Gary Raymond pays tribute to Phil Morris, co-founder and former Managing Editor of Wales Arts Review, who has died at the age of 48.
Phil Morris was a founding member of Wales Arts Review and from 2012 to 2016 was its Managing Editor. A simple story simply told. But Phil was also my friend, and the two roles are inextricably bonded. I knew Phil for fifteen years or so… (who knows – working it out, counting them, putting markers down, is too painfully finite right now)… and during that time he was to me a mentor, a sounding board, a conscience, a counsel, a drinking buddy, a collaborator, a voice of reason, a supporter and champion of my work, and a vital part of the fabric of my intellectual life. I have known few brighter people, few people for who the fierce flame of intellectual curiosity burned brighter. As is often the case when someone close to you dies, particularly when they are so young, a search for clarity and reason is always in conflict with feelings of waste. I feel now, sitting here writing this, that perhaps Phil never got the recognition he deserved. But, more acutely, I feel that I never took the opportunity to tell him just how important he was to me, and how grateful I have been for his comradeship. Well, I have the advantage of being a writer and having the platform that Phil helped build to go a little way to putting that right.
I met Phil when I was an undergraduate at the then University of Wales, Newport. Phil was lecturing in screenwriting. I was in my late twenties, and he was just a few years older than me. He became aware I was on the editorial board of Pan, the creative writing magazine at the university, and also was co-editor of an indy mag called The Raconteur. Phil offered to write a piece for the latter about the nineteenth century French (f)artist Le Pétomane. I’d forgotten that. Our friendship was founded on a mutual appreciation for a long dead vaudevillian who could whistle the national anthem out of his backside. Phil and I used to laugh a great deal. His shoulders would hunch, and his eyes would screw up and he would bob up and down and go a bit red in the face. I think it’s important to remember how someone laughed.
Around this time, he directed a play at the Riverfront Theatre in Newport that I had written for a module. It was an existentialist nightmare with no laughs – the sort of thing you write in your twenties – but Phil extracted some sense and more than a little humanity out of it. It was extremely well-received, and Phil, who had made it a success, spent much time making sure the credit went to the writer.
This year, Phil has been editing an anthology of new essays to celebrate ten years of Wales Arts Review. It was his idea, his project. We had been talking more than we had done in a few years (since he and his family moved to London in 2016). He asked if I would write a foreword for the collection. His editorial notes were excellent and thorough and incisive. (He was an excellent editor, just as he was a director and lecturer – his analytical mind was sharp and just and compassionate). But the one note that stuck with me was this: I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit. But Phil put it better than that. He was an ex-actor, a theatre man to his core, and he had the gift for the rousing speech. What he actually wrote to me was, “At the end of Zulu, Chard describes the ‘victory’ at Rorke’s Drift as ‘a short chamber Boxer Henry point 45 miracle’. To which the Colour Sergeant Bourne adds, ‘And a bayonet sir, with a bit of guts behind it.’ You’ve been the guts behind WAR, and I think you should take more of a bit of a bow. As un-Newport-like as that may seem to you.”
That’s just a hint at the kind of support Phil gave me during our time knowing one another, and it was no different in that email a month or so ago to what it was like on Caerleon campus in 2008. I always felt Phil understood something about me I wasn’t always able to see myself. And I think that may have been connected to the fact we were from the same place. Not just Newport, but we were both from the Malpas estate. We had both been on long and winding journeys from those origins, and I’m not going to argue that either of us are recognisable as kids from council houses, but break us down to our bare bones and that’s all you’d find was left. Phil’s values remained those he learned growing up. Okay, so he’d done well for himself, he had money and he liked to make that money work for him. But he was a socialist, and he believed that the relative comfort of his circumstances allowed him to pursue things of cultural value that most other people from his background were unable to. He never took that for granted.
