Mark Simpson

Interview by
Bruce Benderson
Photography by
Wolfgang Tillmans


He is Britain’s prime politically incorrect essayist, Morrissey’s biographer, the inventor of the term “metrosexual” and author of books such as It’s a Queer World, Anti-Gayand The Queen Is Dead. Mark Simpson is sometimes lovingly referred to as “the skinhead Oscar Wilde”. He’s also a good friend of mine who first got my attention when he described me in print as a “laid-back Jew”. I once visited Mark in London, and he came to spend a week with me while I was teaching at Deep Spring College, an all-male school on a ranch in Nevada. This past winter I came to a town in North Yorkshire to work with Mark on a secret project. It didn’t work out. But near the end of my stay, Mark asked me to shear some stray strands of hair from his back, all the while making fun of my own hirsuteness. It was New Year’s Eve.

BRUCE: Now that I’ve shaved you down like a boiled egg and you’re sitting there all shiny and slippery, what are our plans for New Year’s Eve?
MARK: To leave the house at some point.
I can’t promise I will. It’s not like there’s so much to do in this town.
But there is.
Such as?
Well, there are a couple of inviting hostelries we could visit, and I could ogle the local straight townies.
When you ogle the local straight townies, does it ever lead to anything tangible, like a good shag?
No, but then isn’t that the fun of ogling?
I really don’t understand why you left London and moved to this town in the wilds of northern England, which you’ve forbidden me to men tion the name of. I mean, have you given up sex?
No. I’ve turned forty, so maybe sex has given me up.
So, you’re not as big a commodity in the market as you were when you were younger?
Actually, no. Being a certain age doesn’t seem to diminish my “success” — if that’s the right word. But I did sort of hope that I would escape from sex by moving here.
But where are you finding it?
Mostly on that evil, satanic form of communication called the “interweb”.
Yeah, but on the Internet, don’t you often end up with something you hadn’t planned for?
On the contrary. You often wind up with exactly what you planned for, which is a sort of reward and punishment at the same time. The nature of the Internet, you know, is information technology on a global scale, so you can meet people on the basis of whatever particular sick fetish that you have. Whatever you’re looking for, or whatever you think you’re looking for, the Internet can help you find it. And when you find it, you often realize it wasn’t what you were looking for.
Yeah. The picture was taken ten years ago. They lie about their age, they lie about their measurements, they lie about everything.
No, that’s just to you, Bruce.
You cunt! And don’t ask me to delete that remark.
There are fantasies on the Internet. It encourages and nurtures psychoses, which is probably why I find myself on it too much. And I think on the whole you can suss people out. The disappointing part is that they do turn out to be the person in the photograph.
I still don’t understand why you moved up here. You had a great place in Highgate in London. You had that wonderful park to go cruising in. Why did you move to such a small provincial city and why don’t you want us to name it?
First of all, Hampstead Heath, that charming wonderful place with its many fond memories, had ceased to exist. I believe people still meet on Hampstead Heath somehow, but I think they’re people who haven’t figured out how to plug in their nephew’s obsolete computer. The Internet destroyed the ecosystem that was Hampstead Heath. I happened to live a mile away from that notorious part of the Heath. Most people who cruised there lived considerably further away. Nevertheless they were prepared to make that journey. They travelled hours because they knew they would have a contact at the end of it. But with the Internet people can stay in their rooms when it’s raining, and say, “I don’t think I’ll go out tonight, go to the Heath, I think I’ll just put on the computer and see who’ll come to me.” And anyone who doesn’t switch on their computer and makes the journey will find that there’s no one there. And now I’ve discovered something that I should have realized a long time ago: the provinces are where sex is. London is now all about money, drugs, fashion and fame. Sex is just a route to these things. In the provinces sex is an end in itself. Out here I’ve discovered what the Net is really for: putting me in touch with straight men who want to play with my “end” — sometimes while their girlfriend watches, and maybe joins in.
Come on, doesn’t moving up north have something to do with going back to your roots?
Well, I am from North Yorkshire, originally. It’s a very beautiful part of the world, by the way, both in terms of its geography and in terms of its indigenous inhabitants. I like it here. I’m old fashioned and I quite like being English. London isn’t English. It has nothing to do with England. It’s a global city.
That’s ridiculous, Mark, there are lots of English people living in London.
You know there are.
Well, it’s not 90% immigrant and ethnicity.
I’m not talking about the demographics. London is a global city. It just happens to be situated in the southeast of England. Other than that it has very little to do with England.
So you’re more interested in England than in global culture?
Personally, yes. Global culture will come to you wherever you choose to live. You just switch on the television or go online. So why not go somewhere particular, instead of somewhere general? The general will come to you. Why not go somewhere particular where you feel at home.
Well, I’ve been here for two weeks, and I wouldn’t say it’s been a multicultural experience.
Is that such a bad thing?
All I’m saying is that you’ve traded in a global experience for an English experience and I wonder why you’re so intrigued by it. The only thing I still like about my hometown New York is that you never know who you’re going to meet when you go out to buy a paper.
Doesn’t that become banal after a while? If you have a multiplicity of class and multitude of everything, which is rather like having every cuisine in the world, doesn’t everything wind up tasting the same? Doesn’t it wind up like a sort of blancmange, a mélange-blancmange? I enjoy an English experience because I’m English. Or I was a long time ago. And I don’t think it’s going to be around very much longer.
I really liked your Morrissey book, although I haven’t finished it yet.

