”At first sight, I’m sure you will agree, it is nothing much to look at. There are lots of such buildings in our part of Wales--solid old stone-built farm buildings, apparently timeless, built of big rough boulders and roofed with slate from the mountain quarries. Many of them are crumbled now, but many more will shelter cattle, and some have been converted like mine into dwelling places. Whatever their condition, they are impregnated with Welshness. Their very stoniness, their modest strength, their moss grown stones and wooden doors---their texture, substance and style are all organic to this particular corner of Europe.”
National Geographic Directions commissioned a series of books written by leading authors about places that are near and dear to them. They include authors such as Oliver Sacks, Jamaica Kincaid, Robert Hughes, William Kittredge, David Mamet, Francine Prose, Peter Carey, Barry Unsworth, and Geoffrey Wolff to name a few. I happened to spy a few of these books on sale in one of my favorite catalogs Daedalus Books (If you don’t get their catalogs you should sign up right now.) a few years ago and bought this one by Jan Morris and the one on Nova Scotia by Howard Norman. When they arrived I made room for them on my travel shelves and promptly forgot about them.
By happy coincidence I was rummaging around my shelves just the other day and A Writer’s House in Wales dropped into my lap. I don’t ignore fateful things like that so I leaned my back against the bookshelf and started to read. I zipped through pages until Jan started talking about wine.
”I boast of having drunk a glass of wine every day since the Second World War, but young and simple wines are the ones I most enjoy, fresh from the vineyards, with none of your vaunted bouquets of leather or of pomegranate--wines, as Evelyn Waugh once wrote of Cretan vintages, ‘lowly esteemed by connoisseurs.’”
After reading that line I was compelled to search out a bottle of wine. Luckily I had such a low brow vintage in my wine cellar (that would be the refrigerator in the garage).
We can continue now.
Jan told me about her ancestors and it was as if I were sitting there in Trefan Morys with wine in hand and a kettle on for tea. She inherited a grand estate in Wales, but the house was too big for her and her significant other so they sold the main house and kept the outbuildings. She converted the stable into a home.
She had me looking through my shelves for a copy of Tristram Shandy.
”My English uncle had gone to battle like a Rupert Brooke, and wrote proudly of it to his father--exalted by the honor of the challenge, head high, with a copy of Tristram Shandy in his jacket pocket when the fatal blow struck him.”
I found A Sentimental Journey, but no Tristram Shandy. Bloody hell!
Speaking of books Jan Morris has over 8,000 books in her house. They did swipe all the bookshelves from the main house before they sold it. Most people don’t have enough nicknacks for that many shelves anyway. She tried to convince me she wasn’t a collector because she doesn’t care about first editions, but as she took me through her library she kept showing me all these books with signatures, association copies between writers and key public figures, so I remain unconvinced that she isn’t a book collector. There was one Welsh citizen that had 47,000 volumes in his house when he died. Collectors have to always have a story like that to show that there are people crazier than we are.
She gave me thumb nail sketches of the history of Wales. She talked of long dead kings and slumbering heroes. The last king of Wales was killed in 1282 by Edward I of England. The Welsh refer to him as Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf...Llywelyn Our Last Leader.
But we were talking about a house.
16 In the Valley of the Elwy
I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.
Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
I wanted to share that poem with everyone so that the next quote from Jan makes more sense.
”Anyway Hopkins’s cordial smell of the woodsmoke certainly permeates our kitchen, if only because the timbers of its roof have been breathing it since before the American Revolution. The substances of this house are profoundly organic. Most of the timbers that sustain it come from the Trefan woodlands, down to the river, and they are numbered still for the benefit of the haulers who dragged them up here with their team of horses. A few, straighter and stouter than the rest, came from ships’ timbers--ships wrecked, I dare say, on the seacoast a mile or two away.”
She brings up her transsexual experience when she slipped out from behind the mask of James and blossomed into Jan as a way to explain the character of her Welsh neighbors.
”When thirty years ago, I did the unimaginable and went through what is vulgarly known as a change of sex, the Wils, The Mr. Owens, the Blodwens, the mailman and the family up the lane took it all easily in their stride, and from that day to this have kindly pretended that nothing ever happened.”
She talks of schooners specially built to haul slate to all parts of the world from the quarries of Wales. Of men who had never left the village that now were asked to see oceans and ports all over the world. A Norwegian SkogKatt makes an appearance from the back gardens with proof of his hunting ability grasped in his teeth. There is Mozart and timbers and wine and boulders and books and snug comfort in a stable in Wales.
So spend a day with Jan Morris...oh and don’t forget to sign her visitor’s book before you leave. One name per page. When you return, if you are lucky enough to return, she will have sketched and written things around your name so she will always remember the day she spent with you.
Link to National Geographic Directions http://www.longitudebooks.com/find/d/50082/mcms.html