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Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, Peter Hook (Simon & Schuster 2012)

It’s not bad going to have been central to two of the biggest and most important bands in British musical history. This is the autobiography of a man who achieved exactly that: Peter Hook, who was bassist first in Joy Division and then in New Order. If I were a fan of either of those bands, I’d’ve liked the book even more. I’m not, but I can see their importance.

I can also see that Peter Hook was not one of the two “thick bastards” in Joy Division. That’s what he calls himself and Bernard Sumner, the guitarist who accompanied him into New Order. It’s not true. Hook doesn’t acknowledge a co-writer on this book and although it sometimes reads as though it’s transcribed from a session down the pub, it reads well too and is full of intelligent commentary on Joy Division’s music. Okay, the singer Ian Curtis might have been the most intelligent and creative member of Joy Division. He was certainly the best-looking, most charismatic and attention-grabbing, first because of his epilepsy and then because of his suicide.

But he was also the sort of person who would say “in terms of”. Peter Hook wasn’t and I hope he still isn’t. He didn’t have the background for it or acquire the artistic pretensions when he was growing up. His background was rough: he was born Peter Woodhead in Salford in 1956. Then his parents divorced and he acquired a stepfather called William Hook, who took his new family off to Jamaica, where Hook Snr had found work as an engineer in a glass-works. Jamaica was quite a contrast with dour, drab, drizzly Manchester. As Peter Hook says: “You know how I said that life in Salford had been in black and white? Well in Jamaica it was definitely in colour.” (pg. 7)

That’s in chapter one, which is entitled: “For seventeen days that’s all we had, chicken and chips.” That’s a reference to what they ate on the boat over to Jamaica, because Hook’s mother, like many working-class Brits, was resolutely unadventurous in her gustatory habits: “She could hardly bear to eat anything that came from south of Salford.” (pg. 5) She passed that conservatism onto her son and he wouldn’t lose it until he was in his twenties and, inter alia, tried a curry being eaten by a member of Cabaret Voltaire (pg. 239). He’d probably have lost it sooner if he’d stayed in Jamaica. And who knows where he’d be today if he had?

But he didn’t. His mother got homesick and the family came back to the black-and-white of Salford. That was one of Hook’s early lessons in the what-might-have-beens of life. If he’d stayed in Jamaica, he might still have become a famous and successful musician. But he wouldn’t have been playing anything like the music of Joy Division. Maybe only Mancunians could have produced that and maybe only Mancunians born in the 1950s.

One thing is certain: they had to be intelligent Mancunians and Hook was intelligent enough to pass his Eleven Plus and win a place at Salford Grammar School. He gives the credit for that to his time in a more demanding Jamaican school and maybe that was part of it. But a school can demand and not get if the pupil isn’t bright enough. Hook was. So was Bernard Sumner, who was also born in 1956 in Salford and who also passed his Eleven Plus. That’s how he and Hook began their long but sometimes prickly friendship: “I met Barney in that first year at Salford Grammar. He still gets really annoyed when I call him Barney.” (pg. 10)

He is probably also annoyed by chapter headings like “Barney would always eat on his own or in the bath” and by the descriptions of his “infamous sleeping bag”. Hook is undoubtedly mythologizing, telling in-jokes and taking the piss at times, because a book like this has two audiences. Insiders and outsiders, or people who were there at the time and people who weren’t. Either way, they’ll interested to hear Hook’s side of the story. And he emphasizes that it is always his side of the story. Other people remember things differently. And they’re not necessarily wrong to do so: Hook says that Ian Curtis is remembered in very different ways because he was a “chameleon” could put on very different characters depending on who he was with. (pg. 235)

But that’s much later in the book. Before then, Hook had to live through his time as a lazy schoolboy who became a thieving Salford skinhead and scally, then his time as a local government clerk and chalet-worker. As for the working-class boys of Black Sabbath, music was his way out. And the Sex Pistols were the sign-post. Hook and Sumner were among the fifty or so who attended the now-legendary Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 4th June 1976. Tickets were 50p, the support was Solstice, and the impact of the headliners was life-transforming. The Sex Pistols came, were seen, and conquered. Hook describes them like this:

What made them special, without a shadow of a doubt, was Johnny Rotten. The tunes were only part of the package – and probably the least important part of it, if I’m honest. Close your eyes and like I say you had a conventional pub-rock band with a soundman who either didn’t have a clue or was being very clever indeed. But who was going to close their eyes when he, Johnny Rotten, was standing there? (“Normal band, normal night, few people watching”, pg. 38)

Hook and Sumner were immediately inspired to form their own band. They had the usual trouble with finding and keeping a good drummer, then had the luck to pick up a singer who could rival Johnny Rotten for charisma and intelligence. But in a very different way: Ian Curtis was literary and “arty” in a way that John Lydon wasn’t. For example, he was a fan of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard, as Joy Division’s song-titles and lyrics would show. But writers like that meant nothing to Hook and he says he didn’t pay proper attention to Curtis’s lyrics until after the suicide.

