Blake Morrison was born in Skipton, Yorkshire, in 1950.
He was educated at the University of Nottingham and University College, London. He worked for the Times Literary Supplement between 1978 and 1981 and was then literary editor for both The Observer and the Independent on Sunday. He is Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a former Chairman of the Poetry Book Society and council member of the Poetry Society, a member of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council of England and Vice-Chairman of English PEN. Since 2003 he has been Professor of Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College.His non-fiction books include As If (1997), about the trial of the two young boys convicted of killing the toddler James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993, and Too True (1998),a collection of essays and stories. His poetry includes the collections Dark Glasses (1984), winner of a Somerset Maugham Award, and The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper (and Other Poems) (1987). A selection of his poems, Pendle Witches, was published in a special edition in 1996, illustrated by the artist Paula Rego.His memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), an honest and moving account of his father's life and death, won the J. R. Ackerley Prize and the Esquire/Volvo/Waterstone's Non-Fiction Book Award and was made into a film in 2007, starring Colin Firth. A second memoir about his mother, Things My Mother Never Told Me, was published in 2002.
Blake Morrison's critical work includes The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950s (1980) and Seamus Heaney (1982). He is editor (with Andrew Motion) of The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982) and wrote a book for children, The Yellow House (1987), illustrated by Helen Craig. His play, The Cracked Pot (1996), is an adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist's Der Zerbrochene Krug. Both this and his version of Sophocles's Oedipus (2001) were produced and performed by Barrie Rutter's theatre company Northern Broadsides. The same theatre company went on to perform his version of Antigone in 2003 and published Antigone and Oedipus (2003) in a double volume the same year. His latest plays are The Man with Two Gaffers, a version of Carlo Goldoni's Il servitore di due padroni, and Lisa's Sex Strike, which toured with Northern Broadsides in 2007. He is also the author of the screenplay for The Bicycle Thieves, a short film for Channel 4 Television.
He has written the libretti for operas in collaboration with composer Gavin Bryars, including Dr Ox's Experiment, and G, a work about Johanne Gutenberg. His latest libretto is for the opera Elephant and Castle, with music by Tansy Davies and Mira Calix.
Blake Morrison lives in London. His first novel, The Justification of Johann Gutenberg, a fictional portrait of the 15th-century printer and the inventor of movable type, was published in 2000. His most recent books are the novels, South of the River (2007) and The Last Weekend (2010), shortlisted for the 2011 New Angle Literary Prize..
As a writer, Blake Morrison is something of an enigma.
The fact that he has worked in almost every form – novels, poetry, plays, journalism, memoirs, criticism, libretti and a screenplay – shows an artistic restlessness and ambition that is quite unique. It also perhaps indicates why, in spite of the success of the memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993) his work is not as celebrated as it might be. Readers and critics like to pin writers down; Morrison, like the foxes that pervade much of his work, refuses this ease and moves on.
Morrison’s earliest work was a poet and a critic of poetry, in which can often be seen the influence of one of his favourite writers, Philip Larkin. ‘On Sizewell Beach’ is a subtle echo of Matthew Arnold’s similarly bleak ‘Dover Beach’. In this poem, the looming hulk of the nuclear power station symbolizes the menace lurking behind daily life, that will come to be a theme of Morrison’s work; here, the danger is manifested as the near death of a child. Tragedy, we are reminded, is not always caused by large events. The bleakness is found likewise in ‘Flats’, where
‘They have cordoned off the worldinto couples and couples, all separate,all being made to listen tosome love that will never be theirs.’
And ‘Superstore’, where such developments are
‘not a mockery of churchesbut a way like them of forgettingthe darkness where no one’s servingand there’s nothing to choose from all.’
The poetic masterpiece, however, is ‘The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper’. Narrated by an unnamed Yorkshireman, in appropriately strong dialect, the balanced musicality of the ballad stanza form makes an ironic contrast with the horror it describes. The poem makes angry social points – the police were uninterested in the deaths of the early prostitute victims – and casts an utterly negative view of men and sexuality:
‘All you blokes would kill like himgiven half a chance’
and of life itself:
‘An death is like a stormclap,a frizzlin o thi cells,a pitchfork through thi arteries,an tha knows there in’t owt else.’
We are subtly encouraged, though, to think: it seems that society, and cultural conditions, could also be held responsible for the crimes – a theme we will see again later.
