Mark E Smith was a literary pop star who could quote Thomas Carlyle, Camus and Sartre, writes Aidan Smith.
In my study above the desk, there’s a print of Edinburgh’s Central Library – a present from my wife and one I consider myself fortunate to have. The library was where I wrote my second book, a long and difficult project which caused much stress. Anyway, my better half forgave me and I love the print.
Love the library, too. The delays in finishing weren’t all of my making but if it wasn’t for the place I’d probably still be writing the bloody thing now. The bust of Andrew Carnegie drove me on, the studious air drove me on, the absence of a cafe drove me on and so too the old brown desks redolent of my Victorian primary school and the clanking bell signifying the end of the day, when the regulars were tipped onto the streets to wind their way home, if indeed they had one.
Before last Thursday, when he died, every time I thought of Mark E Smith I thought of the Central.
Now, on my next visit, I fully expect to see him there in spirit, installed on the back row, lost in a pile of well-thumbed tomes, now and then the odd, barely suppressed cackle. There’s a ghost in my library, as he once almost sang.
I don’t know if the leader of the Fall – the band’s sole continuous member, the hirer-and-firer, the musical director who once implored his quaking new guitarist, “Play it like a fookin’ snake!” – frequented the Central when he lived in Edinburgh but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Not too many students, plenty of characterful faces, folk who’ve never consulted Wikipedia for anything and never will.
Poly bags instead of trendy rucksacks. Hacking coughs reminiscent of the emetics ward of the local infirmary. The opportunity to read and learn but also time for quiet contemplation under the dust caught in the beams of sunlight, and to wonder whether the fellow at the next desk researching paddle steamers might be deserving of a mention on the next album.
I know Smith loved the city’s libraries, particularly the ones specialising in science and medicine, because he told me this the second time we met and it’s in his autobiography.
“They were the perfect places to go and kill a few hours before you had a drink,” he wrote.
“I’d peruse these great psychiatric reports and law files. It was like a second education in a way. I’d never read anything quite like these strange papers.
“And, more importantly it was all free. Anybody was allowed in. It wasn’t closed off like it is here [in England], where only a doctor knows what a doctor does.
“You could have a cig as well. Some fellows used to bring in hip flasks. It was very civilised.
“That’s how it should be in England. Go into a library round here and you’ve got a load of repressed stormtroopers gawking at you. It’s no wonder kids don’t read as much as they used to.”
Smith had a fearsome reputation as an interviewee. Journalists could fare no better than the band member sacked on his wedding day and the band member dismissed for producing a salad when the Fall stopped for lunch.
Once he was supposed to have pulled a knife on an interrogator. But in 2008, in a swanky Manchester hotel, we got on pretty well.
Smith, who named his band after an Albert Camus novel, quoted Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Hardy and Knut Hamsun in his memoirs but not in a show-offy way. When I mentioned the slightly less cerebral namechecks in his book including Neighbours, the Glitter Band for a double-drumming din “like a war tank”, Alvin Stardust and Shakin’ Stevens for entertainment being their “duty” and Pete Waterman for being a “good worker”, he put his arm round my shoulder and suggested I order yet more drinks.
“Only a Scotsman would have made those connections,” he said. Surely not, I replied, while secretly flattered.
“No, lots of English tossers wouldn’t have done the research. You’re a product of a superior education system, almost as good as Germany’s.”
Last Thursday, thinking back to my encounters with Smith, I’d persuaded myself that the first of them in 2005 had been scary. Reading the piece back, though, it was really the pub rendezvous in his old manor, Manchester’s Prestwich, that had me almost wetting my middle-class knickers – from the taxi driver’s warning that the howff was gang-targeted to the barman’s exhortations to drink faster. Smith was a pussycat.
He was always coy about the inspiration for his barked, bizarro lyrics.
“I’ll tell you two places they come from,” he said that day, “the Prestwich Evening News and the Salford Advertiser. Local papers are great for material. I love the ads and also junk mail. Don’t read what everyone else reads, there’s a tip for you.
“Writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno.”
Smith quoted Thomas Carlyle at me to sum up his work ethic: “Produce, produce – it’s the only thing you’re there for.”
But at something like 704 albums he’s released his last. There won’t be another like him, there can’t be.
No longer having the room for such spiky, singular talents, or the patience to allow them to be this irascible and this incorrigible, pop’s beam is now as narrow as one of those shafts of light making the dust dance in the Central.
Which, as I’m sure the great man would agree, is an insult to Edinburgh’s libraries.