Watching the nightingales swarm

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This was how the travel writer, Jan Morris, once wrote what she would be doing when the time come for her to move on from this world.

Just four of the over forty titles Jan Morris wrote

With her death, the travel world has lost one of the most notable travel writers of the last sixty or seventy years.

Despite her travels, Wales looms large and, for my money, she expresses what it means to be Welsh more clearly than many other writers have tried. In just 450 words in her last book, Thinking Again she explains more than any guidebook can about the conundrum called Wales.

She didn’t refer to the travel books she wrote as travel books at all probably seeing herself more as a journalist.

It was in that role that she first found fame as the person who broke the news of Hillary and Tenzing’s successful climbing of Everest in 1953.

I know she wrote other types of literature but it is with travel that will be forever connected.

My interest in Morris came about because of her two books on Venice – a place that readers will know I have visited regularly – and a much more interesting one on a nearby Italian city, Trieste.

That book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere only came out about twenty years ago when Morris was already in her seventies but it was one of the three books of hers to which I return again and again. James Joyce had a wonderful phrase – a wistful sadness – in his short story, A Little Cloud. That is what meanders through this book and that, to me, makes it so different for other travel books and from many other literary efforts.

The reason for my interest is that both Morris and my father served in Trieste at the end of WWII. My father told me little of his service life and died just before this book was published. Perhaps I thought I would learn a little bit more about what it might have been like but no.

What I did find was not a traditonal travel guide or a history of the city but a weaving of her attitudes and experiences wrapped in a very personal interpretation. As a guide it is only moderately useful. As a piece of writing it is haunting.

Sydney, a book she penned long after I had ceased to live there was a labour of love because after Wales, Manhattan, Sydney and North East Italy were the destinations she preferred. But this book had fewer of the personal touches. It was a view of Sydney’s history, its quirks and the people.

Perhaps the thing that delights most people about her books is the language.

In her last book (unless her publisher has something up his sleeve) Thinking Again – a journal of 130 days – the language, the querulous thinking about how she lived and reacted was all there but in bite-size chunks. Both this and the previous book, In My Mind’s Eye are my favourites because they are spontaneous rambles that touch on any and everything. One minute it is Trump, the next it is whether goats will inherit the earth, Brexit or wondering if worms might be confessing in the spring of 2019! It is left to the reader to fathom what worms might be confessing about and to wonder how such a thought might have entered Morris’s mind in the first place.

I was hoping that she was writing a diary in this COVID year because I was sure she would have some trenchant and almost surreal thoughts on how it has affected her in her little corner of North Wales.

But that won’t come to pass now.

And travel writing will be worse because no more musings will come down from her Welsh eyrie on the banks of the Dwyfor.

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