Two people I admire greatly died this year: the legendary editor Harold Evans and Jan Morris, the only writer I know who had written both as a man and a woman.
They were born two years apart and died two months apart: Morris born on October 2, 1926, died on November 20, and Evans born on June 28, 1928, died on September 23.
Evans was one of the greatest editors of the 20th century. After editing the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981, he became only the 12th editor of The Times in its 200-year history when Rupert Murdoch acquired The Times and the Sunday Times. Subsequently, he moved to America where he was president and publisher of Random House from 1990 to 1997. He also served as editorial director of US News and World Report, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly and editor-at-large at Reuters. His books on writing, editing and other elements of journalism were most instructive and a pleasure to read.
Morris was one of the finest writers of the 20th century. She was James Morris, a man, when she accompanied Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as a reporter for The Times on their Himalayan expedition and reported their conquest of the Everest in 1953.
She was still James Morris when she started writing the Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British empire. Pax Britannica was the first volume published in 1968.
But then she underwent sex change and became a woman, Jan Morris, as she wrote the two subsequent volumes: Under Heaven’s Command, published in 1973, and Farewell the Trumpets, in 1978. Under Heaven’s Command traces the growth of the British empire in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Pax Britannica describes the empire at its apogee, at the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, and Farewell the Trumpets is set in the twilight of the empire in the 20th century.
I love the Pax Britannica trilogy, but Jan Morris is no less brilliant as a travel writer.
She is one of the finest descriptive writers I have ever read – and has a wonderful ear for the music of words.
She retained it to the end. That’s evident from her latest book, Thinking Again, published this year. Like her previous book, In My Mind’s Eye, published in 2018, Thinking Again. Day 2, the second entry in the new book, mentions “these weeks around the beginning of spring 2018” – so that’s when Morris began this diary. It’s a diary of 130 days.
Morris in her very first entry, on Day 1, describes herself as a creature of habit, devoted to writing, walking and Elizabeth – whom she married when she was a man, whom she had to divorce after her sex change but married again after same-sex marriage was allowed.
Here’s Morris on Day 1:
I am a strong believer in the strength of Routine, and conceiving and writing these inconsequential little pieces has become virtually mechanical in itself, like many another petty compulsion.
For example nothing would induce me to go to bed without calling a last Goodnight to my Elizabeth, and at this moment I really have to re-read another chapter of dear old Anna Karenina before I turn the lights out. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, I have to perform my daily walk (and the worse the weather, the more strict the compulsion), while indulging in Wednesday’s allotted marmalade at Tuesday’s breakfast really would be more blasphemous than merely irreverent.
And this daily diary has edged its way into the roster. It has become a pleasant part of my life — not a duty, not even a chore, but a happy few minutes each day whenever I feel like it Whether or not it goes well (and I know when it doesn’t), I offered it to my readers, as to myself, with doubts and apologies often, but always with a strong conviction of Routine honoured.
Morris had a wonderful ear for the music of words, I wrote. Hear it.
Here is Morris on Day 124:
The power of words enthral me. I have never until today used the word “Nadir”, although I have often, so to speak, admired it from afar — its simple elegance, its restraint, the shape and sound of it, its echoes of Classical Arabic as against its mundane and depressing Anglo-American equivalent “rock bottom”.
Well, this morning I reached my own Nadir… It was a Nadirian day, one might say if there were such as an adjective, which there is now.
But you never now, do you? I stumbled upon a wonderfully curative noun in the dictionary this afternoon, and it entered my mind like a charm: “Elixir”, another word I’ve never used before, and another concept from the distant Arabic. Elixir offered me in magical potion the very spirit of promise and recompense, and marvellously restored my spirits… Elixir! I relished its sound and its shape in my imagination at teatime, gratefully employ it now, and invent in its honour a second brand-new adjective of the day:
Born in England to an English mother and a Welsh father, Morris wrote in her last two books about her life in Wales. Morris ends Thinking Again with a homage to Wales. Day 130, her last entry in the last diary, ends with these words:
Perhaps the truth is that Welshness is essentially an idea, or rather a confusion or concert of ideas, blended down all the generations, powerful enough to create images, influence emotions, dictate behaviours and create symbols from century to century. Welshness is the power of language and landscape, the fascination of legend, the unfailing allures of comradeship, community and possession. Welshness is Saints and Footballers, Poets and Wizards and Goats and Miners and Singers and Fairies and magical confusions — all are always with us addicts in Wales, the Land of our Fathers, and the grand old country itself is not only as tough as it is beautiful, but full of humour, too.
So, after all, who would not be hooked?
I was struck by the universality of those words. Anyone – Bengali, Indian, Singaporean, English or anyone else – could use the same words to express their love for their country. There is music and poetry in those words.
Morris, who died at the age of 94 last month, was over 90 when she wrote those lines. What a magical writer she was to the end.
Harold Evans was 92 when he died in September this year. He too wrote to a ripe old age. I am reading his book, Do I Make Myself Clear? It was published in 2017, only three years ago. The subtitle of the book is Why Writing Well Matters.
Write clearly and concisely, he urges, recalling how he himself acquired these habits as a newspaperman. He entered the profession when there were no computers, no internet, when reporters wrote their stories on typewriters. He recalls how he and his colleagues worked in those days.
Do I Make Myself Clear? Is for everyman. I’ve read and respected the admonitions in scores of books on usage and utility. What I got into my bones, early on, was the conviction that a concise sentence was more likely to be clear. At sixteen, as a junior reporter on a weekly newspaper, I longed to speed up the translation of the proceedings of councils, inquests and court I’d taken down verbatim in Pitman’s phonetic shorthand.
At Durham University, writing essays on politics, economics, and ethics, I became infected with literary pretensions, squeezed out of me when I was hired by an electric evening newspaper, the Manchester Evening News. We edited words written on a typewriter, sent the marked folios to the Linotype operators to convert into column-width slugs, lines of hot lead, antimony and tin. We prayed that the number of metal lines would fit into the space the page planner had allotted for their assembly in an iron frame (a chase). Every report we edited had to fit in a prescribed space. (“We don’t have rubber type.”) No meandering in cyberspace. Omit a salient fact in editing to length, send the printer an excess of type, and you were looking for a job. The turnover of staff was scary.
I graduated from those disciplines to marshalling arguments, as best as I could, for the newspaper’s formal editorials, as testing an exercise in making oneself understood in a short space as my spare-time efforts to pass on my understanding of Keynes to coal miners for workers’ education classes. Both demanded as much clarity as I could manage.
Every day on the editorial page I had sixty minutes to write the Evening News pronouncement on whatever the editor, Big Tom Henry, decided was the issue of the moment. Housing! Suez Canal! The Test Ban Treaty! The National Health Service! I’d spend half the hour writing an arresting first paragraph. Too often for my self-respect, it didn’t appear. It had been lopped off by Big Tom. I got the message: Get to the point. No throat clearing.
Evans explains his objective in this book:
Writers may aspire to glory, but I hope this book can at least help you to say — whether in social media or published form — what you want to say concisely, without ambiguity, and without being put off by the mandarins in the corner fussing about “proper” English… What really matters is making your meaning clear beyond a doubt.
Rest in peace, Harold Evans … and Jan Morris. You will always have a place in our hearts.