Essay: Paul Galimondon John Morrison

John Morrison: writer of proletarian life

In his study of the short story, The Lonely Voice (1962), Frank O’Connor argues that a defining feature of the genre is what he calls ‘submerged population groups’. ‘It may be Gogol’s officials’, he writes, ‘Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape’. If, in his short stories, John Morrison’s characters are a particular class of ‘submerged’ people, it is due to the labours of work and material hardship — to ‘battling’. These are his principal themes, as well as the consoling virtue of working-class solidarity, informed by his socialist convictions. They derive from the fact that Morrison discovered his subject in his breadwinning life as a waterfront worker, a jobbing gardener, and a rouseabout, occupations which became the social settings of his stories. Highly regarded as a short story writer who bridged the gap between Henry Lawson and post-1960s Australian fiction, by the time of his death in 1998 John Morrison had eight story collections to his name, two novels, a collection of essays, and a collection of autobiographical pieces. In 1963 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society. In 1986 he received the Patrick White Literary Award and in 1989, the Order of Australia. Today, all his books are out of print and his name has fallen into neglect.

Morrison’s writing strengthened Australia’s socialist realist tradition. While the classification ‘socialist realist’ might today seem merely to designate a particular mode or method of writing, albeit an historical one — ‘socialist’, as distinct from, say, ‘magical’ realism — for Morrison, in the context of Australia in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, it was more than that; it was a living reality. A socialist realist writer was to work with facts and certainly during the Great Depression the facts were plain enough: massive unemployment and poverty. Morrison felt the pressure of these hardships. His circumstance was a working-class one, and his decision to write grew out of the desperations he was himself witness to. Thus, to write was for him a moral choice. To put pen to paper, so to speak, was to invoke a spirit of indignation and be driven by a compelling sense of social crisis during the Depression:

Around that time I went through what might be described as a social/political awakening. I was never out of work myself, but many of my friends, good men, went through a bad time. I came to understand what was the real cause of it all, and this so influenced my attitude to writing that I turned to stories with deliberate social content.

The values expressed in Morrison’s writing are those he lived. He was of the belief that writers make their impact primarily by the things they have to say, not primarily by the way in which they are said. In an essay in The Realist he said that he would never underestimate ‘the importance of form, technique, and style … nor of the need for writers to experiment with new methods’. But he insisted that ‘above everything else, the writer must believe in the importance of what he has to say’. This belief was true for Morrison from the very beginning, when he began to write a ‘deliberate social content’ by documenting the labours of the working-class in Melbourne. His first stories were based on his ten years as a Melbourne wharfie, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, and they turned out to be the catalyst for his career as a writer, attracting attention and encouragement from trade union journals, Meanjin, and the Communist Review. The realism of the early stories was particularly well suited to Meanjin, which published sixteen of them during the 1940s and 50s. (The stories were later collected in Black Cargo [1955] and Stories of the Waterfront [1984].) The editor of Meanjin at the time, Clem Christesen — a ‘radical nationalist’, in the words of the academic John Docker — saw in Morrison a writer concerned with class consciousness and encouraged his narratives of proletarian life.

Some critics, however, thought these stories were nothing more than pamphleteering. James McAuley, on the literary right, wrote that they ‘consisted in propaganda for the Waterside Workers’ Federation’. But Morrison’s waterfront stories, documentary fictions of industrial Melbourne, are rich in social history. They detail procedures for getting work, artfully document pay rates and the hierarchical nature of the industry, and describe, often in the Australian vernacular, the transition from being a ‘Blank’ to a ‘fair-dinkum wharfie’ (see, ‘The Compound’ [1944]). More substantial than mere pamphleteering, they also raise important social issues. For example, ‘The Welcome’ (1947) gives us a meditation on racial prejudice and on reactionary attitudes toward the impact of immigration on employment: ‘Racial prejudice is bad medicine’, we read, ‘but it never runs more than skin-deep. It’s largely a matter of simple economics, of whether you think the other fellow threatens your job, your conditions, your standard of living’.

