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Event - 2020-04-05

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Donald trump forgivably childlike? come off it, Jan!

BOOKS

Craig brown

Back in 2001, Jan Morris, then aged 74, announced that she had just written her final book. Oh yes? By my calculation, she has produced another six books since then – or seven if you include this new one. She has never been a slave to consistency. Now aged 93 (‘well past my sell-by date’), she has taken to keeping a diary, or something like a diary, but more public, as it is clearly written for publication. Her tone is chatty rather than private, and from time to time she addresses her unknown readers as if they are looking over her shoulder. One or two entries begin, ‘I don’t know about you, but…’, as in ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m not against bad language in general’. This is her second slim volume of published diaries, and she clearly has no intention of stopping. ‘The dullest day is enlivened for me when I sit down to write mine, and if it’s not always much fun for you, the hapless reader of my prattle, well, tough!’ Irritatingly, and for no discernible reason, she fails to put any dates above her diary entries. They are simply marked ‘DAY 1’, ‘DAY 2’, and so forth. On Day 2 she says that it is ‘around the beginning of spring 2018’ without being more specific. Occasionally she mentions a news event, allowing anyone who can be bothered to date that particular entry. ‘Well, Notre-dame did not entirely burn down yesterday,’ she notes on Day 118, which suggests she wrote that particular entry on April 16, 2019. Like most good diarists, she is a beguiling mixture of the wise and the dotty. Her likes include the late President George HW Bush (‘straight, frank, brave, kind and friendly’), Dad’s Army, Tiger Woods, Mrs Brown’s Boys (‘the whole thing is played with such gusto and selfamusement that it never fails to cheer me up’), and even holiday traffic jams in her native Wales (‘an uproarious festival of humanity’). As in the travel books for which she is perhaps best known, she is inclined to go over the top with her enthusiasms. In defence of the dandelion, she writes: ‘Gardening snobs may dismiss it as a mere vulgar weed, but I honour it as a heroic fellow citizen of the world, part dandy, part lion, part mystic and all jolly good fellow!’ Her dislikes are almost as various. ‘I loathe the jingle “Happy Birthday to you”,’ she writes at one point. She also has little time for the fashionable wraparound artist Christo (‘perfectly nonsensical’), dogs, Christian claims about the resurrection of Jesus (‘an unworthy fictional appendix to a magnificent work of art and morality’) and telephone banking. The majority of writers feel at their most comfortable expressing dissatisfaction, but a gift for celebration has been the hallmark of Morris’s singular career. Her greatest books, such as her magnificent Empire trilogy and Manhattan ’45, her ode to New York at its peak, burst with zest. Happily, she has not lost her capacity for optimism in old age, though it is sometimes hard won. For instance, she begins Day 53 with a Meldrew-ish rant. ‘From my viewpoint, as an old observer far away in rural Wales, young urban England generally looks unlovely, ravaged and debased by the civic miseries of our time: by hooliganism and violence and racism, by obsessions with computers and mobile phones and reality TV and drugs and celebrity, by the general disintegration of family life and the nation’s pitiful decline in its world status.’ But she then reveals that, since visiting a crowded cafe the day before, she has changed her mind. It was half-term and the cafe was full of noisy young people from Liverpool and Manchester. She was, she says, ‘deafened by the din of it all, baffled by the jargon and attitudes, but unarguably exhilarated. So these were the city children I had read about, the unfortunate young generation of Brexit Britain! They looked to me vivacious, amused, polite to the elderly and generally healthy.’ She concludes that ‘this noisy, undisciplined but lively young England is a lot more interesting than we were, when we were young and mobile-phoneless’. In her 90s, watching the 2018 World Cup, she has even come round to football, with its ‘dizzy displays of skill and exhibitionism, that ball streaking madly here and there across the field, fought and slithered and tumbled for, projected by feet or heads, with virtuoso exhibitions of foresight and inexplicable whistle-blowings…’ She concludes by saying that in her days watching the World Cup, ‘I like to think I have been seeing the world itself enjoying, without always knowing it, the friendship and comfort of humanity itself’. Cynics like myself may find that, at times like these, her optimism can stray into soppiness. She can sometimes go all gooey. Every now and then while reading these diaries, I found myself stifling a cry of ‘Come off it!’ Whenever President Trump pops up, as he does from time to time, she treats him with indulgence. ‘I think there is something forgivably childlike to his behaviour, like the sulks and outbursts of a spoilt schoolboy. He must, I know, be a man of true abilities – how else could he have assembled his immense financial holdings? He’s no fool.’ Almost every word in this short passage is completely nutty. Why should childlike behaviour be forgivable in a president? Does she not know that Trump assembled his fortune from the millions his father gave him? And what proof does she have that he is ‘no fool’? But then, even in her heyday, her political antennae were never particularly acute. Back in 1996, The Spectator magazine ran the headline Jan Morris Predicts Labour Will Lose the Election. In her accompanying article she argued that the Conservative Government ‘is not doing too badly’, that ‘the condition of the Labour Party almost guarantees Conservative success’ and, finally: ‘Who in all honesty would, all things being equal, vote for Tony Blair as leader of our nation?’ As we now all know, the Conservatives suffered their worst defeat in 90 years, and Tony Blair led the Labour Party to the greatest victory of any British political party since the Second World War. Yet there is much to be said for a refusal to follow mainstream opinion, even if it means you are often wrong. Naturally sceptical of received opinion, she likes to go against the grain. In one particularly memorable passage, having been rereading her own books, she turns on herself, casting doubt on the bogus persona she has created in her diaries. ‘I am getting rather tired of me,’ she writes. ‘I dare say you are too, but then you can switch me off… I am stuck with my tone of voice, the timbre and rhythm of it, the self-satisfaction and the sometimes tiresome humour. ‘More seriously, I am stuck with Me. For, of course, it is a carefully honed persona that I have been presenting to you these last 250 days. What a nice sort of person, I have evidently intended you to think… But how often, if truth be told, the whimsy masks bitter inadequacies, and how easily my vaunted devotion to the ideal of kindness fails me when it is challenged!’ She then chastises herself for her behaviour towards her spouse, her children and her old friends, and not being ‘anything like as agreeable as I have been implying’. It is these moments of self-doubt, of pulling the rug out from under her own feet, that make her such a compelling performer as a diarist. And her battiness is outweighed by her wisdom, and her triumphant lack of selfpity. In these times of self-isolation, we can all learn something from her stubborn insistence on walking 1,000 paces a day, come what may. One morning, faced with ‘a howling hurricane’ outside, she decides to stay inside, walking ‘through and among the island bookcases, perilously up the spiral staircase and down the wooden one, left, right, left, right, knocking over a vase, and a couple of standard lamps, making the portraits swing, never pausing, never missing a beat…’ Finally, she gets to the end of her thousand paces. ‘ “Snubs to you,” said I to the howling winds outside, and put the kettle on for coffee.’

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