That doesn’t mean he was a passenger on the S.S. Joy Division. His bass was central to their sound and his appearance was central to their gigs. I got the impression that he was very tall because he carried his bass very low. But he wasn’t. He says he was inspired to use a “long strap” by Paul Simonon of The Clash (pg. 111), but:

Sound-wise I was most influenced by Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers. I used to listen to his bass on “Peaches” and “Five Minutes” and think, That’s how I want to sound. When I went to see them at the Bingley Hall in Stafford I wrote down his equipment, a Vox 2×15 cab and Hi-Watt head, then went out and bought the lot, and it was magnificent, sounded wonderful. So, I got my sound from Jean-Jacques and my strap from Paul Simonon. I’m so pleased I never got into Level 42. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 112)

I laughed at that last line, because I’m old enough to know about Level 42. But you won’t need to know about bands or anything else from that time and place to find this book very funny in places:

That was when we discovered that it was easier to give drink away than it was to get people to pay for it – an important lesson, that, and one we made great use of during the Haçienda years. (“Timeline Four: January-December 1979”, pg. 232)

Hook has a sly and sardonic wit. He and Barney enjoyed playing practical jokes on other band-members and on other bands (Barney “can’t take them, mind, as you’ll discover”). But he says that he wishes he’d spent less time doing that and more time paying attention to the problems Ian Curtis was having. Most readers won’t have heard of one of those problems before:

Having piles was a feature of being in Joy Division. Ian got them from sitting on the heater at T.J. Davidson’s [a cold rehearsal studio] and both Twinny [a roadie] and I got them from the van during the European tour in 1980. [JD’s manager] Terry Mason’s would regularly explode. But you know what? As far as I know, Bernard never had piles, just a sore arse. (“Timeline Two: June 1976-December 1977”, pg. 90)

Hook isn’t a hagiographer and Curtis wasn’t hagiographable. Like Kurt Cobain’s, his suicide starts to look more and more inevitable in hindsight. And there were big similarities between Cobain and Curtis: both were highly intelligent and autodidactic, both had tortured, introspective psychologies and serious chronic illnesses, both had troubled relationships with their wives and friends. They left “young and good-looking corpses” by different means, Curtis with a rope and Cobain with a shot-gun, but that reflects the nations they lived in. Not that their corpses were good-looking, of course. It was the photographs and films taken before then that were good-looking.

Image is an essential part of rock music. But Joy Division had much more of a hinterland than Nirvana, I’d say. They were more innovative and original in their music, more intelligent in their lyrics, more eclectic in their influences. The “thick bastard” Peter Hook can claim a lot of credit for the musical innovation and originality. So can his fellow thickie Bernard Sumner, whose obsession with the Second World War influenced the image and designs that helped the band to fame. Those designs included the picture of a “Hitler Youth banging a drum” on their Ideal for Living EP.

But it was Ian Curtis who took the name “Joy Division” from the supposed Holocaust-memoir House of Dolls (1955), where it was given to women working as prostitutes in a concentration camp. Joy Division would have been a good sardonic name if it had been invented from nothing. Alas for Hooky and Co, it wasn’t. The source of their name and the drumming Hitler-Youth inspired the first of the “Are you Nazis?” questions that would haunt the band for the rest of their career. That’s why Hook ends his autobiography with these words, describing how the remaining members of Joy Division decided to carry on after Ian Curtis’s suicide:

Then there was the business of finding a new name. We sat down one day to come up with one, thinking that we were going to learn our lesson this time, and that whatever name we came up with wouldn’t be anything even vaguely Nazi-sounding.

No way, we thought. No fucking way were we going to make that mistake again. (“Epilogue”, pg. 274)

They did make that mistake again, of course. Only it can’t really have been a mistake. They were being sardonic again. And stubborn. It was northern bloody-mindedness. But although Hook often refers to the north and being northern, he doesn’t have the northern inferiority-complex you can see in his fellow Mancunian’s Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God (1986). As a self-proclaimed “thick bastard”, he doesn’t mind being inferior.

Only Hook isn’t a Mancunian: he’s a Salfordian. The late great Tony Wilson introduced Joy Division’s first TV appearance like this: “They’re a Manchester band, with the exception of the guitarist, who comes from Salford – very important difference.” Hook reacted like this:

Fucking tosser – “the guitarist who comes from Salford”? Two of us came from Salford. I was really annoyed. I was proud of my roots, whereas Bernard always played them down. (“We need to get rid of this Nazi artwork”, pg. 110)

“Fucking tosser” is how many people reacted to Tony Wilson, but Wilson didn’t mind. Like Ian Curtis, he was the kind of person who would say “in terms of”; unlike Ian Curtis, the phrase suited him. He and his Factory label are central to the story of Joy Division and New Order, and he maybe doesn’t get the space he deserves here. He certainly wouldn’t think so and he was certainly an interesting character: flamboyant, narcissistic, publicity-hungry, and Svengali-esque. Or so he no doubt liked to think of himself. As Hook writes: “One of Tony’s favourite sayings was: ‘Always keep your bands poor. That way they make great music.’” (pg. 245)

Hook thinks he was right. Being poor and literally hungry has been responsible for a lot of great music. Joy Division are one example and if you’re a fan you should definitely read this book. It doesn’t have any hot groupie-action, but it has a lot more that you don’t usually find in a rock autobiography, like Hook’s encounter with some huge, home-invading Jamaican spiders and the time he was questioned by the police as a possible Yorkshire Ripper. That was because his van had been spotted regularly in the red-light districts of “Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds, Moss Side…” (pg. 118) He explained to the police that he was playing clubs there in a band called Joy Division. The police “had never heard of them.” Hook comments: “Probably Level 42 fans.”

