Academics ahoy! There was a conference on The Fall at the University of Salford last month, not too far from Bargain Booze in Prestwich (Mark E. Smith's favourite retail sanctuary). Next month there's a conference on Nick Cave at the University of Westminster (in the Regent Street building that housed the first photography studio in Europe). Desperate not to be left out, at least two different Oxford colleges are celebrating Radiohead (splitting the band's oeuvre into before and after Kid A) while Cambridge have rejected calls for yet more papers on Syd Barrett in favour of hosting a two-day symposium on the Soft Boys.
Soft Boys. The phrase sums up what noted squirrel-killer Mark E. Smith registers as being all that's wrong with our vicariously experienced virtual world. Forget the creeping institutionalization of rock 'n' roll, it's the fact that we've become too fucking passive to live our own lives that worries our man in Prestwich. Consider the gentrification of football (enter 'Crisp Man' Gary Lineker and parasitic 'Walter Softies' like 'Nick Hornby, David Baddiel, and Damon Albarn'). Consider the rise of a celebrity culture that leads people to act 'as if they don't think their own lives are of any importance' . . . Has our mediated experience of hardship been so softened by the spectacle of excess that we no longer recognize ourselves? Do the real Fiery Jacks ('hard livers with hard livers') reflect a truth submerged in the pseudomodern phantasmagoria, a truth that MES is there to extricate? Skimming through the pages of Smith's Renegade in a used bookstore in Notting Hill (where a brand new copy was acutely filed under self-help), I kept stumbling on passages stuffed full of what could be patronizingly labelled 'Northern Wisdom'. To add injury to insult, writing from deep inside the enemy vortex of alienated selves and misaligned psyches here in London, I'll now lazily regurgitate choice fragments from the almost autobiography.
Never mind the mitherers, Renegade is a genuinely funny read, crammed with entertaining digressions on the cultural life of Britain in the last few decades: whether dismissing Echo and the Bunnymen and their various imitators as 'gonks' or remembering the pacifying perils of ecstasy where mates 'start getting eloquent about plastering or roofing', or instructing the needlessly scruffy to run along to Primark. Smith's fusion of the drunken ramble and the comic rant is peppered with perceptive asides that elevate his spontaneous stand-up into something closer to a critique of everyday life. For him, the shift towards an obsession with 'tittle-tattle' originates in the cosily sinister voyeurism of TV's Through the Keyhole and in the martyrdom of Diana ('the same people who talk about shitty celebrities now could be seen signing her condolence book back then in 1997'). Crucially, 1997 functions as a symbolic year for the death of innocence, with Smith observing that the ascendancy of New Labour will 'be filed alongside Nazi propaganda in the future'.
While future professors and pub bores lock furrowed brows over the merits of one or other periods from The Fall's lengthy history, MES is more concerned with 'progressing'. Here and now is The Fall he's interested in . . . but that doesn't mean he won't express an opinion on earlier incarnations. Otherwise we'd be left relying on 'daft cunts' like Paul Morley influencing our views when we stand up at conferences to give a co-opted Situationist reading of 'The Man Whose Head Expanded'. Incidentally, let's delete any mirthless comparisons with Guy Debord and his twin passions for alcohol and jettisoning intellectually flabby comrades. Renegade is full of far more ludicrous insights into Smith's distinctive managerial philosophy. For example? As a twelve year old, press-ganged into babysitting a houseful of young girls during the school holidays, he devised 'Japanese prison camp'. Playing the role of a Japanese guard, he made the girls stay under a table draped with a large cloth while he went out with his mates. He'd get back half an hour before his parents and tell the girls 'Japanese prison camp is now over'. Sometimes he threw sweets under the cloth. Sometimes he let one or two of them escape into the back garden and then locked them out of the house. In the guard's own words: 'Today we'd probably get investigated by the social services. What can you do? It's hard work bringing up kids. Japanese prison camp was the perfect solution.'
On several occasions in Renegade Smith cites his fondness for the cruelly underrated 1940s horror flick Dead of Night (assiduous browsers of Outside Left's occasional forays into 'Top Ten' list territory will recall the film's position at no. 3 in the Top Ten Movie Architects). The idea of his writing something similar (script, novel, sit com . . .) lies latent in the Blakean visions and Lovecraftian phrases that have long been part of the MES style. Although it would be a savage reduction of their content to isolate Smith's lyrics from the music, artwork, performance, and general mise-an-scene that contributes to the Mancunian mythology, the occulted materialism of his spectral narratives has always been ripe for literary scrutiny. Intriguingly, he claims to have been a member of the Machen Society.
In late-Victorian London, Arthur Machen recognized that the ambiguities animating the antagonism between science and magic could be manipulated to upset dogmatic believers from both sides. As a journalist and scribbler of weird fiction, Machen often reflected that you didn't need to voyage beyond the Grays Inn Road to discover mind-shattering mysteries messing up the paintwork behind the thinnest veil separating this world from other realms. For me, the most resonant line in Renegade occurs when MES updates Machen's sense of the significance of place. With all the casual sincerity and restless ambiguity he can muster, Smith states simply that 'writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno'.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London