There are just a few writers who never misjudge a phrase or fail to use the tools of language with all the careful precision of a Swiss watchmaker and Jan Morris is one of these. In this, her second book of diaries – both written when most writers are hanging up their metaphorical quills – the great travel writer and historian sends us brisk and bright dispatches from Llanustumdwy.
In this way Morris keeps us in the loop about quotidian matters such as her daily thousand-pace stroll, the fate of her redoubtable Honda Civic, which has kept her beetling around the lanes of Llŷn for many a moon, and which marching tunes she whistles briskly of a morning. She tells the reader how the grandfather clock, made by a Mr John Parry of Tremadog, that has graced her house, Trefan Morys, for many a decade is finally running out of time.
She also informs us about her partner Elizabeth’s dementia, and does so with very good humour, raising a few bright laughs despite the slow pain of the situation.
Jan Morris also ponders matters more global, such as Brexit and the rise of Trump in what she describes as the dis-united States. This travel writer no longer travels to some of her beloved cities, to Hong Kong, New York or to Venice, but the self described ‘professional instinctive’ still employs the tricks of her trade in engaging people in conversation, nowadays in Cricieth, Pwllheli or Porthmadog, encounters briskly conjured up in postcard-length accounts of her visits.
Language, quite naturally, is a consistent theme from pondering the origins of the word ‘algorithm’ through her introduction to the new and very funny language called Desperanto to the ‘topsy-turvydom’ of the world:
“The power of words enthrals me. I have never before today used the word ‘Nadir’, although I have often, so to speak, admired it from afar – its simple elegance, its restraint, the shape and sound of it, its echoes of classical Arabic as against its mundane and depressing Anglo-American equivalent ‘rock bottom.’”
Morris is so enthralled by language that sometimes all the words that exist are still not sufficient for her needs, so she often coins new ones, a nonagenarian’s neologisms as it were. So she describes herself as an ‘equilibrialist’ who hopes, one day to see the two languages of Wales exist in equilibrium and presents us with words such as ‘kindlily’ which sound as if they’re made up but do actually exist in dictionaries.
But one word, above all, sums up this book, and that is ‘kindness.’ The volume itself is dedicated ‘With Kind Regards to Everyone’ and there’s a warmth to the writing, a companionship made possible between the author and the reader which makes the book itself a sort of kindness, a two hundred page gift if you like. Jan Morris has always been a companionable travel guide and remains so, even if nowadays she is telling us about matters close to home such as making marmalade, or saving the local pub, Tafarn y Plu.
The book simmers gustily with all manner of enthusiasms from singing the praises of anything from ‘Dad’s Army’ to the ‘powder puffs’ of a dandelion’s virility and Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto, ‘so variedly grand, and wistful, disturbing and reassuring, patrician and populist.’ Indeed some of the best bits in the book are simply small but telling details of the things she has gathered around her in the house, such as a favourite blazer bearing two badges. One is the crest of her old college, Christ Church in Oxford while the other is the regimental crest of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, a regiment she joined in Italy at the end of the Second World War as an intelligence officer.
These emblazonings (see, it’s catching) are more than just decorations, or aide-memoires as both Oxford and Italy, and in particular Venice are the subjects of some of her best and most enduring books.
Wales is of course an abiding love of hers and towards the end of the book she ponders Welshness, suggesting that it is ‘essentially an idea, or rather a confusion or concert of ideas, blended down all the generations, powerful enough to create images, influence emotions, dictate behaviours, and create symbols from century to century…’
It is an idea that has sustained her through many of her books about Wales, such as the achingly romantic and sublimely expressed ‘The Matter of Wales’ and ‘A Machynlleth Triad’ whch she co-authored with her son Twm. And Wales has also been an dependable anchor in her wanderings, with a home full of books and maps hidden under the carpets to keep them flat, waiting there for the peregrinator when she has returned from far-flung lands, from South Africa, Iraq or Australia.
That relationship with Wales is perhaps best summarised by Morris’ collection of Welsh stamps, being any stamp that had any connection whatsoever to Wales, assembled as an enthusiastic adolescent in a series of stout, loose-leaf volumes.
Morris has now reached an age when she has started to re-read her own books, dating back to the first in 1956 and to re-read others, such as Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina,’ which is one of her all-time favourites along with his ‘War and Peace.’
The fact that she is still adding to the crammed bookshelf marked Jan Morris is testament not only to her youthful zest for life and energetic curiosity but also something we should all be grateful for, being her innate generosity.
She is a supremely gifted writer but also a kind one, and of the two, perhaps the latter quality is the greater cause for celebration.
Thinking Again by Jan Morris is pubished by Faber & Faber, costs £16.99 and can be bought here.