On the couch: Three Australian poems

I’m going to look at three short Australian poems.  Despite each of them being about something or having a readily identifiable subject matter (a train journey, middle age, a trip away to an old estate), I’ll look at them for how they can give us insight into the nature of artistic inspiration and creativity or the process leading to the poem’s creation. Of course, every strong poem is probably its own record of the inspiration and creativity that brought it into being.  But how?

‘The Night-Ride’, by Kenneth Slessor

In ‘The Night-Ride’ the poet is travelling at night by train across the Australian continent and has just arrived at a station town.

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;

Milk-tins in cold dented silver; half-awake I stare,

Pull up the blind, blink out — all sounds are drugged;

The slow blowing of passengers asleep;

Engines yawning; water in heavy drips;

Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station,

One moment in the window, hooked over bags;

Hurrying, unknown faces — boxes with strange labels —

All groping clumsily to mysterious ends,

Out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates.

Their echoes die.  The dark train shakes and plunges;

Bells cry out; the night-ride starts again.

Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,

Pale, windy fields.  The old roar and knock of the rails

Melts in dull fury.  Pull down the blind, Sleep.  Sleep.

Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside.

Gaslight and milk-cans.  Of Rapptown I recall nothing else.

Slessor’s poem is a simile for artistic inspiration.  A poem comes like a journey by train at night when you wake suddenly at the station and see through the window for a brief moment on the platform certain figures and objects in the gaslight.  And to take this idea further, the figures and objects are like the words, or the language, that come to you in a moment of poetic revelation.  But then the train begins again and the station, or the moment of insight, is gone.  There is nothing but grey emptiness, and you recall little of the artistry that had so intensely possessed you. 

Critics have read ‘The Night-Ride’ as one of Slessor’s statements on city versus bush.  Slessor had a disdain for the emptiness outside of cities, especially outside of Sydney.  For Slessor, Sydney was full of poetry and the world outside it was not.  There was a certain charm and magic about Sydney and his poems are full of images of the city.  In ‘The Night-Ride’, moving out of the station into the emptiness of the bush is certainly depicted as a move away from civilisation and into tedium and barrenness.  Critics have also noted the imagery of darkness and light that pervades the poem: the light of the station; the darkness of the outback, or the bush.  I think, however, that this is Slessor’s great poem on the inner life, on how poems get made out of the interaction between that inner life and the poet’s observations of the ‘outside’ world.  Indeed, if there is any point to the oppositions which critics have noted in the poem, apart from establishing poetic contraries, then it is surely the interaction between them which takes place within the observer, the poet observer.

In Canto XIV of Don Juan, Byron writes:

                                    a bard must meet

     All difficulties, whether great or small,

          To spoil his undertaking or complete,

     And work away like spirit upon matter,

     Embarrass’d somewhat both with fire and water

Great and small; spirit and matter; fire and water; spoiled or complete; pride and embarrassment — all of Byron’s pairs of opposites are in Slessor’s poem, either explicitly or implicitly.  (Pride could be the poet’s pride of completion: ‘It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from / when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty’, writes Czeslaw Milosz in ‘Ars Poetica’; embarrassment for not being able to recall anything of significance of Rapptown; sleep being spoiled, and so on.  The other opposites are of course more obvious.)  But after the grand fact of inspiration they seem mere elements of composition.  It’s as though the objects of the ‘outside’ world are nothing other than the inner consciousness of the poet, as though the poem is trying to show how what one sees is contained within one’s consciousness — that while these objects and people and events may have a material existence independent from oneself, they are at the same time inseparable from one’s consciousness and active awareness of them.  I am thus reminded here of Pablo Neruda’s poem ‘A Dream of Trains’: ‘I was in my seat and the train / was running through my body, / breaking down my frontiers.’  And Slessor’s punctuation seems to embody these shifting states of consciousness.  The first half of the poem is a catalogue of observations punctuated by semi-colons and long dashes, which echo the long pauses or breaks in the observer’s half-awake state; while the second half is mostly commas, signalling a more fluid awareness ruminating on what has suddenly appeared.

