Friday, December 23, 2011

Phyllis Gant on Ronald Hugh Morrieson

The 40th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the November 1996 issue.

The intro read:
Phyllis Gant recalls her night with Ronald Hugh Morrieson.
There’d be no partying for me. I went to my room in the newly-built student hostel with a monumental migraine. After trying to doze off I was suddenly alert: “There’s a man outside my window,” and told myself not to be silly. Then, in the glow from an outside light, a hand appeared, clutching the sill. There was a low moaning. The hand fell away.
I slammed the window shut. Below it I could see a figure on all fours. Terrified, I watched it crawl away, pulled the curtains together and, trembling, got back into bed, my head throbbing.
Presently there was a rattling at the window: he was trying to get in. “Go away!” I yelled, panic-stricken. “Some drunk, can’t find his room.” After a few minutes I peered out. He was sidling along the wall and away.
All was quiet; the migraine was settling down to something like bearable, and I slept – to be awaked by the sound of a male voice crying, “Help me! Oh, someone please help me!”
I looked out the window but could see nothing. The cries and moans continued. They seemed to be some little distance away and I decided there must be someone nearer to whoever it was than I, one of the men. He would go.
“Oh please! Someone help me! Please help me!”
I leapt out of bed in my long wincey nightie, not stopping to put on a dressing gown or slippers, and ran outside.
It took some minutes to find him. “Where are you?” I called. “Where are you?”
It was dark in the quad and the ground had been rotary-hoed. Shivering with cold and fright, I stumbled on the damp, sticky lumps of earth, my feet frozen.
There was a shape on the ground: I didn’t believe it, it was only a shadow. At that moment my ankle was gripped hard and I almost fell. I had met Ronald Hugh Morrieson.
It was only the second time Morrieson had been away from Hawera, the occasion, the writers’ conference held at Massey University in August 1973.
He stood out, with his paper-white moon face and his loose overcoat; someone said he had just come out of hospital, straight from hospital and onto the train to the conference. Fellow writers pointed him out: “That’s Morrieson.” It was said that he had written a number of important novels, but no one in New Zealand would publish them. There was talk of one, possibly two, being published in paperback in Australia.
He was a man of mystery, a man alone. When he got to his feet at one of the sessions, what he had to say confirmed the suffering his appearance suggested.
A brisk, older woman, German-Jewish I would guess from her features and accent, took issue with his criticism of his country, along with his remarks about his own depression and despondency. “You do not know how lucky you are to live in this beautiful land!” she cried. “Depressed? What have you to be depressed about? Everybody should be just so happy! No one in New Zealand need be depressed!”
Morrieson said not a word, simply looked at her, incredulous, from his depths.
Thereafter this lady took him in hand, pursuing him relentlessly and plumping down beside him at mealtimes, interminably extolling the beauty and bounty of our wonderful land, cajoling him into conversation, self-justification, and a resigned, even tolerant acceptance of her dubious comfort. It wasn’t easy for anyone else to get a look in; I’d like to meet him, I thought, but I can’t compete with that.
Now I called for help. The man was floundering in mud. All was quiet, the rooms dark. I tried to prise his fingers loose. “I’ll fall if you grip me like that,” I said, reasonably.
Taking him by the hand and trying to drag him to his feet was beyond my strength. I got my hands under his arms and somehow got him precariously upright. We proceeded, he leaning heavily on me, to cross that no-man’s land to a concrete path.
I was going at the knees and back; I had to have help. As we reached a lit area, two male students, tittering, passed by.
“Help me, please help me,” I said. We must have looked a comedy turn there on the path in the middle of the night, a middle-aged woman in a bedraggled nightie and bare, mud-caked feet, and what appeared to be a paralytic drunk covered in mud.
“Oh please don’t go,” I said. “I really do need help – this man is ill.”
With that they came back and between them, no trouble for two strong blokes, got Morrieson up to his room, undressed, and into bed.
Morrieson went back to Hawera next morning, leaving a message of thanks for “the kind lady”.
It would be nice if I could recall the things Morrieson said. Maybe it was here that he observed he “hoped he wasn’t going to be one of those poor buggers who become famous after their deaths”; I don’t know.
He did speak bitterly of the rejection of his work in his own country, of the anguish of keeping on writing in a climate of indifference and a state of isolation.
And he has proved to be “one of those poor buggers” after all.

Phyllis Gant, author of the novels Islands (1973) and The Fifth Season (1976), died in April 2010, aged 87.

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