Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Touching From A Distance - Deborah Curtis


I met Brian Eno whilst in Amsterdam as he has an apartment and studio there. I didn't actually realise it was him at first until we began chatting and then when I did realise who he was, rather than talking about Roxy Music, U2 or whoever, I got him onto the subject of the band called The Winkies that he worked with between leaving Roxy Music and releasing his first solo album.
I showed him that I had some of their songs from their John Peel session on my i-Pod and I suspect that's what made him take a liking (or pity?) to me. For some reason he asked if I'd seen Control, the film about Joy Division as directed by Anton Corbijn that had just been released? I hadn't and he advised I should, informing me that it was good and highlighting the fact that the actors all play the instruments themselves. I took his advice and watched it soon after and, of course, he wasn't wrong and it's a very good film indeed.
Years later and I've finally got round to reading Touching From A Distance by Deborah Curtis, the book on which the film is based and I'm left thinking: Am I the only one who reads it as a damning indictment of Ian Curtis, Joy Division, and Tony Wilson?

Deborah Curtis is, of course, the widow of Ian Curtis and in her book she not only shatters the myth of Joy Division but she destroys it utterly. In my eyes at least, if not in others. How can anyone ever again listen to Joy Division in the same way after telling us Ian 'voted Conservative as he always would do. He argued that as his wife I had to vote the same way, otherwise I would cancel his vote!'
It's not as if she's revealing that actually Joy Division weren't just playing with Nazi imagery and that they really were in fact outright Fascists but honestly, what was he thinking? What was his reasoning? Should I be surprised? I understand how the Conservatives picked up a lot of working class votes at that time (and always have done) but I'd have thought Ian Curtis might have known better? And to force his wife to vote the same as him? There's a lot of other tales that Deborah relays that are equally cringeworthy but that one for me takes the biscuit. Ian Curtis was a young Conservative. A fucking Tory!

I never picked up on things like this in Corbijn's film (if they were there at all?) but maybe that's because the Joy Division myth is so powerful that it eclipses anything else? In her book, Deborah certainly confirms such things as the importance of the Sex Pistols playing at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester: 'As if being summoned to a religious gathering' as she puts it 'After the performance everyone seemed to move quickly towards the door. It seemed as if we had all been issued with instructions and now we were set to embark on a mission.'
And then there's the smaller details such as Ian Curtis confronting Tony Wilson in a bid to get Joy Division on television: 'You're a fucking cunt you are, you're a bastard' Ian tells Wilson. 'Oh yeah,' replies Wilson 'Why's that?' 'Cause you haven't put us on television,' Ian tells him. It's the stuff of legend.
But then there's other things like Ian expecting his evening meal to be ready when he came home from work, or details such as Ian's penchant for curling up in a ball and whimpering whenever he was frightened or couldn't cope with something. Was his suicide his ultimate curling up in a ball, I wonder?

Joy Division were a construct. A fabricated story of existential despair glossing over the real story of four northern lads acting like lads before the concept of 'ladism' was ever thought of and sold as 'lad culture' by the likes of Loaded magazine.
They were the result of an unspoken collusion between photographer Kevin Cummins and his images of the band in snowy Manchester city landscapes, the production genius of Martin Hannett, the bombastic prose of Paul Morley, and the myth-feeding acumen of Tony Wilson. A few years later the same trick was repeated with Frankie Goes To Hollywood but this time with Paul Morley teaming up with Trevor Horn to paint a veil of in-your-face gay gloss over pedestrian electronica pumped up to stadium rock proportions.
Joy Division were the Frankie Goes To Hollywood of their generation and Frankie Goes To Hollywood were the Joy Division of theirs. The difference being that Holly Johnson never killed himself.

Touching From A Distance should have been the stake through the heart of the Joy Division myth as it totally shatters and destroys it but instead, via the turning of it into a film by Anton Corbijn the myth was rejuvenated and even somewhat cemented. At the end of the day, as Brian Eno said, it's a good film but in hindsight, after reading Deborah Curtis's book, it also accentuates and lends weight to Tony Wilson's much-quoted mantra of "When you have to choose between truth and legend.... print the legend."
John Serpico


  1. Sounds like a must-read, so thanks - I really loved the film 'Control' (and so impressed by the actors and their musical abilities too) but had no idea about some of the things revealed in the book that you've mentioned here. A young Conservative, argh!

    1. Hi, C. Yes, the book reads as though she's intentionally going all out to smash the myths around her ex-husband and Joy Division. She declares her love for Ian but at the same time there's no love lost. It's a strange book in many ways. If you want a different version of Joy Division, then read it but if you want your memories of Joy Division to stay intact, then I'd avoid it or you'll never view them in the same light again.