The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Music and history: letting the Smiths do the work

And so, I checked all the registered historical facts

And I was shocked into shame to discover

How I’m the eighteenth pale descendant

Of some old Queen or other.

 

Oh has the world changed or have I changed?

Oh has the world changed or have I changed?

The Smiths, The Queen is Dead (1986)

 

As it stands, this is the quote that opens the final chapter of the book I’m trying to finish. Some of my friends will find this entirely predictable—exactly the kind of wannabe flourish you’d expect of a thirty-something former Indie kid. We grew up in and (in my case) around a northern industrial town in the late-1980s and early 1990s. In their music and lyrics the Smiths were one of those bands that somehow spoke to our sense of anguished alienation. In my case, Morrissey was the model for an ever-more elaborate quiff and dubious shirts. The hair has gone, but over the years since I’ve kept listening to their music; a Smiths song title (‘This Charming Man’, in case you’re interested) is one of the fake index entries in Queer London; I managed to get a Morrissey lyric (‘We look to Los Angeles / for the language we use / London is dead’) on a finals exam paper last summer.

 

At the same time, I hope that starting a chapter with these lines from the ‘Queen is Dead’ isn’t too predictable. Even if it is, mulling them over has done a certain kind of intellectual work as I’ve tried to pin down the arguments I want to tease out in my writing. For a start, the chapter reflects on the life and times of (among many other things) a notable royal biographer. More than this, thinking about fakes and forgeries has meant I’m interested in the problematic nature of historical ‘truth’—the impossibility of identifying any ‘registered historical facts’—and how we might use the tools of a critical historical practice to disturb the foundations of what we think we know about the past. Above all, I want to explore how focusing upon an individual subject can allow us to make sense of a particular historical period. In this case, in particular, how can a life that appeared characteristic of 1920s society and culture seem anachronistic and out of time by 1940? Has the world changed or have I changed?

 

Queer London opened with a line from Hefner’s ‘We Love the City’. Somehow it seemed to encapsulate the arguments I wanted to make about the unique and vibrant queer worlds associated with metropolitan modernity: ‘This is London, not Antarctica.’ A few years on, I find myself once again aware of the intellectual work that music can do. My engagement with the Smiths today isn’t as necessary or as visceral as it was when I was a teenager. Still, taking their lyrics seriously continues to give me something to think with and through as part of my practice as a historian.

 

I couldn’t not include this:

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