Morrison, (Philip) Blake 1950-

views updated

MORRISON, (Philip) Blake 1950-

PERSONAL: Born October 8, 1950, in Burnley, Lancashire, England; son of Arthur Blakemore (a physician) and Agnes (a physician; maiden name, O'Shea) Morrison; married Katherine Ann Drake (a social worker), July 15, 1976; children: Seth, Aphra, Gabriel. Education: Nottingham University, B.A. (with honors), 1972; McMaster University, M.A.; University College, London, Ph.D. Politics: "Left-of-centre." Religion: Atheist.

ADDRESSES: Home—54 Blackheath Pk., London SE3 9SQ, England. Agent—Pat Kavanagh, Peters, Fraser, & Dunlop, Drury House, 34-43 Russell St., London WC2B 5HA, England.

CAREER: Writer and poet. Times Literary Supplement, London, England, assistant editor, 1978-81; Observer, London, deputy literary editor, 1981-86, literary editor, 1986-89; Independent on Sunday, London, literary editor, 1990—. Poetry Book Society, chair, 1984-87.

MEMBER: Royal Society of Literature fellow, Poetry Book Society (board member, 1981—), Poetry Society (executive and general council member, 1980—), Arts Council (literature panel member, 1988—), English PEN (vice president, 1999—).

AWARDS, HONORS: Eric Gregory Award, Society of Authors, 1980; Somerset Maugham Award, Society of Authors, 1985, for Dark Glasses; Dylan Thomas Award, Poetry Society, 1986; E. M. Forster Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1988; Esquire/Volvo/Waterstone's Nonfiction Award, 1993, for And When Did You Last See Your Father?; J. R. Ackerley Award, 1994.


The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1980.

Seamus Heaney, Methuen (New York, NY), 1982.

(Editor, with Andrew Motion) Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Penguin (New York, NY), 1982.

Dark Glasses (poetry), Chatto and Windus (London, England), 1984, revised and expanded edition, 1989.

The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper and Other Poems, Chatto and Windus (London, England), 1987.

The Yellow House (children's novel), illustrated by Helen Craig, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 1987, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA) 1994.

And When Did You Last See Your Father?: A Son's Memoir of Love and Loss (memoir), Picador (New York, NY), 1993.

(Adapter and translator) Heinrich von Kleist, The Cracked Pot: A Play, Samuel French (New York, NY), 1996.

Pendle Witches (poetry), etchings by Paula Rego, Enit-harmon Press (Chester Springs, PA), 1996.

As If: A Crime, a Trial, a Question of Childhood (nonfiction), Picador (New York, NY), 1997.

Too True, Granta Books (London, England), 1998.

Selected Poems, Granta Books (London, England), 1999.

The Justification of Johann Gutenberg, Chatto and Windus (London, England), 2000, William Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.

Things My Mother Never Told Me (memoir), Chatto and Windus (London, England), 2003, Granta Books (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to Poetry Introduction 5, Faber, 1982. Regular literary reviewer, critic, and contributor to The Guardian and The Independent (London, England).

SIDELIGHTS: Though often identified as a poet, Blake Morrison also produces well-received nonfiction and journalism. Both his Lancashire-born father (whose life and death Blake would recount in a 1993 memoir) and Irish-born mother (commemorated in Things My Mother Never Told Me ten years later) were physicians, but the younger Morrison rejected medicine for literature, and in the process has embraced many genres. Indeed, noted Contemporary Poets essayist Wes Magee, Morrison's "activities as editor, anthropologist, and competition adjudicator in London's literary whirlpools have tended to deflect attention from his two excellent collections of verse."

In 1984 Morrison published his first poetry collection, Dark Glasses, a work the author described in Contemporary Poets as "much preoccupied with secrecy, lies, privacy, the difficulty of openness in both private and public life." This volume, said Magee, represents "a notable debut for its clarity of expression . . . , the carefully achieved polish and finish, and the emergence of a voice, albeit with [poet] Philip Larkin looming hugely in the background."

