Jan Morris at her home in North Wales, 2016 © Howard Sooley

Most of the symptoms of extreme old age I take in my stride as being tiresomely normal, but there is one that is, perhaps, peculiar to my calling. It is an honest confusion in the memory between fact and fiction, and it has cropped up lately concerning two things that I believe happened to me during the years of the 1940s, when I spent much time pottering around the territories of the old Soviet Union.

In the first memory I was going somewhere out of Moscow by train in the company of an assigned travel guide, whom I assumed to be an agent of the KGB. It was night-time in winter, the passing landscape was deep in snow, and as we stood together in the corridor I noticed through the window a solitary muffled young woman hurrying wildly up a lane.

“Who d’you suppose she’s running away from?” I remarked to my companion, who replied at once, “Probably from the secret police.” I realised then that she was tricking me into the belief that she was ideologically sympathetic, when she was really all too ready to ensnare me in some bad intention towards the State.

Nothing more happened. We arrived at our destination, wherever it was, and parted amicably — but the little episode was engraved in my mind as illustrative of the place and the time, and obviously I wrote about it.

Or did I? I can find no evidence at all, in all my books and travel articles, in all my notes and jottings, that it ever happened at all. Nor can I find any corroboration for another little Russian episode of my life, which happened in old Leningrad 40 or 50 years ago. I had made the acquaintance, in a café, I think, of a youngish Russian who had been a pilot in the Red Air Force, and who struck me as a fine and soldierly sort of fellow. He lived nearby, and invited me to his flat to have a drink. Well, I thought, everything’s grist to my mill, so I happily accepted and we walked together to a middle-sized residential block, the sort of respectable place the bourgeoisie would have occupied before the Revolution.

It had gone down in the world since then, and as we went up the stairs I looked through a half-opened door into what was evidently his bedroom. I found that he hadn’t even made his bed. That citizen of stately Leningrad, that officer and Russian gentleman, hadn’t bothered to make his bed. The very phrase went into my mind as a kind of theme for Stalin’s Russia, and I stored it in my mind, as writers do, and later used it in an essay.

Or did I? I can find no written evidence of the phrase or, indeed, the episode among all the thousands of words I wrote about travelling in that lost place and age. Like the woman on the Russian train, the officer in the noblest of Russian cities seems to have vanished, somewhere between fact and fiction, among the grey murky symbolisms of the Cold War.

Talk of war and rumours of wars reminds me of how many I have lived through, whether near or far, during my own nine decades on this restless planet. Oddly enough, the one that I have experienced most vividly of all was fought before I was born.

I hardly knew my father, who died when I was eight or nine years old and already away at boarding school. His health had been broken and his life ruined by poison gas in France during the first world war — the Great War, as we used to call it — and the most vivid memory I have of him finds him fitfully asleep in bed one afternoon when I was home from school on holiday. In his dreams the war was raging still, and when I crept awestruck into his bedroom he cried out warnings, tossed and turned, moaned and coughed uncontrollably and sometimes bitterly laughed, so alive in his nightmare that I heard the guns myself, ducked to the screaming whistle of the shells, smelt the cordite and the treacherous, murderous gas...

He died soon afterwards, when I was back at school, and I well remember the day when the headmaster gently broke the news to me. My father has never quite died for me, though. I hardly knew him, but when I think of him, I am with him still, at his side, on that day of war in Flanders.

The arrival of a letter concerning royalties is always a pregnant moment for authors. Will it be encouraging or dismaying, urging them to yet higher accomplishment or making them murmur in despair over their computers, “Dear God, what’s the use of trying?” This morning I received such a challenge, concerning a modest book I wrote years ago about my house in Wales, and this, in brief, is what it told me.

Jan Morris’s home in Llanystumdwy, North Wales © Howard Sooley

The little work, I was gratified to learn, had lately been published not only in the United States as well as in England, but also in translated editions in German, Japanese, Dutch, Spanish and Taiwanese. All had been gratifyingly recorded in the left-hand column of the statement, and my eyes slid expectantly to the right hand column, where the financial proceeds were analysed. The list took into account, of course, exchange rates, agents’ fees, publishers’ advances, direct marketing and Electronic Books Escalation, and concluded with the following stately assessment of total profits from my book: £000.00.

Last night before I went to sleep I finished my reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, 960 pages of it, in the English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

Long ago, in another copy, in a bar in Trieste and in an evidently tipsy scrawl, I scribbled the opinion that this was the best book I had ever read, and on the whole I think it still. Mind you, I strongly suspect that when I expressed that youthful and evidently inebriated critique, I had not actually read the book all the way through. I fear that like many another reader of Anna Karenina, the young Jan Morris had only got as far as Anna’s heart-rending suicide (page 905 in my present edition). And in my opinion now, the best of the masterpiece was yet to come.

You will no doubt remember the young gentleman farmer Nicholas Levin, who has been a gentle, questioning presence throughout the book, but who in the end comes into his own as a symbolic master of final ceremonies. He it is who, alone beneath the stars of a Russian night sky, finds in the firmament some solution to the mass of problems, contradictions, mysteries and ironies which have challenged us during the long journey that is the reading of this marvellous work.

The simple power of goodness, Nicholas realises, is the answer to those mighty conundrums — just that, however it is expressed or interpreted. And on the last page of my present copy of Anna Karenina I have signed off with no more than a grateful tick and the single word “Kindness”, which is how I myself prefer to interpret that message from the stars.

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive officiously to keep alive.

Who wrote that? Arthur Clough, in 1861, and the lines have come into my mind because of our kitchen clock. It is a dear old grandfather clock, put together a couple of centuries ago by a local craftsman, Mr John Parry of Tremadog, and ornamented with pastoral scenes of grazing sheep, blossoms, etc. I am very fond of it, but horologically it is past its best and is complemented by a severely functional modernist clock on the other side of the kitchen, governed by radio waves from its makers in Germany and almost alarmingly reliable.

Jan Morris at her home in Llanystumdwy, 2016 © Howard Sooley

Now I hate to report it, but last Saturday Mr John Parry of Tremadog’s dear old timepiece somehow lost the movement of its hands and tells us the time no more. We must rely on that modernist miracle over there by the wash basin. And what shall we do, after all these years, with Mr John Parry of Tremadog’s legacy?

Well, what does Clough tell us? One need not strive to keep alive, and indeed I shan’t strive to get that old clock mended, because it will always be alive for me in another sense — in its ever-genial presence there, in the fond reminders it embodies, silently now but teeming with suggestion, and in the presence of Mr John Parry of Tremadog himself, enjoying a rest after a long and useful lifetime.

No, I won’t strive. Tick on, old friend, if only silently, and thanks a lot anyway.

Extracted from ‘Thinking Again’ by Jan Morris, published by Faber

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you listen

Letters in response to this article:

Maradona metaphor proves a winning strike / From Anto Kerins, Dublin, Ireland

No writer did more to stoke fires of wanderlust / From Thomas Flannigan, Winnetka, Il, US

Get alerts on Jan Morris when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article