A few days ago we lost the great, gifted writer Jan Morris. Today I’m honoured to remember her in the Guardian alongside Pico Iyer, Marcel Theroux, Kapka Kassabova, Sophy Robert and Hugh Thomson. I’d like to share with you also the memory of one particularly memorable jaunt together.
“Jan is leaning on the bonnet, a boy racer in women’s clothes ready for the off. Grey slacks, chunky white velour turtle neck, red coral necklace. Her car is a low slung, souped-up Japanese classic with go-faster stripes. Her “dear Elizabeth” is grinning from the back seat, at the start of another adventure.
“Come along, you oafs,” Jan calls to Justin and me. Justin Marozzi and I are deserting our charges at Tŷ Newydd, the National Writing Centre of Wales, on another lark. Yesterday Jan had us around to Trefan Morys for tea. Showed off her Welsh slate gravestone. Served bara brith fruit loaf beneath high shelves of books, model frigates and stern gaze of the late Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher, who she plans to seduce in the afterlife. She told us that she didn’t like being called a travel writer, teased that she’d never had more enjoyable visitors, even invited us back for “a boiled egg perhaps, or a plate of cornflakes”. Today she’s driving us to Portmeirion.
Now Jan’s hands are on the wheel, her foot to the floor, her eyes regarding the road only on the bends. We are talking about fact and fiction, again. She’s apt to assert – “as an old pro of the writing game” – that she doesn’t recognise the distinction. “The two kinds are irrevocably mingled in my own work, and to one degree or another, I suspect, in most other writers’ work, too.” She gives me that look, deadpan yet mischievous, then laughs her deep laugh as she commits the line to memory. “The thing is, truth is not absolute. It’s all in the mind.”
We’ve corresponded on and off for years. It’s almost 30 years since she reviewed my first book, Stalin’s Nose, and fast-tracked my writing life. In thanks – with love and respect – I’ve sent her postcards and mail from Moscow and Yangon, while changing planes in Changi, after a canoe trip through the Canadian woods. On a particularly sharp bend on the A487, Jan adds – as she’ll later write, “What’s true to some people is untrue to others. What’s true now may not be tomorrow. Just think, after all these centuries some people maintain that there is no such thing as God!”
Somewhere in her four dozen books, Jan suggested that the British have another people in themselves, a sort of alter ego which yearns to break out of the prosaic realities of this northern island and “live a more brilliant life in Xanadu”. It’s a yearning for things foreign and incongruous, a leaving behind the damp greens and greys to live in more vivid places “where outrageous enterprises can be undertaken”. Of course Jan has always had another person in herself, undertaking “outrageous enterprises” on Everest, in Morocco, from Venice and Manhattan to her beloved Wales and imaginary Hav.
Hence, Portmeirion, the real, jumbled, fantasy village on the Dwyryd estuary. Jan has known it for more than half a century, cherishing it as an allegory – that is, the quality of having more than one meaning. Above the town she calms her high-octane coupé, and we four travellers wander down to the central piazza and giant chessboard colonnade, past Arts and Crafts Hercules Hall to the Campanile, stunned by its surreal magnificence (says Justin). Over Caffi’r Angel ice-creams (Jan chooses salted caramel, Elizabeth goes for creamberries), she talks – playing, teasing, deadly serious – of “a subtler kind of truth, the inner kind that is seminal and personal to every one of us, that I will defend to the death my right to exploit.” She adds to me, “Like your books, which have the spur-of-the-moment feeling that I love. It may be illusion, but then there’s truth in illusion too, is there not?”
A year or so later, Jan writes that she has finished Thinking Again “and with it my literary career. Out of the Sixth Age, on the brink of the Seventh. Never grow old, dear Rory”, she notes in her last mail to me. And through her books, she will long be with us, leading the way – once again – on the next journey.”
Over the years Jan was good enough to review a number of my books, including Pravda Ha Ha of which she wrote, “This is a tremendous thing that MacLean is creating; a new kind of history, in several dimensions and innumerable moods, that adds up to — across the span of his books — a great and continuing work of literature.” Thank you again, dear Jan.