In My Minds Eye : A Thought Diary by Jan Morris (Faber & Faber 2018)
Pre Christmas hibernation has started with a necessary limitation of Covid 19 travel. So being nourished by some good writing seems a pre requisite of survival and even a little flourishing. This collection of random, reflective, thoughts written over 188 days are delightful. They are honest, skilfully crafted pieces form a writer who knows herself, her views, her experiences and the world around her. They are easy to read, sometimes a little repetitive, often humorous but always sympathetic. Morris takes her reader on a journey of discovery.
Here is how she puts it, ‘I have never before in my life kept a diary of my thoughts, and here at the start of my ninth decade, having for the moment nothing much else to write, I am having a go at it. Good luck to me…’
Morris has since died – you may want to be reminded of her life here in this wonderful obituary by Veronica Horwell – by way of background to an extraordinary life. ( https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/20/jan-morris-obituary ) I read the thought diary in the light of this and a little knowledge of her writing.
The diary had a particular attraction with a shared knowledge and love of Wales. Morris describes her life with her partner Elizabeth in their home at Plas Trefan, in Llanystumdwy. There she is sustained by routine, a steady pace of life and her library.
In some ways these pieces are a reflection on the wonder and liberation of old age. The routines of domestic life, the seasons, family, Criccieth, and the mountains and sea of north west Wales sustain the limitations and frustrations of body and mind. There is a deep sense of gratitude and lack of self pity. There is an underlying sense of satisfaction from the memories and relationships that have enriched her living.
However if you want opinion then they are here in abundance ! She abhors the bigotry of Trump, is affectionately ambivalent about royalty, deeply committed to Welsh patriotism and simply very wise about the troubling state of the world.
There are some gems ! On her travels Jan Morris would employ what she calls the “Smile Test” to measure the character of a city and its people. By “smiling resolutely” at strangers and analysing their responses, she could discern a sort of national personality. She wonders about whether there is such a thing as English character. She is also persistent about her agnosticism, often quite dismissive of religion, but this reader found her searching questions about death, human nature, creation and community had a wonderful spiritual quality to them.
There are for Morris ( like us all ) blindspots expressed sometimes with in a slightly caustic tone. The obese come under fire and anyone who has anything to do with zoos comes in for harsher treatment. Zoos are “jails for living creatures utterly innocent of crime, imprisoned without trial”. She admits to her prejudice but takes the reader along in a kind of dialogue !
On more than one point in the book Jan Morris returns to the gift of kindness and it seems appropriate to end this short piece with her words:
‘ I have lived a lifetime in this place, amongst the peoples of North West Wales, contemplating such prospects in varying conditions of despair or exaltation, and I don’t believe there is anywhere on earth better endowed with what I believe to be the ultimate beauty: the instinct of kindness”
‘To my mind the fundamental engine of the Christian Faith ….. is the quality of kindness. It requires no exact definition. we need no theologian to expound it for us, no shining saint to exemplify it, because since childhood we have all experienced just what kindness is’