Jan Morris, Writer. Trefan Morys, Wales, July 2010.

I meet Jan Morris at her home in rural north Wales to talk about place and travel in her work. I am going to America later this summer and want to write about it.

Alain de Botton says that ‘the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to’[1] and goes on to describe a late eighteenth century writer whose works include ‘Journey around my Bedroom’ and ‘Nocturnal Expedition around my Bedroom’[2]. I ask Morris whether one could really write ‘travel writing’ in this way. With the reservation that ‘travel writing’ as a label is reductive, her reply is affirmative:
“Like an exiled Ovid, I’d be quite happy sitting in my yard outside Trefan Morys, studying and writing about the minutiae of what I saw there around me… Journeys and writing are about me, and a place’s affect upon me. Writing is egotistical, autobiographical, can be full of semi-fiction too – dates and events are ‘mights’ and ‘maybes’. I don’t pretend to know a place in any other way than a subjective one.”

With the exception of Hav, although Morris writes about real places, she confirms what Wallace Stevens says: ‘I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw/ Or heard or felt came not but from myself’, as she does George Herbert, who says that man is the universe condensed into minute proportion[3], and Charles Baudelaire: ‘to be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere, to be at the very centre of the world[4]. In the visual arts too, internal geography can be more influential than external. Photographer George Tice explains: ‘it was really unimportant where I chose to photograph… you can only see what you are ready to see – what mirrors your mind at that particular time’. Thus even when external location is uninspiring, the artist can turn inward.

Some places catalyze creativity more than others – the Fens for Benjamin Britten; Venice, Trieste and Wales for Morris, often due to associations or physical feelings they trigger. Cities are “like a shot in the arm” she says, and one of the most exciting views is of a city as one approaches from afar – it is perhaps no coincidence therefore that Bath, Venice and Manhattan rank high in her favourites, each offering glimpses of themselves from the tops of hills and opposite sides of lagoons and rivers.  

Morris also notes the importance of leaving a place, “keeping one foot in one place and another foot in another”, and writing about each place as if for the last time.
This last technique heightens the sense of longing in the writing. Longing or yearning is an important theme in Morris’ work; however, she prefers the Welsh noun hiraeth, a richer and somewhat untranslatable alternative.  After writing about somewhere, “you then say goodbye to the place, submit the writing (and so say goodbye to the text too), and say goodbye to yourself at that time – you’ll not be quite the same person again. Places are never the same again either”.

In this sense, writing about place is a form of memento mori or obituary. Like Peter Ackroyd[5], Morris often mines into a place’s past and evokes ghosts from it, recognizing that places often only change very superficially (Venice today, for example, is roamed by visitors little different to Marco Polo and his cohort). Likewise in writing about Bath “I try to get into the period… into that mood”, and so:

“… I see them often, those elusive shades, as I wander the city. Miss Austen looks a little disgruntled as she picks her way between the puddles towards the circulating library. Lord Nelson looks a little wan as he opens his window in Pierrepont Street to see how the wind blows…”[6]

This technique has its disadvantages – Pax Britannica, Morris’ history of the British Empire is written in “a more pro-empire tone than I would take otherwise” for example. Yet is an important way of evoking a place and an era. 
Again, a parallel presents itself between this type of writing and photography. Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes write that ‘photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’[7] and thatphotographs prompt this melancholy ‘shudder’, they say ‘that is dead and that is going to die[8].
Another important element of hiraeth is its Welshness. “Wales is full of hiraeth” she says. Not only can hiraeth be for the past, but also the present (‘hiraeth am yr hyn sy’n bod’) and the future – in this case it is utopian yearning, and often for an independence from England lost centuries ago. “Hiraeth and the Welsh identity are agnostic” she explains, “undecided and undeterminable. Our hope of Wales, our hiraeth, is for an impossible state… In this way, we don’t know what we’re yearning for but we yearn”.

Travel is itself a type of hiraeth: “a feeling of missing something (the grass is always greener). It’s an artistic weakness, although a creative one”. Baudelaire writes that ‘life is a hospital where every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds… It always seems to me that I should feel well in the place where I am not”. I mention this to Morris, and she concedes:
It’s true. In a hotel, when you glimpse another’s room through a door left ajar, it looks far better than your own. And the view from their window is of a different country to the one you see from yours”.

Added to this restlessness is a longing for completion. Morris admits that when she was younger, she dreamt of visiting and writing about everywhere in the world. As when Sontag feels an insatiable lust to photograph everything, and Borges dreams of his library of Babel, stocked with every possible combination of letters and words (and thus everything ever written in the past and future), Morris understands the yearning for completion:
I used to envy the old Arab travelers who lived in a time when one really could see the entire developed world in a lifetime” she says. “It’s an immature desire, although I still have it a little. That’s why writing about completed epochs (Pax Britannica) or places rooted in the past and that change little (Venice) is enjoyable.  Neat endings are seductive, but a conclusion that matches the introduction and has been planned from the start weakens the project”.
I suspect in any case that part of the allure for Morris and others is in the longing. Like the flâneur out on his dérive or ‘drift’ through space, the enjoyment is in the search of satisfaction and completeness, rather than the acquisition.

"The best way to find out about a place is to wander around. Wander around, alone, with all your antennae out’” she advises, “Get on an open-top bus. Be open and open-top, and get an overview of the place, to work out where you’d like to revisit. You can be in a place a short or a long time; the experience will be different”. She reminds me: “I never pretend to know a place, I only write about its effect on me… and I follow the old psalm: grin like a dog, and run about the city[9]”.

Morris has just returned from Ireland, and is starting an essay about the trip. Last week she wrote an article on Venice for The Guardian, and next month she will be in Switzerland. With hiraeth, a notebook and that aforementioned grin, her inspiring odyssey continues.

[1] Alain de Botton in ‘The Art of Travel’
[2] Xavier de Maistre
[3] George Herbert in ‘Man’
[4] Charles Baudelaire in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’
[5]Understanding of place is a refraction of all the memories associated with it’ Peter Ackroyd in ‘The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short stories, Lectures’
[6] Jan Morris in ‘Bath’ (from ‘Amongst the Cities’)
[7] Susan Sontag in ‘On Photography’
[8] Roland Barthes in ‘Camera Lucida’
[9] psalm 59:6