Librarian and master of intrigue?

2011-09-12 00:00

JOHN Morrison is best known in Pietermaritzburg via his association with the city’s main library in Church Street. He worked there for 25 years until his recent retirement and oversaw its transition from the Natal Society Library, the only privately run public library in the country, to the Bessie Head Municipal­ Library it is today.

“The handover to the municipality in 2004 was the best thing that could have happened,” says Morrison. “It secured the library’s future.”

But to see Morrison as a dutiful and conscientious public servant is to miss the man. After all, this is someone who a friend, Chris Keal, described as “an old-time conspirator and master of intrigue”. This, in an article published in The Witness dealing with the 1981 black armband campaign protesting the exclusion of black runners from the Comrades Marathon — the 1981 run was part of the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the Republic of South Africa.

Morrison has run the Comrades 27 times — most recently this year. Following his first run in 1968, he began seconding “ghost runners”, black runners who ran the race but were not officially recognised. “I would provide food and water along the course as they couldn’t use the facilities.”

Another of Morrison’s friends, former librarian Pat McKenzie, recalls that Morrison was among those white runners who would hand their medals to black runners who had “unofficially” qualified. The iconic marathon was opened to all races in 1975.

Morrison was born in Germiston in 1946 and after attending a local primary school went to Queen’s High, a co-ed school in Kensington. In 1969 he came to Pietermaritzburg to do a BCom at the then University of Natal. “But I had a somewhat chequered academic career thereafter, thanks to spending my time buggering around in politics.”

Parental pressure had pointed him in the direction of a career in accountancy, hence the BCom, but anyone who knows Morrison would realise he and a BCom were not going to be a good fit. “It wasn’t really me,” he says. “Even as a librarian I’m not a very ordered person.”

Morrison eventually did a BA — “doing it part-time as I had to finance it myself” — obtaining his degree­ in 1975.

In-between academic pursuits, or lack of them, Morrison was a member of the Nusas Wages Commission created in the seventies which saw him rubbing shoulders with David Hemson, Halton Cheadle, Charles Nupen and Rick Turner, who was later assassinated. Morrison also helped edit the newspaper produced by the Wages Commission, Isisebenzi (“The Worker”). “I did it with John Aitchison. He was under house arrest at the time, so we used to do it at his home. It was great fun.”

Working with the Wages Commission also saw Morrison involved with the formation of the first black trade unions that grew out of the Nusas­-created Benefit Society.

As a member of another Nusas creation, the South African Voluntary Service, Morrison helped build a clinic­ at Pomeroy for Augustinian nuns. “The security police turned up within hours of us arriving. No one there was of any danger to state security, it was absolutely crazy then.”

Morrison also found time to be chairperson of the Young Progressives (the youth arm of the Progressive Federal Party) in Pietermaritzburg as well as being a member of the Pietermaritzburg branch of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). “Via that membership one met the cream of black African society, like the Msimang brothers and Professor Cyril Nyembezi and the Reverend Enoz Sikhakhane who founded the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre. We used to meet in the council chamber of the university. Even though we are integrated now, we don’t seem to meet at this level anymore. People stick to their party affiliations.”

McKenzie also recalls that during this period, Morrison “probably put up more political posters than anyone else”. Adding — “and he took them down too”.

Financing his BA studies saw Morrison doing a stint behind the counter at Tandoo Takeaways (where KFC is now in Albert Luthuli Road) and working for the late Thomas Welz (fondly remembered for Bloomsbury Books) when Welz ran an antique shop, Ideas. “It was mainly antiques, but there were also books,” says Morrison. “I worked behind the counter and as a driver. Thomas would send me off through the Transkei to places like East London and Grahamstown to pick up old yellowwood tables and dressers.”

Morrison also spent 18 months working as a research assistant to Natal Museum archaeologist Tim Maggs. “I wasn’t employed by the museum but by Tim who had got a research grant,” Morrison recalls. “I had done a course in prehistory with John Wright as part of my BA, and prehistory and archaeology are very close.”

“I was involved in various digs — at the confluence of Black and White Mfolozi rivers, Umgungundlovu, Shakan game pits — and I worked with Pat Vinnicombe and Patrick Carter in the Lesotho Drakensberg identifying Bushman paintings.

“It was such a great privilege sitting around a campfire with people like David Webster, who was later assassinated, Shula Marks, Jeff Guy, John Wright, Martin Hall and Colin Webb. These were people with brilliant minds. It opened up a new world for me in way that I don’t think students get to experience in quite the same way today.”

So how did Morrison become a librarian­? “I was desperate to get a job,” he says. “I’d made myself virtually unemployable. And I knew some librarians. They seemed like nice people and it seemed like a nice thing to do.”

Morrison studied library science on the local campus, obtaining his degree in 1978 and then worked for the provincial library service. He returned to Johannesburg in 1981 to assist his father in a building project.

Morrison then worked for the SAIRR in Johannesburg. “It was a great time to be there,” he says. “In 1983, the United Democratic Front had been formed and there was a surge of political energy­ that eventually changed South Africa.”

He also provided a home in transit for exiles and their families. “I remember Carl Mbeki — he was 13 — came to stay on his way to visit his grandfather, Govan Mbeki, on Robben­ Island. I took him to see the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria.”

While his work with the SAIRR found him assisting Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons’ Group Morrison eventually found the nature of the work psychologically draining. “It was like being in an information version of the Bang Bang Club. In the end it all got too much.”

So when McKenzie, in Johannesburg attending an SAIRR function, told Morrison there was a job going at the Natal Society Library in the reference section he applied. “And that’s how I ended up back in Pietermaritzburg.” Along with his wife psychologist Floss Mitchell, and their daughter Alice who would later­ be joined by son Guy.

Morrison took over as deputy director­ of the Natal Society Library when McKenzie retired in 1996 and succeeded Shona Wallis as director on her retirement in 1999.

Morrison is modest about his achievements both as director of the Natal Society Library and, post the handover to the municipality, as manager of the Msunduzi Municipal Library Services, but expresses gratitude that funding from the Carnegie Foundation “allowed me to try to expand and improve the facilities”­.

Asked for a lasting impression of his time at the library, Morrison pauses then says: “The thirst for knowledge of kids. The only sad thing is that they never have a chance to use the library, like say in Scandinavian libraries, where they can just come in and choose a book to read — everything here is orientated around study.”

After school many children congregate at the library before making the trip home, reading books, accessing the Internet. “Kids are amazing,” says Morrison. “There are always one or two who, while the others lounge around, take the gifts that are on offer there and fly with them.”

An obvious question for a librarian: what do you read? “I don’t really like fiction but I like reading reviews of books in magazines like the London Review of Books. In reading non-fiction I find a line on a page will lead me to something else. I follow tracks.”

One particular track was 20th-century Russian history. “I was interested in reading what it was really like — at the time when it was a living hell on Earth for writers, poets and artists — partly to counter some of the Stalinists here in South Africa who said that it was all wonderful.”

Morrison is currently reading the final book by the late British historian Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, a trenchant critique of the way we live now that promotes the idea of social democracy. A reviewer in the London Observer described Judt as “proudly a man of the left, with a romantic­ view of a world now gone”.

When I suggest to Morrison that maybe this description could be applied to him he laughs but doesn’t disagree.

“But I was never ideologically driven,” he says. “I was just into freedom of speech, freedom of association: those basic freedoms. That was what I was interested in.”

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