A few years later, though, the same policemen might well have been New Order fans. Hook writes about New Order in a later autobiography and I’d definitely like to read that after finishing this. I’d also like to read Hook’s The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club (2010). If it’s funnier than this book, and it probably is, then it must be very funny.

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The Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

I enjoyed this book a lot when I first read it a few years ago. This time it was less fun. It didn’t seem as well-written and there was an occasional nasty edge that I didn’t remember from the first read. But I can still recommend it as an entertaining guide to a very strange band.

I’m not a fan of The Fall myself, though I think I can see why so many people are. And why they tend to be so devoted. Mark E. Smith, the “non-musician” who has led the band through decades of line-up changes, is himself a fan of both H.P. Lovecraft and Captain Beefheart. And it shows. Some of his song-titles could stand by themselves without any lyrics or music: “Rowche Rumble”, “How I Wrote Elastic Man”, “Mr Pharmacist”, “Why Are People Grudgeful?”.

The album titles are good too. Live at the Witch Trials was the first Fall album (it wasn’t live). Then there are Hex Enduction Hour, Code: Selfish, Imperial Wax Solvent, Sub-Lingual Tablet. A strange and interesting mind chose or came up with those. Dave Simpson encounters that mind at the beginning of the book, when he spends hours drinking in a Manchester pub with “Mad Mark”, as Mark E. Smith is known in his home-town of Prestwich. Why has Smith fired so many musicians? “It’s like football. Every so often you’ve got to change the centre-forward.”

But there’s more to it than that, as Simpson discovers in the rest of the book. He set out to track down all of The Fall’s many ex-members, from the most famous and long-lasting to the most fleeting and obscure. Even as he’s ticking names off his list, Smith is lengthening it. As the cover of this paperback says: “NOW with Added Ex-Members!” But everything Simpson writes about the Fallen is also telling you something about the Feller (in both senses of the word). Mark E. Smith is at the centre of everything, hiring, firing, drinking, prodding – something he likes to do to musicians on-stage.

It unsettles them, destroys routine and monotony, encourages the spontaneity that Smith thinks is essential to musical creativity and performance. And his unpredictability seems to work: although The Fall have often fallen fallow and released weak albums, they’ve always burst back to life with new members and new material. Or so Simpson says. He’s been a fan for a long time. So was his girlfriend when he started writing the book. They’d broken up before he finished it, which was appropriate.

Was it the Curse of Smith at work? Mad Mark certainly didn’t like being analysed or having light shed on his work and the many misfortunes that have dogged his group. Some of them seem to be have been deliberately engineered. Smith doesn’t want superstardom or great wealth. He wants to remain an Outsider. Lovecraft wrote about one of those and so did Camus. The Fall were named from Camus’s novel La Chute (1956) and perhaps Smith thought he’d die young just as Camus did.

He didn’t. The Fall have always been one of England’s strangest groups; now they’re one of the longest-lasting too. And the only ever-present is Smith. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already read this book. If you aren’t, you may become one by doing so. It’s sometimes very funny and, like a biography of AC/DC I’ve reviewed, has a lot of sociological interest in it. You can’t understand Smith without understanding north-west England and Manchester in particular. And like a biography of Iron Maiden I’ve also reviewed, it teaches you a lot about historiography, or the process of writing and researching history. The Fall were formed in a rich country in peaceful times. But no-one can be sure what exactly happened to who, why, when and how. Some stories come in many different versions. Some stories may reverse the truth. And according to Marc Riley: “There are a lot of skeletons in The Fall cupboard and stories that haven’t been told.”

If Mark E. Smith has his way, they never will be. But I can foresee this book being updated again. And perhaps even again.

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Morrissey The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart by Gavin HoppsMorrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart, Gavin Hopps (Continuum Books 2012)

In a way I was an ideal reader for this book, because I was impressed by it despite myself. Gavin Hopps is described on the back cover as “the Research Council’s UK Academic Fellow in the School of Divinity at St. Mary’s College, the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.” He takes people like Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari and Žižek seriously. He uses words like “focalization” and “performative” and phrases like “the gendered subject” and “etceterizing gestures”. I thought his book would be a particularly ugly example of breaking a butterfly on the wheel.

I was wrong. I have to agree with something else on the back cover: the claim that this book is “at once erudite and accessible”. It’s highly erudite and despite the occasional intrusion of po-mo jargon it’s highly readable too. Beyond that, it does Morrissey a very great service. It proves that he is much more than a butterfly. Yes, there is shimmering beauty and tantalizing elusiveness in his work, but there’s profundity and intelligence too. And even muscularity. To adapt one of his own lyrics: the more you dismiss him, the larger he looms.

