John David Morley was an English writer and novelist, the youngest child of the artist and sculpter Patricia Morley (née Booth), and grandson of Victor Booth, who was a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He had written ten novels, including the bestseller Pictures from the Water Trade.
John David Morley to Me
On Miscellaneous (2)
I do appreciate your generous offer to share with me some of the „materials“ of your life. One or two books did indeed get written thanks to some such collaboration. Although I was never a journalist in the proper sense of the word, I did work for newspapers as a freelance feature writer. And whenever I arrived on someone’s doorstep to be initiated into their life story, as not seldom happened, I was aware of the unique relationship that allows two total strangers to sit down and have these intimate conversations, and of the privilege granted the journalist to be partaking in them. Many of the for me most valuable bits of the conversation never made it into the article, but much later, decades later, they often did make it into corners of books having nothing to do with the interviewee as such.
Why do people agree to this? Because they have things to tell to an interested and sympathetic observer, and speaking about those things usually means a relief to them.
Meanwhile my writing days are over. I’m tired; generally, call it collateral of the heart problem I’ve had for the last 20 years. After finishing my last book 5 years ago the spark which ignites a writing project has remained extinguished, and I don’t miss it, relieved just to have time to deal with the demands of this large property and the daily routine of the needs of my dear, increasingly incapacitated and fragile old Armgard. We’ve been looking after one another now for over fifty years, no end in sight.
In my precarious financial position on retirement I was fortunate enough to be nominated by the Royal Literary Fund for a lifetime pension, small, to be sure, but together with what I paid in to my pensions’ fund here enough to make ends meet. Which is the basis of reassurance in life, if there is such a thing, certainly in an older life. Whatever your UK island situation, I guess it will be preferable to the one brewing up in HK, with new paradigms of life that may be alarming to those who knew the place as it was.
I’ll be in touch again when I’ve put together some bits and pieces that may be of interest to you.
I hope you’re enjoying your summer, without more debilitating health setbacks.
Difficult to determine the extent of your garden. In the foreground is a hedge, where the two white-flowering shrubs stand, and I assume this hedge is the division between your property and the neighbor’s. From the perspective we get in the photo, however, all one sees beyond the flowering shrubs is a rich array of greens, so it may be immaterial on whose property the green stands, for what matters is the view. Guess the greens can be dated May-June, mid-July latest, because after about that point in the summer the greens fade and lose their gloss.
The trick with the perspective suggesting a sizeable estate is one we can offer here, too. From a pavilion at the back of the garden you look maybe a quarter mile to the north, with not a single house in sight, just stately ascending trees, a cedar and a Canadian redwood dominating the middle ground, above which one can see great spreading beech trees, at least a century old, putting me in mind of Keats’ beechen green and shadows numberless. Until last year, a huge fir tree formed the final visible point on the horizon, but this year the fir tree is no longer visible, so it must have been cut down while I wasn’t looking. Pity!
To me the most interesting paragraph in your letter was the last one.
“An examiner at the U said she found my Quben moving because it’s from the heart. If I put in love interest, it will only be my fantasy rather than from life experience, and not from the heart. If the love story is autobiographical like my Quben, it will be gloomy.”
There are leaps between these sentences requiring me to guess just what it is you are saying.
Why will it be only your fantasy if you put in a love interest? Are you saying you have no life experience of a love interest on which to draw? What is the connection between a love story being autobiographical, like the Quben, and it being gloomy? Is that necessarily the case? I am left guessing you do have experience of a love interest on which to draw and it was a gloomy one.
Well, if the materials our experience of life gives us seem gloomy, why not write that story and that music in a gloomy key? Better gloomy from the heart than cheerful from mere fantasy. Would your examiner have agreed with that? If she found the Quben moving because it came from the heart, I think she would have been moved by even the gloomiest love interest if it likewise came from the heart.
Dear Wai On,
This will not have been an easy letter for you to write. I’m grateful you did, though, because it illuminates your related project, casting on it a light in much the way I had been anticipating, setting all the foregone doubts, misgivings and criticisms of your work that have engaged me over the past few months in a wholly new context. And this in turn has resulted in the recognition that I must entirely revise my view of the work.
If I have keep count correctly of the protagonists briefly characterized in your letter, then there have been three, three that most matter to you and are most relevant to you personally as well as to your work project. I can’t overlook the fact that the cancer which invaded you likewise came and was overcome three times in your life, presumably with longish intervals inbetween. Naturally I tend to think there’s a connection between the three failed love affairs and the three bouts of cancer.
I know several women who contracted cancer in the aftermath of their relationships with men having gone badly wrong. They recovered from the cancer, but they didn’t recover from the aborted relationships, which I see as contingent on their having contracted cancer at that particular time and in those particular circumstances. Without going so far as to say those circumstances caused their cancer, the circumstances and the cancer are inextricably linked, I am absolutely sure.
The bare raw story is shocking, and I fully understand that you were not able to integrate this background within the quben. To use your raw material and integrate it successfully into the narrative of a words and music drama is, in my opinion, impossible as it stands. You would have to refashion and invent, and the resources of imagination required to pull that off are of a very high order.
I shall not comment on the confidences shared with me in your letter. I would like only to say that if one were to use the material as suggested in the paragraph above one would first and foremost have to shine a bright, hard light on the “heroine” on the receiving end of these three affairs. What was her part in the failure of these relationships? No relationship that doesn’t have at least two sides to it, no truth that cannot be represented as accompanied by parallel and divergent truths. In your letter it is your privilege to set the matter out exclusively from your POV. In a narrative put out for public consumption, however, the writer who has so roundly condemned the men with whom the love affairs went wrong would also have to open herself up for an equally unsparing inspection. I wouldn’t recommend you attempting to do that.
So I can only agree with your wise conclusion: “I think I have had enough and prefer to forget and cannot look back with humour like Song & Dance of a Cancer Survivor.”
In the attachment you will find a summary of the story told by Fassbinder in his The bitter tears of Petra von Kant. This works because it offers a critical view of all the main protagonists, warts and all. This too is a bleak and painful story which carries the day thanks to the genius of Fassbinder’s insights into the psychology of all the characters, favouring and sparing none. The story succeeds in maintaining our interest in the unsympathetic protagonists because despite their lack of sympathy they are all only too human, and in them we recognise, however reluctantly, truths about ourselves.
With best wishes as ever,
PS Good luck with Ella Morris. The book is 1000 pages long and correspondingly heavy. One reader commented one should be careful not to drop it on one’s foot. A Kindle version might have been the better choice! In my view, an ideal time span to read through the whole book is about three months. Worth waiting for a clear stretch of reading time ahead of you – around Christmas, for example?