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Morrison, John Gordon (Jack) (1904–1998)

by John McLaren

John [Gordon] Morrison first drew public attention as the chronicler of the waterside and its long-enduring and militant workers. In the last week of his life, literary magazine Overland celebrated its 150th issue by republishing his waterfront story, Nine O'Clock Finish, with its record of a casual, quiet, unnecessary death.

His own death came, appropriately, after the wharfies had won at least a battle in what Morrison had described to me just a week earlier as "a fight to the death with an utterly ruthless employer and government". It is typical of the man and the writer that, even when his mind was failing in many other respects, he could still focus on the immediate industrial issue.

Morrison's death breaks one of the last links with the social realist writers who flourished in Australia after World War II. His writing is marked by its sympathy for the common man and its belief in a future when the ambitions of common humanity will be realised. His concerns are the worlds of work and home, the conflicts between them, the manifold ways that individuals thwart happiness and the rare occasions when they realise it through common purpose.

John Gordon Morrison was born in Sunderland, England, where he completed an apprenticeship as a gardener, an occupation to which he returned at the end of his working life. As a young man, he embarked on travels that brought him in 1923 to Australia, where he settled, becoming, he said, "Australian by choice" — words he used for the title of a shortstory collection in 1973. He worked at a variety of jobs, in the city and the bush, before becoming a waterside worker in Melbourne. The waterfront was to provide him with both the first subject matter of his writing and the faith in communism that sustained it.

Although he remained a communist to the end, even after the formal dissolution of the party, he was not blind to its faults. Nevertheless, he was deeply saddened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of the hope that he had invested in it. Although his writing was always available for the party to use, he never allowed its leaders or anyone else to dictate what he wrote. On one occasion, he even earned the displeasure of Big Jim Healy, then secretary of the Waterside Workers Federation, who refused to publish one of Morrison's stories that showed a wharfie drunk on the job. First, Healy stated, wharfies never got drunk, and second, even if they did, their mates would never cover for them. It was against union discipline. The story was published, but not in the union journal.

Morrison's stories show the two sides of union strength. In Going Through, we see the immense pride members take in their union, the sense of achievement they feel when they finally earn full membership by the acceptance of their mates. But we also see how the "warmhearted men who have advised me, helped me, talked to me — about their homes, their children, their multitudinous interests" can turn in an instant into a terrifying mob as they become a "part of the beast that rose up and snarled at the man in the black raincoat. Bitter experience has taught them that they assemble here in defence of all that they have". FOR a moment, the narrator allows us to sympathise with the scab who provokes their wrath, but he never loses sight of the conditions that produce the fury, just as they produce the warmth of companionship.

Although Morrison's writing started with the waterfront stories, he was to range much further through novels, essays and reportage, from the lives of itinerant workers to the experiences of the jobbing gardener. In To Margaret, the gardener allows himself to become involved in the family life of his employer, losing his place because of his sympathy with the daughter. Yet he leaves behind a legacy in flowers that is a subtle form of revenge and a testament to the beauty realised by those prepared to give themselves to life.

The same contrast between what Manning Clark would call the straiteners of life and the givers runs through much of his work. In stories such as Morning Glory and Pioneers, the tragedy lies in the inability of the characters to give themselves to the land that with one part of their being they love. His sympathies are perhaps shown at their fullest in stories such as Dog Box, where he brings to full life the group of characters gathered at random in the compartment of a suburban train. The story focuses on the one who had "Mum written all over her", and whose practical pride in her working son gives the story its point. For Morrison, ordinary human achievement was always extraordinary.

Throughout his career, Morrison's writing was sandwiched between the demands of the manual labour through which he earned his living. Yet he did not regard this work as an impediment but as the source of his writing. Some years ago, he asked me to record a statement which turned out to be a testament thanking the Australian people for their generosity in awarding him an Emeritus Literary Fellowship of the Australia Council. But he also insisted on apologising for his lack of literary production in the years since he had been given the award. He explained that once the pension removed him from the need to work, and as he no longer travelled on public transport, he was cut off from the proletarian vernacular that had given his work its strength.

He had no need to apologise. The award was a recognition and payment for what he had already given his adopted country. His work was acknowledged by his appointment as Member of the Order of Australia, by the Gold Medal of the Australian Literary Society in 1963 and by the Patrick White Award in 1986. He will be remembered for his rich rendition of the extraordinary in the ordinary, in both people and places, for his understanding of the rhythms of work and nature, and for his steadfast loyalty to the principles of working-class solidarity.

He was married twice, and had been in ill health since the death last year of his second wife, Rachel. He is survived by his children, John and Marie, and a granddaughter.

John McLaren is honorary professor at the Victoria University of Technology and consultant editor to Overland.

Original publication

  • Australian, 14 May 1998, p 14

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Citation details

John McLaren, 'Morrison, John Gordon (Jack) (1904–1998)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/morrison-john-gordon-jack-31466/text39166, accessed 15 June 2021.

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