An Irishman’s Diary: Joining Jan Morris for her 90th birthday celebration

They came from Betws-y-Coed and Blaenau Ffestiniog, from Portmeirion and Porthmadog, from Criccieth and Caernarfon and from Llanbedrog and Llanystumdwy.

The occasion was a weekend celebration paying homage to the writer Jan Morris on her 90th birthday. More than 100 friends, family and neighbours packed into the Oriel art gallery in a wing of Plas Glyn-y-Weddw, a Victorian Gothic mansion hidden by towering trees in an estate on the south coast of the Llyn peninsula that juts out into the sea. This is the heartland of "Welsh Wales" and most of those present were from a 50km radius bringing to the proceedings a vigorous sense of Cymreictod or Welshness.

Morris has lived in this part of Gwynedd for more than 50 years and although she has roamed the world and written widely about it, Wales has been her “supreme pleasure and chief delight”. She believes that her “guile, quick emotionalism, and touch of schmaltz is pure Welsh” and that she has “an extra-sensory streak that springs directly from the strangeness of Wales”.

The event marked the official launch of an exhibition, “A Journey for Jan Morris”, a specially commissioned body of work curated by the Welsh artist Iwan Bala. As well as displaying several mixed media pieces, Bala also produced two slabs of Kilkenny marble that simply state: Geiriau (Words) and Marmor (Marble). Thirteen other artists responded to her life and achievements through a range of paintings, installations and photographs as diverse as her writing, which embraces travel, history, biography, autobiography, fiction, architecture and art.

She is captured on canvas in different guises. A watercolour, The Passionate Sightseer by Ivor Davies, depicts her dressed in white and riding a red dragon boat through a tempest guided by a propitious moon; the figurative artist, Annie Morgan Suganami painted two giant charcoal portraits that hang side-by-side.

Language

For the majority of those at the celebration, their first language is Welsh. Her son, Twm Morys, a Welsh language poet, has translated some of her work including

A Machynlleth Triad.

She admits in her passionate book

The Matter of Wales

that despite a number of attempts, she never got to grips with

Cymraeg,

but her commitment to Wales and its culture and literature has been formally recognised. She was recently awarded the Medal of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorian for a lifetime of distinguished service to Wales.

Now in her 10th decade, Morris still evinces a boundless generosity of spirit. A number of writers, including her former agent Derek Johns who has just published an insightful study of her prose style, Ariel: A Literary Life of Jan Morris, paid tribute. Speakers highlighted an extraordinary career of literary fluency and longevity which since 1956 has resulted in more than 50 books. Apart from her writing about Wales and her Pax Britannica trilogy on the British empire, her best-known works are immersive studies of cities such as Venice, Trieste, Oxford and New York.

Easter Rising

She has also written about Ireland and admits to being tantalised by its “hazed allure.” Morris first visited Dublin in the 1960s. Her essay about the city, entitled “Do you think should he have gone over?” was anthologised in her collection

Travels

in which she reflected on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. In this 100th anniversary year, it is pertinent to quote a short excerpt which exemplifies some aspects of her style. It demonstrates her emotional responses and a mind decorated with historical imagination, her use of time-switching by linking the past to the present, and in the best Morrisian tradition, her love of aimless wandering – in this case along the back streets behind the GPO.

"It is smart in Dublin to denigrate the Easter Rising now, and to say that it achieved nothing after all, but still those streets seemed haunted ground to me. The glow of the burning post office lit the night sky still, the Soldier's Song sounded above the traffic, and at the end of every street I could see the barricades of the British, and hear the clatter of their rifles and the clink of their tea-mugs. Sometimes machine-guns rattled, and the awful smell of war, of death and dirt and cordite, hung all about the buildings. I wept as I remembered that old tragedy, and thought of those brave men so soon to be shot at dawn, and of the ignorant homely English at their guns behind their sandbags, and I turned towards home in a sad despair, contemplating the deceits of glory." The Jan Morris exhibition at Plas Glyn-y-Weddw runs until December 24th: oriel.org.uk