James Kenneth Watt Morrice was born on 14 July 1924 in Aberdeen. He was brought up in the self-contained community of Torry, Aberdeen’s fishing ‘village’ on the south side of the Dee, where he became dux of Victoria Road school and then a Foundation Scholar, Robert Gordon’s College. His grandfather had been a trawl owner, and his father was Port Missionary.
Morrice studied Medicine at Aberdeen, and on graduating undertook house posts at Woodend Hospital before entering war-time service with the Royal Navy as a Surgeon Lieutenant. His postings were land based (‘I did my sea time on the Gosport Ferry’), and included serving as medical officer both to the Port of Liverpool, and to a Royal Naval airfield. This last was stressful, for the pilots suffered a 50% death rate. During naval service he married a fellow graduate he had known from schooldays, Norah Thompson, a teacher.
Despite being offered a permanent naval position, in 1949 he left to pursue a career in psychiatry. In 1956 he was appointed to Dingleton Hospital, Melrose, where he was deputy superintendent to Maxwell Jones, originator of the concept of ‘the therapeutic community’ approach. Morrice found this approach ‘logical and persuasive’ as well as practical and fruitful, and pursued it further as a consultant at Fort Logan Mental Health Center in Denver, USA. He was later to publish a number of papers on this form of therapy, together with the textbook, Crisis Intervention (Pergamon Press, 1976). In 1968 he returned to Aberdeen as consultant psychiatrist at the recently established Ross Clinic. He set himself the task of turning this day unit (not always without opposition from those accustomed to more conventional approaches) into ‘a modern psychiatric venture’, based on the therapeutic community. He was to pursue this venture with commitment and success until he retired in 1985 as Honorary Fellow in Psychiatry.
Morrice had started writing poetry before returning to Aberdeen, and was soon widely published in newspapers, and periodicals such as Aberdeen University Review, Scottish Field, New Saltire and the Glasgow Review. In 1965, at the age of 41, he brought out Prototype (Macdonald), containing over thirty poems of depth and insight into the human condition. When settled in Aberdeen, he published short stories and six further collections, one of which, For All I Know (AUP, 1981), won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award. Alan Bold, in reviewing this latter in the Times Literary Supplement of May 7, 1982, praised the ‘Brittle imagery, abrupt tone and precise diction’ of the poems based on Morrice’s clinical experience.
He was a hardworking, prolific and persistent poet, welcomed by editors of all the major Scottish literary magazines such as Lines Review, Akros, Chapman, Cencrastus, and his work is still included in anthologies.
Writing in both English and Scots, Morrice drew not only on his religious and fishing backgrounds, but also on a lifetime’s experience in psychiatry, including the treatment of prisoners and sex offenders. This gave him a unique set of perspectives on the human condition, which he developed to the full with a wry compassion. He was not afraid of the ‘parochial’, rightly deeming this to be the source of the ‘universal’, and explored his background and city in a series of telling poems, collected in Twal Mile Roon, in 1985.
Although skilled at lightly treating the follies of humankind (especially his own) much of his writing is highly serious, exploring and facing many facets of life and death, illness, frailty and growing old. He felt deeply the contrast between the harsh, often perilous lives of his seagoing forbears and his own superficially easier life (‘There need not lurk/dark fears my desk be wrecked, my secretary/and files lost overboard…’), perhaps never really appreciating that his ancestors, supported as well as constrained by a fierce religion that he felt he had largely lost, would have valued his arduous task of fishing the troubled waters of the mind. His later poetry shows how he overcame his own ‘probing discontent’, by ‘reconciling love and loss’, especially the love he had for his wife, celebrated movingly in poem after poem, and for their three children, Iain, Julie and Lucy.
Morrice was a good friend to have, and a supporter of younger poets. Humane and humorous, his manner often dryly ironic, he had little patience with either cant or hypocrisy. He disliked ‘performance poetry’, preferring the solid achievement of publication to parading his wares at festivals or public readings (‘break the ice, and slowly, gently drown’). Cancer subjected him to a slow and often painful decline; he bore this with the courage and wry stoicism of his race that pervades the poetry in which he had concluded, ‘each of us peoples a passing landscape/giving a moment’s meaning to friends and children’. A modest conclusion from a man whose life and writings had given so much to others; but for him, ‘this is immortality enough’.
Ian A. Olson