Alisoun Morton, Edinburgh

Alisoun Morton is the only daughter of Professor Alan Geoffrey Morton,     Desmond Greaves’s oldest friend, author of The History of Botany and other works. Alisoun became a Celtic scholar in her own right and has published verse in Scottish dialect.  These memories were written down in 2021.

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Desmond Greaves was my father’s oldest friend and was godfather to my elder brother John. He met my father in the early 1930s in the Liverpool Field Society, later the Liverpool Botanical Society, and both went on to study botany at Liverpool University under Professor Maclean Thompson, whom they both disliked. They toured Ireland by bicycle on one holiday. They also visited Wales together, and shared political interests all their lives. They joined the Communist Party at about the same time, my father Alan in Cambridge, Desmond when a student at Liverpool University. 

He and Alan published a joint collection of poetry, By the Clock ’Tis Day, in 1946. Both wrote poetry throughout their lives and sent items to one another for comment. Some poems sent by Desmond for Alan’s opinion were lost, possibly in a house move that we made to Scotland in the 1970s, and I don’t know if Desmond kept copies. Alan had not liked these poems as much as Desmond’s earlier writing, I seem to remember.

Desmond visited our household in St Albans, Hertfordshire, a couple of times a year, where my mother Freda would lay on dinner. On one occasion  my grandmother, Annie Elizabeth, was visiting and was a bit shocked that Alan and Desmond sat talking at the dinner table when she wanted to clear things away. My two brothers and myself always heard a lot about him and we also read the Irish Democrat regularly, so we grew up knowing  that the Six Counties should be part of the Irish Republic. He and Alan used to meet up regularly for dinner in London.  There was one occasion when Desmond and Alan had a mild argument over the tensile strength of water: Desmond didn’t believe in it, being a little the worse for drink, although Alan pointed out that the British Navy use it in their calculations.

When I was studying Celtic at Edinburgh University with Kenneth H. Jackson, I was plunged into Modern Irish (reading An Seabhac) in my first year without any previous knowledge of any Q-Celtic language. My father must have told Desmond of my difficulties and  he asked me to visit the Connolly Association bookshop at 244 Gray’s Inn Rd, London, where he gave me copies of Buntús Cainte and a biography of Wolfe Tone, The Life of Wolfe Tone , translated into Irish by Pádraig O Siochfhradha.  

I had found the spoken Celtic languages too lightly touched on in Edinburgh and was less than satisfied with the course I took, so he invited me to one of the Irish Democrat conferences in London, where he encouraged me to go as a postgraduate student to Trinity College, Dublin. He gave me contacts in Dublin  for Cathal & Helga MacLiam, Anthony Coughlan and Terence McCaughey. Thanks to Desmond, I had a much better time at TCD, sitting in on courses through the medium of Irish and meeting many of the best Celtic scholars of the day.

The first person I met in Dublin through Desmond was Helga MacLiam and she, Cathal and their family became lifelong friends, alongside Tony and many others in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland. 

Desmond was very musical and had grown up playing the piano, which he practised throughout his life. He had perfect pitch and on one occasion took me to a Dublin Grand Opera to see Eugene Onegin. His comments at the end were “Huh. Nothing but a boys’ quarrel. The predominant key is Eb* major.” After his death I was given all the music in his house: musical scores of symphonies and little-known oratorios, and song books belonging to his parents. His father Charlie conducted a Methodist choir in Birkenhead and his mother Amy  had a degree in music and sang in the choir.

His hopes for my career remained unfulfilled, as illness and unemployment in the 1980s forced me to change direction, but I cherish the memory of his telling me that the day would come when I would stand up at a conference and say, “Professor Jackson thinks such and such comes from shit, but I find that it comes from shite.” 

He visited us in Edinburgh from time to time and on one occasion asked me to play the clarinet part from the third movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet to him. Again he commented on the key, which I pointed out was not as the original because I was playing it on a Bb rather than an A clarinet. One time he described how he was called the ‘Ready Reckoner’ at school because he could add/subtract/divide/multiply any numbers instantly, describing how he saw them mentally as a large spreadsheet of numbers.

He was very fond of my mother and gave the eulogy at her funeral in 1987. He did get the worse for drink on this occasion, because he was very upset by her sudden death; but when he was speaking at conferences and meetings in his later years, he stayed off alcohol beforehand because he said that even a small amount can affect one’s behaviour!

I remember him as a very kind man, if a little intolerant of the female sex. There was one occasion when he explained that he would rather have a man in a political position because ‘women are silly’, but it didn’t stop him valuing his female colleagues. He worked selflessly all his life for the causes he believed in and described authors as ‘benefactors to society’ since they usually got little reward for their writing.

*I am not sure if I heard him properly. It’s not the key I would have suggested.

(Alisoun Morton, Edinburgh, April 2021)