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‘Ask me, ask me, ask me!!’ Filling a gap in my life: or how you are never too old to develop your communication skills, with help from The Smiths and Morrissey

Date posted: Friday 25th October 2013

The Smiths

Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life you’d like to.
If there’s something you’d like to try,
Ask me: I won’t say no, how could I?

The Smiths Ask

In the mid-1980s I was working in probably the coolest part of London: Islington. I also had a brilliant job, running a pre-school language unit in a very vibrant community centre. Unfortunately I didn’t have a very cool income to match my fun and exciting job, and we had two very young children. Still, it was great to be working in such a happening place. These were dark times though. The Miners’ Strike was in full swing, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were making us very nervous, and US nuclear missiles were sited at Greenham Common. Nelson Mandela was still in prison, and there was trouble in Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador. ‘Red Ken’ Livingston and the GLC were a constant thorn in Maggie’s side, but provided many Londoners with a focus for agitation and opposition.

Luckily for us, as left-leaning peace activists, almost every solidarity campaign group had its headquarters in Islington. So there was always some worthwhile cultural and social activity going on, that was either free or cheap, could include all the family, and often involved great music from all over the world. Which was just as well: because what with me being so busy and with the littluns to look after, there wasn’t much time or money spare to buy albums or go to gigs. So we relied on our friend Claire to keep us up to speed with what was happening out there in the world of music.

Claire was originally from Leeds, was at university in London, and had just finished a summer job working in Borth: a coastal town in Mid Wales. In 1984 I began to notice that nearly every other young man in Islington styled their hair with a quiff, not unlike Danny from Grease. They wore Clark Kent glasses, un-ironed shirts and the look was completed by a black leather jacket and blue jeans. No-one I asked seemed to know who they were, or what they represented. Claire solved the mystery: “They are fans of this incredible band called The Smiths. They have a fantastic singer called Morrissey and a brilliant guitarist called Johnny Marr. They are so ironic, it’s not true! This band speaks to me of my harsh Northern upbringing near Chapeltown, my grotty comprehensive, and a tape of their first album kept me going all through my ghastly summer job in Borth. We must go and see them!” (Claire actually attended a girls’ grammar school and came from Headingly, but I let that pass.)

As fate would have it, I was soon to almost experience The Smiths. One night a downstairs neighbour of ours got chucked out by his girlfriend. People said he deserved it, but I wasn’t going to take sides. At least not until he started to park his car outside our block of flats every evening and play this awful song called Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now repeatedly at full volume, so his ex (and the rest of the street) could hear just how anguished he was. I was all for calling the police, but another neighbour sorted it by collaring Romeo in Reverse and telling him, “If you play that once more, heaven knows I’ll give you something to be truly miserable about.”

However Claire was not going to allow my first brush with The Smiths to leave a nasty taste in my mouth: “The GLC are putting on a free festival in the car park outside County Hall and, guess what, The Smiths are headlining. Get a babysitter and see what all the fuss is about!” So the day came and we waited and waited for our babysitter, who eventually called to say she was unwell. By the time we had made alternative arrangements it was 9pm. We finally made it to the South Bank just as The Smiths were finishing their set. 20,000 ecstatic fans were wading past us through tons of waste paper and broken bottles, so we trudged off to try and make the most of a disastrous evening by having a slice pizza from a stall outside Charing Cross station. Claire said The Smiths had been brilliant. She made one last attempt to convert me with Girlfriend in a Coma, (“It’s laugh out loud irony at its best”), but I just couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I often thought that there was something unspoken between Claire and I, and that day she muttered under her breath those words that strike dread into the heart of any young man raised in the Deep South of England (Surrey): ‘You great southern Jesse.”

Though not a serious problem, my antipathy towards everything Smiths-related meant I could never fully connect with certain men friends who are dyed-in-the-wool Smiths and Morrissey fans. We could talk about cinema, (The Colours Trilogy and Closely Observed Trains being very big talking points), football, children and family, even work, but then everything went flat when we turned to music. I just couldn’t talk about The Smiths and Morrissey.

So very recently I decided to get my act together and address this gap in my communication. I went to visit my friend Simon, who has a massive understanding of all the music that counts. We were at school together and I turned him on to Bowie, so I reckoned he owed me a favour. We started gently, discussing The Smiths as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon: their musical bravado at a time of syntho-pop and love songs; Morrissey’s background: growing up in a working class Irish family in Manchester, and his deeply unhappy schooldays; his rapid rise to become an icon and voice for millions and millions of independent-minded and left-leaning people all over the world; his proud stance as a vegetarian; his scorn for Margaret Thatcher and the Royal family; speculation about his sexuality; his influences (Oscar Wilde, W.H. Auden, John Betjeman) and his fascination with hard-hitting family dramas like early Coronation Street and A Taste of Honey; his obsession with female singers such as Sandy Shaw and Cilla Black and how the band helped put Manchester well and truly at the centre of the independent music scene. Then we talked about the brilliance of guitarist Johnny Marr, and how his sublime playing and musicality were as much the driving force of the band as Morrissey’s voice and lyrics.

Then I was ready to listen to some classic Smiths recordings. Nothing happened for me. I still didn’t get it. It all sounded bland -even discordant- and the lyrics seemed bizarre. This was not going to be easy. I had the intellectual link to the band, but no emotional relationship to the music. This band just didn’t speak to me at an emotional level. But this was only phase one. Simon had an ace up his sleeve: “Michael, I know that your life’s work has led you to champion quiet children. Download this track onto your iPod, and listen to it at full volume when you are driving on a clear stretch of motorway. Then when you get home watch this link on YouTube. If after that you are still not convinced, then maybe you will need some more help.”

