Farewell to Neil Morrison

On Monday 24 June, some 25 Grads members, including your correspondent, attended the funeral of Neil Morrison, who had been a highly respected member of our bass section between 1997 and 2006.

I had sat close to Neil in the Choir for about seven years, and had learned to appreciate his warmth and good heart, but had to attend his funeral to appreciate the extraordinary life he had lived.  The second youngest of five brothers, he was born in Edinburgh in 1926, and spent his early years there and on the island of Uist in the Outer Hebrides.  Neil’s mother died when he was nine, and after a spell living with relatives in the North of England, he arrived in Australia in 1938with 27 other boys, at the age of 12, to be in the first party at Fairbridge Farm School, Molong, New South Wales (this was where the so-called Barnardos Boys were sent, but Neil was not actually one of these).

Neil flourished at Fairbridge.  He was recognized as bright, but it was Fairbridge policy not to let the kids sit for the Intermediate Certificate, so he left at 16 for Sydney with farming skills  but no educational qualifications and never having attended a High School.  As his eldest son said in delivering his eulogy, he didn’t exactly run away from Fairbridge – it’s just that he left without telling anyone when and where he was going.  He managed to get himself to Sydney and turned up just before midnight, unannounced, on the doorstep of an Aunt somewhere in Liverpool.  Connections with Fairbridge led to his getting a job at the Daily Telegraph newspaper as a copy boy.  On his way to work one night, crossing the Harbour Bridge, he observed the commotion caused by the incursion of Japanese midget submarines into Sydney Harbour

In August 1944, Neil volunteered for the AIF. He was doing training at Cowra when the Japanese POWs made their breakout there and he was called out to assist in rounding them up..He later volunteered for the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan and was stationed in Hiroshima a few months after the atomic bomb had been dropped on the city.  Neil spent four years in Japan.  While there, despite his lack of formal qualifications, he discovered a skill in teaching, coaching illiterate soldiers and later the children of soldiers.  He was also involved in Army theatre and newspaper production, and helped supervise the first post-war elections in Japan.  On return to Australia, he was discharged as a sergeant.

Back in Australia, he began studying for the Leaving Certificate courtesy of the Army demobilization program, while doing a range of odd jobs.  He became involved in the folk movement of the 1950s, singing with the original Bushwhackers, and sang in the SUMS choir.

Neil married his wife, Patricia, in 1950.  Their marriage lasted nearly 60 years and they had three children, Graeme, Ellen and Ian.  Sadly, Pat predeceased Neil in October 2010.

Neil embarked upon a degree course but, after the Education Department introduced a one-year intensive course, deferred his university course to complete the teacher training program.  He took posts in secondary schools to teach Geography and later History and English.  When Neil reported for duty at his first posting, his boss asked him which high school he had gone to.  His reply was that the first time he had set foot in any high school was this, his first day as a teacher!  He subsequently completed his Bachelor of Arts at night.  He turned into a gifted and inspiring teacher and became an Inspector of Schools in 1968.  Neil actively encouraged his students into the Arts, and was himself to become a Board member of the Arts Council of NSW.

Neil’s career led him into the industrial relations area of the Education Department’s work.  This led him to study law and in 1983 he left the Education Department when he was called to the Bar at the age of 57.  Neil practiced successfully as a Barrister for 20 years.  Neil’s legal credentials were frequently utilized by Grads, when he took the chair during AGMs, to facilitate the election of office bearers.  This was usually a formality but Neil’s expertise was particularly useful in 2003, when a contentious election of the Committee occurred. With no fuss or pomposity, he quickly found a practical solution, which met the Choir’s best interests.  After resigning as an active singer in the Choir, Neil continued to attend our concerts.  In 2012, he was a guest speaker at an unveiling ceremony at the Maritime’s Welcome Wall, at which the Chamber Choir sang.

Neil loved singing and was a valued member of the Choir’s bass section.  His voice was untrained, although at 60 he took singing lessons with Robert Bickerstaff. His true expertise showed itself in recitations and bush ballad singing.  His remarkable memory stood him in good stead in reciting such party pieces as Rabbie Burns’s ‘Tam o’Shanter’ and he toured with his own production, ‘Wallaby Stew’, a collection of Australian poetry and songs, in which he was joined by violinist Penelope Grace.  He also made two CDs with violin accompaniment – ‘Burns with a Fiddle’ (1997) and ‘Australian Recitations’ (2009).

All in all, it can be said that Neil Morrison lived an extraordinary and full life, and lived it well.  Those of us who knew him were privileged to do so.

John Bowan

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