And Hopps is well-equipped to discuss all sides of his work, because he knows a lot about music, not just about literature and popular culture. When he’s discussing the chordal structure of Johnny Marr’s guitar-playing, he can drop asides like this: “The nineteenth-century musicologist Karl Meyrberger famously described the ‘Tristran chord’ – the radically ambiguous combination of F-B-D# and G# with which Tristran und Isolde begins – as a ‘Zwitterakkord’, that is, an ‘androgynous’ or ‘bisexual’ chord (see Nattiez, Music and Discourse, pp. 219-29).” (ch. 1, “Celibacy, Abstinence and Rock ’n’ Roll”, note 77, pg. 32)

But Hopps wears his learning lightly: he isn’t showing off, he’s trying to analyse Morrissey and the Smiths with the seriousness that he thinks they deserve. He doesn’t fall into the trap that he identifies in “Mark Simpson’s Saint Morrissey – which is a book about Mark Simpson that occasionally digresses to say something about Morrissey” (ch. 1, note 19, pg. 17). If you’re a fan of Morrissey and the Smiths, this book will enrich your understanding and enhance your enjoyment, sending you back to the music with new and more sensitive ears.

And unless you’re very well-read, it will introduce you to some new authors and new ideas: “The phrase Sprachskepsis or Sprachkritik refers to a radical loss of faith in language, which results in a sense of existential estrangement, the celebrated account of which is Hugo von Hoffmanstahl’s The Letter of Lord Chandos” (ch. 3, “The Art of Coyness”, note 74, pg. 163). Oscar Wilde, Philip Larkin and John Betjeman won’t be new to many readers, but Hopps does a good job of explaining how Morrissey has incorporated their work into his own. Morrissey is a magpie as well as a maker. But there’s a curious omission in Hopps’ study of his influences and predecessors: A.E. Housman, who offers even more similarities than any of those three. Wilde might be Morrissey’s greatest hero, but his art was much more elaborate, artificial and upper-class than Morrissey’s or Housman’s.
Mozipedia by Simon Goddard
Like Morrissey, Housman wrote lyrics about lads and laddish crimes, not mannered prose about rich decadents and London clubs. So why is Housman not discussed in this book? I don’t know. So much of what Hopps says about Morrissey applies to Housman too: the elusiveness, the irony, the sadness, shyness and feeling of being “a foreigner on the earth”. Housman has an entry in Simon Goddard’s Mozipedia: The Encyclopedia of Morrissey and the Smiths (2010) and although that’s not in the bibliography here, I assume Hopps has read it. Not that he needed to: Housman would be an obvious forerunner of Morrissey even if Morrissey had never been influenced by him or referred to him.

And Hopps could also have learnt from Housman how to wear learning even more lightly, because Housman was a highly learned man who wrote simple, clear prose with vigour and insight. Fortunately, the worst prose here is in the notes, as in this quotation from Matthew Bannister’s White Noise, White Boys: Masculinities and 1980s Indie Guitar Pop (2006):

New Pop discourses were mainly concerned to demonstrate how postmodernism, poststructuralism and postfeminism as manifested in MTV, Madonna, Prince and digital sampling celebrated a shiny new androgynous semiotic wonderland, where continuous self-invention through artifice and intertextual pastiche eased sexual differences, problematized authorship and created polysemic and polysexual possibilities. (note 6, pg. 14, ch. 1)

Hopps only gestures towards writing as bad as that. He doesn’t make the jaw-dropping connections that Dr Miriam B. Stimbers makes in Can the Cannibal?: Aspects of Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy in the Music of Suzi Quatro (2004), but I assume that Morrissey has been flattered to have someone as intelligent and erudite discussing his work. Not all erudition is valuable, of course, but if you’re a fan of Morrissey and the Smiths, you should try this book and see if you agree that Hopps rocks. He has a lot to say and says it well as he explores every facet of Morrissey’s art, from falsetto and flowers to melancholy and melisma, from no-saying and nonbelonging to eccentricity and embarrassment.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Musings on Music

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You've Had Your Time by Anthony Burgess
You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (Heinemann 1990)

After the excellent Little Wilson and Big God, this was a big disappointment. Burgess’s life before fame seems to have been much more interesting than his life after it. This is partly because of his wife before fame: the alcoholic Welshwoman Lynne Burgess, née Llewela Isherwood Jones, is much more memorable than the scholarly Italian Liana Burgess. He ended Little Wilson thinking that he had a year to live and a year to create a pension for Lynne.

That was in 1959, but he was still alive in 1968 when Lynne died of cirrhosis of the liver. Before that, again and again, “she drank deep” and “became fierce-eyed and lively, ready for argument, anecdote, fist-fights.” (Part 2, pg. 111) As Burgess says: “She was, God help her, never dull.” Nor was he. But his life became less interesting as his fame increased. Or perhaps he simply grew less interested in it. He evoked pre-war Manchester and post-war Malaya vividly in Little Wilson, but Italy, Malta, America and Monaco don’t live on the page here. This is a rare flash of memorability:

We were in brutal country [in Sicily], the land of the Mafia. Taking coffee in a side-street, we heard a young man, swarthy as an Arab, tell his friend of his forthcoming marriage. He was going to paint his penis purple, he said, and if his bride evinced surprise he was going to cut her throat. (Part 3, pg. 182)

I wonder if that was a joke when the young man noticed them eavesdropping. Elsewhere, Burgess encountered folk who were swarthier still. This is about his time as a “Distinguished Professor” at “New York City College”, where he gave a course on Shakespeare:

The sessions were held in a large lecture hall on Convent Avenue, and outside this lecture hall was a cashier’s office complete with guichet before which black students waited to receive a weekly subsistence allowance. Whether they were more than merely nominal students I never discovered; I know only that they waited with competing cassette recorders of the kind called ghetto blasters, and that their noise prevented me from making a start on my lecture. I rebuked them and received coarse threats in return, as well as scatological abuse which was unseemly in any circumstances but monstrous when directed at even an undistinguished professor. (Part Four, pp. 274-5)

If you are shocked and disgusted by such uncouth and uncivilized behaviour, imagine how the poor Black students must have felt. That was in 1973 and it’s sad to see that, nearly half-a-century later, the fetid stench of white supremacism hangs as heavy as ever on the air of American colleges.

