Friday, April 13, 2007

What Kind of Woman is Jan Morris?

This was the burning question that drew me back to the Celeste Bartos Forum for the second time in just five weeks. I had read nothing of her writing since she was James Morris back in my early adolescence, and it was time, I decided, to see for myself what time had wrought. The current pictures suggest both Barbaras Bush and Cartland more than anyone else, which I supposed to be more than a bit misleading, if only because I knew she had once climbed part of the way up Mount Everest as James Morris, a member of the team went to base camps with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay during their first ever conquest (see also The Beeb version) of Mount Everest. I was unaware of any particular fondness of Empire; perhaps I had forgotten to take it for granted in people of her generation.

Nevertheless, I felt distinctly annoyed when Simon Winchester rose to introduce his friend and mentor with a tale of his own last hurrah colonial adventures, during which he was moved to write to James Morris after reading his report of the first Everest Expedition. Morris advised him that if writing was indeed his vocation, then he should do nothing but write. This Winchester proceeded to do, abandoning his youthful colonial endeavors to serve as a reporter for a provincial journal back in Blighty.

I was interested to see that the Jan Morris of April 2007 was made in the image of a Home Counties lady, with a fluff of silver hair, wearing a
sensible skirt, neatly crossed smooth knees clad in support stockings, nice heavy looking walking shoes on her feet, and a hearty, good=humored fresh-air look abut her. Paul Holdengräber, seated opposite, embarked on an effusive face to face homage, lisping and stumbling over jumbled syntax with the awed and half-choked discomfort and hand waving emotionality of a non-native English speaker confronted with the Real Thing. But Jan Morris, first of all, is Welsh and proud of it, and secondly, she is rather kindly, and responded as if all of that wasn't happening.

She had been urged to speak about the enormous PR coup that he had pulled off by making sure the conquest of Everest was reported to coincide with The Coronation of QE II (see video and fruity-voiced commentaries). No doubt this timing assisted doubly in securing a knighthood for New Zealander Edmund Hillary. For the 8,000 people in Westminster Abbey and the millions who watched this twilight imperial coronation (Pakistan, Srilanka, South Africa and others were still subject nations) through the modern miracle of television, the nearly simultaneous planting of a Union Jack atop the world's highest mountain still seemed to be a crowning achievement of Empire, arousing cheers that quite eclipsed the sound of its last gasp.

As Jan Morris reminisced, she leaned back and gazed into the far distance above, a gentle smile playing across her face. She said that, rightly or wrongly, for good or bad, it had been a thrilling moment in the history of an island people who had conquered the entire world through a combination of "talent, tchootspah and...greed!" This, I felt, was a bit Barbara-Bush-at-the-Astrodome, not to mention a touch Cartland,. and of course it
left out the other essentials of mercantile colonialism -- deepest dishonesty and the drive to defraud, so stunningly exemplified at the top of the imperial hour in Macauley's Minute. But the audience had an appetite for this, as if starved of Masterpiece Theater

Speaking of Venice past and present, her voice was not quite that of a woman, retaining enough of its former masculine timbre to prompt me to look for male habits and gestures. It's true that a woman's voice often deepens significantly with age, but it is still recognizably feminine, and somehow this part of the transformation had stopped halfway. She flung her arm unashamedly across the back of her chair, which women rarely do in public without correcting themselves sharply, even in the Home Counties, although she crossed and recrossed her knees with considerable grace. Her jaw, I thought, was angled at a feminine tilt, but her nose was still proportioned as a man's with regard to the rest of her face. Her halo of hair was fluffed nearly symmetrically all around but not definitively styled-- perhaps that kind of feminine vanity is still a stretch for her. The women of all ages around me seemed to reek of estrogen in comparison.

She explained that she is not religious, except for trying to cultivate the sort of kindness and personal compassion the Dalai Lama advocates, a value she pointed out is universally adopted by the major religions. This did not inhibit her from reading out a story from her book, a mild joke at Tenzing Norgay's expense: Tenzing, flush with success, was seen knocking back liberal amounts of some remarkable vintage from the cellars of Lancaster House at a celebratory banquet, prompting another dinner guest to remark on his appreciation of fine claret. The literary audience laughed uproariously -- as audiences at such gatherings tend to do, to show they get the joke-- about the naiveté of both Tenzing and the other guest. I think the bigger joke is that Tenzing did appreciate a good claret first off after all.

The glorification of Empire as an ongoing PR initiative for the People of the British Isles is both irresponsible and dangerous, as it relies on perpetuating myth and falsehood. Entertaining the fantastic fallacy that a handful of Britons made a military conquest of the world has helped lead us will-nilly into the present nonsensical "war" at a staggering cost of lives and money. In fact, the British mercantile classes spent centuries establishing themselves in a network of pocket locations and only gradually accumulated enough wealth and connections
in situ to hire indigenous mercenaries (i.e., not Blackwater)and flex their new found military strength as an extension of their one-sided management of business and commerce. Astonishingly, this is still not common knowledge in America. In India at least, the British merchants were for a long time more like the Barbarians who eventually took over the declining Roman Empire, and quite unlike Roman plutocrats themselves. All the rest is smoke and mirrors, pomp and circumstance, perpetuated on Masterpiece Theater through fantastic works long after the fact.

Whereas William Blake once asked, rhetorically,
"Does a firm perswasion that a thing is so, make it so?" in the case of Empire the answer is a resounding Yes! Of course, such mind games must be accomplished through all the viccisitudes of homesickness and alienation, numbing isolation, discomfort, raging hostilities and supreme boredom of the imperial adventure. After its demise, though, anyone can make of it whatever they please, and dream on, although it's time to focus on the damage done instead of its stolen and largely mythical glory.

Afterwards, I struck up a conversation with Vibuthi Patel, who seemed to think Jan Morris had the permission of her advanced years to keep with the veneration and celebration of imperium. I thought otherwise, but bought the second book anyway, because it's called The World. After JM had signed it with her favored punctuation, an exclamation mark, I asked her how she likes William Dalrymple's work. Hesitating a long moment, she admitted that she was not fond of the histories, and couldn't manage to read the Mughal books, such is her aversion to the new take on events. So instead, I taught her how to say "chutzpah" properly, with a better mouthfeel. For this exercise, she generously offered up her ear at close range not once but twice, and roared with laughter to hear my rolling velar rasp.

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