15 April 2013

Ronald Hugh Morrieson in Hawera, Taranaki, New Zealand

Outside New Zealand and Australia, I doubt that many people have heard of the writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson (1922–72), and doubt even that he's very well known in New Zealand, the country of his birth. My title is obvious: the small town of Hawera is where Morrieson was born, where he lived and where he died. He hardly ever left the town: when he started university in Auckland he couldn't stand it and returned permanently to Hawera in a week.

It's customary to quote Morrieson's friend, the author Maurice Shadbolt, on what Morrieson said to him: 'I hope I’m not another one of these poor buggers who get discovered when they’re dead'. On Morrieson's death only two novels – The Scarecrow (1962) and Came a Hot Friday (1964) – were published, although these were followed after his death by Predicament (1975) and Pallet on the Floor (1976), which I believe is more of a draft than a finished novel. Subsequently all of the books were turned into films. But only the novel The Scarecrow seems to be widely available: I only found his second novel in one outlet, and his others are out of print. Even in death, he's still somewhat obscure.

Morrieson had a reputation in Hawera as a drunk and a waster, although he was better known locally as a musician than as a writer – earlier, he played in dance bands, and gave music lessons later.

He lived with his mother Eunice and his aunt Doris at 1 Regent Street, where he was born, and was devastated by the death of his mother (who had also been a music teacher) in 1968. The house was built by his maternal grandfather Charles Bartley Johnson, a cabinet maker. In 1993 there were plans to knock down the house and replace it with a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, but despite the setting up of a Scarecrow Committee to attempt to prevent this the house was demolished in April 1973.

However, the house was far from completely destroyed: Morrieson's room or attic, where his family say he wrote all his work, was bought by local builder Robert Surgenor to be used as a 'sleep-out' by his daughter. The attic was moved in December 2011 to Tawhiti Museum a few miles outside central Hawera, where it was renovated and now forms the upper floor of a display dedicated to Morrieson.

A poster of the movie The Scarecrow (1982).

Came a Hot Friday (1984).

Predicament (2010).

Morrieson's attic is not all that was preserved from the house: in Morrieson's Café Bar, wood from the house is used in the bar front, table tops, doors, fireplaces and staircase. Express an interest in Morrieson, and you will be shown a large laminated sheet giving a potted biography of the writer.

I'd parked next door to the café, in Countdown supermarket car park, and was intrigued to see Morriesons's van there: 'Let us solve your "Predicament" with a free ride to Morrieson's Café & Bar'.

I asked the very helpful girl at the i-site if she could could tell me where Morrieson's grave is in Hawera Cemetery. She jumped behind the computer and asked:

'What's the first name?'


'Oh, that Morrieson!'

I found a copy of The Scarecrow the following day in Whitcoull's in Wanganui ($5 off, making it just $9) and the assistant asked me if I'd read any of his books, and when I replied 'Not yet' she told me they are very odd.* So, I suppose the 'poor bugger' has been discovered by some people.

Loving Memory Of

His aunt survived him:


*She's right too. I've only read The Scarecrow so far, but for a book about a necrophilic serial killer this is a highly amusing work: the key, I think, is that all the sex and violence is understated, often in the form of suggestion.

My other blog posts on Morrieson's work:


Ronald Hugh Morrieson: Came a Hot Friday (1964)
Ronald Hugh Morrieson: The Scarecrow (1963)
Ronald Hugh Morrieson: Predicament (1974)
Julia Millen: Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography (1996)


Alex Staines said...

An outstanding blog post Dr Tony Shaw - as a Morrieson fan from way back I loved reading it.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thanks a lot for the comment, Alex. If you've not read it, I'd recommend his biography which, however, is not too easy to find.

pinoyathletics said...

Very nice comment im selling one of his books on Trademe. Very interesting to read about this rather obscure and tragic NZ Author. How exactly did he die at age 50? did he go the same way as american writers Robert E Howard who took their own lives. Im hoping his book sells more than $1 on trademe. Your write up seems to make it look like alot more than that.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

'How exactly did he die at age 50?' In a river of alcohol. A kind of suicide, I suppose.

Alex Staines said...

Tony - I have a copy of the literary bio by Peter Simpson (1982), which is excellent. and he died of cirrhosis of the liver - hardly surprising given his colossal intake of booze. Probably symptomatic of being an artist in a provincial town.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Alex, Julia Millen's biography (1996), at 246 pages of small print, must be the definitive account of Morrieson's life: it's a joy to read and a few copies are available online.