Burgess plainly was – and plainly is – one of the white males responsible for this sorry situation. As both volumes of his autobiography reveal, he was much more concerned with literature, music and art than with social justice. Time and again he attempts to defend his white privilege and male privilege with appeals to universalism and the supremacy of the imagination. That defence isn’t good enough and perhaps, as his long day waned, he recognized his failure to fight for equality and was enervated by it. That would also explain why You’ve Had Your Time is so much duller than Little Wilson and Big God.

Encroaching senility is another explanation. In the introduction to this book, Burgess says one of the most fatuous things I have ever read: “I was in the Catholic church long enough to know that anyone may confess and, indeed, has to.” How long does one have to be in the Catholic church to know that? Or out of it? That’s writing on auto-pilot, like much of what follows. If you’re interested in Burgess, you should definitely read this book, but I’m certain that it doesn’t receive as many second and third readings as Little Wilson.

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Front cover of The Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson by Louis BarfeThe Trials and Triumphs of Les Dawson, Louis Barfe (Atlantic Books 2012)

I don’t like TV and would be happy never to see it again. But I can’t deny that it’s introduced me to some good things. One of them is the humour of the Mancunian comic Les Dawson (1934-93). This biography is pedestrian and occasionally PC, but it’s a good introduction to Dawson’s life and career. One notable thing about that career is that the politically correct don’t have to wring their hands much over it. Dawson’s motto was “Be Nice”. The main source of his humour was himself, his short, fat physique and his alleged difficulties with life. Other comics constantly joked about race in the 1960s and ’70s, but Dawson avoided the topic on TV series like Lez Sez and only occasionally sinned by being homophobic. Unlike his fellow Mancunian Bernard Manning, he never told jokes that began: “A nigger, a paki and a poof walked into a bar…”

And when Dawson told jokes about his mother-in-law, he did so with her full approval, according to Barfe. This was his routine when he appeared with Shirley Bassey in 1979:

DAWSON: Well, I’m glad you noticed that I’m not my usual ebullient self. I never slept a wink last night, Shirley. I kept getting this hideous recurrent nightmare that the mother-in-law was chasing me with a crocodile down the banks of the Nile. I was wearing nothing but a pith helmet and Gannex spats. I could smell the hot rancid breath on the back of my neck. I could hear those great jaws snapping in anger. I could almost see those great yellow eyes full of primeval hate devouring me.

BASSEY: That’s terrible.

DAWSON: That’s nothing. Wait till I tell you about the crocodile. (ch. 5, “Farewell to Leeds”, pg. 182, Shirley Bassey, series 2 show 4, tx 10th November 1979)

It makes me laugh even in print. The routine is also a good example of Dawson’s mock-erudite style, which is another difference between him and his rival Manning. Dawson didn’t lift other people’s material either. He didn’t have to, because he was intelligent and inventive enough to create his own. He had his influences – the phantasmagoric Beachcomber, for example – but his humour was unique and no-one has ever replaced him.
Front cover of Les Dawson's Lancashire by Les Dawson
Another important influence on him was his home-county. His book Les Dawson’s Lancashire (1984) is a good introduction both to the reality and to his surreal humour. And he found an illustrator worthy of his inventions: John Ireland. Lancashire also inspired his famous drag double-act with Roy Barraclough, the gossiping Mrs Cissie Braithwaite, played by Barraclough, and Mrs Ada Shufflebotham, played by Dawson:

CISSIE: Leonard and I went to Greece last year.

ADA: Oh, Bert and I have been to Greece, with Wallace Arnold’s Sunkissed Package Holiday and Inter-Continental Tours.

CISSIE: Oh, really? Did you have the shish kebabs?

ADA: From the moment we arrived. All down that side.

CISSIE: Did you see the Acropolis?

ADA: See it? We were never off it. Our Bert were bent double. He’s not been right for years, you know. There’s no Vaseline over there you know. (ch. 5, “Farewell to Leeds”, pg. 174, The Dawson Watch, series 1, 2nd March 1979)

Part of the joke was that Dawson used his normal voice for Ada, despite wearing woman’s clothes and hitching occasionally at a roaming breast. But Ada doesn’t just speak Lanky: she unspeaks it too. The two women are supposed to be former mill-girls, which means that they had learnt to lip-read amid the din of the looms. So Ada will occasionally mouth her gossip rather than say it. This is funny whether or not you know the character’s background, but knowing it enriches the humour. That’s part of what makes this book valuable: the more you know about Dawson, the more you appreciate his comic skill. He was a highly intelligent and knowledgeable man and though he won a mass audience, his comedy reflected his intelligence and his wide interests.