But the key experience underpinning this poem is the fleeting nature of poetic consciousness.  There is a revelatory breach in awareness at the station — there is an illumination.  But when ‘the night-ride starts again’ it’s as though time had stopped and life has suddenly resumed (the station thus becomes a metaphor for time standing still, at least according to the poet’s consciousness).  The poem therefore seeks a kind of philosophy on the spontaneous or instantaneous moment, which for the poet is also one of creative inspiration.  ‘The Night-Ride’ is about the pure products of the imagination as they emerge seemingly out of an illumination to possess the poet before taking their leave, before their echoes die, after which the observer is then left to recall and compose.  Indeed, the last words of the poem — ‘Of Rapptown I recall nothing else’ — are a kind of admission that one cannot remember how a poem came into being.  Perhaps one or two objects (a few words at most) are remembered for getting what might become a poem going, but afterwards, the initial experience is a blur and composition must then necessarily turn to motifs of darkness and light, city and country, ‘mysterious ends’ and ‘private fates’ in order to record the inspiration and give it poetic form.

‘Middle Age’, by John Forbes

‘a frozen turquoise statue of options’

                                    sits on the shelf

                           almost invisible now

under the sand blasted pretence

of your day-to-day routines, its only use

to keep those bits of paper

that arrive through the mail

from getting lost or blowing away.

Where’s the present tense

                           now that we really need it?

Where’s the jungle?  You are as sane

as absolutely crystal clear TV reception

can make you, as if Sisyphus

exchanged his rock for a frisbee

& had to learn

all sorts of hand signals overnight

                           each one meaning

a different thing had gone wrong somewhere

& turquoise was just

the colour of the morning sky

                           you barely glimpse

as he rushes out to play.

What time is more ironical than that of middle age, when life may not have turned out as you had once expected, or would have liked?  Certainly not old age, which is too close to death; nor youth, when you’re too busy doing all the things you think you should be doing.  Middle age is when true reflection kicks in, when you begin to look back on your life.

In ‘Middle Age’ there is a sense of what has been.  When Forbes writes, somewhat perplexingly, ‘Where’s the jungle?’, we may well ask, What the hell does that mean?  In an earlier poem from the 1970s called ‘Admonitions’ (‘Middle Age’ was written in the 1990s) we read, ‘When you’re raining in my heart it’s gorillas’.  The jungle in the later poem might then refer to the wild (indeed, romantic) feelings of the heart which are no longer alive or teeming within.

And yet before all this we encounter the line, ‘Where’s the present tense / now that we really need it?’  In middle age the past tense is too much with you, is too domineering, and as the poem seems to suggest, you begin to feel the weighty Sisyphean struggles of life, the daily toil.  The ‘boulder’ now feels heavier than it ever did; or you simply become aware for the first time that that is what you’re doing, and have been doing for quite some time now. 

But in the poem, Sisyphus exchanges his rock for a frisbee.  We can read this as Forbes saying that life can change from one state to another quite quickly and dramatically.  But this is also, I think, a statement about the kind of poem that wants to say something about life, the kind of poem Forbes doesn’t want to write, and perhaps (thankfully) cannot write.  It’s as though, on the one hand, there’s a type of poem that is like (or about) pushing the boulder — a heavy, weighty, ‘grown-up’ metaphysical thing that discloses personal struggle; while on the other hand, there’s a poem that’s like abandoning the rock (if that’s possible, yet Forbes’s poem rather whimsically implies that it is, at least in poetry) to become something much lighter, inconsequential and playful, where certain tricks and signals can be learned for different gestures of flight.  So ‘Middle Age’ suggests that one source of poetic creativity and inspiration is a moving away from heavy, weighty, earnest kinds of poems to a more ironic and playful style of writing. 

For Forbes, the writing of poetry is an act of vacating or decamping from your own fraught situation as you see it.  Creating a poem is a letting go: a letting go of the idea that your writing should lay claim to a greater stake of your life.  Instead, you should rush out to play — or go on your nerve, as the New York poet Frank O’Hara famously described his method of composition — and grab what you can along the way.  And like Slessor, this is very much a form of spontaneity, without which, we may surmise, there is no poetry.

‘Shore Acres’, by Sarah Holland-Batt

August, driving from North Bend,

from Empire, we saw how the waves gut

the bluffs until they are pocked, whole

scoops of rock being pawed out by water.

