Saturday, 27 September 2008

Jan Morris

DYMA DDWY FFRIND, AR DERFYN UN BYWYD: ‘Here are two friends, at the end of one life.’ Thus reads the tombstone of world-famous travel-writer Jan Morris and her partner Elizabeth Morris. But as yet, thankfully, it remains unused, propped up in a corner of their house-cum-library in North Wales. But it encapsulates so much about Jan Morris, whose many books – on Oxford, Wales, Europe, Manhattan, the British Empire, Trieste, and most famously, Venice - utterly enthrall me. There is the passionate espousal of Welshness, Cymreictod: though Jan Morris admits to having found learning the Welsh language as an adult hard going (a sentiment for which I have much sympathy), one of her sons, Twm Morys, is a famous Welsh-language musician and poet. There is the tender emphasis on loving friendship as life’s chief blessing, and an unmodern lack of concern with the hysterical pursuit of romance and sexual fulfilment. The gentle echo on the tombstone of that other famous Welsh female couple, the Ladies of Llangollen, belies the fact that, as the shared surname hints, Jan and Elizabeth are married, and entered into that happy estate when Jan was still James. Having fathered five children, she completed ‘a change of sexual role’, as she describes it, in the late 60s and early 70s; but the couple continued to live together contentedly, occasionally describing each other as their ‘sister-in-law’. A blithe openness, a sense of happiness, even, at a complicated life negotiated with grace and wonder, hangs behind the words. Finally, the epitaph shows that elegance of phrasing and gift for the mot juste which make Jan Morris a much-loved and imitated prose-stylist.

Whenever I feel weighed down by pettinesses, torpor, or even my very own brand of leaden crassness, her writing is an excellent tonic. She has an astonishing gift for capturing the spirit of a place. She does not dwell on street-plans, or describe the climate or politics or history of a place schematically. Rather, she feels her way into wherever she happens to be, seeking its atmosphere, particularity, its soul. Her writing is introspective, in that she weaves her own observations, feelings and memories into her evocation of a place, brilliantly musing on the varied richnesses of the world. Here is the last paragraph of her incomparable 'Venice':

And in the last analysis, the glory of the place lies in the grand fact of Venice herself: the brilliance and strangeness of her history, the wide melancholy lagoon that surrounds her,the convoluted sea-splendour that keeps her, to this day, unique among the cities. When at last you leave these waters, pack away your straw hat and swing out to sea, all the old dazzle of Venice will linger in your mind; and her smell of mud, incense, fish, age, filth and velvet will hand around your nostrils; and the soft lap of her back-canals will echo in your ears; and wherever you go in life you will feel somewhere over your shoulder, a pink, castellated, shimmering presence, the domes and riggings and crooked pinnacles of the Serenissima.
There's romance for you! There's the lust and dark wine of Venice!
No wonder George Eliot's husband fell into the Grand Canal.

The lessons of Pater and of Ruskin have been well-learned, but there is something more in her writing here, more individual, airier – the response to thusness of one who has attained some kind of joyful inner freedom.

What an amazing life. Born of Anglo-Welsh parentage in 1926, as a boy, James Morris was a choral scholar at Oxford, beginning a life-long love of that city. A teenage stint as a journalist for Bristol's Western Daily News ended when he became an officer cadet at Sandhurst, and he spent the final years of the War in Palestine and Italy, which sounds rather exciting. Following demob in 1949 he went to Oxford as a student, where he combined his English studies with editing Cherwell. After graduating, he became a journalist for The Times, and managed to get the scoop of a lifetime when he covered the 'conquest' of Everest. Since then, he, and later, she, devoted her life to travel and to making her home in Wales. Her travel writing is equisite, all the more so for its brilliant variety. There does not seem to be a city in the world that she has not visited, and nothing in all of history and human endeavour that does not interest her or hold her fascination. Whether it is the play of light on the marble patterns of a Mosque in Delhi, or the elegant attendance of the waiters in a Manhattan restaurant, or the buffeting of white sails on the ships in Cardigan Bay, she looks on with a clear and humane light, humourous and utterly transported at once. She can be as wry on the pitfalls of travel as on its pleasures:

I try never to grumble, even to myself, but simply remind myself, gritting my teeth, that things could easily be worse – I might after all be experiencing my own hypothetical epitome of an unhappy travel experience, namely to have been robbed of my passport and plane ticket, my luggage having already been lost in flight, while suffering from extreme diarrhoea during a high summer heat-wave and a severe water shortage, at a moment when the local electricity supplies and telephone service have been cut off due to political disturbances, with nothing to read but a Robert Ludlum thriller, expecting a visit from the security police in a hotel room without a wash-basin overlooking a railway freight yard on a national holiday in the Egyptian town of Zagazig.