Moreover, Morrison’s waterfront stories are full of ironies about the thrills and frustrations of earning a living and are thus important as studies in working-class psychology. ‘Going Through’ (1949) is an exemplary account of the anxieties and joys of getting work and being admitted to the Waterside Workers’ Federation. The narrator, Jim Lamble, is one of 300 who are all hoping to become Federation men and be ‘in on the big money’. They’ve endured ‘workless weeks’ and ‘bitter struggles…for all the wretched scraps of jobs…for all the muck they’ve tossed out at us’. But now there is the prospect of bigger and better things to come. This story is an attentive observation, ‘alive to every sound’, on how workers are ‘caught up in an atmosphere of suspense’, and despite ostensibly being a form of ‘industrial’ realism, it is also a story about a rite of passage, as the title suggests. It is, in fact, a journey narrative. In one sense it tells of a journey of admission to membership to the Federation and of the opportunity of steady employment and higher wages. But in another, more symbolic, sense, ‘Going Through’ is also a story of camaraderie. Making it through into the Federation means being rewarded with the ‘warm acclamation of one’s fellow men’. ‘We feel suddenly rich’, says Jim Lamble. ‘And not because of the bigger pay envelopes to come. We’ve got ourselves three thousand mates. We’ve come through’. Ivor Indyk writes that the ‘centrality of labour’ in Morrison ‘ensures that the question of value is always to the fore’. Here, in ‘Going Through’, that value is socialist solidarity, and so the journey is also one which moves toward a final triumph of harmony over conflict. The present tense of the narrative gives this journey a sense of immediacy and places Jim Lamble as eyewitness to the perils of admission into solidarity. ‘Warm-hearted men who have advised me’, he says, ‘helped me, talked to me — about their homes, their wives, their children, their multitudinous little interests’, suddenly turn and become ‘part of the beast that rose up and snarled’ at a solitary worker accused of scabbing. This ‘beast’ was a ‘roar of angry voices’ and a violent mass of crashing chairs. Finally, in offering his observations on the trials his fellow workers have gone through, the narrator then concludes by imparting a kind of wisdom, saying, ‘bitter experience has taught them that they assemble here in defence of all that they have’.

The theme of worker solidarity is also apparent in ‘The Ticket’, a story which first appeared in Overland and later in the collection Twenty-Three (1962). Johnstone, a young Englishman new to Australia, takes a job on a farm in the Riverina to ‘milk, kill and generally [be] useful’. He soon comes to feel that he is on the ‘threshold of worthwhile experience, of having got into a man’s world’. This is confirmed when he joins the Australian Workers’ Union and experiences a ‘warm feeling of comradeship’. This sense of solidarity was Morrison’s own. When he arrived in Australia from England he was ‘socialist by conviction’. But working here as a rouseabout on stations, like Johnstone in ‘The Ticket’, meant poor pay and poor conditions, which only ‘speeded up’ his convictions, as he said in a 1989 interview. ‘It grew on me’, he said of socialism, ‘like the urge to write did’.

John Gordon Morrison was born in 1904 in Sunderland, north-east England. The second of four children, he was brought up to the clank of shipbuilding and within sight and sound of the grey and turbulent North Sea. His father and mother were both Sunday-school teachers, and his childhood home was strictly Presbyterian. For Morrison, Sunday evenings in the chapel were ‘horrors of boredom’, as he writes in the autobiographical essay, ‘The Moving Waters’. This boredom is perhaps one reason for his agnosticism later in life. As a writer, Morrison took an irreligious view of humanity, though he does raise the contentious subject of faith in the story, ‘Christ, the Devil and the Lunatic’ (1947), which tests religious belief against the struggles of working life in Melbourne during the Depression. Morrison’s sympathies in this story clearly lie with the unlearning of religious sensitivity and conscientiousness in favour of a ‘tougher’ economic cunning, which he sees as the best way not only to get by in the world, but also to overcome anxiety. He in fact thought of anxiety as ‘the great sickness of the lowly’, who in trying to make ends meet live with ‘the abiding fear of what tomorrow may fail to bring forth’.

Morrison’s working life began early. When he was fourteen he left school and got a job as an assistant to the curator of Sunderland Public Museum, where he had the run of the library. His ‘sealed treasures’, as Saul Bellow once described the private experiences of reading books, were the Russians: Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gorky. These were the writers (in translation) who moved and excited him, particularly their short stories, which he read in John O’London’s Weekly. Such reading experiences were decisive for the direction of his life. In Sunderland Public Museum his imagination, fired by the reading of literature, co-existed with the practicalities of working and becoming independent. In fact, throughout his life Morrison had to maintain the balance of such a co-existence. He never knew the luxury of making a living solely from his writing and of therefore being able to give up working to write full-time. There were, however, two occasions — the first for six months, the second for a year — when he was able to stop work completely and write the novels The Creeping City (1949) and Port of Call (1950). On both occasions he received a fellowship from the Commonwealth Literary Fund.