He was at his best when working on something that would mean something to people – creating mentor schemes, organising young critics events, getting people in a room to share ideas and creative opportunities. He wrote finest on theatre and film, but he lifted up higher when writing about youth or community projects, and he could see some non-privileged kids giving their all for the collective good. He saw intellectual rigour and creative passion as the weapons to diminish the poverty of ambition that is so widespread in working class communities (often, as I know Phil and I both agreed, imposed on those communities by structures beyond the control of those within). And as I reflect now, I see clearly that Phil also influenced me in that way. Part of our relationship was him coaxing me out of the limiting influences of the life I had cultivated for myself. Never confronting me so brazenly as that, but I think now of all the times over the years Phil would say to me at some point I was going to have to put more of my energy into my work than my drinking. Well… eventually, listened to him.
When Wales Arts Review was born, Phil was the third pin alongside myself and Dylan Moore (with whom I had founded and edited The Raconteur). When Dylan left to go and teach in Spain a year after we had launched Wales Arts Review, it was then just me and Phil (and a crack team of editors) to see what this thing could do, and what it could become. But Phil was the bedrock of the whole idea from the start, even if we didn’t really appreciate it at the time. If Dylan and I were guilty of naïve idealism in that initial stage, Phil was the pragmatist, and I see him now holding us both to account like he was tethering two kites in a hurricane. Phil was a calming influence on the erratic spirit of that first year of the Review. And when it was just the two of us, I think it was Phil who made us a force to be reckoned with.
But I don’t want to give the impression in those early years that I was the creative and he was the business. The dividing lines were much more opaque than that. We decided early on that I would be editor and he would look after the structural side of things – what I used to privately and unflatteringly refer to as “the paperwork”. But we were a team, and there was not an editorial decision I did not bounce off Phil, and all strategy and conceptual decisions were the result of long discussions between the two of us. He was a huge creative influence on the Review in his time as Managing Editor, and I think he kept the publication true to its founding principles. Which is a good point, actually: he wrote our mission statement. We knocked it back and forth, but those tenets are the ones he brought to the table. Here they are:
Wales Arts Review works to bring our readers the best critical writing from Wales, and the best critical writing about Wales. It is a place where passionate and informed arts critics, from Wales and beyond, can find expression. Our writers are neither drum-beaters nor axe-grinders but simply knowledgeable and dedicated people who care deeply about culture and society.
We believe that a vibrant arts scene is the expression of a confident, healthy and creative society. We further assert that a flourishing and vigorous critical culture is vital to its sustenance and development. As such, we regard Wales Arts Review as an important building-block in the new outward-looking, forward-thinking Wales.
And we do believe that. But more importantly, he believed that. They were Phil’s ideals. Wales Arts Review is many things, but at its core it represents the character of Phil Morris.
And we mustn’t overlook the writer. Phil was undoubtedly one of the finest and most popular writers we published in the last ten years. I think, for what it’s worth, when writing as a critic, he was at his best. He could draw on his vast wealth of knowledge, his full and encyclopaedic knowledge of theatre, film, and literature, to bring reasoned critique to the arts of Wales, and he did so with wit, poise, charm, and fairness. And with great style. He was one of the most articulate writers I have ever known. His writing was full of compassion, but it had bite, and he had a keen eye for the lazy and poseurs. His time writing his satirical column Cultural Missives under the nom de plume Rhod Beard was too brief, but he ruffled all the right feathers with his brilliant, coruscating writing. I pleaded with him to do more, and now I am just glad we have what we have. But go and read his hilarious “Making it Good” in which he dissects a fictional report on arts funding in Wales, which begins:
News reaches Wales Arts Review of a white paper that’s set to become official Welsh Government arts policy ahead of the 2016 Welsh Assembly elections. The paper, provocatively titled ‘Making it Good’, is co-authored by Professor Tom Twyllo and Dr. Meg Hyphen-Jones of the Welsh Cultural Forum, the nation’s smallest think-tank. ‘The Arts Council of Wales needs a good kick up the arse,’ Twyllo writes in his customarily lucid introduction, ‘and our proposals will deliver the reforming blow.’