Three years later came the publication of The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper and Other Poems, a collection "dominated by the title poem, a fourteen-page monologue [from] an unnamed Yorkshireman speaking in dialect," according to Magee. In giving an artistic spin to the true tale of a killer, Morrison "manages a compassionate and thoughtful tone."

When Magee wrote that Morrison "deals with such contemporary matters as criminality and domesticity in an unassuming, quiet manner," he could have been referring to Morrison's non-poetic work as well. In the early 1990s, Morrison covered a famous murder trial for New Yorker magazine. The experience of attending the trial was developed into his 1997 book, As If: A Crime, a Trial, a Question of Childhood. Recounting the events that began in 1993—when two British ten-year-olds lured a toddler from a shopping mall, then battered him to death near some train tracks—Morrison examines the lives of the accused boys and the resulting public furor that accompanied the trial and conviction.

Recognized as an effort that goes beyond simple crime reporting, As If earned kudos from a number of publications. An Economist critic praised Morrison for providing a balanced tone: "Rather than write the two boys off as evil incarnate, he searches for a more thoughtful explanation." Library Journal critic Christine Moesch found the writing "excellent," citing Morrison's "own dark thoughts as a parent who worries for his child's safety and of his concern about the larger problem of crimes committed worldwide by children."

Themes of domesticity imbued Morrison's 1993 memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father? In this work the author examines the life of his father, physician Arthur Morrison, a man who, despite his education and standing in his community, reveled in committing minor offenses: sneaking past traffic lines, getting into events without paying, speeding his sports car through country roads at night. "His conversation was studded with clichés and banalities," noted Irvine Loudon in the British medical journal Lancet. "He had a prolonged affair with a married woman whom he called 'Aunt Beaty.'"

Though hardly a role model for his frequently embarrassed son, Arthur Morrison is also remembered as a blunt, earthy character, popular with his patients. In 1991, at age seventy-five, he was diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer. And When offers Morrison's detailed report of his father's quick and painful decline, while at the same time he "ruminates on the contradictions in his father's character and tries to see him as a person separate from the parent-child relationship," a Publishers Weekly reviewer stated. In Loudon's view, such a book may have been accused of poor taste "if it had been badly done and motivated by hatred." On the contrary, he added, And When "is quite superbly written. Much of it is extremely funny, but it is humour of wry affection, tinged with exasperation and sadness. Nowhere have I read an account of death from cancer that rang so true from the initial deception about the true diagnosis, through the moments of frustrated hopes, into the relentless deterioration . . . and for the family, the long weary nights of physical and emotional exhaustion, and the fervent longing for a 'happy release.'"

Not all reviewers of Morrison's works have sung his praises, however. Thomas Jones of London Review of Books reviewed The Justification of Johann Gutenberg by beginning with an assessment of As If and And When. In both books, Morrison is extremely introspective. In confessing his experiences and emotions, however, he sometimes oversteps the bounds of decency, according to Jones, who wrote that in As If, Morrison's "self-absorption has some unfortunate consequences. There's the all too famous passage in the book in which Morrison describes in unashamedly erotic terms undressing his daughter.... Elsewhere, he informs us in detail of the 'ritual' of taking his sleeping son from his bed 'to pre-empt his bedwetting'.... What is objectionable about these passages is the fact of their publication. He . . . never pauses to consider the effect of writing about it. One of the many responsibilities of parents should be to respect their children's privacy."

"By the time he wrote As If," Jones continued, "Morrison had already exposed his father in a similar way. He refers so often to the dying man's genitals that at times it seems a more appropriate title would have been And When Did You Last See Your Father's Penis? Morrison senior didn't want friends to visit him in hospital; when he got home he boarded up the window in the front door....And when Morrison re produces not only his father's medical records but a letter from his father's lover which she makes perfectly clear is for his eyes only, it's hard not to see [the book] less as a memorial than an act of Oedipal revenge."

