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This review is from: A Writer's House in Wales (National Geographic Directions) (Hardcover)When I lived in London, I used to escape a few weekends a month; one of my most frequent travels was to Wales. I grew to love the Wye Valley Walk, Tintern Abbey, Chepstow, St. David's, and points south. Unfortunately, I didn't make it north nearly as much, but those times I did gave me an even deeper experience of the country, almost as if the further one got from the center of the English, the more the Celtic spirit came alive. Jan Morris' small book (small in format and in actual word-count, not in impact) gives me a greater appreciation for the places where I've been, and a deep longing to return now with fresh insights and new intentions of what to see, and what to sense.
Jan Morris is a well-known writer on various topics to do with travel, literature, culture and history. Her eloquence is brought to a high pitch in this slim volume meant perhaps to whet the appetite for those who would travel, as the text is part of a National Geographic series. However, one travels not just to a place and not just to a time, but to a new venue of the spirits. Morris describes the spirits that live in the wood of the house, along the path, in the river, and in the hills. `I like to think of Trefan woods as a haven for all wild and lonely creatures.... Because of course there are ghosts around Trefan Morys - ghosts of uchelwyr, ghosts of farmhands, ghosts of poets, of poachers, of birds and wild beasts and cattle hauled from the mire. I often see figures walking down my back lane who are not there at all, like mirages, and who gradually resolve themselves into no more than shadows.'
The country and countryside is featured, but the highlight is the house itself, and perhaps primary to the old creaking house full of spirits and character is the kitchen. Quoting G.M. Hopkins, Jan Morris discusses the centrality of the kitchen in the Welsh household --
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as of a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring...
Of course, this is something that many around the world can relate to in that so many people live in the kitchen even though it is rare that it is also a sleeping room (it used to be the central fire for the house in days prior to central heating, and thus all would bundle together in the cozy atmosphere). Around the kitchen the rest of the house revolves in stages, loaded with books and memories that bring to the front many stories that Morris shares - and in doing this, she keeps faith with the Welsh tradition of storytelling as history making and culture preserving.
The Welsh language, too, gets a nod here. Morris admits to being of small Welsh, enough to appreciate but not enough to plumb the depths of the folk-brilliance, as she describes it, but obviously has a real feel for the language in both its meaning and its spoken form - there is something about the spirit of the language that can be felt as it is spoken even when one doesn't know the words: `Far from being a jabber, it is a poetical language par excellence, as lovely to listen to as it is to read - and as irresistible too, at least to romantics like me, in its intimations of defiance, rootedness and immemorial age.'
The identity and pride of the Welsh is unquenchable, according to Morris, and nonetheless threatened by modernity in ways that no foreign dominance could ever achieve; the subtle ways in which culture is lost are addressed here in many indirect ways, perhaps the best way to fight the subtle slide into a homogenised Euro-culture. There is a melancholy about it, but there is glory to it, and there is an eternality to it. All of this is captured by Morris. The book could be easily read in one or two sittings, and while I found myself wanting to drink deep and swift of the words, I would put it down, realising it was a rare treasure soon lost. This is a book to be savoured.