Horatio Clare reviews our new Book of the Month: Jan Morris’s ‘In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary’, published tomorrow by Faber & Faber.
How does one write well? How do you become A Writer? For years I gave the answer given me by my father: read George Orwell. Good writing is clear and honest; it is simple, fearless, entertaining. Later, I decided the secrets are reading, rhythm and having something to say. I issue reading prescriptions: Shakespeare, Orwell, AA Gill, Joan Didion, Jan Morris. Of these, I most frequently teach Morris. Her introduction to Venice is splendid prose. Sensuous, delighted, playful, subtle and tremendous by turns, suggestive and informed, its evocation of Venice and the lagoon could not be bettered. (Joseph Brodsky is her nearest rival, and he won a Nobel.) With the publication of In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary I have a new answer to the writing question. Read this book.
Essays written daily in 2017-18, some commissioned by the Financial Times, they are about everything – even this one, which is thrown in for fun and because truth and mischief are large parts of the Morris method:
That’s odd. I don’t seem to have thought anything today.
It does happen.
Only once a year, in her case, it seems. The memories, musings, follies, forays, tastes and prejudices displayed here are an unfailing delight. There are characters, including Morris’ beloved Honda, Montaigne, her deceased cat Ibsen (in an unpublished letter to the Times Morris asks how she might go about marrying him); there are preoccupations with marmalade, progress and disaster, Britain in and since the days of Empire; there are enemies – zoos and anyone cruel to animals – there is a creed, which blends kindness, forgiveness and agnosticism, and there is the setting, the blessed regions around Porthmadog and Cricieth, ‘the best place on earth’. Her description of it on ‘a glorious evening in early winter, a time of wondrous colouring’ begins in the physical and ends in the philosophic with a ‘burst of conviction’ which deserves to be read, not summarised.
The keys to great writing, judging by these pieces, are observation and passionate fascination with the world, though it now seems to her ‘subsumed in squalor and disillusion’. One doubts Morris would have much truck with mindfulness (what is the alternative – mindlessness?) but she lives a sparklingly mindful life, alert to her surroundings and her consciousness in relation to them. There are stunning pieces here on clouds, companionship, Turner, people in the street, old age – which Morris treats as a harsh country, fraught with peril and discomfort, to be navigated with tough verve and humour – and, one of my favourites, the overlap between reality and imagination, occasioned by a memory of the Grand Trunk Road in Kipling’s Kim and a meeting in the lane.
O I could see all the colours of India along there, and smell its smells, and hear the reedy half-tones of its music magically in the air. For it was five o’clock, you see. And my neighbours the Parrys were taking their Hereford cows in for milking, riding their quad bikes, with Ben the dog scampering all around. The pace was unhurried. The light flickered with floating oak leaves. The dust was hay dust.
Treatment of the reader is part of the secret. This mightily accomplished person makes you a special friend, someone to trust and entertain. Notice how she aims off, slightly, in the way that you see more clearly at night by not looking directly. ‘The light flickered with floating oak leaves’ – at once precise and impressionistic, carried by a natural and mimetic rhythm, solid as oak and light as sunbeams simultaneously. There is an unteachable music in her prose but you can see the tricks and constituents of the iridescent style. ‘The dust was hay dust’: straight and true, and, in its confident repetition, original. And she knows the name of the dog. Like Chatwin, Morris always knows the names of things, lovingly nailing her car: ‘a Honda Civic Type R, 2006 vintage, age 106000 miles’. How else is a writer of the world to render it rightly?
Despite the confiding mode there is an autobiographical restraint here. We glimpse a magnificent life – homes in small-town America, on a houseboat on the Nile, in Venice – but her most important loves are offstage or barely sketched, her family and her partner Elizabeth. She has the true writer’s impatience with writing, fearing ever to bore, never labouring, always coming out of a piece early rather than late. Her loves of books, of watching, of accuracy (she is always looking up definitions), of mischief (she enjoys smiling hugely at strangers, to test them and their worlds, and ambushing owners of flashy cars, offering them a swap for her Honda) and of the miracle of the every-day recur throughout.
If we are lucky will all face old age. This book is a superb handbook for the condition: reading, above all, and flinging her curiosity, courage and perceptions at the world make Morris an inspiring guide to it. She is a champion of kindness and spontaneity, famous among writers of my and perhaps other generations for appearing in your inbox with a note of congratulation and encouragement. Above all she is clear-eyed. Of watching herself on a TV documentary she writes, ‘and what did I see? Through the eyes of candour I saw a very old woman in yellow, shuffling.’
Through the eyes of candour: it might make a good motto for her writing, and her life.
In My Mind’s Eye (Faber & Faber, hardback, 336 pages) is out tomorrow and available here, priced £16.99.