“The very last thing I wanted to write was the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir with which we’ve all become so familiar…” is how Suede singer and songwriter Brett Anderson sets out his stall in his autobiography Coal Black Mornings. It is also how he justifies his decision to make this book “about failure”, about the years of struggle that were the crucible for his music, rather than his time at the top of the Ferris wheel.
It’s a conceit with some precedent. Morrissey (a huge influence on the young Anderson and one who still seeps through here, more of which later) was at his best in the first 200 pages of Autobiography, detailing his childhood in the Manchester of the 1960s and 1970s, with the Smiths’ career pretty much tossed off in a handful of litigation-obsessed chapters.
Anderson goes even further here – with the book terminating at the 200-page mark, right at the point where Suede begin to receive their first hysterical reviews. It leaves the reader rearing back, juddering in a kind of literary coitus interruptus. And it’s a pity, because there was a bigger, better memoir here, snoozing between the covers, dying to be teased out.
He is gifted, if that’s quite the word we want, a childhood of almost Dickensian poverty shot through with a surreal bohemian streak. It allows him to sidestep the pitfalls of the usual 1970s white-jobbies-Spangles-and-Chopper-bikes memoir (although there is a bit of that) and he writes well about it, clear-eyed and unflinching as he takes us through growing up in a tiny council house in Hayward’s Heath, marooned in a no-man’s land between London and Brighton.
There is a father who might well have stepped straight out of a Suede song, “a swimming pool attendant, ice-cream man, window cleaner and eventually a taxi-driver”, who is devoted to Wagner, Berlioz, Elgar and, above all, Franz Liszt, and obsessed with TE Lawrence, Nelson and Churchill. He would regularly drive all the way “to Raiding in Austria on a pilgrimage to Liszt’s birthplace, where he would take a small sample of soil from the ground to wear in a phial around his neck”. He is a man of mercurial temper whose moods dominate the tiny household he can barely support.
Anderson’s mother is an artist, a painter. She makes all of the children’s clothes, “would pick wild nettles and mushrooms to make salad and soup, and pluck dead birds and skin rabbits to eat in stews”, and reads Beowulf to them as a bedtime story. When Anderson’s sister’s cherished paperback of Watership Down disintegrates she makes her own replacement cover “with a lace and denim trim, and her own watercolour interpretations of Hazel and Fiver”.
It is a vivid picture of hardship, a 1970s Britain that feels more like Steinbeck’s America of the 1930s. Writing about his father’s upbringing in the same town a generation earlier, Anderson (always a talented lyricist) scores a bullseye when he describes it as a time and place “cloyed with alcoholism and violence and failure, the smell of stale sherry and dog food and the wintery fug of three-bar fires”. This is good stuff, novelistic. You reach out and touch the place.
But sometimes, in a rush of blood to the head, he runs too far with this sort of thing and we get: “I was a snotty, sniffy slightly maudlin sort of boy, raised on Salad Cream and milky tea and cheap meat” and, later, “I became sucked into a vaguely misogynistic, parochial world of underpowered motorbikes, minor shoplifting and drunken episodes on village greens”. Here the effect becomes less novelistic, less even like Morrissey, and more like Uncle Monty, expansive on his third Bloody Mary. His editor might have had a word with him about some of this (and also have put paid to “coal black mornings”, a phrase so pleased with itself that it appears no less than five times in a little over 70 pages).
All authors have ideal readers in mind. Anderson says in the foreword that one of his is his son, who “might one day pick this up and know that his father loved and lost and fought and felt”. Well. That’s quite the ask. It also sounds like a really bad Dean Martin song. And it might explain the decision not to march too boldly into exploring some of the fruits that go with success in the record industry; indeed it might account for the bewildering coyness afoot in this book generally.
Diarists, it has been said, should write with their grandchildren, or great grandchildren, in mind, the emotional remove of a generation or two allowing a greater freedom of expression. Similarly, the novelist must write not only as though their parents are dead but as if their children have never been born. Some of this advice would have served Anderson well. Speaking of his decision not to write about the heady time of Suede’s success, he concludes “right now I have no desire to rake over those days again”. Given the well-known accounts of his descent into crack and heroin during that period, this is perhaps understandable enough, though frustrating for the reader.
Hopefully, when more time has passed, he might find himself willing to do so. If Anderson can bring the same clarity and detachment that he does to his childhood to bear upon that time, it might make a second volume of Coal Black Mornings well worth reading.
John Niven’s most recent book is “No Good Deed” (William Heinemann)
Coal Black Mornings
Little, Brown, 224pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left