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Home > Culture and Society

Is it cuz I is middle-class?

by Alan Connor

1 November 2003

The Big Blush is The Guardian's extracts from a book where writers tell us of their public shame. Some of them, like the inadvertent Jeanette- Winterson- lookalike, have been fantastic. Others less so: I expect Irvine Welsh to spend his weekends fouling himself in public toilets, so I'm not going to cringe on his behalf. Sadly, this week we get another pooper. Michael Bracewell is embarrassing reading.

I want to like Michael Bracewell, because of his passion for O Lucky Man!. But reading his account of trying to interview Mark E. Smith, I fear it may be over between us.

The article is about a disastrous evening at the ICA, and starts with the observation that Mark E. Smith is simultaneously very bright and very, well, non-bourgeois.

And for this public interview, Smith is late, rude and dismissive, and Bracewell wonders why he ever thought the evening would work. He comes up with a few comparisons: he "must have seemed like one of those eager young reporters from the early days of the BBC - tweedy and hopelessly bourgeois". Later he likens himself to "AN Wilson [taking] the stage at the 100 Club". And so on. "I came across as William Hyde-White trying to interview Eminem". When Bracewell writes about himself, we get "Thus, entangled in questions of cultural status [...]"; when writing about Smith it's all "pissed into it" and "put his fag out". Okay, we get it.

But all this is to alight on the class thing. He's already acknowledged that the other thing about Smith is that he's very clever. Isn't it possible that Smith was contemptuous about the evening because he felt it was a bit vapid, rather than because it was all wrong for his social class?

The weakest analogy is when Bracewell invokes the old Ken Dodd canard "Try telling Freud's theory of humour to the second house at the Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night". As well as hoary, this is, as Nicole Kidman would put it, non-apropos. Dodd's bon mots are about the difference between theory and practice. But what Bracewell seems to have taken from them is a warning about how ferocious the working classes can be, And there's nothing else this has in common with the ICA evening.

The Empire audience would be bored and impatient mainly because they were expecting some jokes, and because the Freud would be impenetrable. But Bracewell is not impenetrable to Smith:

"Can you remember the early concerts in the working men's clubs?" I asked, fingering my notes with sweating hands.
"'Course I can. Do you think I'm daft?" came the sharp reply.
"Were you always interested in music?"
"My uncle played the saw. Lovely instrument." And so on.

The real problem here is that Smith is two steps ahead of his interlocutor. He knows the "always interested in music?" form, he knows the stock replies, and he's mocking the whole set-up. This isn't a class thing. Middle-class Dylan did it in his obtuse 1966ish interviews. Upper-class playwright Leo Mercure does it in Noel Coward's A design for living. It's a question of intelligence. Perhaps, Smith is "[a] class warrior, dandy and intellectual". But he's not being a prima facie class warrior when he's teasing the daft exercise of a bog-standard interview.


Reading this back, it's time to 'fess up. I couldn't hum you that many The Fall non-covers outside of "Hit the North" and "Eat y'self fitter". Sean?

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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