These two novels (his only novels) draw on Morrison’s experiences while he was working as a labourer and gardener in the Dandenong Ranges during the first few years after his arrival in Australia in 1923. The Dandenongs and the village of Sherbrooke in particular cast a spell on Morrison. He instantly felt at home among the giant mountain ash trees and the valleys brimming with early-morning mist. Indeed, Leo Mishkin in The Creeping City seems to speak for Morrison when he says that not a thousand letters could convey the majesty of the Ranges, which have ‘a wistful sleepy beauty … comparable to nothing else in all the world’. The Creeping City is, however, more than a descriptive account of the wonders of the Ranges. Importantly, it focuses on labour and what Ivor Indyk calls the ‘transit between two competing economies’. Mishkin is one of three berry farmers and property selectors in Mabooda, Morrison’s fictional name for Sherbrooke. He belongs to a strong and independent farming class and as such serves as an important symbol for the health not only of the rural way of life, but also for the importance of the natural area. But this peaceful, self-sustaining economy of land cultivation comes under threat from a suburban, middle-class encroachment:

The ever-growing number of red-roofed bungalows spotting the ancient green of the hills, the ever-growing FOR SALE signs sprouting amongst the abandoned berry-farms, the ever-growing number of cars and hikers swarming up from the city on Saturdays and Sundays. Worse than anything else, the ever-growing preoccupation of the settlers with questions of land values and slick ways of making a living. They didn’t talk now of what they could get out of the land; they talked of what they could get for it.

Regardless of the form — short story or novel — Morrison’s writing is invariably witness to the relationship between the social and the economic. In The Creeping City community life begins to disappear and the weekenders and day-trippers flood in from Melbourne. Public gives way to private enterprise, and as Indyk notes, ‘labour on the land to entrepreneurial ventures and the service industry’.

Port of Call also registers the bourgeois process of social and economic change, but in this novel the setting of the Dandenongs represents a kind of freedom. Jim Boyd, a sailor who abandons his life at sea to take work cutting blackberries and milking cows in the Dandenongs, experiences a ‘fine feeling of freedom and release’ in the ‘hazy blue vistas’; and of his journey by train to Ferntree Gully, at the foothills of the Ranges, he says: ‘It was a strange journey, a beginning to the big adventure fantastically different from anything he had ever dreamed of’. Boyd’s feeling here could quite easily be Morrison’s own when he first went out to the hills in the 1920s looking for work. In the autobiographical ‘Pommy in Wonderland’ Morrison writes that ‘Australia went to my head like wine’. It is not hard to see how these intoxications of freedom — in the writing and in the life — were the result of Morrison’s leaving ‘the depressing climatic, economic, and social airs of England’. Haunting the docks of Sunderland, he was itching to break free from his family and play out fantasies of independence and adventure that he had read about in books and magazines. He once ran away from home to London, heading for where ‘the really big ships set out for all the points of the compass’. He found inspiration for this rebellious journey in Jack London’s short story, ‘The Apostate’, and with ‘no comparable justification’ identified himself with the young adventurer in the tale, ‘lying back on the bags in the railway truck and gazing luxuriously up into the sky’. But London (the city) didn’t work out, especially when his father turned up to bring him home.

He nevertheless found a new spirit of independence in the stories of Joseph Conrad. In ‘The Books That Drove Me On’ Morrison writes how Conrad offered everything to a youth like him, ‘whose head was filled not only with dreams of becoming a writer, but also with dreams of sailing the high seas and having wonderful experiences in distant and colourful places’. Morrison was ‘transported’ by Conrad’s tales. He had read Youth, and the author’s note, where Conrad says that he was appointed to the barque Otago in Australia for his first ship command, and how the story was ‘a record of experience; but that experience, in its facts, in its inwardness and in its outward colouring, begins and ends in myself’. Reading Conrad, Morrison’s ambition to write combined with a wanderlust for faraway places. Australia would fulfil that ambition.

