Sunday, 30 March 2014

Literary festivals inspire

It's high time I got back into blogging. Life can be crazy busy at times and when you combine it with the fact I've not been reading that much because I've been a bit depressed, there didn't seem much worth writing about. 

Note that I've tried to qualify my feelings - although it's the worst I've ever felt, I'm fully aware it comes nowhere near what others suffer.

Anyway - the point is that life has now turned a corner and I want to write again.

It's literary festival time here in Oxford [or it was when I wrote this in a coffee shop. It's now Sunday, and the festival is pretty much over] so off I went to see Jan Morris. I feel the need to make a disclaimer: writing about Jan Morris is hard, not least because the use of sexual pronouns could become confused. The fact Jan Morris used to be a man (James) is probably one of the better known facts, but it doesn't help with the quandry of how to label her (him) when talking about events in the past when she was a he ... To avoid confusion, I plan to use the feminine pronoun throughout.

In a shockingly third full Sheldonian, Jan Morris took to her stage and immediately set about charming her audience with a story about her arrival earlier in the day. Sponsored as the festival is by the Folio society, the goodie bag participants receive naturally includes one of their books. And they are heavy. 'I'm not a great fan of short stories' she said as she revealed her book had been the collected short stories of V.S. Pritchett. Stopping to chat to one of the female porters at the gate of Christ Church, she reminisced that she was the longest serving member of the 'house', having become a chorister in 1936 at the age of ten. She then came to the college to study and is now an honorary fellow. 'And in recognition of this fact' she finished, with a gleeful anticipation of the punchline to come, 'I would like to bequeath this book to the college', and promptly handed over the Pritchett to a no doubt slightly baffled porter.

The thing I love perhaps more than anything about this story is the fact Jan Morris managed to get one over on the traditional history of Oxford. True, she was a man when she went to Oxford, but that still doesn;t alter the fact she is the first female alumni of Christ Church, some 30 years before they 'officially' admitted women.

This set the tone for the rest of the event. Designed, as it was, to be a kind of retrospective, the conversation flitted across topics such as Welshness, the Monarchy, how she writes and whether it comes fully formed (thankfully, she does three drafts before she considers it finished), climbing Everest and the state of England. 

Climbing Everest was the shock for me. When she started talking about that, I imagined this to be after the sex change and was preparing to hear stories of how she was the first woman to do so, etc ... but no! Jan Morris was the Times correspondent which accompanied the party led by Sir Edmund Hillary, who reached the summit on the same day as Elizabeth II's coronation. She has therefore been part of the anniversary celebrations ever since.

I've never read any of Jan Morris's work and am therefore unable to say whether the writing matches the character of the woman - strong and opinionated, but also very aware of herself. The interviewer (Kevin Crossley-Holland) did make reference to her beautiful prose, and we were lucky enough to hear extracts read aloud by Jan herself (simply because she felt like it, it seemed) which proved this instantly. The extract of her meeting a monk high in the Himalayas on a solitary ramble during the Everest expedition was startlingly evocative, powerful and intensely moving. I look forward  to delving into her work as soon as I can.

She did drop a bombshell with the fact that this would be her last public appearance, simply because she finds the preparation and the performance of events too exhausting now. At 87, who can blame her. It does make the empty Sheldonian that much more heartbreaking though. When I planned this piece, I was inclined to blame the marketing, and I am still persuaded that the organisers would be better served in sending out the hard copy earlier. However, now that I have been to a number of events, most of which were packed out, I think the price of tickets are to blame. £11 is expensive enough, but the Sheldonian tickets went up to £50, which is extortionate. Especially if you end up buying books after the event!

To finish on a positive note - although I have come to Jan Morris late in her career, I feel that I am surely going to devour all her works in the future. She signed my copy of 'A Writer's World' and added 'Bon Voyage!' when I told her of my plans. For here is my real reason for taking up the reigns of blogging again. Five years working in one place has show me, above all, that just being an administrator is not enough for me. I want to create too, and with that in mind, I've accepted a place on the MA in History of Art at the University of Birmingham. To aid with the transition between working and student, I'm taking two months to travel around Italy. This blog, therefore, will become a travel journal, and after that document the wonders of the art world into which I am fully immersing myself. All change!