Morrison, John (Gordon)

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MORRISON, John (Gordon)

Nationality: Australian. Born: Sunderland, England, 29 January 1904. Education: Valley Road School, Sunderland. Family: Married 1) Frances Morrison in 1928 (died), one son, one daughter 2) Rachel Gordon in 1969. Career: Moved to Australia in 1923. Worked as bush worker, 1923-28; worked as a gardener, wharfie, 1928-38; full-time writer, since 1938. Lives in St. Kilda, Victoria. Awards: Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship, 1947, 1949; Australian Literature Society gold medal, 1962; Patrick White award, 1986. Member: Fellowship of Australian Writers; Australian Society of Authors.


Short Stories

Sailors Belong Ships. 1947.

Black Cargo. 1955.

Twenty-Three. 1962.

Selected Stories. 1972.

Australian by Choice. 1973.

North Wind. 1982.

Stories of the Waterfront. 1984.

This Freedom. 1985.

Best Stories. 1986.


The Creeping City. 1949.

Port of Call. 1950.


Critical Studies:

"Three Realists in Search of Reality" by David Martin, in Meanjin 18, 1959; "The Short Stories of Morrison" by A. A. Phillips, in Overland 58, 1974.

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Born in England in 1904, John Morrison traveled to Australia in 1923, returned home briefly, but returned to Australia again in 1928. Like the title of one of his books, he was an Australian by choice. He began writing when he was only 15 years old but did not begin to publish until he was in his early 30s.

Although he wrote two novels, Morrison is known as the author of many fine stories written largely in a social realist mode. His collections are Sailors Belong Ships, Black Cargo, 23, Selected Stories, and Australian by Choice. During the 1980s Penguin Australia reprinted most of his stories under the titles North Wind, Stories of the Waterfront, This Freedom, and the misleadingly titled The Best Short Stories of John Morrison, which is virtually a reprint of North Wind. In 1986 Morrison won the Patrick White Award for writers of distinction.

Morrison's stories are best considered not according to when they were written but to the period of his life with which they deal, and the two are often not the same. There are his experiences in the outback when he first arrived in Australia and when he later returned, as reflected in "The Prophet of Pandaloo," set in 1924. In this story one of Morrison's rare departures from strict realism, a tramp-prophet, a kind of bush seer, becomes the catalyst for an almost miraculously sudden series of changes on an outback station.

Then there is his struggle as a young married man during the Depression years and after, for instance, in perhaps his most famous story, "Christ, the Devil and the Lunatic." There is the fierce pride he took, as a dedicated Communist for many years, in unionism, reflected in stories such as "Lena" and "The Ticket." Related to this is his work during the 1940s as a "wharfie" (longshoreman), ranging from the warm optimism of "The Welcome" to the cold rage of "The Compound," which details in graphic terms the exploitation of the workers by their bosses. There are stories based on Morrison's later work as a gardener, such as the delightfully ironic "To Margaret," in which a bitter father breaks up a love affair between his daughter Margaret and a gardener named Hans. The narrator-gardener who replaces Hans refuses to obey his employer's instructions to uproot the linaria seedlings lovingly arranged to spell "To Margaret." After he has been fired, he has his revenge, for he leaves the same message in the viburnums.

There are the so-called commuter stories, pieces Morrison worked up from careful observation of and conversation with his fellow passengers on trains to and from Melbourne. An example is "The Blind Man's Story," in which a man explains to the narrator how he is happy that he has become blind because his wife, who had a martyr complex, has changed completely toward him now that she has a real cross to bear. The story ends with the narrator's uncharacteristically cold observation about "how little of life some men are driven to settle for." Finally, there are a number of stories based on the theme of the consequences to friendship when two men win a lottery on a shared ticket.

Schematic as they can sometimes be, the lottery stories are significant because they reveal most starkly the strongly ethical nature of Morrison's vision. His stories are preoccupied with that moment in an individual's life when the decision he makes reveals what kind of man he is, to what he degree he will stand by his principles or compromise them. (It is usually a man Morrison writes about, for, as indicated by the title of one of his stories, he writes mostly about "a man's world.")

Although the choice is a crucial one in many stories and is usually presented through the balanced and sympathetic view of a first-person narrator who remains outside the center of the action, it comes out most clearly in a powerful story called "The Children." Here a man delays rescuing a group of schoolchildren in order to fetch his own from out of a bush fire, for he genuinely believes that he has time to go back for the others. They perish, however, and in the ultimate irony it turns out that his own would have been safe anyway. The question the agonized and ostracized man asks the sympathetic reporter who is interviewing him is one that comes up in some form or other in most of Morrison's stories: "Supposing it had been you … what would you have done?"

The question of moral choice is closely related to that of freedom. In "The Busting of Rory O'Mahony," for instance, Rory finally achieves the freedom he wants by leaving his wife and setting out on the road, thus destroying her happiness. Rory feels compromised by his family. "I got everything a man wants—except a bit of freedom," he says, but although the narrator evenhandedly stresses the wife's complacency, the reader is left with the sense that O'Mahony's action was less than admirable. "This Freedom" is virtually a variation on the same theme, with Joe Abbs discovering after the death of his wife that he is able to pursue the kind of shiftless, irresponsible life that Rory desires. The concept of freedom in both cases is a masculine one, a flight from domesticity.

Morrison's own personality and vision are probably exemplified in the closing statement of "The Welcome": "Human decency will always come to the top if it gets even the ghost of a chance. There's mountains of evidence to prove it." Though the stories are in some ways limited, their strength lies in the nicely laconic, understated style, the scrupulously accurate rendering of dialogue, and the subtle use of detail to illuminate character, as in this example: "Two seamen who have been uptown for a lunch-hour drink push through to get off at the gasworks' berth. They're covered with coal-dust just as they left the stokehold, and you can't help noticing how carefully they avoid brushing against a man who is wearing a good grey suit." There is a lovely, unaffected naturalness about the best of the stories that conceals the art.

—Laurie Clancy

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Morrison, John (Gordon)

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