But this year nothing moves at Shore Acres;

the water is static as land, and stripes

of foam bone its slate like a corset.

We are here for the end of movement.

You stay to watch the ocean.  I go back

to the Japanese garden.  I only want to see

stillness where I expect it, the sombre willow,

the colossal Monterey pine; I sit,

making myself limestone and basalt,

on the grounds of what was once the summer

house of a pioneer shipbuilder.  Now it is nobody’s

private estate, but the home of a gardener

who pulls yellow roses through the mist

in hedged circles.  I think I am stone

as the arrowheads of pines vanish

into the understory of cloud.  I have stopped

longing for whatever it was I desired

and have given in to the body’s basic need

for rest.  Bare feet, bare face, I wait

at what I imagine to be a shrine’s gate

gathering the kind of force required

to stop loving, as only stone can.

There is a listless mood throughout this poem, a loss of feeling.  There is exhaustion and unease.  A couple is on a trip away to an old estate.  We can surmise theirs has been a busy time prior to this little vacation — ‘We are here for the end of movement’; giving in to ‘the body’s basic need / for rest’.  In fact, the exhaustion is so complete, so total (and this is indeed a poem of totalities) there is no real energy left to desire.  All wants are off the table.  And in a place of peace, beauty and leisure, where one might actually expect wild passionate freedom, there is only a sense of standstill and restraint: ‘the water is static as land, and stripes / of foam bone its slate like a corset’.  It is as though, this poem seems to suggest, there will be no expansion, no more going outwards, but only constriction and a turning inward.

As a figure for loss of feeling, stone is a cliche.  But Holland-Batt gives the trope a naturalistic bent.  The speaker is not only stone but limestone and basalt, so there is indeed something sedimentary going on here.  The poet is wanting to get to the understory, the sedimentary level of what the problem is, of why she feels nothing.  And perhaps one way of doing this is to go as far as possible into the problem.  In other words, become it entirely, go further in feeling nothing so that there is nothing left of yourself (‘gathering the kind of force required / to stop loving’). 

Obviously, inspiration is not forthcoming for the speaker.  And there is degradation, or a scaling down of expectations: what was once a private estate is now home to a gardener.  But what, then, was the inspiration for this poem?  Was it the sombreness, the listlessness, the exhaustion?  Was it the body’s basic need for rest (an epiphany of sorts)?   Was it loss of feeling?  I think this is a beautifully inspiring poem on the loss of inspiration and how that is so powerfully inseparable from our emotional lives (especially more so for a poet).  The fact that the poet can write a beautifully inspiring poem on the loss of inspiration testifies to poetry as a renewal of life and a record of Being.  Wittgenstein once said, ‘It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.’  Holland-Batt’s poem may or may not be mystical — though, there is a need in the poem to relinquish all devotional feeling — yet it does present a problem of caught between the how and the simple fact of is.  And it seeks to give inspiration (not to mention loss of inspiration, and the despair that comes from that) some ontological importance.

In a poem by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Elizabeth Bishop, a similar problem is presented.  The poem is ‘In the Middle of the Road’.

In the middle of the road there was a stone

there was a stone in the middle of the road

there was a stone

in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget this event

in the life of my fatigued retinas.

Never should I forget that in the middle of the road

there was a stone

there was a stone in the middle of the road

in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget that moment when my poetic powers, when inspiration and creativity, failed me, for words cannot relate what I see in this stone on the road, which is, of course, not only a stone on the road but myself, my whole life tumbling about inside me unable to be expressed, or put into words, the right words.  The poem is only what is right before me.  Nothing more.  And yet, ‘In the Middle of the Road’ strives for some kind of philosophical resonance, some kind of ontological significance, like ‘Shore Acres’ does.

