EWAN Morrison tells Janet Christie how a hippie childhood forms the painful backdrop to a novel that skewers dreams of utopian living.
Ewan Morrison has had a good year. His last book delighted the critics and the omens for his new novel, loosely based on his childhood growing up with hippie parents, are looking equally good.
For a while, he says, he felt he was being pigeonholed as someone who only wrote about sex, and certainly the three novels that made his name – Swing, Distance and Ménage – had a whiff of scandal about them.
But in May, in Tales From The Mall, he struck out in a new direction, mixing up fiction with reportage, journalism and sociology in an innovative look at consumer culture. And in his new novel, Close Your Eyes, he is playing with form again: in a novel that takes a hard look about the realities and consequences of Highland hippiedom, the narrative encompasses song lyrics, New Age slang, and parenting manuals.
The “sex books”, as he calls them, have their place in his development as a writer. “I wrote three books about alternatives to monogamy and I was working through some fairly big questions that are answered by Close Your Eyes – questions about monogamy, family, parental responsibility, notions of sexual freedom, all the hippie stuff. My generation – Generation X – has very confused notions of our own freedom and some of us do what the characters do because they seek freedom through their sexuality. We are a disempowered, depoliticised generation, and sexuality was a way we could express ourselves. I concluded that it fails to do that, because the outside world shapes us so much. The credit crunch, banking crises, those factors tear us apart and destroy people’s lives more than internal factors. When people are laid off, they tend to have affairs – they’re a byproduct of economics, much more than the inside story.”
Even from the point of view of individual experience, Morrison now sees sex as a red herring in the quest for identity. “It doesn’t work. That notion of a very special feeling is a fiction. We are more generic than we like to believe. In swinging you end up having compassion for a whole bunch of people rather than being aroused by an individual in particular. Swingers end up becoming friends with other swingers and just hanging out as friends rather than sexual partners. The whole sexuality thing falls away.”
Close Your Eyes is not autobiographical, yet 43-year-old Morrison’s Wick childhood and experiences are the weft of the story. They are there in both the Highland location and hippie community setting, and the narrative arc showing what happens when the dream of a free-loving egalitarian Utopia ends up caked in the mud of a Scottish winter, mired in sexual tensions and with the flower children brutalised by the local community.
Although he hasn’t drawn directly from life, his folk-singer mother and librarian, poet and artist father – and the arts festival they set up together, a project that ultimately failed – loom large in the novel. So too does the bullying Morrison was subjected to as a child. The breakdown and recovery he experienced in his thirties is similarly mirrored in the experience of his central character.
Rowan is a young mother suffering from postnatal depression who abandons her child and husband in London and revisits the hippie community where she grew up. Not only is she reliving her past, but she is searching for answers as to what happened when her mother drove off into the night and never came back. Did she really die in a crash when her car was washed off a Highland road? By revisiting her youth, she comes to terms with her past and the actions of her parents. Morrison acknowledges that the novel helped him to do the same thing.
“There’s always been a slightly sociological strand in my writing but it’s a very personal book too. It’s about communities like Findhorn, where I went and did a week-long course and had to go under cover. I constructed a spiritual past to get in, saying something about Buddhism, having done ceramic workshops, but then rumbled myself because I got very upset by the whole sharing experiences thing. I couldn’t stand the leader of the workshop, the inane grinning and spiritual stuff – it clashed with my ego. Then there is all the spirals and rainbows and the idea they’re coming at you from a superior place. But I was the first to end up in a heap and for a few days afterwards I was convinced I was going to be a New Ager. I had felt something profound and beautiful. Then I came to my senses.
“The book is a critique of Findhorn and New Age values. It was also about trying to understand the tensions that shaped my parents. It’s the story of conflict and tensions of a community trying to destroy the nuclear family, and of one woman trying to create one. It’s a critique of utopianism and how dangerous it is not to see what is really in front of you – which is that their children are having the shit kicked out of them at the local school.”
But what was it that caused Morrison to shelve his critical faculties and end up in a heap in the first place?
“I had just got through my divorce a year or two before that and was a bit tender,” he says. “Also I didn’t go as a journalist, as someone neutral. There’s a reason why we’re drawn to the New Age which is its promise of something beyond the daily dog eat dog. It’s a beautiful idea and there are moments when you see the promise of the place.”
