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Archive for the ‘The 1976 Club’ Category

Travel is one of my chief pleasures.  I am single, financially independent, and can mangle several languages well enough to be understood.  The world is my oyster.  Except when it’s not.

It’s been over two years now since I was last overseas and while it has been VERY exciting to get to travel a little more this year, I’m still sticking close to home and following government advice to avoid non-essential foreign travel.  I have yet to find any essential excuses.

This leaves me with plenty of beautiful places to still explore but there is only so much pleasure to be got from trees and mountains and ocean.  This is where books come in.

Armchair travel is one of the finest forms of travel.  It is accessible and affordable, requires little planning and leaves you with no jet lag.  Ideal really at any time but especially during Covid.

And one of the chief pleasures of armchair travel is that it lets you travel through time – an experience no airline or cruise ship can match.

I travelled back in time recently via Travels by Jan Morris, a collection of essays published in 1976, making this an ideal choice for this week’s 1976 Club.  Morris was by then already a well-established travel writer and this was her first book following the very personal Conundrum (now available as a Slightly Foxed edition), a memoir of her transition from James Morris to Jan Morris.  While Morris’ personality is a vital part of these essays, her gender is not – something that was probably reassuring to her conservative readers who weren’t quite yet done processing their feelings about the change.

The opening essay – “The Best Travelled Man in the World: the example of Ibn Batuta” – was to me the best one in the collection.  In considering the 14th century traveller, Morris captures the romance and adventure that call all travellers – and all readers of travel writing.  We all long to see something that is truly new but none of us will ever experience it the way Ibn Batuta did.  On a similar biographical bent there is “A Profitable Exile”, about nabobs who went to India to gain fortunes and ill-health.

“Through My Guide-Books” is also a delight, as Morris walks us through her collection of guidebooks and picks out some timeless advice:

The heyday of the guide-book was the nineteenth century, when steam had made travel relatively easy, but the average tourist was still an educated person, able to appreciate Murray’s donnish quirks or Baedeker’s obscurer allusions to the principles of Gothic fenestration.  There are felicities, of course, to be found both in earlier and in later examples.  My favourite guide-book chapter, on the whole, is Chapter XII of Horrebow’s Iceland (1758), which is entitled “Concerning Owls in Iceland”, and which consists in its entirety of one phrase: “There are no owls of any kind in the whole island.”  The guide-book advice I most admire is given by E.M. Forster in his Alexandria (1922) – “The best way to see it is to wander aimlessly about” – while one could hardly improve the opening to Chapter IV of Mrs. R.L. Devonshire’s Rambles in Cairo (1931): “Of all the medieval rulers of Egypt, Saladin alone enjoys the privilege of being remembered by Western readers.”

The specific portraits of places – Dublin, Bath, Edinburgh, Washington, DC, Singapore, and Hong Kong – were less successful for me, though the Asian destinations were clearly written about with more engagement and enthusiasm.  The piece about Hong Kong is quite long and, having just put down Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera to read this, the colonial mindset felt a bit jarring.  It is absolutely what one should expect of Morris (indeed, Sanghera refers to Morris’ Pax Brittanica history of the British Empire in Empireland) but there are comments about the British rulers and the obedient Chinese residents that sit uncomfortably when reading today.

And then there is “On the Confederation Trail”, about Morris’ experience taking the train from Toronto to Calgary.  The entire essay reads like a pat on the head – kind but dismissive, which is a pretty accurate synopsis of how Canada was treated circa 1976.  Morris doesn’t show any particular admiration for Canada – not the way she delights in the bustle and energy of Hong Kong, for example – but can admit it has its good points:

The twentieth century, Canadians had been told, would be Canada’s, but they did not interpret this prophecy in any bombastic sense.  They would be rich, but they would be good.  They would be American in vivacity and inventiveness, but British in style and conscience.

It’s hard to be Canada: people are always saying nice things about you, just never with much enthusiasm.

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I feel that aging, like most things in life, is best approached with preparation.  Lots and lots of preparation.  That may mean exercise and skin care regimes, visioning and bucket lists, but it also means reading about those who have gone before to arm yourself with knowledge of what to expect.