The work of the poet is then to imagine, to imagine a shrine’s gate where there isn’t one, to imagine you are a stone while knowing you are not, to imagine yourself limestone and basalt when obviously you aren’t and never can be (and indeed in this poem the mind or the imagination and the body want to go their own ways, not unlike the couple in the poem).  And yet, these are all instances of becoming something it is impossible to be.  These are, in other words, grossly unrealistic expectations and mere fancies that don’t hold up to rational thought.  Like poetry might be in the mind of the writer who is struggling with writing and wondering what it is all for and whether it is worth it, whether the fancies — the flights of imagining things it is impossible to be — are worth it.  When so much poetry has been written, and continues to be written, sometimes you have to go to the places where you expect the silence, where you might expect the poetry to come.  And yet to do so means no experimentation (though every poem is perhaps a trying out of new ideas and method) and perhaps as well no inspiration, no surprise, nothing unexpected.  But being uninspired (the idea of it at least) may be inspiration enough.  For a writer, loss of inspiration and looking or waiting for inspiration is always the understory of the life, the sedimentary aspect of Being.  And while loss of inspiration may not be what you want to say or what you want to be, this wonderful poem reveals that it’s probably something worth putting into words after all.

Inattentions of Reading

This essay first appeared in Meanjin, Autumn 2019, in a slightly different form.

Whatever else it is, reading is surely one of the central activities and interests of literature.  Literature itself, though, is hardly a central activity or interest in contemporary culture.  So it seems odd that readers of Gerald Murnane who are also critics or reviewers like to point to the author’s eccentricities: he has never worn sunglasses, for example; he’s reclusive, never flown on a plane, and doesn’t like to travel; he never watches films, doesn’t like the sea, and, among other things, he’s obsessed with horse racing, keeping colour-coded files on races, horses and jockeys which can be recalled or retrieved at will, and so on.  But, we might want to ask, isn’t literature itself (of which Murnane may be an Australian exemplar) already an eccentric activity or interest?  Certainly a passionate interest in and a devotion to literature today isn’t as eccentric as it gets, but nevertheless it’s unconventional and slightly strange. 

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Image: Morganna Magee, for The New York Times.

Labelling Murnane an ‘eccentric’ merely helps to reconventionalise all the other so-called literary fiction that isn’t like that, reassuring writers and readers in the belief (and commercial prospect) that they are central to some ongoing project, and that they won’t be pushed to the outer ‘eccentric’ rim.  Murnane may or may not be as central as ever, but he’s certainly distinctive.  And no doubt his books can work in very idiosyncratic ways (if only for the idiosyncratic reader).  To read them is perhaps to feel a powerful inducement to write about the experience, an experience that just has to be accounted for and cannot be let to pass, as if to read Murnane is, for some, to be roused not only into more words but also into new words, and that these just have to be set down in writing.   His books, in short, can evoke profound responses in a reader. 

One account of such an experience of reading Murnane is an essay by Luke Carman in the Sydney Review of Books (‘In the Room with Gerald Murnane,’ 24/04/2018).  For Carman, Murnane is a writer who can inspire passionate reading, and his essay seems to suggest (if only in its method and style) that to read Murnane is to be inspired to read in one’s own way (unconventionally, idiosyncratically).  ‘Efficiency is not my forte as a reader,’ he writes.

I am cursed with the inability to finish the books wherein I find the greatest pleasure. The writing I most enjoy tends to get me so exercised by its effects that I am soon deep in a fugue state of mind, a kind of dissociative wandering from which I am required to return before I can come back to the page which started me off in the first place.  No sooner have I read a sentence or two of this stimulating prose, which seems to awaken some novelty of consciousness in me, than I find that I have spent the afternoon hours pacing back and forth about the house, the book which started the whole thing in motion having been long abandoned on a bench in the hallway.