Morrison ‘stands not merely on the side of his proletarians but among them’, writes the critic A.A. Phillips. ‘He responds to life as they do’. Extolling the virtues of the worker and the solidarity of the proletariat as true subjects of literature, Morrison was writing a ‘socialist’ rather than simply a ‘social’ kind of realism, and as David Carter argues, radically marking out a difference from bourgeois fiction. As a movement Socialist Realism was to be an applied method of writing, that is, put to practical use. Andrei Zhdanov, the secretary to the central committee of the communist party in the USSR, encapsulated the theory of socialist realism at a meeting of the union of writers in 1934:

Comrade Stalin has called our writers the engineers of human souls. What does this mean? … It means, in the first place, to know life in order to depict it truthfully in works of art, to depict it not scholastically, not lifelessly, not simply as ‘objective reality’, but to depict actuality in its revolutionary development. Moreover, the truthfulness and historical concreteness of artistic description must be combined with the task of the ideological transformation and education of the working people in the spirit of socialism. This method of literature and of literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.

While socialist realism was ‘but the final stroke in a long series of consistent attempts by the Party to promote application of the fundamental principle of Leninist political orthodoxy to all forms of cultural life in the Soviet Union’, as Edward M. Swiderski notes, it is also true that it could be different things to different writers. Interpreted differently, yet still within the context of Marxist-Leninist ideology, it could be taken to be an artistic method developing out of the rise of the proletariat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. ‘To its proponents’, writes Cath Ellis, ‘socialist realism is a world-wide development in literature which manifests only local peculiarities’.

One of those ‘local peculiarities’ was the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group (Melbourne’s wasn’t the only group but it did lead the way). Morrison was a member of this group along with authors such as Judah Waten, Frank Hardy, Alan Marshall, and David Martin. ‘From the outset the Realist Writers’ movement incorporated twin aims’, writes Ian Syson: ‘the encouragement and development of worker-writers and the continuation of a perceived national, democratic and realist tradition’. The Group was indeed socialist, and as Susan McKernan observes, its rhetoric was often that of Australian Communist Party Publications. It could be anti-elitist. T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Graham Greene were ‘out’ because they corrupted Realism with Modernism, promoting only ‘indecision, futility, boredom’. But it had an important function. According to the novelist and poet Dorothy Hewett, the Realist Writers’ Group, of which she was a member, operated within the Communist Party and trade unions ‘to establish the role, importance and need for the writer as part of the forces of social change’. It published a magazine, Realist Writer, which defined realism as ‘word pictures of life as it is lived’, pictures that would emphasise class conflict and the corruptions of power. A typical example of a novel in the service of this ideology is Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory (1950), which tells the story of John West, a poverty-stricken man who by means of extortion and corruption rises above his working class origins to become rich and powerful. Another example would be Katherine Susannah Prichard’s goldfields trilogy: The Roaring Nineties (1946), Golden Miles (1948), and Winged Seeds (1950). A monumental story of industry and living conditions on the West Australian goldfields, the trilogy depicts early struggles for worker rights and collective bargaining, as well as the mechanisation of the mines, though not without a certain — and clearly apparent — ideological preoccupation (Prichard was a member of the Communist Party of Australia).

Morrison, however, was something of an exception to the rules of the Realist Writers’ Groups. He was of the view that ideas had to be reconciled to people, not the other way round. ‘It was the human situation creating the political attitudes’, writes A.A. Phillips, ‘which he wanted to illuminate’. Though early on Morrison was keenly socialist, he would later disagree with the ways in which Realist Writers’ Groups restricted the work of writers to socialist causes. In a letter to Frank Hardy, for example, he wrote that the Party should ‘leave the bloody writers alone’. In 1966, Morrison explained his position in a letter to the Moscow journal, Foreign Literature Magazine:

My conception of realism was always just that — realism coloured only by faith in the intrinsic human decencies. Writing of Life as it IS, and of men and women acting as they DO act and react. Certainly I believe that the writer has a responsibility to society that he should be a lover of his fellow men, and that he should be on the side of right in the struggle against the wrong. … What I believe is, in short, that writers should concern themselves PRIMARILY with man in conflict with himself, and not primarily in conflict with society.

