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Paint a Vulgar Picture
Fiction Inspired by
The Smiths

Peter Wild (ed)

" I remember the first time I saw him, JT, this skinny Smiths kid, taking his place against the wall with all the whey-faced seasoned regulars. Beneath the angelic veneer was a gutsy street urchin. He’d been pissed on, smeared in shit, fisted to an inch of his life, burnt, battered and knifed and he still managed to affect the same fresh-faced humility of the new kid on the block. He was savvy, man. …"

Reviewed by James Murray-White

In the same way that Morrissey surveyed the aspirations and gritty reality of life around him in the 1980s, during a Britain dominated by politics and the bitter divisions of class, so do all the writers in this curious anthology – all responding using the short story form to The Smiths' song title given them by the editor. 

As writer Rhonda Carrier says of The Smiths in her intro to her story of adolescence, Girl Afraid, the band created a unique mood of "fatalistic miserablism meets intense yearning". Some of these stories are small in scope and forgettable, others soar up full of imagination and a gripping style, much in the way many albums of 24 songs contain some great tracks and some forgettable ones. 

Alison MacLeod, in her intro to her sometimes caustic story about dying, inspired by the rare Smiths instrumental track, Oscillate Wildly, says of how it inspired her: "the song is…all coolness and melancholy – very haunting – until it suddenly lifts off into something joyous, something big. I wanted to write a story that took that kind of running leap.." In the story, the family of a dying man gather, as his mind fixes on an image from the past – a fallen angel. Macleod's piece is a gem of deathly energy. 

The Queen is Dead by Jeff Noon is a real delight, capturing angst and indecision, and charting the shifting insecurities of trust and friendship exactly as the songs did. Noon gives us a world through the eyes of querulous youth, where "all good boys and girls come home to a world at the end of time, but this was the day the sour rain fell on the new young queen divine…". 

Murder and sad seedy death are key themes of this collection, cropping up in this story, as well as those by Helen Walsh, Charlie Williams, David Gaffney and Graham Rae. All these writers with their very different styles focus in on despair and write to a grim conclusion. Walsh's story in particular, about the tough life of rent boys and girls, is chilling. The atmosphere she creates in There is a Light That Never Goes Out explores the thin line of power between those who buy and sell sex. 

Charlie Williams's Sweet and Tender Hooligan gives us a lost adolescent, becoming exactly that, swept up into crime as an innocent miscreant until he is slumped bleeding in a graveyard with the immortal words "in the midst of life we are in death" swirling in the air. Graham Rae's story, Back to the Old House, is, as he honestly shares in the preamble, a composite of real life stories he heard, which are common to most of us – a teenage obsession gone too far, ending in suicide, told after the event by a narrator with a thick Glaswegian accent. There's nothing positive to come in this piece: it is well constructed, and engagingly told, but with no light ("that never goes out"…) to guide the way. Just the grim conclusion that "shit happens, bit it hurts like hell at the time. A bit like ma parched fuckin throat here!" 

Gina Ochsner's story Ask is almost the opposite of Rae's. I love the sense of detachment she creates to write about something very deep between two people who meet when young, then are parted for many years, and meet again fleetingly. Ochsner elongates the timeframe to give the reader a character that really has learnt lessons from life: "she is schooled in an old lesson.. how it is with simple words love finds us, finds us in spite of our calculations and unswerving devotion to childhood myths." It is quirky that this collection opens with such an optimistically reflective piece of writing – almost the opposite to the youthful dynamic here and now reality of the Smiths' lyrics. I went back to the wonderful song itself, and revelled for a few moments in Morrissey's immortal line "coyness is nice and coyness can stop you from saying all the things you'd like to". 

Other stories weave in and out of themes that the song title may or may not be pointing to or hinting at, but as with any collection they must be judged on their own merit. Nic Kelman's Bigmouth Strikes Again, nominally about theft from gardens, lost me early on, and didn't survive a reread, and Scarlett Thomas's Paint a Vulgar Picture is simply dull writing, with a flimsy story and negligible characterisation. Death of a Disco Dancer by Nick Stone is an unexpected burst of crime fiction set in the exotic and fast-paced world of Miami Beach cops which did engage me but loses pace halfway. Oh to jump out of the miserableness of middle England! Jeremy Sheldon's Nowhere Fast seems deliberately pedestrian in its tone, conjuring up middle-class marital strife and circumspection. 

"Nothing much happens but angst" might be the better title for some of these stories, but perhaps that is what might be expected, given the brief. James Hopkins's Jeane neatly captures the genre but doesn't really rise above it either. Surely fiction, like lyrics, is all about the subtext. The world underneath the words should be the story, and if the writer doesn't immediately place a life or a genre or just a feeling inside the reader's mind, then the spark won't catch light. I'm listening to some of The Smiths' songs as I write this, and the combination of clever words from Morrissey and waves of guitar sound from Marr made this unique pairing a phenomenon, which lives on and inspires 20 years later, despite the real life animosity that broke up the band. Tributes like this book are worthy in that they point us back to the creative genius that held a mirror up to nature during a very bleak period indeed. 

"Its so easy to laugh its so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentle and kind" 

I know its over (The Smiths)

Read an excerpt from one of the stories from this collection on Amazon.co.uk

 James Murray-White was in his early teens when The Smiths came to the fore. A trip to Manchester’s Afflecks Palace to get his hair cut into a genuine Morrissey quiff shows his devotion to the man, the band, and the life behind the words. 

James' other Short Reviews: Various "Sea Stories"

S Yizhar "Midnight Convoy"

Guy Dauncey "EarthFuture"

Hugh Brody "Means of Escape"

John McGahern "Creatures of the Earth"

Various "Park Stories"

Publisher: Serpent's Tail

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First anthology?: No, third in a series of fiction inspired by UK bands

Events: 14 Oct Paint a Vulgar Picture event at the Birmingham Lit Festival (with Mil Millington, Mike Gayle & Catherine O'Flynn); 24 Oct at the   Manchester Lit Festival (with Jeff Noon, James Hopkin, Helen Walsh & Catherine O'Flynn) on 24 Oct, and a Fall - Fact & Fiction event at the Lancaster Lit Fest (featuring Dave Simpson, Niall Griffiths & special guests) on 17 Oct.

Authors: Jenn Ashworth, Matt Beaumont, Rhonda Carrier, James Flint, David Gaffney, Mike Gayle, James Hopkin, Nic Kelman, Chris Killen, Alison MacLeod, Mil Millington, Jeff Noon, Gina Ochsner, Catherine O’Flynn, Kate Pullinger, Graham Rae, Jeremy Sheldon, Nick Stone, Scarlett Thomas, Willy Vlautin, Helen Walsh, Peter Wild, Charlie Williams, John Williams

Editor bio: Peter Wild comes from a music journalism background.Peter is the co-founder of Bookmunch. His writing and fiction have appeared in Noo Journal, Word Riot, The Big Issue, Nude magazine, Alt Sounds, City Life, 3AM magazine and Eyeballkid. He lives in Stockport.

Read an interview with Peter Wild

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Financial Times