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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 14 October 2013

Penguin pulls off classic wind-up with Morrissey autobiography

This Thursday, Penguin is to publish Morrissey's autobiography in the black covers of the revered imprint, Penguin Classics.
A Classic tease: Smiths frontman Morrissey achieves every late 20th century angst-ridden teen dream. Becoming a Penguin Classic.

And so, another notch is cut into the stock of the big fat gun used by cultural relativists to blast elitist traditionalists out of their rank and stinking waters. Or is it the other way around?

Penguin justified their decision by suggesting the Morrissey tome could indeed one day be regarded as a classic. A very large question is begged here, blatantly - but there you go.

Penguin founder Allen Lane might well be thumping his coffin lid - but there again, if so, he would have been splintering the boards with much violence already, many times over.

The thing is, all of the people most likely to kick up a stink - people, let's face it, who most probably left school in the 1950s or 1960s and spent most of their 5/- pocket money on a 3/6d Penguin Classic such as Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album or The Bhagavad Gita - are now, in terms of cultural clout, totally impotent.

And most of that lot - the Penguin fetishists, and there are plenty of them, believe me - for I am one - would tell you that the Classics really lost their way back in the 1980s, when Penguin started messing around with formats and colour bands and so on.

Or maybe the rot set in even earlier, in 1961, when the original "roundel" design covers were replaced by Germano Facetti's first Black Classics.  Or a few years later, when the original Penguin Classics editor E. V. Rieu - translator of  the first Penguin Classic in 1946, The Odyssey – was replaced by Betty Radice and Robert Baldick.

(I am still searching for a copy of a strange Penguin classic, Betty Radice: The Translator's Art. Her reign at Penguin, in my view, was the golden age).

There are still some much younger types ready to put up a fight. For example, Brendan O'Neill, a writer for Spike,  but here blogging for  the Daily Telegraph, maintains that Penguin has at a stroke destroyed its own reputation for upholding the highest literary standards - at least in this area of its catalogue.

But his argument is clich√©-laden: "Plato, Julian of Norwich, Darwin – they must all be spinning in their graves right now. In essence, Penguin is sneering at the public."

But is it sneering? The public gets what the public wants, as one of Morrissey's rivals once offered.

The public loves Morrissey, or loves to loathe him or find him loveably odd and irritating and puzzling. He's another of the many national treasures that the post-punk generation was so good at producing. All that Manchester lot, or at least the ones who survived. Mark E Smith. John Cooper Clark. The one who was not Ian Curtis. Shaun Ryder. Etc. Still a bit unpredictable, you know, and therefore - classics.

And then the lads from Sheffield. Jarvis, they are all called Jarvis. .

Look at them - they now run BBC Radio 4. Or so it seems sometimes. Anyway, why should they not be Penguin Classics, all of them?

Wasn't one of Brixton's favourite sons also a Penguin Classic? Didn't Linton Kwesi Johnson get his poetry into one of those slim volumes, a few years back? He did. It was called, Mi Revalueshanary Fren.  Yeah, but he was only a "Modern Classic". In the same league as Kafka, F Scott Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Lorca,  Camus, etc.

A nice distinction that Penguin used to make - a soft grey spine for the writers whose impact in the 20th century was such the they would almost certainly become fully-fledged classics in time - but not yet so long dead and so much studied as to get the full black of Balzac, Gogol, Dostoyevsky or Dante.

Morrissey, on the other hand - well, how could anyone deny him his place at this table?

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