Oct/Nov 2018 Reviews & Interviews

In My Mind's Eye

In My Mind's Eye.
Jan Morris.
Faber. 2018. 320 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 34901 0.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! 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 is Jan Morris pretending to be a sweet little old lady. Here she is on the dust-jacket posing 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-colored 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 neighbor—"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 1,000 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 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. As a self-described "muzzy agnostic," she ponders on God. 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.

All-in-all, In My Mind's Eye is really like having light, charming, gossipy meetings with an old friend who believes 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 neighbors might.


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