Carman here reveals what extraordinary possibilities there can be in the relationship between reader and text.  When he reads the books he loves (which include Murnane’s) he becomes intensely preoccupied by thought (‘so exercised’).  Inspired by the sentences he reads, language, ideas and images rush in and take him over, leave him disassociated from himself, as though a book can conjure up other selves (even seemingly new selves — ‘some novelty of consciousness’) and throw identity into doubt or have it flee.  In Border Districts, Murnane writes: ‘sometimes, while reading a work of fiction, I seem to have knowledge of what it would be to have knowledge of the essence of some or another personality.’  Perhaps Carman’s ‘novelty of consciousness’ is Murnane’s ‘essence of some or another personality.’  Moreover, when Carman writes of an ‘inability to finish the books wherein I find the greatest pleasure’ we could say that this is a way of forestalling that pleasure in order to, paradoxically, keep it alive as a future possibility, postponing it to a later date (the book is unfinished and perhaps one day will be returned to).  But this admission by Carman of course also suggests that the pleasure is in fact too overwhelming.  It is indeed curious that he sees this as a curse and is a little hard on himself (perhaps to make a point or for stylistic effect).  Of course, you would have to allow for his being ironic here, that his reading experience is a curse or affliction only in the sense of it being strongly impressionistic and, as he posits in the essay, when pitted against ‘efficient’ readers, those readers who could construe in academic circles what he calls ‘an acceptable defence,’ as though academics hold all the cards when it comes to reading and supposedly knowing what reading is and what it can do (and of course the idea of efficiency also suggests a productivity measurable to monetised outcomes).  What we therefore need, Carman seems to suggest, is not only evocative reading that is peculiarly individualist but also idiosyncratic accounts of it, rather than (or as well as) ‘acceptable defences’ and ‘efficient’ readings that merely gather information and leave little room for curiosity and perhaps even less room for risk.

Murnane has stated that when reading novels, he sometimes fails to ‘follow plots and comprehend the motives of characters’.  In Barley Patch he writes:

a person who claims to remember having read one or another book is seldom able to  quote from memory even one sentence from the text.  What the person probably   remembers is part of the experience of having read the book: part of what happened in his or her mind during the hours while the book was being read.

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Image: Still from ‘Words and Silk: the imaginary and real worlds of Gerald Murnane.’ Director, Philip Tyndall.

If memory is memory of desire — as psychoanalysis would put it — then what is remembered here is desire, and one of the marvellous things about reading is that it can make you think not only of the words on the page before your eyes but by association many other things about yourself and the world as well.  In its associative power, reading could be if not equivalent then at least analogous to dreaming, powerfully activating primary processes of the unconscious mind; and as with dreaming we may have trouble recalling what has happened, left only with glimpsed images and the hauntings of voices, which are also the creative movements of the mind.  And there is an interesting aside to all this, that in trying to create a piece of writing, sitting at the desk and staring at the page, trying to think of the words for what comes next, you get up and leave off, and as soon as you do this — go out of the house and do something different — the words come to you but you’re now in no position to write them down, so you remember them (which could attest to writing’s primordial function of documenting what needs to be remembered).

In his essay Carman mentions — again, rather self-critically — his own forgetfulness when reading.  ‘There’s no excuse,’ he writes, ‘for professional readers whose memories are faulty.’  This is not a point about poor memory but about experience.  In other words, not to remember what you have read is to focus on the experience the activity of reading has created for you — the effects, the evocativeness of reading — and not on the recall of information.  Here Carman aligns himself more with Murnane and with readerly ‘inefficiencies’ than with so-called academic readers. 

There is, moreover, another point to be made here about reading and forgetful inefficiencies.  Carman argues that Murnane’s writing is ‘an extension of lapsed religious liturgy.’  To be lapsed is of course to no longer follow the rules and practices of a religion.  But a lapse is a brief or temporary failure of concentration and memory, even of judgement, and so if as Carman says Murnane’s writing is a form of lapsed worship, to read it is therefore to undertake an experience of spiritual inattention, which remembers the ecstatic and the revelatory and forgets, as Murnane would say, the unremarkable, or what isn’t evocative and moving.

There are many accounts of writing in our culture — how to do it, why to do it, what is happening when you’re doing it, who is doing it, who isn’t doing it, who should and shouldn’t be doing it, who is and isn’t winning the prizes, and so on, as if this is a culture of writing.  But rarely are there strong accounts of the reading experience.  One reason for this is that reading might be a more idiosyncratic activity than writing, and thus more difficult to account for (and the academic or so-called ‘efficient’ method would therefore become the easy way out).  Carman, it would seem, wants to keep something alive, a form of reading that needs to seek its fit (or match) in a powerful account of it (and his essay certainly has a kind of free-floating, digressive strength and energy about it; it’s also quite intricate, as in full of tricks and perplexities).  It’s as though a book is a force of nature, and what reading therefore stirs up are desires whose powerful excess needs expression through writing, as if writing is the only way to attend to this experience, a way not only of rereading the text (experience regained) but also of redescribing that which the text has elicited from within (language regained) — redescribing and not describing because, as one might assume, this experience (as Carman has documented it) has happened before, has perhaps even been sought out again and again (reading is thus the seeking out).  It’s as though to forget the words of the book you have been reading and enjoying (at least for Carman and Murnane) is to remember words of your own that are about, or have been inspired by, that book; that to forget is to make available something else of yourself — and of language, as selves are of course composed in language — that the book has brought into being, which is to continue the pleasure and associative power of reading in another way, in a writer’s way.  Writing is therefore describing and redescribing the varieties of our reading experiences.