Such idealism was the stuff of Morrison’s childhood. His father David and mother Edna ran the Wick Festival of Poetry, Folk and Jazz in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In its heyday it brought in audiences of 2,000 over a weekend.
“My parents ran a folk festival for years and brought a lot of famous writers to Wick, like Iain Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig. There’s a photograph of me trying to stick a toy car into the ear of Norman MacCaig. My father was a charismatic figure but the festival went down and took him with it. So I grew up watching my parents’ ideals fail. Parents should be infallible for longer. It was heartbreaking. They were lost and had no idea. My dad hit the bottle, and they lost the house when the festival failed.”
Morrison’s mother was a folk singer and in Close Your Eyes there are shades of her in the character of Jenna, the commune’s earth mother who cooks, washes and gets the children to school, losing her own identity in the process. “She had a beautiful voice and used to sing me to sleep. It was a voice that would make you weep or sleep. In a way the book is a kind of hymn to her, an ode, a present, a gift. She’s not Jenna, but there are parts of her in there. The voice, the cooking, holding it together …”
If elements of autobiography can be traced in the novel, that is not Morrison’s intention. He much prefers to explore what he calls the Grey Man technique, both in his own shadowy presence (“the self is not important”) and in voicing the stories of ordinary people. His style is also devoid of metaphor and similes, honed down and constantly rewritten and reduced.
“I like the Grey Man approach to life. I don’t need to make a song and dance with big Nietzschean characters,” he says. In Tales From The Mall, he gave a voice to overlooked characters such as security guards and cleaners. In Close Your Eyes, he writes convincingly from a woman’s point of view about such topics as breast feeding, depression and how it feels to abandon your child. “I’m tired of male protagonists, they’re so dull and goal orientated. It’s no coincidence that autism is connected to testosterone and women have more empathy.”
In the novel, one of the commune’s children is subjected to extreme daily bullying, which goes unnoticed by the spaced-out adults. He develops a stutter, loses all sense of self-worth and eventually loses himself into a truncated adulthood of self-medication.
Morrison too was bullied at school and developed a stammer. “I was a space cadet little hippie who wore sandals, one of the white settlers, and was picked on. There was absolutely horrific stuff that happened to kids, ritual humiliations, being held down, spat on. It happened regularly for three years and did a lot of damage. I poured it into art, obsessively creating plastic model characters, Asterix, Star Wars. When the world around you is so hostile you’re scared to go outside, you make your own miniature version. I was runner-up in the UK plastic model making competition. I wish I still had them, it’d be worth all the torture!” he laughs ruefully.
At 17, Morrison left to study at Glasgow School of Art, where he excelled at painting. This he promptly abandoned, then took up photography and earned a double first. Abandoning that in turn, he trained as a film maker and was again successful, winning the Royal Television Society Best Drama Award in 2001 for his short I Saw You, which also saw him nominated for Scottish Baftas as best director and best drama in 2001. His Blue Christmas was also nominated for a Scottish Bafta for Best Short in 1995.
All this time, he says, his early trauma was not resolved, merely going underground, waiting to erupt. That happened after the breakdown of his marriage when he was making a living in the US as a feature film script writer in New York, where he lived from 2002-5.
Now back in Glasgow, he says, “It was just after 9/11 and the project I was working on fell through and triggered a nasty mental collapse that I had been storing up for many years. I had to work out a lot of stuff, to admit that I hated things about my parents. The bullying, drinking and the fact they closed their eyes to what was going on and to the repercussions of their actions. Patience, time and writing all healed me and led to the short stories in The Last Book You Read. It was a love of writing that helped me survive.”
His next book will, he says, deal with the notion of unintended consequences, and the way things don’t turn out the way you think. How, I ask, did his experience of self-examination through writing Close Your Eyes change him? “I think in the end, family saves us. I don’t think there’s anything more solid you can grasp on to. When I was divorced I thought I’d never see my kids again but I’ve managed to work on repairing that. I’m an activist for family and its defence against the cult of the self.
“Also, I’m a much more careful driver now.”
• Close Your Eyes by Ewan Morrison is out next week (Jonathan Cape, £14.99. He will be at the Edinburgh book festival on 12 August.