Before I go any further with this review, I should nail my colours firmly to the mast and say that Paul Morley is, and has been for many years, one of my favourite, favourite writers. I first started reading his work in my late teens/early twenties in the heyday of the New Musical Express. Morley was then writing what were considered some of his classic pieces for NME, pushing the boundaries of so-called rock journalism – I still have a lot of these saved, and they’re priceless in my opinion. I have all of his books, and if push came to shove, on most days my desert island book would be his memoir “Nothing”. It’s a personal memoir of growing up in the north in the 1970s, combining adolescence, the discovery of music and Joy Division, and the suicide of his father. I’ve read it several times and I think I will always re-read it – it’s profound, moving, and it speaks to me about coming of age in that era in a way no other work has done.
What I love about Paul Morley’s writing is his ability to play with language, to say things and convey feelings in a way no other author can. So I approach this short work, produced as part of Penguin’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, with a significant amount of bias!
“Earthbound” is something you could never call Morley’s fantastic flights of prose and this slim book is a very personal response to the Tube (particularly the Bakerloo line), in the context of Morley’s first encounters with it. The Underground is presented as combining nostalgic and futuristic elements in a way that seems peculiarly British – which is some ways what Morley’s writing does!
Morley’s prose is liable to fly off in all sorts of unexpected directions, like when he says that Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music “…sounded like music emerging from the dead of night from Tube tunnels that connected the Bakerloo Line with underground caves on Jupiter. Fifty-five years later, when most forms of what was once unfamiliar, alienating electronic music had become familiar, even part of the bloodstream of the non-stop gaudy mainstream, a formulaic component in all the manufactured happiness, it would still sound like music you thought you’d dreamt; actually, it sounded like it would be what the internet dreamt about when it finally got some sleep, having convinced us that everything is everywhere and anything is everything.”
He pushes the intellectual boundaries and his erudition is always on display, pulling in disparate cultural references and tying in his early experiences on the Underground to post-punk, Eno and Can (the latter being the source of all musical things to do with the Bakerloo, apparently!) A Paul Morley book is never dull!
And this being a PM book, we may well start off talking about the Tube, but it’s not long before we are meandering off all over the place, reflecting on music, Walkmans (Walkmen??), technology, the past and the future. These rich, extended meditations are a joy to follow and I love his discursive style and apparently random shifts of subject which make the most unusual and unexpected connections, but actually end up making sense. Morley tells of his coming to London, learning to navigate and take travelling by Tube for granted, highlighting the strangeness of the concept of disappearing under the ground to travel on a train!
Much of the writing is heavily autobiographical – in fact, it could be argued that most of Morley’s work draws on his life experience – so you do have to be prepared to want to listen to his opinions!
“I didn’t want to be a pop star. I wanted to write about pop stars, but it seemed highly unlikely that a lost, naive, traditionally provincial boy with little going for him but wild enthusiasm, an appetite for uncommon sensation and a secretly nurtured fascination with the outlandishly obscure would actually end up in what was for all its elastic wit and intoxicating inside knowledge a professional organisation established in London.”
But I find the way his mind works is like no-one else’s and personally I feel he could make any subject interesting. His prose works beautifully here, brilliantly encapsulating the oddness of train travel in wonderful passages that could almost be read to the clackety-clack rhythm of the train on the rails:
“The Tube is the Tube in another place deeply distant from the everyday sky-high sun, clouds, moon and stars, where you think about things differently, where you can be in different places that all look the same, surrounded by others, who’ve also become something else – so they are strangers anyway, and then even stranger, because they are temporarily concealed, passive, face to face, back to back, people in, people out, crushed together, touching, pulling away, lost for words, between the lines, not quite themselves, not quite anchored, temporarily fixed in this volatile, secluded zone, fellow nomads, people in, people out, at the mercy of invisible forces, keeping their minds well away from the dense, braced and soaking, rat-packed, worm-jammed void that encircles them.”
At the end of the day, it’s usually not really possible or even necessary to say what a Paul Morley book is about; but as near as possible, this volume is about Morley’s coming to London, bedding in there and experiencing life at the dawn of modern technology — with a little bit of Tube train riding in there too! I know his work is often very much a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but I love it. Essential reading!