Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Four Voices In Tribute

A Writer Remembered

Jan Morris , Writing of Wales and the World , November 26, 2020
A Writer Remembered by Jan Morris The books of Jan Morris were familiar to me early on. Hardbacks were not many in the bookcases in my home of childhood. But “Venice” was there, a present between parents. Its opening reads:

“At 45°14’N, 12°18’E, the navigator, sailing up the Adriatic coast of Italy, discovers an opening in the long low line of the shore: and turning westward, with the race of the tide, he enters a lagoon. Instantly the boisterous sting of the sea is lost. The water around him is shallow but opaque, the atmosphere curiously translucent, the colours pallid, and over the whole wide bowl of mudbank and water there hangs a suggestion of melancholy. It is like an albino lagoon.”

When I travelled to countries that were formerly possessions of Britain Jan Morris' “Pax Britannica” trilogy was a companion and explicator. The closing of Empire was accompaniment to the years of Morris' time as a journalist for “the Times.” In an interview for her 90th birthday for radio she said of Empire “I was neither for it or against it...a whole mishmash of virtues and failings.”

In the same interview she came to an ethics of life that was economical and modest: “There's only one moral precept that anybody we can do. We can't all be very, very good people because we can't. But we can all try to be kind and we can measure our conduct by the degree of kindness that we have shown.”

Ann Wroe is a peerless obituarist for the Economist.

“Considering her life, as she most liked to, from the sprawling stone stables of Trefan Morys in north Wales among trees, owls and waters, Jan Morris divided it into three parts. For the first 35 years she had been James Morris, a soldier and an intrepid reporter. For a decade after that, as she took the hormone pills that gradually lightened and rejuvenated her, she was an androgynous creature, untethered and strange. Then, from 1972 and the procedure in Casablanca that permanently altered her body, she was herself.

“James, however, had not gone anywhere. He was still about: the little lad with his precious telescope already trained on the blue mountains of Wales, the Christ Church choirboy piping in his white and scarlet, the intelligence officer rattling in jeeps through the deserts of Arabia, the craver for fire, salt and laughter as a writer for the Manchester Guardian. He was a handsome man, tall, lean and sinewy, exulting as young men could in the full, controlled power of his body. In 1953, when he was working for the Times, he accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest expedition (though he had never climbed a mountain before) and brought back the world scoop that the peak had been conquered. That slithering, bounding descent to the telegraph office, forcing his way down a glacier as if sparks flew from him, and the sending of the message in “skulldug” code to London in time for the queen’s coronation, was the best memory of his life, and hers.

“...Her dispositions were as they had always been: a liking for cats and smart cars, moules and white wine, for speed, wind and great spaces, for the role of the loner and onlooker, and romanticism in the bones. The army still attracted her for its dash, courage, self-discipline and swagger. When she took a walk for exercise, she marched like a soldier. She remained married (though, between 1972 and 2008, formally divorced because illegal), to Elizabeth, with an intensity of love different from all others. They lived surrounded by the intimate presence of thousands of books, to which she chatted as friends.

“The writing went on seamlessly, every day and with any implement available, navigating the wonderful, inexhaustible, shimmering sea of words. Through the 1970s she continued and completed a wistful three-volume history of the decline of the British Empire, “Pax Britannica”, her best work she thought, which had been started in the spirit of a Roman centurion witnessing the decline of Rome.

“...She attributed her mystical feelings largely to Wales, the land of her fathers, damp, demanding and bemusing as she knew it to be, but also worked through with allusions, lore and magic and underpinned by kindness. In “The Matter of Wales” she declared herself a firm nationalist, though the softness and humour of England pleased her. Something of Wales, she wrote, lurked and smiled behind all her writings, for she owned it, every lichened boulder, every spin of the pit wheel, like all her places. She was one with the peasants, the miners, the mythmakers and the shape-changers.”

Jon Gower's tribute homed in on the personal qualities that illuminated the 40 books: “books brim-full of curiosity and zest for living. These qualities were matched by a rare, deep generosity and egalitarian regard for others.”

Her long-time literary agent Derek Johns wrote in “Ariel: A Literary Life” it was writing that was often unashamedly subjective and fashioned in a “distinctive prose style that is elegant, fastidious, supple, and sometimes gloriously gaudy.”

Chris Morris' tribute picked on the stylistic ease and flourish:

“She reveals herself as someone who has read the primary sources and done all the research but who still believes in the art of conversation. It’s a trick of course – she travelled alone and was as likely to be chatting to Che Guevara, Kim Philby or Mary Pickford as to porters or waiters – but it’s one of the reasons people keep reading her books, long after the places she visited have changed beyond recognition.

“...Her journalism was sharp-eyed, analytical and eclectic. Matthew Arnold wrote that curiosity was a ‘liberal and intelligent eagerness about things’, and ‘a desire after the things of the mind simply for their own sakes and for the pleasure of seeing them as they are’. He was reflecting on a quality the English often lacked, and the French possessed. Morris, in this as in many other respects, was a European, a cosmopolitan, an observer of things for their own sake.”

“Long-form travel writing allowed her to combine her reporting talents with a more reflective gaze. She studied history with care and critical acumen, and then applied what she knew to what she saw. ‘I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual,’ she told the Paris Review. ‘I believe in its imaginative qualities and its potential as art and literature.

“Some of her later books are collections of impressions, fragments of never-to-be-written travelogues, diary scraps; her compulsion to record, and to be read, was urgent and untiring... Wales, she writes, is a land that seems at times ‘so full of echoes, allusions and half-memories as to be almost metaphysical itself’. Morris spoke ‘pidgin’ Welsh, but still managed an insightful take on its cultural and mythic validity: ‘The language itself, whether you speak it or not, whether you love it or hate it, is like some bewitchment or seduction from the past, drifting across the country down the centuries, subtly affecting the nation’s sensibilities even when its meaning is forgotten.’

Jan Morris October 2nd 1926-November 20th 2020

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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