He wrote books too, but Les Dawson’s Lancashire is the only one I remember clearly. There’s a photograph here of Dawson in what’s called his “book-lined study”, but the books visible are cheap bestsellers (including Child of the Sun, a novel about the scandalous cross-dressing Emperor Heliogabalus). If Dawson had been taller and slimmer, or had received an education worthy of his intelligence, he might never have become a comedian. And if he had, he might not have been as good. This biography can’t prove how good he was, but it does make you appreciate him better on screen and in print.

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Front cover of Little Wilson and Big God by Anthony BurgessLittle Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (1986)

Mancunians will forgive any faux pas but one: success. In the 1960s and ’70s, the author of A Clockwork Orange became a core component of the M.M.F.T.M.(T.C.) community: Mooch More Famous Than Me (The Coont). In the 1980s, Morrissey would join him, but the two Mancunians already had two big things in common: music and Irish Catholicism. Music is how Mozza made his name and how Buzza originally wanted to make his. Mozza is I.C. on both sides, Buzza was I.C. on one, the side of his birthname, that of the Wilsons:

They did odd jobs, sang and danced, joined foreign armies and disappeared into Belgium, migrated to Dublin, came back with Irish wives. There was a regular tradition of marrying into Ireland, which meant often into Irish families that had taken the boat from Queenstown to Liverpool and wandered inland to Manchester. I ended up as more of a Celt than an Anglo-Saxon. My father broke the tradition by marrying a Protestant of mainly Scottish ancestry – Lowland, hence Anglo-Saxon – but he married her in a church with a Maynooth priest and she converted easily. (pg. 9)

She died easily too, swept away with Burgess’s older sister Muriel in the epidemic of influenza with which Mother Nature reasserted herself after the clumsy, man-made slaughter of the First World War. Whatever man can do, Ma can do better. Arbitrary loss and natural evil are important themes of Burgess’s fiction, but death didn’t just shape his writing: it made him a writer. Given a year to live in 1959, after the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour, he set about creating a pension for his wife:

I did not really believe this prognosis. Death, like the quintessence of otherness, is for others. But if the prognosis was valid, then I had been granted something I had never had before: a whole year to live. I would not be run over by a bus tomorrow, nor knifed on the Brighton racetrack. I would not choke on a bone. If I fell in the wintry sea I would not drown. I had a whole year, a long time. In that year I would have to earn for my prospective widow. No one would give me a job… I would have to turn myself into a professional writer… (pg. 448)

It’s a good way to end a highly readable autobiography, which might be called a B.B. book: Before Burgess, before fame. You’ve Had Your Time (1990), the highly readable sequel, is A.B., After Burgess, after John Wilson made his dead mother’s maiden name internationally famous. But he never forgot his roots:

I am proud to be a Mancunian. I have, after a struggle with a people given to linguistic conservatism, even succeeded in importing the epithet mancuniense into the Italian language… and, lecturing in Rome, I have declared myself a cittadino mancuniense, cioè romano. At the time of my birth, Manchester was a great city, Cottonopolis, the mother of liberalism and the cradle of the entire industrial system. It had the greatest newspaper in the world, meaning the only independent one. The Manchester Guardian debased itself when it grew ashamed of the city of its origin: a superb liberal organ was turned into an irritable rag dedicated, through a fog of regular typographical errors that would have appalled C.P. Scott, to the wrong kind of radicalism. (pg. 15)

That showing-off and opinionated self-importance is characteristically Burgessian, but self-importance isn’t unknown among other Mancunians. You can learn a lot about the northern inferiority complex from this book and about the refinement of it that came with being both northern and Catholic. But Burgess is right to resent certain things. He was always a better and more interesting writer than the southerner Graham Greene, a convert who thought Burgess’s “cradle Catholicism was suspect” (pg. 418). He wasn’t a better writer than the convert Evelyn Waugh, but some of his best writing was inspired by Waugh. The very funny, but also sinister, misunderstanding in The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), the second book of Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy, is obviously Wauvian, but with Burgessian embellishments: it involves an edentate Chinese cook, a cat, and a kitchenmaid, and hinges on the ambiguity of the Malay verb makan, which can mean both “to eat” and “to fuck”.

Burgess says that “the Malay language, and later the Chinese, changed … the whole shape of my mind” (pg. 371), but his fascination with language and languages began well before his encounter with the polyglot gallimaufrey of Malaya. As a child, he was attracted to the exotic French on the label of an H.P. sauce bottle. But he also heard exotic language from his family:

My grandfather would say, if [his wife] Mary Ann had a headache, “Oo’s gotten ’eed-warch.” The “oo” is Anglo-Saxon heo and the “warch” is from weorc. He would translate this for foreigners as “She’s got a headache”, but Lancashire phonemes would cling to the straight English. So, for a long time, with myself. I regret the death of the dialect, which was once a literary medium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes from the Wirral peninsula and would have been intelligible to the mediaeval Wilsons… Since the provincial revolt of the 1950s, the Lancashire accent, especially in its Liverpool form, has become acceptable in the wider world, but the dialect itself is nearly dead. It has no orthography, and there is no literary tradition to elevate it. (pg. 11)

This is another of Burgess’s losses: to have lived long, as he did, is to have lost much. Not just his mother: his mother-tongue too. But the dialect, “automatically comic” in England’s “centralising linguistic culture”, lingered into his adulthood. After the war he moved to the hamlet of Bamber Bridge near Priest-Town Preston. His first wife Lynne could not understand what she was asked when she went into a pub during heavy rain: “Art witshet?” Lancashire lad Burgess could translate this as “Art thou wet-shod?” (pg. 347) Through Lynne, whom he had met while both were students at Manchester University, he encountered another disappearing linguistic tradition. She was Anglo-Welsh and her full name was Llewela Isherwood Jones:

