The most purely charming thing I have read so far in 2019 is Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye. Composed of daily entries in Morris’s diary over the span of 188 days, it’s a book with no particular plot and no particular structure. It’s just rambling notes on the state of such things as politics (dismal), zoos (morally abhorrent), and Morris’s garden (blooming!). But Morris’s voice combines thoughtfulness and kindliness in equal measure, and it is a profound pleasure to just spend time with her as she works out her thoughts.
Morris does not linger on her own history, but it’s a remarkable one. She’s a legendary journalist in Britain, where she reported for the Times on the first ascent of Everest in 1953 (she carried a pot of marmalade with her up the mountain). At the time, she was living as James Morris, but in the 1970s, she came out as trans and traveled to Morocco for gender-affirming surgery (illegal in the UK at the time for those who were married). She and her partner Elizabeth at first divorced and then, later, remarried. Elizabeth features briefly in In My Mind’s Eye, although those entries are laced with a touch of sadness, because Elizabeth now has dementia.
Morris is 91 years old, and although she notes that she sometimes finds it difficult now to bring to mind specific words, her daily diary entries are beautifully composed. Here she is on sheep, which she finds depressing:
When it is a lamb, the sheep really can be truly enchanting in its playfulness, romping joyously around with its fellows, falling off logs, suddenly dashing across the field for another communal suck at the maternal udder. Lamb of God I can well accept. Sheep of God is unimaginable. As far as I can see, the adult sheep does nothing at all but eat.
There is so much dash and verve in Morris’s sentences, so much personality, a generosity of spirit that is flavored by well-earned crankiness. The lambs dart across the page in her descriptions, while the sheep wait stolidly in a dull stupor.
Morris is not above nostalgia: for “real” music (she allows that rap must have value for many people but cannot understand it herself); for the world before Donald Trump and Brexit; and even, to a certain extent, for the British Empire — less the empire itself, with its history of colonization, than its aesthetic. She’s the kind of person who is intellectually progressive but who is most moved by conservative art: a liberal who does her daily exercises while singing every jingoistic national anthem she can think of, an agnostic who loves a hymn.
But Morris is also a fundamentally optimistic person, one who can mourn for a bygone world but still find value in the present. In one entry, she recounts the many animals who used to frequent her garden and are now gone, lost to the shifting ecology. “Never mind,” she continues, “butterflies visit me as I laze, bees and wasps buzz around, beetles and caterpillars make for the gravel, sometimes a handsome dragonfly comes up from the river or a robin hops in.” Whatever else may happen, she seems to conclude, at least the butterflies are still there.
In a different entry, Morris makes the case for a book to keep in your car, which can be read while you are stuck in traffic or need to wait to pick somebody up. She herself prefers a volume of Montaigne’s essays, which she calls “the very best antidote to boredom” and which she has ripped in half “to get them into the door pocket, and since they are a very tight fit still, poor things, they have a sort of brave, uncomplaining look to them that I find extra endearing.”
I understand the impulse. Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye is so charming, so endearing, such an antidote to boredom, that I find myself tempted to give it the Montaigne treatment.