The hugely successful memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? is representative of much of Morrison’s later work in the way it follows its subject: this is not an attempt to proceed chronologically, with the possibility of finding answers. Instead, we find a patchwork of memories and highly intimate ‘present’ events; it seems that, although another person may never be truly understood, enquiring and thinking, making mental journeys, may bring us closer. There is also a desire by the writer to speculate about fragments of other lives, looking for common humanity. Shortly after his father’s death, Morrison watches a young couple ‘go into the street, among other pushchairs, other people, the mill of bodies, the unending cycle of sex and parenthood, never enough time, never enough patience.’ This technique is an equally strong part of Morrison’s study of the Bulger trial, As If (1997). Beginning by narrating the fable of the medieval ‘children’s crusade’, Morrison argues that the shocking murder of James Bulger needs to be seen in a much wider cultural and historical context, and that his book is actually about adults – who must bear responsibility. Throughout, the author is both objective and appalled, and sensitive to ambiguities and different points of view; he writes that we cannot ‘understand these boys and what they did unless we look within, at our own lives’. By the end, though, there are some conclusions: it is inhuman to judge children as adults, for they are not yet capable of developed reasoning, in spite of their potential for violence; it is up to society to nurture and ‘train’ them, and legal reform is clearly necessary.
If this variety and passion in writing was not enough, Morrison then turned to fiction, and has to date published two novels of quite startling difference. The first, The Justification of Johann Gutenberg (2000) is an imagined account of the inventor of printing’s life, as recounted to a scribe. Gutenberg’s narration brings to life the background of fifteenth-century Europe – its plagues, wars, unrest and domination by a greedy Church – in an unselfconscious way: these details simply form the backcloth of Gutenberg’s life. The bisexual Gutenberg himself is shown to be a restless, ambitious, proud and arrogant figure; he sees himself as God, excuses his criminality, and seems oblivious to the plight of his workers; his honesty, though, creates empathy. Matters, however, are not as simple as this, for towards the end of the book we learn that the scribe has been mischievously adding sentences of his own. When, subsequently, we discover that a new scribe has been ordered to copy the entire version, we feel the truth slipping further away. Ironically, then, the imagined Gutenberg obscures the truth by means of his ‘justification’; we are reminded, in a parallel way, that little is known of the real Gutenberg’s life, and that Morrison has had to invent – in a sense, to ‘lie’. The novel, then, is postmodern, but without the self-conscious playfulness and artifice which often mar that type of fiction.
South of the River (2007) was received by some reviewers as a ‘state of the nation’ novel; the author in fact has stated that his intent was to make readers be interested in each of the characters and their lives. The book is clearly a realist novel, in its firm anchoring of characters to time and place: Britain, over 10 years beginning with the day after Tony Blair’s victory in 1997. It also shows its allegiance to the realist tradition in its depiction of the inner lives of its personae, often through free indirect style. The variety in point of view indicates the author’s tolerant liberalism, writing the type of fiction that Iris Murdoch believed mirrored a good society. As in the previous novel, the ‘real’ background is only present as it is part of characters’ lives: the clunky obtrusion of national events and politics for their own sake is not present here, as it is in many ‘state of the nation’ novels, although there is a unifying bleak view of Britain today:
‘We’ve become a nation of dumbos and zombies, faddies and fatties, workaholics and shopaholics, abusers and self-harmers. We kid ourselves we’re emotionally literate … real intimacy doesn’t exist; no one listens; we don’t have time for each other – we’re all too busy.’
The novel incorporates other narratives – a speech, a lecture, creative writing and mock 1920s pornography, and has a unifying, mysterious symbol in the fox; the book reminds us, too, that Morrison is a poet, in the image of the line of girls ‘making music at their checkout tills.’
Morrison, in his career, has successfully covered a great deal of ground, and themes such as violence, family, sexuality, and trust recur. Perhaps the best way to sum his work up is in his own words about why he writes:
‘To illuminate things for myself. When I start a book I'm never clear what I’m up to, only that I’m nagging away at some problem, or mesh of problems (aesthetic, moral, social). I don’t claim to offer a simple resolution or blinding flash of illumination. But by the end I’m less in the dark - and I hope the reader is too.’
Dr Nick Turner, 2009