This is what I listened to.

The original promotional video for Ask

And this is what I watched

Morrissey and 10,000 fans in Manchester, 2004: Every Day is Like Sunday (Written after a visit to Borth)

I was completely blown away. The first two verses of Ask spoke to me: affirming that there’s nothing wrong with being shy, though it’s great if people can help you to join in with fun things. The guitar work is brilliant. The clip of Morrissey in front of 10,000 Mancunian fans: all singing away to every word of his songs, is just pure rock magic. Now I have become totally hooked on The Smiths, Morrissey and Johnny Marr. I’ve made the emotional connection and am now actively seeking out people to talk to about these amazing musicians. So big thanks to Claire and Simon for helping me improve my communication. It’s never too late to improve your knowledge and get emotionally involved.

But how does my experience with Morrissey and co link with the communication needs of children? Early this year, I visited Communication and Behaviour Specialist Sioban Boyce, to explore her work transforming the lives of children and teenagers with communication difficulties. Sioban originally worked as a Speech and Language Therapist and now specialises in providing training on the subject of developing non-verbal communication: in infancy and with older children and teens with communication and behaviour difficulties.

Sioban outlined the early development of non-verbal understanding in infancy, through the loving play between parents and babies. Much of this focuses on face-to-face interaction, where parents copy the baby’s noises and facial expressions. These interactions provide the foundation for children’s and adults’ ability to interpret and use facial expression and tone of voice and to know how to behave in conversation. This includes learning appropriate eye contact, how to tune into what someone else is saying, when to interrupt, how to notice when someone is losing interest in what we are saying, and even how to interpret their signals that we should stop talking! Sioban uses this knowledge to build up the non-verbal understanding of children and teens that are experiencing severe difficulties with social interaction, which has a major impact on their behaviour in school. Sioban’s techniques are outlined in her book Identifying Non-Verbal Communication Difficulties: A Life-Changing Approach.

As I played back my tape of our interview, I became acutely aware of what a chronic interrupter I am, and how I don’t always pick up the signals that should tell me to keep shtum and allow the speaker to continue with their train of thought. Equally I’m prone to going off on what I think are interesting digressions, but may actually represent to the listener yet another boring monologue. So after visiting Sioban, and investing in her excellent publications, I am setting out to be a better conversationalist. I have the intellectual grasp of the problem, the tools to use in conversation, and an emotional link to the subject. I really want to practice and build on what I already know and, most importantly, I have the belief that you are never too old to develop your knowledge and improve your communication skills.

There’s only one problem…. I need urgently to talk about The Smiths and Morrissey! So if you meet me and are a Smiths fan, please set aside 10 minutes minimum to help me explore my new interest, and to give me some feedback on how well I did in my non-verbal communication.

Ask me, ask me, ask me!!!

To find out more about Sioban Boyce’s work visit

Identifying Non-Verbal Communication Difficulties: A Life-Changing Approach and Help Your Child Communicate From Day One, by Sioban Boyce, are both published by Speechmark Publishers

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8 responses to “‘Ask me, ask me, ask me!!’ Filling a gap in my life: or how you are never too old to develop your communication skills, with help from The Smiths and Morrissey”

  1. Sally spagetti belly says:

    I think you are amazing Michael. Am listing to The Smiths as we speak!

  2. Laurie Martin says:

    Hi Michael, I would have been happy to talk to you about the Smiths, one of my favourite bands – I was converted to them after seeing them on TOTP in 1985. My big sister and I went to see them live 3 times including their last gig together in 1987 at Brixton Academy when I was 16 😉

    • Michael Jones says:

      Wow Laurie, that must have been amazing! With hindsight, I think I would have enjoyed those gigs. I was 30 in 1987, so maybe I was a bit old?
      Next week’s post is about children and colour, with more help from Joni and an artist called Liz West. I am flying to Bangkok tomorrow to run some training courses, so hope to have some very colourful photos for the post!
      Thank you for replying

  3. Cathy Parker says:

    I love the Smiths!!
    When my children were very young ( my eldest especially) would not go off to sleep to any nursery rhymes or lullablies, but… sing a smiths song or put them on the record player (yes the record player!!) and he used to drop off really quickly!!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Wow Cathy! What did you sing? Something upbeat like ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ or ‘This Charming Man’? And did he like you to flail your arms around while whirling a large bunch of flowers?
      Only joking… I wonder if they were responding to something that gave you a lot of pleasure, and that they associated with you being happy and having fun?
      There certainly is something about the Smiths and Morrissey that attracts millions of people the world over. I was in Bangkok recently and played ‘Ask’ before I started giving my talk about quiet children. One of the delegates nearly jumped out of her seat with pleasure!
      Best wishes from Michael

  4. Cat says:

    I just stumbled across your post when looking for some lyrics for the smiths song ask. I didn’t know the name of it, now I do. What a beautifully written piece, thanks for this. I too interrupt when others are talking as my mind can be racing and I get excited, thanks for reminding me to think about becoming a better conversationalist and how much I love music, if it rains tomorrow i am going to make a ‘mix tape’ with my husband and dance with my young kids 🙂

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Cat! Thank you for your kind words. In my experience, fans of the Smiths are always very interesting people. Have you seen 500 Days of Summer? The two main characters are Smiths fans.
      I write the posts to help people think about children and helping children to express themselves, and to have a bit of fun writing.
      I have another site 1970s Mind 21st Century Body, that is a bit more ‘adult’. I hope it rains today, so you can have fun making your mix tape!!!
      Thanks again

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