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Posted on 8 Nov 2018 in Non-Fiction |

JAN MORRIS In My Mind’s Eye: A thought diary. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Reading this memoir by Jan Morris is like having light, charming, gossipy meetings with an old friend.

In My Mind’s Eye is a thought diary which, ‘having nothing better to write’, Morris thought she would ‘have a go at’. For 188 days, Jan (as she signs herself) shares her feelings and opinions on such diverse topics as colonialism (she approves of the good aspects of it), sheep (boring cud chewers), Donald Trump (‘The style of him I rather admire … Do I trust him? No.’), royal weddings (‘Hal’ and ‘Meg’), zoos (‘ANATHEMA upon them! ANATHEMA!’), the trials of old age (‘symptoms of my senility, or worse’) and cats (‘My Ibsen was different … like all the rest of them. Ask your Aunt Agatha!’).

Here Jan Morris is pretending to be a sweet little old lady. On the dust-jacket she poses against a 1960s Morris Minor (what my teenage grandson disparagingly calls a granny car) with her fluffy halo of white hair and her hands thrust deep in to the pockets of her long, peach-coloured cardigan. And here she is in her latest book chatting to us like old friends – ‘Good morning all. It’s a pleasant day in Wales’ – sharing her symptoms of old age, forgetting words and names – ‘Is this the start of Alzheimer’s?’ – and gossiping about her neighbour, ‘a person I very much dislike’.

But I don’t believe it. Morris is having fun. She may be (as she tells us several times) in her 92nd year but she drives ‘a dear old Honda Civic Type R 2000 vintage’ and lusts after convertibles, Jaguars and Aston Martins and is likely to accost their owners and offer to swap cars. And not many grannies march a brisk 1000 paces every day ‘whistling, singing’ or ‘humming’ military music from a ‘repertoire of rousing marches’ and exhorting themselves ‘LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, HEADS UP! EYES FRONT!’ Not many old ladies can recall driving a Centurion tank as a cadet at Sandhurst (Morris had gender reassignment surgery in Morocco at the age of 46). And no old lady can claim, as she does, to be the journalist who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on ‘the first expedition ever to climb Mount Everest’.

Morris has lost none of her skills as a writer. She is acerbic, funny, curmudgeonly (her word), rambling, and she occasionally indulges herself by sharing one of her poems. She reminisces about some of the remarkable things she has done in her life and, in passing, we learn something of her taste in music and books. We hear about the ‘Smile Test’ as a way of exploring ‘the national characteristics of that puzzling ethnic community, the English’. And we learn of the various ways in which she and her ‘beloved Elizabeth’ pass their days, listening to music, lunching at various local restaurants and watching passing strangers. Frequently, she writes of her love of Wales and of her own particular home and landscape there. And, as a self-described ‘muzzy agnostic’, she ponders on God:

Our various human religions offer different answers, of course, but agnostic that I am, I have turned to the Bible, the Judeo-Christian manual of morals, to find one for myself. There it boils down to food … In the book of Genesis I learnt that God himself certainly decreed that we humans should be lords over all living things, down to every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth, but close reading of the scripture suggests to me that we humans have no licence to eat any of it, but are divinely intended to be vegetarians.

Her conclusion is that ‘One advantage of agnosticism … is that one can choose one’s own rules’. And there is no evidence in this book that Jan Morris is a vegetarian.

All in all, In My Mind’s Eye is really like having light, charming, gossipy meetings with an old friend who believes that the recipe for a happy old age is ‘be kind’, and it is probably best read at intervals, as if you were bumping into each other frequently, as good neighbours might.

Jan Morris In My Mind’s Eye: A thought diary Faber 2018 HB 320pp $32.99

Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The poetic quest (UNE 1994) and of many internationally published essays on Hughes’s work. Her Ted Hughes webpages are archived by the British Library.

You can buy In My Mind’s Eye from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.