Even in her 90s, Jan Morris remains a pleasure to read. I am re-reading her book, In My Mind’s Eye: A Thought Diary, first published in 2018, when she was 91 or 92 years old. And what a pleasure it is. She is observant as ever, recording her observations in beautiful prose. Filled with fond reminiscences, gentle humour and painterly descriptions, this is a diary of a happy and fulfilled life.
And why not? Jan Morris is secure in her place as one of the finest writers in English. She has tasted success from the time she was James Morris, the young correspondent for The Times newspaper who accompanied Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay and reported their conquest of the Everest in 1953. Now, in her old age, she is still sought by publishers who commissioned her to write a diary. It is something she has never done before.
.As she says in “Day 1” of her diary: “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. Good luck to me.”
She has done a good job.
The diary is a chronicle of 188 days in her home in Wales. She recalls old times, mentions her children, and describes walking and driving in her car with “dear Elizabeth”, whom she married when she was the dashing James Morris.
They are a remarkable couple: Jan Morris still driving a car past the age of 90. In her last entry, about “Day 188”, she says she and Elizabeth walked more than 25 miles the previous day. A woman of 90 and her old companion walking more than 25 miles in a single day! What a doughty pair!
As for the writing, it is as graceful as swans gliding through water.
In one of my favourite entries in the book, Morris writes about birds. She is reminded of them by contrails — vapour trails in the sky left by passing jetliners.
It’s an instance of associative thinking – a plus point for writers — that aircraft vapour trails make her think of birds in flight. She passes from vapour trails to birds so smoothly it seems the most natural thing to do. The transition isn’t jarring at all. The narrative flows unbroken.
Read her complete entry for Day 186:
When the skies are clear, once or twice a day I see the silent white streaks of vapour trails high among the clouds, and they never fail to move me. They always seem to travel in couples, one after the other like pairs of faithful friends, and they are always flying purposefully to the west. I assume they are airliners from England, or perhaps from the continent of Europe, on their way to America, but it is the silent enigma of their passage that fascinates me.
I get the same sense of mystery from birds. Day after day I wonder, as I watch the birds in our garden, or down by the seashore, what on earth they are all up to, and what enables or obliges them to do whatever it is they are doing. Today, for instance, a small flock of terns flew over my head and settled on the sea’s surface a few hundred yards out. I watched them attentively through my binoculars, and what do you think they were doing? They were doing absolutely nothing at all. They simply sat there, bobbing up and down with the tide. They were not eating anything, or foraging, or even apparently communicating with each other. They simply sat there on the sea, until quite suddenly, for no apparent reason, they rose from the water as one and flew back over my head into the fields behind.
What were their purposes? Were they preparing for some immense migratory flight later in the year? Were they obeying some celestial instructions? Whatever their intentions or obligations, I saw them as remote ancillaries of those high white vapour trails, silently, silently, navigating the empyrean…
Isn’t the writing beautiful?
Next, here is Jan Morris writing about a visit to Hollywood in her salad days, when she was James Morris, the star reporter who had accompanied Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay and reported their conquest of the Everest in 1953.
I enjoyed reading this because she confesses how happy she was to be a famous journalist and her fondness for Hollywood. I, too, enjoyed the films she mentions though I saw them decades later.
Here is her complete entry for Day 65, a treat for old movie buffs:
The merry actress Debbie Reynolds has died, but with her name one of my happier memories lives on. She became a star in 1952 by playing opposite Gene Kelly in the smash musical Singin’ in the Rain, a film that’s still delightful even now, and down the years she became for me a sort of spirit of Hollywood.
I never met her, but the star and studio system that had made her famous was in its prime when I first went to Hollywood. It was 1954, and I was buoyant myself with the international kudos of the successful Everest expedition the year before, which I had reported for the London Times in a much publicised scoop. Because of Everest I had introductions to many film people, and although I never met Reynolds herself, I see now that in a sense it was her Hollywood I encountered.
Success was in the very air of the place! Hardly had I landed there than I took tea with a sort of earlier incarnation of Debbie Reynolds. The grand dame of Hollywood in those days was Mary Pickford, who lived in immense grandeur, guarded by snooty aides, but who turned out to be, over tea and cakes in her garden, a most kindly old-school hostess happily basking in her own legend. Almost as celestial was Walt Disney of Snow White and Bambi and Pinocchio, who was just about to launch his world-changing Disneyland, and he went to great trouble explaining to me how his cartoon chipmunks conversed (in English, played extremely fast backwards). I met the Oscar-winning art director of Gone with the Wind, then the most profitable movie ever made, and he and his wife took me to a local bingo club, where he won a prize of one dollar. I remember to this day the modest diffidence with which he accepted it when it was presented to him in the bottom of a goldfish bowl, and how genuinely pleased he was! These Hollywood eminences were good people, I swear, and so were the Hollywood technicians I met, the cameramen and the floor managers and the audio men and the electricians, ladies and gentlemen one and all, and true craftspeople.
All in all, then I took to Hollywood 1954 – the Hollywood of Debbie Reynolds and Singin’ in the Rain and Gone with the Wind and the chattering chipmunks – as I took to the America they represented. Now that Debbie has left us, and her America too, I remember them one and all with fondness, gratitude and sad admiration.
Fondness, gratitude, admiration – the feelings old Hollywood inspires in Jan Morris, she inspires in me. I read her diary with fondness, gratitude and admiration. Admiration for her art, gratitude for reading one more book by her, and fondness because she is an old favourite of mine.
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