James Ronald Hugh Morrieson died at 50, a sad and disappointed man. His remark, ‘I hope I’m not another one of these poor buggers who get discovered when they’re dead’ became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Morrieson was born on 29 January 1922 and lived his entire life in the house built by his grandfather at the corner of Regent Street and South Road, Hawera. He was the only child of Eunice Hyacinth Johnson and her husband, Hugh Francis Morrieson, an English-born musician. Both parents had musical talent: his father and all of his mother’s family were proficient on various instruments and Eunice was a pianist and music teacher.
Morrieson’s father died of a heart attack in 1928. His mother’s teaching then provided the main income of the household, which included his grandfather and his mother’s sister Doris Johnson. Their lifestyle was of necessity frugal and by choice quiet, and conformed with middle-class standards. Ron, an only child and an asthmatic, was cosseted and indulged by his mother and aunt. He had access to an abundance of books, music and intelligent conversation. Along with literary classics, he read Boy’s Own annuals, paperback novels and the popular press.
Ron attended the local primary school and Hawera Technical High School but was often absent because of asthma and childhood illnesses. In class he was outstanding only in English literature, winning an essay prize in the third form in 1935. He was known for his witty conversation and practical jokes, and many schoolboy exploits – including early experimentation with alcohol – later formed the basis of episodes in his fiction.
Morrieson took no interest in team sports but enjoyed billiards, boxing and wrestling, and learned to hold his own in a fight. He was a keen cinema goer and developed an enduring fascination with the trappings of the life-style depicted in Hollywood gangster movies: smart clothing, habitual drinking, smoking and gambling, and large touring cars. He was also attracted to American jazz music, especially the New Orleans sound.
As the result of a prank for which he was severely punished by the headmaster, Morrieson left school without completing his senior examinations. He continued study at home and passed university entrance in 1939. Early in 1940 he went to Auckland with the intention of studying law at the university college. After only a few days – suffering from homesickness – he returned to Hawera. He apparently failed to meet the required medical standard for wartime military service.
On 18 August 1940 Morrieson was involved in a car accident in which a young woman was injured. He was convicted for failure to stop and put on probation. His life for the next two years was severely restricted. He studied at home and developed his musical skills. About 1943 Morrieson joined a group of friends in a dance band, playing guitar or double bass; he was also responsible for the musical arrangements. At this period he was known as ‘Slapsy’ Morrieson. ‘The night life and carefree ways of a dance-band player suited me fine.’
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Morrieson played with various musical combos in dance halls in South Taranaki. He was frequently in trouble with police and enjoyed the challenge of eluding them, and was regularly charged with drunken driving, drinking after hours, and minor traffic offences. He never married and had a succession of liaisons with women, only two of which lasted for more than a few weeks. His dissolute behaviour gave him a reputation as a waster.
Morrieson never had a steady job. He undertook seasonal work at the Patea freezing works and in the late 1940s had a part-time job in charge of the delivery of the Hawera Star. In 1951 and 1952 Morrieson enrolled extramurally at Victoria University College: like his first brush with academia, this was a failure. By 1953 he had joined his mother as a music teacher (he taught guitar and modern piano) and expressed to friends his desire to write books. In order to write seriously he tried to adopt a more settled lifestyle and by 1959 had given up playing in dance bands.
Morrieson’s first published novel was The scarecrow (1963), although much of the material used in Predicament may also have been written at this time. The scarecrow received good reviews – especially in Australia, where it was published – for its lively, racy narrative style. Morrieson himself said, ‘It’s a kind of thriller I suppose, but I think it’s also a work of art – at least I hope it is’. The portrayal of sordid and even macabre happenings in a small New Zealand town – clearly Hawera – as seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy brought condemnation from many locals. Other critics gave special praise to the colourful and authentic colloquial dialogue.
By 1964 Morrieson had completed a second novel, Came a hot Friday, an occasionally dark comedy of conmen, bookies and gamblers in a small Taranaki town. Reviews were mixed: some thought it an improvement, others a disappointment. It did, however, bring Morrieson to the notice of writers such as Dick Scott and Maurice Shadbolt, who encouraged him and tried to promote the work.
Morrieson’s next manuscript, completed about 1966 and entitled ‘Is X real’, was sent back for a rewrite by Angus and Robertson. When it was again rejected by them and by some New Zealand publishers, Morrieson was ill-equipped to cope with the disappointment. Mental and physical deterioration (in part caused by heavy smoking and addiction to alcohol) were compounded by grief at the death of his mother in 1968. From that time Morrieson and his elderly aunt Doris lived together in a state of increasing poverty and physical decrepitude.
Morrieson again rewrote ‘Is X real’ (retitled ‘The tower’), wrote two short stories and began a new novel, Pallet on the floor. Although flawed by clumsy narrative and structural problems, this last work broke new ground for Morrieson in tackling contemporary New Zealand themes – racism and violence – against the background of the freezing industry. Unfortunately it, too, was rejected or ignored by publishers.
Morrieson continued as a music teacher and became increasingly pessimistic about his writing. He attended a writers’ conference at Massey in 1971, where his heavy drinking embarrassed his fellow writers. That year Landfall published a lengthy appreciation of his work by Frank Sargeson and C. K. Stead. But recognition came too late: Morrieson’s health was failing. In his last three years he was in and out of hospital suffering a heart condition, circulatory problems and cirrhosis of the liver. He gave up teaching, became a recluse and died after a Christmas drinking bout on Boxing Day 1972.
Doris Johnson did her best to promote her nephew’s work and could have been forgiven for feeling bitter at the way Morrieson manuscripts – once the author was dead – suddenly became hot property. Within two years Landfall had published the two short stories, and several publishing houses competed for rights to the full-length manuscripts. Dunmore Press published ‘The tower’, now named Predicament , in 1975. Pallet on the floor came out in 1976.
Ronald Hugh Morrieson holds a unique place in New Zealand literature. No other writer has so vividly depicted New Zealand provincial life or captured its colloquial language. Morrieson’s life – its isolation and oddity and his premature death – has also captured the imagination. The feature films of The scarecrow (1981), Pallet on the floor (1984) and Came a hot Friday (1985) achieved considerable success.
In 1992 local efforts to persuade the South Taranaki District Council to save the old Morrieson house from demolition failed: too many people in Hawera had not forgiven Morrieson for his less than flattering depiction of their town. Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s home was demolished in April 1993 to make way for a fast-food restaurant.