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England Is Mine: the making of Morrissey, or a portrait of the artist as a young wimp?

The film avoids controversy, but it ends up bland in a way that is probably its downfall.

It is with some trepidation that I write about the new Morrissey biopic, England Is Mine, knowing that it’s not hard to say the wrong thing about Morrissey and fall foul either of his lawyers or his legions of still-adoring fans. Journalists have come a cropper and even I, after a throwaway remark made donkey’s years ago, found myself added to the list of scores that had to be settled in his recent Autobiography, a book that reminded me of nothing so much as Father Ted’s Golden Cleric acceptance speech: “And now we move on to liars…”

I don’t know how Morrissey feels about this film, so I can’t tell in which direction to swerve in order to avoid causing offence. Oh, who cares anyway? The title seems provocative at first glance, touching as it does on the Little Englander side that has been so inflammatory and led him into so much trouble. But the director Mark Gill doesn’t delve and the title just sits there unexamined. The film avoids controversy but it ends up bland in a way that is probably its downfall.

The teenage years of Morrissey (played by Jack Lowden) are laid out for us in all their drab glory, reminding us of other lines from “Still Ill”, the song that provides the film’s title – such as “There are brighter sides to life/And I should know because I’ve seen them/But not very often” – that leapt out when we first heard them. That declamatory wordiness, with its heady mix of self-pity and wit, made Morrissey seem the archetypal underdog. Spouting teenage philosophy and irreverence, longing for romance and sex, he was full of self-dramatising self-deprecation and leavened it all with his waspish humour.

It was brilliant writing and made you wonder, “Where did this unique voice spring from?” I’m afraid the film fails to answer that. Morrissey’s key friendship – which reflects so well on him as a teenage boy – was with Linder Sterling, an artist and member of the band Ludus. In real life, Linder was pretty uncompromising, even by punk standards, and wore a meat dress decades before Lady Gaga, which she then whipped aside onstage to reveal a large, black dildo. She made “menstrual jewellery”, designed to resemble bloodied tampons. I remember an interview in which she talked about menstruation, leading the journalist to ask if she’d ever done a gig while on her period. “Yeah, tonight,” she said. You could feel the glow of the journalist’s blush spreading out at you from the pages.

In the film, her band is never mentioned, the art only briefly glimpsed and she’s a pretty girl (Jessica Brown Findlay) with slightly punky eyeliner; a top-of-the-class art student who quotes poetry all day long. They make a twee couple, when I suspect in real life they were anything but. The tone of the film is sweet and tender, a bit coy, a bit defanged. No one has any sex, or even talks about it, and though both Oscar Wilde and James Dean loom over Moz in his bed, he snogs no one, boy or girl, and we get no sense that he wants to.

It’s all a bit “portrait of the artist as a young wimp”. I’m sure he was shy and depressed, but I also bet he was tougher and edgier than this portrait suggests – nastier, too, maybe, with that narcissistic core of steel common to so many artists. This seems more like a study of a Morrissey fan than one of the singer.

It’s slow, undramatic and played mostly as a gentle comedy, with a few funny moments. The soundtrack is good and accurate, with bands from the Shangri-Las to Mott the Hoople, though it’s puzzling that the music scene of contemporary Manchester is not much featured – no Buzzcocks, no Joy Division, no Factory Records – when all of these must have acted as both a spur and an irritant to the young not-yet-artist.

But, oh, the anachronisms. In just the opening ten minutes, set in 1976, a girl describes a boy as “fit”, someone is told to “grow a pair” and someone else to “get your shit together”. Whatever you think about Morrissey, he always cared about words. I can feel him wincing from here.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left