Llewela is the feminine form of Llewelyn. It has noble leonine connotations, but to the students of Manchester it was a joke. The English always have trouble with the Welsh unvoiced lateral unless, like me, they have studied phonetics… Llewela solved the problem for the Sais [i.e., the Saxons] by borrowing the masculine termination and calling herself Lynne. (pg. 208)

But she wasn’t a Cymric incarnation of Burgess’s “darkly Mediterranean” erotic ideal: she was “a tall athletic girl, blonde and blue-eyed, with a superbly developed body” (pg. 206). One of Burgess’s most famous books, Earthly Powers (1980), is about a homosexual writer based on Somerset Maugham; one of his most memorable characters is a homosexual Malay called Ibrahim in Time for a Tiger (1956). But Burgess said book and character were exercises in imaginative sympathy: he never felt inclined that way. If Little Wilson and Big God is anything to go by, he didn’t have time. When he wasn’t studying phonetics, composing symphonies, or translating menus into Latin, he was seeking or shagging women. This is the metaphor he chooses to sum up his introduction to Asia:

I wandered Singapore and was enchanted. I picked up a Chinese prostitute on Bugis Street. We went to a filthy hôtel de passe full of the noise of hawking and spitting, termed by the cynical the call of the East. I entered her and entered the territory. (Part 5, pg. 373)

There’s lots of lechery in this book. And lots of literature, but Burgess didn’t always acquire it in the conventional way. Although his degree would be in English Literature, his first love was music:

In school essays I would refer to the Mozartian limpidity of Addison’s prose or the Wagnerian richness of Thomas de Quincey… I was the only one in a French lesson to be able to say what a casse-noisette was, thanks to Tchaikovsky. I also knew the Faust legend, because of Gounod and Busoni, and could read Cyrillic, having studied in Manchester Central Library the original score of Le Sacre du Printemps. Asked to compare the styles of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and “The Lotus Eaters”, I said one had the austerity of Sibelius and the other the sensuousness of the Venusberg music in Tannhäuser. What I should have said was that one was in blank verse and the other rhymed. (pg. 115-6)

Autodidactism and showing-off: Burgess began both early. He describes composing a symphony in 1934, in his late teens:

The writing of a three-hundred-page musical work is more laborious than the merely literary person is able to appreciate. You can spend four hours scoring a passage which, in fast tempo, may take only a few seconds to perform. The ring finger of my right hand is permanently deformed with the strain of writing that one work alone. It was a highly juvenile work, and the Luftwaffe, in the name of Beethoven, to say nothing of Wagner, was probably right to destroy it in 1941. (pg. 159)

That “merely literary” is a dig at the southern literary establishment, which Burgess felt never accepted him or properly acknowledged his talent. But he didn’t devote much of that talent to writing about the war that destroyed his symphony. It wasn’t the overpowering experience people who didn’t live through it sometimes imagine: it had been anticipated for years and Burgess seems to have spent his military service being buggered about and being a difficult bugger. After yet another brush with authority he remarks: “I felt, as often before, that I was marked” (pg. 275). But he saw no fighting and ran no great risk of death, unlike some of his fellow students at university:

Poor as I was, however, I still insisted on the Friday night booze-up, with Gaunt and Mason and two men from the English second year called Ian McColl and Harry Green. Green and McColl fascinated me. They were coarse, rejecting totally the grace of civilisation, but the English language and its literature were their life. McColl was so soaked in Anglo-Saxon that it was a natural instinct for him to avoid Latinisms and Hellenisms even in colloquial speech. He was quite prepared, like the poet Barnes, to call an omnibus a folk wain or a telephone a fartalker. He knew German but hated the Nazis, who, after all, were only disinfecting their language of exoticisms in McColl’s own manner. He and Green knew there was a war coming, and they did regular infantry drill with the university Officer Training Corps. They were both killed in France in 1940, following the tradition of First World War subalterns, and this they were perhaps prepared to foresee. They never spoke of a future; they were fixed in a present of which the literary past was a part. McColl composed orally an endless saga about two lecherous boozers called Filthfroth and Brothelbreath … Green, outside a pub in the Shambles [a district in Manchester] called The White Horse, exclaimed at the ancient rune [Þ], which the Normans replaced with a digraph, in the definite article. In some arty antique signs, like those outside county town teashops, that rune appears as a Y, but it did not here. “Christ,” Green cried, “they’ve got a proper fucking thorn.” (Part 3, pg. 198-9)

Would McColl and Green have become famous if they had survived the war? Perhaps not, but Burgess manages to “embalm” their “poignant history” in “the magical spices of words”, as Lytton Strachey said of another autobiographer, Cardinal Newman. If Burgess had not memorialized them, they, their “Filthfroth” and “fucking thorn” might now be entirely forgotten: two new-lit candles blown out more than seventy years ago by the breath of Mars. Earlier in the book, Burgess has described a lost photograph of his mother and sister, who both died while he was still a baby. It was “long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites” (pg. 16). The photograph had gone; his memory of it remained; now there is just the description of the memory in a book. McColl and Green are one step nearer reality: remembered and recorded from life. Burgess saved a crumb or two of their mortality from Edax Tempus, Devouring Time, and that is part of the value of this book. It’s about a famous man before he became famous and saves many crumbs from his own and other people’s ordinary lives. But he obviously wanted fame: when he stole “pass-forms” during the war and forged signatures to go on illegitimate leave, he used names like “J. Joyce, E. Pound, E.M. Forster, Lieut for Major” (pg. 281), knowing that they were unlikely to rouse suspicion in the philistine army.