And so when Carman describes the journey taken by the narrator of Border Districts from the city to the border town as ‘a temptation of associations’ and being ‘caught up in an immense digression of connectedness,’ this sounds very much like an apt description of the form his essay takes in response to reading Murnane.  These associations and digressions are the connections that arise out of evocative reading.  At the end of his essay Carman quotes a critic who says about Murnane: ‘I wonder if we will one day understand what we have here, in this man.’  Carman leaves the question (if it is a question) unanswered.  But there’s really no need (as the critic seems to imply) to be mysterious or overly precious about it.  What we have is a variety of reading experiences, whether efficient or inefficient or both together or something else entirely.  Perhaps, though, for Murnane’s work to survive what it needs is inspiring redescriptions by writers who keep trying to account for their powerful reading experiences.  Indeed, Murnane’s works may be the kind of writing that needs creative reading, needs a spiritual inattention.  Carman attempts this, and a reader of his essay may well think it fortunate that he’s the kind of writer who is also an inefficient reader.

Australian Realism

This essay was first published in Sydney Review of Books, July 2015, under the pseudonym, Paul Galimond. It appears here in a slightly altered form.

In The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (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.  These themes 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.

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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 the 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, kinds of 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], for example).  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 three hundred 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 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 more money.  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 eye witness 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’.

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Image: pexels.com

Morrison’s working life began early.  He left school at fourteen 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 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 insightfully 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 Ivor Indyk says, ‘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.  In Port of Call, 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 (1917) 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 says, 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’.

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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 says, 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.  As the novelist and poet Dorothy Hewett says, 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’.  Moreover, the Group published a magazine, Realist Writer, which defined realism as ‘word pictures of life as it is lived’, a picture 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 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 called 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, 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 says.  Told with such élan and weaving together both absurdity and seriousness with suspense and complexity, this story importantly 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, Hans 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 Cameron’s 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’, says Frank McLean 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 nous; 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.  In the words of 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 class divisions between 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 you from yourself.


Carter, David. ‘Documenting and Criticising Society’, The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, ed. Laurie Hergenhan, (Penguin, 1988), pp. 370-389.

Daniel, Helen. ‘At last, the return of the real short story,’ Review of North Wind by John Morrison, Age, 17 April 1982.

Docker, John. Australian Cultural Elites: Intellectual Traditions in Sydney and Melbourne, (Angus & Robertson, 1974).

Ellis, Cath. ‘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).

Hewett, Dorothy. ‘The Times they are a’Changin’’, Hecate, (21, ii, 1995).

Indyk, Ivor. ‘The Economics of Realism: John Morrison’, Meanjin, (no. 4, 1987).

Martin, David. ‘Three Realists in Search of Reality’, Meanjin, (no.78, 1959).

McAuley, James. Quadrant editor’s report to AACF – Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, (December, 1963).

McKernan, Susan. A Question of Commitment: Australian Literature in the Twenty Years after the War (Allen & Unwin, 1989).

Morrison, John. 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).

Murray-Smith, Stephen. ‘Introduction’, The Best Stories of John Morrison, (Penguin, 1988).

Phillips, A.A. ‘The Short Stories of John Morrison’, Overland, (Winter, 1974).

Reid, Ian. ‘Introduction’, Selected Stories by John Morrison, (Rigby, 1972).

Swiderski, Edward, M. ‘Review of Soviet Socialist Realism, by C. Vaughan James’, Studies in Soviet Thought (17, 3, Oct. 1977).

Syson, Ian. ‘Out from the shadows: The Realist Writers’ movement, 1944-1970, and communist cultural discourse’, Australian Literary Studies (15, 4, Oct. 1992).