Entertainment & Arts

What difference does it make being a Smith?

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionJen Smith tells her story for 30 Days of The Smiths

What difference does a name make? Scotland's national poet Jackie Kay says that in the case of anyone with the UK's most common surname, Smith, the answer is both a great deal and none at all.

Kay's 30 Days of The Smiths, created in collaboration with artist Oberman Knocks, mixes the band's music, the tales of people called Smith and her own words into a soundscape.

The work will be staged at The Lowry, a stone's throw from lead singer Morrissey childhood home and the Salford Lads Club, where the quartet were photographed for the sleeve of their album The Queen Is Dead.

It aims to investigate what it is to be a Smith, find links between the people born with the name and the band and play with the notion that "if you listen to the word 'Smith', you hear the sound of the word 'myth'.

Image copyright The Lowry
Image caption Salford Lads Club provided the backdrop for the most famous photograph of The Smiths

Kay interviewed 30 Salford Smiths, most of who liked "the fact they shared a name with other people".

"For every single Smith, there will be another Smith that has got exactly the same name, and any Smith will have been in any situation, like being mistaken for another Smith, so it lends itself to a lot of different funny, as well as tragic, stories," she says.

"And it lends itself to a whole series of experiences which are very mundane and ordinary and also very extraordinary.

"There is nobody that is not a somebody."

Kay says these mix-ups and mistaken identities are worn as a badge of pride, with people "collecting these stories like a collector might pick up beer coasters".

"They liked the frisson and the energy that is in that anonymity.

"Quite a few people said that it made them feel a great freedom knowing that there was another Smith out there - it liberated them and they felt they could do absolutely anything they liked because lots of people held their name."

Image copyright The Lowry
Image caption Kay met and interviewed 30 Smiths from Salford for the work

Kay found she ended up talking about everything "from murder to suicide to love to divorce to commitment to dedication" with people who seemed "compelled to tell" their stories.

"I went and knocked on these doors and I didn't know what to expect," she says.

"In some cases, it was really surprising.

"One woman had three massive tarantulas, and that was the thing she was most excited about.

"Another woman was talking about being kidnapped in her own house, while another, a man, spoke about watching his best friend being murdered in his street.

"A man told me about loving his wife so much that he took her surname, and his family then got annoyed with him.

"And a son was talking with his 70-year-old mother about how he loved her but not his father and he felt funny still having his father's name - and the mother said, 'Our name means nothing to us.'"

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAnn Smith tells her story for 30 Days of The Smiths

However far apart their stories seemed, though, she says they all had one thing in common apart from their surname - their love for Salford.

"There was a feeling that Salford itself was a character, a big open-hearted place," Kay says.

"I didn't speak to a single person that disliked Salford.

"When I asked them how far they had travelled, some people hadn't been much further than Salford, while others had been to China, South Africa or Japan, but they all really loved coming back and said there is nowhere like it in the world.

"Everybody said that completely seriously."

BBC 6 Music presenter Mark Radcliffe says: "The idea of taking this music and involving local Smiths and making it into a thing was something I didn't feel that I wanted to be left out of."

Using Salford's neighbouring city as shorthand for the whole area, he says The Smiths were "the quintessential Manchester band".

"They have all the hallmarks of great Mancunian music, which I've distilled down to an essence of music that has an uplifting melancholia," Radcliffe says.

He says choosing which tracks to include was a task of "great difficulty", but the three he picked - This Charming Man, What Difference Does It Make? and Panic - "express the different tenors of The Smiths' sound".

"This Charming Man is incredibly romantic," he says.

"Upbeat but downbeat at the same time, it speaks of abandon and escape but still stuck in a room because you 'haven't got a stitch to wear' - there's a release and a containment in that song.

"Panic has that sense of great mischief and malevolence, which is very much a part of Mancunian humour.

"The Smiths are laced with Mancunian humour, which can be seen as so dry, it borders on the cruel. There is that no-nonsense element to it.

"And What Difference Does It Make? is a great motto, a great adage to live by.

"None of us matter very much, though Morrissey may disagree.

"We are all but ants, little Smiths - and this is not meant disparagingly - but we're all little Smiths with our little stories living in Salford or wherever, and at the end of the day, what difference have any of us made?"

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionRod Smith tells his story for 30 Days of The Smiths

Some of Kay's interviewees were "massive fans" of The Smiths and "actually knew members personally", but others "didn't like the band and found the music depressing and nihilistic".

And while she did find one person who had gone to school with Morrissey, she says the stories they told her about their own lives were far more interesting than any such reminiscences.

She says "nobody seemed frustrated" by the misunderstandings and remarks their name had opened the door to, as "they had all got used to it and it had become part of their life".

"They were used to not being believed when they said their surname was Smith," says Kay.

"Somebody, when they had got married, had turned up at the hotel and checked in and said, 'Smith'. The staff said, 'That's a good joke, what's your real name?'

"That kind of thing had happened to people a lot."

Image copyright The Lowry
Image caption Almost everyone Kay interviewed had been mistaken for another Smith at some point

Kay says her interviewees were also united by a sense of belonging.

"The connection is so random - you share a surname but what else?" she says,

"And yet, the people who share the surname Smith felt like they were part of a clan.

"One guy said, 'If I bump into another Smith when I'm out having a drink, I think that guy has got my back,' which was lovely and old-fashioned, a sense of belonging to a clan.

"And there is a Smith tartan, after all".

30 Days of The Smiths is at The Lowry on 7 and 8 May as part of the Week 53 festival.

To see more interviews with the Smiths of Salford take a look at BBC Radio Manchester's Facebook page.

Related Topics

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites