The end

Nothing

Paul Morley <em>Faber, 418pp, £11.99</em>

ISBN 0571177999

When Paul Morley's father killed himself in 1977, the pop journalist manque had begun to realise his ambition of writing for a national publication. The New Musical Express liked a review he had written of a Buzzcocks gig in Manchester and asked the teenager from Stockport to write again. Before long, he was interviewing Marc Bolan of T-Rex. Morley tells an amusing story of how, on his way to meet Bolan, he discovered that the jeans his mother had ironed the night before were horribly streaked. He was interviewing glamour king Bolan, and there he was before his idol in a pair of badly ironed jeans.

As you would expect, Morley conveys the speed and fervour of the late 1970s music scene as well as anyone, and the unconstrained energies of punk still seem to quicken his prose. His great love of the time was Joy Division, a group of four young men who translated the industrial malaise of the north-west into frenzied resistance. Their sound was dark, rousing, even grandiose, and frontman Ian Curtis's tormented lyrics were given an added edge by his resonant vocals and manic dancing, which seemed to parody the epilepsy he suffered from.

When Curtis killed himself, in 1980, Morley was among the mourners, and this remarkable book opens with him contemplating the singer's body as he lies in state. It's a brave opening to a book, but perhaps Morley should have cut it. The worst aspects of his style are on show here: verbosity, gratuitous repetition, punning. He likes to state something and then say it again, attacking it from every possible angle in a blatant and breathless dialectic. In other words, he likes to pull the rug from under his own feet. The reader, however, doesn't want to be tripped up quite as many times.

The central character of the book is Morley's father, and we follow his career as it slides from prison officer to salesman to pamphleteer. He frequently absconds from the family home only to reappear in odd parts of the country and, in one instance, at a mental hospital where he was treated with electro-convulsive therapy, even before anyone knew who he was.

Morley provides a fascinating and disturbing portrait of a man who was "more wartime than Warhol". Well-chosen details serve to relieve his own conjecture and introspection. Once, his father had most of his clothes stolen from the dry cleaner's. Morley remembers the gloom on his face as he sat in the front room in his underpants. When his father, like Curtis, killed himself, Morley's mother ordered her son to scrub the oven as if it constituted a kind of cathartic chore - a memory that has returned to haunt him throughout his life.

Morley is excellent on provincial northern towns. Stockport in the 1970s wasn't the brightest place to be, and he calls it the "town at the bottom of the world", with its ugly new shopping mall, filthy municipal buildings and dreary houses. He renders the northern grammar school with enough conviction to bring back the musty corridors and the moribund teachers in their ill-fitting suits. Morley vividly remembers the crushing formality, the slipper-and-cane oppression and the stranglehold on self-expression (unless in violence or sport) of his old school. Relating these memories to his father's condition at the time, he wonders if the grey provinciality contributed to his unhappiness - and his deepening need for a way out.

This, in the end, is a book about ways of escape and coping, ways of coming to terms with loss. As the narrative progresses, Morley's prose becomes more lucid and sparse, as if the whole process of remembrance is, at last, uncluttering his imagination. Although ostensibly about death, Nothing will live with you for some time. Paul Morley has done his old man proud.

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