House and Home

I´m not entirely sure why I decided to read "A Writer´s House in Wales (Directions)" by Jan Morris. I have never read anything by her before, and I am not particularly interested in Wales and things Welsh. I thought I had read about her in the Guardian, but if I have I can´t find the article, so probably I remember it wrong. It is a short read, at 192 pages, and there is nothing in it about writing.

That said, it has been an enjoyable read. It´s a love letter to a place where the writer has domiciliary rights, so to speak, and for this particular writer that must be something special, as Morris is mostly known as a travel writer. She has written much appreciated books about Venice, South Africa, Spain, Hong Kong, Sydney, Oman, and even one about Wales. She was there as a reporter in 1953 when Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit of Mount Everest, and there is of course a book about that as well. She has also written what is said to be a very good trilogy about the British Empire, which I have added to my reading list.

She has a very friendly, personal tone in this book, like you are there with her in her home, leafing through signed first editions in her extensive library. You can almost feel her touching your upper arm while saying this:
...while you’re here, put yours in the Trefan Morys visitors’ book, would you? It’s volume three, not because we have heaps of visitors, but because I like to have just a single signature on each page, so that later on, when I have the time and the energy, I can draw pictures all around it, or stick in relevant photographs, or generally grangerize it. Just your name, that’s all, large as you like. You’d be amazed how hard it is to make people sign their names big and bold, so as to make a proper page of it, and it’s almost as hard to prevent them adding some fulsome phrase of gratitude or commendation.
As it happened, the same day I finished this book I saw a television program, the Swedish version of "Who do you think you are?" where famous people go genealogize. Actually, I think they have it done for them; searching through birth records from the 16th Century is hard work and takes some special skills. Anyway, the person discovering her roots this time was Maud Adams, which is why I tuned in. Remember Maud Adams? Twice Bond-girl? "The Man With the Golden Gun" and "Octopussy"? She was born in Ale, a small village outside Luleå, and grew up here on Malmudden, where we live. As it happens, she lived in the same house that my mum-in-law lived in until we helped her move four years ago. Adams is one year younger than my sister-in-law and was 15 when my in-laws moved in, in 1960. Actually, they moved into the house next door (mum-in-law changed flats in 1990), and I have never heard anyone in the family mention her, so I guess they didn´t know each other. In those days, not everyone went to school further than seventh grade. I´m not sure what Adams did, but she said in the program that she worked as a model, was brought to the US by Eileen Ford, and broke into the film industry in the early 70´s, so perhaps she was already on her way by then. (She was in school with author Torbjörn Säfve, which is someone I should read and blog about some day.)

Turns out that Adams (Wikström was her maiden name) has roots in Swedish Lapland that goes back to at least the 16th Century, on both her mother´s and father´s side. Probably longer. Northern Sweden wasn´t colonized by Swedes until the 14th Century. Several countries claimed the right to tax the Sami, and colonization by so called birkarlar, traders that worked as middlemen in the Crown´s dealings with the Sami were among the first to move in. Adams has at least two of those among her ancestors. And a high-ranking soldier, buried in Gammelstad´s church (that´s old Luleå), who was one of the founding fathers of this town. Which is pretty impressive.

Morris also devotes many, many pages to her Welsh roots, the history of her house, and how important these things are to the Welsh (who keep their family tree under the bed, she says). It gives a person a kind of domiciliary right that goes far beyond legal rights, into layers of biology. These things are tricky to adress for all sorts of reasons, but I know there is something to it: on a visit to Prague 12 years ago, I experienced what it was like to see parts of your own face in strangers on the street. It hadn´t even occured to me before that that was a... thing. I told a woman who was in my history study group, and she said she had experienced that exact same thing in Karelia, when she had gone to search for her ancestors.

Most of us are immigrants; all of us, if you go far enough back in time, even the Welsh. Personally, I have rootlets, thin ones, all over the place, some of which I can only guess in which direction they go. To the lower classes in particular, lots of children were born out of wedlock or with obscure paternity. And modern people move all the time. What kind of point am I trying to make here? Perhaps that Morris´ book makes me reflect on these things, on how much it takes to get that genuine feeling of belonging, a sense of right to a place or a community. Morris has already had the gravestone made for herself and her wife, and if I caught Adams correctly, she also plans to be buried in Luleå, though she spends most of her time in Los Angeles and has lived there for more than 40 years.

I did write "herself and her wife" up there: another thing that makes Morris special is that she transitioned from male to female during the period 1964 - 1972, something she has also written about in a book titled "Conundrum". She is still married to the same lady that she married as a man in 1949 and has four children with. That is a book I´d be interested to read as well.

I can´t exactly recommend that you read "A Writer´s House in Wales (Directions)", unless you already know and love Jan Morris´ writings. I did enjoy it, I am going to read more of hers, but I don´t think it´s the best introduction to a writer. If a writer I loved had written something like this, or any person whose work I admire, I´d be all over it, looking for clues and influences. As a first taste of someone´s writing, it´s just... nice.


  1. Interesting discussion. In photographing people, I've come to conclude that the billions of faces around the world align into a very finite number of "templates". Having studied anthropology in the past, it would be nice to assume that I got it from there, but it was really a real-life discovery, spent after hours upon hours of watching people. Arms and legs and skull shapes are obviously templates too, to the point that one could identify the ethnicity of someone else from behind, 100 metres out if they were so inclined. Your visit to Prague is particularly interesting-- last fall when I arrived in London I had passed by the Zimbabwean embassy when some of its citizens and ex-pats were out having a demonstration. Aside from my family, I've never experienced this phenomenon of seeing my similarities in other people. I was in between shows and had some time, so I decided to slip into the demonstration to see if I could "find" those things.

    I couldn't, most Zims don't look like me at all (in my estimation), but it may have much to do with my mix. I did, however, feel a sense of calm of the spirit, which, admittedly, I had never felt before.

    1. Very interesting reflections. I have only in one place felt that "sense of calm of the spirit" and that was on a trip to Kenya, 20 years ago. It was the only time I wasn´t quite ready to go home when we were due, and it had to do with a totally unexpected (for a white, European girl like me) feeling of being, in a sense, at home already. I wanted to explore that more, and in retrospect I can only conclude that there must be some truth in the theory that man originated from the Rift Valley area. It just felt like the most natural place to be.

      I´m not sure this discussion is entirely PC, actually, in an academic context...