Jan Morris, the great Welsh-English poetic storyteller of our age, celebrates her 85th birthday today. What a treasure trove she has given us, writings so capturing of time and place, so atmospheric, we can close our eyes and almost feel we’ve been there.
Her works are varied and many, but her masterpiece (writing as James Morris), in the true meaning of that now-trite word, is her trilogy on the history, ethos, and meaning of the British Empire, the “Pax Britannica” trilogy: Heaven’s Command: An Imperial Progress (1973); Pax Britannica: The Climax of Empire (1968); and Farewell the Trumpets: An Imperial Retreat (1978). Run don’t walk, to get copies if you have not experienced them yet.
She writes of times and places that recede in memory, but the themes are eternal. As I wrote before (link), “sensual and rhythmic, her narrative evokes the sounds and smells of empire about you as you drift through the pages”:
"In one of the lonely cemeteries in which, buried where they died, the Anzacs lay lost among the Gallipoli ravines, the parents of one young soldier wrote their own epitaph to their son, killed so far away, so bravely we need not doubt, in so obscure a purpose: 'God Took Our Norman, It Was His Will, Forget Him, No, We Never Will' ... for all too often the sacrifices of the Great War, as its contemporaries called it, were given to a cause that was already receding into history, like those discredited grey battleships, their smoke-pall filling the sky, hull-down on the Aegean horizon."
Her narrative has all the stories, the wars (some obscure, like the British invasion of Tibet), the adventures, and of course all the characters (Curzon, once Viceroy of India, "died in 1925 after a career full of irony and vicissitude."). And humour abounds, subtle and dry” -- Writing of the Fashoda Incident and the death of “Chinese” Gordon, the ‘noblest man who ever lived', and of the subsequent invasion of Sudan by Gen. Kitchener and the last cavalry charge of the British Empire (in which Churchill took part), as James Morris she wrote:
For years the Sudan had been in a state of rebellion under a fiery Sufi mystic who called himself the Mahdi, ‘the Leader’, and who formally announced the End of Time, a conception particularly unwelcome to the British just then.”
And don’t by any means skip the footnotes; describing a salute to Kitchener:
With live shot, there being no blank: the gunners aimed high over the river into the desert beyond, where nobody who mattered was likely to be.”
In her last book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, she writes:
“I write of exiles in Trieste, but I have generally felt myself an exile too. For years I felt myself an exile from normality, and now I feel myself one of those exiles from time. The past is a foreign country, but so is old age, and as you enter it you feel you are treading an unknown territory, leaving your own land behind….”
The immortal, in her native Welsh, Trefan Morys, born 85 years ago today.
Related Link:Writer Jan Morris is 83 Years Old Today, Author of the Masterpiece Pax Britannica Trilogy
Wikipedia article - link.