Books

Poet and author Blake Morrison on grief and why he wrote so much about his family

Poetry was an escape growing up, and he couldn’t wait to leave home, so why did he end up writing so much about his family?

Blake Morrison close up to the camera

Blake Morrison. Image: ©Nobby Clark

Blake Morrison was born in Skipton, Yorkshire, in 1950. He worked for the Times Literary Supplement between 1978 and 1981 and was literary editor for both The Observer (1981-89) and the Independent on Sunday (1989-95). 

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), written in Yorkshire dialect. A selection of his poems, Pendle Witches, was published in a special edition in 1996, illustrated by the artist Paula Rego. He has also had books of poetry criticism published and co-edited The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry with Andrew Motion. 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. 

Morrison’s award-winning memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), an honest and moving account of his father’s life and death, was made into a film in 2007. A second memoir about his mother, Things My Mother Never Told Me, was published in 2002. His latest memoir, Two Sisters, is an unflinching account of hoe addiction can affect families.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, Morrison reflects on his early love of literature and his decision to write about his family.

My main interests when I was 16 were football, poetry and girls. I was playing a lot of football, I had a trial for Preston North End. But throughout that year I was getting into writing poems and getting interested in the opposite sex, so football began to slip away. I was pretty shy and I went to an all-boys grammar school. I wrote terrible, miserable poems about unrequited love. But in real life I didn’t do too badly with the opposite sex, I had a few relationships. It seemed to be, growing up in rural Yorkshire, things got going fairly quickly. I think I was just 14 when I first went to the pictures with a girl. My sex life began probably before it should have. 

The 16-year-old me would have found ridiculous the idea that one day I would write about my family. I was trying to escape from them, not put them in books! Things were getting especially tricky with my dad [subject of the successful memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? in 1993]. He just didn’t get the point of reading, which I was increasingly into, because if you’re reading you’re sitting down – you need to be doing stuff. You need to be out there mowing the grass for me or helping me wash the car or… just get off your arse was his attitude. He was quite an overbearing man. I was closer to my mum. I was my mum’s only son. I felt close to her. She was a quieter, more self-effacing person than my dad. I felt I could emotionally open up to her in a way I couldn’t to him. But in general I definitely felt I needed to get away. Poetry was an escape really, from my family.

Blake Morrison in close up resting his chin on his hand
In 2002, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Image: jeremy sutton-hibbert / Alamy Stock Photo

My parents were both GPs in the same practice. My dad hoped I would take over, marry the girl next door, all that sort of stuff. But I knew I wasn’t really into science. I didn’t know what I’d do, I just knew I had to study something very different from medicine. I was more into books. But I didn’t ever envisage having a literary career. There was no precedent – nobody we knew was a writer. It seemed an impossibly distant kind of world. I didn’t really see my poems as a way forward into a literary career, they were just something I needed to do to express myself.

My younger self would say to me now, what are you doing living down south in London? Because despite the itch to get away, I kind of thought, Yorkshire is home, this is where I’ll always be. I remember when I was a child we visited some family friends who had moved down south to the outskirts of London, and I was sort of horrified by that world. I grew up in a Yorkshire village by the hills; that suburban south-eastern lifestyle, which is pretty much where I live now, would have horrified me then. 

The teenage me would really wonder why on earth I ended up writing so much about my family. He’d say, you’ve always said the family were so boring. And that you wanted to leave them behind and explore more interesting things. And yet you’ve ended up writing three books about members of your family. That would astound my 16-year-old self. But it started with my dad’s death. The shock and disbelief that this person I’d always thought would be around, even though he was 75, had gone – it was extraordinary. 

It was a story I had felt obliged to tell for personal reasons, maybe to do with grief or therapy or self-healing or something. I needed to get it all down. I had published poetry by then, but this seemed too big to put in a poem or even a sequence of poems. And I didn’t think it was a novel – the whole point of the book was that you believed this was happening to a real person. I don’t know whether I would have thought of it as a memoir – that wasn’t such a well-established genre then. But it just got itself written in the year after my dad died. 

Jim Broadbent, Blake Morrison holding a glass of champagne and Colin Firth stand facing the camera
2007: With Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth at the London premiere of And When Did You Last See Your Father? Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

I don’t regret writing the books. I feel lucky that they don’t seem to come across as narcissistic or selfish. And people have been affected by them. They’ve made connections with people’s own lives. That gives them a purpose beyond me, and that’s good. But in my book about my dad, I included a letter sent to me by his lover or mistress, whatever you might call her. I was sure they’d been in this relationship and years later, I discovered I did have a half-sister, but she was in denial about it. So I quoted that letter in the book, because it had a really moving line in it. And I didn’t ask her permission to use it. I did tell her I was trying to fit together this jigsaw now that dad had gone, to make sense of my life and childhood. And she said, you know, please leave me one bit of the jigsaw that’s mine. These days I think using that letter without permission would be ethically frowned upon. But back then, these things weren’t considered so important. Now the whole issue of privacy is a much bigger deal in life-writing.

I wouldn’t have expected to write about my mum [Things My Mother Never Told Me, 2002], because she was quite guarded. She didn’t talk much about her Irish past or her childhood. It was later that I discovered quite what a large family she’d been part of – there were 20 children. So I thought wow, this is quite a story. Alongside her need to play down her Catholicism and change her name. I felt she was sad sometimes. Part of me felt that she surrendered too much of herself really, and her Irish past. Some kids who have an Irish parent would go and spend their summers in Ireland. We didn’t do that. I’m always very pleased if anybody shows an awareness of that book about my mum, because it matters as much to me as the book about my dad, though it’s much less well known. It came out of wanting to pay tribute to a quiet person; my mum, who had nothing to be ashamed of. 

If I could have one last conversation with anyone, I’m torn between two. I’d like to spend a bit of time in the company of Philip Larkin, who I did meet a couple of times. Not to ask him anything really, just to be reminded of the kind of person he was. On the other hand I’d like to talk to my sister Gill and spend a bit more time with her. I was 16 and it was becoming clear that she wasn’t happy. I’d like to listen to her a bit more and not treat her like the younger sister who was the least important part of my life at the time. 

My sister once said to a friend, “I wonder if he’ll ever write a book about me. I don’t think I’d mind.” But she might mind. [Gill’s death brought about Morrison’s third family memoir, Two Sisters]. She might not want to read the passages where I talk about her drinking, because she didn’t like to acknowledge it. Once a binge was over she liked to pretend it had never happened. That was one of the big problems, her inability to talk about stuff that was bothering her. So I dare say she wouldn’t like some things in the book. But I still felt I had to tell the story and I did consult with people who were close to her and they said, yes, it’s the truth. I hope she’d like parts of it. She’d appreciate the effort to understand her and try and work out what it was that got her drinking and made her die before she should have done.

Two Sisters book cover shows children in black and white

Two Sisters by Blake Morrison is out now (The Borough Press, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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