JAN: a deliberate life
Today I am meant to be continuing my series of essays centred on the contemporary female experience. I have sat down at my computer to engage in the daily battle: woman versus blank page. I can’t tell you how often the blank page wins or how sweet victory tastes when I do. Today seems a day of scattered thoughts and of unfinished, half-baked potato ideas. I am writing from that attic of my brain, which is overflowing with stuff, half of which is rubbish, in the hope of stumbling upon something, maybe not valuable but at least useful. Like a grater or at very best, an Allen Key.
I often find that whatever it is stopping the productivity of what I should be writing is the thing that needs writing. Today, the attic is full of boxes with ‘JAN’ written on their sides. The highly acclaimed author and journalist, Jan Morris, has haunted my thoughts since I watched the Michael Palin BBC Arts interview to acknowledge the 90th birthday of this distinguished literary life.
‘There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Hindus or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifist. They may be patriots but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion, or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if only they knew it. It is the nation of nowhere.’
— Jan Morris, Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere
There is something grand we take from our heroes; this is the manner in which they exist or have existed. In light of Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize honour, the singer songwriter is perhaps one of the best examples of how the nature of a person’s life and what they stand for is as important to us as the work they produce. My heroes are, more often than not, writers. And I take from them more than just words – I am interested always in the person behind the ideas. Most certainly in the case of Jan Morris, I am influenced and excited by the way in which a life was journeyed.
Much has been written on the success of Jan Morris, from her early career as one of the most celebrated journalists of the 1960s, after she was thrust into the public eye as part of the first successful expedition to climb Mount Everest in 1953, to her vast body of work, love letters to the places she has explored. Her gender reassignment has been publicly investigated, criticised and praised, as well as personally explored in Conundrum, Morris’s 1974 autobiography centred on her search for identity. But this recent BBC interview was a success in capturing another more personal achievement of the writer. The interview allowed for us to peer through a window into the world of a woman satisfied with the way she a lived her life. It is no accident; this satisfaction hasn’t magicked itself upon her in twilight years, but rather was a very deliberate act.
We are thrust naked and unwilling into being and from that somehow we must choose how to continue.
‘I have lived the life of a man, I now live the life of a woman, and one day perhaps I shall transcend both – if not in person, then perhaps in art, if not here, then somewhere else.’ — Jan Morris, Conundrum
In this recent BBC interview beloved British comedian and writer Michael Palin visits Jan at her cottage in Whales, after a lifetime of travelling this is where she now keeps two feet on shore. Palin’s nerves seem boyishly palpable as he meets a hero. It is a wonderfully human thing to watch one hero meet another. It’s the beginnings of my very geeky dinner party wish list. Jan reads excerpts of her books directly to camera and I have always found it something special to hear an author read their own writing. It’s a bit perverse but I find it deeply personal. There seems to be no full stops to the way Jan reads her last sentences. The words carry on leaving infinite room for the listener, inviting us to keep thinking long after the sentence is dead.
At the end of the interview, Jan, with good humour, shows Michael Palin her remembrance stone, to be placed at the site where her and her partners ashes are to be scattered. Jan and Elizabeth, after living alongside each other for little under half a century, have chosen to have the gravestone read, in both Welsh and English ‘Here lie two friends, after one life’.
Here lie two friends, after one life.
I found this intoxicatingly moving, and took from this a point about what it means to be on this planet. That one’s greatest achievement and responsibility will be to live a life that is completely our own and our greatest luck will be to share that with someone we think of as a friend. Morris’ life honours herself, her many achievements, her skills and ambition – and her death honours companionship. There is a pure understanding of partnership to be found here. When Palin asks Morris the secret to a happy life she says ‘kindness’ and then moves on to say people often think ‘love’ more important than kindness. The companionship she has shared with Elizabeth transcends what is commonly understood of romantic love and reaches something I found entirely more significant. Entirely more difficult. And endlessly more worthwhile. Their love story is well-known and well-publicised and I don’t need to write more on the specifics, but I will write that I know too few people that at the end of a long life are confident, satisfied with themselves and whose partner is considered still to be their greatest friend. It’s the quality of life that’s worth making the effort to achieve.
I saw the golden glimmer of magic in this remarkably moving half an hour. If I can stumble to articulate that magic, the words will form themselves as such: That a life you are happy to live is a deliberate act. It isn’t fate or luck; happiness isn’t as feeble as destiny and does not concern itself with divine intervention. It is empowering personal action; choice and truth in motion. It is striving for personal truth against the odds, even when that pursuit is a daunting as the summit of Everest.
In a culture where we increasingly must rethink the way we define ourselves, by gender, by sexuality, by marriage, religion, politics, it is like a fresh Welsh breeze to see someone who has carved their own path and found success. “Success” in the only way that really matters; defined by your own standards and celebrated in kindness.
‘As for me, when my clock moves on for the last time, the angel having returned to heaven, the angler having packed it up for the night and gone to the pub, I shall happily haunt the two places that have most happily haunted me. Most of the after-time I shall be wandering with my beloved along the banks of the Dwyfor: but now and then you may find me in a boat below the walls of Miramar, watching the nightingales swarm.’ — Jan Morris, Trieste And The Meaning Of Nowhere, 2001
Anna is an actor and emerging freelance writer based in Melbourne. She has written one play for The Q Theatre in Sydney, a smattering of short stories, and many love letters for her fiancé.