A Writer's House in Wales by Jan Morris

Penelope Lively enjoys a tour around the great travel writer's home, and discovers that Welshness exists in the mind more than in the stone

Saturday 20 April 2002 00:00
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A Writer's House in Wales by Jan Morris National Geographic Directions £12.99143pp

This little book – an extended essay, really – is the launch volume of a series of literary travel memoirs, with future titles including such cherries as Barry Unsworth on Crete, Robert Hughes on Barcelona and Peter Carey on northern Australia. Jan Morris gets the project off to a fine start, with this eclectic account of her home in Wales, in which a tour of the house and its contents is made the vehicle for a meditation on what it means to be Welsh, alongside discursions on matters prompted by the place and its props, all spiced with much swingeing opinion.

There is a whiff of the Ancient Mariner here, as the author leads us around the estate: "Sit down, take a look at this." But once you accept such buttonholing as part of the package there is a certain compulsive quality and lots of charm about this committed, emotional exposure of one writer's life, passions and beliefs.

I wish a photograph of the house had been included. A deliberate omission, presumably – words conjure it up, and indeed they do, but all the same one would have liked a more concrete image. Trefan Morys was created from the semi-derelict stable block of the old family home, Plas Trefan, when the author and her partner found themselves "rattling about rather" after the departure of children. It sounds entrancing: kitchen/dining-room as the heartland, library and workroom lined with books.

As someone who lived for 20 years in an ancient stone house, book-laden, stone-floored, also rich with interior life by way of bats and mice, and with beams on which to hang or display things, I felt entirely at home. I share Jan Morris's empathy with stone and with the complicated messages sent out by beams – the holes and hooks and notches that hint at earlier usage. Trefan Morys has the further dimension of cultural resonance: Welsh stone, Welsh references on all sides, which Jan Morris makes the springboard for intriguing forays into Welsh mythology, cuisine (peppered bread soaked in hot water, is effectively the Welsh rural national dish, it seems), habits of hospitality, the language. "I live ... in a Wales of my own," she says, "a Wales of the mind." A fierce championship of "such quixotic survivals" pervades the book.

The house itself is Welsh to the last stone, beam and mouse, but has far wider implications, serving also as a record of the author's travels and obsessions. It holds what sounds like a wonderfully maverick library – essential, indeed, one imagines, if its owner is not to be constantly hitting the road to check something in the National Library of Wales. Not that she would mind that too much, one suspects: a long-term addiction to fast cars surfaces as an unsuspected and rather endearing trait.

But this library includes also a swathe of the material that is grimly labelled "grey matter" by professional librarians – the brochures, guide-books that chart and remember Jan Morris's lifetime of global wanderings and the writings that have risen from that. The tour of the library was the session that perhaps most fascinated me, from the signed edition of Ruskin's Stones of Venice to the 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica to the Gazetteer of Sikhim which appears to be holding up one of the beams.

Every house tells a story, some richer and more esoteric than others. Here, the talents of the teller and the abundant possibilities of the tale are an intriguing combination – provocative and engaging.

Penelope Lively's latest book, 'A House Unlocked', is published by Viking

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