Well, you’re not a fan of Morrissey.
I have nothing against him.
It’s really lovely of you to even start to read the book.
It’s true, I’ve done a lot of difficult things to try and please you. I don’t think the readers will be all that interested in hearing about them. Nor would I be that interested in talking about them. But one thing, I saw Morrissey on TV last night. In England, they put all their celebrities on TV and you realize what a small country it is. There only seem to be about twenty. I keep seeing Sharon Osbourne over and over again. I saw Morrissey. He looks ancient. Somebody needs to tell him that that haircut isn’t going to work ever again. He’s got to revise the style. He did have a really nice quality as he was performing, like he was saying, “I’m going to do my art regardless of the vicissitudes of time. Whether I’m trendy or not trendy.” What’s his career like now?
I don’t know, because England’s a very fickle country and we won’t know until his new album is released. When his last album was released two years ago, it sold very well. It sold better in fact than any of the Smiths’ albums.
But what kind of public does he have now? Young? Old? A mixture?
Partly it’s people like me who are trying to recapture that time when they were alive.
But you are still alive.
Are we?
As far as I know. I was disappointed in the way your book was promoted in the United States. They didn’t give it enough attention. All it had was a few ridiculous reviews. I’m wondering what the critical reception in England was like.
Delirious, actually. There was only one bad review. None were lukewarm. It was reviewed even in an old colonel’s newspaper like the Daily Telegraph, which I didn’t think would even have heard of Morrissey. For some reason they ran not one, but two whole-page reviews of the book. I’d like to think it was because of my writing, but it was really about Morrissey being ripe for rehabilitation. He’d been out of favour for a long time in the UK.
How come?
Because we’re a fickle country and we go with the next trend. The real question is: why did he come back into favour?
Well, inquiring minds do want to know.
Because of all sorts of people like me who were hopeless teenage Smiths fans in the 80s and are now grown up and in positions of editorial power. And because for the first time in his career he was promoted properly by his new record company. But it also has to do with the fact that Brit-Pop was dead and buried. You see, Morrissey was assassinated by the British music press in the early 90s to make way for Brit-Pop. He was a huge star, even if you didn’t like his music, he was such a huge personality, an artistic personality that he stood in the way of the “new” thing. So he had to go.
Mark, what is this drink? My mouth is turning into a lemon.
It’s cava. It has lime and ginger in it. Cava is a Spanish champagne.
Well, it’s twisting my tongue into seven knots, I can barely pronounce my words. But tell me, is your Morrissey biography a psychoanalytical biography?
I call it a “psycho-bio”. So it is, in a literary rather than a clinical sense. I’m afraid it’s indicative of the times that we live in that only one or two reviewers picked up on the reference point of the title, Saint Morrissey.
That’s a reference to Sartre’s Saint Genet .
Well done, Bruce.
But that’s an existential biography of Genet. Yours is much more Freudian, I think. At least the part I read.
Well, I think there’s existentialism in there. But the only existentialism that’s in Saint Morrissey is the part of existentialism that Sartre stole from Freud.
Let’s just put our cards on the table. Does Morrissey suck cock?
Well, I don’t. Why don’t you ask him?
I’m asking you, his biographer.
I never claimed to know what he did in his bedroom.
But what’s your guess?
My guess would be…not that much.
Has he ever been associated with any female personality in the media?
Mostly dead ones.
Such as?
Diana Dors. And he was also associated with that poetess. The 1950s one with the big rings. What’s her name?
Dame Edith Sitwell.
Yes. He was associated with one or two living female icons, but in a professional way. I’m thinking of Sandie Shaw.
Who’s that?
You don’t know who Sandie Shaw is? She was one of the original 60s Brit-Pop singers. And she did come from the East End of London. She had a lot of hits in the 60s, and young Morrissey was a big fan of hers. He used to write to her when he was nobody from his bedroom in Manchester. Because he was the archetypal fan before he became the archetypal pop star. Once he became a pop star, he was able to approach Sandie and ask her to record his song Hand in Glove.
What about that Manchester thing? We’re not too far away, but since you were too lazy to drive me there, I never saw it. There’s even a whole movie, 24 Hour Party People . And Queer as Folk took place there. Could you just explain the whole mystique to me?
Manchester is the second city. As the second city, it isn’t a global city. It’s merely a large English city that has a lot of creative people in it.
You know, I tricked with this skinny guy from Manchester with a skateboard, and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. We were in bed for almost a week, and every time he opened his mouth, which wasn’t often, it wasn’t English, from what I could tell.
Mancunian, the dialect spoken in Manchester, is an acquired taste. But one of the things that has always been appealing to me about Manchester is that unlike the South and unlike London, it was a place that wasn’t afraid of being pretentious. And it could be pretentious without being pompous, which is a real northern thing. I argue in my book, and I really believe it, that pop music is actually Northern English. Because pop music as we understand it now was invented by The Beatles.
What about Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, all the 50s rock people?
