Poetry teacher and codebreaker
Poetry teacher and codebreaker
Born: October 31, 1923; Died: December 2, 2013.
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MORAG Morris, who has died aged 90, was a much-loved poet, poetry teacher, vocal acting coach and former wartime Enigma codebreaker at the famous Bletchley Park. Her poetry classes made her one of the most popular teachers and most creative forces at the new University of Surrey in Guildford, where her warm Scots accent endeared her even more to her students.
The annual poetry lecture she introduced at the university in 1974 continues to carry her name today, now given each year by a distinguished contemporary poet. She also taught hundreds of students at the Guildford School of Acting how to read poetry aloud.
Rona Morag Gray was born in Glasgow on Halloween 1923 to a father who was a civil engineer and a Quaker. She was sent south to attend the Mount School in York, an independent Quaker school for girls. Returning to Glasgow, she prodigiously enrolled at Glasgow University to study science, French and philosophy when she was still only 16.
She was 20 when she graduated in 1943, with the war in full swing. The war formed a constant backdrop to her studies, with Glaswegians shaken by the Clydeside blitz.
Her linguistic skills and demeanour won her a place at the heart of British wartime intelligence, Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, where she worked under the renowned codebreaker Alan Turing. She was one of a team of young women, in the now-famous Hut Six, who used codebreaking machines to decipher enemy transmissions, notably from the Luftwaffe. The team's work also played an important role in the Allied plans for an invasion of Europe on D-Day.
With the war over, she got a job with the features and drama department of BBC Radio in Rothwell House, New Cavendish Street, London, surviving the fierce winter of 1946/47 when snow and ice froze the BBC's antennae and staff huddled beside electric fires.
It was in Rothwell House that the then Morag Gray dealt with such prominent writers as Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice. She recalled being present when Dylan Thomas handed over his manuscript for the radio play Under Milk Wood just before he set off for New York where he would die in 1953.
It was during those radio days that she realized that poetry and radio were natural companions. "Poetry is meant to be read aloud," she once said. "If it is to be a living force again, it can no longer be seen as the end product, but as a musical score to facilitate performance."
She married David Morris, a surveyor and the son of Sir Parker Morris, who gave his name to the Parker Morris report on space standards for housing during the 1960s. The couple moved to Guildford where she would spend most of her career at the new University of Surrey.
After convincing the university's first vice-chancellor, Peter Leggett, that a new university needed a soul, she was given a post teaching poetry to everyone from musicians and engineers. She herself played no small part in giving the university a soul, rejecting traditional poetry in favour of 20th Century works.
She went on to teach would-be actors at the Guildford School of Acting how to read aloud and enunciate.
After she introduced an annual poetry lecture in 1974, fellow poets were invited to discuss the work of other 20th Century poets, with drama students joining in with readings.
One of her students was the emerging Northern Irish actor Jonjo O'Neill who went on to play Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Among her guest lecturers were poets such as Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
Indeed, even before the fall of the Berlin war, she organised an exchange programme for poets between Soviet universities and the University of Surrey.
Perhaps because of her own experiences as a young girl, one of her specialities and great loves was war poetry. She was a great supporter of the Wilfred Owen Association, formed in 1989 to boost public interest in the works of the First World War soldier-poet. She played no small part in spreading consciousness of Owen's work, which she believed might well influence modern-day public perception of war, including the British people's views of any current or future armed conflict.
She was also involved in the early days of the popular Wintershall Nativity plays every Christmas in the Surrey Hills.
Morag Morris was divorced and is survived by her daughters Deirdre and Oonagh and five grandchildren.