The Justification of Johann Gutenberg is a fictional account of a man who—as the twentieth century drew to a close—was hailed by many surveys as being the most influential man of the last millennium. His name—Johann Gutenberg; his influence—movable type. Little is known of Gutenberg, and Morrison notes at the end of the book that "for much of this novel, I have had to make things up." Critics such as Jones remarked that this fictionalizing is, of course, what makes the book a novel rather than a biography. Ian Sansom, reviewing the book for The Guardian, commented, "Like all Morrison's work, and for all its range, The Justification of Johann Gutenberg ultimately focuses on that irreducible spot of unhappiness—that little inky stain—at the heart of the human condition. Morrison gives us Gutenberg as an old man, bitter, half-blind, ruined, living in exile in Eltville, dictating his memoirs to a young scribe, dreaming of 'print pilgrims' coming to visit him.... Morrison is, however, much less interested in Gutenberg's invention than in its human cost. The book's justification lies not in its description of Gutenberg's famous success but in its account of his many private failings."

Morrison's second memoir, Things My Mother Never Told Me, is an epistolary tribute to his mother, written after her death. With the aid of a collection of private letters, the author delves into hidden aspects of his mother's life and identity, including details about her relationship with Morrison's father. The couple's correspondence during World War II, when their courtship began, revealed to Morrison a romance that was passionate but tempestuous, troubled by personality conflicts, religious differences, and personal sacrifice. Morrison narrates as one who knows the outcome—the emotional pain his mother faced later in life as a result of his father—without knowing the backstory. As a result, Morrison noted in the memoir, reading the letters his then twenty-something parents wrote to one another made him feel "protective, avuncular, parental. Unlike them, I knew what the future looked like." New York Times reviewer Rob Nixon said the author "deploys this Tristram Shandy-like vantage point to witty, poignant effect." In this way, Morrison supplements the history with personal, introspective details. Nixon called the memoir, "enthralling," and praised Morrison for his "historical empathy and storytelling prowess."



Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Economist, February 15, 1997, review of As If: A Crime, a Trial, a Question of Childhood, p. 8004.

Entertainment Weekly, August 18, 1995, Joseph Olshan, review of And When Did You Last See Your Father?, p. 50.

Guardian (London, England), August 19, 2000, Ian Sansom, "Blood and Ink: Ian Sansom Weighs the Cost of Genius," review of The Justification of Johann Gutenberg, p. 10.

Lancet, December 18, 1993, Irvine Loudon, review of And When Did You Last See Your Father?, p. 1539.

Library Journal, August, 1997, p. 107.

London Review of Books, December 6, 1984, pp. 19-20; July 23, 1987, pp. 16-18; September 7, 2000, Thomas Jones, "Taking Flight," The Justification of Johann Gutenberg, p. 14.

New Statesman & Society, February 8, 1985, p. 32; May 28, 1993, Tony Gould, review of And When Did You Last See Your Father?: A Son's Memoir of Love and Loss, p. 41; April 24, 2000, p. 10.

New York Times Book Review, April 11, 2003, Rob Nixon, "Mother of Invention."

Observer (London, England), Tim Adams, "Medium Fine. Pity about the Message," review of Justification of Johann Gutenberg, p. 11.

People, October 9, 1995, p. 37; October 20, 1997, p. 42; October 20, 1997, David Lehman, review of As If, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly, April 24, 1995, review of And When Did You Last See Your Father?, p. 52; August 11, 1997, review of As If, p. 395.

Spectator, May 24, 1980, pp. 17-18.

Times Literary Supplement, April 4, 1980, pp. 333-35; June 20, 1980, p. 699; August 13, 1982, p. 876; p. 941; January 28, 1983, p. 78; May 29, 1987, p. 574; November 20, 1987.

About this article

Morrison, (Philip) Blake 1950-

Updated About content Print Article