Sunday, August 29, 2010

Of Manners, Mountains and Time

I was introduced to the writing of Jan Morris through my friend David Nice of I'll think of something later. Though we have only met face-to-face once - a wonderful Friday evening of words, music, food and conversation with he and his dipolmate in London back in, my god was it really, February - and our chief method of communicate is the internet I hope I am not being bold in referring to him as a friend. But I honestly feel that "blog buddy" is too casual a term for someone who has given me much - at time vicarious - pleasure with his writing and introduced me to so many authors, composers, artists and fellow bloggers over the past 2 years.

I know I've commented in more than one posting of the fact that if David says You really should read ... or hear ... or see ... he is without fail on the mark. So it was with Morris; after my posts on Trieste he recommend I read Morris's beautiful and rather sad memory book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. That has led me to more of her books - travel, reportage and history. With the Pax Britannia trilogy I found myself in for the long haul - not a difficult read but a winter one if you will. However I found the perfect summer and travel book in A Writer's World; Travels 1950-2000; a collection of articles and essays that Morris wrote over the years for The Times, The Guardian, Life, Rolling Stone and various other publications. It takes us from the top of Mount Everest (Morris was there as a reporter for The Times on May 29, 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary stood on the summit) to the chilling trial of Adolf Eichmann; through his pre-operation loneliness in Casablanca to the final retreat of Britain from the last outpost of her Empire. First as James than as Jan, Morris covers the Old World, the New World, emerging nations and fading glories from the mid-point of the 20th century to its end. It is a fascinating 50 year journey.

When I say "summer and travel book" I don't mean one of those books you simply put down having read half a chapter and then pick up again after you've refreshed your Aperol spritz. But by its nature as a book of articles and essays its easy to read in bits and pieces and out of sequence. Though reading it through from cover to cover does allow you to see the development of a style that is distinctively Morris. Her view of Hong Kong written in the 1950s has a Chinoiserie tone to it - the language a trifle elaborate. As the century ends so does A Writer's World with a description of the British handover of her Crown Colony in 1997 and Morris's style though no less descriptive and still very much Morris seems less given to baroque turns of phrase. As if, perhaps, the closing in of time has meant an economy of words.

As well as the original articles Morris give us forewards and epilogues to many of the pieces. Thoughts in 2003 of how things have changed since she penned the originals - the places, the political climate, the world, her own attitudes and not to put to fine a point on it, her sex. One of my favorites is this little addendum to her rather unsettling view of London originally written in 1975:

As to the monarchy, it was soon to lose much of its arcane magic - and its remoteness. Years later I was a guest at a Buckingham Palace reception for publishers and writers, and at the end of the evening, wishing to leave, looked around for somebody to thank. Queen, princes, dukes and all seemed to have gone elsewhere, so I left anyway, and at the palace gates I found a policeman. 'I was brought up,' I told him, 'to say thank you for having me when I'd been to a party, so as I can't find the Queen or anybody to say it to, I'll say it to you instead. Thank you for having me.'
He replied stylishly, I thought, but in the new palace mode. 'Not at all, Madam. Come again.'
A Writer's World
Travels 1950-200
Jan Morris
Faber and Faber Limited

Though Anthony Trollope found inspiration for his fictional Barchester in Salisbury and its environs Morris includes an essay on the town of Wells and its cathedral which recalled for her the comings and goings of the clergy of Trollope's Barsetshire. Reading her description of Wells Cathedral and in particular its remarkable 14th century Astronomical Clock brought to mind an item that was on the BBC last week. After more than 600 years (the announcer says 900 but that would be highly unlikely given the clock dates from 1396) of being hand wound (the past 80 years by members of the same family) the clock is going electric. A click on the clock face will take you to the complete story on the BBC Video.
This photo was taken from the Somerset Church Crawl set posted on Flickr by Lawrence OP. Its one of a remarkable series which includes this fellow who Morris describes as "a dead-pan character called Jack Blandiver, sitting stiffly on his seat high on a wall near by, nods his head, hits one bell with his hammer and kicks two more with his heels."

Having finished the piece on Wells I immediately went hunting for my copy of Barchester Towers. Because of Morris and, indirectly dear David, I feel a Trollope reread coming on.

29 agosto - San Giovanni Decollato

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1 comment:

David said...

Why, thank you, kind sir. Admiration is mutual. I've also been reading more Morris abroad - her wonderfully interconnected vignettes of Europe over 50 years. Likewise perfect for picking up and putting down during jaunts.

But I'm amused if I led you back to Trollope, a bete noir of mine (call it a blind spot). We suffered at university from being forced to read The Way We Live Now, which I found sub-Dickensian. And I'd still rater re-read Dickens than explore Trollope...chacun a son gout.