Judging by How Did I Get to Be Forty…& Other Atrocities by Judith Viorst, I should be prepared for an intense volume of neuroses to set in over the next five years. 

Viorst has been chronicling the trials of aging in verse since publishing It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty (one of my favourite Persephone titles) way back in 1968.  Now ninety, she has faithfully added a volume to mark each decade and while I look forward to the pensioner years, the trials of being forty held the dual appeal of being both a) closest to my actual age and b) published in 1976, making it perfect reading for this week’s 1976 Club.

I truly love It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty so had high hopes for this, but was left entertained but indifferent.  The galloping rhymes of the earlier volume are harder to find here, as is the humour.  The poems feel bleaker; there is no longer the sense that you can laugh off the fears and frustrations of the speaker.  The signs of aging have become unavoidable and adultery or divorce – now more potent since friends have experienced them first hand – are tragedies waiting to befall her rather than the neurotic fancies of a younger woman.

Cheerful stuff. 

But there is fun to be had!  Squandered potential is more comfortable territory and more easily mined for laughs (and relatability) in “Facing the Facts”:

I’m facing the fact that
I’ll never write Dante’s Inferno
Or paint a Picasso
Or transplant a kidney or build
An empire, nor will I ever
Run Israel or Harvard,
Appear on the cover of Time,
Star on Broadway, be killed
By a firing squad for some noble ideal,
Find the answer
To racial injustice or whether God’s dead
Or the source
Of human unhappiness,
Alter the theories of Drs.
S. Freud, C.G. Jung, or A. Einstein,
Or maybe the course
Of history,
In addition to which
I am facing the fact that
I’ll never compose Bach cantatas,
Design Saint Laurents,
Advise presidents, head U.S. Steel,
Resolve the Mideast,
Be the hostess of some major talk show,
Or cure the cold,
And although future years may reveal
Some hidden potential,
Some truly magnificent act that
I’ve yet to perform,
Or some glorious song to be sung
For which I’ll win prizes and praise,
I must still fact the fact that
They’ll never be able to say,
“And she did it so young.”

Having recently participated in a frankly mind-boggling pub conversation about diamond cuts and go-to jewelers, I also found “College Reunion” alarmingly easy to relate to, as the speaker marvels at the women she and her old school friends have turned into:

…we’ve all turned into women who know genuine in jewelry and
                Authentic in antiques and real in fur.
And the best in orthopedists for our frequently recurring
Lower back pain.

And we’ve all turned into women who take cabs instead of buses
                And watch color, not the black and white, TV,
And have lawyers, gynecologists, accountants, dermatologists,
                Podiatrists, urologists, internists, cardiologists,
                Insurance agents, travel agents, brokers, ophthalmologists,
And no ideal how we all turned into these women.

To be fair, I have always been this woman (I was very proud of my Rolodex full of business cards when I was 12) so there is little to marvel at for me.  But, to my friends’ shame, I still don’t know much about diamonds.  

The sharpest poem in the bunch (and the one with the strongest rhyming scheme – it’s so effective when used well!) is “The Good Daughter”, where the speaker tells of her dutiful cousin Elaine and Elaine’s no-good yet inexplicably preferred brother Walter:

The boys Elaine went with were all that her folks
And their gin club and swim club expected.
(The girls Walter went with her folks only prayed
That he wouldn’t come home from infected.)

Like It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty – and I imagine the subsequent volumes – How Did I Get to Be Forty… & Other Atrocities is best as a record of the era and culture that produced it.  The ideals of the 70s are on display, as the speaker longs to be “The Sensuous Woman” (“Beneath my beige knit (polyester) such cravings will smolder/That Uncle Jerome, if he heard, would pass out from the shame”), wishes she had something other than “drop-out Buddhist bisexual vegetarian Maoist children”, and begs someone to put a stop to her endless self-improvement programs (including Primal Scream Therapy and Consciousness Raising).  It’s a fun way to pass a little time (a very little – it’s an extraordinarily thin book) but hopefully not a dependable guide for me of what’s to come. 

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