Morrison was not an ideologue. Underlying this passage is the attitude that writers cannot solve all the problems of the world; they cannot ‘fix’ society. Better to get on with the task of writing good stories which present the problem (or conflict) from the standpoint of individual experience. Morrison does this through his working-class characters who often lapse into introspection when faced with the objective demands placed upon them by a specific time and place. For example, in ‘Tons of Work’ (1947), Joe Creed is having a slow day waiting for work on the docks at the pick-up and his mind has a habit of pondering over his own feelings of disempowerment and the struggle to make ends meet. Suddenly a barrier flies open and calls for work are made and we read, ‘No more reflections, Joe! Here’s reality … Australia, 1940!’ This is not Joe speaking. It is the free indirect style of Morrison’s narrative as it voices Joe’s thoughts out loud. The narrative shares Joe’s sense of duty and obligation to earn a living by reminding him (and the reader) that reality is a kind of personal responsibility (as well as a specific time and place — ‘Australia, 1940!’). Through the free indirect style of ‘Tons of Work’ Joe’s ‘reality’ is also the author’s conception of reality, which is not necessarily a ‘picture’ of the world or of society. Rather, it’s what one has to do to get on in the world. Reality is keeping one’s mind on the job.

In Morrison, the job, or the work to be done, is far from being straightforwardly naturalistic. Work takes on a symbolic significance, transforming many of his stories into marvelous parables about what Ian Reid calls ‘the competitive principle on which capitalism operates’. Morrison in fact writes of an interplay between innocence and experience, translating what William Blake referred to as these ‘two contrary states of the human soul’ into the capitalist domain of work. In their struggle to maintain a living, Morrison’s protagonists face the impossibility of innocence, or at least his version of it, which is to remain free from the conflicts and entanglements of others. This is apparent in ‘The Battle of Flowers’ (1955). The narrator of this story, Johnston, a gardener, becomes caught up in the action he describes. The action is the rivalry between two sisters, Isabel and Theresa Haven, who are fighting over ownership of their prize-winning Beaumaris garden. The sisters ‘clearly represent bourgeois self-interest’, as Ivor Indyk points out, and the intensity of their conflict is such that Isabel moves out of the family home, buys the property next door, and in her competitive drive for excellence, conscripts Johnston into a private war against her sister. Under the ‘driving power’ of this rivalry, the Havens pour money into their gardens with the aim of making them the best in Melbourne. ‘Each became the victim of a fixed idea, lived for but one purpose’, says Johnston, who despite having to work for Isabel against Theresa’s newly appointed gardener, Egan, and despite ‘the imp of avarice’ awakening in him, nonetheless seizes the opportunity for more work to support his family — the money, squandered or not, might as well fill the bellies of his children, he argues. Told with such élan and weaving together both absurdity and seriousness with suspense and complexity, this story shows competitive self-interest to be destructive, not only for the sisters in their hatred of one another, but also for the gardeners, who become enemies.

Similarly, in ‘To Margaret’ (1958), another of Morrison’s excellent garden stories, the narrator-gardener learns that his predecessor, Hans, had fallen in love with his employer’s daughter, Margaret Cameron. One morning Hans was sacked without explanation. Being one step ahead of his employer, however, he had anticipated his dismissal and planted a tribute in a prominent flowerbed. After he is gone, ‘thousands of tiny linaria seedlings’ bloom and spell out ‘TO MARGARET right across the square of rich brown earth’. The new gardener, who needs the work, then finds himself caught between Mr Cameron’s instruction to dig up the flower bed and Mrs Cameron’s request not to. Here is the new gardener, Johnston (yes, another Johnston), with the situation before him:

Hans is gone, and Margaret is gone, but the garden is full of their presence, and every day that passes the symbol will grow and grow. The little plants will push out, tumbling over and filling in the spaces between the letters. And as the name itself vanishes something else will take the place of form, and the message will lose nothing in eloquence. There will be colour, all the tender pastel shades of a flower I know well, framed in the deep lilac of alyssum. And to the understanding eye it will never read anything but TO MARGARET. And when the hot winds of summer come, and the exhausted plants huddle closer to the earth with every shower of rain, it will still be Hans who is speaking…

The writing here is lyrical and may seem quietly at odds with a method of ‘deliberate social content’. But a closer look reveals that the understanding eye is Morrison’s own, and that the lyricism of this passage derives from a desire to preserve something against the passage of time. What is seeking preservation is of course Hans’s love for Margaret. Yet the brilliance of Morrison’s writing here is that it suggests something else to be preserved besides this love. That something else is in the narrator’s relation to the garden and therefore to his predecessor. The flowers are for Johnston the vanishing name not only of someone’s lover, but also, I would suggest, of the socialist ideal itself, or worker solidarity. Keeping the ideal alive, the narrator pledges a form of solidarity with his predecessor — ‘it will always be Hans who is speaking’. But this solidarity, like Hans’s love for Margaret, can now only be preserved symbolically, and always against the odds, for Morrison then moves the story back to the pressing reality of the Camerons’ private dispute over Hans and their daughter. Johnston the gardener is no longer an innocent observer but an active participant, wrestling with how best to get out of destroying the flowers (without losing his job).