That first forgee is particularly important: Burgess spent the war seeking strength through Joyce, whom he’d first been bedazzled by before the war. “Ironically”, however, the hell-sermons of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) had frightened him back to faith: “I ran to the confessional, poured out my sins of doubt almost sobbing, and received kind absolution and a nugatory penance” (pg. 141). I can’t take the same jouissance in Joyce, but Burgess followed him faithfully from the fairly conventional Portrait through the deepening experimentation of Ulysses (1922) into the poly-performative linguistic maelstrom of Finnegans Wake (1939), which “impressed” the unliterary Lynne “only because the apparent typing chimpanzees had put me into it as ‘J.B.W. Ashburner’” (pg. 215) – John Burgess Wilson used to visit her at Ashburne Hall, a female hall of residence at Manchester University. I can’t say how happy Joyce’s influence has been on Burgess’s writing, but it did sometimes get a little silly. In “The Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, Joyce used older forms of English to create “a series of literary parodies which serve the representation of the growth of the embryo in the womb”. Of his Wagnero-Joycean novel The Worm and the Ring (1960), Burgess says:

In describing the adulterous act of my hero Howarth-Siegfried and Hilda on a school excursion to Paris, I tried to go further than Joyce by hiding the shameful deed in a kind of reversed history of French prose style, with the Strasbourg Oath collapsing into Latin at the moment of climax. This had nothing to do with the Ring of the Nibelungs: it was sheer literary self-indulgence. (pg. 368)

You said it, Buzza. His attempt to “go further” than Joyce reminds me of a scene in the Comic Strip’s “Bad News Tour” (1983), a heavy-metal mockumentary in which a guitarist boasts of having learnt “Stairway to Heaven” when he was only twelve, even though Jimmy Page didn’t write it till he was twenty-two. Burgess undoubtedly had no time for Led Zeppelin, though he contributed strongly, if inadvertently, to the counter-culture with at least one book: the Led Zeppelin drummer Bonzo would be dressing up as a “droogie” after Stanley Kubrick filmed A Clockwork Orange in the 1970s. And Burgess may never have heard of the Smiths and Morrissey, that later Mancunian who committed the cardinal sin of rising to international fame. It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened if the two had been swapped at birth, Morrissey being sent back in time and Burgess brought forward. The art of both is rooted firmly in northern England, but Burgess’s tendrils wandered much further: he’s right to contrast Maugham’s Anglo-centric Malayan fiction with his own, which drew on all races of the region and mingled all their languages. Morrissey has written about Hispanic gang-members and sexual encounters in Rome, but he’s never tried to translate The Wasteland into Malay.

For Burgess’s full discussion of A Clockwork Orange, you’ll have to look at part two of the autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, but Burgess’s post-war, pre-independence days in Malaya are fully covered in this, part one. They inspired the Malayan Trilogy, which contains some of his best, funniest, and richest writing, and he says they killed Lynne, who became an alcoholic there through boredom and acquired anaemia because of the climate. Burgess ends the book meditating on the irony of trying to earn money for a wife who would die long before him. He begins it in the middle of the 1980s, meditating in New York on his own survival and the endless struggle he has had with the English language: “Mastery never comes, and one serves a lifelong apprenticeship. The writer cannot retire from the battle; he dies fighting. This book is another battle.” (pg. 6)

Burgess did die fighting and although he never wrote as well as Waugh, very few people have and Waugh did not mix so many ingredients with such gusto into his writing. Little Wilson and Big God doesn’t have the elegance or elegy of A Little Learning, Waugh’s slender essay in autobiography, but I’ve read both books several times and hope to read both again. Burgess’s is much longer and you’ll laugh more and learn more: he always retained an outsider’s fascination with the strangeness of human beings and their languages. The larger strangeness of mathematics and science passed him by, as it did Waugh, and phonetics was as close as he got to science. Burgess’s experiences during the war weren’t as powerful as those of J.G. Ballard, who spent it in a Japanese detention camp, rather than teaching English on the Rock of Gibraltar as Burgess did, but both writers were influenced by a hotter sun and spicier air. One was born east and came west, the other was born west and went east: that shared experience means that their fiction has an un-English richness and extravagance. Ballard’s literary flight, fuelled on science and psychosis, will last longer, but Burgess is in some ways more entertaining and is certainly funnier. There’s Lancashire music-hall in this book, with Catholic guilt, northern chippiness, and some of the “old sharp flavours” of English life that the rising tide of Americanization and standardization would soon wash away. And much more beside, from rejections by T.S. Eliot and pub-encounters with George Orwell to cats feasting on snakes in Borneo and dicing with death driving through the Malay jungle. As introduction to Burgess or explication for his fans, I’d call it doubleplusgood.

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