‘Making It Good’ outlines an ambitious vision for the future of arts funding in Wales, for decades to come, following a radical two-pronged approach:
1) Arts funding in Wales should only be dedicated to work that is good.
2) Arts funding in Wales should no longer be provided to fund work that is crap.
Or read his blistering takedown of our English language national theatre company from 2015 titled, simply, “National Theme Park Wales”. For a time, probably around 2014-15, Phil and I talked about turning Wales Arts Review into a satirical magazine – cartoons, pastiche, articles that burrowed under the skin of Welsh culture and had some mischievous fun while doing it. Had we gone that way, I think we’d be talking now of the passing of one of Wales’s great satirists. Phil had the requisite intellectual scope to be that. I don’t regret the path we took, but, God, that would have been fun, wouldn’t it?
Around that same time, Phil was working on what I think is his greatest cultural legacy. He was building the structures for Wales Arts Review that are the reason it exists today. He wrote the initial business plan that secured our first funding from the Books Council of Wales (Welsh Books Council at the time), but he also project managed the design and build of the new website that we launched in 2015 that enabled us to do so much more with meagre resources. And he started most of the organisational relationships we continue to enjoy today. He was good at that stuff. We used to joke occasionally that in meetings he had the ability to channel both the chair of the local rugby club and the charitable leader of the good cause depending on which the moment called for. Phil was the reason Wales Arts Review wasn’t just another website. He brought the money in, and he established opportunities for our writers and editors to be inside the room when things happened.
I don’t think Phil would have liked me not to draw attention to the fact he was a Manchester United fan, and so to highlight the burning truth that there were some fundamental things on which we did not see eye-to-eye. He could be brusque, blunt, but he was a man with a golden heart, a true raconteur of the classic tradition. His art, his writing, was not an add on, it was his character. His storytelling was his greatest act of communication. He inspired his students and his readers alike, and he believed, as far as I understood him, above all else, in the transformative power of art; the ability of art to change lives, to enrich, to edify, to make it all worthwhile.
When he left in 2016, there was a shaky moment. It was Phil who made sure Ben Glover, who has been Managing Editor since, had what he needed to make the role his own. Phil acted as an Associate Editor since then, was a regular reviewer for us, and in the last few years once again became a good sounding board for me in operational and strategy matters. And, of course, we could have a moan at each other about the arts in Wales, what we thought was going wrong, and laud what we thought was going right. His passion for what was happening here, even from his new home in London, had not diminished. We’d had our crossed words in the past, minor and long forgotten, and I only mention them because it supports this feeling I have now, thinking about his unjustly short life, that he and I had been through something together. Maybe like being in a band. We had created something, and we have a collaborative body of work that will tether us to one another forever.
Phil was a good friend, and he had a full family life – he spoke of his wife Dana and son Orson with such undimming pride and love – but the Review ensures his generous, thoughtful spirit has reached far beyond his immediate vicinity. His articles are read around the world. But the Review is what it is because it was built on his foundation, and it lasts because of his work, and it means something to people because his character and personality are in every one of the buildings blocks.
Writing this has been a difficult task. To try and excavate some meaning from a tragedy, to try and turn these moments of grief into some kind of celebration of a man, distilling his achievements and values into the space of a story, a narrative. Phil would have had a keen understanding of the irony of this. And the temptation – the pull – for a writer to round off a piece like this with some great lines that encapsulate both the man and the void left in his absence seems a duty to the craft of writing, and also to the expectations of the reader. But all I can think – and I keep thinking it – is that this essay would have been greatly improved had Phil been here to edit it.
Here is a selection of some of Phil’s best writing for Wales Arts Review over the years, a selection that illustrates his breadth of interest and expertise, and the style with which he employed his knowledge.
Header image by Bone Waller/Adam Smith.