Born in 1926, Jan was James until 1972. Writer of more than forty books, most of them quirky and lovely in a strange way, she was once a soldier and had been an observant wanderer. She now lives in Wales and still writes determinedly, to the eternal delight of her admirers. She is a kind of her own. Writing about Oxford, she says, ‘Oxford is archaic in many ways, but only intermittently moribund’. Jan Morris may be archaic, but she is not even close to being moribund at the age ninety-three.
This is her San Francisco of the last century: In some ways, it is true, San Francisco is a topsy-turvy place, built on the flanks of impossibly steep hills, so that driving home is an adventure, and walking back from the theatre in high heels or long skirts an hilarious impossibility … It is a city, too, of many races, jumbled in narrow streets and crowded quarters, Chinese and Mexicans and Italians, and sailors barging by from the quaysides; with the beloved cable-cars scurrying up the hills and swaying perilously around the corners; and cluttered wharfside restaurants, all mixed up with fishing-boats and wayside stalls, and smelling of prawns, lobsters and the succulent abalone; and gay gardens perched on the flanks of hills, with dainty shambles of artists’ houses all around … It is also a kindly city, where few people carry chips on their shoulders.
This is how she describes the surgical change of gender she underwent, which was accepted but with a morbid curiosity in the seventies of the last century: To
myself, I had been a woman all along, and I was not going to change the truth of me, only to discard the falsity…I was about to adapt my body from a male conformation to a female, and I would shift my public role altogether, from the role of a man to a role of a woman. It is one of the most drastic of human changes, unknown until our own times, and even now experienced by a few: but it seemed only natural to me, and I embarked on it with a sense of thankfulness, like a lost traveller finding the right road at last.
I was hooked on to her by her trilogy on the British Empire – an apologia, but as expansive, varied and colourful as the Empire was. The second volume Pax Britannica, which was written first, is about the Empire at its pinnacle and, one must admit, she doesn’t mince words in it: In practice, however, it was a racialist Empire—what was Empire, Lord Rosebery had once rhetorically asked, but the predominance of race? Awkwardly lying between the lines of the Jubilee manifestos, with all their warmth of family feeling, were ineradicable instincts of racial superiority, inherited perhaps from the slave-masters of the earliest English colonies, and fortified in Victoria’s day by pseudo-scientific theory and fuzzy-wuzzy wars. ‘An anthropological museum’, is how the Daily Mail‚ during an unguarded gap in the lyricism, described the colonial procession of the Jubilee, and this is how its star reporter Steevens, a scholar of Balliol, once responded to the Lascar seamen on board a British liner: ‘They are a specimen of the raw material. Their very ugliness and stupidity furnish just the point. It is because there are people like this in the world that there is an Imperial Britain. This sort of creature has to be ruled, so we rule him, for his good and our own.’
She says again: Another cause of racialism was fundamentalist religion, with its shibboleths about hewers of wood and drawers of water—those allegedly divine proscriptions, those appeals to the pedigrees of Ham and Shem, which were so often propagated by missionaries, and which had such effect in the days when the Bible was taken literally by people of all classes. Darwinian ideas, too, while they seemed to show that every word of Genesis need not be taken as simple fact, at the same time convinced many people that the blacker a skin looked, the nearer it was to sin and savagery: ape or angel, is how Disraeli interpreted the alternatives of human origin, and it seemed only common sense that a Negro was more a gorilla than a Gabriel.
Why am I talking about her now? Last week I acquired the latest book of hers, written at the age of ninety-two, titled In My Mind’s Eye – A Thought Diary. These are the first few lines of the book: I have never before in my life kept a diary of my thoughts, and here at the start of my tenth decade, having for the moment nothing much else to write, I am having a go at it. Her first entry is about her car, which she drives herself: And isn’t it amazing that there are still all-too-familiar combinations of notes or harmonies, ones I know all too well, that can still bring the tears to my eyes, especially when I am alone driving my car? Nobody to break the spell, I suppose, and perhaps, since my first concentration is upon the driving, the music slides in unaware, like another old friend reminding me of half-forgotten emotions.
The diary has many eccentric entries, frequent sparkles of humour and delectable asides on friends, old foes and tourists. Here are a few samples of them:
“I have now reached, with muddled feelings, page 38 of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). I am reading it, a bit late in the day, because I feel I ought to. The New York Times, I see, says it should be required reading for the whole human race. I shall soon know whether all of it is going to be required reading for me.
“Talking to things is a rather different sort of illogicality, though, and here I offer no excuse. No Druidical seer has obliged me to talk aloud to my books or thank a good omelette. There is no immemorial precedent, so far as I know, for my morning conversations with my toothbrush or my night-time expressions of gratitude to the furniture. The TV doesn’t in the least care whether I enjoy its programmes, and that constantly dripping tap clearly doesn’t listen to me anyway. There is no logic, I well know, to the habit of talking to inanimate objects, and I do it only, I suppose, because it gives me some sense of fellowship or camaraderie.”
“Is there such a person as an incredulist, which I claimed myself to be the other day? Of course there is. It is a person who is by nature or practice an unbeliever in the first instance, and suspects that on the whole, all being equal, notwithstanding, nevertheless, most of life is more likely to be false than true – when all is said and done, that is, and all things considered. It seems to me that the existence of such a person is self-evident (I am one myself, am I not?), yet the Oxford English Dictionary does not recognize the word. I can be an incredule, it seems, or at least I could have been in 1590, when a fierce hymnist cried, ‘Increduils hence ga hide you hie!’, but never so far an incredulist.”
“I read somewhere the other day about a man who fell in love with a sheep. It sounded an unsatisfactory affair to me, but not half so unsatisfactory as being a sheep. Was there ever an animal so utterly without romance? I know Christians long ago adopted it as a very model of innocence, favoured by God himself, but living as I do in the heart of sheep country, and coming across the animals almost every day of my life, I find the meek and mildness beloved of the hymnists depressing to a degree.”
“How quickly a language changes, and with it the mores of a people, their tone of voice and their attitudes. In England, it seems to me, what they used to call Standard English does not greatly change, and that’s what I speak myself. It’s certainly not, though, what the Queen of England spoke sixty years ago. In her early broadcasts she sounded ineffably affected, and if her accent has changed over time, perhaps mine has too – we were born in the same year.”
“‘I am dying, Egypt, dying,’ observed Antony to Cleopatra, and actually it went without saying. We all are. The fact is starker, though, when you reach my status in life.
My mathematics never were reliable, but I worked out this morning that I have so far been in this world for 375,000 days! Is that possible? Is that conceivable? Is that how you spell ‘conceivable’?”
It is hard for us to conceive that a ninety-one year old lady could write with such wit and vigour.