In 2016, at age ninety, the Welsh historian and essayist Jan Morris began keeping a diary for the first time. She composed an entry a day (occasionally two) for 188 days, ruminating on history, current affairs, art, and literature alongside matters of old age, love, fellowship, and creature comforts. The following is a selection.
I have always rather envied the poet Ovid, who was banished from Rome by the emperor Augustus, you may remember, to a remote place called Tomis on the shores of the Black Sea. There he died, ten years later, and his exile has gone into legend and into art—Turner’s commemoration of his banishment is as poignantly dramatic as The Fighting Temeraire. Ovid wrote prodigiously during his banishment, and although his work was mostly sad and often complaining, as a remote member of the same fraternity I find it hard to commiserate with him. There are worse predicaments, it seems to me, than enforced residence in a house on the Black Sea, writing lyric poetry for the rest of your life.
Tomis is now the hefty Romanian port of Constanţa, not a bad sort of place at all, with a big nineteenth-century statue of Ovid in a square named for him, but my own Tomis is our garden yard at Llanystumdwy, Wales. It is Elizabeth’s domain: she created it and attends it still. I just laze about in it, thinking up compositions, Ovid-like. It is a patch of gravel overlooked on three sides by a tangled mass of trees and bushes—a fir or two, a horse chestnut, rhododendrons, bushes of camellia interspersed with blackberry brambles, shrubs I don’t know the names of, primroses, bluebells, and snowdrops when the season allows, miscellaneous weeds here and there that Elizabeth heroically resists. The whole ensemble is presided over by a splendid old sycamore, dominating the skyline.
I must not make it sound too grand. There is nothing grand about it. It is essentially homely, and its fascination for me is that it is not just home for us, but for myriad other creatures cohabitating it! Half a century ago I bought a wonderful book, The Living House by George Ordish, which told me that at that time his house probably accommodated two hundred residential spiders, besides miscellaneous colonies of beetles, fleas, moths, cockroaches, and flies. I love to think about the livestock similarly living, eating, fighting, procreating, and dying in and around the yard all around me, as I laze there in the sunshine and Elizabeth deals with weeds.
Not long ago there was certainly more of it, but shifting ecology has robbed us of the grass snakes, glowworms, and occasional lizards that used to frequent the place—even the toads seem scarcer. Never mind, 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. A sudden scuffle in the bushes means that a clumsy squirrel or two are in there—and yes, there they are leaping erratically from branch to branch. More often a crow or a blackbird swoops or cackles among the trees, and a wood pigeon monotonously serenades its mate. Sometimes coveys of seagulls from Cardigan Bay pass overhead, on their way to a promising harvesting somewhere: our owls are still asleep, I suppose, but I like to think of them anyway, there in the dark of the woods.
Ah, but here comes our merry postman with his morning consignment of trash. Elizabeth drops her trowel and pops off to make some coffee, and I pull myself together, stretch, send my respectful regards to Ovid and the emperor, and leave the yard to the rest of them.
Do you remember India’s Grand Trunk Road, as Kipling described it in Kim? “A wonderful spectacle . . . a river of life . . . green-arched, shade-flecked . . . the white breadth speckled with slow-pacing folk . . . ” Well, I saw it for myself this evening, looking along our lane to the farmyard.
It was a jammed little cameo up there, half in shade, framed by the thick green trees of our avenue, and it seemed to be in slow, stately movement along the great highway, somewhere between Allahabad and Amritsar perhaps. There were a dominant couple of elephants, laboriously swaying, and coveys of peasants jostled along the sidewalks, and I could hear laughter sometimes, and see a pye-dog scurrying mischievously here and there among the dust clouds. High-wheeled wagons were edging their way through the melee: once, a small busy rickshaw darted in and out of the traffic. Oh, I could see all the colors of India along there, and smell its smells, and hear the reedy halftones of its music magically in the air.
For it was five o’clock, you see. And my neighbors the Parrys were taking their Hereford cows in for milking, riding their quad bikes with Ben the dog scampering all around. The pace was unhurried. The light flickered with floating oak leaves. The dust was hay dust. It was me really, whistling those arcane melodies, and that bustling rickshaw was only my own Honda, hurrying me home to tea from the supermarket bazaar.
A Touching Poem for Monday Morning
In the north part of Wales there resided, we’re told,
Two elderly persons who, as they grew old,
Being tough and strong-minded, resolute ladies,
Observing their path toward heaven or hades,
Said they’d still stick together, whatever it meant,
Whatever bad fortune, or good fortune, sent.
They’d rely upon Love, which they happened to share,
Which went with them always, wherever they were.
And if it should happen that one kicked the bucket,
Why, the other would simply say “Bother!”
(Not “F— it!” for both were too ladylike ever to swear . . . )