In his stories Morrison favours a first-person narrator who is typically like those in ‘Going Through’, ‘The Battle of Flowers’, and ‘To Margaret’. Working-class, observational, and usually caught up in a difficult situation in which a decision must be made about work or money, this narrator is an avatar of Morrison’s own methodology. Morrison once told a creative writing class that he didn’t invent stories, that they didn’t suddenly appear in the mind. Rather, they came in through the eyes and ears. As avatars of his experiences, Morrison’s narrators are our eyes and ears, observing what is seen and reporting what is heard. In Helen Daniel’s words, they act as ‘a go-between, mediating between the obsessive or beleaguered characters and the reader’. They are essentially storytellers passing on their experiences of finding their way in the world. But they are also exclusively male. A good case in point is Morrison’s story, ‘A Man’s World’ (1957). The title does indeed say it all. In this story there is the unchallenged division between the ‘man’s world’ of work and the ‘woman’s world’ of the home. ‘It’s a man’s world I’ve got to live in, not a woman’s’, Frank McLean says to his wife Liz. ‘I’ve got to go out in it’. But Morrison’s approach was more nuanced than this example suggests. He often reveals the ridiculousness of hard-headed and stubborn men who live by this ethos — men who are consumed by egotism, such as Mr Cameron in ‘To Margaret’, a man disliked by his employee for his ‘Julius Caesar stare’ and his possessiveness, which denies his daughter a life of her own. And there is Roy Davison in ‘Pioneers’ (1964), whom the critic Stephen Murray-Smith called a ‘prime bastard’. Davison is a dogmatic man who rules over a puritanical home, denying it the emotional warmth and vitality expressed by his wife and daughters. Bob Johnson, the narrator in ‘Pioneers’, observes of the Davison’s home: ‘I’d have given much for a homely sound such as the purring of a cat’. Johnson is also critical of Roy: ‘if only he had allowed his wife to come into the conversation’; ‘if only Ada had been allowed to talk’.

Despite the exclusively of a ‘man’s world’, there are female characters to whom Morrison grants full dignity and independence. The nurses in ‘Ward Four’ (1962), for example, run their wards with humour, efficiency, and common sense; and Barbara Cameron in ‘To Margaret’ is strong and assertive, eventually leaving her husband after confronting him over his stubborn and arrogant stance toward their daughter. ‘He didn’t think she would. It’s given him a shock’, says the housekeeper to the gardener. ‘Not so sure of himself — walking the floor half the night’. But for the most part Morrison presents a ‘man’s world’. In response to questions about the continuing tone in his stories of the predominance of men, Morrison said: ‘The world of men was the world I lived in. I was never a professional writer, I always had bread and butter jobs…I write of nothing that I haven’t experienced’.

There is a kind of Morrison story, the best kind, which imbues his particular style of realism and its economic orientation of work with an intensely menacing atmosphere. According to Ivor Indyk, this atmosphere consists in ordinary details being placed in a strange light. For A. A. Phillips, it is ‘darker-hued’, and death is an important element. Morrison’s most anthologised story, ‘The Nightshift’ (1944) is a good example of his ‘darker-hued’ fictions. In this story the economic orientation is readily apparent in the class divisions between the wharfies Joe and Dick and the well-dressed ‘Toorak set’ with their ‘Collins Street coiffures’. The ‘Toorak set’ are going to dances and theatres in the city, while Joe and Dick are going to work on the nightshift. Later, as these two wharfies travel up-river to work on a sugar cargo, the story begins to move toward a darker, more menacing aspect. We read of the ‘hushed’, fog-bound river and its black still water, and of the distant sounds that have ‘the quality of a peculiar hollowness, so that one senses the overwhelming silence on which they impinge’. I was reminded here of the novel Double Indemnity (1943) by James M. Cain, which was made into a film of the same name in the classic noir style by Billy Wilder. In this novel Cain writes, ‘there is nothing so dark as a railroad track in the middle of the night’. In ‘The Nightshift’ Morrison seems to say that there is nothing so dark as a river in the middle of the night, a menacing atmosphere which conspires to establish the scene of Joe’s death when he falls from the wharf. There are, however, social reasons for this sense of menace. Joe’s death is the result of hazardous working conditions, and in this story Morrison is never far from social protest: ‘The nightshift swarms up the face of the wharf, cursing a Harbour Trust which provides neither ladder nor landing-stage’.

