8 May 2013

Julia Millen: Ronald Hugh Morrieson: A Biography (1996)

In her biography of the New Zealand writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson (1922–72), Julia Millen mentions that his crime was 'being different', and this comes across strongly in the book. Born in the small, conservative Taranaki town of Hawera to a musical family in a house where he lived all his relatively short life, Morrieson rarely ventured further afield, and even his intended life as a student in Auckland only lasted a day or so before he felt forced to return homesick.

The house he lived in was built by his maternal grandfather Charles Bartley Johnson, who, when Ron was born, lived there with his wife Lucy, Ron's parents Hugh Morrieson and Eunice (née Johnson), and Charles and Lucy's other offspring, his unmarried uncle Roy and aunt Doris Johnson. Ron's father died when Ron was only eight, and in time there were just three in the house: Ron, and his mother and aunt, both of whom spoiled him to an enormous degree, and seemed largely in denial of his many demeanours.

At the age of ten Ron made parsnip wine and got a schoolfriend drunk in the lunch hour, and this was really just a foretaste of a lifelong love affair with drink. At eighteen he drove to a dance with some friends in Stratford, a nearby town, did some drinking, and on the way back knocked a girl over: he failed to stop, she was hospitalised, and he later gave himself up to the police, claiming that he hadn't noticed her: he was put on probation for two years, lost his licence, and was forbidden to be out at night after 8pm.

Morrieson played in bands locally until he was 37 and loved the camaraderie, the drinking lifestyle that was inevitably attached to it, and enjoyed the company of a number of female sexual partners. Horseplay is a drama by Ken Duncum that was first shown in 1994 and imagines James K. Baxter visiting Morrieson in Hawera near the end of their lives. In it, Wilma is Morrieson's girlfriend and complains about having to constantly get in and out of the window: before reading the biography I thought this must be some kind of symbol but it's real: Morrieson actually had a ladder leading up to his bedroom window so that his mother and aunt wouldn't have to see his girlfriends going upstairs with him. It's the kind of bizarre – almost unbelievable – detail that could have come from one of his books.

Maurice Shadbolt said that some of Morrieson's characters might well have come from his drinking friends in Hawera, and Millen greatly extends this observation by pointing out a large number of similarities between people or things in Morrieson's books, and those in his life: for instance, the tower in Predicament (a book that Morrieson once wanted to call 'The Tower') that leans (giving Cedric one of his nicknames – Pisa) recalls the leaning (and useless) water tower in Hawera; Cedric's father's eccentric behaviour is not unlike that of Morrieson's grandfather Charles Johnson's; there is obsessive and reckless gambling in illegal, out-of-town crown and anchor games in Comes a Hot Friday, such as Morrieson used to regularly attend in south Taranaki; Salter the Sensational (aka 'The Scarecrow') initially excited the drunks in the lock-in pub, as the magician Carter the Great excited Hawera schoolchildren; Pallet on the Floor involves events in and around a freezing plant: Morrieson worked in one in nearby Patea; and so on and so on.

At 37, Morrieson decided to devote himself to the world of letters, but kept himself afloat (mainly alcoholically) by giving private music lessons at home. The lessons weren't a great success, but they'd have been far less so (in fact, probably non-existent) if Morrieson's short story 'Cross My Heart and Cut My Throat' – with its hungover music teacher lusting after a thirteen-year-old pupil and (unbidden) sneaking a kiss on her lips and briefly touching her inner thigh – had been published while he was alive.

But then, after two novels Morrieson couldn't get anything published, he continued to drink to wild excess, his mother's death came in 1968 and left him a wreck, and four years later continued drinking led to the death he seemed resigned to. Like Morrieson's novels, this is a humorous book as well as a (quietly) violent one, but of course the protagonist brought the violence on himself. Unlike the novels, though, it is also intensely sad.

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)
Ronald Hugh Morrieson in Hawera, Taranaki, New Zealand

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