a row in the British press, though Morrissey claimed that his remarks were taken out of context. His silly and ineffectual countermeasures—threatening to sue the magazine and fulminating against its shoddy music coverage—precipitated equally silly and ineffectual paroxysms of outrage from his critics, who have chided him for his mild flirtations with xenophobia. But they miss the point and fail to understand what impels Morrissey’s politically incorrect sensibility. The fey elegist of alienation and every type of ambiguity is actually a conservative Anglo nostalgic, a species sometimes known as a Little Englander.
The term connotes a backward-looking nationalism, most acutely felt in Morrissey’s parents’ generation—the one that came of age during the Depression, World War II, and the subsequent age of austerity. Orwell’s Coming Up for Air and David Edgar’s play Destiny stand as the literary registers of this epoch, and Morrissey absorbed them secondhand, filtered through a sieve of pop culture he consumed madly in his youth. His favorite soap opera was Coronation Street, which dealt with all the peculiarities of an England struggling to find a role in the world after auctioning off its empire to the superpower across the sea. Most of the teenaged Morrissey’s other interests, barring glam and punk, were oddly retrospective. He loved 1960s girl groups and golden-age cinema stars. He also harbored a Victorian-style obsession with the brute criminality of his native Manchester: an early Smiths track, “Suffer Little Children,” dealt with the Moors murders that ravaged Lancashire during the singer’s boyhood. Even the Smiths’ phonebook-pervasive name served as an ironic commentary on drab postwar conditions.
Morrissey’s muses were the disaffected adolescents from those “ugly new houses” in the North, though he started out as a parody of the petty-bourgeois curmudgeon, complete with onstage accessories: the outsize pompadour and the National Health Service specs that later became signatures belonged to a decade he’d seen recycled on the small screen. The Pope of Mope’s musical tastes were similarly hidebound. Declaring “all reggae is vile,” and defaming Band-Aid’s charitable efforts for African famine relief as more a torment to England’s ears than a boon to Ethiopia’s bellies—these were some ways to be branded a chauvinist.
However, there was little cause for controversy in Morrissey’s racially tinged tracks, most of which were laid down during his solo career. “Bengali in Platforms” begs: “Don’t hate me / Just because I’m the one to tell you / That life is hard enough when you belong here,” a sentiment Zadie Smith and Monica Ali would no doubt second. The singer did himself no favor by draping himself in the Union Jack as he performed “National Front Disco” at a Madstock concert, but as a kitsch gesture, this wasn’t even on nodding terms with David Bowie’s onstage sieg-heils, and the song was, as many forget, a satire on homegrown fascism.
Morrissey’s self-touted lefty politics and his loathing of Margaret Thatcher don’t quite militate against his sentimental or tongue-in-cheek identifications with the England of homburg hats and Angry Young Men. In “Irish Blood, English Heart,” he professes to be standing by the flag “not feeling shameful, racist, or partial,” but he’ll have none of the options on offer from New Labour. He reviled Tony Blair, comparing him at one point to Osama bin Laden, and his quiet but crude anti-Americanism (as in “America Is Not the World”) also finds a home on the British right, which has never done an honest day’s work until it has castigated the Yanks for failing to live up to their liberal principles. Even Morrissey’s outspoken distaste for monarchy has not widened the gulf between himself and the establishment. The current Tory leader David Cameron used to mount the hustings with a peculiar Smiths song playing in the background: “The Queen Is Dead.”
Is it any wonder that the bard of failure and thwarted ambition should also be a monument to repression? Gibber on though the fans may about Morrissey’s “asexuality,” however, his most shocking songs are the ones that traffic in heteroerotic imagery. More characteristic is the solo album Bona Drag, a tribute to the gay London vernacular of the 1960s, featuring songs such as “Piccadilly Palare,” which is about English rent boys, and “Hairdresser on Fire,” which is not about Paul Mitchell’s being in good hands with Allstate. Indeed, Morrissey has paid everlasting homage to the wit and camp subversiveness of Oscar Wilde; the chart-topping single “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” sounds like something Gore Vidal would mutter at a Manhattan salon.
But when it comes to true lyrical kinship, it’s not really Wilde who’s on Morrissey’s side—it’s Philip Larkin. “Larkin was not an inescapable presence in America, as he was in England,” noted Martin Amis on the occasion of the poet’s death in 1985, “and to some extent you can see America’s point.” The “bald, bespectacled and bicycle-clipped” provincial, who once told an interviewer that deprivation for him was what daffodils were for Wordsworth, was also a dour loner, keenly attuned to the “ironic romance of exclusion, or inversion,” as Amis put it. That this made him England’s finest postwar poet was itself something of an English in-joke.
Larkin had a terrific sense of humor about the absurdities of modern life, which of course included himself: “one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys,” as he self-diagnosed in one poem. “Life is first boredom, then fear,” he wrote in another. He tried his hardest to make good on this lugubrious proposition, sometimes to the befuddlement of his fellow scribbling pessimists associated with the “Movement” of 1950s British poetry (particularly his soul mate, Kingsley Amis). His themes were conventional—longing, unrequited love—but also eccentric. Larkin had his own “Suffer Little Children” in the poem “Deceptions,” which concerned a horrific rape he’d read about in a Victorian book of journalism. His morose nature made him the Homer of the ambulance, the nursing home, and the cemetery, and his muses were the “palsied old step-takers,” the “waxed-fleshed out-patients.” A bachelor to the grave, he hymned the mundane horrors of family life (“He married a girl to stop her getting away / Now she’s there all day”) and a country of vanishing charms and landscapes where the accents were already becoming different.
Before he became a celebrated poet, Larkin found a job as a university librarian, which he kept for the rest of his days. Heaven knows he was miserable then: “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?” True, he “adored” Thatcher, but he wrote poems at odds with the values she promulgated, such as commercialism and speculation (he’d have appreciated the Smiths’ recording-industry lampoon, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”). Like Morrissey, he was smart enough to recognize that his feelings made him an awkward anachronism, even as a child (which he claimed he never was).
Larkin had nothing worthwhile to say about America, which he never visited but once described as two coasts interrupted by “a desert full of bigots.” This was an odd complaint coming from a man whose correspondence was full of boyo humor and racist doggerel that make Morrissey’s New Musical Express kerfuffle look like a case study in multiculturalism. Larkin, too, made clever use of repression. Sexual intercourse, he once said, was like “getting somebody else to blow your nose for you,” and it only “began,” famously, “between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” Though there were half a dozen affairs with women—three of them simultaneous—there were also missed connections with men, judging by his correspondence and a dream diary he kept. He devoted serious time to the composition of lesbian pornography, written under the nom de smut Brunette Coleman.
There’s a famous photograph of Larkin that I’ve long thought would have done nicely for a Smiths or Morrissey album cover. It shows the poet sitting primly with his ankles crossed on a large sign that reads ENGLAND. According to his biographer, Andrew Motion, “immediately before posing he had urinated copiously behind the word.”