‘Goyai’ (1962) also has this ‘darker-hued’ aspect. It is the tale of a deranged man who has given up on life, living alone in a hut at the top of a hill in a forest. Wild with despair, he looks for coincidences in everything, thinking they are signals from his estranged lover Claire. The narrator, Quaife, is a bushwalker who has strayed from the path, and his arrival at the hut is taken by the hermit to be a message sent by Claire. Morrison wonderfully builds tension in this story, hinting at the possibility that the hermit’s psychosis may turn criminal. As soon as the opportunity arises Quaife cannot get out of the hut quick enough and back to the world. The real story here, however, is one of social isolation. Given Morrison’s emphasis on a socialist form of solidarity and his celebrations of camaraderie, ‘Goyai’ may seem out of place in his work. But it is not. In ‘Goyai’ Morrison stands against social isolation, which he takes to be a denial of the importance of the values of solidarity and the condition of being morally bound to society. We should be living by these values, Morrison seems to say: for they can help ease the burdens of inequality, and may even save us from ourselves.


David Carter, ‘Documenting and Criticising Society’, The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, ed. Laurie Hergenhan, (Penguin, 1988), pp. 370-389.
Helen Daniel, ‘At last, the return of the real short story,’ Review of North Wind by John Morrison, Age, 17 April 1982.
John Docker, Australian Cultural Elites: Intellectual Traditions in Sydney and Melbourne, (Angus & Robertson, 1974).
Cath Ellis, ‘Socialist Realism in the Australian Literary Context: With Specific Reference to the Writing of Katharine Susannah Prichard’, Journal of Australian Studies (21, no. 54-55, 1997).
Dorothy Hewett, ‘The Times they are a’Changin’’, Hecate, (21, ii, 1995).
Ivor Indyk, ‘The Economics of Realism: John Morrison’, Meanjin, (no. 4, 1987).
David Martin, ‘Three Realists in Search of Reality’, Meanjin, (no.78, 1959).
James McAuley, Quadrant editor’s report to AACF – Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, (December, 1963).
Susan McKernan, A Question of Commitment: Australian Literature in the Twenty Years after the War (Allen & Unwin, 1989).
John Morrison, Sailors Belong Ships, (Dolphin Publications, 1947).
The Creeping City, (Cassell, 1949).
Port of Call, (Cassell, 1950).
Black Cargo and Other Stories, (Australasian Book Society, 1955).
Twenty Three, (Australasian Book Society, 1962).
— ‘What Shall We Do About The Australian Tradition?’, The Realist (no. 15, 1964).
Selected Stories, (Rigby, 1972).
Australian by Choice, (Rigby, 1973).
— ‘The Moving Waters’, Australian by Choice, (Rigby, 1973).
— ‘Pommy in Wonderland’, Australian by Choice, (Rigby, 1973).
The North Wind, (Penguin Books, 1982).
Stories of the Waterfront, (Penguin, 1984).
This Freedom (Penguin Books, 1985).
The Happy Warrior: Literary Essays (Pascoe Publishing, 1987).
— ‘The Books That Drove Me On’, The Happy Warrior: Literary Essays (Pascoe Publishing, 1987).
The Best Stories of John Morrison, (Penguin Books, 1988).
— ‘John Morrison tells Katherine Kizilos about his life and work’, Herald, (12 Jan., 1989).
Stephen Murray-Smith, ‘Introduction’, The Best Stories of John Morrison, (Penguin, 1988).
A.A. Phillips, ‘The Short Stories of John Morrison’, Overland, (Winter, 1974).
Ian Reid, ‘Introduction’, Selected Stories by John Morrison, (Rigby, 1972).
Edward M. Swiderski, ‘Review of Soviet Socialist Realism, by C. Vaughan James’, Studies in Soviet Thought (17, 3, Oct. 1977).
Ian Syson, ‘Out from the shadows: The Realist Writers’ movement, 1944-1970, and communist cultural discourse’, Australian Literary Studies (15, 4, Oct. 1992).