Sanity has been a preoccupation of mine on this blog recently, as I have become more and more convinced that the world is falling into some kind of mass psychosis. (It’s happened before, it can happen again, and worse.) My noble and ironic friend Peter will no doubt shrug his shoulders wryly, and maintain that the world has always been as good and as bad as it is now, composed mainly of good-hearted people muddling along as best they can. He manages to imply, subliminally and graciously, that a diffuse sense of the world’s darkening is really a kind of snobbery, and he's probably right. (‘Everything’s getting worse all the time! If it wasn’t for those damned...’etc. Re-open The Daily Telegraph.) Still. I maintain that we are, in fact, in the Kali Yuga, the Age of Iron, or, as Camille Paglia would have it, ‘a late, decadent phase of culture, dominated by themes of sex and violence.’ In this barely-transpicuous gloom*, Jan Morris lights a kind of way, showing how to live with courage, self-deprecating humour, and a love of beauty. Most of all, she radiates a hopefulness and an easiness in life, a sense of the world's wonder. In her autobiography, Conundrum, she describes how she made a habit of swimming alone in the hidden lakes and rivers of Wales. In a particularly strange passage, both eerie and joyful, she narrates how she waded early one morning into a mist-shrouded tarn, totally deserted, high in the Welsh mountains. She steps out of herself, and tells how she was, at the time, halfway through her sex-change, and must have seemed a creature half-mythological, like one of the lake-nymphs or shaggy water-horses that haunt Welsh folklore, neither male nor female, a Tiresias - and yet stranger than any of them, because real and breathing. The way she narrates this incident makes one aware that in any act of deep self-transformation there is mysterious numen, and that striving to become more and more oneself, as deeply and as truly as possible, is both the most selfish and the most unselfish of acts. The inner growth of the human soul goes against the inertia of the body and its aging, as Jung knew; thus becoming onself is the Alchemists' opus contra naturam, that work against nature by which alone can nature be completed and brought to the perfection of its potential.

Strangely, for a writer with so many wonderful stretches of prose, her work does not lend itself to easy excerptation. Her subjects are so various; the format of her second book of autobiographical writings, Pleasures of a Tangled Life, hint at her complexities. There are reflections on Australia, and America; on food, and drink; on animals, and books, and friends, on success, and the pleasure of creating a house that is both library and sanctuary. She reflects on nationalism and her passionate feelings for Wales, and on her unpretentious, non-dogmatic sense of the spiritual. She is in no way a spiritual writer; simply, I get the impression, she has no interest in formalities or entrenched factionalisms of any sort, religious or political. But I was cheered, and hardly surprised, that she chooses in her writing to describe her sense of the world as that of a pantheist pagan, in the sense that she has always lived ‘preferring to suppose that the divine is not merely manifest in nature, but actually is nature itself.' Perhaps someone should warn her that this non-denominational, Edwardian sense of the word 'pagan' has been superseded, and there is a substantial community of squabbling groups who have laid claim to the word. Then again, I suspect she doesn't need warning, and would cherish the English eccentricity of it all anyway.

Indeed, when I opened her 'Europe' in Waterstones the other day, I began with her evocation of the continent's misty pre-Christian past. She reiterated her cheerful, unceremonial paganism, and mentioned that Dafydd ap Gwilym's marvellous 14th century poem The Woodland Mass/Offeren y Llwyn captured her innate, pantheistic 'sense sublime, / Of something far more deeply interfus'd', as Wordsworth had it. In the poem, the bard observes the birds out in the forest glade, as they sing their hearts out, celebrating a kind of Mass from the sheer joy of being. Not only did this medieval poem absolutely transfix me also when I read it for the first time years ago, I was struck by exactly the same line, in which the birds' offering is made a charegyl nwyf a chariad, which Morris translates 'with a chalice of ecstasy and love!' My own translation of five years ago was, wierdly, identical (and 'ecstasy' is not the most obvious English equivalent of Welsh nwyf, which means something like 'brio'). This startled me so much I had to shut the book.

A Damehood is long-overdue, to this heroic, courageous, marvellous woman. Every flamboyance in her work, every purple-patch, has earned its due in living a life awake to the wonderfulness of it all, just taking in life and experience graciously, as it comes, whether in India or Israel, Bhutan or Chicago, or at home in her beloved Wales. I wonder if she will be signing books at the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol this year? I will be taking my copy of 'Venice' with me, just in case.

* * *

* 'Transpicuous gloom' was the notorious phrase used by Bentley in his 18th century commentary on Paradise Lost to replace Milton's stupendous 'darknesse visible'. As an example of an aching, stony lack of imagination, or of cloth-eared, prosaic dullness on the part of a critic, it could hardly be bettered. Perhaps someone should write a history of notoriously bad poets and critics.

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