Sunday, May 08, 2016

Songs of innocence

Following on from the Arab Strap article posted in February, here's another old (unedited) university magazine article I unearthed recently - this time, my interview with writer Blake Morrison that took place in late 2000 or early 2001.

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Fresh-faced and full of the naivety of youth, Blake Morrison first arrived at Nottingham University from his native Yorkshire in 1969, eager to experience all that university life had to offer. 32 years on, older, wiser, and perhaps more cynical, he's been invited back as one of this country's most respected writers to talk about a distinguished career that has taken in literary reviewing, poetry, an award-winning memoir of his father and an acclaimed book on the Bulger case, As If.

This official invitation to address an audience of postgraduates seems rather curious; as a young idealistic English undergraduate Morrison once participated enthusiastically in an occupation of the Trent Building. In the late 1960s even conservative middle-class universities like Nottingham were hotbeds of political activism, and it wasn't long before he found himself caught up in the spirit of the times. "There had been student riots all over the world", he says, "and frankly those television images rubbed off on people." But times change, and it's hard to imagine such revolutionary fervour today. "There was probably much more interest in politics and alternatives then", he agrees. "At least when Thatcher was around there was something to rally against. People have huge doubts about Blair, but it's just a bland consensus thing. It's hard for anybody in public life and politics as well as at universities to get worked up." Apathy reigns, it seems.

However, careful not to romanticise his own experience, Morrison fears the introduction of tuition fees will herald a return to the days of restricted access and elitism. As a former resident of the "depressingly all-male" Hugh Stu Hall, he also welcomes the demise of single-sex halls: "on the whole", he argues, "you want to be encouraging a co-educational environment where you're getting rid of suspicion and misunderstanding between the sexes." But he nevertheless clings to the hope that university should be more than just a finishing school, lamenting the current emphasis on employability and transferable skills. "Part of university should be having the chance to be a bit distant from life and the workplace and power structures, and to question them", he suggests, adding, "I think you're much more pressurised than we were, so you neither have the time for intellectual reflection beyond the subjects you're studying, nor maybe do you have the time to have a good time."

Morrison's personal experience of university life is fondly chronicled in the essay 'Bloody Students'. Part reminiscence and part reflection on the current state of higher education in this country, 'Bloody Students' was inspired by his return to Nottingham in 1994. Even then he noted with some disappointment that "money is the word on everyone's lips". With the University currently embroiled in the controversy over British American Tobacco funding, little has changed. His response is animated, an unequivocal condemnation of the tobacco firm's donation. "It's very important that the whole research effort isn't tied in with a particular industry, and obviously in this case it seems very dubious", he reasons.

In February 1989, when editor of the books pages for the Observer, Morrison suddenly found himself unwittingly at the centre of a major controversy of a very different kind. Muslim leader the Ayatollah Khomeini, outraged at "blasphemous" passages in Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, invoked a death sentence (fatwa) on the author, who at the time was one of Morrison's regular reviewers. Rushdie was forced into hiding, but, as Morrison recalls, "he owed me a review and three days after he disappeared the review arrived by post – this was a world news story." A whole debate opened up in which Morrison vigorously defended the condemned man, later conducting an interview with him for the Independent On Sunday when he broke his silence. All the time Rushdie continued to get book reviews published. "I've forgotten how we got the books to him", Morrison laughs.

Controversial issues have always attracted Morrison's interest and inspired his writings, as a survey of his work testifies. Take, for instance, As If, which began life as an article in the New Yorker, and which cuts through the indignant tabloid hysteria and sensationalism surrounding the Bulger trial, instead treating the harrowing events with a careful and rational sensitivity. Or his long poem 'The Ballad Of The Yorkshire Ripper', written in dialect, which takes for its subject the convicted mass murderer Peter Sutcliffe, who claimed to have been sent by God to kill prostitutes. Or 'The Trouble With Porn', an extended review of Nadine Strossen's book Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex And The Fight For Women's Rights in which he both applauds and takes issue with Strossen's arguments. "The censorship lobby protecting children or women versus people who are saying you've got to be able to talk about whatever you like, take photographs of whatever you like – those sorts of issues interest me", he explains.

However, what is most remarkable about Morrison's work is its sheer variety. In addition to reviews, poetry, investigative journalism and biography, he has also written a play and a short film, and is currently working on a memoir of his mother. Too True, a volume of his journalism, stories and extended reviews, contains pieces on major literary figures such as Philip Larkin, Angela Carter, Alan Bennett and Ted Hughes, as well as a recollection of his childhood passion for Burnley Football Club and a fascinating article on the North-South divide. "I really like trying my hand at different things, different kinds of writing", he admits. "If people suggest something and it sounds good and interesting, I think, 'Yeah, OK, why not? I'll have a go'".

Too True comes highly recommended, not only as a showcase for the impressive range of Morrison's writing; it is also where you can read 'Bloody Students'. Touching and wistful without ever lapsing into sentimentality, his recollection of student life in Nottingham is by turns perceptive, informative and amusing, revolving around situations and places instantly recognisable to us all. "The rooms are as monkish as I remember them", he writes of halls of residence, " - bed, desk, chair, sixty-watt bulb - and the corridors have the same smell of stale sex and burnt toast." Like Larkin, he constantly strives to find poetry in the mundane detail of life, and there is perhaps an underlying sense of sadness in such sentences as "When I take the long walk round the university lake, old haunt of those nursing hangovers and broken hearts, the only sign of life I come across is a knotted pink condom". At the end of the piece he grudgingly acknowledges his student days are long gone, but did he enjoy his time at Nottingham? "I felt very at home here at the end", he says, smiling.

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