REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r36

Thinking Again

by Jan Morris

A national treasure, Jan Morris can do no wrong. As she approaches her mid nineties, each new book is offered as the last. With more than sixty already published – across many genres – there’s also the sense she is a living bridge to another era, another planet, even. Certainly, works like 1956’s Coast to Coast were written when few people travelled far overseas and hardly anyone had the contacts or the privileges enjoyed by Morris. There’s always been something rather ‘posh’ about a writer who could secure an interview with Walt Disney, and hobnob with ex-president Harry Truman.

Morris’ final proper travelogue, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001), was a considered, reflective coda on this career as well as a moody meditation on place and mortality. Thinking Again, a sequel to her first ever diary, In My Mind’s Eye (2018), is nothing like that. A scrapbook of thoughts and observations laid out as an undated chronicle, the author tells us on Day 1 that she’s offering us ‘inconsequential little pieces’, and that these days she writes more out of habit than any sense of vision or purpose.

Eclectic in theme, open to random digressions, the diary has the breeziness of a one-way conversation. Yet there is something about the tone that is studiously writerly: Morris is a master of seeming intimate without ever being truly confessional.

‘Is anybody decent any more?’ she asks, rhetorically. ‘Can I not trust my neighbour?’ If she sounds like your average grumpy neighbour then that’s partly her seniority and partly the fact she doesn’t self-censor. Reading Morris is a reminder we live in a terribly conformist, tribal society. She seems to even quite like Donald Trump, in the way you might like a spoilt teenager. She also admires the fact he genuinely aims to please his constituency ‘and to hell with everyone else’. That this will jolt readers out of their echo chambers and circles of supposed confidence would no doubt delight her.

I read the book as the COVID-19 outbreak tightened its grip on the UK – on people, on the economy, on the media. It was a joy to hide away, some days, in the smallness of life in Llanystumdwy on the Llŷn Peninsula. Morris finds in social isolation a quiet poetry and maintains an old-fashioned cheeriness in the face of difficulty, most notably her life-long partner, Elizabeth’s dementia. Also, now that many of us have travelled far and become budding Jan Morrises, there is perhaps something radically enlightening – as well as saleable – in writing about home and stasis.

Over passing days we are given glimpses into the author’s life: her 1,000 steps per day exercise routine; her trips down to the beach; literary tittle-tattle and a royalty statement for £000.00; her enjoyment of modern life, including takeaway supermarket sushi (over crumbly sandwiches and tea). She shares a jokey poem written by her son, Twm; tells us of her intense dislike of the word “FUCK”; divulges her thoughts on cars, including a flash BMW she once owned and the trusty old Honda she now uses.

We catch her in different moods. A ‘whole-hog Welsh republican’, she laments the fact that a nearby cottage has been usurped, ‘probably for the first time since the days of Einion ap Gruffydd’, by an Engish family: ‘Sais, Saxons.’ She wonders if this is racism, and at her own sense of alienation by their presence.

Current affairs routinely depress Morris. Day 29 opens with a terse and bitter summary:

A hideous day’s news greets me this morning, of wars and rumours of wars, of sleazy capitalism and dubious diplomacy, democracy coarsened, loyalties abandoned, religious squabbling, footling gossip and squalid accusations. ‘What’s the use?’ I say to myself, aloud and in the general direction of nowhere. I give up. Count me out.

(She loves snooty-sounding words like ‘footling’.) But you don’t get to ninety-three by opting out, and this short entry ends with ‘Outside my window a soft wind is stirring the trees – themselves gently mutating into the green of a new summer.’ Thus, a mellowing ensues.

She wonders at the workings of the elderly memory –how her trade as a writer has ‘warped’ recollections in seeking to mould them into stories, allegories and fables. It is intuited that after many decades on earth, the memory is principally a private store, a collection of linked thoughts and sensations, episodes and reflections that is utterly bespoke and only to be shared in this spirit. Facts, such as they are, get lost in what she neatly calls ‘time’s tangle’.

Trivial yet engaging, petulant and poignant, casually erudite, Thinking Again wins us, in the end, with its sincerity. Few writers are with us at Morris’ great age and very few indeed continue to issue work. Decades of practice have bequeathed her a prose style that glides off the page smoothly, with the kind of deceptive ease novice wordsmiths will envy. We are living through a crisis that is urgent and distressing, and of our time; journeying through the days of a year, through the decades of a long life, transiting the seasons with this warm-hearted writer-guide, will be a balm to sorrowful and anxious souls.

Chris Moss is a travel writer.


previous review: Geiriau Diflanedig
next review: John Ormond’s Organic Mosaic: Poetry, Documentary, Nation


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