You have to hand it to Jan Morris. The Welsh literary legend seems to have gone through her 93 years doing exactly what she wants all the time, always with the same upper-class chutzpah. She was the intrepid journalist who interviewed Eisenhower and Che Guevara, and then became the indefatigable travel writer who profiled cities as varied as Venice, Hong Kong and Sydney in ebullient, nearly grandiloquent prose.
Morris produced her most poignant and enduring work, though, by turning her gaze inwards for Conundrum, her groundbreaking memoir of being transgender, published in 1974. Now she returns to autobiography with the “diurnal memoir” Thinking Again. It follows her 2018 diaries, In My Mind’s Eye, which recalled the thoughtful and wise late-in-life memoirs of Diana Athill.
Old age has brought an end to Morris’s wanderings, but she lives and writes at her home in rural Wales with the same elan as before, and her reflections here are all-embracing, ranging from Trump to tea. Uniting the book are various exhortations to show kindness: “In every row of houses,” she writes, “… decent people are living, only waiting to laugh, cry and be kind.”
The most affecting entries involve the dementia of her lifelong partner, Elizabeth. Morris adopts a stoical attitude and uses gallows humour to endure its most painful consequences. She also grapples movingly with her own decline: “Exploring its ironies and its moments of beauty … helps to soften the undeniable tragedy of death.”
In My Mind’s Eye was written in a breezy tone and contained a deep humility that spoke to Morris’s full and brilliant life – but Thinking Again contains too many idle thoughts. What possessed Morris to go into print saying, “I like to think that [the song “I Dips Me Lid” from the Australian musical The Sentimental Bloke] might easily please Mozart, Puccini or even old Wagner”?
Still, she’s keenly aware of her deficiencies, self-deprecatingly putting them down to the “muddle” of advanced years, and addressing at one point “the hapless reader of my prattle”. And who wouldn’t allow a diarist their indulgences, not least a nonagenarian one?
Thinking Again may not be Morris’s finest hour, but by the end you will certainly want to doff your cap (or “dips yer lid”) to this generous, remarkable writer.
Faber, 224pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2020 as "Jan Morris, Thinking Again".
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