Pop music, in the sense of four guys with guitars and this folky sound that is also poppy, and these melodies that appeal to all sorts of people and tell ordinary stories, that’s something that happened with The Beatles. And, yes, The Beatles were influenced by all those people that you mentioned, particularly, what was he called, the black guy with the guitar that used to go down on his knees? Chuck Berry. Can’t remember any names tonight. I’ll blame it on this bad champagne.
And bad it is, folks! Mark, you do have a lot of enemies, don’t you? For one thing, you published that anthology Anti-Gay , though I guess it was an ironic title. I was wondering if you had to leave London for the wilds of northern England because you had so many enemies in the gay world.
I wish. I don’t know. Maybe I do. The reason I don’t want to name the town I moved to is that I don’t think it’s fair on the town. I’ve moved here because I like the place. And if I mention its name in this interview, I’m going to besmirch it.
I don’t think you have to worry about that anymore, because you invited me up here and because of that, everybody’s going to end up knowing everything about you because of my big mouth.
Well, thanks, Bruce.
But I don’t really think that gays still remember Anti-Gay. Of course it turned out to be horribly true, all those predictions.
From the moment you picked up a pen, probably in grade school until about an hour ago, all you’ve done is say offensive things about politically correct gay politics. You continue to irk people and piss them off, to go against the idea of gay community.
I disagree with your characterization of my literary history. I lost interest in gays some time ago.
You mean you only sleep with people who are in the closet?
But what does that mean, “in the closet”? Someone who’s not part of the metropolitan, out-and-proud, happy-clappy, drug-addled gay community? I lost interest in pissing off gays some years ago. The sad truth is that gays don’t really matter anymore.
Matter to whom?
To me, which is most important, of course. You know I think that moment where any of it seemed important has really, really receded into the mists of time. Straight people have gone gay, and gay people have gone straight. Gays for the most part are now really quite tedious.
This reminds me of something you’re associated with — your theory of metrosexuality.
Yes (sighs). You’re bringing up all of my favourite subjects. What am I supposed to say?
Aren’t you the one who invented metrosexuality?
I didn’t invent it, Bruce. It’s an invention of post-War consumerism. Apparently I was the first to use the term “metrosexual”. I wrote about the phenomenon in 1994 after the publication of my book, Male Impersonators, which was about the effects that consumerism and a mediated world have had on masculinity.
And what was that effect?
Frightening. Masculinity became a kind of dressing up. Drag. The mainstream accessorization of maleness has really queered the pitch for gays. Which is a double irony. Because gays pioneered this in many ways. In the 70s, with the clone look, the Marlboro man…
Pioneered what, metrosexuality?
Yes. In my original, early Nineties definition the metrosexual was a young, probably single man living in or within easy reach of the metropolis, “because that’s where all the best shops, hairdressers and gyms are, who might be gay, might be straight, might be bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial as he has taken himself as his own love-object”. But he can live anywhere now. Because the metropolis has swallowed everything with cable TV and satellite and the Internet and mail-order brochures. Even where I live now, to some degree. I don’t know if there ever was such a thing as “real masculinity”, but there sure isn’t any more.
Ok. But wasn’t the concept of metrosexuality stolen from you by some American woman who profited from it?
An American marketing woman ‘picked it up and put her own spin on it’.
Who was it?
I’m certainly not going to mention her name.
Did you try to reclaim it from her?
Not hard enough. I feel conflicted about my Metrokid. Metrosexuality is a product of consumerism but also a response to it. Metrosexual men are not simply dupes of consumerism, they’re also men who try to assert their identity in a consumerist world and a post-feminist world at that. They no longer rely on women to be “women” for them anymore, or even to stick around. The roles have broken down. Heterosexual men find themselves in the roles of homosexual men in that they are individuals, isolated in a sea of consumerism. It’s sort of ironic and inevitable that my sociological critique should have been taken up by a marketing person and turned into more marketing propaganda. Interestingly enough, the thing that upset this marketing woman and the press was the queerness of the metrosexual. They kept saying over and over again that the metrosexual is always straight and never gay or bisexual.
And that’s not true.
No, it actually makes nonsense of the whole category. Why have the category if it’s only straight men? They’re not “straight.” Most may only ever have sex with women, but by definition, a metrosexual is a man who is not always desiring rather than desired, not always looking rather than looked at, not always active rather than passive. Which is rather “queer”. And that is the revolution that metrosexuality represents — a revolution which most marketing people don’t want to acknowledge, of course. They want to pretend it’s a “fad”. A lot of gay people don’t want to acknowledge it, either, strangely enough, perhaps because it means they’re no longer so special.
Oh my god it’s almost ten o’clock! We better get to a pub. Maybe we won’t even get in.
Yes, I’d like to ogle some straight men. If we can find any.

Originally published in BUTT 16