At getting on for 94, Jan Morris is realistic that this will probably be her last book. For the past 70 years she has roamed far and wide: as a journalist she was at the triumphant ascent of Everest in 1953 and was there too for the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Most famously in the early 1970s she described what it was like to be in the advance guard of gender reassignment when she transitioned from James to Jan via surgery in Casablanca. Her historical writing has tended to the epic: her trilogy on the rise and fall of the British empire, Pax Britannica, is a monumental work that feels as if it had access to every heartbeat under the searing sun.
Morris has now turned to a new way of writing that allows her to stay put. She has started to keep a diary, and it is the second instalment, covering 130 days from the beginning of spring 2018, that makes up Thinking Again. Don’t imagine, though, that there is anything reduced about this new world. Morris has long admired the diary form for its capaciousness, and sticking within a small radius of the converted north Wales barn where she now lives allows her to roam far and wide in her imagination, unfettered by time or space.
The result is a beguilingly supple narrative, able to absorb all the contradictions and revisions that mark a long, well-remembered life.
A Season of Highs and Lows
For instance, Morris begins Day 90 feeling curmudgeonly at the approach of yet another festive season: “I am no good at Christmas.” From here she explains that she hates that time of year because as a chorister at Christ Church, she was obliged to spend her boyhood Christmases far away from home and hard at work in a surplice. But just when we feel that we have got a clear mental picture of young James as a scowling prewar cherub, Morris proceeds to give us a heartfelt song of how those Christ Church Christmases “have remained high points of my life’s long memory”. It was, she says, not just the “grand artistic legend” of the nativity story, set to glorious music, that has stayed with her, but also “the distillation of goodness among beautiful buildings and kind strangers”.
“Kind” emerges as a key term for Morris, the capstone of everything she holds most dear. At times she wonders out loud whether it might not be possible to form a religion around the concept, before remembering that we have several already. So instead she takes great pleasure in recording those many occasions on which complete strangers have gone out of their way to help her when she has been in need – with her car, her shopping, or even her own failing body as she sets out every morning to complete her daily 1,000 paces with her trusty walking stick, come rain, shine or treacherous ice.
“Kind” emerges as a key term for Morris, the capstone of everything she holds most dear.
Morris may be idealistic, but she’s also astringent about the many times in her own life when she has failed to be kind. Her particular mea culpa is reserved for her treatment of “my Elizabeth”, once her wife and now her civil partner, who lives with her but is lost to dementia. At times she admits to being “unforgivably cruel”: “I use words and phrases I despise, adopt rude attitudes that are not my own and think things I am ashamed to remember.”
On the evidence of the diary, however, Morris seems positively saint-like. She is brave enough, too, to resist editing out those things that a younger, more craven writer would worry about. For instance, she happily tells us that her favourite thing on TV is Mrs Brown’s Boys, the sitcom starring Brendan O’Carroll in drag – “so frank as to be innocent … it never fails to cheer me up”. Even more startling is the way she is determined to give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt. Yes, he may be crass and boorish in private, but she likes his political style. What’s more, she asks with a touching optimism and in this rare case a lack of knowledge, “He must, I know, be a man of true abilities – how else could he have assembled his immense financial holdings?”
These revelations, from someone who insists on rereading a chapter of Anna Karenina every night, come as a jolt. But that, of course, is the great joy of the diary format. It allows a personality to unfold without any requirement that the author smoothes out the snags. The result isn’t exactly unvarnished – Morris admits that she still spends an inordinate amount of energy crafting her prose before setting it before us – but it gets us closer to the sources of her art than we have been before.