Friday, 26 March 2010

Travelling Companion

It would be hard to conceive of a life more varied or punctuated with the eventful than that of the doyenne of travel writers, Jan Morris.

At her talk for the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday Morris decried the term, however, stating that she hated to be called such. And indeed the body of work which she has created is highly varied, although much of it is necessarily infused with her knowledge of and enthusiasm for the places and people of the wider world, knowledge gained in a lifetime of professional travelling.

She is one of my favourite writers. Deeply humane and seemingly based on Chesterton’s dictum that the three most important things are to be kind, to be kind and to be kind, the writing has for me an elegiac tenor, a barely-apparent regret. This quality is present in all her work, and I have tried in vain to locate the source. The nearest I have come is to conclude that, so all-encompassing is her interest in and passion for the people she meets, places she visits, that she longs to be able to hold all of them in view and mind at once. The regret creeps in as a result of the inability to do this.

And what things to keep in mind. As James, Morris was the Times’ correspondent accompanying the Hillary/Tenzing ascent of Everest. By subterfuge he was able to break the story on the morning of Elizabeth II’s coronation – the Times gave the stories equal billing on the front page and Morris’ name was made.

A prolonged sojourn in Venice led to the book of that title, 50 years old this year, which established Morris’ reputation for getting under the skin of a place, a reputation that has been justified in books on Manhattan, Spain and Oxford itself, among many others.

The key work of the 1970s was the trilogy Pax Britannica, an examination of the British Empire during the phases of its development, zenith and senescence. During the writing of this Morris made the most dramatic journey of her life, undergoing hormone treatment and finally surgery in Morocco in order to say farewell to the James she had been born as and emerge as Jan, the woman she had known she ought to be since a moment of blinding revelation as a small child, sitting beneath the piano at home. This most momentous transformation was shared in a sane and touching account, Conundrum.

Countless articles, and many further books later, Morris was moved to write Last Letters from Hav, a spirited account of the geography, traditions and people of the state of Hav. All completely fictitious, it was followed by Hav of the Myrmidons, describing the changes wrought on this quixotic society by the Myrmidonic revolution documented in the first book.

The most valedictory of all her books is, however, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. A late work, it takes leave of travel writing and beautifully describes this half-way city, its tangled history and mingled people. The city seems almost a metaphor for Morris herself – subject to transformation, mercurial, with a rich and salty past.

Born in 1926, Morris is now an elderly woman, yet to hear her talk about some of the individuals she has encountered in a long life filled with incident was to witness someone with an undimmed delight in the folly, humour, variety and, yes, kindness exhibited by people the world over.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Making an exhibition...

I have put on small exhibitions of my collograph prints in the past, and have a few images on show in Oxford at present, but it never fails to amaze me how much time it takes to mount even a small exhibition of work.  Something that instinct tells you ought to be a quick, simple job becomes a huge tangle of things to resolve, all of which need to be achieved well before the show is due to go on.  Decisions on which work to exhibit were taken a while ago, for instance, but have been revised in the last week following my trip to the US and some new images that I really wanted to include.  The printing is in hand as of today, but then there is the question of framing to sort out, followed by the hanging, labelling, pricing...and this long after the publicity was organised and put to bed. 
With two exhibitions in May, of about 45 images in total, there is going to be plenty to keep me busy this spring - look out for further details in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


Living in Oxford, I'm used to the antique, the restrained, the polite view.  It's what we do.  But there are times when it is a huge relief to just wallow in the modern, the unrestrained and unapologetically arrogant environment that man can create for himself when the kid-gloves are off.  This is why a trip to a big city in the US is always a thrill, and can always be relied on to dazzle with a constant parade of eye-catching design - whole buildings, plazas, malls, skylines and smaller fragments, as here.  Sometimes the juxtapositions are deliberate, more often they are unintended, but for those with eyes to see there are magnificent compositions at every turn.   The severely rectilinear habitat we create for ourselves in these places simply acts as a foil for any organic form, and the shivering images all around animate the environment far more than we imagine.  There is almost as much trembling movement from reflections in the glass curtain walls as we pass between them as there is under trees in a woodland, and perhaps it is this quality that enables us to survive in such unnatural surroundings, otherwise largely divorced from the soothing effects of contact with nature.
I loved the looping shape and vibrant colour of this Alexander Calder 'stabile' in the centre of Chicago - but what makes the picture for me is the corresponding square of red in the reflection from the neighbouring building.  A piece of red paper in the window opposite that completes my composition - although I was unaware of it at the time.