Jan Morris (2)

I don’t feel I adequately conveyed the depth of my admiration for Jan Morris’s writing in my blog post yesterday. I have been thinking about it overnight. Most writing about architecture was strictly topographical, dominated by Pevsner. James Morris demonstrated in Venice that it was possible to write about a city in terms of its people and its atmosphere, its smells and its cats, not just in terms of its architecture, but its mood, expressed through its history. It was a good lesson. He thanks the British Army for introducing him to Venice and ‘philanthropists in Russell Square, Sixth Avenue, and Cross Street, Manchester’. Who, one wonders, were those philanthropists who paid a Times journalist and his young family to go and live in Venice for long enough to write a masterpiece ?

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8 thoughts on “Jan Morris (2)

  1. JM wrote, in Conundrum,”The exuberance of Venice I learnt much later, when Elizabeth and our own flat on the Grand Canal, in the little red palace that forms the corner of the Rio San Trovaso. We were supported by publishers and magazine editors, possessed a boat and two merry children, and lived up there in a condition of more or less constant ecstasy.” If one accepts that with characteristic generosity of spirit, JM regarded publishers and editors as “philanthropists”, then the Russell Square contingent would have been Faber & Faber, who published Venice. Cross Street was home to the Manchester Guardian, for whom JM wrote a fair amount. I think Sixth Avenue probably alludes to Pantheon, who published As I Saw The USA in 1956.

  2. As to JM’s debt to the British Army, the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers gave him the best job one could probably have had following the allied liberation of Venice. We learn in Conundrum that he “was temporarily detached from regimental duties to help organize the motor-boats of the place. All the best of these had been commandeered by the British Army, and our job was to see that they were properly used by the military, and that the generals and staff officers who arrived with suspicious frequency on official visits to the city were conveyed in proper style up the Grand Canal. The work was light. The spell of the place was intoxicating. Very soon I felt Venice to be mine, and I can remember still the proprietorial pleasure with which, ushering another batch of bigwigs into one of the posher boats, I took them off for their first glimpse of the Serenessima – even the sternest faces among them softening as wonder succeeded wonder, light dappled against light, and even the haughtiest deigning to respond to my glow of delight with a detectable if guarded smile.”

  3. You can “borrow” Conundrum online from the Internet Archive (archive.org), a very useful resource, especially these days when it’s nearly impossible to get out and about! Conundrum is a masterpiece of its kind – it’s about a great deal more than transexuality – and a wonderful mix of humour and pathos. Robin

  4. sandynairne says:

    Lovely to read your perceptive remarks about Jan Morris’s writing. Jan and Elizabeth Morris were good friends of my parents – Elizabeth and my mum meeting at the baby clinic in Hammersmith in 1949; and James (as then) and my dad sharing a great admiration for Jackie Fisher. So it was a special pleasure for me to commission the National Portrait Gallery portrait of Jan – the brief for which she had firm views about.

    She said ‘I am as much a set of places as a person’ – and her special places are portrayed in the windows behind her; she must be seen in a skirt with her calves showing; and Ibsen, their Norwegian forest cat, must also appear. Stefano (and I) obliged very happily.

    The book of my dad’s writings, The Coincidence of Novembers, which I published this year contains a chapter he wrote about his long friendship with James/Jan, entitled ‘A Triumph of Courage’.

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