“England was thine- and it owed thee a living”

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I went the other night to see England is mine, the newly released film biography of Stephen Patrick Morrissey.  The cinema was full of people of a certain age, all summoned to the stalls by nostalgia.

I enjoyed the film, but I’d say it’s definitely one for existing fans of The Smiths.  The film ends with Morrissey and Johnny Marr meeting for their first song-writing session: you have to know what follows, and care about what follows, to engage with the story.  If you’ve never heard The Smiths, if you don’t like their music, you’re not going to be inclined to invest in the film’s account of events.  Nothing much happens- Morrissey has a crap job, he is briefly in a band, he gets depressed and is put on medication, he stays in and types a lot; what gives all of this meaning is the awareness of what is to come.  It helps too to know something about the other characters- that ‘Billy’ is Billy Duffy who becomes lead guitarist of The Cult and that Linder Sterling designed the covers for Orgasm Addict and Magazine’s Real Life album.  In other words, you have really to be of a certain age group and musical persuasion (and to like Keats, Yeats and Wilde perhaps…)

A couple of complaints- and if you are of said age group, you may well have rankled over these things too.  There was some carelessness over period details in the film, I thought:

  • no-one in 1976 went to a gig and asked for “a beer” at the bar, then to be given a glass bottle.  Huh?  It was a pint or half of bitter in a dimple glass, surely!
  • definitely no-one, especially a middle manager of middle age at the Inland Revenue, would have said in 1977 “get your shit together, Stephen.”  The phrase did not exist in our language then.  “Pull your socks up,” would have sounded right for a man of that generation and background;
  • likewise, “I don’t need this” when Stephen’s first friend can’t take his negativity anymore.  These are Americanisms which would have meant nothing to us then- and sounded wrong now.

There was plenty of humour in the film.  It reminded me too of Morrissey and Marr’s musical roots.  Both were fans of Motown, Morrissey in particular having a high regard for the sixties soul groups and female singers in particular.  We see him perform one song in the film, and that is a cover of ‘Give him a great big kiss’ by the Shangri-Las.  Often now, there is a taint of racism lingering with Morrissey’s name, but this early love of his for the Tamla bands gives such rumours the lie.

For more detail of the facts behind the film as well as the career of The Smiths, see Johnny Rogan’s book Morrissey and Marr- The severed alliance.

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