Obituary: John Morrison
Saturday 26 August 2017
John Morrison (photo), a Reuters journalist who changed from fact to fiction when he became an author and playwright, died of cancer on Friday aged 68.
An Oxford modern languages graduate, he worked in Moscow, Vienna, The Hague, Paris, Harare and London where he covered British politics. That assignment yielded material for two non-fiction books on politics and a satirical novel, Anthony Blair, Captain of School. It was described as “a razor-sharp satire on the rise and fall of [former British prime minister] Tony Blair, retold as an Edwardian boy’s school story”.
“‘Never make up a quote,’ one of my bosses at Reuters told me when I joined as a wet-behind-the-ears trainee in 1971, equipped with a working knowledge of Pushkin but not much else,” Morrison recalled in 2011.
After a few months training in London he was working in Moscow and determined not to blot his copybook.
“Making up quotes wasn’t the sort of thing we did, especially in Moscow, with the KGB reading every word we punched out laboriously on an ancient telex keyboard.”
Nearly 40 years later he still felt “a twinge of guilty pleasure” when, as a playwright, he put words into the mouths of real people.
“Sticking to the historical facts won’t get you far on stage; at the best it will lead to a turgid drama-documentary. And yet, as I found in writing a play about Soviet spy Guy Burgess, the best stories are often true, like the one that filtered out of the KGB archives at the end of the cold war about Burgess and his close friend Goronwy Rees. Panicking about the risk of being betrayed to MI5, Burgess offered to murder Rees, but his Moscow controllers vetoed the idea.”
Burgess - “the most theatrical of the Cambridge spies” - died in Moscow in 1963 aged 52 after a lifetime of drinking and smoking.
Morrison’s play A Morning With Guy Burgess imagines him shortly before his final admission to hospital, looking back on his life.
“I had the idea of writing a play about Burgess back in the early 1990s, when as a World Desk fireman I often flew in to the busy bureau in Moscow, the city which had been my home for more than five years in the 1970s and 1980s. I took the opportunity to interview retired KGB colonel Yuri Modin, who as a young spy in the 1940s had worked with Burgess in London. He described Burgess, known for his alcoholic benders, as surprisingly punctual and reliable - a very professional spy indeed.”
Morrison had previously written a play about the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow and the Russian art world. His early efforts at writing drama foundered on what he said was a lack of understanding of how to structure a play. He developed his new craft by joining Player-Playwrights, a London-based group of actors and writers who met weekly to read and discuss new writing.
“While I quickly got over my reluctance to make up quotes, I found my journalistic instinct to explain everything as clearly and as early as possible to the reader was a huge handicap. Writing drama often means covering up what’s happening and keeping the audience guessing.” ■