“Well I just don’t know where to begin.” Perhaps that’s no way to embark on a summary of a book/conversation/Gorilla event but then a prior appointment with Elvis Costello at the Apollo proved a double booking too far. Apologies, then to Dave and Paul, but luckily LoneLady and Fat Roland chipped in to provide LTW’s unrivalled 3D coverage.
It’s all too easy for the cultural observer to be ambivalent about Mr Morley, immersed, as is Mr Haslam, in the alleged systematic regurgitation of Manchester’s heritage. If this is a cottage industry, let’s face it: these two have a master bedroom each.
And there’s another rich seam for the pedant or potential heckler this particular night. Not for the first time, the North appears to find itself requisitioned selectively in the way that Andy Murray is British when it suits and a brat without a home to lay his hat when he’s either lost or deemed to have let the side down.
The rest of the time, anyone in Sheffield, say, or Southport or Scarborough could surely claim, all this north/south stuff goes up and down a corridor navigated exclusively by noisy denizens of the M1 and M6.
Which kind of brings us to Stockport, coincidentally the name of the road which starts at The Apollo as well as the place Morley elevates as the springboard to his latest piece of detective work (his words).
A superb black-and-white photo of Coronation Street’s Violet Carson on a balcony prompted a challenge from Haslam about the book’s lack of women. Morley’s answer, that his book can only relay his own experience and to do otherwise would have been dishonest, may or may not have missed the point, but it did remind us that the story of the North has so often been restricted to the male POV.
Happily then, LoneLady, an artist championed by Morley, a fellow audience member and a native of neighbouring Audenshaw, wasn’t having any of this afterwards.
“He talked about the condescension towards so-called Northerness that is embedded in many of our cultural institutions, such as cliched reviews that refer to whippets/clogs/cobbles/mocking Lowry etc,” she countered. “I think it’s important that a prominent figure like him highlights this. I like that he’s the Northern upstart regularly trouncing his colleagues on The Review Show [on the BBC].”
Did LoneLady share Haslam’s concern at the lack of female influence on Morley’s recollections? “I thought this was irrelevant as it is a personal memoir, so I wouldn’t expect things about women to be shoe-horned in there in order to tick some sort of box.
“In the 60s/70s I figure roles for women were pretty rigid ie get married, have kids, that’s it. Not much room for: be a rock star. There needs to be more visible/influential female figures across all walks of life but I think that belongs to a much bigger discussion about society/changing attitudes/preconceptions about what women can do or should be etc, etc… which isn’t really what the book is about.”
Through his friendly but frank questioning, Dave Haslam proceeded to dig under the skin of Morley, from childhood through the Art Of Noise; infamous Frankie Goes To Hollywood t-shirts; running ZTT with Trevor Horn to, eventually, the new book.
First up, though, was a This Is Your Life-style photograph trawl: a ticket to an old T-Rex gig; a picture of Stockport Grammar; a snap of him in the back of a taxi with JG Ballard. The latter meeting was a personal highlight and led to Haslam’s guest referring henceforth to his own outlook as “Ballardian”.
“This photo is about you,” said Haslam of yet another meet-and-greet. With this comment, in a way he summed up the book on sale under Gorilla’s Merch sign for £20. Despite its authoritative weight (“heavier than a bag of sugar” pointed out one audience member), the book does miss huge swathes of northern Britain in favour of a subjective, Stockport-heavy reflection on Paul Morley’s life.
Morley painted a hilarious image of Stopfordians being so bewitched by the source of the Mersey in their town centre that they built a shopping centre over it and sent it off to Liverpool. He also spoke beautifully about Reddish Vale and squeezed in a dig at “Brinny”, a reference for true locals.
The minutes devoted to Morley’s reflection on his father and Ian Curtis were inevitable and appropriate. His father’s depression was a constant presence during his childhood, and Morley’s connection with the North is referred to by himself as a way of asserting his identity against a background of tragedy.
Even so, said Morley, despite his father’s suicide, the first dead body he saw was actually that of Curtis. Morley was an NME journalist considering writing a book about Joy Division at the time, so Tony Wilson duly shut him in a room with the coffin because “a writer should do his research”!
Maybe this should have been a profound moment, but for Morley, and for us, it told us more about the Factory supremo than anything. In the same way that, quite understandably, The North tells us much more about Paul Morley’s character than it does about our factories and whippets and bewitched Stopfordians.
There are nuggets galore… for example, about the symbolic, disputed suicide of adopted Mancunian Alan Turing and its own supposed subsequent place in marketing history. On the other hand there’s some curious composite figure by the name of Bob Shankly… a glaring error if ever there was one.
LoneLady, however, offers further reason to keep such things in perspective, given the density of its 559 pages: “I first encountered Paul Morley in Joy Division’s Heart And Soul box set; which is a package I love… the booklet, the writing, the photographs and not least, of course, the amazing music.
“I was really struck by the piece he wrote for this and since then have pretty much read everything he’s written. I particularly love how he writes about the magic and atmosphere surrounding a subject, rather than reporting mere facts.
“I also think he is not afraid to be serious, emotional and fanatical and these are all qualities I would like to see more of when talking about music/art/anything. He is, I think, the perfect person to bring the North alive on the page. I’m enjoying the historical detail and regional minutiae, and the idea of the psyche of place.”
Later on, Jimmie Standing In The Rain/Brother can you Spare a Dime alone proved worth the price of admission to Elvis Costello, even if Tramp the Dirt Down ran it close… and Ardwick’s 2,000+ capacity Apollo somehow never seemed more intimate.
Costello’s exquisite hats and guitars may well have been entirely predictable, whereas the bestockinged form of official tour “go-go dancer” Trixie, complete with podium, could hardly be justified purely by the fact this was the last kind of device the audience might have expected.
A night of bittersweet, pricey nostalgia thus ended with the insistent suspicion that some things are destined never to change. “It’s the words that we don’t say/That scare me so…”
Dave Haslam will interview Neneh Cherry on July 7 as part of Manchester International Festival and on August 22 he will interview David Peace onstage at the National Football Museum.
Words: Alex G and Fat Roland